Freshen Up Your Scary Movie Night
By Joel Frady and Frank
Halloween has always been the best time to sit down with friends and family to enjoy an evening of scary movies. Some will simply enjoy the triple feature on a cable network, while others will stick to classics like Psycho, Halloween and Alien - or inferior remakes and sequels of these movies.
But for anyone looking for something a little different, here are a few titles that weren't big hits when they were released, but provide big scares nonetheless.
Joy Ride (2001)
Delayed for more than a year and released without much of an advertisement campaign, Joy Ride looked like another run-of-the-mill horror with rising stars (Paul Walker, Leelee Sobieski and Steve Zahn) running from a killer with a rig. But director John Dahl's (Red Rock West, Rounders) thriller is far from ordinary - it's relentless, for starters, and very smart.
Co-written by J.J. Abrams, the creator of Lost and director of this summer's fantastic Star Trek, Joy Ride never stops once the chase begins. The villain doesn't just physically attack his prey, either - he taunts them, ridicules them, embarrasses them and then attacks them.
With a villain this smart and filmmaking this good, you forget there was ever an appeal to brain-dead killers and buckets of unnecessary blood.
In the Mouth of Madness (1995)
Horror master John Carpenter (The Thing) delved into psychological horror with the virtually unseen In the Mouth of Madness, a film that's truly unpredictable. It plays much like a normal horror film for the first half - the odd monsters arrive right on cue - before venturing into the furthest realms of the imagination.
The typical horror material - along with the moody photography and ominous soundtrack - work because Carpenter understands horror movies. The psychological aspect, however, works because he knows horror; Sam Neill (Jurassic Park), as insurance investigator John Trent, has never dreamed that anything this bad could exist and isn't even ready to confront the unsavory truth. It's as scary for the viewer as it is for him, and probably a lot more fun.
The Devil's Backbone (2001)
Director Guillermo del Toro received much critical acclaimed for Pan's Labyrinth in 2006, and with good reason: the creepy, stylish fantasy horror was as beautiful as it was scary. But The Devil's Backbone, del Toro's self-described "sibling" film to Pan's Labyrinth, is even better.
Backbone is a proper ghost story set in a Spanish orphanage in 1939. A dormant bomb stands tall in the middle of the orphanage, an ominous sign but the least of 10-year-old Carlos' problems.
Backbone illustrates why del Toro has achieved the success he has in the United States with films like Blade II and the Hellboy series. It's stylish, eerie and the tension builds perfectly. As far as ghost stories go, it's one of the scariest ever made.
The Mist (2007)
Frank Darabont had big success adapting Stephen King stories for the big screen, but until The Mist hadn't tried a King horror - he had instead directed Best Picture nominees The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. While The Mist doesn't have the dramatic weight of those films, Darabont proved once again that he understands King and how to bring his stories to the screen.
The Mist is the scariest film I've ever seen, hands down. When I walked out of the theater in 2007, I was still shaking. At one point, I even stood up and cheered, and I rarely find myself so enthralled with a film I forget I'm in a room full of people.
It's a film about a group of people trapped inside a grocery store after an odd mist rolls through town that contains giant monsters. Those monsters aren't the scariest part of the film, however, as the psychological terror that follows - caused by the slow-building madness of the grocery store patrons - creates a lose-lose situation for the few that remain sane.
There's very little build-up, and when the mist rolls in Darabont never gives the viewer any room to breath. Things go from real bad to worse to downright stupid terrible, and the heroes are fully-fleshed out characters that you genuinely like and want to survive.
I think the film was ignored, primarily, because it was released shortly after the remake of The Fog, a terrible version of a film that wasn't great (but was entertaining) the first time. It's a pity, too, because The Mist is pure terror, and I can only hope I'll ever see a film this scary again.
Jacob's Ladder (1990)
Before The Shawshank Redemption, actor Tim Robbins took a turn as another tortured soul - Jacob Singer. In Jacob's Ladder, directed by Adrian Lyne (Indecent Proposal), Robbins plays a Vietnam veteran having just returned home to a lovely girlfriend, a well-paying postal job, and a plague of nightmares. No matter where he turns in this seemingly safe environment, he's confronted with terrifying glimpses of hellish ghosts, all bent on dragging him to their abysmal destination.
Jacob soon learns he's not alone, that his fellow veterans are experiencing the same horrors, drawing thoughts of conspiracy and something altogether more sinister. Seeking guidance from his guru-like chiropractor (Danny Aiello, Do the Right Thing), Jacob tries to piece together the mystery in a film that's as poignant as it is disturbing.
The Devil Bat (1940)
Bela Lugosi defined the role of Dracula, delivering a masterful performance as the ghoulishly debonair vampire in Tod Browning's 1931 film of the same name. Unfortunately, the role seemed to define him, typecasting the versatile actor in similar, though considerably less compelling, roles for the remainder of his career. That doesn't mean he didn't try.
This is most evident in The Devil Bat, in which Lugosi stars as Dr. Paul Carruthers, a vengeful scientist who develops an after-shave lotion that attracts his monstrous devil bat, killing all those who wear the deadly fragrance. He uses this technique to exact revenge on his former employers, who fired him after capitalizing off his olfactory invention.
Though gleefully absurd and laden with dated special effects, even for its day, The Devil Bat stars Lugosi in his post-Dracula finest, dominating the screen with a hypnotic presence that's just as effective now as it was then.
Shadow of the Vampire (2000)
In 1922, director F.W. Murnau released the silent classic Nosferatu, featuring what's considered one of the most terrifying manifestations of Bram Stoker's Count Dracula. Since Murnau was refused rights to film Dracula, the story was rewritten for film with different locations and character names, one of which was Count Orlok, played to a spine-chilling T by German actor Max Schreck.
Director E. Elias Merhige's Shadow of the Vampire offers a fictionalized account of Nosferatu's production, starring John Malkovich (Burn After Reading) as Murnau and Willem Dafoe (American Psycho) as Schreck, but with a twist. Though described by Murnau as a devoted method actor who only appears in costume, Schreck's presence on set starts proving detrimental to the cast and crew, some growing ill, some mysteriously dying, and all terrified.
Things are not quite as they seem, though Murnau's dogged determination keeps the film rolling. Dafoe steals the show, delivering a five-star performance that earned him a well-deserved best supporting actor nomination in the 2001 Academy Awards.