Tired of dipping into the same limited canon of scary movies every October? Feeling the need to confront some more obscure shadows this Halloween, take a leap into the unknown? The Missing Slate’s film team are here with a selection of alternative horror favourites for our bolder readers to explore…. if you dare. Bwahahahahaha. Ha.
From Beyond (1986)
Dir. Stuart Gordon
Like many people, I assume, my introduction to Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator was through another film. There’s a scene in American Beauty in which Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham uses a discussion about Re-Animator as a cover to buy pot from his neighbour. The description, as a film in which a body carries its still speaking severed head around before said severed head performs oral sex on a woman, is enough to spark the curiosity of any young cinephile of a certain disposition. Re-Animator is a fine film, one of my personal favourites and recently named the 11th Best Independent American Horror Film by the fine folks at The Dissolve in addition to being one of their movies of the week. However, lurking libidinally in the shadow of Re-Animator is the less heralded From Beyond.
Released the year after Re-Animator, From Beyond reunites director Stuart Gordon and producer Brian Yuzna with Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton for another adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft story. Combs’s Crawford Tillinghast is a young scientist studying under Ted Sorel’s Edward Pretorious, who is looking to transcend the natural boundaries of human experience. Their experiment with a machine, the resonator, is meant to stimulate the pineal gland, theorised as a dormant sensory organ. Naturally, this experiment goes fatally wrong. Tillinghast is left shaken and clinically diagnosed as schizophrenic before Crampton’s Dr. Katherine McMichaels orders a CAT Scan that shows his pineal gland to be enlarged. The logical next step is, of course, to re-mount the experiment.
From Beyond tugs further at the thread began in Re-Animator, exploring how knowledge or transcendence of human physical limitations results in a re-emphasis of the physical, its needs and desires. The film’s practical effects are, as such, appropriately sensual: wet other-dimensional worm bodies writhe and humanoid creatures phallically elongate their fingers toward female bodies. Combs and Crampton give performances that suit the film’s morbidly ecstatic tenor, with Combs’ line readings in particular resonating with the same manic sincerity that enlivened his Dr. Herbert West in Re-Animator. The film’s forays into over-indulgence, and some light BDSM play, may not be palatable to some, but are perfectly in keeping with a film whose raison d’être is to “see more.” – Ben Hynes
Dir. Alfred Hitchcock
What would Halloween be without the master of suspense? I bet I know which film you’d most likely watch too. Who can resist the irrepressible screech of strings as the shower curtain is pulled back and cinema’s most famous murder unleashes its haunting power once again? But if you want to go in a different direction and sample a lesser known work from good old Hitch’, then you can’t go too far wrong with Frenzy. Made towards the end of Alfred Hitchcock’s career, this picture offers fascinating insight into the depths of terror the great director might have been able to explore even further had he not been so restricted for much of his career by the stringent censorship of the day.
Even for Hitchcock Frenzy is a dark film. Though the themes are much the same as they always were in his work — murder, lust, the struggle of the wrong man to clear his name and a uniquely morbid sense of humour — it is the uncompromising and repressively claustrophobic tension that gives this particular movie a special place in the canon. Unease and discomfort permeates the film with each horrific act of deplorable violence. Watching Psycho yet again is fun in spite of the film’s classic terror, but Frenzy never gets any more comfortable to watch. The sheer helplessness as an audience recognises the danger that is about to befall our heroes and being powerless to help, the injustice, and the revulsion are hallmarks of the experience of watching this film. You want to be scared by the master of suspense? Truly horrified? This is the film for you. – Michael Dodd
Dir. George Romero
Following the death of his immediate family, Martin (John Amplas) has reluctantly been invited to live with his great uncle Cuda (Lincoln Maazel) and cousin Christine (Christine Forrest) in the decomposing suburbs of Pennsylvania. The titular introvert is beset by monochrome visions evoking vintage vampire pictures, during which he is overcome with a devouring thirst for the blood of young and beautiful women. These hallucinations are experienced by the viewer first-hand en route, as he functionally tranquillises a passenger in her cabin and feeds, her screams of “freak rapist asshole” drowned in a Tall Target railway cacophony of chugs, thrums and squeals.
From anti-westerns to revisionist noir the ’70s were a hotbed for genre re-evaluations, and this bravura opening announces George Romero’s Martin (1976) as a demystification of the horror lore its creator once helped to popularise, the camera documenting the details of Martin’s process with utilitarian detachment. Martin believes himself a vampire but remains bemused by the legends surrounding his condition, insisting “there’s no magic, it’s just a sickness“. A radio show patronises and exploits his “gimmick”, the superstitious uncle ludicrously employs an arsenal of traditional wards before resorting to an exorcism; the line “he saw that film ‘The Exorcist’, said they did it all wrong” doubles as Romero’s mission statement. Ironically it’s only women — themselves oppressed by boorish, leery men or outcasted for reasons beyond their control — who embrace this quiet boy as a refreshing change, a kindred spirit.
Romero’s infamous sense of humour remains intact (“Sometime I’ll hopefully get to do it. Awake. Without the blood part.”), but his satire is more barbed and more comprehensive than ever. Juxtaposing the present against Martin’s archaic delusions, the director cannily analogises modern attitudes with those of the Middle Ages, taking aim at the cynical and sensationalist media, patriarchy and religion alike on the way to a tragic denouement. Even the viewer is not spared, our fascination with supernatural fantasies exposed as a refusal to confront real-world issues unmasked, and perhaps even a symptom of the same affliction that’s fully-fledged within Martin.
The brilliance of Martin is that its “vampire” is a disturbingly realistic extension of a culture’s malaise, yet simultaneously among its most tragic, misunderstood victims. What lingers most of all is the film’s suffocating loneliness; Donald Rubinstein’s score tries to wander from its melancholic centre but always returns, as Martin can escape neither his bestial urges nor his doomed fate, both seemingly pre-destined by a conservative society that stigmatises those on its margins, and creates its own monsters. – Tom Nixon
Angel Dust (1994)
Dir. Sogo Ishii
A latchkey kid with two secondhand VCRs and an RF cable, I spent most of my preteens running a one-man video piracy operation. I became an omnivorous videohound, scoffing at FBI anti-piracy warnings and shaking my tiny fists at Macrovision. With virtually no oversight from my parents (who either didn’t know or care), I regularly scoured the shelves of my local Mom & Pop video rental place for all manner of video oddities — usually horror films — and soon amassed a formidable stockpile of bootlegged movies that I would either watch obsessively or trade with friends. By 1991, however, one particular tape took up permanent residence within my VCR: Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs. I quickly became infatuated with this film, glomming onto this baroque, neo-Gothic psycho-thriller as only an impressionable preteen truly can. My VHS dupe eventually crinkled and snapped from overuse. Even after as the obsession subsided, I still wound up gorging myself on the film’s blighted progeny — Malice (1993), When the Bough Breaks (1994), Copycat (1995) — until a sudden onset of extreme ripoff fatigue set in. By the time Dee Snider started using AOL chatrooms to lure hapless teenagers to his murder house, I pursued other interests.
Directed by art-punk provocateur Sogo Ishii, Angel Dust is an oneiric, metaphysical twist on the serial killer film that successfully breaks away from the post-Hannibal herd and infuses new (pestilent, fetid) life into a creatively moribund subgenre. It begins with a woozy nocturnal descent through a crowded Tokyo subway car, a claustrophobic ride rendered cold and impressionistic in a haze of neon-green, that ends abruptly when a young girl drops dead at the Shibuya station. News quickly spreads of a serial killer targeting female passengers on the Yamanote Line and surreptitiously striking them down at precisely 6pm with a small hypodermic needle. Enter Setsuko Suma (Kaho Minami), a police analyst called in to investigate the murders, who quickly discovers possible links to a cult de-programming clinic operated by the enigmatic Dr. Rei Aku (Takeshi Wakamatsu) — a man with whom she shares a history.
Ishii structures his suspense-thriller as a narrative jigsaw with missing pieces, deliberately withholding the methods and motives of his characters and hinting at their shared history through cryptic asides. Instead, Ishii’s approach emphasises psychic interiors and dream spaces over exacting narrative mechanics, the sedate and narcotised atmosphere (freighted with dread) over onscreen bloodletting. Angel Dust unfolds more with the associative logic of a waking nightmare, burrowing deep into strange and inscrutable territories that other films of its ilk dare not tread. Every element seems modulated for maximum discomfort and disorientation: the languorous rhythms and hypnotic visuals; the dreamy excursions through a rain-slicked Tokyo teeming with faceless strangers and awash in eye-piercing fluorescents; the incessant churn and gurgle of its sound design, which could easily cause spontaneous stomach aches. Kaho Minami’s removed, glacial performance gives the film its firm, mesmeric center — curdled icing on the poisoned, syringe-stuffed cake. – Chuck Williamson