Thoughts on life after the PhD
Because I’ve been asked for recommendations half a dozen times in the past few months from people who haven’t seen many horror films, and I always draw a blank. So here are a few, in no particular order.
The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005)
Summary: A group of women with complicated friendship histories go caving and encounter very, very bad things.
Gore / ick factor: high (someone literally gets submerged in a lake of blood, and people get eaten alive)
Fear factor: high
Watch it if: you like your horror movies to have female characters who are more than eye candy and don’t mind a heavy dose of gore.
Don’t watch it if: you’re claustrophobic.
I said I wasn’t going to rank them, but I’d have to say that this is my all-time favorite. The soundtrack is minimal and perfectly creepy. The performances from the all-female cast are wonderful. The tension builds, and builds, and then explodes. It’s gorgeous to look at. Certainly not for the squeamish, but just a wonderfully solid, well-made film.
Poltergeist (Tobe Hooper, 1982)
Summary: Ghosts suck a little blond girl into the family TV set and her parents hire paranormal experts to get her back.
Gore / ick factor: minimal (at one point several people are covered in a kind of red goo, and a guy’s face momentarily looks like it’s being devoured by worms)
Fear factor: moderate / high (kinda depends on what scares you)
Watch it if: you like family-centered, suburban drama mixed with classic ghost stories.
Don’t watch it if: you’re a parent and are particularly sensitive to movies about children in peril.
Poltergeist was so often quoted and imitated in the 80s and 90s that a lot of people don’t remember how genuinely spooky it was. That goddamned tree. That goddamned clown under the bed. The little girl’s strangely warped voice crying out through the television. The amorphous but occasionally well-defined ghosts that drifted through the house. This one gave me quite a few bad dreams as a teenager, and it holds up remarkably well, probably because it has that key component of all good horror: a grounded, real-world drama with familiar, likeable characters that exists alongside all the ghostly stuff. My dad used to joke that our house was built on a cemetery. He’s twisted that way.
Fright Night (Tom Holland, 1985)
Summary: A teenager desperately tries to convince his family, friends, and girlfriend that the man who’s just moved in next door is a vampire.
Gore / ick factor: moderate (there’s blood and goo, but a lot of it looks fake. A guy melts, though, which is a bit icky.)
Fear factor: moderate
Watch it if: you’re not really into super-scary stuff but enjoy a bit of eighties nostalgia mixed with mild scares.
Don’t watch it if: you want genuine scares and new ideas.
This one holds a special place in my heart because it’s the very first horror film that I ever saw, at a sleepover at a friend’s house when I was around 13. She had to talk me into it–I didn’t do scary movies. But oh boy, after that I was hooked. I wanted everyone to watch Fright Night on repeat and was baffled that my parents weren’t happy (maybe because of the brief nudity) and that my other friends couldn’t handle the scary. Fright Night is a wonderful 80s time capsule (the music and the clothes in the club scene are classic), Chris Sarandon is genuinely sexy, even thirty years later, and Roddy McDowall is a joy to watch. Strangely, the quintessential 80s horror movies–Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th–never stuck with me like Fright Night did.
The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1986)
Summary: Remake of the 1947 film about a scientist who accidentally merges his own DNA with that of a fly, beginning a horrific transformation.
Gore /ick factor: high (like, very high–there’s a lot of slime, a lot of mutated flesh, and a truly horrifying scene involving a giant maggot)
Fear factor: high
Watch it if: you like modern-day Frankenstein stories and don’t mind copious amounts of goo.
Don’t watch it if: “body horror” makes you queasy.
So much about what works in this movie is summed up in Geena Davis’s fascinated-but-anxious facial expression as she watches her lover bound around the apartment with newfound strength and agility–she knows something’s wrong, but it won’t become apparent just how wrong for a while longer. The movie does a great job with the slow burn, making us simultaneously feel revulsion and pity for Seth Brundle’s doomed scientist. And that infamous “birth” nightmare may have oh-so-slightly turned me off of ever having children.
Dark Water (Hideo Nakata, 2002)
Summary: A single mother and her daughter move into a new apartment and soon begin glimpsing the figure of a little girl. Weird things also happen with the water supply.
Gore / ick factor: low (as with a lot of Japanese horror, no real gore to speak of)
Fear factor: high
Watch it if: you prefer a creeping sense of dread to gore and jump-scares.
Don’t watch it if: (see Poltergeist)
This is my go-to Japanese horror recommendation. I prefer it over The Ring, which has that one incredible ending scene going for it but never affected me as much as Dark Water. The latter is aided, like Poltergeist, by a relatable real-world plot (single mother trying to survive in an unkind world) and very believable performances from Hitomi Kuroki and Rio Kanno as the mother and daughter. The sense that it might be all in her head adds to the tension, and the climactic scene in the elevator is, for me, more terrifying and visceral than almost anything else in J-horror.
Audition (Takashi Miike, 1999)
Summary: A widower holds “auditions” for a new wife and thinks he’s found the perfect candidate in delicate, ballerina-like Asami…but she is not what she seems.
Gore / ick factor: super high (this was the movie that got a lot of attention for having such a high walk-out rate during its excruciating final scene)
Fear factor: moderate (the film is intense and hard to watch, but it isn’t necessarily scary)
Watch it if: you like artfully filmed drama and you’ve got a strong tolerance for scenes of torture.
Don’t watch it if: you’re new to horror movies, as this one could put you off the genre altogether.
Miike has stated that he doesn’t see Audition as purely a horror film, and indeed, the first half plays out like an artfully framed romantic drama. Which makes things all the more disturbing when the rug is pulled out from under the audience in the second half. I said that Dark Water‘s elevator scene was more terrifying than anything else in J-horror, but actually this scene might just be the scariest thing I’ve ever seen. Asami’s viciousness is made more unsettling by the fact that she remains hyper-feminine throughout her infamous torture scene, never “masculinizing” like so many Final Girls at the end of horror films. This is not a film that everyone will be willing to sit through, but it’s beautifully shot, impeccably acted, and a brutal examination of expectations and assumptions regarding gender and relationships.
It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, 2014)
Summary: A malevolent presence, taking the form of a changing series of slow-walking, unstoppable people, stalks anyone who’s had sex with someone who was affected by it. If it catches you, you die, and the only way to stop it is to pass the curse on to someone else.
Gore / ick factor: low (there’s plenty of disturbing imagery, but it’s not gory)
Fear factor: high
Watch it if: you want to have lively debates with friends afterward.
Don’t watch it if: you always have the sense that someone’s following you.
It Follows is part of a welcome renaissance in horror that takes old tropes and tweaks or twists them just enough to make things intriguing (and genuinely scary). The film was quickly interpreted as a metaphor for our fear of sexually transmitted diseases, or a play on the classic “have sex and you’ll die” trope of slasher films. Plenty of arguments ensued about how you might be able to “beat” the curse. For me, none of that was as interesting as the fascinating look of the film (strangely timeless, with a mix of music, technologies and fashions that make it difficult to date) and the raw, knuckle-clenching fear that it inspired in me. It says a lot that it’s still pretty terrifying on the second or third viewing.
The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014)
Summary: A grieving widow dealing with a son with behavioral problems is terrorized by a storybook monster that may or may not be a creation of her increasingly overburdened mind.
Gore / ick factor: low
Fear factor: super high
Watch it if: you enjoy being utterly terrified for an hour and a half.
Don’t watch it if: you already have trouble sleeping.
Another new film that takes an old trope (mother protecting her child) and infuses it with new levels of power. I felt exhausted when this film was over, probably because I’d been gritting my teeth and gripping my chair almost the entire time. The nature of the monster, with its otherworldly voice and clear sense of menace, got under my skin like few horror movie creatures can. Essie Davis’s raw, utterly believable turn as a mother barely holding it together grounds the film in a believable world. I also loved the way that my sympathies sharply shifted from the mother (in the first half of the film) to the son (in the second half of the film, after the mother becomes increasingly deranged).
Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979) & Aliens (James Cameron, 1986)
Summary: Spaceship lands on mysterious planet full of hostile creatures who gestate inside living human hosts.
Gore / ick factor: high
Fear factor: high (I’d argue that it’s higher in the second one, though some would disagree with me)
Watch it if: you like isolated space settings, kick-ass heroines, and a healthy dose of discomfort surrounding things like parasites and bodily invasion.
Don’t watch it if: you’re pregnant (?)
Purists may roll their eyes at my inclusion of the second film in the Alien franchise, which is more of an action film than a horror film (though I think they’d agree that it’s genuinely scary). For better or worse, though, Aliens was the first one that I saw, on an old television, in pieces, late at night. It deprived me of a lot of sleep. Pauline Kael described it as a “boo” movie (essentially a series of scenes punctuated by aliens jumping out and saying “boo” every half hour or so), but the scares also come from the sense of isolation, the skillful use of sound (oh, the sound of that motion tracker as things get closer), the genuine terror of the tough-as-nails characters, and the truly spectacular, unbelievably tense first standoff between Ripley and the alien queen. The first one is, of course, a classic piece of body horror and a game-changer, but it’s the second one that I watch again and again.
The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982)
Summary: A dog shows up at a remote Arctic research station and mutates into something horrific that has the ability to infect and mutate the bodies of anything it comes in contact with.
Gore / ick factor: high (lots of bodily morphing and mutilation, plus a scene where something terrible happens to a dog)
Fear factor: high (quite a few jump-scares)
Watch it if: you like your body horror mixed with paranoia and questions of whether humans are more of a danger to each other than any monster.
Don’t watch it if: you love dogs and have an aversion to fleshy grossness.
The Thing owes a lot to Alien, but it brings in another level of creepiness by creating a threat that assimilates and mimics its hosts in addition to infecting them. The remote location is also a nice backdrop–not as cut off from the rest of the world as a distant planet, but it might as well be. The famous testing-the-blood scene has been imitated many times, and it’s still great. Trust no one.
Paranormal Activity (Oren Peli, 2007)
Summary: After hearing strange noises in their home, a young couple set up a camera in their bedroom that records increasingly frightening things.
Gore / ick factor: low
Fear factor: high (for me, anyway–some people say it didn’t scare them)
Watch it if: you’re intrigued by the found footage horror concept and enjoy horror movies with a bare-bones, indie feel.
Don’t watch it if: you’re convinced your house is haunted.
It’s hard to remember the sensation caused by found footage granddaddy The Blair Witch Project when it came out in 1999. I remember seeing it in the theater and feeling a palpable sense of dread around me. People moaned and gasped in discomfort at certain scenes. The online marketing campaign–one of the first of its kind–added to the creepiness. Nowadays found footage is a bit tired, but Paranormal Activity managed to scare the bejeezus out of me the first time I saw it. Even now, having seen it several times, I marvel at how the simple combination of a stationary camera, a dark room, and time lapse footage can create such a creepy atmosphere. This is a movie about something that invades your most intimate spaces, that can’t be escaped just by leaving the house, and that tests the relationship bonds you thought were solid. Some complain that the couple at the center of the film are annoying, but I found them utterly believable–young, arrogant, a bit stupid, and helpless in the face of the malevolence that stalks them. Interestingly, there’s a Japanese version (Paranormal Activity 2: Tokyo Night) that basically copies and expands on the original’s premise and also manages to be plenty scary.
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