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As the French say,

Published: November 2, 2007
Section: Arts, Etc.


It's Halloween season, and that means a few things. One: you should have an amazing costume ready (costume choices are a tricky thing but thats not what were here to discuss today). Another is that on the TV you will be treated to every horror, pseudo-horror, alien, monster, and psychopath movie ever made. If you tune into the sci-fi channel, you can watch every single one of Stephen Kings novels turned into a wonderfully bad movie.

There are a lot of horror movies out there, and thats because they are bankable. People love to get scared and will pay to do so in the theaters.

Horror movies, however, gain absolutely no respect from their viewers, and many times for good reason. Many horror movies have little to no plot, and are only excuses to show excessive gore or cheap frights. The common conception of horror films are that they end up as some combination of Saws gratuitously stupid means of murder to the witless splatter and boob-fest of Hostel, with maybe some of the more commercial ambiance of relatively thrill-less imports like The Ring or Gothika thrown in.

The truth is that there is a specific art form to the horror genre, and there are some excellent films that exemplify it. Some of these films have garnered pretty large fan bases and spawned lesser sequels (the original Halloween or 28 Days Later), while others remain ignored by the populace (the brilliant Session 9). The point is that while schlock, gore, and improbabilities can be very fun (especially if not taken seriously), there are some very well put together, effective, and dare I say, artful horror films.

The first of several films Id like to point out helps define a genre of horror that is tense, atmospheric, and chilling at the same time. This is 1982s science fiction and horror hybrid The Thing. Directed by John Carpenter (no stranger to the genre), this tale of an isolated Antarctic military research base assaulted by an alien that devours its prey and assumes their form is a classic exercise in the building of tension, as all the researchers slowly turn against each other. The audience never finds out whose identity the alien has assumed until the movie characters do. The scene where they test everyones blood is a classic moment in horror.

In the sci-fi horror vein, we must also look to the original Alien. Director Ridley Scott took Kubricks vision of space in 2001: A Space Odyssey and turned it inside out, creating a world that is as cold, barren, and silent as space itself. There is little music or dialogue, accompanied by looming, tense shots of empty corridors on the spacecraft where the movie takes place. As the alien slowly stalks its prey (aka the crew), the tension builds and explodes, as some of the creepiest horror and violence in the movie takes place in its most silent moments. Alien is truly what you would call horror artfully and interestingly crafted.

We can also look to the classic 1968 film Rosemarys Baby, directed by Roman Polanski, as another example of horror that is simultaneously ambient, artful, and chilling. In the tale of a woman who is supposedly impregnated by Satan and the cult that slowly closes in on her life, Polanski (a master of framing and composing his camera) creates a woozy and confusing setting aimed at confounding the audience to the real events taking place.

As Mia Farrow is helplessly engulfed in the murky insanity that surrounds her, Polanski puts you in her place, as you know something terrible is afoot, but cant quite make out what it is. Polanski throws the audience for a loop with the ending, as all the movies druggy haze wears off and one is shocked by what appears. It is a very indirect horror film, but what it lacks in fright-fest style scenes that make you jump, it more than makes up for it by causing you spend the entire movie squirming in your seats.

Danny Boyles 28 Days Later was extremely successful for a low budget zombie film, spawning a sequel and helping launch the career of Cillian Murphy. However, while most zombie films go for the guttural or are deliberately cheesy, 28 Days Later comes off as the thinking-mans zombie film.

Where most directors build tension slowly, Boyle employs rapid moving, hyperkinetic camerawork to put you in the mind of those few left running through a destroyed England from millions of zombies. And while the themes and subject matter are not all that original (the idea that man destroys his own society has been present since Night of the Living Dead), the handheld camera and blistering pace announces this as a modern and prescient movie, one that is very aware of its genre, but assured in its willingness to move beyond it, all while scaring the crap out of the audience.

The last movie to touch upon is the relatively unknown and somewhat recent haunted house movie Session 9. The movie concerns a team of asbestos removers working in an abandoned Massachusetts insane asylum (the place does indeed exist). As the team slowly explores the creepy expanses of this asylum and its past revealed, the members all are one by one affected by it.

The long, spiraling camerawork and occasional point of view shot from director Brad Anderson plays on claustrophobia, and eventually ties each character to the building itself. As things get more and more creepy and each characters actions become more and more inconceivable, the tensions burns into one of the chilling final sequences Ive ever seen. An absolutely frightening film.

So next time before you go out rent Cujo or Children of the Corn, check out one of these films. While they may not offer the stupid gore and lunatic brilliance of something like Evil Dead or Reanimator, these movies do stand to further a claim that is lost beneath all the Eli Roths of the world, that horror films can indeed be art films, and still scare the living daylights out of you in the process.