SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004) Simon Pegg, Nick Frost. Dir. Edgar Wright
"Hang on, I'll check to see if the coast is clear." - Shaun climbs a ladder to look over the fence, then comes back down
"Well, is it clear?" - Liz
So, the zombie movie has been done to death, but Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright figured out how to bring it back to life and then some, for this hilarious spoof of the genre, which ended up folding quite neatly into it as well. Pegg is an underachieving London salesman, part of a consumer culture that’s more or less dead to the world (wink-wink) and who doesn’t notice right away the gradual, actual deadening of the people around him. Then the dead take over and he’s got to round up his friends in order to stay alive and fend off the fiends until help arrives. Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg are a great team that spoofs genres with the utmost affection, and then turns their own spoof into a perfect part of said genre. Shaun of the Dead gives you plenty of laughs and winks at the traditional zombie movie, but always manages to make its own characters real and likeable, so that you end up caring more about Shaun and his pals then you ever do most of the anonymous randoms at the center of your average Dawn of the Dead remake. It actually gets pretty gory and life threatening too. The zombie movie has always served as a metaphor for the cultural climate of the current times, which is the reason it can be done over and over again for each new generation. This one serves the same purpose, delivering a quaint message about our zombiefied consumerist culture, while managing to be a rock solid, entertaining, hilarious and scary addition to the canon.
FRANKENSTEIN (1931) / BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) Colin Clive, Boris Karloff. Dir. James Whale
“Sometimes I have wondered whether life wouldn’t be much more amusing if we were all devils, and no nonsense about angels and being good.” - Dr. Pretorius
Treat yourself to a monster movie fest with two of the very best. Both are barely over an hour so it really does work as great double feature, and the Frankenstein series influenced every future horror film ever made, so you’ve got to check it out. The early monster movies from Universal Studios were some of the very first hits of the sound era. They included Dracula, The Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Mummy, and of course the one that started it all, Frankenstein. The monster was played by Boris Karloff, who would forever be associated with the role, and who created the everlasting image of Dr. Frankenstein’s creature- green skin, flat top, neck bolts and all. The 1931 film was a spooky horror flick that had the audacity (only in the pre-code years) to have the monster casually toss a little girl into a lake, killing her and provoking the village mob that chases him into the woods. Karloff brings a humanity to the monster in spite of the mindless violence he indulges in, and though the first film is hugely famous in its own right, the sequel is even better. Whale brings a change in tone to the proceedings of Bride of Frankenstein (made after the censors had come in), that showcases a WAY ahead of its time mix of comedy-horror pathos and camp, while still giving us a terrifying monster in Karloff’s return, and the incredible transformation scene that surpasses the original a thousand times over, influencing hundreds of sci-fi and horror flicks to come. The camp factor allows the script to sneak in double entendres, homosexual undertones, and a hilariously evil new character in Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), who nearly steals the movie with unabashed glee. Karloff’s monster becomes the more sympathetic, misunderstood hero in this one, and the impact Elsa Lanchester’s Bride has when she enters the film cannot be overstated. You forget by the end how long it takes for her to appear. Celebrated for its remarkable art direction, the movie’s been called the first “gothic-horror” film, and is now rightly considered James Whale’s masterpiece. So here’s to “gods and monsters,” a tasty double treat for you to engage in, and just right for the spirit of Halloween.
Original 1931/1935 Trailers:
ALIEN (1979) Sigourney Weaver, Ian Holm. Dir. Ridley Scott
"That's the only way. We'll move in pairs. We'll go step by step and cut off every bulkhead and every vent until we have it cornered. And then we'll blow it the fuck out into space! Is that acceptable to you?" - Ripley
“In space, no one can hear you scream.” That was the tagline for this now classic horror sci-fi film, which moved the traditional monster movie setting into outer space, and replaced the traditional movie hero with, gasp, a woman. That was Ellen Ripley of course, Sigourney Weaver’s stand in for the burgeoning women’s movement of the late 70’s. The notable thing about her was that there was never any overt or even verbal nod to girl power, she was a crew member who just happened to be female, and just happened to be the most kick ass survivor in the bunch. No need to glam her up with skimpy outfits on top of it (as would undoubtedly occur today). It’s the future and the team is on a mission to another planet, when oops, an alien creature sneaks its way on board and starts terrorizing the crew. Ridley Scott takes a cue from Jaws and draws out the suspense, not showing the thing itself, knowing the real terror always comes from the knowledge that something’s there in the shadows, somewhere behind you, wondering when it’s going to strike. This is the one with the famous alien popping out of the chest scene (still disgusting) and interestingly enough, the first Alien remains a much different movie than the sequels that followed it, because of the fact that it’s primarily a horror film over an action one. That element allows it to hold up much better than the standard aliens versus humans story- it’s directed much better, with a style and atmosphere that elevates the plot, and a heroine that remains one of the few female action icons in the more than 30 years since the film’s release.
Original 1979 Trailer:
THE BIRDS (1963) Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock
"Do you happen to have a pair of birds that are just...friendly?" - Mitch Brenner
Probably Alfred Hitchcock’s last great work, and one of his most known. The premise is simple: birds start gathering together suspiciously, and then harassing and killing people around the San Francisco Bay Area. What’s the reason? Well, that’s the utter brilliance of the Hitchcock touch here. There is no explanation. Birds aren’t sharks after all, whose natural inclination is to eat whatever's in front of them, or aliens who are always branded as wanting to kill human. They’re just birds. Birds that we see every day outside, flying around harmlessly, sitting on telephone wires, picking up the food we carelessly drop on the ground. But have you ever noticed how many there are? How many different kinds there are? And what if they were to all team up and turn hostile? What chance would we stand? It may sound kind of ridiculous, but these are the questions that haunt Hitch’s twisted mind at night, and he brings it all to life in this disturbing and scary horror film. I mean, what if the birds attacked one day? Seagulls, crows, pigeons…you never see them all together, and the image Hitch puts on screen of hundreds of different kinds of birds associating with each other to terrorize the civilians is pretty crazy. The story is all set up: Tippi Hedren and Suzanne Pleshette are rivals for the affections of Rod Taylor, but it all just serves as building blocks for scenes where the birds invade a child’s birthday party, peck an old man’s eyes out, and gradually come together just slightly out of frame, so that when Hedren turns around they’ve filled an entire playground behind her, ready to strike. It’s pretty great stuff, and the master works his camera angles and foreshadowing shots like the old pro he was by ’63. It’s very difficult to choose between Hitchcock films in general, but narrowing this category to monster movies makes it simpler- The Birds is one of the best.
YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974) Gene Wilder, Teri Garr. Dir. Mel Brooks
"Are you saying that I put an abnormal brain into a seven and a half foot long, fifty-four inch wide GORILLA?" - Dr. Frederick Frankenstein
Ok, so this one’s definitely more comedy than horror, but despite that- it’s still one of the best Frankenstein movies in existence. Truly. Mel Brooks fashioned a spoof of the classic film with right hand man Gene Wilder as the star, Dr. “Fronk-en-steen,” who considers his great grandfather a kook and his life’s work hooey. So, of course he lives the same legend, with all the jokes and knowing winks tossed around for effect. Teri Garr is the sexy and vaguely foreign sounding assistant, Marty Feldman a hilarious take on “Eye-gore” the hunchback lab sidekick, and Peter Boyle is the monster himself, really more of an unfortunate doofus here than any kind of threat to the community. He was saddled with an “abby normal” brain, after all. Gene Wilder hams it up as the besotted Doctor, at one point sharing the stage with the monster for a classy rendition of “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” for the amusement of the townspeople, who really just don’t seem to like the poor guy much in this version. But he has the benefit of being a ladies’ man and seducing Madeline Kahn for a happier ending than in the original. Probably Brook’s best movie and now adorned with a cult like status, it’s a silly but dead on twist to the Frankenstein legend, must see viewing for Brooks fans and monster movie devotees alike.
Original 1974 Trailer:
28 DAYS LATER (2003) Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson. Dir. Danny Boyle
"Plans are pointless. Staying alive's as good as it gets." - Selena
So now we’re back to the walking dead, or in this case, the sprinting dead. Yes, it’s a twist on the classic zombie film- in Danny Boyle’s frenetically paced, flashily edited action flick, the dead are now the “infected,” or human victims of a disease spread by rabid monkeys in a freak lab accident. This has the effect of making the zombies, those traditionally slow, dumb, statue like monsters, now a bunch of running, jumping, leaping and firecely strong creatures you have to be on your toes to get away from. Danny Boyle ups the action and gore, with some amazing cinematography and camerawork, including haunting shots of a completely abandoned London after the infection has ravaged the entire population. Cillian Murphy is the survivor who wakes up after a long coma to face the brave new world, and joins a few other survivors in their quest to seek help. About 2/3 of the way through, the story takes an even darker turn, as the “help” the group manages to find has turned quite sinister themselves, turning the infected and the human military into the villains of the film. The cast other than Murphy are mostly English unknowns, but they include a moving turn from Brendan Gleeson, that great British character actor who seems to show up in everything, as a protective father. It’s a scary, thrilling ride through the underworld, with an uplifting ending in spite of the shock and awe coming at you so relentlessly for two hours preceding it. The twist on zombies inspired a boatload of sequels, spin-offs, and even new takes on the original Romero Dead series, and you can see why. Why did it take so long for someone to finally figure out how to make the zombie guys more threatening? An instant horror classic.
THE EXORCIST (1973) Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair. Dir. William Friedkin
“What an excellent day for an exorcism.”- (Possessed) Regan
Ok, here we go. You want to be scared? Haven’t made you scream in terror yet? Well, check this one out, because it is still, believe it or not, the scariest movie I’ve ever seen. Horror films have a tendency to become dated, as it becomes harder to scare people as new generations come of age already pretty jaded heading into the theater. But this one? Freaks me out to this day, even as I’ve seen it many times over. A genuinely scary, disturbing and intense metaphor for the out of control hormones of an adolescent girl. But also just a freakish monster movie, with the devil himself as the villainous creature. Linda Blair is the 12 year old innocent who is possessed for virtually no reason that we’re ever informed of (taking that brilliant cue from The Birds, the scariest things are what we can never explain), and is soon spewing pea soup, levitating over her bed and spinning that head the full 360 degrees. William Friedkin is masterful in his direction, as the treatment of the material is so realistic (in a sort of docudrama style) that we just recoil in genuine horror, along with poor Regan’s helpless mother (Ellen Burstyn) as we watch her suffer this physical transformation and ask what can possibly be done to keep her from destroying herself. Burstyn is fantastic as the desperate mom who just keeps getting met with baffled doctors who have no idea what’s happening to this girl and can’t suggest anything but commitment and electroshock therapy. We can sympathize in her desperate turn to the church for a last resort exorcism. The young Father Flanagan (Jason Miller) comes to the rescue, but even he has no idea what to expect. The performances are flawless, the music is hauntingly perfect and the devil-as-Regan is an unforgettably grotesque sight destined to stay with you for days. The impact of the film was powerful at the time, and has lasted over the decades. Once again, if you want to be scared out of your wits, go for this one, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. And don’t see the extended edition ok? The theatrical original was flawlessly edited as it was, any extra scenes are superfluous at best. (Also notable: one of the few horror films to ever break into the mainstream, nominated for ten Academy Awards in 1973).
Original 1973 Trailer:
DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1932) Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins. Dir. Rouben Mamoulian
"I have no soul. I'm beyond the pale. I'm one of the living dead!" - Dr. Jekyll
There were quite a few versions of the classic Robert Louis Stevenson story filmed in the early days of moviemaking, but this is by far the best one. It’s a pre-code monster movie just dripping with a raunchy sexuality right from the opening frame. One of those early films that defied the censors to the limits, turning the story of mad scientist Dr. Jekyll into a clear cut metaphor for repressed libido in Victorian England. Fredric March gives a great performance (Oscar winning, in fact) as the put upon Jekyll who can’t stand the long engagement he must suffer through before he can actually, you know, sleep with his fiancé. So he concocts a potion that physically separates his animalistic side into another being entirely, the ape-like, sadistic brute Mr. Hyde, who emerges from the shadows at night only. March plays both Jekyll and Hyde, and has a dominating presence as Hyde especially, who really is a powerfully evil and intimidating villain. Miriam Hopkins is the other standout performance in this, as the randy prostitute with a thing for Dr. Jekyll, which unfortunately leads to her ultimate suffering at the hands of Hyde. The chemistry between Hopkins and March is off the charts, making the relationship that much more twisted and disturbing when he targets her in Hyde form. He wants her as Jekyll, but can’t deem himself to act except as his other half, and only then as a cruel sadist inflicting torture upon the object of his desire. It’s pretty twisted and creepy stuff, especially for the early sound era of film. Mamoulian directs in a stylized fashion with intense point of view tracking shots from the eyes of Jekyll, intended to put you directly in his state of mind, a cool effect that succeeds in making the whole film stand out as an unsettling, truly psychological thriller. REALLY worth checking out.
Original Transformation Scene: "Dr. Jekyll becomes Mr. Hyde"
AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981) David Naughton, Griffin Dunne. Dir. John Landis
"I'm a werewolf." - David
"Are you alright?" - Alex
"I don't know, I'll let you know the next full moon."
Yet another movie set in London. This one is about Americans however, American college students backpacking through Europe on summer vacation. John Landis directs what’s intended to be a satirical yet genuinely frightening take on the classic wolfman legend, and it works on both levels. Essentially a black comedy with laughs wrought out of ridiculous situations, but with a real threat and suspenseful action in the form of the curse inflicted on David Naughton. He and pal Griffin Dunne get attacked on the moors by a werewolf, Dunne gets killed and Naughton is bitten. Of course, that leaves him destined to suffer the fate of the full moon, as Dunne conveniently returns to warn him and haunt his days as an ironic ghost in ever deteriorating condition. And yes, this is the one with that famous transformation scene, still pretty painful to watch, as Naughton slowly, brutally, and excruciatingly grows limbs, stretches bones and sprouts hair in the living room, all to the tune of “Blue Moon.” Considered stunning special effects and makeup at the time, it’s bound to be somewhat out of date now, in light of more than three decade’s worth of CGI advancement, but it holds up as well as can possibly be expected- the howls and screams of pain remain all too effective. The scene had lasting impact (and earned star makeup artist Rick Baker the first of his eventual 17 and counting Oscars). Like Jaws and Alien before it, the wolf is rarely seen in full form, the scares instead coming from birds eye views as we hunt down victims along with it, accompanied by the occasional head shot from up above of the impending kill. The movie has become a classic of the genre, and a rare one that managed to combine comedy and true horror without ever losing its real effect. You can thank Landis’s unique approach for that, I think.
Original 1981 Trailer:
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea. Dir. George Romero
"It has been established that persons who have recently died have been returning to life and committing acts of murder. A widespread investigation of funeral homes, morgues, and hospitals has concluded that the unburied dead have been returning to life and seeking human victims. It's hard for us here to be reporting this to you, but it does seem to be a fact." - TV newscaster
So now we top it all off with the original zombie movie, from the mind of zombie king George Romero, whose first entry in the franchise is creepy, chilling, and a political allegory for the times which packed a powerful punch then, and still does now. Filmed on a tiny budget and independently produced, Night of the Living Dead was scary and thought provoking, with its two main characters a woman and a black man, a clear statement for the time in which it was made. Duane Jones is the hero, the only rational, capable survivor willing to fight back against the forces of oppression, and ultimately all for nothing, as we see in the last sudden and depressing shot. The small group of survivors who hide out in an abandoned house to stave off the thralls of the living dead don’t stand much of a chance. Few do in the traditional zombie movie, which was created here. They mostly sit around, board up the house, watch TV and argue about what course to take. Romero spares no sympathies, and this was one of the first films of the late 60’s to take advantage of the easing censorship laws- we actually see people being eaten, including a child devouring her parents. Filmed in a grainy low-budget black and white, which had the effect of making it all the more unsettling, like a 1950’s B-movie that took a hard left turn (which in fact, it kinda was). Top off your monster movie marathon with this one, the first and best of all the zombie movies.
Original 1968 Trailer: