Thursday, October 30, 2014

'Tis the Season to be Scary

Happy Halloween, everyone! Once again, we are nearing the end of what many film lovers affectionately call "Horror month." A time for catching up on genre classics both old and new, the month often provides a number of opportunities for adventurous viewing. Schoolwork has limited my movie intake this year, but I was able to land a handful of fun ones including The Evil Dead and Hellraiser (which is more bloody and gross than fun, but you know what I mean). While I'm in the festive mood, I'll take this week's blog post as an opportunity to share my thoughts on a few of the best chillers, screamers and blood-curdlers out there. We all know the reputation of such films as Psycho, The Shining, Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, so there's no use in trying to add to their legend. Instead, I'll be presenting some of the lesser-known greats that deserve to stand toe-to-toe with the more established masterworks.
First up is Herk Harvey's low budget tale of ghoulish dread, Carnival of Souls. Independently made and released in 1962 to muted reception, the film follows the lone survivor of an auto accident that claimed the lives her friends. Spurred by a spontaneous road race with a car full of like-aged boys, her vehicle veers off a bridge and into a river. Our protagonist emerges remarkably unharmed and attempts to move on with her life, taking a job as a church organist in a small town in Utah. Strange occurrences begin to take place, as she has visions of a ghostly pale man everywhere she goes. Meanwhile, an abandoned carnival on the edge of town starts to emit a bizarrely enticing energy to the young woman. She knows not what the creepy place holds, but she can't help but be drawn to it, repeatedly visiting, perhaps one time too many. The film plays like an 84 minute episode of the Twilight Zone and goes down easy, devoid of any pretensions or big philosophical messages. It's twisty, atmospheric and terribly enigmatic all the way through. Endlessly eerie and creatively macabre, it's a splendid little gem of 60's b-horror and I highly recommend it. Also...
...get ready to have this guy haunt your dreams.
Now onto another 60's treasure, Hour of the Wolf. In 1968, Ingmar Bergman made a horror film and it was every bit as amazing as one could imagine. An artist and his pregnant wife vacation on a remote island where they discover they are not alone. A gaggle of wealthy socialites live nearby in a monstrous mansion. They know of the artist's work and invite him to a dinner party, where they proceed to playfully insult him. But this isn't the end of the story. During his time on the island, the artist begins to mentally breakdown, experiencing surreal encounters and reliving painful memories. It all culminates in a final 20 minutes that is absolutely terrifying. Here is a taste of what I'm talking about (trust me, this spoils nothing):
Coupling disturbing imagery with Bergman's trademark existential angst, the film is both frightening and fascinating- a rare mix. I want to study it just as much as I want to turn away from its horrific sequences. It isn't Bergman's finest hour (In my opinion, that would be Persona), but it is brilliant nonetheless.
Last but certainly not least is one of my favorite films of all time: Kwaidan. Masaki Kobayashi's masterfully-paced film is an anthology covering four stories based on tales from Japanese folklore. The horror is mostly subtle in this one, so while it might not be as "scary" as the other two films mentioned, its storytelling ability is the strongest. Because it is difficult to talk about the film as a whole without highlighting each section, here are some brief summaries (with screenshots, of course!).
THE BLACK HAIR - A poor swordsman abandons his wife despite her pleas to attain greater social status with a woman of a wealthy family. He is sick of the impoverished existence and seeks a higher quality of life at the risk of losing the one solid relationship he has. Higher social status is indeed attained, but the swordsman's mind often drifts back to his wife, especially since the woman he married has revealed herself to be cold and unloving. He decides to return home, but will his wife still be there and can things ever go back to the way they were? A great opening tale with a startling final trick that effectively sets the tone for the rest of the film.
THE WOMAN OF THE SNOW - A woodcutter has a ghostly encounter with a lethal spirit one stormy winter night and makes a pact with it: The woman promises to spare his life if he agrees to never tell a soul about what he witnessed that evening. The man takes the agreement and time passes. Spring comes and then summer. He marries a lovely woman who is new to the area and all seems well, but he cannot shake the memories of that fateful night and begins to question if it really happened and if he should go ahead and tell his sweetheart about it. I'll leave it there, because it gets very interesting after that. Though it's hard to choose, this might be my favorite of the four. It unravels slowly, like a campfire yarn and next to the tale that follows it, the segment contains some of the film's most striking compositions.

HOICHI, THE EARLESS - A blind musician named Hoichi is visited by the ghost of a samurai and invited to play for a sinister group of spirits. His skill in playing the biwa is considerable and he humbly accepts the offer, not knowing the exact nature of his audience. He goes night after night and once his priest friends catch on to what has been happening and realize the danger of the situation, they devise a clever plan to help Hoichi go undetected by the spirits that will hopefully drive them away for good. Of course, things don't go quite as planned. The longest story of the group and the most complex, "Hoichi" is probably the most popular section of Kwaidan (And for good reason!)
IN A CUP OF TEA - A writer sees a face in his cup of tea. He dumps and refills the cup several times only to find the face sporting the same bizarre smirk each time. Upset by this encounter, he finds himself being confronted by a trio of supernaturally-endowed assassins later that night. It's probably the most cursory of the four stories, but still entertainingly executed and impeccably crafted.

The most expensive production in Japan's cinematic history at the time of release, Kwaidan is grandly envisioned and thoroughly chilling in each of its four conclusions (as well as in the conclusion of its framing story, which took me completely off guard). I've taken up too much blog-space already with this film, so I figure I should end it there. If you're looking for expansive, eerie and beautifully shot horror, look no further than this film. It is truly one of the best of the genre.

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