October 25, 2011

A Taste for.....Blood?

Catfish's Dishes is a food blog, as food is the only thing in my life that I have a desire to write about on a continuous basis, but it's far from my only interest.  I like craft beer (still technically fair game for food writing, I guess,) nerdy stuff like Dungeons and Dragons and Magic: The Gathering, comic books, camping, live music and horror films. 

It is, of course, the latter that I wish to address today.  An unhealthy love of top ten lists, combined with my disgust at our local school district's choice to not allow children to come to school in costume has inspired me to take a break from writing about food and instead offer my top ten horror films as an appetizer for your Halloween celebrations.  If buckets of gore aren't your thing, or you're simply a stickler for actually finding a recipe when you open up a food blog, head on over to Macheesmo; it's the best food blog online.  But if you like a good scare or want to debate my picks in the comments below, please continue reading.

10.  The Last Exorcism (2010)

While I spent my childhood reading Stephen King novels and old issues of "Tales from the Crypt," few things were as unsettling as a 20/20 special on exorcism.  Ever since I ran screaming from a Safeway grocery store at the age of four because of a life-sized cut-out of the Wicked Witch of the West, my parents put a lot of time and effort into making sure I knew the difference between fantasy and reality.  Unfortunately, with exorcism that line wasn't as clear.  Priests who--though my home was thoroughly secular--were definitely regarded as authority figures claimed that people were suffering from demonic possession.  Scientists claimed that these (usually well meaning) clergymen were abusing the mentally handicapped.  I found neither thought particularly comforting, and I always expected to be scared of horror films dealing with the subject. 

I was wrong. 

I understand how it might have played when it first came out, but I found "The Exorcist" to be overly long and boring.  "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" was predictable and poorly acted.  Both of these films were still far better than all the straight to video films that aimed to imitate them.  Exorcism was doomed to be more creepy in thought then in practice. 

Then came "The Last Exorcism."  Truth be told, I wasn't even interested in the exorcism angle any more when this came out last year.  I doubt I would have bothered watching it if I hadn't noticed Eli Roth was one of the producers.  Roth made the critically-reviled film "Hostel," as well as the under-rated "Cabin Fever" (more on that later,) and I was curious why he had attatched his name to this film.  Would it replace moodiness for an angrier, bloodier type of exorcism film?  After all, he had made his mark with gore.

Truth is, I don't see Roth's hand in this film at all, but that isn't a bad thing.  "Last Exorcism" is a traditional take on the exorcism genre, with one important twist; it's filmed as if it were a documentary.  Reverend Cotton is cynical, pretending to cure people's demonic ailments for large sums of cash, but the deceit is begining to wear on him.  Before he hangs up his robes, however, he decides to take a film crew along and expose the ritual as a fraud.  Of course, life has other plans.

What really makes this movie work for me where so many other tales of exorcism have failed is the way it was filmed.  I'm not a big fan of first person monster movies, but the documentary style is perfect for this subject matter; it takes what was so sinister about something like the 20/20 special and takes it just a step further.  Coupled with the camera technique is the acting and writing.  Neither is spectacular; they don't have to be.  The important thing is that they manage to create characters that really do seem like people in a documentary.  Whereas something like "Blair Witch" tried to use poor acting to simulate real people, "Last Exorcism" has good enough actors to allow you to pretend they are real people, a critical difference.  Even though I have some issue with the abrupt way this movie ends, it had me on the edge of my seat until the (anti-climactic) climax.  You could definitely do worse this Halloween.

9.  Teeth (2007)

To be fair,  "Teeth" isn't really a horror film in the traditional sense.  It's really more of a dark comedy, with elements of the horrific.  "Teeth" is the story of a girl named Dawn, who grows up in the shadow of a nuclear power plant, unaware that she is different.  She has a rare mutation, vagina dentai; literally, a vagina with teeth.  This is traumatic for her; life-ruining for the procession of men who try and take advantage of her.  While this movie probably won't scare you (unless you are a man who likes taking advantage of women), "Teeth" has a wicked sense of humor and enough gore that it makes a perfect Halloween movie for someone who wants more than just a scare.

8.  Saw (2004)

With a new "Saw" film coming out each year since the first, it's hard to believe that the first installment of this series was actually a low budget film shot in a warehouse over the course of eighteen days.  While each succesive film in the series became a showcase for Jigsaw's traps and all originality left when the creators moved on to other things, the first film in the franchise had interesting characters and the element of surprise.  Two men wake up in a strange room, chained to the wall, with no idea how they got there.  What will happen to them?  Even though some of the acting in the film is downright terrible (I'm looking at you, Mr. Elwes,) the strength of the premise makes this one of the most disturbing films I've ever had the pleasure of seeing.  And while I still think that what makes the original (and possibly the second) "Saw" worth seeing is that there is more there than just gore, the gore that it does have is fantastic.  Forget "Hostel" or the other films lumped in the so-called "torture porn" genre--Wan and Whannel's film, originally meant for straight-to-video, conveys the horror of torture in a way no other film has before or since. 

7.  Cabin Fever (2002)

There is something great about "Cabin Fever," and it's not just that the lead (Rider Strong) has the world's best unintentional porn name.  Without this movie, I probably wouldn't be sitting here writing about horror films.

See, with the exception of Stephen King novels, I "outgrew" horror.  What was terrifying at nine or ten just left me cold when I hit high school.  I didn't mind when other people put on scary movies at Halloween, but I wasn't lining up to see them.  That's how I found "Cabin Fever," actually, as background noise at a party.  Normally I would have been paying more attention to the beer selection, but I was hooked.  It was bloody.  It was freaky.  And it was ridiculously funny. 

"Cabin Fever" starts like so many other horror films, with a troop of sexed-up teenagers headed off into the woods.  But while I knew the predictable tropes of slasher films, the secrets of the undead, and what to expect from monsters, I had no idea how to react to the evil at the center of this film--a flesh eating virus.  As each of the cast succumbed to the inevitable (including the most disturbing shaving scene ever filmed) I grew to appreciate that horror films didn't need to scare, merely entertain, and "Cabin Fever" is still one of the most entertaining "scary movies" I have ever seen.

6.  Paranormal Activity (2007)

I never wanted to watch "Paranormal Activity."  Too many people had compared it to "The Blair Witch Project," which remains one of the least interesting horror movies I've ever sat through.  I didn't really place a lot of faith in the whole "found footage" dynamic, and let the hype monster pass. 

Now it's 2011.  "Paranormal Activity 3" just recorded the highest October opening in box office history, and I have to imagine sweaty studio executives are already calculating how much money they could make off of a fourth film.  It's pretty much the "Saw" franchise all over again, but with ghosts instead of guts.  I would have continued to ignore this film, but luckily Wife decided she wanted to watch it.  We'd had friends over the night before, and I chose to play the sequel to Rob Zombie's "Halloween" (mind blowingly dull the second time I watched it--was the beer really that good the first time?) without any input from her, so I didn't have a vote this time around.

I couldn't have been more wrong about this movie.  It takes a little while to get going, as the actors start in the aforementioned "Blair Witch" mode of non-acting, but eventually they find the same sort of balance that made "The Last Exorcism" work.  The writer and director do a good job of building tension gradually, and even when that tension eases up, it never fully dissipates.  The ghost is perhaps one of the better realized movie ghosts, in that it's neither so hidden as to render it dull or so in-your-face as to lose track of what makes ghosts so scary in the first place.  It's rare that any horror film can make me feel uneasy, but "Paranormal Activity" did just that, and that's why it's my number six horror film you should watch this Halloween. 

5.  Slither (2006)

When you can't decide between "Shaun of the Dead" or "John Carpenter's The Thing," just watch "Slither." 

While an oversimplification, the above sentence does a good job of illustrating why I love this movie.  "Slither" is about a small town sherriff who has to go above and beyond when his town is overrun by body stealing aliens from outer space.  Starring Nathan Fillion (Captain Mal from Firefly,) "Slither" has both the subtle humorous twists that made "Shaun" so great and the over the top gore and suspenseful sci-fi action featured in "The Thing."  And it's a love story. A very disgusting love story. 

Also, its bonus features include the blood recipe I use every year at Halloween.  It doesn't get much better than that.  Oh, wait, it does.  "Slither" also has zombie deer, one of the grossest people-explosions to ever be filmed, and "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" star Micheal Rooker as a scenery-chewing villain named Grant Grant.  Everything left on this list is there because it is scary; "Slither" ups the ante of films on this list like "Cabin Fever" and "Teeth" and is simply the most fun you can have at Halloween.

4.  The Hills Have Eyes (2006)

Hollywood sure loves its remakes.  Over the last decade, we've seen new versions of "Friday the 13th," "Nightmare on Elm Street," "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," "Halloween," and many others.  But in my mind, Alexandre Aja's take on Wes Craven's "The Hills Have Eyes" is the best of them.  Maybe it's because the Craven film doesn't have the nostalgia factor that comes with any new story about Freddy or Jason, but I'm willing to bet it's more due to the director's ability to evoke fear even when nothing that frightening is happening.

The film begins with a family taking their RV on a shortcut through the desert when they blow their front tires.  Even without the psycopathic mutants roaming the hills, we are suddenly filled with a very relatable fear--being stranded in the middle of nowhere.  While many horror films focus on forests, and the darkness inherent to a wall of trees, this movie instead finds and draws out what is menacing about an endless skyline of nothing.  The same style was used in the Australian horror film "Wolf Creek" to good effect, but in service of a much less interesting story.  Combine this isolation and dread with stock footage of nuclear tests and a story of the angry, cannabalistic descendents of fallout victims that seems all-too plausible, and you are in for a very unnerving evening.   

3.  28 Days Later (2002)

There is a lot of debate over whether or not to call "28 Days Later" a zombie movie.  The tag is irrelevant; all you need to know is that it is a great movie.  The infection that decimates the world's population is caused by a man-made "rage" virus when well-meaning environmentalists decide to free the monkeys from an animal testing facility.  Those infected have no desire but to kill and eat; the only thing that seperates them from the classic zombie is that they are still alive.  They can run.  While that may offend purists, it raises the stakes considerably, enough that this film makes my list while no traditional zombie film does.  The speed and ferocity with which the infected attack makes it hard to ever relax while watching this movie, and for good measure director Danny Boyle also one-ups the traditional zombie movie trope that the true evil lies in humanity its self with a brilliant and chilling performance from "Ninth Doctor" Christopher Eccelston.  Also, the camera work in this film is perhaps the best of any on this list; the scene at the start of the film with our hero wandering the empty streets of London is perhaps one of the most iconic shots of the last decade.

Also of note:  This film had a sequel, "28 Weeks Later."  With a completely new cast and director, it is a far cry from the greatness of the original.  That being said, the opening scene disturbs me more than anything in the first film.      

2.  1408 (2007)

If we were just going off of the source material, there is no way that "1408" would represent Stephen King on this list.  From "IT" to "Pet Semetary" to "The Mist," King has earned his reputation as the master of modern horror, but not everything to leave his desk is a masterpiece, and "1408" was one of the more forgettable segments in an otherwise solid short-story compilation, "Everything's Eventual."

It seems to be a trend, however, that while Hollywood butchers King's novels trying to shrink them for the screen they can find just the right ways to elaborate on his shorter works.  While decent novellas, both "Stand by Me" and "Shawshank Redemption" were better as works of film, and Frank Darabont made "The Mist" even more horrific than the original short.  That magic carried over to "1408," a movie I didn't expect to like and certainly not to be scared of.  It stars John Cusack, great in all those eighties films that made the girls swoon:
Not exactly who you imagine as the protagonist in a horror film though.  It was rated PG-13.  I was expecting it to be at best the sort of thing they would show on TV at Halloween that I didn't completely hate, and at worst the same sort of over-rated mind sludge as "The Grudge."

Instead, I left the theater reliving my childhood fear of the dark.  Tree branches stretched across the sky menacingly.  "1408" has little in the way of gore, relatively minor special effects, a small cast and only a few locations, but the director found a way to completely decieve me as to what was real and what wasn't; even though I went into this film looking for any cracks or cliches it dictated my perception, and since the main character was himself a skeptic looking to disprove the existence of ghosts it was easy for me to suspend my disbelief to the point where his reality and my reality were one and the same. 
1.  High Tension (2003)
While the way that "1408" uses traditional ghost story techniques to be frightening and yet suitable for most audiences, and even gory fare like "Slither" and "Cabin Fever" are so laughably over the top I could recommend them to most people, "High Tension" doesn't play so nice.  Alexandre Aja, the director of "The Hills Have Eyes" remake got his start on this French movie, which is not only my favorite horror film, but perhaps one of my favorite movies of all time.  Two girls (college classmates) head to the French countryside home of one of their families to prepare for their exams. An old, beat up work truck rumbles up the driveway after dark.  A man of few words steps out and walks to the door, a straight-razor in his fist.  The killing begins, as does a game of cat-and-mouse between the nameless killer and the girls.  The gore in this film is first rate, excessive and (apart from a scene involving a bannister) frighteningly realistic, but even better is the way the film lives up to its name.  Even though I know how the film ends, I've seen it ten times and I still find myself on the edge of my seat as our heroines try and outrun their assailant.  There is something wonderful about the pacing here, much slower than the American slasher film and yet never dull; the intensity builds without slacking, and ends before wearing out its welcome.  I will say that some people dislike the questionable logic in this film; it never bothered me--strong acting, a creepy, unrelenting gritty atomosphere, and brutal violence--this is a slasher flick with a great modern style but all the balls of the best horror films of the eighties.  I'm not going to let something as inconsequential as "reality" get in the way of a truly scary movie, and you shouldn't either.

Of course, if I've learned everything from listening to Filmspotting, it's that every good movie list needs a few honorable mentions.  This list could have easily been twenty films long, and you'd still have a case that I left out something great.  Here are a few more I think you should check out this Halloween.
Honorable Mentions: 
Creepshow:  Written by Stephen King; directed by "Dawn of the Dead"s George Romero, "Creepshow" is a tribute to the old EC horror comics like "Tales from the Crypt," and rather than telling one feature-length story, it's a collection of viginettes including a tale of bloody revenge, an evil old man getting a little karmic retribution, and Stephen King himself playing a country bumpkin who has the bad luck to come across a strange glowing rock.  It's funny, it's scary, and the comic book style works perfectly for a Halloween film.

Trick R Treat:  This film could be easily described as a descendent of "Creepshow," as it also tells multiple stories rather than just one, although these tales are much more closely linked.  Also like "Creepshow," it manages to use both humor and horror in equal measure.  While most of the publicity this film got centered around the scarecrow costumed boy on the cover, pay attention for the segment of the story featuring "True Blood"s Anna Paquin.

Tremors:  Lots of films get worse with age, but not "Tremors."  If anything, I appreciated the tale of a small town attacked by giant carnivorous worms more as an adult.  Continuing with a theme among my honorable mentions, "Tremors" is funny, perhaps even more funny than scary.  Kevin Bacon, Micheal Gross, and even Reba McEntire ham it up amidst the monster attacks, and while there is plenty of death to be had, you never really fear for the good guys.  This is a good starter film if you are ready to start showing horror films to your children; lots of jump scares, some creepy but unrealistic beasts, and a happy ending.

Event Horizon:  I had forgotten about this movie until Matt Singer of IFC News described it as one of the worst movies he had ever seen.  It has lots of cheesy elements, sure, but what isn't to love about a space station that dissappeared for seven years only to come back.......from Hell.

Well, that's it.  I hope you have found something to watch this holiday season, and if not I will be back later in the week with the chicken wraps Wife has been taking to work with her.  They pack a lot of flavor for something so healthy.


  1. It’s about escapism, and morbid fascination with death. Rotten.com indeed, the desire to be surprised and the whole need to watch a violent scene that one who espouses any kind of moral code would of course abhor. Plant Terror was not on your short list, although you did say that you could add many more. The B.B.Q guy and Josh Brolin as the psycho ex husband and doctor and only non affected non zombie guys stole the movie. The rest of the film was just fake blood and zombies and a bit of a yawn for me. You also did not add The Devil’s Rejects I noticed. I only mentioned that because what was most interesting to me about watching that film with you was in observing people that have such a different notion of entertainment, and performance art? You get the feel that Captain Spalding and the rest view what they are doing as some kind of art. Or hopefully they are just fucked up. Captain Spalding and Otis and the gang also seem as though they almost have a political agenda, in their callous view of Human Nature and how people are to be swatted like flies. They shoot out with the cops very much like armed revolutionaries. The fascinating thing to me is what kind of revolution would these people implement? This is a psychotic view that we are treated too; as though we are not subjected to that in day to day life just in watching the news and reading the newspaper. One seems to be in a psychotic state of place and time when trying to convert the actions of the characters to one of morality or even reason. Maybe that’s what I find fascinating about such films. No morals people. In watching these ultra violent movies are we as viewers rendered immoral? I’m no different, Clockwork Orange, and even my beloved Lonesome Dove are the same in the way that violence is made to be entertainment. Am I taking all of this to seriously? Yes, except that the Romans were out for relaxation and entertainment as well when they stopped by the Coliseum after work for a bit of a laugh. Christians, slaves, gladiators, and lions oh my!

  2. While I enjoyed "The Devil's Rejects," I just don't consider it a horror film. The actions of the characters are horrific, but since they are the protagonists it makes it more of a messed up psychological drama than anything. I was disturbed while watching it, not afraid or laughing at not being afraid. As for "Planet Terror," it was just too light weight. I got a kick out of it, I bought it, it just didn't make the same sort of impression on me as the other movies on my list. I could probably come up with another ten before I even considered it. One film that almost made the honorable mentions that touches on your point about the morality of the viewer is the german movie "Funny Games." A simple tale of home invasion is made much more disturbing by how it is filmed, with the villians talking directly to the audience as if they were taking part in the crimes themselves. You were meant to feel complicit in the violence they doled out to their victims. If this wasn't (outside of Halloween) a food blog I might expand upon that in essay form. Maybe on Facebook.

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