Mob Scene: Nosferatu

The “angry villagers” scene is closely associated with the Universal horror cycle; indeed, the very concept traces back to the Frankenstein films. But a cinematic effort that predates Universal’s Dracula by nearly a decade also forms one of the earliest instances of a monster-movie mob scene.

I refer to the 1922 German Expressionist classic Nosferatu (an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel). In the film’s closing minutes, the natives of the town of Wisborg are restless with dread, as a sudden outbreak of strange death plagues the area. Seeking a scapegoat, the townspeople mark the estate-agent-turned-lunatic Knock (a knock-off of Stoker’s Renfield and Hawkins characters) as a vampire. Such an identification is not hard to imagine, considering that the shock-haired, rotten-toothed Knock forms a just-as-grotesque double of the frightful Count Orlok.

Knock, who has recently escaped from madhouse confinement, is chased through the streets by a fast-amassing, co-ed contingent of Wisborgians. While the people don’t wield torches and pitchforks, they do toss stones at the gleefully grinning fugitive as he straddles a rooftop. For all his obvious insanity, though, Knock does demonstrate a degree of craftiness. He throws his pursuers off course by hanging his coat on a scarecrow in a field. Belatedly recognizing the ruse, the townspeople pummel the effigy in frustration (one wonders if Knock–whose eventual apprehension occurs offscreen–suffers a similar thrashing when the irate locals finally catch up to him).

This somewhat-whimsical (as emphasized by the accompanying orchestra music) mob scene is a curious one, especially considering its placement towards the end of the film. Perhaps it is designed by director F.W. Murnau to accentuate the horror of Nosferatu‘s climax. Because while the populace is out giving madcap chase of Knock, the heroine Ellen is alone indoors and vulnerable to home-invasion by Count Orlok, who has targeted her for some serious harm.

 

Dracula Extrapolated: Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula is, in and of itself, a landmark of Gothic horror. It is also the most influential work of horror ever written, having inspired countless tales of vampire-themed fiction, not to mention an ever-growing number of film and television adaptations. Today, in honor of the 124th anniversary of the original publication date of Stoker’s novel, I am debuting a new feature here on my Dispatches from the Macabre Republic blog. Dracula Extrapolated will explore various instances of the novel Dracula‘s undying afterlife, considering specific examples in literature and visual media of the rewriting (e.g. sequels, prequels, alternate histories, shifted narrative perspectives, supporting character foregroundings) and development (elaborations/variations on the vampiric-invasion “plot”) of Stoker’s source text. I begin with Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film adaptation, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

What If the character Dracula was equated with the historical figure Vlad Tepes and then transformed into a tragic lover?

The opening scene of Coppola’s film intriguingly flashes back four centuries and furnishes an origin story for Count Dracula’s vampirism. While the Christian knight Vlad Dracula is off fighting a war against the Turks, a devious missive is sent to his beloved wife Elisabeta claiming that he has been slain in battle. Distraught over the (false) report, Elisabeta throws herself from the walls of Castle Dracula. Dracula returns home to grieve over her corpse, only to be told by the priests in attendance that as a suicide, Elisabeta is damned in the eyes of the Church and cannot be given a Christian burial. Enraged, Dracula desecrates the chapel, renounces God, and vows to return from his own death “to avenge [his wife’s] with all the powers of darkness.” His rash deeds and words earn him God’s curse, an eternally bloodthirsty existence as the undead.

Let’s leave aside the fact that Coppola’s film perpetuates a great fallacy–that Stoker based his fictional character on a real-life antecedent (scholar Elizabeth Miller devotes a whole chapter of her book Dracula: Sense and Nonsense to debunking such myth, convincingly arguing that Stoker only found a name for Dracula in the historical Vlad and knew nothing about the Impaler’s grim proclivities and fearful reputation). Similarly, we can forgive the film’s derivative deployment of the reincarnated-love-interest (Elisabeta ends up reembodied as Mina) plot device whose history traces back to other Universal Monster films (cf. 1932’s The Mummy) and extends through vampire narratives of the 20th Century (the 60’s soap opera Dark Shadows; the 1973 Dan-Curtis-produced TV film Dracula). The question to consider here is: what are the ramifications of the Coppola film’s narrative maneuver?

On the positive side, the film’s prologue not only provides a rationale for Vlad the Impaler’s evil reputation as a scourging warlord, but also motivates the actions of the Dracula character. One of the weaknesses of Stoker’s novel is its resort to credulity-challenging coincidence: how convenient indeed that when traveling from Transylvania (where Jonathan Harker has been left imprisoned), Dracula lands in a spot in England that lets him to sink his teeth into Harker’s friend Lucy and his fiancée Mina (a choice of prey that later allows the book’s write-minded protagonists to compare notes and compose a plan for defeating the vampire). Here in the film there’s at least an understandable explanation for Dracula’s specific path of predation. Lucy serves as little more than a replenishing meal, but Mina’s pursuit by Dracula is a deliberate attempt to reunite with the woman he’s identified as his lost love.

But if the film clarifies Dracula’s motivations, it simultaneously muddles the character’s iconic monstrosity. In its determination to turn Gothic horror into Gothic romance, Coppola’s Dracula (calling it Bram Stoker’s Dracula surely creates one of the most misleading titles of all time) subverts its terrifying first act: the scenes set at Castle Dracula, where Gary Oldman cuts a supremely sinister figure as the Count. After his emigration to, and rejuvenation within, England, Dracula becomes a confusing person for the audience: should viewers actually root for the vampire to get the girl (who was already his bride in a past life)? Should we fear Dracula for his bloodlust, or pity him for being love-starved for so long? Dracula hardly strikes as imposing after Mina breaks off their affair (for the moment, at least) to wed Jonathan: Dracula’s bout of wild, dare I say womanly, weeping (an ugly display of emotion that turns the Count’s countenance grotesquely misshapen) makes me want to channel Tom Hanks and proclaim “There’s no crying in vampiring!”

The love story that film forces also radically alters Mina’s character. In Stoker’s novel, Mina is depicted as the epitome of feminine virtue (versus the more wayward Lucy) and arguably the driving impetus for the Crew of Light’s defeat of Dracula. Here in the film, though, she proves a cold-hearted adulteress (professing her love for Dracula even as he confesses to a fatal feeding on Lucy). Worse, Winona Ryder’s Mina emerges (as she grows more in touch with her Elisabetan nature) as a nearly-treacherous accomplice of the Count, someone whose gun points at her husband Jonathan and the other heroes during the climactic showdown with Dracula. This radical departure from the novel highlights the inexplicable leap the film has taken with its reincarnation plot. Why exactly has Elisabeta resurfaced (several centuries after her suicidal plunge) as a modern English woman? Simply so Coppola could romanticize Stoker’s narrative, it seems.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula features some absolutely stunning visuals: lavish costumes (Lucy’s wedding/burial dress; Dracula’s armor), grand scenery (orange-burnt skies; the mountain-topping castle) and frightful supernatural incident (Dracula’s morphing into a horde of rats). The sublimely Gothic look of the film is fortuitous, because it helps distract viewers from the ridiculousness (don’t get me started on the sappy ending, in which a teary Mina mercifully releases Dracula from his vampiric curse) that results from the attempt to transform Stoker’s revolting and unremittingly evil archvillain into a sympathetic figure.

 

Vintage Creepshow

Stephen King’s and George Romero’s Creepshow was a determinedly referential endeavor–a concerted effort to recreate the horror sensibility of E.C.-style comics. It should come as no surprise, then, that the Shudder spin-off series, which faithfully adheres to the aesthetic of the original movie, also nods knowingly at horror history. Nowhere is this more evident than in Creepshow‘s second-season premiere.

“Monster Kid,” the episode’s opening segment, is a love letter to utter monstrophilia. Joe Aurora is a Dracula-dressing, Bela-Lugosi-quoting, model-kit-obsessed horror hound. His bedroom is a treasure trove of monster memorabilia. The segment (which begins with a black-and-white scene fantasized by Joe) invokes the Universal monsters in the form of the Gill-Man, the Mummy, and Frankenstein’s Monster (at one point, Joe also watches Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein). There’s a clip of a horror host addressing “boils and ghouls”–a pun that surely resonates with fans of Tales from the Crypt. With its voodoo-doll plot element, “Monster Kid” even recalls the frame story of the Creepshow film. Despite striking a sweet note in its invocation of Monster Culture, the segment does not shy away from the typical dramatization of grim comeuppance, as Kevin Dillon’s obnoxious character ultimately gets transformed into Johnny Trauma.

Substituting the satiric for the nostalgic, the second segment (“Public Television of the Damned”) is a gonzo homage to the Evil Dead franchise coupled with a send-up of public television programming. All hell threatens to break loose when Ted Raimi shows up on “The Appraiser’s Road Trip” with a copy of the Necronomicon; a PBS-esque pledge drive turns into a demonic demand for a pledge of human souls to the book. Gleefully over-the-top (a Bob Ross knockoff forms a badass hero here), the adult-humored segment features scenes of wild violence that would make Sam Raimi proud. The marvelously macabre makeup (courtesy of Creepshow producer Greg Nicotero’s KNB EFX Group) also expertly evokes the Evil Dead.

With its commitment to vintage horror, the season 2 premiere forms a modern classic. If the same level of reverent retrospection is maintained throughout, viewers have a lot to look forward to this season.

 

The Harder They Brawl (Godzilla vs. Kong Review)


Godzilla vs. Kong
(in theaters, and also currently streaming on HBO Max) is the quintessential popcorn movie, one that almost demands mindless consumption. “It makes sense if you think about it,” the conspiracy-theorizing podcaster Bernie says at one point, straightly delivering the film’s most laughably untrue line.

This is a movie that spotlights wonky science–Hollow Earth theory in particular (I’m still trying to figure out why there would be “sunlight” shining in the center of our planet). It’s a movie that keeps Godzilla remarkably abreast of global affairs (somehow he’s aware of exactly what’s going on in secret, hi-tech facilities). And it’s a movie where the powers that be seem to think it is a good idea to include a cute little deaf-mute girl on a series of ultra-dangerous missions.

Admittedly, Godzilla vs. Kong is a tricky cinematic feat to pull off, as the human players have to take a big backseat to the real stars of the MonsterVerse. The people are basically there to run scared and otherwise react to the city-stomping chaos (and also to supply a series of infodumps–encapsulating explanations that attempt to make wild ideas graspable if not plausible). All that being said, the characterization and acting prove particularly lackluster here. Granted, this isn’t Shakespeare that Alexander Skarsgard (woefully miscast as an academic) is being given to work with, but if he were any more wooden he could be left behind as a totem on Skull Island. Meanwhile, Millie Bobby Brown forms a pale clone of her Stranger Things character (think Eleven without the nosebleeds), infiltrating the evil-multinational equivalent of Hawkins Lab.

Ultimately, though, it’s the saurian-simian showdown that the audience has come for, the spectacular clashing of the Titans of the title. Godzilla and Kong square off on multiple occasions, and their civilization-destroying grappling is Wrestlemania-main-event worthy (each gets the chance to take the upper claw/paw during the fight sequences, whereas in the overall film Kong’s character gets much broader development). Like a grand WWE dramatization, there’s also a major swerve orchestrated in the climax.

The film features some enjoyable incidental creatures (my favorite: the giant turkey-bat) and a few surprise appearances that fans of this series–and the long history of kaiju movies–will no doubt appreciate. Still, the MonsterVerse mythos gets extended to a ridiculous extreme (here’s hoping that this is the last rodeo for Godzilla and Kong). The battle scenes are eye-poppingly epic, but on every other front Godzilla vs. Kong is a resounding dud.

 

Countdown: Film/TV Adaptations of Clive Barker’s Books of Blood Tales

I’m going to close out my recent coverage of Clive Barker’s Books of Blood collection with a quick countdown of the films and TV works directly adapted from the author’s six-volume masterpiece. So here’s the list, running from worst to best:

 

9. “The Yattering and Jack” (1987)

Really, all anyone needs to know about this Tales from the Darkside episode is that the yattering is represented as a red-painted little person in a dog collar. Barker’s blackly humorous story gets reduced to slapstick (and the infamous turkey scene is poorly translated from the page).

 

8. Quicksilver Highway (1997)

Mick Garris’s made-for-TV anthology film adapts Barker’s classic story “The Body Politic” (along with Stephen King’s “Chattery Teeth”), providing convincing visual proof that some of the ideas in Barker’s fiction don’t lend themselves to the small screen. The army of disembodied hands comes across as a bunch of outcasts from The Addams Family, looking like Thing and squeaking like Cousin Itt. On a positive note, Matt Frewer’s performance offers arguably the best physical comedy by a horror actor not named Bruce Campbell.

 

7. Book of Blood (2009)

Muted and maudlin, this adaptation seems to lose the eyeball kicks of the source text. The pacing also lags at times (“The Book of Blood” prologue is one of the shortest pieces in Barker’s story collection, so significant stretching of its material is required onscreen). A fairly-faithful version of the collection’s “On Jerusalem Street” epilogue, though, does make for an effective ending to the film.

 

6. Dread (2009)

Anthony DiBlasi’s film often feels like it wants to be another Fight Club, with the antagonist Quaid cutting a figure from the Tyler Durden mold. As with the preceding entry on this countdown, Dread suffers from definite pacing issues (it would have been much better suited as a Masters of Horror episode). But also like Book of Blood, it features a terrific ending, one that gives a wickedly clever twist to the dread experiments in Barker’s story.

 

5. Lord of Illusions (1995)

One of the most disappointing adaptations, considering that Barker directed it himself, and that “The Last Illusion” is one of the strongest pieces in the story collection. Pedestrian actor Scott Bakula is spectacularly miscast as occult detective Harry D’Amour. Worse, the menagerie of demonic monsters in the original narrative get jettisoned here, in favor of the lamely wisecracking cult leader Nix. I would love to see Barker take a another shot at this with a remake that adheres more strictly to the plot and cast of “The Last Illusion.”

 

4. Books of Blood (2020)

Surprisingly, this Hulu anthology film is filled largely with material not taken from Barker’s collection (it’s not like the adaptational possibilities have been exhausted already). The non-canonical material is entertaining, though, and I’ve grown to appreciate the Trick ‘r Treat-style intertwining of the individual tales. This film is worth watching just for the jaw-dropping scene in which the slimy Simon is torturously inscribed by the revenants from the highway of the dead.

 

3. Rawhead Rex (1986)

Yes, the acting is terrible (Ronan Wilmot hams it up as the hysterical Declan O’Brien) and the special effects are laughable (Rawhead Rex is depicted via a Halloween mask with cheap light-up eyes, and overall looks like a refugee from a Twisted Sister video). But still, there is genuine entertainment to be found in the film’s ancient-monster-on-a-modern-rampage storyline. This one (which took the top spot on my ranking of Barker’s Books of Blood tales) absolutely deserves a big-budget remake.

 

2. The Midnight Meat Train (2008)

Director Ryuhei Kitamura’s film vehicle is stocked with inventively-lensed scenes of stunning gore, but for me it’s the quieter moments (e.g. Mahogany slicing the cancerous buboes from his own torso) that are the most horrifying. Bradley Cooper gives a middling performance as Leon Kauffman, but Vinnie Jones is impressively imposing as the mute, mallet-wielding Mahogany. My main critique is that the carnivorous city fathers are criminally undersold by the film version, yet even that fact does not ruin the climax–the protracted battle between Leon and Mahogany in a subway car abattoir.

 

1. Candyman (1992)

The film presents an inspired shift in locale, as the choice of Chicago’s notorious Cabrini Green housing project as main setting adds a strong racial element to the socioeconomic commentary in Barker’s (England-based) story. At once eloquent and menacing, Tony Todd elevates the hook-handed, walking-beehive bogey of the title into an iconic movie monster. The mirror summoning is a bit derivative (borrowing from Bloody Mary lore), but however the Candyman might arrive, he does so with undeniable mythic grandeur. A classic horror film (unfortunately, the pair of sequels fail to recapture its dark magic), one that the forthcoming remake/reimagining will be hard-pressed to equal.

 

Fearful Year

In hindsight, 2020 was a year-long horror marathon, marked by a raging pandemic, just-as-rampant paranoia, mindless violence, and social chaos. Fortunately, for those looking to escape from real-world nightmares, or those who’d rather reflect on them through the prism of fiction, this year produced many outstanding works in the horror genre. With the year drawing to a close, laudatory lists are popping up all over the Internet. Here are some of the “best of” compilations that denizens of the Macabre Republic won’t want to miss:

Thrillist: The Best Horror Movies of 2020

Den of Geek: The Best Horror Movies of 2020

Film School Rejects: The 20 Best Horror Movies of 2020

Bloody Disgusting: The 10 Most Gruesome, Disturbing, and Stomach-Churning Moments in 2020’s Horror Movies!

Bloody Disgusting: The 10 Coolest, Creepiest, and Downright Best Horror Movie Posters of 2020

The Lineup: The Best Horror Podcasts of 2020

The Lineup: 15 Best Horror Books of 2020

Book Riot: 16 Best Horror Books of 2020 You Don’t Want to Miss

WatchMojo: Top 10 Best Horror Movies of 2020

WatchMojo: Top 10 Scariest Scenes of 2020

Gothic Topic

Came across this interesting post on Screen Rant: “10 Gothic Horror Movies That Should Be at the Top of Everyone’s List.” The survey strikes a nice balance between classic and modern examples, and I love that it included Tim Burton’s Hammer-evoking Sleepy Hollow. The piece does contain errors factual (Horace Walpole’s seminal Gothic text is titled The Castle of Otranto, not A Gothic Story), orthographic (some guy named Edgar “Allen” Poe is cited), and syntactic (I’m still trying to grasp the logic of this sentence: “Creating a dream world based in the small town of Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod Crane, a New York City policeman faces romance and fantasy in this eerily gothic moving picture.”), but these can be overlooked, given the fine choice of topic.

 

Psycho After Six Decades

In preparation for my last post on horror noir, I recently re-watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Since 2020 marks the 60th(!) anniversary of the film’s release, I also couldn’t help but consider how the film holds up after all these years. Some thoughts:

A particular scene that has not aged gracefully is the one in which Marion overhears Norman’s mother berating him for wanting to invite the motel guest up to the house for dinner. Marion is listening through a closed motel window during a rainstorm, yet the conversation (which is riddled with stilted dialogue) inside the house up the hill sounds as if it is right in the next room. Hearing Norman’s mother speak is necessary for the misdirection the film deliberately creates, yet the execution of this scene is jarring in its lack of realism.

The famous shower scene has burned its way into public consciousness, but the subsequent scene (Norman’s cleanup of the gruesome murder) arguably has not garnered the appreciation it deserves. It forms a brilliant study in contrast: the shower scene (with its screeching string music and rapid cuts) plays loud and shocking, but the aftermath is muted and methodical. All that relative quiet is disquieting, as Norman (for nearly eight minutes) washes away the blood spill and diligently covers up the crime. As startling as Marion’s fatal knifing was, her postmortem fate presents more protracted horror to the viewer. Marion’s entire existence is erased as she’s wrapped in a shower-curtain shroud, set in a car-trunk coffin, and given an ignominious burial-at-swamp.

In another sense, though, the cleanup scene is clearly dated. Watching it from a current perspective, it’s hard not to consider the shoddiness of Norman’s efforts: his use of simple mop and running water to remove evidence of the murder would never pass the test of modern forensics. But it’s not just from a far distance that Norman’s negligence can be critiqued; a glaring lack of shrewdness is evident within the narrative of the film. A week and a half after the murder, Norman somehow has still failed to replace the shower curtain. Worse, he has not noticed the scrap of paper still floating unflushed in the bowl of the toilet (why the paper has not disintegrated long before Lila Crane discovers it there is another head-scratcher).

The private detective Arbogast certainly accentuates the film’s noir qualities (his echo of hard-boiled lingo is terrific: “You see,” he tells Norman,  “if it doesn’t jell, it isn’t aspic, and this ain’t jelling.”). Nevertheless, his sleuthing proves curious: if Arbogast is presumably employed by Tom Cassidy to track down the $40,000 that was stolen from him, why would the detective feel obliged to call up Lila and fill her in on what he has learned about her sister? His ready updating of the case seems a mere plot contrivance, a means of leading Lila and Sam to investigate the Bates Motel themselves.

Suspension of disbelief is further challenged in the scene when Arbogast gets killed. The bloody slash running down his face makes for a wonderfully grim touch, but his backwards glide all the way down the staircase is too stylized–and, ultimately, silly (Arbogast acts as if the steps were a sequence of banana peels). An ungainly tumble down the staircase (assuming such a stunt could be pulled off in 1960) not only would have been more believable, but it also would have helped to preserve the film’s big mystery. Based on the way the death scene is filmed, the viewer has to wonder how Norman’s old invalid Mother could have flown so quickly down the flight of steps after the falling Arbogast.

In hindsight, Norman’s stuffed birds (and preserved Mother) are not the only disconcerting pieces of his collection. Viewers in 1960 might easily have overlooked them, but a more modern horror audience is more attuned to the presence of creepy dolls. A pair of them can be seen lying in the background as Lila explores Norman’s bedroom, and their unsettling nature extends beyond the question of what they are doing in a grown man’s bedroom in the first place.

Psycho might not have been a perfect film, and certain of its aspects do not hold up well in six-decade retrospect, but it remains an indisputable classic. The marketing of the film at the time of its release was also ingenious: Hitchcock’s insistence that late arrivals would not be admitted to theaters, and his efforts to keep the film’s surprises from being spoiled (which worked to lure moviegoers with the promise of thrilling mystery). No doubt the film would face a much tougher task if it premiered in the present day, when social media is such a dominant factor. Then again, it’s intriguing to imagine the tactics that a master like Hitchcock might have been able to employ if he had all the tools of the 2020 mediascape at his disposal.

 

Harrowing Shadows: 11 Macabre Masterpieces of Horror Noir

At its darkest, noir naturally shades over into horror, as countless genre films have demonstrated over the years. In honor of “Noirvember,” here’s a list of eleven exemplary works of horror noir:

 

Freaks (1932)

Steeped in dark-carnival atmosphere, Tod Browning’s controversial shocker is also driven by a noir narrative. A scheming pair of lovers (the trapeze artist Cleopatra and the strongman Hercules) plot to seduce the dwarf Hans, to poison him following his marriage to Cleopatra, and then steal his wealth. The climactic scene in which the titular sideshow performers carry out their vengeance against the conspirators during a driving rainstorm forms a classic combination of horror and noir.

 

Psycho (1960)

No director mixed mystery and suspense with terror and horror better than Alfred Hitchcock. This seminal cinematic adaptation of Robert Bloch’s novel conveys a strong noir vibe: driven by love to a desperate act of robbery, a fugitive woman suffers bloody comeuppance at a lonesome motel (at the hands of a quite violent “femme”). The private detective who subsequently searches the old dark house overlooking the Bates business doesn’t fare much better.

 

Blood Simple (1984)

The Coen brothers’ debut effort signals its dark leanings in its very title (drawn from a line in Hammett’s Red Harvest). This tale of marital infidelity and attempted vengeance (by the cuckolded husband) features shocking acts of murder, premature burial, nightmare visions of revenant return, and one frightfully rogue private detective. The sense of horror is only intensified as randomness and misunderstanding precipitate a series of catastrophic events. My all-time favorite film noir.

 

Angel Heart (1987)

Alan Parker’s adaptation of William Hjortsberg’s genre-splicing novel, in which a hard-boiled detective stumbles onto the occult, delivers some truly horrifying visuals (the blood spill seems almost as copious as the rainfall). It also offers one of the most stunning plot twists this side of Chinatown. Throw in a frightfully good performance by Robert DeNiro as the sinister Louis Cyphre, and the quintessence of horror noir is achieved.

 

Cape Fear (1991)

De Niro rears his psychotic head here in this remake of the 1962 film, playing the Robert Mitchum role like a redneck Hannibal Lector. Any notion that De Niro’s Max Cady is your basic criminal stalker is destroyed the second he bites a hunk out of Ileana Douglas’s cheek. There’s also a great set-piece in which he grimly outwits a private detective on a stakeout. Director Martin Scorsese underscores the horror noir nature of the film in a harrowing, protracted climax that transpires during a raging squall.

 

Basic Instinct (1992)

Ok, calling this one a “masterpiece” might be overstating the case, given the abundance of sleaziness and cheesiness. But the horror here extends far beyond the gratuitous glute-shots of a butt-naked Michael Douglas. Sharon Stone is a modern-day femme fatale guaranteed to turn wet dreams into sweat-soaked nightmares. After the savage, in medias coitus icepicking in the film’s opening, the recurrent sex scenes splashed across the screen utterly terrify even as they titillate.

 

Se7en (1995)

Much of David Fincher’s work qualifies for this list, but none of the director’s other films can surpass this one’s combination of the gritty and the grotesque. In lesser hands the basic premise (a serial killer with a baroque schema) might have seemed derivative, the stuff of made-for-cable movies, but Fincher crafts a masterfully-atmospheric film filled with viewer-traumatizing tableaus (the crime scene for the “Sloth” victim alone places Se7en in the horror noir hall of fame). Even when the narrative leaves the seedy confines of the city for sunny expanse in the climax, it heads off into shocking, devastating territory.

 

Dark City (1998)

The best and darkest of the numerous future-noir films that followed in the wake of The Matrix. Alex Proyas’s stunning cinematic vehicle starts with standard noir elements (the main character finds he has lost his memory, as he awakens in a room with a dead prostitute sprawled on the floor) and then takes the idea of urban entrapment (in a rain-slicked nightscape) in a whole other, mind-bending direction. The film’s human-corpse-wearing alien “strangers”–extraterrestrial Cenobites engaged in bizarre experiment–are as unnerving a group of villains ever to form a criminal underworld.

 

Shutter Island (2010)

Scorsese sways toward the Gothic in this adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s thrilling twist on a detective novel. As if an island asylum for the criminally insane (where illicit, secret experiments might be taking place) wasn’t creepy enough already, the film adds some spectacularly heavy weather, rat-infested caves, and a protagonist haunted by visions of scarred monsters and corpses come to life. I would also argue that the gut-punch of a climactic plot twist here hearkens back to Angel Heart.

 

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

A moody, highly-stylized piece shot in black and white and melding street crime and the supernatural, director Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut film checks all the appropriate boxes. The female of the title is more fearful than someone to fear for: an antiheroic Iranian vampire who prowls the stark wasteland of Bad City (and who leaves quite a mark on a drug-dealing pimp). Calling this one the lovechild of Nosferatu and Sin City isn’t some pithy pitch, but rather an acknowledgement of two of the works that ostensibly influence Amirpour’s artistic vision.

 

True Detective, Season 1 (2014)

Technically, this is not a theatrical film but an HBO series, yet a perfect addition to the list nonetheless. Show creator Nic Pizzolato invokes weird-fiction writers such as Ambrose Bierce, Robert Chambers and Thomas Ligotti, as he scripts a gripping narrative in which a murder investigation uncovers conspiracy and depraved ritual. Season 1’s Louisiana mise-en-scène is at once haunting and haunted, and the killer’s discovered lair in the finale makes the Sawyer abode in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre look like it belongs in Better Homes and Gardens.

 

Fatal Attraction–An Alternate Ending

Fatal Attraction is a film long familiar to me (pet rabbit in the stewpot!) through pop culture, but one that I had never actually seen from start to finish. I finally watched it the other night (it’s now streaming on Amazon Prime), and while I found it an entertaining (early) entry in the Psycho Stalker subgenre, I couldn’t help but think that the opportunity for a truly killer ending was missed.

Towards the conclusion of Adrian Lyne’s 1987 film, Dan (Michael Douglas) reaches his breaking point with Alex’s (Glenn Close) harassment and endangerment of his family. Half-crazed himself, he breaks into her apartment and violently attacks her. In the midst of strangling her to death, he appears to come to his senses, and relents. Alex isn’t the forgiving or forgetting type, though, and soon charges at Dan with a butcher knife, which he manages to wrest from her. After a lengthy stare-down, he places the knife on the counter and silently exits.

But what if the scene didn’t end there? Imagine if the unstable Alex–who already slit her wrists earlier in the film because she couldn’t bear the prospect of losing Dan, decided to pick up the knife and kill herself with it after he walked out. Given the signs of forced entry and the fingerprints left on the weapon by Dan, it would be easy for the police to then arrest him for Alex’s presumed murder. To me, this would have been a much more interesting turn of events than the standard climax Fatal Attraction proceeded to present, complete with incidents that had to seem cliched even at the time (wait, she’s not really dead and leaps up for one last attack before being shot!). It would also shift the questionable moral tone of the film, which ends up situating the adulterous Dan as the heroic defender of his family (we last see him having his hand shaken by a policeman, and being drawn into the embrace of his still-loving wife). The alternate ending I’ve envisioned would not leave the character unpunished for his infidelity. How darkly ironic Dan’s fate would have been if he was ruined for doing the right thing morally-speaking (not killing Alex), after the wrong choice he made by having an affair in the first place.

A more downbeat ending for sure, but arguably a more satisfying one. A young Michael Douglas naturally conveyed smugness, so I don’t think viewers would have been all that bummed to see his character receive his comeuppance.