Hoping for Horror

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I have always loved good horror films.  My experience has been that there are three ways a horror film can be appealing. (1) It can give me a good case of the heebie-jeebies, either through unexpected scares, or the buildup of a sense of unease through pacing and imagery – examples would be The Exorcist, The Changeling, or The Ring.  (2) It can develop a sense of overwhelming dread and despair; “There is no hope”.  These are often things like Romero’s early zombie films.  (3) It can be a pure gorefest, and the best kinds usually come with a good, but twisted, sense of humor.   The Evil Dead 2 or Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive are prime examples.

It also seems that there are two things a horror film can do to start off in a good or bad direction right away.  If the story is established in a unique or interesting setting, then the film is already on the right path – the question is, will that opportunity be squandered?  Although I have not seen it yet, the new film The Chernobyl Diaries looks like – based on reviews – an example of a movie that squanders the opportunity of its setting.  On the other hand, the worst thing a horror film can do is open with “Look, some wacky college friends are going on a road trip together!  Gosh, whatever will happen to them!”  If the film opens this way, there had better be some very unique and unexpected events in store for the characters.

It has been a while since I discovered a good horror film, and I have been pining for the days of marathons of zombie flicks or obscure foreign horror films.  So, I decided to go on a horror hunt.  Rather than grab random titles, I decided to go through the movies from the After Dark Horrorfest series, AKA Ëight Films to Die For – this was a film festival during the summers of 2006 – 2009 where theaters showed eight different movies over a short time period.  Our local Family Video has many of the films from this series, so I went through all the ones available.  And now I am here to report my findings!

Of the 32 films in the four runs of this series, our local video store had 19.  They had none from the festival’s first year, all of the final year (Horrorfest IV), and incomplete sets of II and III.  I found a few that can highly recommend, a few that are fun candy, and a lot that I cannot recommend.  Let’s go from best to worst.  The best movies, which I highly recommend depending on your tastes, are:

  1. Hidden (from Horrorfest IV, 2009)
  2. Autopsy (from Horrorfest III, 2008)
  3. Perkins” 14 (from Horrorfest III, 2008)

Hidden shows that Norwegians not only make great heavy metal, but great horror films, too.  This movie is not jump-out-of-your-seat scary, but has a very good horrific story that is slowly unveiled as the film goes on.  At several points in the film, what you think you know gets turned on its head.

Autopsy is horribly misnamed.  Yes, it takes place in a hospital and involves involuntary surgeries, but there are no actual autopsies. In fact, the characters who are the major players and anchors of the plot are never dead.  It should be called “Donors” – you’ll know why after you watch it. This is a joyful splatterfest that takes pride in its gruesomeness, and has many moments of sick humor – you know, when you laugh hard at something and then wonder what sort of terribly sick person laughs at something like that!  The story devolves into a bit too much of “random people stalking or being stalked through arbitrary hallways in a building”, but its strengths make up for that.  And it stars Robert Patrick, who apparently lost a bet or was doing someone a favor.

Perkins’ 14 is a good story that takes a marvelous swerve about half-way through.  Take an episode of Criminal Minds, add in a bit of 28 Days Later, and I won’t say anymore.  Just watch it.

The “what the hell, watch these if you have some spare time” include:

  1. Lake Dead (Horrorfest II, 2007)
  2. Tooth and Nail (Horrorfest II, 2007)
  3. Slaughter (Horrorfest III, 2008)
  4. The Reeds (Horrorfest IV, 2009)
  5. Zombies of Mass Destruction (Horrorfest IV, 2009)

Lake Dead *almost* got into my list of strong recommendations, but not quite.  However, of these three, it’s the one I would suggest first. It’s your usual road trip movie that ends badly for everyone involved, and the whole movie is spent waiting to see who gets it next.  But this film takes such joy in its plot and has enough twisted moments that you may find it worth your time.  Or not.

Tooth and Nail has a great post apocalyptic set-up, but then devolves into way too much of the random running around  for no reason in the empty hallways of a large deserted building – you know, rather than just getting the hell out of there.  Too much running in circles and stupidity on the part of the characters brings the film down, but it gets points for a nifty set up.

Slaughter has some of the best acting of any of the Horrorfest movies, at least by the two main leads, but ultimately it’s not enough to carry the film.  The payoff isn’t strong enough.

The Reeds has an interesting setting, a somewhat clever back story that develops, and a really cool pseudo-time-travel (or at least time-looping) element to some of the events in the film.  I give the writers props for trying something a bit different, but overall, I don’t know that it holds together well.

Zombies of Mass Destruction turns out to be “just another” zombie flick.  It has some really funny moments and great dialog, but that competes with very uneven special effects and editing.  It also plays nicely with some stereotypes to present something new.  However, some of the jokes and scenarios in the film wear out their welcome and drag on too long.  (As a side note, I peeked at some user reviews on IMDB for this one, and saw a couple mention a “clever twist” – but I don’t know what twist that was supposed to be, nothing unexpected ever happens.)

Here are the rest, that I can’t recommend.

  1. Lake Mungo (Horrorfest IV)
  2. Kill Theory (Horrorfest IV)
  3. The Graves (Horrorfest IV)
  4. The Final (Horrorfest IV)
  5. The Butterfly Effect 3 (Horrorfest III)
  6. Dying Breed  (Horrorfest III)
  7. Unearthed (Horrorfest II)
  8. Crazy Eights (Horrorfest II)
  9. Nightmare Man (Horrorfest III)
  10. Mulberry St (Horrorfest II)
  11. The Deaths of Ian Stone (Horrorfest II)
The best of this set, which is close to being a “what the hell” watch is Lake Mungo.  This is a faux documentary about the mystery around, and potential haunting after, the drowning of a teenage girl.  And although it starts off slowly, it builds nicely with some good creepy imagery.  But just when things start to get good, the plot shoots itself in the foot with a switcheroo – “Hey, guess what, all that stuff we showed before was just made up!”  But then later, “Oh, wait a minute, maybe there was something strenge going on after all!”  The writers didn’t know they already had a good thing going, and decided a swerve was better than staying on track – and that spoiled the film.
The worst of the worst is a tie between The Final and The Graves.  The Final is just dreadful – a bad story with bad acting.  The Graves is a great example of a movie that squanders the gift of its good setting.  It takes place around a old abandoned mine in the deserts of Arizona, and this provides some really nice cinematography and creepiness.  Unfortunately, the sheer stupidity of the characters blows it all.  In an odd way, the setting may have been its downfall – the writers knew they had to keep the action centered around the mine complex and so – instead of having the characters *head for the damn road that was right down the driveway from the mine complex* they just keep circling around and heading back into the buildings where the killer(s) lurk.  We also find out near the beginning of the movie that a large blacksmith-looking dude lumbering along at a slow walk can actually catch up to two healthy women running full speed away for several minutes.  And no, killers who put on a plastic pig nose and make snorting noises while stalking their prey will not become hip horror film cult favorites no matter how desperately you try.
So there you go.  Watch Hidden, Autopsy, and Perkins’ 14.  Take some time with a few of the “what the hell” options, and avoid the rest.