There was plenty of schlocky horror-comedy like The Return of the Living Dead in the ‘80s, from Evil Dead to Re-Animator to Child’s Play. Dan O’Bannon, primarily a screenwriter during his career, responsible for writing Alien and Total Recall (not to mention John Carpenter’s stoned masterpiece Dark Star), made here a fine zombie film, loaded with the requisite splatter, gore, and humour. Unlike its primary inspiration, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, it isn’t morbid or nihilistic, but it is entirely entertaining. Sometimes, that’s all you need.
Perhaps unfairly criticised at the time of its release because of the weight of fan expectation and hype surrounding it, Prometheus emerges these days as a much finer, more intelligent science-fiction film, albeit not one without flaws. In its grandiose production design and excellent special effects, it truly is a breathtaking sight to watch, laden with awe and wonder. In its ambitious attempt to ask fundamental questions about the meaning of life (questions that science-fiction was made to ask), it reaches for lofty heights, even scaling them from time to time. A lack of focus, particularly with an overlarge (though excellent) cast, does harm the complexity of the film, and the final act’s devolution into standard action filmmaking does feel like studio imposition rather than authorial vision, but regardless this is the most worthy successor to Ridley Scott’s original Alien; a superior work to even James Cameron’s Aliens and perhaps as close as we might get to realising the unachieved ambition of Alien 3’s messy conception.
What’s scarier? When you only get a glimpse of the monster, in flashes of darkness and shadow, or when you see him fully in the light, every gory detail? Horror always functions best when working on the unknown, and for much of its first act Jeepers Creepers does just that, with director Victor Salva (who, I should point out, is a terrible human being) crafting a solidly creepy tension machine. Then, our stalker, who up until this point had only been glimpsed from afar, is revealed in full and…it’s not that scary. The rest of the film leaves just a fairly predictable gorefest of cliché and exposition. But hey, that first half-hour!
To an extent, I admire Paranormal Activity; it’s one of the more convincingly-done and formally interesting found footage horrors of the 21st century. By fixing most of its scares into one dimly-lit point-of-view, it forces viewers to actively scan the screen for information and answers, and the normality and naturalism of its two unknown actors works to its advantage, especially as the film’s verisimilitude is meant to be its strongest selling point. Of course, the real litmus test is whether Paranormal Activity is scary or not. For me, it mostly isn’t: outside of a couple of creepy moments, it’s hardly capable of keeping me up at night. There’s worse out there, most of it cheap(er) imitations of this, Paranormal Activity is still relatively boring horror.
Black Sheep features the kind of high-schlock premise—flesh-eating sheep that turn bitten humans into ovine monsters—that almost certainly delivers a degree of entertainment if it’s delivered upon. In that respect, writer-director Jonathan King doesn’t disappoint. Yes, Black Sheep is low-budget, hammily-acted, and certainly gets a bit repetitive towards the end, but it’s entertaining enough on the way there. The satiric potential of the material is sadly mostly ignored (and could have turned decent schlock into superb schlock), but there’s enough laughter and gore here to make it at the very least worth your while.
Yes, I know it’s November. I have a backlog you know. I don’t care. Halloween is excellent stuff no matter what time of year you’re watching it. Time and imitation may have dulled the sheer visceral impact of John Carpenter’s most iconic film over the years, but what’s left is the work of a master craftsman. Halloween still functions so smoothly as a horror-thriller thanks to Carpenter’s nuance and understanding of cinematic techniques; the long tracking shots from the killer’s-POV; the framing of objects in the foreground or background forcing us to watch the entire screen instead of just one element; the use of music, which becomes ingrained into our reactions to each scene. It’s a masterwork of audience manipulation that would have made Hitchcock proud.
I have a near-limitless patience for trash, and a willing love of watching films that fall firmly in the ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ category, and truth be told the premise and budget of The Corpse Grinders holds promise for such qualities: made on just $47,000, it tells the story of a cat food company, who decide to use humans for their produce. The neighbourhood cats then gain a taste for human flesh, attacking and killing humans, leading an inquisitive doctor onto the investigative trail. Sound amazing right? Unfortunately, there is little gore and even less interest. The film is just competently made enough that it’s not laugh-out-loud bad, but it’s also brain-gnawingly, tedium-migraine-inducingly boring, like terrible wallpaper, consisting of little more than characters explaining the plot to each other. Avoid like bad cat food.
No-budget ‘80s horror is a prime area for finding films that fall firmly into the so-bad-they’re-good ground, and Basket Case very nearly does. No film about a bloke who carries around a murderous unintelligible blob in a basket case made on $35,000 is going to be a technical masterpiece. Yet beneath the ham-fed amateurish acting and the ketchup-strewn special effects there is a genuinely endearing film; director Frank Henenlotter has a real feel for the grimy underside of early-‘80s New York, giving Basket Case a rough-hewn, ugly air that suits the splatter-fuelled material. Alongside the Freudian subtext revolving around sexual liberation and familial rejection, the film is filled with enough knowing humour and sincerity that it never comes off as hacky or dishonest.
2016 has been something of a banner year for horror. The Witch was an early-year instant classic to reach these shores, whilst horror-western Bone Tomahawk was also an impressive piece of work that arrived around the same time. It’s not particularly scary, but zombie film The Girl With All the Gifts was also an incredibly piece of work that’s certain to be up there when I get around to an end-of-year list. Then there are the horror-thriller hybrids by Fede Alvarez and Jeremy Saulnier, with Don’t Breathe and Green Room respectively providing white-knuckle thrill rides supplanted by bone-crunching brutality. Now enter another instant classic, the cross-country production Under the Shadow. In Farsi, directed by Iranian-born Babak Anvari, filmed in Jordan and financed by Qatar and the UK, Under the Shadow is genuinely “oh fuck” scary, up there with It Follows and The Witch in the annals of recent horror.
Part of a tradition of horrors that present the urban apartment as a locus of modern middle-class anxieties and claustrophobic fears that stretches back to Roman Polanski’s loose “apartment” trilogy (Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant), Under the Shadow tells the story of Shideh (Narges Rashidi) and her daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), living in Tehran in the late ‘80s as the Iran-Iraq war was reaching its conclusion. A former medical student barred from returning to university due to her affiliation with ‘radical’ groups during the 1979 Iranian revolution, Shideh’s frustrated ambitions are compounded by the fact her doctor husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) has been drafted into the frontline. Even worse, despite his protestations and the increased bombing of the capital, Shideh opts to stay in their apartment home even as it becomes increasingly dangerous.
Things start coming to a head when a shell directly hits the family’s apartment building, shattering windows and leaving a horrendous crack in the ceiling. Soon after, objects start going missing: Dorsa’s favourite doll, Shideh’s banned workout video. Later, ghostly figures start appearing in the apartment, causing things to go bump in the night. A devoutly religious neighbour, Mrs Ebrahimi (Aram Ghasemy) explains to the non-religious Shideh that the figures are djinn, wandering evil spirits in Islamic theology.
Anvari opts to keep these figures in the dark for much of the film. Coming in at only 84 minutes, Under the Shadow is a case study in narrative efficiency and economy. The bomb hits the apartment at roughly the half-hour mark, but we don’t get a good look at the djinn until about twenty minutes before the end. Even when we do, we get only fleeting glimpses, a black featureless figure hooded by a chador; a spectral metaphor for the Iranian government’s repression of women outside of their homes, as when a tearful unveiled Shideh is picked up by authorities having been chased from her home by the djinn and duly given a very stern slap on the wrist, reminded of her place in society. When she returns home (now veiled), she turns to the mirror, and is momentarily frightened by her own appearance in a chador, forced into something she isn’t.
The other residents of Shideh’s apartment block are mostly women of various political backgrounds, with the males being either elderly or children—no prizes for guessing where young men of military age might be—and as the bombing continues, the city of Tehran gradually depopulates, its denizens leaving for relatives in the country or abroad. Only Shideh stays, determined to reclaim her independence, but as her neighbours leave, so too does the feminine support network she has built up, where the sense of community prevails over political and religious differences, even with her frosty relationship with Mrs. Ebrahimi.
The djinn appear to know Shideh’s weak spots, probing into her life and straining her relationship with her daughter. Her and Dorsa’s relationship is wonderfully drawn, and Babak Anvari’s portrayal of their domestic life is fully realised: Under the Shadow scares because we care, and because the film spends a good deal of its running time simply depicting their relationship, the eventual payoff is all the more terrifying simply because we’ve been allowed into the lives of these characters. Shideh is far from a perfect mother, even before the djinn start playing on her deepest fears, but she’s an inherently good person, ambitions frustrated by what looked like a genuinely progressive turn in Iranian history devolving into religious authoritarianism. Rashidi’s performance is spot-on, taking the complexity of her character and giving it the depth and intelligence that Shideh deserves. Avin Manshadi is adorable too as Dorsa, a clever and perceptive little girl, and Babak Anvari clearly knows how to direct his actors. The two stars have a really believable chemistry, and the film far surpasses the overpraised The Babadook from a few years back as far as horrors based on parent-child relationships are concerned.
One might argue that there are minor quibbles with Under the Shadow; perhaps Anvari leans a bit too much on jump scares at times, but they are brilliantly deployed and well-timed jump scares, not fun-house fairground ride “boo!”s. Even exceptionally minor quibbles like this don’t change the fact that Under the Shadow is, as I’ve said already, genuinely terrifying. Towards the end, my heart was barely keeping up, and whilst that might signal larger problems with my fitness rather than my appreciation for the film, any horror fan owes it to themselves to track this one down.