Hallowe’en Night divination game.

This is a repost from OCTOBER 28, 2011.

 

Halloween is one of the oldest holidays still celebrated in modern times, and can be traced back to the Druids, a Celtic culture in Ireland, Britain and Northern Europe. Its roots lay in the feast of Samhain (pronounced SA-WIN), which was annually held on October 31st to honor the dead. Much like Christmas, the pagan traditions of Samhain were later co-opted by the Christian church and replaced by All Saints Day (Nov. 1) as a means to align the Christian feast with the already well-established pagan festival. According to Wikipedia, “The word Halloween is first attested in the 16th century and represents a Scottish variant of the fuller All-Hallows-Even (“evening”), that is, the night before All Hallows Day.” Hence, we have the modern day Hallowe’en.

In keeping with its pagan origins, a belief arose that during Halloween the barrier between the realms of the living and the dead are at their most permeable, allowing for dead spirits to enter our world. A corollary of this belief is the traditional Scottish practice of Halloween-night divination. Though little known these days, the practice of various forms of “divination games” during Halloween was wildly popular in the late 19th-century and early 20th-century, a popularity commemorated in the divination-themed Halloween greeting cards above. One of the most popular of these was a form of scrying or mirror divination, in which an unmarried woman was instructed to sit before a mirror in a darkened room on Halloween night. Purportedly, if she gazed long enough, she would see a vision of her future husband reflected in the mirror. If, however, she was to die unmarried, a skull would appear instead — which just seems incredibly creepy. A common thread exists between this Halloween practice and the Bloody Mary game, in which the participants dare each other to look into a mirror and repeat Mary’s name three times, thus possibly summoning the folkloric witch.

Lady Lazarus’s 2014 Halloween List: Scary Movie Moments.

Hello, my Darklings! It may be a relatively balmy afternoon in Toronto, but the warm weather’s not fooling Lady Lazarus.  It is undeniably mid-October, which means it’s that time of year to carefully craft a horror-themed list in anticipation/celebration of Hallowe’en.  While the tagline for this blog “musings on the macabre” indicates my year-round fascination with all things spooky and disturbing, come Hallowe’en, this fascination finds full expression in mainstream culture. In short, I can hoist my horror-freak flag up high.

This year, I decided to go with the theme of “scary movie/TV moments”, meaning those scenes that, for me, contain particularly potent images of horror. As always, this is a highly subjective list. Your list will likely vary. One curious thing I noticed when crafting my list is that all the scenes share a common element. Read on to discover what that would be.

1. Hospital hallway scene from Exorcist III: Legion (1990). William Peter Blatty’s novel Legion is the true sequel to The Exorcist, and not that ridiculous, let’s-cash-in-on-the-original Exorcist II that starred a somehow “re-possessed” Regan (with Linda Blair reprising her role) and a bunch of locusts. When I heard that Blatty himself would direct Exorcist III: Legion, I was actually hopeful that the movie wouldn’t suck. Well, it did. Except for this scene, which is a classic jump-scare moment, expertly done. I don’t want to spoil the moment if you haven’t seen this film, but I would like to point out how well the slow pacing, the static camera, and the everyday banality of the moments leading up to the jump-scare serve to underscore the horror.

Bob2. There are two things that creep me out about the character of Bob from David Lynch’s cult TV series Twin Peaks. Firstly, it’s his appearance. He’s a bedraggled, denim-on-denim denizen of a very seedy underworld, with wild eyes and a maniacal grin. His long hair, toothy grin and feral nature casts him in the role of the Big Bad Wolf, only the world that he emerges from is not one of fairytales, but of nightmares. The second, even more chilling aspect of Bob is how he always just appears, seemingly out of nowhere. One moment, there you are sitting on the broadloom of your parent’s tastefully decorated, circa 1980’s suburban home — complete with floral arrangements and throw-cushions — and suddenly BAM! There he is, climbing over your Mom’s couch with that sinister grin, making his way directly towards you. Whatever his plans, you know it’s not going to end well. Much like the psycho-killer in the scene above from Exorcist III: Legion, it’s Bob’s sudden, inexplicable appearances that always freaked me out.

ju_on_the_grudge2

3. I first saw Ju-On (2002, dir.Takashi Shimizu) at the Toronto International Film Festival back in 2003, and it still remains one of my favourite J-horrors of that era. While I have to admit that the latter half of the film is mainly comprised of a relentless succession of jump-scares, Ju-On still offers up some great visuals, such as the image of the ghost-woman Kayako slooooooowly crawling down the stairs towards the horrified heroine Rika. The image that has always stuck with me, however, is the one depicted above — with Kayako suddenly materializing underneath the bed covers, and directly on top of her victim. Can you imagine lifting your bed sheets to see that face staring up at you? NO.

exorcist-horror-trivia-secrets-of-the-exorcist

4. Yes, ok, The Exorcist (1973, dir.William Friedkin). I know it’s a given on any horror movie-related list, but there’s a really good reason why that would be. It’s just that good. I’ve already mentioned in a past post the freaky demon-face that haunted all our childhood dreams — if you happen to be of a similar vintage to me — but the image I’d like to address is the one with Father Karras’s mother suddenly appearing on Regan’s bed during her prolonged exorcism. Other than the fact that the scene cuts to this image so abruptly, eliciting a jump-scare moment out of the audience, it’s the sad, questioning expression on her face that I find so unnerving.“Why, Demi? Why?” Indeed.

So, that’s it. Have a safe and happy Hallowe’en, kids. I hope to, as long as nothing sinister suddenly appears around me.

Happy Hallowe’en from Lady Lazarus!

death_the_bride

Myself dressed as “Death the Bride”. Halloween 2013.

My Hallowe’en costume this year is channelling the melancholic romanticism of a tragic, Edgar Allan Poe heroine*. On October 31st, I shall fall into a despair that leads to madness, succumbing to a death-like trance. This will prompt my bereaved loved ones to prematurely bury me in the family crypt. Afterwards, my restless ghost shall arise for revenge, and chocolate.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

*my costume is also channelling the morbid romanticism of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Thomas Cooper Gotch — a morbidity best captured by his 1895 painting entitled (as you may have guessed)  Death the Bride.

"Death the Bride" by Thomas Cooper Gotch. 1895. Oil on canvas

“Death the Bride” by Thomas Cooper Gotch. 1895. Oil on canvas

Lady Lazarus’s Halloween Party Movie Night, 2012 Edition.

Hello, my darklings! The leaves are down, the sweaters are on, and it’s that time of the year that Lady Lazarus carefully crafts a list of horror films to whet your pre-Halloween appetites. Traditionally, I’ve had a theme for each Halloween list, such as “Best Horror Films of the 2000s” or “Favourite Horror-Comedies“, but this year I thought I’d open up and share with you, plain and simple, the horror films I’ve been watching of late. Some are new, and some are just new to me. Perhaps there’ll be a discovery or two for your own ghoulish viewing pleasure.

Isabelle Adjani proclaims “[He] is very tired. He made love to me all night” in Andrzej Zulawski’s challenging film  Possession (1981)

1. I first learned of Andrzej Zulawski’s cult classic Possession (1981) through the writings of Canada’s First Lady of Horror Kier-La Janisse, who’s an enthusiastic champion of this film. Equal parts arthouse, domestic drama, and gory supernatural-horror, this film defies any attempt at easy categorization. Ostensibly an unflinching gaze at a marriage in turmoil, the film ultimately — and quite surprisingly — veers into the realm of abjection, absurdity and visceral horror. Isabelle Adjani plays her character’s descent into madness to the hilt, earning her the Best Actress award at the Cannes Festival for Possession in 1981. Sam Neill turns in a strong — if affected and somewhat stylized — performance as her estranged husband. I don’t want to give away any of the plot points, as the film works best the less you know about it. If you like your horror with a big dash of the unexpected, then you’ll probably enjoy this one. If you just want to see some naked coeds get sliced, steer clear.

Investigating a strange noise, Samantha ventures upstairs with a kitchen knife in Ti West’s “The House of the Devil” (2009).

2. I had heard many good things about Ti West’s The House of the Devil (2009) and, fortunately, those things turned out to be true. This is an accomplished psychological-horror in the vein of Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, where the terror builds on a slow-boil. What’s that, you say? You’ve been invited to babysit for creepy strangers in an isolated, in-the-middle-of-nowhere house? Why, sure. You need the money, and what could possibly go wrong? Let’s suspend that disbelief and just roll with it, ’cause it’s a fun, suspenseful ride. Kudos go to the art direction and costume design, as The House of the Devil boasts the most authentic recreation of that 1980s-look that I’ve personally viewed on film. Nice little cameo by that darling of ’80s horror, Dee Wallace (The Hills Have Eyes and The Howling).

3. Oh, Joss Whedon. You don’t always hit it out of the park, but when you do…wow! Admittedly, taking the piss out of the slasher-horror is a little like shooting fish in a barrel and, yes, this is well-trodden ground that the Scream franchise visited sixteen years ago. All the same, Cabin in the Woods (2012) seems fresh and original, and is heaps of fun with a clever twist or two. Again, I don’t want to spoil the surprise, so I’ll simply end with —  zombie redneck torture family.*

Placing the bets in “Cabin in the Woods” (2012).

*SPOILER ALERT. Wanna know what all the various beasties and baddies were in Cabin in the Woods? Click here.

4. The horror genre has traditionally loved the anthology format. This love affair possesses a kind of logic. If one particular scenario doesn’t frighten you, then perhaps the next one will do the trick — after all, fear can be very subjective. One of the major pitfalls of anthologies is that they’re often hit-or-miss in terms of ratio of success. Such is the case with the 2012 ‘found-footage’ anthology V/H/S which, although it’s initial premise seemed promising, suffered from it’s weaker components. The first 35-minutes of hand-held shaky-cam is nauseating to the point of being almost unwatchable, though this does improve with the subsequent stories. The best offerings in this anthology were the fourth story of a couple communicating via FaceTime, and the final segment — created by a team of directors out of L.A. who call themselves Radio Silence — which follows a group of guys trying to find a Halloween party.

The rationale for the found-footage actually makes sense in one of the stronger offerings in V/H/S (2012).

Happy Halloween, everyone!

“Look at you, don’t you look like Siouxsie Sioux.”

Oh, baby, look at you
Don’t you look like Siouxsie Sioux
How long’d it take to get that way
What a terrible waste of energy
You wear black clothes say you’re poetic
The sad truth is you’re just pathetic
[…] Don’t try to tell me that you’re an intellectual
Cause you’re just another boring bisexual
[…] 80 pounds of make up on your art school skin
80 points of I.Q. located within

–Selected lyrics from the song “Instant Club Hit (You’ll Dance to Anything)” (1987) by the American satirical punk rock band, the Dead Milkmen.

Funny guys, those Dead Milkmen. That song made me laugh back in the day, even as it did thoroughly insult my tribe. Mind you, Siouxsie Sioux became a Goth fashion icon with an indisputable legacy of music and style…the Dead Milkmen, not so much. At the end of the day, the art school kids came out on top.

That classic look of Siouxsie Sioux.

It’s early September so — of course — I’m already thinking about Halloween and my possible costume options. That’s just how I roll, gentle readers. As you’ve no doubt already guessed, I’m considering a transformation into Siouxsie — by which I mean ‘Classic Goth’ Siouxsie, back in her early days with The Banshees. So, what does an outfit like that entail?

Without a doubt, one of the essential elements to the successful deployment of the ‘Siouxsie-look’ is heavy, dramatic make-up. Her signature style, which paired a pale complexion with dark, exaggerated eyes, derived from a few different sources: the actresses of the silent film era — most notably, the Cleopatra as portrayed by exotic screen siren Theda Bara — and the mask-like appearance of Japanese kabuki theatre. To begin, whitened your skin tone with a powder one or two shades lighter than your usual. Once you’ve attained that perfectly pallid, cadaver-like complexion, you can reach for your black kohl eye pencil. Now the fun really starts. OK…I’ve decided not to bore you with detailed, step-by-step instructions on makeup application, as there’s many video tutorials out there showing precisely how to achieve this ‘Siouxsie-look’ with cosmetics. Here’s one if you’re interested. Suffice to say, the process involves a shitload of eyeliner and eyeshadow, dark-red lipstick and some precision work with lip liner. If you closely resemble Cleopatra when all this is done, you’re on the right track.

Ok, the hair. A big bird’s nest of black, backcombed hair. I’m not entirely confident that I’ll be able to achieve this hairstyle with my naturally curly hair, but I’ll give it a try. Perhaps with enough backcombing and hard-as-shellac hairspray, this’ll work. Either that, or I’ll borrow a black wig.

Fishnets, studded wristbands, leather and a lot of hairspray.

The clothes should be — what else? — black. The Classic Goth look borrowed heavily from late-1970’s British Punk, so lots of fishnet, combat boots, studded wristbands and collars, leather, PVC and/or vinyl. The London-based punk fashion shop SEX, co-owned by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, was fundamental to the development of the Classic Goth look. According to Wikipedia, SEX sold fetish and bondage wear supplied by existing specialist labels such as Atomage, She-And-Me and London Leatherman, as well as designs by McLaren and Westwood. Siouxsie Sioux, incidentally, was a shop regular.

Here’s a trick I learned the other day: take an old pair of fishnet pantyhose and cut off both feet. Then, cut out the crotch and pull over your head. Place arms in the (former) stocking legs and — viola! — instant fishnet shirt.

So, that’s it. I’m either going to dress-up as Siouxsie for Halloween, or a zombie. Or….Zombie Siouxsie.

Hallowe’en Night divination game.

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Halloween is one of the oldest holidays still celebrated in modern times, and can be traced back to the Druids, a Celtic culture in Ireland, Britain and Northern Europe. Its roots lay in the feast of Samhain (pronounced SA-WIN), which was annually held on October 31st to honor the dead. Much like Christmas, the pagan traditions of Samhain were later co-opted by the Christian church and replaced by All Saints Day (Nov. 1) as a means to align the Christian feast with the already well-established pagan festival. According to Wikipedia, “The word Halloween is first attested in the 16th century and represents a Scottish variant of the fuller All-Hallows-Even (“evening”), that is, the night before All Hallows Day.” Hence, we have the modern day Hallowe’en.

In keeping with its pagan origins, a belief arose that during Halloween the barrier between the realms of the living and the dead are at their most permeable, allowing for dead spirits to enter our world. A corollary of this belief is the traditional Scottish practice of Halloween-night divination. Though little known these days, the practice of various forms of “divination games” during Halloween was wildly popular in the late 19th-century and early 20th-century, a popularity commemorated in the divination-themed Halloween greeting cards above. One of the most popular of these was a form of scrying or mirror divination, in which an unmarried woman was instructed to sit before a mirror in a darkened room on Halloween night. Purportedly, if she gazed long enough, she would see a vision of her future husband reflected in the mirror. If, however, she was to die unmarried, a skull would appear instead — which just seems incredibly creepy. A common thread exists between this Halloween practice and the Bloody Mary game, in which the participants dare each other to look into a mirror and repeat Mary’s name three times, thus possibly summoning the folkloric witch.

Lady Lazarus’s 2011 Halloween Party Movie Night: ‘Ghoulish Delights.’

Feel that crisp October chill in the air? That chill ushers in my favourite of the festive occasions: you guessed it, Halloween. If the spooky spirit of the season inspires you to celebrate all things horrific — or, like me, you celebrate such things on a regular basis — then below are some suggestions for Halloween-themed film viewing. I’ve grouped my suggestions into two distinct categories, and these I will separate across two blog posts. This first post offers up a small group of films I’ve labeled Ghoulish Delights. These are mainly campy, horror-comedy films best suited for Halloween party gatherings. Oh sure, there’s buckets of blood and disturbing scenes, but they’re all served-up with a big, mischievous wink. A follow-up post will address the second group, Pushing Boundaries, that will focus on horror films with considerable bite. These are films that either challenge or re-imagine standard narratives within the genre, or films that simply push the boundaries of taste and acceptability in contemporary horror.

Ghoulish Delights

Michael Dougherty's sack cloth-headed horror mascot Sam (after 'Samhain', of course) from his little-known horror anthology "Trick r Treat" (2007).

1. A public release date fiasco on the part of Warner Bros. — that unfortunately resolved itself in Trick ‘r Treat (2007) being released direct-to-DVD two years after it initially screened at film festivals — essentially buried Michael Dougherty’s Halloween-themed horror anthology from the general public. However, thanks the internet and a dedicated horror-film blogger community, Trick ‘r Treat has gotten the love it so rightly deserves:

Despite only a handful of public screenings, the film has been reviewed extensively by online journalists and bloggers, especially in the genre/horror communities, and reviews are nearly unanimously positive. Dread Central gave it 5 out of 5 stars and stated “Trick ‘r Treat ranks alongside John Carpenter’s Halloween as traditional October viewing and I can’t imagine a single horror fan that won’t fall head over heels in love with it.”[3] The film earned 10 out of 10 from Ryan Rotten of ShockTilYouDrop.com.[4] It also earned an 8 out of 10 from Bloody Disgusting,[5] who later ranked the film ninth in their list of the ‘Top 20 Horror Films of the Decade’, with the article saying, “[It’s] so good that its lack of a theatrical release borders on the criminal.”[6] IGN attended a screening of the film and concluded, “This well-crafted Halloween horror tribute is a scary blast.”, rating it 8 out of 10 overall.[7] Based on 17 reviews collected by Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an overall “Fresh” approval rating from critics of 85%, with an average score of 7.7/10; the site’s critical consensus states “An deftly crafted tribute to Halloween legends, Trick ‘r’ Treat hits all the genre marks with gusto and old fashioned suspense.” — from Wikipedia.

Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat possesses the same irreverent black humour of horror-anthology franchises such as Creepshow and Tales From The Crypt, which gives the film a quality of both nostalgia and homage. Five interwoven tales of the macabre introduce us to the creepy Principal (played to the hilt by the gloriously creepy Dylan Baker), a self-conscious 22-year-old virgin portrayed by a pre-True Blood Anna Paquin, and a school bus packed with the vengeful ghosts of children in Halloween costumes. The one common element throughout all five stories is the presence of Sam, the mysterious and silent trick-or-treater who seems to embody the very spirit of Halloween.

2. I do love me some Bruce Campbell. This veteran actor of the B-horror genre — best known as Ash from Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead films — was perfectly cast as an old Elvis Presley in Don Coscarelli’s Bubba Ho-tep (2002). When a re-animated ancient Egyptian mummy suddenly appears in the nursing home in which Elvis lives, drastic action must be taken to destroy the creature and free the consumed souls of the nursing home’s elderly occupants. Serious fun.

He's back from the grave and ready to party in "Return of the Living Dead" (1985).

3. Have you ever wondered where that whole “zombies eating human brains” thing comes from? Nope, not from George A. Romero. The brain-eating zombie originated entirely from Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead (1985).* In the words of one of the film’s reanimated dead, zombies seek out and devour human brains because “…it hurts to be dead…I can feel myself rotting” and “brains kill the pain”, however temporarily. So, there you have it. O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead is both a playful satire of, and a respectful homage to, earlier zombie films like those of Romero. Cheesy ’80s vintage camp in all the right places, this film boasts reasonably convincing zombies and the ‘scream queen’ actress Linnea Quigley, who spends almost her entire screen time completely naked save for a pair of blue stockings. Must’ve been a cold shoot for Ms. Quigley.

…and a couple of the usual suspects

4. Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004) is another — much, much better — satire/homage to the zombie horror genre. It’s such an exemplary horror-comedy that it’s pretty much a given, and I need not discuss it further here.

5. I mentioned Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell (2009) in last year’s Halloween list, but the strength of this film cannot be overstated. A hilarious horror-comedy with some legitimate scares thrown in — an extraordinarily difficult balance to achieve and quite the accomplishment for Raimi, who adeptly showed us that he still knows how to do it.

*There was a single, zombie-eating-brains scene in Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead (1980) but, to the best of my knowledge, this is the first film that truly places brain on the menu for the undead.

Lady Lazarus’s 2011 Halloween Party Movie Night: Scary Films for Kids.

OK, I admit it. It’s not even October, and I’m already planning out Halloween costumes for myself and my kids in eager anticipation of our favourite festive occasion. For the little ones, it’s all about spooky ‘make-believe’ and a prolonged sugar buzz. For the adults — those with and without children — it’s a culturally-acceptable opportunity to play masquerade and temporarily assume a different persona. And for those of us who revel in the macabre on a regular, year-round basis, it’s a chance to geek-out and make our ‘expert’ horror film recommendations for Halloween-themed movie nights.

Much like adults, children can vary widely in their tastes for, and tolerance of, scariness in films. Their reaction to such material can sometimes be unpredictable, but below I’ve listed a few spooky classics that should be age-appropriate for most children.

Scary films for kids:

1. Scooby-Doo And The… (series of DVDs, dating from the 2000’s-present). There are a number of direct-to-DVD, 90-minute movies featuring that super-sleuth canine Scooby-Doo and the Mystery Gang that even the youngest child in your family will enjoy. Some of the better spooky capers include Scooby-Doo And The Samurai Sword, Scooby-Doo and the Cyberchase, Scooby-Doo Camp Scare and Aloha Scooby-Doo! You can find most of these at your local DVD rental store or for purchase on Amazon. Recommended for age 4+

2. It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. A Halloween classic that’s appropriate for small kids. Recommended for age 3+

The Library Ghost (aka The Grey Lady) from "Ghostbusters" (1984). Could freak out very small kids, but a not-so-scary film for most.

3. Ghostbusters (1984). A couple of scenes might prove too frightening for very little ones, but on the whole a spooky-fun family film. Recommended for age 6+

4. Not too surprisingly, the gorgeously gothic creative efforts of Tim Burton features large on this list. Family-friendly Burton films include Beetlejuice (1988), and the animated feature-length films The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and The Corpse Bride (2005). I’ve shown the latter two films to my 4 and 6-year-old kids, and they reported that these were “a little too creepy” in parts. Use your own parental discretion, but I’d recommend these films for age 8+

The alternate-reality "spider Mom" from Coraline (2009).

5. Coraline (2009) has a very similar look-and-feel to the aforementioned Tim Burton animated films, and shares with these a creepiness that’s probably more appropriate for the 8+ crowd. All the same, a visually-stunning masterpiece of stop-motion animation that’s worthwhile for adults as well as children.

Quite frankly, I can’t wait until my kids are old enough to accompany their mother through a viewing of The Exorcist or a George A. Romero zombie gore-feast. Perhaps when they are around the age of 10…?

My next post will offer up suggestions for some adult-sized scares.

Lady Lazarus’s Halloween List: Top 10 Best Horror Films of the 2000s.

The past decade of the 2000s — or the Naughts, if you prefer — were an especially good one for the genre of horror. On television, we were treated to blood-soaked series like Dexter and True Blood, and in the movie theatres, the vampires and zombies ran amok. As is customary this time of year, I like to compile a film-geek list relating to horror. Halloween shall soon be upon us, my deadlings. Let’s revel in the macabre and spooky.

Below are my picks for the past decade’s best offerings in cinematic horror.

Shauna Macdonald in “The Descent,” a horror film by Neil Marshall set in the Appalachian Mountains.

1. The Descent (2005). Directed by Neil Marshall. An exceptionally attractive team of female ‘extreme’ spelunkers are coerced by one of their members to venture into a series of previously unexplored caves. So begins the ill-fated journey of The Descent, one that starts with squirm-inducing claustrophobia and eventually leads to the discovery of something much, much more sinister — and deadly.

2. Låt den rätte komma in (2008). English title: Let the Right One In. Director: Tomas Alfredson. Have not seen the recent English-language remake of this stellar coming-of-age vampire story and, quite frankly, I don’t feel the need. This one got it right. From its very first frame, you can feel the tangible ache of loneliness in the main characters, as well as the relentless cold of the Swedish winter.

3. [REC] (2007), Directors: Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza. The first two-thirds of this film were somewhat underwhelming for me. Sure, it was a serviceable, well-crafted ‘documentary’-style zombie film, but I’d seen many of its kind before. And then, the main characters unlock the door to that mysterious, (supposedly) uninhabited penthouse apartment. At that moment, this film transformed from a decent zombie-flick into something almost sublime.

The main character Alison is harassed by a vengeful (and apparently indestructible) Gypsy woman in Raimi's 'Drag Me To Hell.' Someone call the Roma People's Deflamation League.

4. Drag Me To Hell (2009). Director: Sam Raimi. A thoroughly enjoyable, gross, hilarious and, at times, truly scary film from the master of the comedy-horror, Sam Raimi. Watch for the scene with the animatronic goat. Hysterical.

5. Ichi the Killer (2001). Director: Takashi Miike. Just when you think that the saturation point for bloody splatter-gore has been reached, along come Japanese directors like Miike to push the limits beyond all previous imaginings. This film, along with Miike’s 1999 offering Audition, is completely unhinged. My major misgiving with Ichi the Killer is its graphic and highly sexualized violence toward women. Misogyny is a regrettably common characteristic in many of this genre’s films — particularly from countries such as Japan. All the same, I would recommend this film to the seasoned horror fan, simply on the basis of its insanity.

The character Kakihara admires the handiwork of Ichi in Miike's 'Ichi the Killer'.

6. À l’intérieur (2007), English title: Inside. Directors: Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo. This past decade has witnessed the growth of a strong horror-film industry in France, a country not previously known for films in this genre. Dubbed by some in the media as ‘New French Extremity,’ films such as Maury and Bastillo’s À l’intérieur confront the viewer with images of intense ‘body horror.’  The alone and heavily pregnant Sarah battles with an insane, homicidal intruder wielding impossibly-sharp — and profoundly effective — tailor scissors.

7. Ginger Snaps (2000). Director: John Fawcett. The mythology of the werewolf gets a modern feminist overhaul in this Canadian horror franchise. The hormone-induced lunacy of puberty is cleverly aligned with lycanthropy when the titular Ginger begins menstruation around the same time as she’s bitten by a ‘big dog’ in the forest surrounding her suburban home. It’s hard not to love a film that has as it’s tagline: “She’s got the curse.” Incidentally, the sequel Ginger Snaps 2: Unleashed (2004) was surprisingly good. The third installment, Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning should be encased in cement, tossed down a mine shaft, and buried for eternity.

One of the feigned 'death scenes' staged by the Fitzgerald sisters. Kids these days.

One of the feigned 'death scenes' staged by the Fitzgerald sisters in 'Ginger Snaps'. Kids these days.

8. Ju-on (2003). English title The Grudge. Director: Takashi Shimizu. Hands-down, my favourite amongst all of the J-horror films I’ve seen over the past decade. And I’ve seen quite a few. The English-language remake is laughable by comparison. Avoid it and seek out the original Japanese film.

9. El orfanato (2007). English title: The Orphanage. Director: Juan Antonio Bayona. With contemporary French horror-film directors so successfully flooding the cinema with blood and viscera, it’s a rare treat to view a relatively subtle, classic ghost story like Bayona’s El orfanato. One of the very few horror films at which I openly wept. The ending is heartbreaking, and wonderful.

Autocannibalism + feminism combine in Marina de Van's disturbing 'In My Skin.'

10. Dans ma peau (2002), English title: In My Skin. Directed, written by and starring Marina de Van, this is a strange, atmospheric and generally overlooked gem of New French Extremity. The main character Esther develops an erotically-charged, cannibalistic fixation with her own body after being disfigured in a freak accident. Ponderously slow in parts, it does offer a unique and interesting premise.

Honourable Mentions:

1. Pontypool (2009). Director: Bruce McDonald.

2. Død snø (2009). English title “Dead Snow.”

3. Bakjwi (2009). English title “Thirst”. Director: Park Chan-Wook

4. Grindhouse Presents: Planet Terror (2007), Dir. Robert Rodriguez.

5. 28 Days Later (2002), Dir. Danny Boyle.

The horror film geek makes another list

In anticipation of Halloween, I decided to compile my “Top 15 Horror Flicks of All Time”. Being a big fan of the horror/dark fantasy genre, it was a significant challenge to whittle the list down to just fifteen. Why fifteen? Simple: ten was too few, but twenty would be too time-consuming.

You will note a preponderance of North American films in my list. This is a situation which I hope to rectify in the near future, as there are many excellent films from around the world belonging to the horror genre. I deeply regret having missed Italian director Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977), which is a film that appears on many critics top-ten lists. It’s on my list of “must sees” along with last year’s The Descent (a.k.a. “Chicks in a Cave”).

These films are not ranked in order of best-to-least best. And, yes, I am a total film geek. Here’s proof:

1. The Exorcist (1973). William Friedkin’s masterful supernatural thriller. Not only is it an excellent example of the horror genre, but it’s a brilliant film, period. This film offers fully-realized, believable characters and a storyline that allows the tension to build slowly and gradually. When the supernatural events finally do occur, they are experienced as a big pay-off. Avoid the “director’s cut” version that was released a few years ago. This version adds 12-minutes which are not only unnecessary but threaten the slow build plot that’s so effective in the original theatrical release.

2. Alien (1979). Ridley Scott’s best film (Bladerunner is a close runner-up) which arguably created the “science fiction-horror” genre and spawned countless imitators (and couple of ho-hum sequels). Similar to The Exorcist, this film builds the tension gradually. Scott is astute enough to keep his monster artfully hidden in the shadows until the last minutes of the film. German artist H.R. Giger provided the uniquely gothic designs for the Alien monsters and spaceship, and his detailed creations are both exquisitely beautiful and profoundly creepy. Alien was also one of the first films ever to feature a strong, self-sufficient female protagonist in the character of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver).

3. The Grudge (2003). Director Takashi Shimizu (Japanese title Ju-On). I haven’t seen the English-language remake starring Sarah Michelle Gellar (a.k.a. “Buffy”), perhaps because I’m such a fan of the original Japanese film. What do the ghosts of this film want? Why do people continually enter this boarded-up, haunted house? Why doesn’t someone just bulldoze the place? These questions are never really addressed, but the ride is so much creepy-fun that the details hardly matter. The Grudge is an exercise in effective editing to pry all those screams and jumps out of it’s audience. The scene where the spooky ghost-child suddenly materializes beneath the bed-quilt — and on top of the bed’s occupant — is classically creepy.

4. George A. Romero’s zombie trilogy Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985). What can I say about a guy who singlehandedly created the sub-genre of “zombie film” that hasn’t already been said? Romero’s films are campy, excessively gory fun counterbalanced with black humour and subtle social commentary. My favourite of the three films is Day of the Dead with it’s unlikely anti-hero, the zombie named “Bub”. There’s a final, signature “zombie feast” at the finale of the film that is so over-the-top gory that it’s hilarious. The latest addition to Romero’s zombie mythology Land of the Dead (2005), while not as much fun as his previous efforts, did offer one gloriously campy moment where the rich industrialist bad-guy (played with aplomb by veteran actor Dennis Hopper) chomps on a cigar and intones the classic line “I hate these fuckin’ zombies”.

5. An American Werewolf in London (1981). Director John Landis creates a unique sort of creature feature: a werewolf movie that’s equal parts scary, gory and funny. I recently rewatched this film on television at few night ago, and the famous werewolf transformation scene (created without the benefit of contemporary computer-generated graphics) still stands up as exceptional. Griffin Dunne turns in a hilarious performance as Jack, the murdered — and thus undead — friend of werewolf David who keeps turning up in an increasingly advanced state of decomposition.

6. The Shining (1980) is director Stanley Kubrick’s intense, epic, gothic horror film masterpiece – a beautiful, stylish work which distanced itself from the blood-letting and gore of most modern films in the horror genre. The film bears little resemblance to Stephen King’s 1977 novel — which is a good thing (I’ve always thought Stephen King was a hack). Kubrick deliberately reduces the pace of the narrative and expands the rather simple plot of a domestic tragedy to over two hours in length. Tension builds slowly and finally snaps with sudden, violent force when Jack (in a career-defining performance by Jack Nicholson) completely loses it … with an axe.

7. Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979). Werner Herzog applies his signature blending of truth with fiction to his remake of F.W. Murnau’s silent film Nosferatu (1922). Similar to Kubrick in style, Herzog’s camera is still and steady with the scenes revealing themselves at a deliberate, slow pace. The film’s resulting atmosphere is heavy and brooding, charged with a slowly building undercurrent of impending doom. Klaus Kinski’s Count Orlock is a sad, shuffling creature more strongly associated with a disease-carrying rat than a sensual seducer as seen in other interpretations of Dracula. Herzog’s anti-romantic concept of the vampire is one of the Black Death that slowly infiltrates the picturesque beauty of a quiet Gothic town.

8. The Blair Witch Project (1999). The low-budget mock-documentary cinema-verite phenomenon of the late nineties that worked on the time-honoured truth that a monster you can’t see is much scarier than a monster you can. While it’s documentary-style hand-held video was not a new concept in the horror genre (see 1993’s Man Bites Dog), it was used to great effect in this story of an ill-fated trek into the woods by three young, aspiring filmmakers. This film plays on our innate fear of being lost — never mind that you might have a witch and/or psychotic child-killer tracking your every movement. Creepy.

9. Eraserhead (1977). Although not generally classified as a horror film, director David Lynch’s feature-film debut is a masterpiece of the macabre and grotesque. Reportedly a reaction to the news that he was about to become a father, Lynch’s film follows a sensitive young man as he struggles to cope with impending parenthood. Apparently Lynch’s view of parenthood is an impossibly bleak one, as “the baby” born in this film isn’t exactly human, but a deformed creature more closely resembling a lizard. Eraserhead contains all of the trademark attributes of a Lynch film: haunting visuals, an ethereal score, unsettling sound design, and, most notably, a black sense of humor.

10. Hellraiser (1987). Author/director Clive Barker blends torturous sadomasochism with nightmarish gore in his creation of the creepy Cenobites. The film involves a mysterious puzzle-box (which serves as a gateway to Hell) and copious amounts of blood and guts. Stunning, if stomach-churning, visuals.

11. The Ring (2002). While this remake of the Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (1998) owes a great debt to the pacing and visual style of the Japanese original, it is ultimately a superior film. Naomi Watts stars as the intrepid reporter who watches a cursed videotape; a seemingly innocuous event which will result in her death in seven days. A weird, unique storyline with a satisfying — if predictable — twist ending.

12. Carl-Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1931) is a surreal meditation on fear. I had the great fortune of viewing this rare film at Cinematheque Ontario a few years ago. Moody and atmospheric, this film has little dialogue but many indelible images. An early sound film, it was originally shot as a silent film and had small amounts of sound added later in post-production. The most striking image of the film is the death scene of the evil Doctor, who gets his eventual comeuppance by being buried alive within the chute of a mill. This scene is achingly slow, as the audience witnesses every last shriek and gasp of the dying villain. Horrendous.

13. Doctor Terror’s House of Horrors (1965). Campy B-movie starring Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Donald Sutherland. Effectively creepy horror flick with five men aboard a train who are told their fates/fortunes by a spooky doctor’s Tarot cards with a quintet of tales of the macabre; the best is “The Hand” with Lee as an art critic who gets his comeuppance by an artist’s dismembered hand. The latter is a story that appeals to me for reasons which should be obvious.

14. Cauldron of Blood (1970). Original Spanish title “El coleccionista de cadáveres”. Starring horror-film legend Boris Karloff who portrays a blind sculptor working on his magnum opus, unaware that the skeletons he has been using for armatures are the remains of the victims of his evil wife and that he is the next target.

15. Shaun of the Dead. (2004). Director Edgar Wright. Bloody, gory and incredibly funny, this film is a loving, respectful send-up of the zombie movie genre. And when was the last time you heard the word “twat” uttered quite so often in a film? Those wacky Brits.