Last year I squeaked in a list of films that I considered among the Top Ten Horror Films of all time. (You can find that here.) Now that’s all said and done, I’m celebrating a Geek League Halloween by offering you a choice selection of horror films you probably haven’t heard of…but should definitely check out:[divider]
Renny Harlin is best known nowadays as the hack director who foisted the infamous pirate bomb Cutthroat Island on us, but there once was a time when he was a young director who showed a decent amount of promise…at least when it came to staging a set piece if not telling a coherent story. Prison was an early Hollywood effort for him, an attempt to capitalize on the “rubber reality” supernatural killer craze that swept the horror industry post-A Nightmare on Elm Street (which in turn landed him the gig directing part 4 in that venerable franchise.) It’s among the best of that trend, even if it’s mostly because the horrific, well staged death scenes paper over the thin characters and weak plotting.
Twenty years after it first closed, a decrepit prison is reopened, the 300 convicts bussed in the reside there also tasked with helping refurbish it. (Among those inmates: a young Viggo Mortenson in his first lead role, cooly underplaying as if he’s channeling his inner James Dean.) Of course this particular prison and its new warden, Sharpe (veteran 80s middle-aged meanie Lane Smith) have a history: Sharpe was responsible for the execution of Forsythe, a con he pinned the blame for a murder on. Of course Forsythe’s ghost is released and ready for vengeance, killing guard and prisoner alike in twisted, supernatural ways — turning solitary into a furnace, wrapping a man in barb wire, etc.
The movie suffers from too many dropped subplots (Mortenson’s resemblance to Forsythe, a crusading prison reformer whose pointless presence only seems to exist to allow a token female in the cast), but the actors etch out a convincingly tough group of criminals well enough that you forget that you are likely watching a bunch of murderers and bank robbers and start to root for the characters to not get taken out one by one. But, really, it’s the gruesome, inventive, effectively staged death sequences that make Prison worth seeking out for fans of 80s horror.[divider]
Low budget found footage horror movies are usually the province of budding auteurs doing a bit of trend-hopping to get a movie made, not Oscar-winning directors known for classic films that launched the careers of many major stars. Yet here is Barry Levinson — the man behind Diner and Rain Man, among others, the man who helped turn Mickey Rourke and Kevin Bacon into A-listers — directing a faux-doc eco-horror flick about tiny sea monsters terrorizing a Chesapeake Bay fishing community during the Fourth of July.
Not as B-movie silly as that plot description sounds, The Bay is a true “found footage” film — rather than shakycam footage shot by some idiot twentysomething who keeps the camera rolling because “WE MUST DOCUMENT EVERYTHING”, it purports to be stitched together footage (surveillance tapes, 911 calls, home movies, etc) leaked by an enterprising reporter on her vlog, attempting to expose a government coverup. The mutated isopods infest the town water supply and soon begin chewing their way out of their unlucky human hosts, allowing Levinson to indulge in some squirmy, nasty body horror imagery. At times, the director’s eco-activist anti-pollution message, while noble, is heavy-handedly clear and the film is more full of dread than cathartically terrifying, but it’s still worth a look to see what a respected director can do with this kind of material.[divider]
Just Before Dawn
Just Before Dawn was one of the best slashers of the early ’80s but was lost amidst a sea of similar product — seriously, 60% of horror films made in North America were slashers — because of its refusal to conform to handily to genre standards. Conceived in the late 70s, it owes more to Deliverance than Halloween even if its story (teens travel into the Oregon woods to camp at a site than one of them inherited, only to be picked off one by one by a sadistic hillbilly killer) sounds like a Friday the 13th retread. Just Before Dawn benefits from some of the most truly gorgeous forest photography of any woods-set horror film, a patient, dread building pace set by director Jeff Leiberman, likable characters and an emphasis on suspense and realism over gore and T&A. And it features one of the most shiver-inducing stalking scenes in all of slasherdom, as the killer slowly steps out from behind a waterfall to swim towards an unsuspecting couple.[divider]
It’s no surprise Ravenous flopped upon its release in 1999. A gory period Western-horror-comedy about cannibalism starring a cast of indie film, arthouse and theater veterans with a score by an eccentric alt-music superstar released amidst a bevy of hip, self-aware teen horror flicks? Offbeat, unusual, eccentric, it’s not for all tastes (heh), but this tale of a Sierra Nevada military outpost that falls prey to a cannibal mastermind brilliantly essayed by a creepy Robert Carlisle is one of the best horror films of the 90s, period.[divider]
Beyond The Black Rainbow
More dark sci-fi than outright horror, this indie wonder is still more disturbing than most outright horror films. A surreal experience in bad-trip nightmare psychedelia, its best described as what you would get in Dario Argento opted to go on a bender of Stanley Kubrick and decided to remake Altered States when he made his Suspiria sequel Inferno. The loose plot involves a sinister scientist at a crackpot 80s New Age institute who keeps a mute, psychic girl captive in a sterile prison. That’s basically all there is to the story — the rest is essentially an amalgam of nightmare fuel sequences of head-spinning, drug-like weirdness glued together with primary color lighting and throbbing synth score madness.