Tommy Lee Jones stars as Dave Robicheaux, small-town Louisiana sheriff investigating a murdered prostitute named Cherry Leblanc. On top of that, he has to deal with drunk film star Elrod Sykes (Peter Sarsgaard) and his more-responsible girlfriend (Kelly McDonald) roaring around the backwaters, who stumbled upon a chain-encrusted corpse on their set. Said corpse belongs to Dewitt Prejean, a young black man who “escaped” jail into the bayou, where he was shot by two men—a scene that’s etched into the memory of Dave, who happened to see the event as a tween.
As Dave continues his investigations—digging up a troubled past to find Prejean’s history, and finding that Leblanc is just the start to a chain of serial killings—he finds that they’re not as disparate as he thought they were. Instead, the crimes are linked. And that investigation will unearth the twisted and diverse history of this small backwater of Louisiana swamp… ranging from ghosts of Confederate generals to the 1960s racial tensions.
The cast does an admirable job. Tommy Lee Jones hands in a solid performance, better than some of his phoning-it-in roles (Captain America) even though you’ve seen him play this character before. Peter Saarsgard is great, but woefully underused; Kelly MacDonald does just as well in her small role. John Goodman is hamming it up in fine form. Very good performances, and the use of local talent is excellent—legendary guitarist Buddy Guy is the weak role in the acting department, but makes up for it with atmosphere and local flavor.
The film has plenty of interesting bits to play with. There’s some post-Katrina allegory here, with the local Mafia (run by John Goodman) buying up property, and commentary on the relief efforts; some social consciousness using the Jim Crow-era’s racial tensions as a touchstone; and a healthy dose of Southern Gothic and magical realism revolving around the Civil War, to go with its neo-noir mystery-thriller parts. Plus the big-city/rural divide, with the Robicheaux family and their neighbors contrasted with the hot-rodding actors and snide film crew. Safe to say, there’s a lot of great stuff going on.
If only the film knew how to use it. As a Franco-American production, the film has more of a European subtlety to it, eschewing the big-bang Hollywood techno-wizardry and action in favor of moody setting. After using all those pieces, crafting that fine plot, and layering that thick atmosphere, the film leads slowly to an underwhelming finale and a twist ending that wouldn’t have made it into a bad Twilight Zone episode. (We’re talking Outer Limits mediocrity with the ending.)
The use of long, slow shots is beautiful for atmosphere, and that subtle touch is masterful. It’s a soft, delicate, but deliberate pacing—the film knows where it’s going, and moves with ambient grace. But instead of bringing it home for a satisfying conclusion, the plot blows away with the wind, and the film’s beauty fades away in lost possibility. In The Electric Mist starts out with an excellent noirish miasma, looking like a clear-cut winner. But when it comes time to seal the deal, it slipped on its own lack of initiative. It’s not a bad film, but the blase ending failed to deliver on the buildup’s promises.
I wonder if the original novel is more satisfying, or if the longer director’s cut was improved—it saw theatrical release oversees; the shorter US version went straight to DVD. Which is what it feels like: an artsy European film that went straight-to-DVD in the States. And I wonder how its production woes, which delayed its release to 2009 after a 2007 shoot, affected the film.
Yep, I’m finally at the last day, with the fifteenth and final horror movie on my list. Keep in mind that the basis for this was a Facebook meme where you list the first fifteen horror movies that pop into your head, and since then, I’ve been second-guessing myself and remembering all sorts of fantastic horror films.
I think Cloverfield was the last horror movie I saw in theaters, so that’s probably the reason I picked it as number 15. (What, I don’t watch a lot of films in the theater.) It also caters to my childhood love of kaiju movies and disaster flicks. Giant monster attacks a major city (New York), causes havoc; the military has futile attempts to kill it (this time sans Toho’s giant rockets and mecha); a small batch of protagonists attempt to escape the area.
It’s another capable entry in the “found footage”/shakycam genre started by the Blair Witch Project, which would have most certainly been on this list if I hadn’t paid so much attention to the hype then found out the actors were still alive before going out to see it. Even then, I think Cloverfield was much more effective and believable in its shakycam roots. I’d want to snag as much visual data as possible if there was a giant monster running around; I’d probably save my batteries if I was one of three morons stuck out in the woods. Blair Witch is spooky because of the weird occurrences; we know damn well there’s a giant monster running amok in New York, and that tangible threat was more convincing to me.
I think the kaiju angle needs to be properly emphasized. Cloverfield is to post-9/11 New York as Gojira was to postwar Japan. The strange culture of fear is paralleled, if a bit exaggerated, in the monster’s attack. The average citizen is helpless; the armed forces cannot defend them; there was little to no prior warning before the Statue of Liberty’s head rolled down the street. (It’s sad when that CGI head is the fake-looking part in a series of shots bloated with CGI: the graphics in this film are almost always top-notch.)
Why is it scary?
There’s a scene in the film where the characters are walking around in the abandoned subway tunnels, and one of the characters (the cameraman) announces, “Remember how there was some guy down in here years ago setting fire to bums?” (Sadly Rich had just left for the restroom, since that defines about half of his RPG characters.) That scene was priceless; a few moments later, the characters are attacked by the poisonous water-fleas the big giant monster has accumulated, which cause horrific and fatal death to anyone they bite.
Aside from the subway scenes scaring the crap out of me, I think Cloverfield uses its found footage setup quite effectively in conveying terror. We don’t see the monster, but we see a lot of devastation; we feel for these characters who we already know something about, and want them to escape before the inevitable nukes come out.
Again, this is not a particularly scary movie. It doesn’t have the same psychological horror as Mouth of Madness, or the paranoia of The Thing, or the jump-out-and-scream thrills of a good slasher film.
I do have some complaints about it, too; I haven’t seen it in a while but I don’t remember the shakycam footage annoying me as much as the fact we get a damn good view of the monster right before the end. Giant monsters work fine in one of two ways: show it to us from the beginning (more or less), ala King Kong or Gojira, or keep it hidden for as long as possible and don’t allow us to watch it just stand there and stare at us. It’s like J.J. Abrams wanted us to know exactly what the monster looked like… and it looked like some overgrown mutant bat. I liked the random concept art where it was Whalethulhu better, and giving away all the monster’s detail was a bad move.
The entire thriller genre is something of a bastard child of horror, having adopted its ability to handle suspense, tension, and excitement to play on the viewers’ emotions. Many thrillers have more than a token amount of horror. And that’s not just my justification for another horror-thriller, one that also caters to my love of crime and neo-noir.
Se7en does contain a serial killer, which is the driving force of its plot: said killer has set out to murder seven people, each corresponding to the seven deadly sins. Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman are the two detectives assigned to the case; Pitt’s the hot-headed new blood in the department, with a expectant young wife (Gwyneth Paltrow), while Freeman is playing the “older black cop closing on retirement” role that paid Danny Glover’s bills in the ’80s.
There’s a theme with serial killers to put eloquent actors in the role, to make the villain all the more surreal. It worked damn well for Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs, and it works even better for Kevin Spacey here: he’s just not the kind of guy you’d expect to see as a raving psycho. And, like Hopkins, his performance is one blending twisted perversions with high intellect. Not that Pitt or Freeman did a bad job, either; this is a film where the star power was correctly chosen and utilized to its full potential. Plenty of character development and a lot of added depth.
Also, this film has one of the best endings in the history of thriller films. I don’t want to spoil anything, because it is just that damn good.
Why is it scary?
The urban blight of this unidentified neo-noir city works in the thriller’s best interest: the grime and decay adds another degree to the suspense. This setting oozes tension; now, add in Freeman and Pitt investigating grisly murders in it. Add in a few more tense scenes as the investigation expands into Serialkillerville with its mysterious serial killer, and round it off with a shocking climax, and you have a fantastic movie. It wouldn’t be a proper thriller if it didn’t chill you to your bones.
As I mentioned earlier, I think it’s telling when half of the first fifteen horror movies I can think of aren’t pure horror movies. That said, I think a lot of them do the horror genre good, and most of them have the same tropes and techniques that makes the horror genre what it is.
Like this one, Pitch Black. I watched it again a few weeks ago, and it blew me away. Not because of its special effects, which aren’t bad but look dated. (Then again, I also watched The Fellowship of the Rings, and the “amazing” intro CGI battle at the foot of Mount Doom that blew everyone away years ago was just painful compared to Avatar or Cloverfield.) No, it reminded me of just how good a horror-thriller this film is.
Another basic horror movie setup, only merged with stock science fiction: after being pulverized by meteorites, a cargo ship crash lands on a desert planet baked by three suns. As the survivors begin to patch up and try to figure out how to get rescued, they start being picked off one by one… and it’s not because of Vin Diesel’s Riddick, the bloodthirsty serial killer being transported by a questionable cop.
It’s when the lights go out that things really start heating up: pursued by unstoppable monsters, previously dormant under the surface, relying on the questionable cop and the even more questionable serial killer. Diesel’s performance as the brutal anti-hero is top-notch, and launched the actor into stardom. The actual horror-thriller elements create a fine atmosphere of tension and desperation, as the survivors languish (and die) over a mere two-mile trek.
Why is it scary?
Again, the basics of horror: a group of people, without proper equipment, isolated from civilization, in desperate need of help. Also, it’s the middle of a permanent eclipse, so throw in humanity’s primal fear of the dark. And there are killer monsters out there, that we don’t see until after they’ve killed a handful of people. Also, the only person the survivors can trust is a psychotic killer who’s had cats-eye implants in prison.
It’s a hellish situation for the characters, and I think that translates to the viewers. This film is full of tension and great twists, and has the masterstroke of having Riddick as red herring and threat rolled into a single package. It’s a perfect hybrid of genres, and I think it works very well (obviously, otherwise I wouldn’t have thought of it). One very underrated film.
Its sequel, The Chronicles of Riddick, dropped the horror-thriller angles to focus on being an action-movie/unauthorized Warhammer 40k fanfic, and wasn’t as successful. I didn’t think it was as terrible as everyone else in the world, but it wasn’t half as effective at being an action movie as Pitch Black was at being horror.
Spielberg’s first blockbuster was also his scariest movie. And it was just a summer popcorn flick with a giant monster shark that ate people off the coast of a small New York tourist town.
Okay, okay, it’s a lot more than that, otherwise it wouldn’t be showing up here. Jaws features some great (for its time) special effects and gore, a powerful musical theme, a big scary shark, impressive performances from Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss, and great cinematography.
Unlike a lot of its followers, like Deep Blue Sea, Jaws works due to a lot of simple horror, keeping things simple yet solid. There’s no big reveal about the shark’s background, it’s just there, eating people. There’s no special team to get rid of them, just a couple of fragile guys in a boat. Heck, the local government doesn’t even think the shark’s enough of a threat to close the beaches. How do you get rid of a killer that the officials don’t recognize? Particularly one that’s aquatic, meaning you have to go into it’s turf to even try?
Some of these basics were lost upon the rest of the franchise, culminating in the atrocious Jaws the Revenge (wait, it slowly becomes not only an eternal killing machine, but it gains a death wish for the Brody family and anyone associated with them?).
Why is it scary?
A couple of good reasons:
- Don’t show the monster! The big rule of any monster movie or creature feature, spend time building the tension and suspense before letting the viewers see what the hell it is they’re afraid of. Coming up with an emotion to something before seeing it means that it’ll still be scary… even when it’s a mechanical shark that had the bad habit of sinking.
- Shark PoV! Because the shark had the bad habit of… sinking, Spielberg had to come up with a way to include it without showing it. Thus, the inclusion of the shots from the shark’s point of view, which work amazing because it plays into the above: we see what the shark sees, not the shark.
- Paranoia! In this case, it’s not just the shark that’s out to get people, it’s the greed of the town government not wanting to scare away tourists with the “possible” shark threat.
- My old friend, isolation! Our climax for today takes place with three would-be shark hunters, on a fragile old boat which sinks real easy, in the middle of the ocean. Their adversary is a shark who lives in the endless blue sea surrounding them. Good luck!
For these reasons—amongst others, including the solid pacing, gruesome shark attacks, and John Williams’ menacing score—this is the film that scared kids enough to stay off the beach.
Is it really a horror movie? Not exactly; categorizing it as a thriller is more accurate. But Silence of the Lambs does blend elements of horror with elements of a crime film, and introduced one of the creepiest protagonists to ever grace the silver screen. If it didn’t creep you out… you probably watched it in the middle of a sunny day with a ton of friends or something.
Jodie Foster’s FBI agent is on the hunt for a crazed killer—Buffalo Bill being his going name. And a sick, demented psycho he is: he abducts women, throws them in a pit, starves and tortures them, then shoots and skins them. What’s worse is Foster’s character has to reach out to an even creepier, more demented psycho, the cannibal Hannibal Lecter.
It isn’t just Lecter’s predilections for long pork that make the character creepy: it’s Anthony Hopkin’s fine acting. This is a very smart, well educated man, who just so happens to be a raving lunatic. He hides it well. And he’d better, because the film tricks you into believing he’s the least dangerous person in it, safely locked behind bars, cooperating with the authorities.
Why is it scary?
Again, more suspenseful/tense than scary, being a thriller, but the overlap with horror is notable. Silence is a battle of creepy, deranged personalities: Ted Levine’s Buffalo Bill and Hopkins’ Hannibal the Cannibal. The tension that builds whenever one of them is impressive. Hopkins controls his conversations (and situations), and underneath that polished veneer is a cunning, bloodthirsty mind analyzing his options. Levine’s Bill is the other kind of disturbing: he thinks he’s a woman, but the only way he can think to become one is to tailor his own woman suit.
Again, not the old-fashioned horror movie horror, but plenty of tension and disturbing characters doing disturbing things.