4 Classic Horror Movies That Get More Love Than They Deserve
I've been reminded at least four times in the last few months that it's incredibly difficult to make a truly great horror film. Not speaking from experience, of course; I don't make horror movies myself. I do watch a lot of them, though, and that's really the more important of the two sides when you get down to brass tacks, for a whole slew of reasons, chief among them being that this is my column.
Anyway, the thing about horror movies is that we want to love them, so when something comes along that seems even remotely new or veers away from the run-of-the-mill tropes and cliches we've come to expect from scary movies, our first instinct is to pile on mountains of praise that, in time, reveals itself to be completely undeserved. For example ...
If you've seen the film Rosemary's Baby, I totally understand if your first inclination was to flee the theater in terror while also telling everyone within earshot that they must see it sometime. Of course, you'll note from the wording of the previous sentence that the subject was watching the movie at the theater, when it was fresh and new. That, of course, was the year 1968.
The movie was borderline revolutionary at the time, but "at the time" is a big part of that equation. A movie like this had rarely been seen back then, but we've seen a ton of them since then, and, as much as it pains me to say it, Rosemary's Baby is miles away from being the best, no matter what nearly every list of the best horror movies ever implies to the contrary.
For starters, it's just not that well-executed. Even if you've never seen or heard of Rosemary's Baby, if you watch it today, you will figure out what's going on about 10 minutes into the movie and it will drive you insane that Rosemary somehow does not. Once that happens, it's a long, slow procession of mundane events, sometimes scary, usually not, until exactly what you think is going to happen does, in fact, happen.
Oh! What about that scene where they finally reveal the baby, though? Right: For one thing, it's hard to even spot. If you've ever heard someone gush about the "baby scene" in that movie, allow me to shatter any perceptions of awesome you may have with this screenshot.
It's a Gremlin, basically.
Look, I get that they were working within the technological limitations of their day and that this was actually a neat idea back then and all of those other possible defenses of the movie. All fair points, but given all its modern-day shortcomings, why do people continue to recommend Rosemary's Baby as if it's some sort of essential watching in the "movies where the old people next door are Satanists" subgenre? This is a well that filmmakers have gone to time and again since then, often with much more entertaining results.
What You Should Watch Instead: The Devil's Advocate
It would be way too easy to suggest that you check out the 1976 masterpiece The Omen if movies about the biggest Red of all are your thing. In a perfect world, you've seen that movie like five times by now.
Watching it a sixth time certainly wouldn't kill you, but in the name of shaking things up, I'll take what I suspect might be a slightly controversial stance and say that, if you've never seen either movie, instead of watching Rosemary's Baby, give The Devil's Advocate a shot.
I know that suggesting a film starring Keanu Reeves as an alternative to a film that has probably made several "100 best movies ever" type lists probably seems a bit far-fetched. Hell, Keanu Reeves plays a lawyer in the movie; that alone is pretty damn far-fetched. Also, Al Pacino overacts up a storm, just like he always does. Except, this time, that overacting is exactly why the movie works.
Al Pacino: Doing this exact thing better than anyone else for five decades now.
The creeps in Rosemary's Baby were obvious, certifiable creeps way before they started hinting at wanting to get their neighbor pregnant by the devil. Al Pacino, for his part, is also very obviously a nefarious character, possibly Satan himself. The difference is that Al Pacino makes you like the devil. He's a fun guy. He cracks great jokes and pulls hilarious pranks, like the scene where he convinces a guy on a train that his wife is at home smoking crack and having anal sex with their neighbor, solely for the giggles of it all.
The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was making me wonder if "smoking crack" is a euphemism for anal sex.
If that seems unimportant, it's definitely not, for one huge reason. If you watch Rosemary's Baby today, you will pick up on a million different clues that leave you screaming at the screen in frustration. Just leave! They're old and slow! Maybe you can make it!
Al Pacino doesn't come across that way. Al Pacino plays the devil like a pimp. I don't mean that in the douchey "That's pimp, bro" adjective kind of way, either. He talks like a guy that you'd suspect could convince anyone to do just about anything if you give him a few seconds of time in their ear, and that's exactly what he does for the entirety of the movie. It's an over-the-top performance like all of Pacino's others, except here it's exactly what the movie needs.
Call it blasphemy all you want, but if you were to ask me to suggest one movie of this kind, The Devil's Advocate is my pick.
The Blair Witch Project
The Blair Witch Project actually has a lot in common with Rosemary's Baby. Both were considered groundbreaking works upon their initial release, both are still regarded as horror classics today, and neither really deserves it.
In 1999, found footage movies were a new thing, so much so that plenty of moviegoers actually left theaters believing they'd seen actual footage of the tragic disappearance of three college students when The Blair Witch Project first premiered. Not only was it an idea that hadn't been explored much, but it was also an inspiring idea. This was a feature film shot using the kind of equipment you take on a camping trip. It's the type of film that makes people want to make films, basically.
"Basically" meaning "unfortunately."
That said, just like Rosemary's Baby, it has since been topped in its field in every way imaginable. When you take the found footage charm away (and make no mistake, people loved it ... at first), The Blair Witch Project is a movie that can only end one way. Right up top they explain that this is "footage" of what happened to three campers who went missing. So, spoiler alert, nobody lives.
Which is fine, because you'll hate them all within the first five minutes.
When you remove the tension like that right up front, what happens between that point and the inevitable conclusion is what makes or breaks the movie, and a lot of The Blair Witch Project is petty bickering among assholes you kind of wish would've just died in a car crash on the way up and saved us the hassle of having to watch them get killed on screen.
That said, The Blair Witch Project is probably my favorite of all the movies I'm taking down here, and it's because it pulled off one of the most difficult horror movie tricks of all. More on that later, though. For now ...
What You Should Watch Instead: V/H/S
Like I said, The Blair Witch Project inspired a lot of people to pick up shitty home movie cameras and use them to make seasickness-inducing found footage movies. An alarming number of horror films today fall into this category, and almost all of them are terrible. The first couple of Paranormal Activity movies were fine, I suppose, but you obviously don't need any recommendations there.
Except maybe to avoid this one at all costs.
So, how about you check out V/H/S sometime? For one thing, it's one of those rare found footage movies that actually makes sense as a found footage movie. It begins with a group of petty criminals tasked to break into a creepy house said to contain one particular videotape that they are supposed to steal. They're never told what's on the tape, only that they'll know it when they see it. When they arrive at the house, surprise, there are dozens of tapes! So, they have to watch a few in order to track down the right one, hence the found footage-ness of it all.
The rest of the movie involves them watching various tapes, looking for the right one. Each of those tapes represents a separate short film in what ends up being one of the most entertaining anthology flicks in all of existence. Watch it right goddamn now. Watch the sequel, too.
I don't pay enough attention or do enough research to know if it started with this one in particular, but at some point around the late '90s or so, Hollywood fell in love with remaking Japanese horror films. Again, I'm not sure where this one landed in that progression, but I do know it was extremely successful. Probably the most successful of the bunch. Quite honestly, I don't know if I've ever enjoyed a Japanese-to-American horror movie conversion, but the success of this one in particular was especially baffling to me.
I mean, where do I even begin? The plot? It's a videotape that kills you if you watch it. Time and again throughout the movie, people are told this by someone who is literally trembling for fear of death after having watched it themselves. Every single one of these people watches that fucking tape. Every. Single. One. Even Naomi Watts' kid sneaks a screening in at one point on the grounds that he "was bored."
Fact: 9 out of 10 kids in horror films totally deserve that shit.
Anyway, that's problem number one. In the pantheon of avoidable movie killers, one you can defeat by chucking it in the return slot at your local library has to be one of the most obvious.
The only place that still carries VHS tapes.
Still, it's a horror movie. It's practically required to have a stupid plot; what else is wrong? Well, for one thing, it's rated PG-13. Head for the fucking horror movie hills every time you see that, no exceptions. Also, Naomi Watts plays a reporter who, naturally, becomes instantly captivated with the story behind this mysterious video. So, strap yourself in for 45 or 50 minutes of watching a cute blonde do light clerical work and research stuff on microfiche, horror movie fans!
It could be worse, I suppose.
Also, it's just a stupid fucking movie. That's a fair enough review, I promise.
What You Should Watch Instead: Quarantine
I rarely see Quarantine mentioned among the better horror movies in recent memory, but it should be. This isn't a Japanese import like The Ring (or Ringu, to you), but it does come from another country. In this case, Quarantine is the American version of a Spanish film called Rec. It centers on a young news reporter on a ride-along with a team of firefighters. They head out on what seems to be a routine call, and before you know it, the military is outside threatening to shoot anyone who leaves and people start attacking each other. It's a tense movie, and unlike the makers of The Ring, the people behind Quarantine did the original a whole lot of justice. So much so that I actually went back and watched the foreign language version after watching Quarantine. I rarely do this because, at heart, I'm just an ignorant American like you.
How many things am I going to have to do at one time here?
So, if I was forced to sell someone on the merits of Quarantine in just one sentence, I'd say, "It was so entertaining, it made me want to watch a foreign film." That can't be feedback that resonates only with me.
OK, let's come out swinging here -- I think the character of Hannibal Lecter is kind of obnoxious. Don't get me wrong, The Silence of the Lambs is a stone classic, and Anthony Hopkins destroys in that movie. There were two more movies, though, and call me crazy, but I think Hannibal Lecter is the undoing of both of them.
I'm not even going to bother with the low-hanging fruit that is Hannibal. That was the attempted sequel that co-starred Julianne Moore, because Jodie Foster read the book it was based on and immediately declined to participate. So, I totally want to read the book now, but fuck the movie. Hard. I barely remember it, because it's fucking awful, but I do remember laughing uproariously at the scene where Ray Liotta eats his own brain.
He only got the part because his head actually looks like that.
Was that supposed to be terrifying? I don't know. After The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal always struck me more as comic relief than anything. Again, that Ray Liotta scene. Comedy gold.
It's generally agreed that things took a turn for the better with the third installment in the franchise, Red Dragon. While that's technically true, it's also not true at all.
What You Should Watch Instead: Manhunter
I imagine the thought of Hannibal Lecter played by someone other than Anthony Hopkins strikes people not unlike seeing American Idol runner-up Adam Lambert singing lead for Queen. It's almost so weird that you don't even want to think about it, right?
Just joking, I'd totally watch that shit.
If you said yes, I'm assuming you're one of the millions of movie watchers who've dismissed Manhunter as a cheesy 1980s embarrassment to the franchise's otherwise mostly good name. Well, guess what: You're wrong. Watch the movie. For one thing, if you liked Red Dragon, this is it, almost word for word, except everything looks like Miami Vice and Hannibal Lecter is barely in it.
Hey, that guy isn't creepy at all!
See, there's the thing. Hannibal Lecter is everywhere in Red Dragon. Pouring wine, walking laps, giving advice, nearly killing detectives in flashbacks, and just generally eating up the scenery like only the Sir can.
Seen here preparing to segue into his famous "feed the dinner party human thigh meat" bit.
The problem is, he's not supposed to. While there is a Hannibal Lecter character who serves the same role in the plot and is perfectly creepy in his own right, he's not a major focus of the original version of the film. It's more about the interaction between the lead detective and the serial killer, also called the Tooth Fairy in this version, who is played to way creepier effect in the underrated original by a guy named Tom Noonan.
Sleep tight, everybody.
In that version, the killer is tormented by a facial defect to the point that he keeps an extremely unsettling mask over the top part of his head for a good part of the movie. That kind of happens in the remake, except this time Tom Noonan is Ralph Fiennes, and damn if you keep that face hidden any longer than you must. He wears the same mask for like three seconds, just to assure the audience that the people behind the boards have actually seen the movie they're remaking, and then rips it off his head, casting it away, never to be seen again.
Please! Don't look at me! I'm hideous!
From there, both films head in generally the same direction, with Will Graham hunting the Tooth Fairy killer and such. It's not until the ending when Red Dragon massively fucks things up again by adding a hokey switcheroo twist that seems to have been written solely to justify the salary they paid Mary-Louise Parker to play the role of Will Graham's wife.
Someone's ready to save the day!
For all intents and purposes, Red Dragon is just Manhunter with less neon and more bullshit Hollywood-recommended plot lines and casting decisions. It's not terrible, but it's not any better than Manhunter, which, in my opinion, still stands as the second best film in the Silence of the Lambs universe. If you've never seen it, go watch it right now and then tell me why I'm wrong.
Keep reading! Check out a bonus entry about The Conjuring (along with the latest episode of the Unpopular Opinion podcast) at Adam's own website. You should also follow him on Twitter. After that, go right back to not forgetting to check out his podcast on Stitcher, iTunes and Soundcloud. Then, ideally, all of that should inspire you to come see him tell jokes in person sometime at Westside Comedy Theater in Santa Monica. That's all.