Leading into October – a right proper spooky season – it’s only natural for moviegoers to seek out horror films: to pre-game their mainstay genre favorites and stretch the bounds of what they’ve come to expect from it. And when moviegoers seek out horror films, it’s only natural that they seek out Shudder. You seek, September is a great time to test the waters of horror movies. This isn’t the season for Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980) or A Nightmare on Elm Street (1985). Rather, it’s to check out utterly unknown quantities like Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum (2018) and The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001): movies that are not quite ready for horror primetime, but great new discoveries that survive at the peripheries of the unknown.
The House on Haunted Hill (1959)
So-called “classic” horror sits in a weird place in today’s horror canon (whatever image that’s even supposed to conjure nowadays with every fandom so segmented and hyper-compartmentalized that reaching a common, baseline consensus for what constitutes a run-of-the-mill cinematic education seems to be a truly Sisyphean endeavor). You go back far enough and you get the silent greats that are more in-line with the so-called “elevated horror” of today: avant-garde art films like The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1921). Pull a bit more recently and you get things like the Universal Monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s (e.g., 1931’s Dracula and Frankenstein). But when you reach the 1950s… what exactly do people agree on? There’s a handful of Hammer Horror films and some sci-fi adjacent creature features… and then you get to the delightfully shlocky features of William Castle.
Although barely remembered today (and, even then, mostly for an unevenly made “Dark Castle” horror remakes from the late 1990s and early 2000s), William Castle was one of the few filmmakers keeping horror alive in the 1950s, when everything from the Hays Code and the blasé wartime and post-war attitude toward the “low genres” did everything it could to stamp the genre out. The cinematic equivalent of a carnival barker, the man used a series of increasingly elaborate gimmicks (from 3-D glasses to electrified seats) to draw in crowds to his latest barnburner of a film. The House on Haunted Hill, which stars the peerless Vincent Price, a caravan full of hapless party guests and a houseful of phantoms. The gimmick here was Emergo: a life-sized skeleton that would emerge at opportune times, fly around the theater and scare the paying customers. While you sadly can’t recreate something like Emergo in your living room, the film itself is a heck of a lot of fun on its own, with a wide array of specters and set-pieces to keep things interesting and one of Vincent Price’s most memorable performances (which is, needless to say, quite an accomplishment).
Carnival of Souls (1961)
Although it seems to be becoming less and less of an unknown quantity as the years go by, Carnival of Souls remains the best off-brand episode of The Twilight Zone ever produced. A spellbinding mystery playing out in faded black-and-white photography and unmooring cinematography, Carnival of Souls is the kind of high-concept horror that is once again back in fashion (see also: my previous comments on Nosferatu) and, perhaps as a consequence, more readily available than ever before (there is, for instance, a gorgeous BluRay package courtesy of the Criterion Collection). It’s a fascinating, nightmare logical tale of a woman hounded by phantoms in an expiatory town seemingly at the edge of the known world. It’s quite a trip, even today, and it perfectly fit the somber, haunting vibes of the emerging fall.
Deep Red (1975)
For as perennially popular as American slasher movies seem to be, very little ink seems to be spilled on the earlier cycle of Italian giallo films. Despite the fact that they were made by internationally famous directors, oftentimes feature notable Hollywood actors and fall under parallel-but-distinct lines of their American counterparts, they have never gained the kind of notoriety you would expect outside of the extremely tight circle of horror sub-fandom where they are fervently consumed. And yet these are some of the best horror movies to come out of the twentieth century: lurid, violent, boundary-pushing and deeply engrossing, these pre-slashers toe the line between outright horror films and more mainstream thrillers, combining compelling murder mysteries with grotesque horror set-pieces. My favorite of this cycle comes from the genre mastermind Dario Argento, who while better known for supernatural horror movies like Suspiria (1977) and its sequels, made a name for himself earlier in the decade on a string of well-received gialli. The best of these is undoubtedly Deep Red, which fully displays Argento’s unique penchant for horrific visuals, twisted narratives and slickly-staged action-horror sequences.
The Stuff (1984)
We don’t appreciate shlock enough in the horror genre. Lowbrow is decidedly out of fashion, supplanted by films that “elevate” the genre like The Witch (2015), Get Out (2017) and Hereditary (2018). And while I certainly love those movies – they are, after all, among my very favorite movies of the year – they are no less a part of the genre, no les worthy of consideration, than the output of William Castle, Roger Corman and Larry Cohen. Cohen, in particular, was a auteur writer-director whose career was defined by a series of high-concept, low-taste, socially aware films that an entire generation of moviegoers half-remember watching part of on TV when they were way too young to be doing so. While the best of these undoubtedly has to be the cult sci-fi horror film God Told Me To (1976), his fevered takedown of the junk food industry, The Stuff, is the most emblematic of his work. Featuring his regular cast of recognizable B-actors (like Law & Order’s Michael Moriarty and Goodfellas’ Paul Sorvino) and surprisingly sophisticated special effects for a low-budget feature, The Stuff is as socially relevant as it ever was, and has somehow become even more impressive with its analog approach to what today would be digital filmmaking.
Tammy and the T-Rex (1994)
A bizarre fever dream of 1990’s filmmaking, Tammy and the T-Rex made headlines in quarantine last year when it was resurrected by Shudder much to the consternation of the so-called guardians of “good taste,” both within and without the horror genre. Coming from the director of the legendarily awful Mac and Me (and the fun-if-questionably-good The Ice Pirates), the film stars Paul Walker as a teen who is murdered by a mad scientist and has his brain implanted into a mechanic Tyrannosaurus Rex. So between being a mad scientist movie, a robot movie, a dinosaur movie and an otherwise bog-standard teen comedy, the one-of-a-kind alchemy that went into this movie can hardly be said to have resulted in a “good film,” but certainly a memorable one. And sometimes that’s enough right there: a distinct amalgamation of mismatched genres, dissonant tones and never-going-to-work-together story beats that is unlike anything else out there. Sometimes, “unique” alone is enough to warrant a watch.