A monstrous guide to monster movies
What is Halloween without a good monster movie? Why, firing up the ol’ DVD contraption and popping in a horror flick is as indispensable to the holiday as fun-size candy bars.
Chances are you already know your way around the best monster movies. Want to see some zombie action? Go straight to the works of George Romero (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead). In the mood for some demonic action? You’re gonna wanna rent The Exorcist. Looking for werewolves? An American Werewolf in London never fails to deliver. Like ghosts? The Haunting has yet to be surpassed. But then you probably already know this. You’ve seen The Lost Boys like a dozen times. What if you want something more obscure? Here’s a guide to monster hits of which you may not be aware.
They all claim to be Satan, but usually they’re just some lesser demonic poseur. (Remember, it was Pazuzu that Father Merrin cast out in The Exorcist.) If you wanna get past Hellish standards like The Exorcist and The Omen, try Álex de la Iglesia’s excellent 1995 film El Dia de la Bestia (The Day of the Beast). It’s a pitch-black satire about a priest who attempts to save the world by summoning Satan and killing the dude. How does he do that, you may ask? By becoming the world’s worst sinner with the help of a chubby heavy metal fanatic. Funny as it is, it’s also shockingly realistic and occasionally quite freaky. Also notable is Jaume Balagueró’s infected apartment building flick [REC] 2. The first claustrophobic fright film stuck mostly to zombies, but this one ups the ante, adding a religious twist.
Ghosts are cultural. Hence, the action-packed haunting of America’s Poltergeist, the elegant sadness of Spain’s The Others and the high-tech mysticism of Japan’s Ringu. Digging deeper into spiritual matters, you might find good frights in 2001’s The Devil’s Backbone from Hellboy director Guillermo del Toro. This period tale of a spooky orphanage during the Spanish Civil War explores, in chilling depth, what it’s like to be haunted by the dead. Few people know 1988’s Lady in White, but it’s a minor classic. Lukas Haas (Witness) stars as a kid determined to find out the truth behind his school’s ghostly apparition. It segues into more of a murder mystery as the story wears on, but the idea of being a little kid locked in a building with a ghost is hair-raising.
When you think about it, mummies aren’t really very scary. They’re like zombies with bandages. Still, if you dig the living dead and want to explore something other than Boris Karloff movies, here are some leads. Bubba Ho-Tep is a mad mix of ideas from director Don Coscarelli (Phantasm) and writer Joe R. Lansdale (the “Hap Collins and Leonard Pine” novels). Bruce Campbell plays an aged Elvis Presley (possibly) who teams up with Ossie Davis as an aged John F. Kennedy (probably not) to fight off a soul-sucking mummy who has invaded their run-down rest home. More funny than scary, but fantastic nonetheless. Hammer Studios in England made a bunch of mummy movies in the ’60s. Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb isn’t the best of them, but Valerie Leon’s décolletage is extremely distracting and well worth the price of admission. Michael Almereyda (who neatly twisted vampire myths in 1994’s Nadja) contributes some interesting additions to the mummy myth and wins points for staying out of Egypt entirely in The Eternal. The monster here is a druidic witch mummified in a British peat bog who comes back to mess with a vacationing American couple.
Smart people can separate the good (Let the Right One In) from the bad (Twilight), but for true bloodsucking suckiness, check out Dracula 3000. As dumb as Dracula 2000 was, it didn’t star Coolio. And it wasn’t set in outer space. On the other hand, if you’re looking for good obscure vampire movies, there are plenty. How about Chan-wook Park’s glorious priest-turned-vampire drama Thirst (2009)? How about Guillermo del Toro’s mostly forgotten debut, the clever alchemical vampire flick Cronos (1993)? And while the lead character in George Romero’s Martin (1977) only thinks he’s a vampire, the film is still the perfect antidote to today’s sparkle-filled romantic vampire films.
Yeah, Twilight didn’t just turn vampires into shirtless wusses, it also turned werewolves into faux sensitive-boy motorcycle mechanics (who are also shirtless). For a whole other take on the subject, try Neil Jordan’s arty 1984 film The Company of Wolves. This collection of freaky, Freudian fairy tales doesn’t make a lot of logical sense; but as a trippy collection of lupine dream imagery, it’s got teeth. The 2000 Canadian film Ginger Snaps is somewhat more down to earth, equating puberty with lycanthropy. In it, a young Goth gal develops a taste for blood after being bitten by a “stray dog.” Witty and original, the film spawned several almost-as-good sequels.
Steer clear of the Europeans for a moment. Sure, they’ve given us some of the best (Lucio Fulci’s Zombie, Amando de Ossorio’s Tombs of the Blind Dead) and some of the worst (Jesús Franco’s Oasis of the Zombies, Jean Rollin’s Zombie Lake). But there’s a whole world of brain-eating cinema out there. How about Ryûhei Kitamura’s Versus (2000), an over-the-top insane film about samurai-sword-swinging gangsters battling a forest full of undying corpses? The “Nazi zombie” has become something of a subcategory these days. But nothing beats the original, 1977’s subtle Shock Waves. The sight of a legion of sub-aquatic Nazi zombies rising from the ocean is absolutely indelible. Plus it’s got Peter Cushing and John Carradine for added street cred. Can a zombie movie be cute and endearing and still filled with blood and guts? 2006’s overlooked Fido is proof positive. Scottish comedian Billy Connolly is a revelation in the (mostly) serious, (mostly) silent role of a sympathetic dead guy in a retro-futuristic “Leave It to Beaver” world where zombies are used as servants.