I don’t know what worse: a) The notion of a Van Helsing re-boot with Tom Cruise b) Van Helsing trying to “understand” the monsters, or c) the air quotes around monster movies.
”I am a painter of the darkness for a drop of good.”
I ran across this article recently at a favorite website: I09.com: 8 TV Episodes That Qualify As Psychological Warfare
To my mind, there just hasn’t been enough television done that really tries to unsettle viewers. As author Esther Inglis-Arkell puts it:
Some TV episodes entertain us and enliven our evenings. But other seem primarily designed to break a viewer psychologically, and take bloody bites out of our sense of well-being.
I took the opportunity to watch or re-watch as many of these episodes as I could and found some of them were pretty good. Especially “Blink” from Dr. Who.
But I favor stronger stuff, and I decided to compile my own list of what I consider to be 8 Truly Disturbing TV Episodes.
- It Crawled Out of the Woodwork – The Outer Limits. The original Outer Limits was a wonderfully dark series; it offered a paranoid, almost apocalyptic view of the universe. Beings from other worlds were coming to Earth to kill, dominate, and seize our souls. It was filmed in noir-esque black and white, which made for very spooky late night TV watching for impressionable Baby Boomers. This episode is one the best: a strange, primal force of malevolent energy is discovered in a remote lab and barely kept contained by the scientists that unleashed it. They keep it locked in a vault at the end of a long hallway, anyone unfortunate to stumble into the lab is sacrificed to the the roaring, spasming cloud. The episode is directed by Gerd Oswald, whose sweaty, claustrophobic style was perfect for the series.
- Quality of Mercy – The Outer Limits. This is from the new series. Without giving anything away, the end of this story sent a shiver down my spine. A really well crafted horror story that appropriately falls down into a very black hole at the end.
- Home – The X Files. There are many great, disturbing episodes of this influential series you could pick (Tooms, Piper Maru) but I’m going with the one about incestuous mutants. This might be the most envelope-pushing episode ever in network television history.
- Big Surprise – Night Gallery. Night Gallery was Rod Serling’s return to series television after The Twilight Zone, but as host only. His lack of creative participation shows in the generally uneven nature of the episodes, but a few rose up to truly horrific status. Big Surprise is short and wonderfully nasty and might be John Carradine’s greatest moment of horror.
- Night of Desirable Objects – Fringe. I think that Fringe is the best post-X-Files show; in fact, I think it surpasses the original, on balance. Like its predecessor, it features many terrifying/gross/creepy episodes. But this one really sticks out in my mind for how expertly it deployed so many reliable horror tropes (creepy scarecrows, ironic oldies music, spooky farmhouse, etc.) and how much horror was implied, rather than shown. Plus there’s the bonus of the inter-dimensional typewriter.
- The Weird Tailor – Thriller. Written by Robert Bloch (author of Psycho), this episode features a nicely morbid premise: a rich man kills his son during a black magic ceremony, then tries to bring him back to life by contracting with a poor tailor to manufacture a resurrection suit. But what makes this story stand out is the ending, where the tailor’s dummy comes to life when the suit is placed on him. One of the really great “creepy mannequin” moments.
- Unholy Night – American Horror Story. Maybe the greatest “Evil Santa” stories ever, thanks to the wonderfully over-the-top Ian McShane. Nun-raping, family-murdering, creepy, insane Christmas tree, this episode has it all. American Horror Story is completely crazy, but that for me, is it’s charm.
- Lonely Souls – Twin Peaks. Nobody does disturbing like David Lynch, and certainly his masterpiece of a TV show is no exception. It’s hard to pick one episode or moment from this groundbreaking series, but I’d go with the one where Laura Palmer’s killer is finally revealed, and ta-da, it’s her creepy, molesting, crazy daddy! Directed by Lynch himself, this episode starts surreal and gets weird from there. It may seem a little goofy today, but at the time, having invested a season and a half in this twisted story line, it hit me right between the eyes. Leland was Bob!
Since childhood, I’ve loved Edward Gorey. As I said in a previous post: “Gorey marked us with a dark worldliness that was more profound than the standard images of werewolves and shambling corpses we found in movies and comics.”
John Kenn Mortensen surely seems to have been deeply influenced by Gorey, as well. He adds a bit more of a modern sensibility to his finely crafted drawings, but somehow he still seems grounded in an earlier era of black veiled sick rooms, gas-lit alleyways, and haunted cottages.
Mortensen, according to his blog, writes and directs TV shows for kids. In his spare time, he makes exquisitely morbid little sketches on Post-It notes. He has published two collections of his work: Post-It Monsters, and More Post-It Monsters. He’s brilliant.
Check out his work at:
Here’s one of the better “Best” lists I’ve seen for horror movies. It should be a good list, the judges were people like Guillermo Del Toro, Alice Cooper, Simon Pegg, and Clive Barker. The thing I love about it is the plenitude of foreign films and even oddball picks, like Come and See (1985) (pictured above) and Saló (1975).
Many of the picks on this list have previously been reviewed or spotlighted on The Morbid Imagination. Check out the category Movies to scroll through them.
BTW, I got an 89 out of 100 on “How Many Have You Seen?“…I guess I have some catching up to do.
My personal top five list:
Joel-Peter Witkin is an artist who actually works directly with death – some of his morbid tableaux feature actual corpses or body parts.
His scratched, distressed photographs look as though they are rediscovered crime scene evidence from a Victorian era horror. Nude men and women mix with animal parts, masks, random bits of machinery, severed limbs, or bowls of fruit. Some of his works are borderline pornographic; most are deeply disturbing.
Witkin was a war photographer in Vietnam and claims to have touched the decapitated head of a little girl following a horrific car accident when he was a child. Raised Roman Catholic, Witkin combines an old world gothic sensibility with an intense interest in deformity, perversity, and death.
In the 1980s, Witkin advertised for models, asking for the following: “Pinheads, dwarfs, giants, hunchbacks, pre-op transsexuals, bearded women, people with tails, horns, wings, reversed hands or feet, anyone born without arms, legs, eyes, breast, genitals, ears, nose, lips. All people with unusually large genitals. All manner of extreme visual perversion. Hermaphrodites and teratoids (alive and dead). Anyone bearing the wounds of Christ.”
This attraction to depicting the ill-formed and strange is reminiscent of the photographs of Diane Arbus or Robert Mapplethorpe. The same debate of “is it art or is it exploitation?” that surrounded their work is often thrown at Witkin. How do I feel about it? Hey, I revere the Morbid Imagination, where do you think I stand? Perversity, deformity, decay, death, pain, and alienation are just as valid as subjects for art as sunsets and royalty. To me, Witkin has a definite style that is compelling and admirable.
Here is a link to some of his works
I have repeatedly made the case on this blog that Universal Studios is squandering one of its greatest assets: its legacy of classic monsters. Recent comments by studio head Ron Meyer give us an insight into why this might be.
“One of the worst movies we ever made was Wolfman. Wolfman and Babe 2 are two of the shittiest movies we put out, but by the same token we made movies we believe in. ”
Really? Wolfman is one of the shittiest movies you ever made? Is there a reason you didn’t mention Van Helsing (2004) or The Mummy, Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008)? Or were those two movies you really believed in?
Do you know what was shitty? The fact that The Wolfman was released at a time of the year when it had no chance. That some dil-hole executive thought seven-time Academy Award winner and monster fanboy genius Rick Baker’s werewolf makeup wasn’t good enough. You know, the guy responsible for American Werewolf in London (1981).
Here’s a list of the good horror movies produced by Universal Studios in the 16 years asshead Ron Meyer has been in charge: Drag Me to Hell, Slither, Dawn of the Dead. Here’s a list of some other horror movies Meyer is responsible for: the remakes of Psycho and The Last House on the Left, The Seed of Chucky, Devil, The Thing prequel, Doom, and Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant. Did I also mention Van Helsing?
Here’s another list of movies – the updates of classic monster movie updates provided by Universal Studios in the last 40 years: Dracula (1979), The Mummy (1999), The Wolfman. Oh, and Van Helsing. Way to exploit your legacy, Universal.
Throw this track record and these comments in with the decision to kill Guillermo Del Toro’s At the Mountains of Madness, and you have the portrait of a studio run by people who have no clue whatsoever when it comes to horror or the cultural value of classic Universal horror. Take a look at the long list of non-horror drek that Universal has vomited on movie viewers and you get a feeling you could produce a better track record of success with a dart board and six chimps.
So I guess I shouldn’t be holding my breath for that kickass remake of the Creature of the Black Lagoon. Maybe I should be praying it doesn’t happen.
See Mr. Meyer’s remarks here.
I confess that I don’t intend this list to have anything to do with 9/11 – it’s just a convenient cutoff point to review the best recent horror films. 10 years, 10 films. After reviewing a list of all the horror films from this period, I don’t really detect any real influence of the events of that tragic day, except perhaps the sustained interest in apocalypse/zombie/contagion movies.
If there was one overriding trend the last ten years, it was remakes. For the most part, it was an unfortunate trend, wasting millions of studio dollars on terrible or pointless movies. There were a few (very few) gems among the dross, but not one surpassed the original that it was based on.
And the intrusion of the new genre of paranormal romance into horror? Shudder…
I’m sure there are one or two obscure movies I missed, but I feel good about every movie included here and have about a half dozen more that were hard to exclude.
Let the Right One In (2008) – My personal favorite on this list and a film I think deserves consideration as one of the greatest horror movies ever. This is a perfect example of why the best horror films are about something other than monsters or death. In this case, the something else is the tragic nature of childhood alienation. It is also a great vampire movie, returning to the time tested depiction of vampirism as a curse and a source of death and horror.
Matyrs (2008) – This is a close second on my list. On the surface, it seems like yet another torture porn movie, but instead it is a mind-bending descent into bleak horror worthy of another French classic Les Diaboliques (1954). As each twist unfolded, I marveled at the artistry of its conception and its willingness to forswear any easy outs for the audience. Deeply satisfying and original.
The Mist (2007) – Speaking of bleak horror, here’s another movie that’s not afraid to go there. This is based on one of my favorite Stephen King works, by his best adaptor, Frank Darabont. Like any good King story, realistic characters drawn from real life confront intruding horror, aided here by a great cast. And the ending! I walked out of the theater, shaking my head, amazed that they went there.
The Descent (2005) – The Cave, released the same year, explored (spelunked?) the same territory: a group trapped in a cave with monsters. The difference? Neil Marshall and an all female cast. Marshall wisely refused to resort to exploitation and put real characters into believable danger. The weird ending was wonderfully ambiguous.
The Road (2009) – Based on Cormac McCarthy’s nihilistic masterpiece, the film adaptation spares little of it’s apocalyptic power. The horror springs from the nearly hopeless situation – you want to root for the last flickering lights of humanity to triumph, but you know that it’s a false hope. It’s the journey that matters, but it’s not a trip to anyplace nice.
Paranormal Activity (2007) – There may be one or two other movies that might be more deserving, but I had to acknowledge a movie that did a great job of wringing scares out of audiences with mood, tension, and misdirection. The fact that this series has been successful at the box office is heartening, and I hope that studios follow suit with more of the same. The found footage thing, however, is getting close to being played out. Can’t we just stick to spooky scares?
Rec (2007) – Speaking of found footage, here’s the movie that did it best. Just a tour-de-force of filmmaking.
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) – If Guillermo Del Toro isn’t the master of horror, I don’t know who is. A little girl escapes either into her own dark imagination or a real, nightmarish underworld – which may be better than the grim reality of her real life. Del Toro suspends her between two dark universes, and this fairy tale may have no happy ending. This film proves Del Toro was born to adapt Lovecraft.
The Wolfman (2010) – This film has it critics, but I think they’re all wrong. This is exactly what Universal Studios should be doing with its goldmine of monster properties. It is just reverent enough to the original to soothe hardcore fans but savvy enough of a modern studio horror movie to appeal to a wider crowd. It was dumped into the market in February, when it should have played during Halloween. Why couldn’t Universal release a new monster movie remake every year in the spooky season, helmed by fanboy directors like Guillermo Del Toro or Joe Dante? (sigh)
Cabin Fever (2002) – My last choice is the winner of the “Best Dead Teenager Movie” award, narrowly edging out The Ruins (2008), mainly due to a better horror ending. If you are going to kill a bunch of teenagers, kill them all. I like this movie more than Eli Roth’s more successful Hostel (2006), mainly because of the gleefully crazy tone this movie sometimes adopts. I also really like that most of the characters are horrible and selfish, but the two nice kids also meet awful fates, despite their intact virginities. Good horror is random.
Reading, of all things, an article at Cracked.com called: “6 Mind-Blowing Ways Zombies and Vampires Explain America,” I got stirred up enough to finally address an issue I’d long pondered. Namely, The Politics of Horror Movies.
Every so often, one of the major media outlets will notice the popularity of contemporary horror movies and will try and attach some kind of political or social significance to their success. This usually turns out the be the sort of glib association that doesn’t bear close scrutiny. The Cracked article is typical; it puts forward the notion that vampire movies are successful when Democrats are in office because conservatives are afraid of sex and foreigners and zombies are popular when Republicans are in power because liberals fear mindlessness and conformity.
This premise is easily disrupted by a few simple points. A) Conservatives fear the mindlessness and conformity of political correctness as much as liberals fear consumerism and neo-fascist conformity. B) Vampire movies are generally conservative, since the sexually liberated undead almost always wind up defeated and sent back to hell and vampirism most closely resembles a sexually transmitted disease. C) Box office success for horror movies tend to be the result of clever advertising, quality product, built-in audiences (Twilight), or fortunate timing. Any “trend” in the genre is driven almost exclusively by the exploitative, imitative nature of the business.
This is not to say that horror movies exist in a vacuum. But most of the failed attempts to politicize horror movies are due to confusion between The Social versus The Political.
Politics is about the distribution of power in a society. By that definition, there are very few political horror movies. The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), and Day of the Dead (1985) maybe, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), absolutely.
What most critics label as political is actually social. The decaying family, the dissolution of civil society, the relationship of the sexes, the weakening of parental authority, and the predatory nature of sex are all social issues – problems with how people relate to each other within a society. Night of the Living Dead (1968) reflects the violent, racially charged era of the Vietnam Era, when society seemed to be coming apart at the seams. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) extended that devolution to the nuclear family. The Exorcist (1975) betrays parents’ fear and ambivalence about their own children. Cloverfield (2008) is a meditation on post-9/11 anxieties. Etc.
Here, horror is a powerful medium, since great horror is built on psychological tension. The vast majority of horror movies, however, are intimate and personal in their scale. They focus on a small group of individuals under assault. This is the classic form of the slasher movie, and even epic, apocalyptic zombie movies revolve around a small group of survivors. Threats to the social fabric isolate and alienate individuals and make them more vulnerable, thus making them perfect horror movie foils.
Horror movies have been continuously successful since at least 1957, often independent of their times, many are timeless classics. This is what bothers me about these “trend” articles, they overlook the enduring popularity of the genre. This is due entirely to the snobbery of America’s cultural elites, most of whom refuse to take horror seriously as art. The longstanding relegation of horror to a cultural ghetto, now that’s political.
Here’s a pretty good list of “9 Vampire Movies that Ruined the Genre.” Can’t disagree with most of the choices, except Near Dark (1987), which I think is a minor classic. Lance Henrikson as a vampire cult leader? That’s a slam-dunk.
Here’s my take on Twilight, BTW.
And my favorite Vampire Movie.
I found a link to Mena’s show at the B. Hollyman Gallery in Austin, TX and was seduced by his images. Mena interposes objects into scenes taken from 1950s science fiction movies to create dreamlike images of strange apparitions or alien vistas impinging on reality.
Mena is indeed a dark artist, treading on ground familiar to fans of Jack Arnold. (From his website) “I’m fascinated by humanity’s proclivity to fear, and explore the disorienting space between reason and reality. I reconstruct the equation, remove crucial elements, introduce unexpected variables, and disrupt the usual formula. And I question the limits of our social and collective experience, and challenge the assumptions of our given world.”
The show, “While I Sleep” runs through September 24. Mena’s website may be found here: http://www.albertomena.com/
I’m not sure why I overlooked this from the start, since I have been a fan since I was a kid, but I’ve decided to focus some attention in the blog on Horror Comics. Naturally, I will focus more on the art and artists than anything else.
Where better to start than with ground zero for horror comics: EC Comics? And when most people think of EC horror comics, chances are you recall one of Johnny Craig’s unforgettable covers. Dear God, here was a man who knew how to sell a comic book. EC Comics came under fire in the 1950s for the violence, sex, and horror they peddled to impressionable young minds. All you have to do is look at some of the covers Johnny Craig did for Shock Suspensestories or Crime Suspensestories and you might think, “maybe the critics had a point.” There was no shortage of lurid comic book covers in the era, but Johnny Craig, a meticulous draftsman, elevated lurid to an art form.
But for me, what I loved most about Johnny Craig, were his women. Oh sure, Wally Wood and Frank Frazetta delivered more voluptuous maidens, but only Johnny Craig could perfectly render that particular type of seductively poisonous noir temptress. Not even Hollywood in the golden age of Film Noir could top Johnny Craig’s vicious vixens.
In my last post, I spotlighted Harry Clarke’s 1919 etchings for an edition of Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination. From 1905 to 1909, the Italian artist Alberto Martini created a series of 132 ink drawings inspired by Poe’s stories. Whereas Clarke’s illustrations were rendered very much in the style of the day, Martini’s nightmarish creations exist in a world apart, and are pure expressions of an artist’s dark imagination.
Like so many artists before and since, Martini seems to have been deeply inspired by the writings of Poe. The best work of his career followed his work with Poe, although you could make the argument that these drawings are his best work.
Martini is considered a forerunner to the surrealists, and you can see why in some of his Poe work. A few images are nearly abstract, but still manage to evoke strong, dark emotions. In this sense, Martini is fishing in the same waters as his contemporaries, the Expressionists.