Entries 1 through 5
5. George A. Romero
George Romero actually did a segment for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood once, where Mr. Rogers underwent a tonsillectomy. Apparently, this experience inspired him to do horror. In 1968, he created Night of the Living Dead, considered one of the greatest horror movies ever made. The budget was about $114,000, and grossed millions.
Taking the zombie concept and making it truly scary, Night of the Living Dead does things unheard of at the time, such as matricide, and making the hero of the movie an African-American. The scenes of a group of survivors boarded up in a house and defending themselves against mindless hordes outside has been copied over and over. It also created the rulebook for zombies and how they operate. The movie critiques society of the Vietnam-era and touches on themes of the civil rights movement. Mark Deming notes that “the grim fate of Duane Jones, the sole heroic figure and only African-American, had added resonance with the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X fresh in the minds of most Americans.” SPOILER: Elliot Stein observed: “In this first-ever subversive horror movie, the resourceful black hero survives the zombies only to be killed by a redneck posse”.
After NOTLD, Romero released The Crazies and Martin, which became cult favorites – the first movie deals with madness and homicidal behavior brought on by the accidental release of a military biological weapon in a small town. Featuring Richard France and Lynn Lowry, it’s kind of a precursor to movies like Warning Sign and 28 Days Later, and is currently being remade. (our review is here).
Martin, a clever take on the vampire myth, was critically acclaimed and is worth seeing for depicting what an “actual” vampire might be like. The film is regarded by horror fans as one of the finest B horror films of the 70′s and is often cited among Romero’s best works. About a disturbed man who may or may not be a vampire (he disables his victims with drugs and uses a razor blade to slice their wrists so he can drink their blood), the film deals with unfulfilled desires and the ending is sad and ironic.
In 1978, Romero returned to the zombie genre with Dawn of the Dead (1978). Shot on a budget of just $500,000, the film earned over $55 million worldwide and is a cult classic. The satire shifts towards skewering consumer culture, and features some icky gore effects by Tom Savini as well as a soundtrack by Muzak. A standout scene shows zombies aimlessly walking through a mall as Muzak plays in the background. (Read our review here).
1985 saw the release of Day of the Dead, which focused on the survivors of the zombie plague trying to find out the cause while hiding out inside a military installation. One particular zombie named Bub becomes humanized, and the humans end up fighting the military as much as the zombie menace. (This is also an inspiration for 28 Days Later).
Romero didn’t stop there – in the 2000s came Land of the Dead and Diary of the Dead. Other notable Romero movies are Season of the Witch (1973), about a housewife who becomes involved in witchcraft, Knightriders (1981) – about a traveling troup of knights on motorcycles(!), Two Evil Eyes (done with Argento), and Creepshow (1982), the ultimate in horror anthologies. Written by Stephen King, Creepshow is an homage to the E.C. horror comic books of the 1950s (such as Tales from the Crypt) and features 5 stories tied together by a subplot involving a boy who is punished for reading comics.
Romero’s favorite city is Pittsburgh and almost all of his movies are set there. His upcoming horror film Survival of the Dead, is set to appear in September, 2009.
4. Wes Craven
To avoid fainting, keep repeating “It’s only a movie…It’s only a movie…” That was the tag line to Craven’s The Last House on the Left (based on Bergman’s The Virgin Spring), which came out in 1972 and shocked audiences. Filmed with a semi-documentary and grainy feel, it concerns two teen girls who are raped and murdered by a gang of psychopaths. Later, the gang takes refuge at a house that happens to be owned by the parents of one of the murdered girls. When they find out what happened, they set out for revenge. Last House on the Left is difficult to watch, and could be considered exploitative and certainly grindhouse in feel. It also brought a level of realism to audiences of the early 70s that they may not have been accustomed to. The end of the 60s saw riots, escalation of the Vietnam conflict, assassinations, and protests. This feeling of nihilism and societal disintegration is all over The Last House on the Left.
Craven would next direct The Hills Have Eyes, released in 1977, to cult success (it was remade in 2006). It is about a family on a road trip who become stranded in the California desert, and are hunted by a clan of deformed cannibals in the surrounding hills. It’s a desert-mutant flick with plenty of commentary on the nature of family, and how it’s a short walk from being civilized to entering the primitive, violent, and survivalist state of being. (The Texas Chainsaw influence is noticeable). Like Last House (and Texas Chainsaw), the violence is shocking and un-stylized, something that he would move away from in the 80s.
With A Nightmare on Elm Street, the Reagan-era supernatural slasher about a child serial killer come back from the dead to kill teenagers in their dreams, Craven single-handedly created a horror franchise, with 6 sequels, a TV series, a Friday-the-13th crossover film (Freddy vs Jason), and a soon-to-come remake. Somewhat influenced by John Carpenter’s Halloween, but adding new elements and some true scares, ANOES is one of Craven’s best films, and shows how much progress he made as a director when compared to the amateurish Last House… Wiki says: “Critics praised the film’s ability to rupture “the boundaries between the imaginary and real”, toying with audience perceptions. Some movie historians interpreted this overriding theme as a social subtext, “the struggles of adolescents in American society”, and their overwhelming need to confront “the harsh realities of life”.” (Our review here).
After Elm Street, Craven directed other films with different themes and styles, with mixed success. Some of the standouts here include The Serpent And The Rainbow (1988), which takes place in Haiti and deals with black magic, and a “zombie” drug that makes the victim appear dead. This leads to a creepy scene where victim Bill Pullman wakes up inside a coffin, buried alive.
Shocker (1989) is a cult classic starring Mitch Pileggi (X-Files) as a serial killer who is electrocuted but comes back from the dead as electrical energy, able to possess others. Not Craven’s best, but it does feature some campy and absurd elements (like a scene where Pileggi’s character Horace Pinker is chasing a victim through television channels). One of Craven’s strangest movies is called The People Under The Stairs, a post-Reagan piece about abused kids kept under the stairs by a crazed couple of slum-lords. The main character’s name is Fool, and he’ll live up to that title throughout the movie’s running time. It’s kind of a black comedy-horror about the haves and have-nots.
Scream came out in 1996, and would revitalize the slasher genre in the same way as movies like Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street. Now nowhere near Craven’s early output, it satirizes horror at the same time it delivers it, in this case making the killer(s) a product of a self-aware, ironic, post-modern age. The first female victim (Drew Barrymore) is killed for incorrectly answering a trivia question related to Friday the 13th! Scream brought self-awareness to horror cinema and features lots of in-jokes among its bloodletting. Scream inspired two sequels, both directed by Craven (and a fourth film is in the works).
As film critic Walter Chaw remarked on the review of Craven’s more recent Red Eye: It repositions Craven as one of our canniest social commentators of the last four decades.
3. John Carpenter
Social commentary in horror continues with John Carpenter, who knew how to combine subtext, tableaux, and moody scores to great effect. After early favorites Dark Star and Assault on Precinct 13 (a Rio Bravo-influenced action thriller gem that has the balls to kill an ice-cream eating little girl), he directed Halloween, which, despite showing influence of Bob Clark’s Black Christmas, seems to have been a much greater influence on the slashers that would come after it (Friday the 13th, Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street, and countless others). The wide field of view, the shadowy killer, the killer-POV, the dead babysitter, the sex=death equation, the “final girl”, the eerie piano music, the tracking shots. There are no shortages of critiques and deconstructions of it. It has spawned countless sequels, none of which match the power of the original. (Read our review here) It has, of course, been remade recently by Rob Zombie.
Another film that has been remade is The Fog, which Carpenter directed next, a minor classic in its own right that takes the form of a haunted ghost story. Starring Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Tom Atkins, it features gruesome murders that occur when a strange fog rolls in.
After the critically acclaimed cult masterpiece Escape from New York, Carpenter would release our favorite work by him, The Thing, itself a remake of the 1951 film The Thing from Another World but a more faithful adaptation of the story it was based on – Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, Jr. Featuring an alien life form that digests organisms and then imitates them, it is a brilliant mix of paranoia, atmosphere, scenery, and gore effects (by Rob Bottin). Well acted and suspenseful, it was certainly darker in tone than that other alien film released around the same time – E.T. – which didn’t help it at the box office. (Read our review of The Thing here).
1987 saw Prince Of Darkness, which would, along with They Live in 1988, prove Carpenter’s worth at developing inventive stories. Prince of Darkness takes aim at the Catholic Church and has very freaky ideas, suggesting that Jesus Christ was extraterrestrial in origin, and that Satan was trapped inside a 7 million old canister in the form of a green fluid, a secret protected by the church for two thousand years. It suggests the existence of an Anti-God, and decorates this idea with themes from quantum mechanics (anti-particles). Messages from the future are sent using tachyon particles, and show up in people’s dreams. In the film, Carpenter admits to using elements from Quatermass and the Pit, in regards to the idea of an ancient evil. The dream segments which are really messages from the future are very clever, and there are some disturbing images (Alice Cooper, under Satan’s influence, impales a poor chap on a bicycle, another victim says “Pray for Death” before collapsing into a heap of insects).
They Live, featuring Roddy Piper, is more straightforward with its message – and it could only be a product of the 80s. The idea that alien beings are using Earth as “their third world”, and that true reality is hidden from us through use of subliminal messages and brainwashing, can’t be mistaken as being pro-Reagan. (Reagan sure pissed people off back then). They Live features a famous extended fight scene betwen Roddy Piper and Keith David, which as been parodied in South Park. The ending is also hilarious. Trivia: Carpenter once commented on the alien threat in an interview, “They want to own all our businesses. A Universal executive asked me, ‘Where’s the threat in that? We all sell out every day.’ I ended up using that line in the film.”
In the Mouth of Madness (1994) is the third installment in what Carpenter calls his “Apocalypse Trilogy”, which includes The Thing and Prince of Darkness. It stars Sam Neill who witnesses nightmarish events surrounding mysterious horror novelist Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow). Cane’s books have a strange ability to drive people insane. Investigating Cane further leads Neill’s character to the town of Hobb’s End, and then all hell breaks loose. The move is a homage to H. P. Lovecraft, with a few elements of Cthulhu thrown in and depictions of insanity. Trivia: Hobb’s End is named after the fictional London Underground station from Quatermass and the Pit.
Carpenter would go on to direct Vampires (1998), with James Woods, and Ghosts of Mars (2001). He also directed two Masters of Horror entires, Cigarette Burns and Pro-Life. We have not seen Pro-Life, but we like Cigarette Burns, which is similar to his previous work In the Mouth of Madness. (It has also been said to be a little too close in plot to The Ninth Gate. Perhaps we should do a review of these two films back to back one day).
2. David Cronenberg
The master of body horror, infection, twisted fetish, altered reality, and intense bursts of violence, it’s hard to beat Canadian director Cronenberg for sheer weirdness. Much of his work is absolutely fascinating and disturbing. Shivers (AKA They Came From Within) came out in 1975 and is just a taste of things to come. Starting out with a real-estate sales pitch for an apartment block, the movie deals with a parasitic organism that acts like an aphrodisiac but spreads like a venereal disease. Once implanted, it causes uncontrollable sexual desire in the host. Dealing, obviously, with issues of sexual promiscuity, disease, and infection, the movie also takes jabs at yuppie culture.
1977 saw the release of Rabid, with the late porn star Marilyn Chambers in the lead role. Rabid is about a woman’s tissue graft operation gone horribly wrong, as she develops an orifice under her armpit, within which hides a (phallic-like) stinger. She uses it to feed on the blood of other people, who later become rabid zombies. Rabid is another interesting take on the vampire/zombie genre; we are amused at how Chambers is used – here is a woman fantasized about by so many now turned into a host for infection. Still want to meet her?
The Brood (1979) moves away from the sexuality/infection theme but keeps the elements of body transformation. There is also subtext dealing with psychology, family and motherhood. Of course, it’s all given the twisted Cronenberg touch. A technique called “psychoplasmics” allows negative emotions to cause physical changes. In this case, it causes a woman (Samantha Eggar), to give birth to mutant children (parthenogenesis) that she develops telepathic bonds with (subconsciously). If she suffers negative emotions, they act them out. In a way, it’s kinda like the old sci fi classic Forbidden Planet, where the id is manifested in the form of a dangerous creature (in this case, many dangerous creatures). The scene of Eggar’s character giving birth and then licking the mutant-baby clean is barf-bag worthy!
Cronenberg takes the telepathy and psychic link elements and runs with them when he writes and directs Scanners (1981). The film features a weapons company that tries to exploit people with strong telepathic and telekinetic abilities. One of the bad guys, played by Michael Ironside, makes a dude’s head explode in a scene that is infamous. The ending fight between two scanners has some crazy stuff in it, like body switching, and sports nifty gore effects. Scanners was Cronenberg’s most profitable film at that time.
Videodrome (1983), starring James Woods and Debbie Harry, is our absolute favorite of Cronenberg’s films. (Reviewed here). A commentary on sex, violence, media and television, it takes Marshall McLuhan’s statement that “the medium is the message” to the extreme, and features S&M, hallucinations, reality-changing technology, and, of course, body horror.
After the relatively successful The Dead Zone, based on the Stephen King book and featuring Christopher Walken, Cronenberg would deliver the remake of The Fly, starring Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis, that is equal parts love story, science fiction, and truly icky horror. When a fly accidentally gets trapped inside with Goldblum in his new teleporter, he finds himself slowly transforming into said fly. It features awesome makeup and special effects, like a guys hand and foot being dissolved by Goldblum’s fly vomit, a gross maggot birth, and the final fly transformation, all done by Chris Walas, Inc. The final minutes are relentlessly downbeat, but The Fly is still a standout and was praised by critics and audiences alike.
Next, Cronenberg would direct Dead Ringers, featuring Jeremy Irons in a dual role as twin gynecologists. It’s a return to more psychological horror, even though it does feature a woman with a reproductive mutation who starts the twins down a self-destructive path. His next movie would be Naked Lunch, a brilliant adaptation of the William S. Burroughs novel. Featuring bizarre creatures, including a typewriter that appears to talk out of an anus, it manages to communicate the dependency themes of the book while avoiding certain scenes that probably never could have been shot due to censorship issues. Read a review here.
In 1996, Cronenberg would release Crash, a film version of the J. G. Ballard 1973 novel, which tells the story of a group of people who take sexual pleasure from car accidents, (paraphilia). Very controversial, it features plenty of sex (and car crashes). Ebert gave it 3.5 stars, calling it “a strange and insightful film about human sexual compulsion. By deliberately removing anything that an audience member is likely to find even remotely erotic, Cronenberg has brought a kind of icy, abstract purity to his subject.”
Dealing with “bio-organic gaming devices” and virtual reality, eXistenZ (1999) is Cronenberg’s own Matrix. (kinda). Not so much horror as a fascinating look into the biological adaptation of the human body to new realities. In a way, it drags the hi-tech world down into the biological, and shows us some very weird stuff in the process, like a gun assembled from teeth and bone, and the rather sexual metaphors of the body orifices that must be used as sockets to plug into the game.
With Spider (2002), Cronenberg moves away from body horror and ever closer to diseases of the mind. A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, while not horror films, still are full of invention and exhibit the director’s ability for depicting sex and violence in effective ways.
1. Mario Bava
Mario Bava is the grandaddy of the modern horror flick. Born in 1914 and coming from the golden age of Italian horror, his body of work has proved influential. Bava made use of the “zoom” frame and also infused his movies with vibrant colors, Gothic settings, and moody atmosphere. He was cutting his teeth on cinematography since 1943. In 1956, he was working on the Riccardo Freda-directed I Vampiri, the first sound-era Italian film, which is somewhat based on the story of Elizabeth Bathory. It’s about a vampire who maintains her youth from a serum made from the blood of virgins. After ten days of filming, director Freda stormed off the set, and Bava (who was serving as cinematographer at that time) replaced him. (A similar thing happened with Caltiki, The Immortal Monster, a few years later).
The movie that could be considered Bava’s true “directorial debut” would be Black Sunday (AKA Mask of Satan), which was released in 1960. Taking place in Moldavia, it concerns a witch who is put to death by her own brother, only to return two hundred years later to feed on her descendants.Considered gruesome at the time of release, it was banned in the U.K. and had some of its gore excised for U.S. distribution (American International Pictures). Black Sunday was an international success and launched the careers of both Mario Bava and movie star Barbara Steele. A great example of Italian Gothic, the film is heavy on atmosphere and has influenced many later films.
After doing some action pics (sword-and-sandal, Vikings, etc), he would return to horror in 1963 with The Girl Who Knew Too Much, a movie about a woman who witnesses a murder in Rome. Considered to be the first true giallo, this was also the last movie that Bava shot in black-and-white. Also released by AIP in the states (as The Evil Eye), the film stars Letícia Román and John Saxon, and while the Hitchcock influence is obvious, the movie showcases Bava’s skillful use of shadows, light, and angles. Read our review of it here.
Black Sabbath, also released in 1963, is three stories in one. (One of the segments features a lesbian sub-plot that AIP took out in the English version. As a result, the American version has been turned into a ghost story, whereas the original is non-supernatural). Trivia: Ozzy Osbourne’s band was named after this film; Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary said that Black Sabbath was the inspiration for Pulp Fiction.
Blood & Black Lace (1965) is considered one of the most influential giallo pictures. The story focuses on the stalking and brutal murders of fashion models by a masked killer in an attempt to obtain a scandal-revealing diary. In addition to the giallo, it has also been said to influence the “body count” slasher films of the 1980′s (although we would give that “award” to Bava’s later work Bay of Blood). Ramping up the sex and violence, and featuring stylish sequences full of color, the move was not well received at the time. (It was considered too violent for AIP to touch it). However, today it is considered a classic.
The ghost pic The Whip and The Body, starring Christopher Lee, has also been called a masterpiece of Italian gothic, complete with S&M elements, beautiful compositions, use of color and shadow. Not as well known as Blood and Black Lace, although some people prefer it to that film.
Planet of the Vampires (1965), a sci-fi horror gem that deals with the crew of a spaceship dealing with ghostly terrors on a mysterious planet, is extremely stylish in sets, costumes, atmosphere, and colors. It’s also noteworthy for interesting concepts, like the discovery of a derelict alien ship that seems to have been a previous victim of the planet’s indigenous inhabitants. The alien ship is fascinating for its reveals, and the long-dead occupants are huge in size. The influence on Alien immediately comes to mind, although Ridley Scott and Dan O’Bannon deny ever seeing the film prior to making it. The possession storyline seems to have been an influence on John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars. Generally not considered one of Mario Bava’s best films, Planet of the Vampires, is obviously shot on a shoestring-budget, but we think it’s still pretty inventive, with an interesting twist ending.
Kill Baby Kill (1968), about supernatural goings-on in a Carpathian village, is a return to the supernatural for Bava, and features great sets and Gothic atmosphere, as usual. It also has a creepy little girl (with bouncing ball – fear dot com would use this plot point) and a great sequence featuring a man chasing a suspect through rooms only to finally catch up with… himself.
Next up was some spy pics like Dr. Goldfoot and His Girl Bombs and Danger: Diabolik, which was based off the comic character Diabolik and is a fascinating comic book film to watch (the Beastie Boys were huge fans and spoofed scenes from Danger: Diabolik in their music video for Body Movin). Mystery Science Theater used Danger: Diabolik for their final show, but we think the movie is too good to deserve the riffing. After that, he directed the obscure 5 Dolls For an August Moon (1970), a “Ten Little Indians” story with Bava’s own personal touch, and Hatchet for the Honeymoon, a black-humor infused thriller where you already know who the killer is (influenced by Hitchcock’s Psycho, the film itself seems to have influenced He Knows You’re Alone and American Psycho).
Let’s move on to 1971 and Bay Of Blood (AKA Twitch of the Death Nerve). It’s a body count movie in the tradition of Blood and Black Lace, but way gorier. The story details the murderous activities of several characters as they fight for an inheritance. The movie’s emphasizes the graphic murder set pieces (taking place on or near an estate by a bay) was hugely influential on slasher movies of the 80s (including Friday the 13th Parts 1 and 2). In fact, Friday the 13th Part 2 would rip off the infamous double-impaling of a couple in coitus. Hated by critics because of the shocking violent content (its violence called near pornographic), it played the grindhouse and drive-in circuits for years under the title Twitch of the Death Nerve. Tim Lucas wrote “Twitch unreels like a macabre, ironic joke, a movie built like an inescapable trap for its own anti-hero.” Seen today, the violence in this movie remains as potent and explicit as anything glimpsed in contemporary splatter features. The ending of Bay of Blood is considered to have come out of left field (SPOILER ALERT: we think the killers get away with it, only to be gunned down by their own kids), but it takes a new dimension if you were to consider that the entity responsible for all the deaths may have been the “bay” itself.
After the successful Baron Blood (“torture chamber” flick set in Austria where an evil baron returns from the dead) and the Rashomon-inspired sex comedy detour Four Times That Night, Bava would direct Lisa And The Devil (AKA House of Exorcism), released in ’73. Starring Elke Sommer as a tourist who encounters a strange man (played by the awesome Telly Savalas) who looks like the devil as portrayed in a certain fresco painting, the movie deals with spooky mansions, killers, and bizarre, surreal, dreamlike occurrences. Stylish and creepy, Lisa and the Devil moves its heroine through nightmarish situations, resulting in confusion about what’s real and what isn’t. It was originally released in 1975 in the United States under the title “House of Exorcism”, an alternate cut of the film that removed much of the original film’s content in favor of new footage shot specifically for the US version of the film, as well as an entirely new script. Initially a flop (in both versions), Lisa and the Devil is now said to be Bava’s “final masterpiece.”
Shock (AKA Beyond the Door II) would be Bava’s last theatrical film. Starring Daria Nicolodi, it features murder, madness, and the supernatural.
Mario Bava passed away in Rome from a heart attack in 1980. Video Watchdog’s Tim Lucas released a biography of Bava called All the Colors of the Dark in 2007.