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Horror Month Top Ten - Unrest Meets the Living

Among all the differing approaches to the afterlife, and all the religions and cultures that ponder such things, there are a few constants that bind them together. From the strange curses, to demonic rage or possession, to unfinished business or even acceptance of death, stories of spirits that cannot rest are driven by a universal sadness, a fear of letting go and of the unknown horrors that await, and that makes them the most relatable of horror sub-genres to the human experience. Some variation of one of these stories could be waiting for each of us, and what better way to mull that over than by turning out the lights and watching a few of my recommendations from this rather broad genre?

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01. Kuroneko (1968, Kaneto Shindō)
Starting out as what could be a run-of-the-mill ghost tale, Kuroneko, translated literally as Black Cat, manages a remarkable turnaround that twists a demon curse tragedy into a painfully beautiful love story. A soldier's wife and her mother are raped and murdered in their home by a band of traveling soldiers during a civil war. Their hut is burned to the ground, time passes, and the curse of the black cat from the grove begins. All samurai that happen down their path during the night hours are killed by this mother/daughter pair, now reborn as cat demons after begging the dark gods to allow their continued existence for revenge. Neither ever expected the woman's husband to return from battle alive, as a hero, and to be tasked with their destruction with the incentive of being granted position into the samurai class. The unlikely setup targets our hero with the indiscriminate vengeance of his fallen family members, an unfortunate situation that might've played out had the two lovers not recognized each-other. What happens instead is a willful break of their evil promise, followed by one last chance for our lovers to be together, though it can only last a finite number of days, and there are other consequences that just cannot be avoided. The film features a scathing depiction of the samurai class, and though brief, some high-level audience wish-fulfillment in the form of the very uplifting reunion of the young couple, the clear strong point of the film.

If you enjoy this, also seek out Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu (1953).

02. Possession (1981, Andrzej Zulawski)
Possession may be the most intense and divisive film I've ever seen in the genre, supposing we're speaking of horror. Coined a 'video nasty' during its home-distribution run, Possession has clearly defined horror elements that actually manage to horrify. Zulawski himself despises the idea of horror being the only category that comes to mind, and for good reason. The core plot of the broken marriage, portrayed with heart-breaking realism by leads Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill, is about as fully-realized as it gets. Performances are strong and uniformly over-the-top, with Isabelle Adjani leading the way with a ferocity not often witnessed on the big screen. She is a force, possessed by her role of Anna to a degree that feels dangerous, all the while showing incredible contrast in her alternate role, Helen. Their duality, as well as another dual role, serve the political allegory that is the main focus and inspiration of the film, being, the infectious evil emanating from the other side of the iron curtain. A large chunk of the film takes place a short walk away from the Berlin wall, which is quite often in view. Dual roles suggest both maintained and conquered ideals, with a surrounding horror delivery that boldly compares the gradual embrace of communism to the apocalypse, all ushered in by a sort of antichrist. It is an oppressive, mad film, which excels at letting the audience in on the madness thanks to the amazing performances.

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03. The Shining (1980, Stanley Kubrick)
Some films take on a life and power of their own, and compel you to protect your suspended disbelief at all costs. I don't care about Stephen King's thoughts on this film. I have no interest in the source novel, or in the TV mini-series. I normally feel quite a bit of reverence for the source material of adaptations, and this time I just don't care, because Kubrick's film to me is perfect. From the portrayal of their isolation, to the psychic characters and the horrors they witness, to the history of the prior grounds keeper, to the considerable age of the resident spirits; it all comes off even more pitch-perfect each time I watch this masterpiece. The details as well as the characters are all delivered with a controlled minimalism and distance, making way for the perfect seeding ground of your imagination. The tone is consistently oppressive and bleak, with almost all happy moments snuffed out beyond a few exchanges early on between Danny and Mr. Hallorann. Their secret powers, while admittedly saving a few lives, never manage to make us as tag-alongs feel empowerment. They do far more to complement the resident horror around them as well as reinforce the threats they are up against. Once all is said and done and we reach the end credits, I feel neither saved nor safe, and leave with a renewed fear of the world and its mysteries.

04. Ghostbusters (1984, Ivan Reitman)
This film is a showcase for so much of what the magical 80's had to offer. It is an absolute peak of pre-CG special effects, where the few rough edges do little to hold back what is largely still quite effective. The plotting is rock solid and easy to follow, with just enough twists and social commentary thrown in that the running-time is justified and the balance maintained. The Elmer Bernstein score is perfectly suited to both the spooky aspects as well as the more cheeky and absurd, and the licensed pop tracks continue to linger on in our memories, for better or for worse. Leading the way in this area is the montage sequence of the ghosts invading the city after being freed by the EPA, accompanied by the hypnotic track, 'Magic' by Mike Smiley. The gags in this sequence will still get a few laughs, but it is the mood set by the track combined with the spirits sweeping trails through the New York skyline that make this sequence the pinnacle of the magical 80's film montage. Also turning in a personal best here is Bill Murray, who has an unnatural command of his dry brand of comedy throughout, delivering hits nearly every time he opens his mouth. I feel this performance dates much better than some of his other roles from the decade, and I personally don't feel he was this in-tune with his comedic strengths again until he started working with Wes Anderson. Ghostbusters is a timeless experience, a true classic, somehow remaining fresh no matter how many times I watch it.

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05. Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983, Jack Clayton)
It is hard not to find it worth note when a novelist adapts his own work into a screenplay. Ray Bradbury's involvement with this production, as well as the original novel I regret to admit, were both unknown to me when seeing this film for the first time as a young boy. All that really registered in my long-term memory from that viewing was the tarantula scene, and that has since lost most of it's effectiveness. My adult self is found affected by so much more though, in this surprisingly mature horror film from Disney Studios. There is a lot that isn't told about the Autumn People, and that is precisely the sort approach that makes it scary, being allowed to fear what we don't understand. The arrival sequence of the carnival by train is amazing, particularly in the way the Dust Witch arrives separately in a mysterious block of ice in the middle of town. One gets the impression of both a physical and spiritual arrival of these Autumn People, and the fantastic score drives it all along with its sinister foreboding tempo. Perhaps the standout performance, and a major factor to what makes the evil carnival so effective, is Jonathan Pryce as Mr. Dark. His obsession with the boys makes the horror quite immediate, and the way he handles his devil deals is a joy to watch, targeting the vices of the townsfolk, and ultimately being beaten by their virtues.

06. Kwaidan (1964, Masaki Kobayashi)
Four tales, all spiritual and spooky in nature, from cinematic master Masaki Kobayashi. First we have Black Hair, the story of a man tired of poverty that decides to leave his beloved wife when offered the hand of marriage with a woman of high status. His new wife too cold and self-obsessed, he leaves her to return to his lost love. Second is The Woman in the Snow, featuring Tatsuya Nakadai as a young woodcutter-apprentice. Their trek through the woods one snowy evening leads to seeking refuge in an abandoned hut, where they meet a beautiful fair-skinned demon who steals the old man's lifeforce. The young man is allowed to live, but on a promise to never speak of the event. Third is the most lengthy story, Hoichi the Earless, about a blind boy whose musical talents catch the ear of some spirits from battles past. When their nightly invitation to court with them begins to threaten his life-force, it is necessary to rely on some protective rituals. Last is In a Cup of Tea, the story of a writer, writing a story of a man, who sees a stranger in the reflection of his teacup. After fighting this spirit for trespassing on his daimyo's estate, he begins to appear mad. Kwaidan has a very specific styling to it, which is quite rooted in the theater as well as fables. Sets are often blatantly small in scale, with gorgeous painted backdrops close enough to touch. Spot-lighting is applied generously, and the mad sound-effects will often sound more like one of Hoichi's musical interpretations of a story than of the actual goings-on. It is a pleasing aesthetic that is consistently beautiful on all fronts. Those that appreciate live arts will find this a rather incredible offering.

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07. Black Sabbath (1963, Mario Bava)
Bava's distinct style and atmosphere are displayed in full force in this unforgettable horror anthology, aptly titled as homage to Bava's brilliant Black Sunday. Connected by a host segment featuring horror icon Boris Karloff, Black Sabbath starts off with The Telephone, an early example of the popular giallo sub-genre. The tale has a good amount of tension and implied malice. Not surprisingly, the lesbian undertones were deemed too bold at the time and were actually edited out in the US cut of the film. Second on the list is The Wurdalak, which comes across as the pillar of the anthology both in length as well as for its inclusion of Karloff in a second role. It is a capable Gothic vampire tale, with some appreciated romantic elements, and while very good it ended up the weakest of the three for me. Lastly, we have A Drop of Water, the star of the trio for most viewers, as well as the main reason I've included Black Sabbath in my list. It involves a nurse caring for a dead spirit medium, who gets tempted by the ring the corpse is wearing and steals it. What follows is some of the most terrifying filmed horror I've ever witnessed, so effortlessly playing on our imaginations as the narrative creeps along. The titled drop of water is heard dripping constantly throughout the sequence, much to the frustration and madness of our poor nurse. The lighting is amazingly varied and colorful, as is often the case with Bava, and the facial expression of the corpse is pure concentrated nightmare fuel. Anyone interested in the more atmospheric brand of horror owes it to themselves to experience this golden standard of a film.

08. The Gate (1987, Tibor Takįcs)
The Gate is another one of those horror films that continues to be compelling beyond that scary first viewing as a child. It is very much in the vein of those 80's cheese-fests we're all familiar with, or it at least rubs elbows with them. We have the pair of grade-school chums led by Stephen Dorff, the obnoxious older sister and her similarly obnoxious friends, the parents leaving town for the weekend, and the evil thing that knocks the whole situation on its rear. In this case that thing is a gate to Hell the boys opened by mistake by playing one of their rock vinyls backwards. The demonology portrayed in this film has a startling authenticity to it that really takes you back as an adult. Most 80's cheese-fests simply don't try this hard in any one area to rise above some generic scares, making this a case of the part surpassing the sum, elevating the film as a whole. As is the case with much of teen horror from the 80's, many scenes feel more fun than scary, but there is always this underlying little extra push within the details that makes one a little uneasy. The ultimate example of this happens during the final sequence when our young hero is faced with what appears to be some Lovecraftian elder god, and the palm of his hand grows a third eye. Being that the boys summoned this being, it isn't hard to connect the dots that the eye represents control of this creature, and it is even more noteworthy that the eye's purpose isn't explicitly stated in the narrative. There is some uncharacteristic depth to this forgotten 80's horror romp, and that makes it worth a second look for those that may have experienced it years ago.

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09. Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees (1975, Masahiro Shinoda)
Here we have the familiar setup of a demon curse, but with a rather audacious and demented approach from new waver Masahiro Shinoda. A notorious mountain bandit meets a woman of impossible beauty during a routine highway robbery, which begins his unflinching obsession with her and his interest in keeping her happy. Starting off with the rather humorous command to carry her on his back, he doesn't hesitate to do as she says. It is an absurd and humorous request, but it does a fantastic job setting up her position as the voice in his ear tempting him with evil, as well as the film's running themes of madness. After telling him to slaughter his seven wives, then to collect fine goods from wealthy travelers over many months, it doesn't seem anything on the mountain will please her, which moves the characters to the faster-paced city. The move doesn't help her much as far as feeling fulfilled, which escalates the demands and eventually leads to the bandit becoming a local serial murderer and head thief. He comes home with new heads with the regularity of a daily visit to the grocer, which she plays with like dolls with the indulgent demeanor of a child. Her evil presence and control over him could be that of a demon, or of his own madness, and while I am inclined to lean toward the demon interpretation there is a lot there supporting the alternative. Either way, it works very well, and should easily hold up for modern audiences.

10. Jacob's Ladder (1990, Adrian Lyne)
What is Jacob's Ladder? Is it a biblical ladder to heaven? Is it a rage-inducing drug employed by scientists in Nam? Or how about a carnival toy that delivers a never-ending spectacle in an endless loop? What is perhaps best about the film in question is that few of these pieces manage to fit into a clear whole. Much like the aforementioned carnival toy, branches of plot and established reality have a habit of folding in on themselves like a möbius strip, which also happens to be endless. It works because this disjointed narrative which seems to try to leave us behind is just as disjointed for our protagonist, played by Tim Robbins in one of the strongest performances of his career. As Jacob's reality is dismantled, we see various stages of his life juxtaposed with other possibilities, potential futures, uncertain tragedies, and visions of demonic beings. While one gets the impression there is a puzzle to solve behind all this, it seems equally the case that Jacob is creating his own endless puzzles by not dealing with some pivotal chapters of his own life, and ultimately the question of his existence. Some players in the story seem to be there to guide Jacob, often with a clear agenda that leans toward true aid or malice. Fans of the style the film maintains will be pleased to know repeat viewings continue to offer further intrigue into Jacob's reality, as well as plenty to argue about with fellow viewers.

by Duke Togo


Oct 29 2012 12:49 PM
Fun read and it also gives me some films to watch (and look for to buy) in the future.

I am a fan of Jacob's Ladder so good to see that on there. I've seen Ghostbusters countless times (I don't agree with the Bill Murray statement though, I wonder if Scrooged could have made this list?).
I remember loving Scrooged, but I honestly didn't even consider it for this piece. It has been so long since I've seen it, though I've picked up the DVD in the last nine months or so, I figure I will push to get it rewatched late December. I was considering going with one of the classic adaptations of Christmas Carol, but ultimately decided against it.

Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees is still up on Hulu I believe.
Good pick of films. Ghostbusters was quite a shock I have to say (but a perfect choice). I really need to watch Kuroneko, I started it when it came out as a Criterion but nodded off due to a heavy day at work. Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees sound slike the other one of this list that I would need to sort out seeing. Sounds like my kind of thing.