It is not an exaggeration to say that no film has had a greater impact on the genre of science fiction horror than Ridley Scott’s 1979 voyage into deep space terror, Alien. Taken from a script by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, Scott’s richly detailed take on the B-movie premise – a crew of space truckers are sent to answer a destress signal on a distant planet only to inadvertently take a deadly, unstoppable alien aboard their vessel – elevates it to A-movie status, aided in no small part by the nightmarish biomechanical design work of Swiss artist H.R. Giger and the lived-in space aesthetic of Ron Cobb. Also, the cast are – forgive the pun – stellar; John Hurt, Ian Holm, Tom Skerritt, Yaphet Kotto, Veronica Cartwright, the great Harry Dean Stanton and Sigourney Weaver (in her star-making role), all imbuing their working class characters with a weary, lived-in believability which makes the slimy, suffocating horror all the more real when it, um, erupts. Add to that a prime Jerry Goldsmith score and great tagline – in space, no one can hear you scream – and you’ve got a classic.
Rfor strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language.
With Beach Rats, her second feature film, Eliza Hittman establishes herself as a strong, honest voice in the world of indie cinema and a name to watch. A coming of age journey into uncertain sexual waters, the story follows Frankie, a coastal Brooklyn teen played by Harris Dickinson – making a stunning debut for himself – who divides his time between hanging out with his partying male friends, romancing a pretty local girl (Madeline Weinstein), and hooking up with older men he meets online while maintaining his hetero, working-class facade. With a gentle, assured hand, Hittman – aided by Helene Louvart’s lyrical cinematography – manages to craft a film that is both gritty and dreamlike, capturing the sensual desperation of her lead while creating a tangible sense of place and emotional truth. With Kate Hodge and Neal Huff.
It’s hard to remember a time when Tim Burton’s unique brand of Goth-comedy wasn’t part of our pop lexicon, and for that we must thank his 1988 mainstream breakthrough Beetlejuice. Many elements of the Burton signature are here; a Haunted House meets Warner Bros cartoon aesthetic, Danny Elfman’s manic, circus-like score, and most crucially a playful, side-eyed glance at the very concept of normalcy. Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin play young newlyweds who find their idyllic home upturned by their accidental deaths, and then, as ghosts, must enlist the help of a crude Poltergeist – played with scene stealing bravado by Michael Keaton – to scare off the obnoxious New York City family who have moved in. Winona Ryder shines as the death-obsessed daughter who helps the couple, as do Burton regulars Jeffrey Jones, Glen Shaddix and Catherine O’Hara. If supernatural comedy has a name it’s gotta be Beetlejuice!
he world wasn’t clamoring for a new Dracula in 1992, yet master filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola managed to deliver one so lavish and finely crafted that it now stands comfortably with the best cinematic versions of Bram Stoker’s genre-defining novel. Though claiming fealty to Stoker right in the title, Coppola’s take is actually a love story, one that rests largely on the capable shoulders of Gary Oldman in a performance that manages to be both romantic and fearsome. Winona Ryder – as love interest Mina Harker – is suitably beguiling and Keanu Reeves, well... he’s Keanu. But the secret star of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is Roman Coppola’s dazzling, dizzying sleight of hand in-camera effects, the jaw-droppingly lush production design of Thomas E. Sanders and the Oscar winning costumes of Eiko Ishioka. Oh, and Anthony Hopkins is pretty fun as a battier-than-Dracula Van Helsing. With a haunting, iconic Wojciech Kilar score.
Every generation has it's legendary characters. The icons who have lived outrageous lives, created hilarious stories that only their closest friends have access to. This documentary makes you feel like you are a part of it. Like you are at the party. And because Andy has created thousands of great stories, there's a pretty good chance that you have a story about him. And let's face it, after decades of partying, these people just might remember the stories just a little bit better than Andy does.
Larry Fessenden’s HABIT (1995) is in the canon of modern Vampire films that brings the classic dark tale of immortal life, death and lust into a contemporary setting as a parable for the existential crisis of a wandering soul, in this case in the dive bars and alphabet city apartments of a 1990s East Village milieu. Fessenden wrote, directed, and stars in HABIT playing the titular character of Sam, a listless young man grappling with the recent death of his archaeologist father and running a neighborhood bar with a listless worldview that includes as he puts it in the film, “committing suicide in his life installment plan”. His discontented life takes a mysterious turn when he meets a magnetically sensual stranger who casts a macabre spell over him. As their relationship deepens Sam’s pallor grows paler and his urges more primal that submerges him into the shadows alienating him from the world of the living. HABIT is a naturalistic and stark portrayal of personal demons, addiction, and losing control over the specter of madness in one’s life set against a bleak urban landscape.
Credited, rightfully, as the film that kickstarted the “slasher” subgenre, Carpenter’s 1978 Halloween is a masterwork of building tension, an exercise in mood and suspense that takes its cues from Hitchcock, unlike most of the 80s gorefests it would inspire. The film’s key innovation – besides the indelibly terrifying image of the blank-faced “shape” aka Michael Myers – is setting it in an innocuous American suburb; there’s nowhere, not even a nice middle class home, where the viewer is safe. Jamie Lee Curtis makes her scream queen debut as one of several babysitters being stalked by a masked, escaped mental patient on Halloween night, her only savior being the patient’s maniacally driven doctor, played with gusto by the great Donald Pleasance. But the secret weapon of Halloween is the score – composed by Carpenter himself – a tinkling, off-meter piano figure that continues to haunt long after the final unsettling frame. A Halloween season perennial.
Disney has always done well with witches, so it makes sense they should conjure the magic in live action, the enjoyable result being 1993’s Hocus Pocus. Kenny Ortega’s horror comedy wasn’t a big hit upon release, but has since cast its spell on a cult following – deservedly so – thanks largely in part to being broadcast annually on the Disney Channel. The story – about three Salem witches resurrected by a young boy – is largely a showcase for its central witchy trio; Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Nijimi, each portraying a specific witch archetype and doing so in campy style. Though aimed at younger audiences, there’s enough darkness here for adults (one of the writers is Masters of Horror’s Mick Garris) and Midler, Parker and Nijimy are a cauldron of fun to watch. Being a Disney movie there are musical numbers, including versions of “I Put a Spell on You” and “Witchcraft”, for obvious reasons.
Rfor language throughout, drug use, some sexual content and disturbing behavior
Why it’s taken this long for someone to make a black comedy about the artifice of social media is anyone’s guess, but thankfully Matt Spicer has gamely taken on the task with his wickedly funny Ingrid Goes West. Turning her off-kilter charisma up to the max, Aubrey Plaza is perfect as the titular Ingrid, a desperate social media stalker who takes things several steps to far when she follows the online “influencer” (Elizabeth Olsen, luminous as always and showing comedic range) she idolizes to Los Angeles. Spicer – directing his first feature here – masterfully guides the characters into increasingly cringeworthy territory, deftly satirizing not only Twitter/Facebook/Instagram culture, but riffing on the stalker trope popularized by movies like Hand that Rocks the Cradle and Single White Female. With O’Shea Jackson Jr, Billy Magnussen and Wyatt Russell.
Recovering from a very public divorce, independent filmmaker and Italian Prince Tao Ruspoli takes to the road to talk to his relatives, advice columnists, psychologists, historians, anthropologists, artists, philosophers, sex workers, sex therapists, and ordinary couples about love, sex & monogamy in our culture. What he discovers about his very unconventional family, and about the history and psychology of love and marriage leads him to question the ideal of monogamy, and the traditional family values that go with it.
Roman Polanksi proved himself a master of psychological horror with Repulsion, so it was only natural that he up the ante with a supernatural element in his 1968 classic Rosemary’s Baby. Adapted from Ira Levin’s somewhat satirical novel, the film (as if you didn’t know already) follows a young New York City woman (Mia Farrow in her signature role and look) who, after becoming pregnant under unsettling circumstances, suspects that she and her unborn child have become the target of witches. Aside from being a cracking bit of mystery and suspense, the film is a fantastic snapshot of 60s New York, Polanski contrasting the hip modernity of his main couple (who includes a deliciously oily John Cassavettes) against the old world apartment building they have recently inhabited. Adding to the creepy fun are elderly neighbors Sidney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon, with Gordon her usual brassy, loveable self but with an added sinister edge. The rare genre offering that is equal parts terror and delight. Featuring a haunting and memorable score by Krzysztof Komeda.
The slasher cycle was all but dead in 1996 when Wes Craven saw fit to resurrect it with his blockbuster franchise starter Scream. Armed with a brilliantly post-modern script by TV creator and secret horror buff Kevin Williamson, the tale of teens being hunted by a ghost-faced killer in a suburban town dragged genre tropes out into the open, acknowledging them with the character’s voices, adding a running film commentary to the mayhem (best exemplified by Jamie Kennedy’s endearing movie geek character). But though the story is told with a knowing wink, Craven brings his full horror mastery to bore, keeping the kills, the suspense, and the scares coming. The young cast is uniformly great, featuring star-making turns from 90s favorites Neve Campbell, Rose McGowan, Skeet Ulrich, Matthew Lillard, David Arquette and future wife Courteney Cox.
It is the dream of every artist who labors in obscurity that one day their talent will be recognized, a dream crystalized beautifully in Malik Bendjelloul’s 2012 documentary Searching for Sugar Man. The artist in question is the enigmatic Rodriguez, a 70s era singer-songwriter who released some albums to little or no fanfare in the states, but was – largely unbeknownst to him – a huge hit on South African airwaves. Bendjelloul, a lifelong fan of Rodriguez’s music, presents his findings like a pop music treasure hunter, teasing the audience with every new reveal as one would a great mystery, culminating in a moment of catharsis that gives hope to all who dare to dream despite the harsh reality of commerce. Featuring, naturally, the remarkable music of Rodriguez himself, earning him a place in the pantheon of great unsung singer-songwriters.
Both the pinnacle of his career and the giallo subgenre, Dario Argento's Suspiria ranks in the pantheon of the greatest horror movies of all time, and with damn good reason. Masterfully employing dream logic (the script was co-written by then wife Daria Nicolodi) and gloriously garish lighting techniques, the film is a true modern fairy tale that tells the story of a ballet student (Jessica Harper) who transfers to a German dance academy only to find it is run by a coven of murderous witches. Argento's command of shock and suspense is on full display in every blood-soaked scene, but the true secret weapon of Suspiria is the unbelievably scary and propulsive score by the prog rock band Goblin. It all adds up to that rare witches brew: the perfect horror experience.
Moving away from supernatural horror, Italian horror maestro Dario Argento returned to the giallo genre in 1982 with his meta-textual exercise in terror, Tenebrae. In what reads as a response to criticisms of violence in the director’s own work, Tenebrae concerns an American author (Anthony Franciosa) who – while in Rome – is pulled into an investigation of a serial killer who seems to be taking cues from his violent novels. The film finds Argento at the peak of his powers; the gruesome murders carried out by the black-gloved killer are ballets of death, sexually charged and visceral, impeccably staged and artfully captured by cinematographer Luciano Tovoli. Adding immeasurably to the blood-soaked atmosphere is the score by Goblin’s Claudio Simonetti, his mesmerizing main theme one of the most iconic musical works of the Italian horror genre. With Argento’s (at the time) wife and collaborator Daria Nicolodi and an amusingly dubbed John Saxon.
Taking a page from the Tim Burton playbook, Barry Sonnenfeld brought the creepy, kooky, spooky, ooky Addams Family to the big screen in 1991 with resounding success. Known to TV audiences thanks to the popular 60s iteration, Sonnenfeld updates Charles Addams’ beloved creation for the 90s while still keeping them true to their off-kilter spookhouse roots, upping the cartoonish action and adding state-of-the-art special effects and top tier production design. Best of all is the cast; Raul Julia delights with his wonderfully over-the-top Gomez, Angelica Huston is pitch-perfect as Morticia, and Christina Ricci – in her screen debut at the age of 11 – makes Wednesday an icon for macabre outsiders of any age. Sonnenfeld’s direction is nimble and lively, balancing wit, slapstick and just enough heart – black though it may be – to assure the Addams Family a seat at the table of horror comedy greats. A perfect Halloween movie for horror-shy kids and adults alike.
One film must wear the title of “scariest movie of all time”, and since 1973 that title has belonged to William Friedkin’s masterpiece of modern horror, The Exorcist. Now of course scares are subjective, but it’s hard not to be deeply unsettled by Friedkin’s adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s best-selling novel (the author also wrote the screenplay and would go on to direct the sequel Exorcist III) about a 12 year-old girl in Georgetown who becomes possessed by a demonic entity. Underneath the cursing, crucifix masturbation and pea-soup vomiting is a rumination on faith, illustrated brilliantly by Jason Miller’s Father Karras, a conflicted priest who is tasked with exorcising the poor girl along with Max Von Sydow’s unflinchingly devout Father Merrin. Linda Blair is outstanding as the possessed girl, as is Ellen Burstyn as her actress mother, a woman tested beyond all reasonable measure in the fight for her daughter’s soul. A former documentarian, Friedkin’s matter-of-fact approach to filmmaking gives the supernatural horror an air of tangible authenticity, resulting in an unmatched, unforgettable experience in terror.
Stanley Kubrick set out to make the definitive horror film when he took on his adaptation of Stephen King’s seminal ghost story The Shining, and in the minds of most horror fans, he succeeded. Kubrick’s take on the novel is a terrifying and deliberately crafted work, so layered and mysterious that it has spawned something of a cult around it, as seen in the fascinating doc Room 237. But aside from the indelible, perfect horror imagery captured by Kubrick’s lens, what lingers most about The Shining is Jack Nicholson’s unhinged performance of protagonist Jack Torrance, a role that cemented him as an icon and forever repurposed Ed McMahon’s famous Johnny Carson intro. Equally spectacular is Shelly Duvall – wearing every moment of a reportedly agonizing shoot on her wonderfully expressive face – and one-time-only child actor Danny Lloyd as the couple’s psychic son. And let’s not forget the great Scatman Crothers, bringing warmth to an expository role that would have seemed thankless in less capable hands. A masterpiece of any genre.
One of the great horror films of the 1970s, Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man is the standard-bearer for pagan panic thrillers and a razor-sharp indictment of Christian piousness. Set on a remote British Isle, the story centers on a self-righteously devout police officer (Edward Woodward) who has come to island to find a missing girl who may or may not be the victim of a Celtic pagan ritual. British screen legend Christopher Lee plays the Lord of the Isle, bringing his larger-than-life screen presence to a role that, uncharacteristically, does not demand him to be outwardly menacing. Anthony Schaffer’s script – adapted from a novel by David Pinner – is a masterful bit of twisting, eerie suspense, building to one of horror’s all-time greatest shock endings. With 70s “it girl” Britt Ekland and a deceptively tranquil folk score that somehow only adds to the dread.