tongue-tied lightning

13 Days of Horror
November 1, 2010, 6:32 AM
Filed under: film

I haven’t been watching a ton of film over the last few months.  I took the Halloween season as something of an excuse to go on a horror binge.  I watched 21 films in the last two weeks and while I made several awful choices I do think the top ten are all worth watching, several of them being exceptional.

From worst to best:

21. The Stendhal Syndrome (Dario Argento, 1995) – There is a good film buried in here somewhere, I’m just not sure where.  The examination of the lasting effects traumatic events have on people is interesting as are the few times it touches on the Stendhal Syndrome itself.  Aside from that and Asia Argento’s performance (the reason I watched the film), there’s not really anything to recommend.  The screenplay is a mess, the acting is awful and even Argento’s direction bears little of his trademark flair and color.

20. The Phantom of the Opera (Dario Argento, 1998) – A more cohesive and mannered film than The Stendhal Syndrome though there is less to remark upon.  The direction is a bit better but despite having a script that doesn’t feel like several disparate ideas thrown into a blender, the ideas here are worse and the story is flat and lifeless.

19. Black Sabbath (Mario Bava, 1963) – Elegant camerawork and great use of color, but the stories are rather generic and it never feels like there’s anything at stake.

18. Flesh for Frankenstein (Paul Morrissey, 1973) – I really don’t even know what to say about this film.  I was planning on pairing this with Warhol & Morrissey’s Blood for Dracula but after Frankenstein I’d decided I’d had enough camp, perversion and weirdness (this coming from someone who is generally a fan of camp, perversion and weirdness) to last me well into next year.

17. Blood and Black Lace (Mario Bava, 1964) – I found this to be a completely average slasher, and the average slasher is not very good.  I’ll admit that some of my apathy could be due to the DVD I watched having an awful transfer and a dub that was out of sync, but I didn’t see enough to warrant giving it a second look with a better print.

16. Survival of the Dead (George A. Romero, 2009) – I’m starting to think that no matter how awful the film I’m constitutionally incapable of not enjoying a Romero zombie film.  This one is significantly better than Diary of the Dead but the concept is much less intriguing and even less plausible.  Still, I can think of worse ways to spend 90 minutes than watching Romero dispose of zombies.   Disclaimer: I liked Land of the Dead.

15. Mother of Tears (Dario Argento, 2007) – Like the above Romero there is little to set this film apart from the swamp of average horror films that threaten to overwhelm us, but it is at least consistently entertaining.  The acting however is quite bad and it pains me to say that that even extends to the lead performance of my beloved Asia Argento.

14. The House of the Devil (Ti West, 2009) – Solid but unexceptional.  There are flashes of style and it’s nice to see a new horror director who is aware that holding a shot can do more to create suspense than a flurry of cuts and jump scares, yet despite enjoying the atmosphere early on I left the film feeling underwhelmed.

13. Eyes Without a Face (Georges Franju, 1960) – Speaking of underwhelming, I had really high expectations for this one.  The story is thought provoking and the image of Christiane donning her mask is appropriately unsettling but I found the storytelling and direction so blasé that it seemed like I was checking to see how much time was left every few minutes.  It is less enjoyable than the previous three films on the list, but I’m willing to concede it’s more impressive.

12. Black Sunday (Mario Bava, 1960) – An improvement on the prior Bavas on the list but it still left me wanting, like those films it just feels so hermetic, it never evokes any feeling at all.  Even Barbara Steele’s performance left me cold.  I’m not sure what separates this from the several classic Hollywood horrors it seems to emulate.  Occasionally impressive on a technical level but completely devoid of feeling.

11. Three… Extremes (Fruit Chan, Park Chanwook, Takashi Miike; 2004) – Like all anthology films this one is a bit of a mixed bag.  The Fruit Chan segment is the one I was looking forward to least and the one I ended up enjoying most.  The direction is fantastic, undoubtedly aided by Christopher Doyle’s cinematography, and the story is disturbing in a subtle and effective way.  The final shot!  Park Chanwook’s segment I felt was trying a little too hard but it oozes style.  Takashi Miike’s feels like the least fully conceived of the three but I preferred its dreamlike eerieness to Park’s hyperbolic attempt to shock.  Had I watched Dumplings on it’s own it likely would’ve placed in the top 4 or 5.

10. Black Christmas (Bob Clark, 1974) – I was disappointed by this one after having heard it praised in several circles.  But I can’t deny that it is a lot of fun.  One of the better slashers I’ve seen and worthy of being mentioned alongside Halloween and others.

9. The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1986) – I’m kind of ashamed to say this is the first Cronenberg film I’ve seen that didn’t start Viggo Mortensen.  It’s a hell of a lot better than his two most recent films.  Jeff Goldblum is an endlessly engaging screen presence and his character’s deterioration is the one thing from any of these films that left an unmistakable trace of itself in my nightmares.

8. Trouble Every Day (Claire Denis, 2001) – Another film that didn’t quite live up to my expectations but is still a very accomplished piece of cinema, and really, who would expect anything less from Claire Denis?  Vincent Gallo is convincingly creepy (what range!) and the iconic scenes featuring Beatrice Dalle are memorable.  Despite the shock of those scenes, like most Denis, the film is wonderfully subtle.

7. Hour of the Wolf (Ingmar Bergman, 1968) – I really need to give this one another look.  The first half of the film left me rather cold,  but I found the final third so engrossing that it earned it this high spot on the list.  I think I would appreciate the film more were I to watch it again but perhaps it would only further impress the feeling of lifelessness it had early on.

6. A Tale of Two Sisters (Kim Ji-Woon, 2003) – I can’t imagine Korean horror gets much better than this.  It’s subtle and deliberate like so many of my favorite Asian films but it builds to a thrilling conclusion.  There is a series of scenes towards the end as everything comes together that left me speechless.  It’s only possible weakness is that it’s overly reliant on a rather cliched plot twist, but I think it handles it significantly better than most films do.

5. Opera (Dario Argento, 1987) – It’s not Suspiria but, you know, it’s not that far off either.  An engaging slasher that is hamstrung only by the use of awful heavy metal during the murder scenes.  The swooping steadicam shots from the killer’s POV may be cliche at this point but these are among the best and most effective I’ve ever seen.  I also really loved the final shot of Betty lying in the grass.

4. Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (Guy Maddin, 2002) – I will never tire of Maddin’s aesthetic but this one feels a bit minor and he makes some questionable decisions (most notably the use of color, especially the hideous yellow intertitles) but it’s still probably my favorite retelling of the Dracula myth and I feel like my criticisms would melt away with another viewing or two.  I love how he works in the ballet in a way that feels completely organic.  It never feels like you’re watching a filmed ballet or anything but A Guy Maddin Film.  Which is exactly why I liked it so much.

3. The Girl Who Knew Too Much (Mario Bava, 1963) – I may be alone in thinking this, but if Bava is capable of making a film like this why did he spend so much of his time making generic horrors like Black Sunday and Black Sabbath?  This is filmmaking that is thrilling, vivacious, and, most notably in comparison to the other of his films I watched,  Alive!  I found the ending to be a bit hamfisted but it does nothing to take away from the hour plus of virtuoso direction and unrelenting suspense that precedes it.

2. What Have You Done to Solange? (Massimo Dallamano, 1972) – Quite easily my favorite slasher film.  I was taken in by this film from the very first shot.  It’s backed by a Morricone score that, unlike the ones that accompanied The Stendhal Syndrome and The Phantom of the Opera, is memorable and most importantly feels like a Morricone score.  Also notable is the film’s mise-en-scene which is wonderfully suggestive without ever drawing undue attention to itself.  It does so many little things right.  Every shot feels necessary and composed with care.  The story is a bit salacious but I think that’s part of why it’s so effective.  It feels a little bit wrong.  It’s an Italian Horror that is capable of holding it’s own with Suspiria, it might be better than Suspiria.  This would quite easily be the number one film on the list if I hadn’t seen…

1. Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973) – A masterpiece.  Roeg has been on the edges of my cinematic obsession for awhile but this is the first time I’ve given in and given him a shot.  I’m afraid that after Don’t Look Now it’s going to be hard to find subsequent films anything but disappointing.  Everything is pitch perfect.  The direction is consistently engaging, Venice has been the setting for films so many times but I don’t think it’s ever been used or shot so well.  The leading performances from Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland are top notch.  Roeg’s editing is nothing short of breathtaking from the opening sequence that instantly had me in the film’s thrall to what might be the best sex scene I’ve ever had the pleasure of viewing.  I sound like I’m gushing, and really, I am.  It’s just that good a film, the first horror I’ve seen in a long time that I feel comfortable mentioning alongside The Shining as an example of what I look for in a great horror film.


2 Comments so far
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so many of my favourites!

Comment by Justine Smith

Have you seen Roeg’s Bad Timing? Curious what you think of that one. If you haven’t seen the 80’s slashers Sleepaway Camp or April Fool’s Day get on it. They have a lot more humor than Black Christmas (my other favorite slasher) and also have interesting twists.

Comment by Jackie

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