Halloween Top Five Underappreciated Horror FilmsA column article, Shot For Shot by: Nick Hanover
Hausu (1977) – Dir: Nobuhiko Ôbayashi
Typically when we refer to something as underappreciated, we do so from the perspective of a proud parent who just doesn't understand why the other kids don't think our child is cool as shit. As far as we're concerned, the other kids don't know what they're missing and there's no legitimate reason for them to not share our opinion. But in the case of Nobuhiko Obayashi's bizarre late '70s haunted house film Hausu, the reason the other kids are staying far, far away is obvious: Hausu is weird as all fuck.
Hausu has gained a bit more of a profile in recent years, but when you've got nearly no friends anyway, it's not that difficult to have an increase. Except in Japan, where, of course, it was a hit immediately, despite poor reviews. Famously inspired by both Jaws and his daughter's own dreams, Hausu was originally intended to follow the template of that landmark American blockbuster but Obayashi, being a genius, utilized his daughter as a story consultant and thus the world was blessed with a film that features carnivorous pianos, killer futons, and the weirdest cat you'll meet this side of I Can Haz Cheezburger. There is sort of a story to the film, but it was purposefully picked up for development because its original distributor was apparently sick of losing money on "comprehensible films" and that's definitely not something one has to worry about with Hausu.
What story is there centers around seven schoolgirl friends, who are all named after defining traits: Gorgeous is gorgeous, Kung Fu is a skilled martial artist, Prof is booksmart, Melody is musically talented, Mac, uh, likes to put things in her stoMACh, etc. The girls go on summer vacation together in an effort to cheer up Gorgeous, who is stuck in a kind of Cinderella story at home, and so they wind up at the decidedly odd house of Gorgeous' aunt. And that's more or less where the story ends and the insanity begins, as Gorgeous and her friends are attacked and slaughtered by the vengeful aunt and her sentient house of horrors. The barebones story exists specifically to set-up the effects and weirdness and in that regard it succeeds completely. Hausu deserves newfound appreciation not just in spite of its weirdness, but because of it, like some sickly nerd kid who turns out to be entirely charming once you get past his overwhelming awkwardness.
Prince of Darkness (1987) – Dir: John Carpenter
Our own Paul Brian McCoy has gone on record with his belief that John Carpenter's career was derailed in the wake of They Live, but as far as the moviegoing public is concerned, that derail happened following the success of Starman. For whatever reason, everything Carpenter did after Starman was rejected by the public at large and often by critics as well. Keep in mind, Carpenter's work in this era was some of the best of his career, from the clever, elastic action of Big Trouble in Little China and They Live to the apocalyptic terror of one of Carpenter's most undervalued works and the focus of this capsule piece: Prince of Darkness.
As the midpoint in Carpenter's aptly titled Apocalypse Trilogy, Prince of Darkness is more urban and far reaching than its predecessor The Thing, situated in the same hellish Los Angeles that would also be explored in They Live. Prince of Darkness is Carpenter reaching beyond his comfort zone and succeeding, maintaining the claustrophobic horror that had become his trademark while adding on meta-elements that strip the root of all evil down to a microscopic level which in turn makes it far more global than one would suspect. That's achieved through a fascinating mixture of organic horror a la Cronenberg and a metaphysical, holy horror a la Friedkin's Exorcist in a story concerning the discovery of true evil, which has fittingly been residing in a sinister container in an abandoned LA church.
Like so many horror films from this time, Prince of Darkness is about belief and how it mutates in an age of unparalleled technological wonders, with a cast of characters that are beyond your typical braindead horror tropes. The characters of Prince of Darkness are exceedingly smart, from a diverse number of areas of expertise, and that makes the film all the more terrifying: if these geniuses can't ward off evil, what chance do us average Joes have? But while this type of thinking was relatively new for horror in the '80s, it wasn't new for Carpenter, who had been exploring the pitfalls of intelligence ever since his debut with Dark Star. Prince of Darkness saw that element of Carpenter's skillset expanded, with likewise expanded special effects and concepts. It's a shame that it has yet to be truly recognized as one of Carpenter's better works.
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006) – Dir: Scott Glosserman
Before Cabin in the Woods cemented 2012's status as the year of meta-horror, a couple of brave filmmakers attempted the same thing back in 2006. Scott Glosserman's Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is arguably the more daring work of that year, channeling the great lost mockumentary classic Man Bites Dog with the story of a hopeful news reporter and her crew following around the titular Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesel), who just so happens to be a budding serial killer in the Jason Voorhees tradition. Glosserman's genius, however, comes in his decision to make Vernon so completely likeable while his cast of soon-to-be victims are the kinds of douchebags and assholes most of us remember hating in high school.
The bulk of the film is spent documenting the lead-up to Vernon's big event, as he stalks his chosen "survivor girl" and her friends, showing us how he's manipulated the situation in order to ensure that they will be in an isolated house where he can pluck them off one by one. Glosserman fills the cast with an all-star assemblage of horror icons, including Kane Hodder, Zelda Rubinstein and even Robert Englund as Vernon's serial killer mentor, which serves to instill a sense of comfort with the viewers, lulling them into a trusting complacency before shit gets crazy.
Behind the Mask is decidedly light on scares and gore in its early going, but that's part of the effect, so when Vernon's real plan is unveiled and in place, it's too late for anyone-- Vernon's victims, the viewer surrogate news team, those of us watching the film-- to do much of anything. Behind the Mask may lack the big picture aspect of Cabin in the Woods, but it's also arguably more enjoyable, existing somewhere between that film's intradimensional fuckery and the more aloof, comedic terror of the Scream franchise.
Hatchet (2006) – Dir: Adam Green
The other underappreciated meta-horror classic of 2006 is perhaps less original than Behind the Mask, but arguably better made and more important in terms of its pedigree. Hatchet is one of those films that you either immediately love or hate, but for true horror buffs it signaled the rise of one of the most promising new directors operating in horror today. Adam Green may have started his career with a light, well-received romantic comedy, but Hatchet was something else, a brave new work that found a talented filmmaker channeling the influences of his youth and embracing post-modernism in a refreshing and innovative way.
Starring frequent Green collaborator Joel David Moore as Ben, a young kid dealing with a bad break-up, who's more or less forced to go to New Orleans by his friend Marcus (Deon Richmond) in an attempt to distract him from his troubles, Hatchet is constructed around the standard slasher/psychopath tropes of '80s horror films. There's a spooky rural setting, natives who try to warn our heroes about the dangers they face, and generations of folklore about the monster haunting the area. Rather than attempt to deconstruct those tropes, with Hatchet, Green embraces the way knowing the rules only gets you so far in modern horror, giving the characters no quarter as they're mercilessly destroyed by Kane Hodder's Victor Crowley.
Behind the Mask may have minimized the gore in its take on post-modern horror, but Green goes full blast, producing some of the most gruesome and technologically advanced kills in modern horror, none of which rely on the Saw influenced indirect, technical killing that was en vogue when the film was released. As a result, Hatchet holds up remarkably well, with Green and crew's emphasis on old school effects allowing it to feel truly timeless.
Pontypool (2009) – Dir: Bruce McDonald
Pontypool isn't just an underappreciated horror film-- it's one of the most underappreciated films of any genre in recent memory. Structured like an airtight stage play, Bruce McDonald's 2009 work of post-millennial communicative horror is merely a document of one day in a small, boring town, where Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) has been sent to work as a radio DJ in some kind of professional exile. Mazzy is lovably unloveable, a shock jock with no one left to shock, flanked by a producer who doesn't care about his act (Lisa Houle's Sydney Briar) and a young engineer who treats him like a funny but ultimately kind of embarrassing uncle (Georgina Reilly's Laurel-Ann Drummond).
Working with Tony Burgess, who adapted the screenplay from his own novel, McDonald moves outside of his comfort zone (sardonic examinations of Canadian alternative culture, for those of you who are curious) to create a profoundly unique horror work that also serves as clever commentary on how communication itself can break down our higher functions. Pontypool succeeds in large because of the way McDonald and Burgess maximize minimal space, keeping the film set almost exclusively inside Mazzy's soundbooth and the surrounding radio station, with the horrific scenarios taking place outside its confines filtered to us through the reports of the station's weatherman and its callers.
When moments of violence do occur, the impact is explosive, as McDonald's claustrophobic aesthetics rupture from the pressure of the gore and horror that had otherwise been contained, resulting in a strange kind of violent beauty, like a peak-era Mogwai track where the dynamics are key and the sudden intrusion of brutal noise is as frightening as it is welcome. Because of the cleverness of Pontypool's central conceit, it's recommended that you view it with little knowledge of its actual plot and twist, but even once you know the twist, it's incredibly fun to revisit, mostly due to how expertly Burgess crafted the dialogue. But above all it's the horror McDonald and Burgess find in the unknown and misinformation that makes it such a standout piece of contemporary horror.
When he's not writing about the cape and spandex set and functioning as the Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin, Nick Hanover is a book, film and music critic who has contributed to Spectrum Culture, No Tofu Magazine, Performer Magazine, Port City Lights and various other international publications. By which he means Canadian rags you have no reason to know anything about. He also translates for "Partytime" Lukash's Panel Panopticon and you can follow him on twitter@Nick_Hanover