When I was young, I wanted to be Vincent Price. Well, to be honest, I wanted to be a lot of things, but Vincent Price was high on the wish list. He was my favorite horror icon. Smooth and dashing, but he really knew how to turn up the menace when the chips were down.
He also had a sense of humor, which I really dug. Still do. “The Raven” and “The Comedy Of Terrors” are two of my all-time favorite films – an annual double feature I still find hard to resist. Even better, both costar contemporary greats Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre AND they were directed by Roger Corman. Score!
I guess it’s just an old school thing. I am and I happily admit it. My horror aesthetic peaked during the Hammer years and really began to dwindle right about the time Mike, Freddy and Jason were becoming franchises. “Saw,” “Hostel,” “The Ring” and others of their ilk, with high body counts but very little by way of character development simply leave me cold. And not in the good way.
I make no apologies about that and, quite frankly, believe SOMEbody has to keep the torch alive for all those youngsters who didn’t get the opportunity to grow up with the true masters. I take comfort in the fact that there are still a few independent filmmakers out there who understand the “things that go bump in the night” aesthetic and don’t feel the need to dump gallons of blood on nubile breasts to sell tickets.
Nothing against nubile breasts – the Hammer films of the 60s and 70s had plenty of cleavage and jiggle for those so inclined – but when was the last time an actor or actress inspired the kind of worship of a Lugosi, a Karloff, a Lee, a Cushing or a Price? Times change, I understand that well, but part of me yearns for those simpler days. I also attribute my love for independent filmmaking to those masters of the form and even more to the unpolished, but atmospherically campy gems in which they plied their trade.
Thankfully, there are others who feel the same way – Independent filmmakers who understand the formula and create supernatural films that fit the bill nicely, even if they don’t feature iconic figures. In sitting and thinking about the independent horror films I’ve enjoyed recently, I have compiled a short list. It is by no means complete, but I think Vincent would have some good things to say about all of them…
Odd Thomas – I caught this one last year, mainly because it was filmed in New Mexico, but it quickly became a favorite – in the same way that Peter Jackson’s “Frighteners” did – with irresistible humor, fantastic effects and a truly suspenseful premise. It’s also based on a best-selling Dean Koontz novel, which gives it heft. I’ll be returning to this one again and again.
John Dies At The End – An epic, psychedelic ride from the uncompromising mind of cult horror master Don Coscarelli (Phantasm, Bubba Ho-Tep), with elements of time travel, alternate universes, mind-bending drugs and plenty of laughs to keep it edgy and outlandishly bizarre. It’s also got Paul Giammatti in a stand-out performance. Another creepfest that has become an instant favorite for me.
Horns – Directed by Alexandre Aja and starring Daniel Radcliffe and Juno Temple, this one almost got by me, mainly because the trailer made it look pedestrian at best. A straight up horror film it definitely is not. Quirky, surreal and loaded with surprising twists? Oh, yes, which is probably why it has become this season’s suspense favorite.
The Prophecy: Uprising – The latest in the “Prophecy” series – and one of the few not to star Christopher Walken as the vengeful archangel Gabriel – “Uprising” embraces the chilling atmosphere set by its predecessors with a tense atmosphere and outstanding cinematography. As with the others in the series, excellent dialog gives rise to memorable quotes and maybe a few lingering nightmares.
Witching & Bitching – Saddled with an unfortunate name here in the States, this Spanish import was originally titled “Las Brujas de Zugarramurdi” (The Witches of Zagarramurdi) and comes closest to capturing the Hammer Film aesthetic, by combining off-kilter humor with a gothic sensibility and oddball characters. Highly recommended to anybody with a sick sense of humor.
Housebound – A wonderful find from New Zealand, Housebound is one of those movies that starts out as straight-up horror, then evolves into something altogether different, all the while exhibiting a deft comic touch and memorable characters working toward a WTF ending that is completely unexpected. I expect to see more from newbie writer/director Gerard Johnstone.
Thale – Another import, this one tackling Norwegian folklore, presents a mystery within a mystery, with interesting characters, a unique premise and the heart of a true monster flick. It also offers some great scenery and an intense foreboding that creates a slow burn creepiness missing from most contemporary offerings. Oh, and female nudity, for those who can’t live without…
A Fantastic Fear Of Everything – Proving that he doesn’t have to write and direct to create memorable characters – and thus coming closer than anybody else to creating an iconic presence – Simon Pegg gives a dementedly humorous performance in this tale of Victorian-era murderers and paranoid descent into madness. A must-see for Pegg fans.
Grabbers – Leave it to the Irish to concoct a Lovecraftian tale in which the tentacled monsters are repelled by a high blood alcohol level in their victims. An instant cult classic, with quirky characters, creative solutions and a believable antagonist (in movie monster terms, obviously), it’s part “Alien,” part “Little Shop of Horrors” and part “Tremors,” with homages to all three and more.
Cockneys Vs Zombies – Netflix calls this British undead import “goofy, irreverent and violent” which just about sums it up. Yes, we’re all getting a little tired of the whole zombie apocalypse thing, but as in its predecessor “Shaun Of The Dead,” it is very refreshing to see real people battling Romero-era corpses with a huge dose of balderdash for spice.
There are quite a few others out there that I consider worthy successors to the supernatural thriller throne, but these are current faves. All can found on Netflix streaming, which is a bonus for anybody looking for ten days worth of horror to prepare them for All Hallows Eve. You can thank me later. For now, as Elvira, Mistress Of The Dark used to say…