10/22/2018 – 1990s: eXistenZ (1999)
Directed by David Cronenberg
If the 1980s were marked by horror being at a peak while the rest of the film industry sunk around it, the 1990s saw the reverse trend. There were numerous factors at play including a sense of fatigue from the franchises and types of films popularized in the last decade (similar to what would happen in the 1940s) as well as the transition from the expensive, time consuming practical effects to the poorly aging, but easier CGI. In fact, the best two horror movies of the era are a pair of films whose status as horror are the stuff of debate.
1991’s The Silence of the Lambs wouldn’t introduce Hannibal Lecter to the big screen (Michael Mann’s Manhunter had done so five years earlier), but it would make him an icon and win horror a Best Picture (as well as the rest of the Big Five Oscar awards). With that critical acclaim however comes the argument whenever something is “too good to be horror”. Jonathan Demme’s film contains far too many elements of the genre between Buffalo Bill’s skinning of women and suit of human skin, the flayed bodies, the severed head, and of course the cannibalism to be denied as anything but. The argument for David Fincher’s Se7en (I love it but it’s still an awful title) is more debatable. It’s decidedly neo-noir, but there’s enough gruesome moments and the focus on the end result of John Doe’s crimes (instead of merely the pursuit) as well as the very human horror of the man himself incline me to at least consider it as a film on the borderline. That both films are among my favorite films of any genre ever and that it’s such a thin decade in horror doesn’t hurt my generosity either. The third classic is The Sixth Sense and while it while it will be always defined by one aspect of the film, its scares were only a bonus to the overarching tones of sadness and people struggling to connect that appealed to me the most.
The distinct trend continuing into the ’90s was a comedic tone. The ’80s weren’t hurting for a camp appeal, but the ’90s typically took a more ironic detachment to that approach. Ron Underwood’s Tremors on the other hand was just a fun, innocent creature feature with a great cast that balanced the comedy and horror aspects. Peter Jackson’s Braindead (Dead Alive in the US) went for a mix of slapstick comedy and a wonderfully overwhelming amount of splatter. Army of Darkness moved Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead series even further away from horror to an action-comedy-fantasy with horror elements, but it’s too good of a film and Bruce Campbell’s incredibly quotable performance are too good to pass up. Ravenous by Antonia Bird is about the straightest horror classic from the decade and yet even it has significant black comedic elements in its western story about cannibalism.
Before we get into the next level of films, it is probably appropriate to discuss what happened to the slasher film. After being such a huge part of the ’80s, especially the early part of the decade, the subgenre was in a constant state of decline. It’s a decline that would accelerate once the ’90s hit. I’ve discussed what happened to the OGs in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween in the early part of the decade. Like the fourth TCM film, Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare featured the series in a state of self-parody although one that was more successful (managing to reach the heights of “fine”), while Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday fails (aside from a fantastic opening scene) like the third TCM film in trying to recapture some of the horror elements of the series after a previous goofy installment.
Child’s Play failed to recapture the lightning in the bottle of its first film in its next two installments as the series struggled to figure out where to go next with the character. 1992’s Candyman by Bernard Rose would be the standout exception, making a slasher icon (hook hand and all) out of Tony Todd and tying it perfectly to the Bloody Mary (and its variants) urban legend. There would be countless other terrible series including the excretable Leprechaun series and others that would flood the DTV market, but it would take a familiar name to bring the subgenre back to prominence.
After years away from the franchise, Wes Craven returned for New Nightmare, a meta-slasher film featuring the actual stars of the Nightmare on Elm Street films as themselves being terrorized by Freddy Krueger. It brought a more serious tone to the franchise than had been seen in some time and was the most creatively successful since Dream Warriors. More importantly, it would serve as a sort of test run for a huge horror hit from Craven, Scream. Written by Kevin Williamson and starring Neve Campbell, Scream added even more self-reflexivity to the slasher genre and its humorous, winking tone would become the new standard for slashers.
Williamson especially would be at the center of this serving as the writer on the near equal sequel Scream 2 the following year, starting a new (much lesser) franchise in I Know What You Did Last Summer and I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, contributing the story on Halloween Water, and writing the solid non-slasher The Faculty (and the non-horror Teaching Mrs. Tingle). Other copycats would follow including the lackluster Urban Legend, Bride of Chucky which finally realized that maybe the talking killer doll could be played for some laughs and doing so fairly successfully, and the dumb yet more enjoyable than it should be Idle Hands.
Speaking of moving more towards comedy, Gremlins 2: The New Batch was even more bonkers than the original and better too, anticipating the meta-commentary of the Scream era films with plenty of its own. Adrian Lyne’s influential, mind-bending psychological horror title Jacob’s Ladder is a great experience while Clive Barker’s Nightbreed is just weird enough to work (once it had been saved by history and a director’s cut). Misery is yet another borderline horror and thriller film, an adaptation of a Stephen King novel by William Goldman and director Rob Reiner featuring a wonderful performance by Kathy Bates and trapped in a claustrophobic setting. It was not a great decade for horror adaptation King works (the best ones coming in other genres), but the miniseries version of It holds up thanks to its first half and Tim Curry’s far superior performance as Pennywise.
Wes Craven’s best film is in fact not a slasher at all, but another ’90s film, the very underrated The People Under the Stairs, about robbers who discover the titular people locked up in a house. Craven would also direct the inexplicably turning into a cult item Vampire in Brooklyn starring Eddie Murphy and produced the very entertaining if a stretch to call good Wishmaster. Generally, though, do not trust anything that says, “Wes Craven Presents”. Francis Ford Coppola would make his return to horror after nearly thirty years with Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It may get it’s (deserved) crap for Keanu Reeves’s terrible English accent, the awful design of one of the forms of Dracula, and a number of other questionable decisions, but it’s also an immaculately staged and designed film that still turned out very good.
John Carpenter was such a huge part of the late ’70s and ’80s, but his output in the ’90s went quickly down south. With one exception that is, the underrated, Lovecraft-inspired In the Mouth of Madness which wrapped up his Apocalypse Trilogy (with The Thing and Prince of Darkness). From Dusk Till Dawn feels like a spoiler just to include here but at this point I feel like everyone knows the twist in the Robert Rodriguez directed film. The low budget Canadian Cube shows it but the setting, traps, and the confined space forced interactions make it a great one. Jack Frost on the other hand is not great and I doubt it would even hold up to watching as an adult, but it sure was a deeply silly watch that was worth it when you know what you are getting yourself into.
Blade may not have been the first superhero horror movie (we had Swamp Thing and The Toxic Avenger just last decade), but it was the first great superhero movie of the second wave (which lasted until 2008) and Wesley Snipes’s Blade was a badass action hero. Stir of Echoes usually gets lost in the big shuffle of 1999, but it’s still a really good supernatural horror film starring Kevin Bacon. I’ll also mention here the Oscar-nominated short The Sandman that is absolutely worth checking out.
They aren’t the only English language films worth talking about. Troll 2 remains one of the most famous “So Bad It’s Good” titles especially in horror (even getting the doc Best Worst Movie dedicated to it) and it is a good pick for that honor. Frankenhooker deserves recognition alone for its title, but it’s also better than its title would suggest. Ghostwatch would achieve notoriety for airing on the BBC as a mockumentary that presented itself as real and leading many (including one eighteen-year-old mentally challenged man who committed suicide) to believe it was such. Removed from that, it’s still a solid bit of entertainment, but nothing special. I didn’t talk about Aliens last time because IMDB didn’t pick it up as horror which is a shame because even though the film did move away from the genre towards action, those elements were still presentm and it was a fantastic film. Alien³ moved the series back to survival horror but to mixed success while Alien: Resurrection just made a whoopsie in its trousers despite both being helmed by some of my favorite directors in David Fincher and Jean-Pierre Jeunet.
Interview with the Vampire was nothing if not successful in its adaptation of the Anne Rice novel while Tales from the Hood has its moments, most notably from Clarence Williams III in the framing segments. Event Horizon did the Lovecraft thing in space and while not the finest quality movie, it’s good “my brain is tired, and I don’t want to think” movie. Gus Van Sant’s near shot for shot and in color Psycho experiment was a complete failure, but besides highlighting just what worked in Hitchcock’s film and how even the smallest changes can have a huge impact, it also definitely showed that this should never be done again. The Blair Witch Project was not the first found footage film or even the movie that would launch a boom of found footage titles, but it was the one that codified it in the eyes of the general public. It was also one of the biggest independent successes of all time, serving to be almost as influential in the long run with its marketing even if the film is dull as dishwater.
Looking abroad, Japan would start their ascent back into the limelight this decade. Their three Gamera films would see some of the best kaiju action on film. Godzilla would not have as well received of a decade before ultimately sputtering out with the American ‘Zilla and Japanese Godzilla 2000. Far more positively received, however, (and all in the back half of the decade) would be Kei Fujiwara Organ, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure, Hideo Nakata’s massively influential and very good Ringu, the horror shorts Katasumi and 4444444444 (which would be the first entries in the Ju-On/The Grudge series) from Takashi Shimizu, and the both celebrated and disappointing Audition from Takashi Miike. Over in South Korea, Kim Jee-woon would get his start with the horror comedy The Quiet Family which would be coincidentally remade by Miike only a few years later.
Elsewhere there is the Belgian darkly comic mockumentary Man Bites Dog (which I don’t care for at all, but it has a very devoted following), Guillermo del Toro’s solid vampire title which served as his debut in Cronos, the Italian Cemetery Man which we just covered and the original version of the controversial Funny Games from Michael Haneke.
Before we start, let’s address the elephant in the room. The title eXistenZ is really terrible and sounds like something that would fill up spam emails promising “Natural Male Enhancement”. That’s not even getting into the capitalization that besides making the film harder that it should be to remember how to spell, makes it look ridiculous. The film at least encounters this issue head on in its opening line (courtesy a character played by Christopher Eccleston, the Ninth Doctor), but it’s still incredibly off-putting and if it wasn’t for Cronenberg’s name, I’m not sure I’d even be checking it out now. In addition, there isn’t actually a good justification for it in movie, leaving it as just a dumb stylistic choice.
eXistenZ is a video game from Antenna Research and the film opens with a seminar featuring a test launch of the game with twelve volunteers. Jennifer Jason Leigh is Allegra Geller, the designer of the game and the world’s premiere game designer. It’s not any old game though as it completely immerses you in a world and features a game pod which undulates their lap as they play with an almost umbilical cord like cord sticking out of it. While they are playing, a person in the audience stands up and yells “death to the demoness Allegra Geller, death to Antenna Research”, shooting Geller and The Doctor SPOILERS1 with a human tooth from a weird ass gun made of flesh and bone.
Geller and marketing trainee Ted Pikul (Jude Law) are forced to go on the run and ultimately dive into the world of eXistenZ. The game is played by sticking that umbilical cord into a bioport drilled into your spine and as unpleasant as that sounds, the film goes for a different metaphor. eXistenZ in many ways feels like a spiritual successor to Videodrome both on a thematic level as it described as being penetrated and creating a sense of vulnerability in Pikul (which I appreciate the gender swapping they did on the characters and their roles), and on a visual level as one character has their bioport fingered and another later on lubed up inserted with a small objected and licked.
The virtual world looks just like the real world albeit the characters within aren’t the most natural in a pretty accurate depiction of what a video game version of this would be like, railroading you at certain points to say certain lines to advance the plot. Their characters start to blur the lines between there real selves as they comment on what is real and what is part of the game’s plot with “just enough free will in this world to make it interesting”. The creature effects in this, including a cool mutated salamander-lizard thing with two heads that looks like a tiny dragon and the pods which are almost living beings are quite good and unexpected.
At the time this film was compared to The Matrix and Open Your Eyes (which was remade as Vanilla Sky) and while I haven’t seen the latter in either form, the comparisons with the formers are slight at best. Far better ones can be drawn with the later Inception with the film even featuring characters heading into deeper game states and threatening to get lost there. SPOILERS2
JJL is absolutely delightful and is Willem Dafoe as an ex-mechanic is a very fun presence, but the rest of the cast feels so awkward and unnatural even accounting for the video game aspect. It’s also a film that has a lot of great ideas, but doesn’t make the most of them, focusing on a mystery and corporate plottings that aren’t especially interesting. In spite of that, it’s still Cronenberg body horror with some fun practical effects and that alone is enough for me.
Bonus Episode #31 – A – 1980s: Carry On Screaming! (1966)
Directed by Gerald Thomas
We’ve taken a look at two long running comedy series in the Ritz Brothers with The Gorilla and Wheeler and Woolsey with Mummy’s Boys, but this time, we are going to head to Britain for a look at their longest running series. The Carry On films ran for 31 films (all directed by Gerald Thomas) as well as four Christmas specials, a TV show, and threes stage shows. This is my first Carry On film though I am familiar with the series by reputation and it’s not a great one. The films started out focusing on parodying various professions (Carry on Sergeant, Carry on Nurse, etc.) before moving onto what it would be primarily known for, parodies of specific films and styles such as Carry On Spying, Carry On Cleo, and Carry On Cowboy.
Carry On Screaming! would be the twelfth title and more specifically than just horror, it would parody then then popular Hammer films. A man and a woman are out in the woods when the woman hears a noise, sees the bushes rustling, and feels a chill up her spine. He goes to investigate and while he is gone she gets taken by some giant hairy man (and Frankenstein’s monster stand-in) who leaves behind an ape like claw. It’s a very spot-on set up, differentiated by the dialogue which is filled with double entendres, snark, and lots of quips. A police sergeant who dresses like Sherlock Holmes and whose loveless marriage is played for much amusement, leads the case.
Along with his partner and the boyfriend, they discover a spooky manor in fog, home to a tall monotone butler who despite saying the master of the house has been dead 15 years, says that he will ask if he can see them. The master of the house is brought to life by electricity through a regenerative process that makes the body brittle and who disappears without it by a woman with a vampiric look straight out of the Karnstein Trilogy.
At first, I found the humor surprisingly enjoyable. It was all very goofy and uneven, but I enjoyed the stupidity. But even at a reasonable film length, the film’s humor starts grow tiring after a while especially with an extended scene in drag. Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll, and Dracula are all canon in this universe and it pulls in elements from others including the House of Wax films. The elements however are much more surface level than something like Young Frankenstein or even the Abbott and Costello films. The sets may be there to an extent (though they are hardly the most interesting versions of them) and the basic plot points might be there, but they lack the feel of them, perhaps to the lack of the distinctive Hammer visual style. The increased slapstick elements in the back end (see, I can do this too Carry On writers and then just draw attention to the fact that I made a double entendre to ruin any sense of wit to make sure that no one missed my decent bit of wordplay) only make matters worse.
Jon Pertwee (the Third Doctor) makes an appearance which is always a positive, but I’d hardly call it a significant role. It’s a marked improvement over the other two plug and play comedy series entries this year, but it’s also one which does wear out its welcome by the end after a solid start. Your tolerance for it is going to depend largely on your tolerance for broad ’60s British humor which means that I can see it alienating certain people even quicker than it did myself, while those more accustomed will probably find it perfectly reasonable.
Bonus Episode #32 – A – 1950s: Pharaoh’s Curse (1957)
Directed by Lee Sholem
For our third and final film we have a mummy film that aspires to be something a bit more. A group of British soldiers have rightly being attacked by Egyptians and barely escaped with their life. In spite of this upset over their occupation, another archaeological dig has been scheduled but this time without Egyptian approval. For some reason I don’t think the film is supposed to be portraying the Britains as the villains, and yet, all I could think was I can’t wait until all these people die of this curse that the title of the film was promising.
On their way to the tomb, a woman appears out of the desert looking for her brother, offering to lead the party along a shortcut. She refuses food and water and appears to have traveled the desert without any. Understandably, the party doesn’t trust the random woman, but the stubbornness gets a bit silly as more and more of their goods vanish without a trace and they are left facing death. Meanwhile, the tomb of the high priest has a curse written on it and despite the objections of one of the party, they open up the sarcophagus. The mummy disappears and SPOILERS3
For a film whose plot should be fairly straightforward, it overcomplicates things with way too many characters. That the movie just calls everything a tomb, be it a sarcophagus or what not certainly doesn’t help make things simpler. The curse takes the form of a mummy/vampire and while it is a nice twist SPOILERS4. The mummy looks very good even if SPOILERS5 The film is barely over an hour which is probably perfect since it struggled to make it there, but it’s not as bad a film as its reputation would suggest, perhaps even rising to alright if it had any sense of style.
Next up: Sophia Takal’s Always Shine