So many scary movies, so little time. With Halloween bearing down, the hour has come to get serious about creeping yourself out. Here are some eminently frightful films that are worth a visit (or a re-visit). They'll definitely do the job.
This very disturbing nightmare movie concerns a Japanese TV producer (Ryo Ishibashi) who decides to hold auditions to find a replacement for his deceased wife. He settles on a beautiful and seemingly submissive young woman named Asami (Eihi Shiina), who turns out to be a totally off-the-rails psychopath. Director Takashi Miike is a virtuoso shock specialist, and the movie's warped, hallucinatory cruelty can be pretty hard to watch. (The startling scene in which a large mysterious bag suddenly jerks to life is just the tip of the bloodberg here.) If you can sit through this picture, you may be ready for Miike's 2001 psychothon, "Ichi the Killer." Or quite possibly not. Both pictures were handsomely shot by Hideo Yamamoto, who was later brought in to film that most bafflingly overrated of recent horror hits, "The Grudge."
"Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" (1986)
An even more disturbing movie, in its way, because the premise — that two drifters might roam the country maiming and murdering at random, leaving no pattern for the law to latch onto and thus no leads to catch them — is horribly plausible. And even though Henry Lee Lucas, the titular lowlife on whose purported exploits this movie was based (he claimed to have murdered more than 300 people for no particular reason), was later determined to be a liar, or at least a serial exaggerator, the picture retains its clammy, claustrophobic power. Michael Rooker, making his movie debut, brings a dead-eyed conviction to the role of Henry; he's a soulless near-zombie, but he's a cuddlebug compared to his degenerate sidekick, Otis, played with maximum repellence by Tom Towles. (Towles became such an icon of drooling scumbaggery in this picture that Z-movie connoisseur Rob Zombie used him in both "House of 1000 Corpses" and "The Devil's Rejects.") The home-invasion sequence in which these two wipe out a whole family is so nasty, you're amazed that the director, John McNaughton, is able to top it with a subsequent scene in which the leering Otis sits watching a videotape of the murders over and over and over. It's a movie without a ray of sunshine in it, and the only likable character — a girl named Becky (Tracy Arnold), who thinks Henry's just a misunderstood guy — might as well have "Please Kill Me" tattooed on her face. The final scene is brilliantly dismal.
"The Thing" (1982)
John Carpenter's trailblazing teen slasher flick, "Halloween," was essentially a boo movie — scary, but superficial. "The Thing," an almost-total overhaul of the 1951 alien-invader classic (in which the monster turned out to be a lumbering interstellar vegetable), ups the awfulness quotient about a hundred notches. A remote Antarctic research base is invaded by a gut-ripping outer-space entity that can morph into a physical replica of its victims, biding its time till its next horrific attack. Soon, wild-eyed paranoia reigns among the men (there are no women in the picture) trapped in this godforsaken outpost. The effects are first-rate — really disgusting. (The scene in which a dog is turned inside-out by the emerging beast within is still an eye-popper.) And the chilling conclusion is boldly downbeat. Kurt Russell stars, and Carpenter himself makes a brief appearance as a doomed Norwegian.
"Dead Ringers" (1988)
In one of David Cronenberg's most artfully restrained films, Jeremy Irons gives an amazing dual performance as Elliot and Beverly Mantle, twin-brother gynecologists who sink into a codependent miasma of drugs and insanity. Elliot is a slick manipulator of women, while Beverly is an inverted emotional basket case, and Irons, with triumphant subtlety, manages to make each of them a distinct character. (A seamless weave of low-key effects and unobtrusive stand-ins completes the illusion.) Not a horror film per se, but a deeply unsettling experience — especially when the deranged Beverly brings out his monstrous, custom-made gynecological instruments in a hospital operating room. Geneviève Bujold is the woman who unknowingly loves them both. The atmospheric score is by Howard Shore.
"Near Dark" (1987)
In this unique riff on the vampire genre, a gang of bloodsuckers roams the Southwest in a beat-up RV, its windows blacked out against the hateful desert sun. Director Kathryn Bigelow found a ready-made core cast in Lance Henriksen, Jenette Goldstein and Bill Paxton, who'd all worked together in "Aliens" the previous year, and she spiked it nicely with 12-year-old Joshua Miller, playing the unforgettably foul Homer, a kid who's trapped for all time on the cusp of puberty, and really bitter about it. The story nominally revolves around Adrian Pasdar, as a ranch stud sucked into the group by its cutest member, played by Jenny Wright. (She's the upside of undeadness.) But the movie's a true ensemble effort, and Paxton, in particular, is audaciously funny. (In one of the film's several ferocious action scenes — a vampire takeover of a red-neck barroom — he struts through the carnage crowing "finger-lickin' good" as he slurps the blood off his hands.) The dreamy electronic score, by Tangerine Dream, reinforces the movie's unusual tone of otherworldly romanticism.
Cannibal-psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter made his first screen appearance (played by Brian Cox) in this tough, tense, unusually lyrical serial-killer film. Lecter is in jail when we first meet him — put there by police profiler Will Graham (William Petersen), who's still nursing the psychic scars left by their earlier interaction. Now Graham is back, to solicit the courtly madman's assistance in getting into the head of a new monster known as "The Tooth Fairy" (played as a twisted misfit by Tom Noonan). Lecter, of course, immediately devises his own agenda. The movie has some memorably vicious set-piece scenes, especially the one in which a scuzzball tabloid reporter (Stephen Lang) suddenly gets an exclusive interview with the killer. (He never gets to write it up). The vivid pastel hues of the movie's Florida sequences replicate the color scheme of the then-popular TV series, "Miami Vice" (which director Michael Mann was producing at the time), and the glossy synthesizer score has a pronounced Crockett-and-Tubbs feel to it, too (although Jan Hammer's been replaced by Klaus Schulze and Kitaro). Cinematographer Dante Spinotti also shot the pointless 2002 remake, "Red Dragon," with Edward Norton and paycheck queen Anthony Hopkins.
"The Hidden" (1987)
Another alien-invader exercise, but with a great twist. An L.A. cop (Michael Nouri) has a weird feeling about his new partner (Kyle MacLachlan). And well he might: the guy's just in from outer space, an extraterrestrial detective on the trail of an off-world killer. This creature takes up residence in the body of one new victim after another, and the quickest way to spot him — this is the brilliant part — is by his mania for hardcore music, which he cranks up on whatever stolen boombox or car tape deck he can lay his hands on. He's also transfixed by television, and the pontificating politicians thereon, and he's decided he wants to be famous. In fact, he'd kind of like to rule the world. The byplay between Nouri, who's married with kid, and MacLachlan, who's lost his family, adds a sweet counterpoint to the considerable mayhem. But this is a chase movie at heart, and a B-picture down to its sometimes dodgy special effects. It has a winning spirit, though, and its cult popularity is well-deserved.
"The Prophecy" (1995)
Not only does Christopher Walken play the Angel Gabriel, but Viggo Mortensen, in a career sidestep sadly unpursued, plays Satan. Need more be said? There's "a war in heaven," it seems. Gabriel is tired of being bossed around by God, and he's come to Earth to gather an army of near-dead human soldiers. (He stalks hospital ICU wards in search of souls on the brink of expiration — "I can smell 'em," he tells a startled nurse.) He also aims to take possession of the unspeakably vile spiritual essence of a completely-dead war criminal, which he plans to use as some sort of secret weapon. Amanda Plummer and Adam Goldberg (both hilarious) are indignant conscripts in Gabriel's army, and Elias Koteas is a lapsed-Catholic detective in way over his head. Mortensen's Satan, a murmurous presence attended by a hissing, black-mouthed demon, is mainly worried about the balance of power between Heaven and his own, entirely adequate home turf of Hell. This low-budget wonder is a ton of fun. The dialogue has a fruity, faux-epic grandiloquence, and some of the effects — like a field full of writhing angels impaled on stakes — have a tacky splendor that suggests Goya, if Goya hadn't been all that talented. (Whoever decided to turn eternal babe Virginia Madsen into a borderline-frumpy schoolteacher, however, should be forced to go back and re-take Hollywood 101.) "The Prophecy" was the first and so far last directorial effort by screenwriter Gregory Widen ("Highlander"). He is missed.
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