Monday, October 27, 2014

SETTLE ON THE UNSETTLING THIS HALLOWEEN

One of the lobby art cards from the original release of SISTERS in 1973
Halloween is this Friday, October 31, and many horror fans will be renting scary movies this week and settling in with their significant others for some entertaining thrills and chills. But if you’re the kind of moviegoer who wants something that will truly cause nightmares, here are five films to consider that you may not have even have heard of, let alone considered. Nonetheless, these five will truly leave you utterly unsettled.

“The Poughkeepsie Tapes” is one of those movies that likely will not ring a bell. That’s probably due to the fact that this horror indie has never been officially released in theaters. Or on DVD. Or in any streaming platform. Why? There is no “official reason” on the books, but it may have something to do with how incredibly disconcerting it is. Sitting on the shelf since 2007, with fits and starts regarding its opening and distribution, this mockumentary will send chills up your spine and throughout your skeletal system. And it’s available for free on YouTube.

One of the disturbing images from THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES (2007)
It’s the fictional story of a serial killer who’s still at large. The authorities have found his home and confiscated the 800 plus videotapes he had in his house. This maniac managed to record virtually every element of his crimes: the kidnappings, the torture, and the eventual murders. Written, produced and directed by the Dowdle brothers, John Erick and Drew, their story not only shows us the killer’s chilling and grisly ‘home movies’ but also creates a creepy documentary around them.

In fact, the most affecting and terrifying scenes are the interviews with the detectives, parents of the victims, and witnesses to the horrific crimes. Hearing them speak about the horrors is where this one becomes truly harrowing. And just when you think this visceral thriller can’t burrow any deeper into your marrow, one of the killer’s victims is discovered alive and gets interviewed as well. You might not sleep after hearing what Cheryl, his last known victim, has to say. This dark and disturbing little thriller deserves an audience, and YouTube hopefully is just the start.


“The Descent” (2006) is as masterfully done as any horror movie from the last 20 years, with an 85% fresh rating from RottenTomatoes.com, so how come you’ve never heard of it? Well, maybe because it’s British and it contains no stars. Still, it’s a nail-biter that will grip you in an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia its entire 99-minute run.

Six women enter an unmapped cave system in the sticks, where they become trapped, and then hunted by flesh-eating humanoids living underground. These modern cavemen are vicious and craven, and yet so are the six women who are at each other’s throats from the start of the excursion. The title refers to their expedition, yes, but it also comments on their fall from decency and humanity during their vacation together. The film explores dark, cavernous chasms in the caves and the human mind.

The tight tunnels and jagged rocks here look incredibly real yet were brilliantly created on a soundstage at Pinewood Studios in England. It’s some of the best production design you’ll ever see in a movie, and director/screenwriter Neil Marshall has made an exceptional horror film that should ascend towards the top of any horror aficionado’s list.

Margot Kidder as the Siamese twins in a flashback scene in SISTERS (1973)
When you think of Brian De Palma, you probably think of classics like “Carrie” or “Scarface”. As disturbing as those films are, a more unsettling pick from his oeuvre is “Sisters” (1973). It stars Margot Kidder in a role about as far away from her Lois Lane from 1978’s “Superman” can be. Here, she plays conjoined twins Danielle and Dominique, now severed, and living as roomies. One is good, the other – not so much. When Dominique kills a suitor with a cake knife, a reporter happens to witness it from her apartment window. It starts a cat & mouse game that riffs on “Rear Window”, Jekyll & Hyde, as well as Our Bodies, Ourselves, that legendary woman’s tome from the late 70’s. (Yes, this film has a lot to say about the feminine mystique.)

What makes “Sisters” so unsettling is its subject material, as well as Kidder’s two performances. Just watch the new season of “American Horror Story” if you don’t think Siamese twins still hold fascination with horror fans. And Kidder’s work here is her best ever. Somehow she makes both characterizations eerily discombobulating. They have a blowsy Manson girl vibe to them, equal parts love child and killer. De Palma brilliantly uses the split screen filming technique here too, just as he did in “Carrie” so effectively; only here it also serves as a metaphor.


 Another unsettling psycho/sexual thriller is Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion” (1965). It stars Catherine Deneuve, one of cinema’s most luminescent stars, though she’s anything but glowing here. She plays a troubled young woman who finds aggression all around her, from the vulgar men who come on to her on the streets to the pushy customers she waits on at the beauty salon where she works. And when a leering landlord makes advances on her, she begins a downward mental spiral. Suddenly the whole world is grabbing at her, even the walls. Why is she unraveling? You’ll have to wait for the very last shot of the movie for the answer. Polanski focuses on a framed photograph in her apartment that tells you everything. It’s utterly unsettling. And it will haunt your home too.


Finally, there are those that see David Lynch’s masterpiece “Mulholland Drive” as merely a thriller, but Vulture.com made a very convincing argument that the movie could and should be seen as a horror movie (http://vult.re/1w9xDAd). Of course Lynch’s films have always had their nightmarish themes and qualities to them. Robert Blake’s villain standing next to Bill Pullman at a party and answering his home phone simultaneously in “Lost Highway” is one good example. This one is no exception. This story, however, is far more disturbing than anything he’s ever done and much more terrifying than most horror genre fare.

“Mulholland Drive” (2001) is also an eerie art-house film that can be interpreted in any number of ways. Is it a fever dream in the mind of the failed actress Diane Selwyn (Naomi Watts)? Is it a searing indictment of Hollywood’s penchant for discarding female talent after a certain age, like a companion piece to “Sunset Blvd”? Absolutely. But it’s also about the illusions of dreams, whether they are the hopeful kind in Tinseltown or those in our imaginative brains.
Naomi Watts and Laura Harring are the stars of MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001)
No matter what you think, and the director himself encourages multiple interpretations, this movie is a dreamy vision of Hollywood old and new, juxtaposed against the ugliness of show biz. The Diane character imagines being a hot, young ingĂ©nue taking the town by storm, but that’s a pipe dream. Along with that illusion, the film also explores the loss of power in a town that is all about it. The klutzy hit man can’t get his assignment without taking out a number of innocent bystanders, and the arrogant, young director clashes with the mob over who gets cast in his film. All of this suggests that Hollywood itself is a monster movie with reasons to scream at every turn.

And then there is the literal monster that Lynch shows us in the famous Winkie’s Diner scene. It is one of the most terrifying scenes ever in a film as a disturbed man and his friend venture behind the eatery to see if there is a monster behind the dumpster. As they take their cautious steps, Lynch proves he’s the modern master of the macabre. They seem to float, the sound design from Angelo Badalamenti builds to a feverish conclusion, and you’ll find yourself devastated by what is shown. If nothing else, that makes this one unsettling horror movie. (See the scene in the embedded video from YouTube below.)


 If you like tamer frights, you can always watch one of the many “Nightmare on Elm Street” or “Paranormal Activity” sequels. However, if this Halloween you’d like to challenge your goose bumps, see something you haven’t seen before. See a horror movie that proves that man is always the much more monstrous than any vampire, zombie or alien. These five films may make you question your faith in humanity. They’ll certainly make you lose some sleep.

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