One of the things I love the most about Christmas is that it gives me the chance to catch up on recent horror films. If you need a break from the 24/7 deluge of It’s a Wonderful Life, I recommend the following list of films that I’ve been watching this holiday season.
At 108 minutes, this movie is about 45 minutes too long, and it gets bogged down in a banal drama involving a small town cop who can’t catch a break from his hard-ass boss played by Joe Montegna. And then there’s Rita, a stripper with a heart of gold who prostitutes herself to survive the mean streets of the American Southwest, and who’s convinced that her roommate, the young naïf Diana Kepler, is in big trouble. She’s right, but nobody believes her because she’s a prostitute. Neither of these subplots with all their ham-fisted social commentary and human melodrama really matter. At its grimy, sleazy core, Naked Fear is an old-fashioned exploitation film involving a demented killer who kidnaps his victims, flies them to the middle of the desert, strips them buck naked, and then hunts them for sport. The fact that the film is shot on location in the desert adds to the starkness of it all, and it makes the film seem at times almost akin to the bleak, existential violence of a Sergio Leone western–but with a naked girl running around in it. Here’s the math: The Most Dangerous Game + Spaghetti Westerns + Hostel + Showgirls = Naked Fear.
Brian Bertino’s debut film hasn’t gotten the acclaim it deserves. I know it has its flaws. Even though Bertino says he based the film on an actual event from his childhood, he rips off Them and Funny Games, to name the two more obvious examples. And the leading guy, played by Scott Speedman, is shockingly, laughably stupid. But Bertino shows an incredible amount of patience and impressive instincts in his pacing and tone. Too many new horror films these days tend to fall in the categories of deliberate b-grade camp or “torture porn.” The Strangers is refreshingly neither. It’s gut-wrenching, psychological horror. And it’s the first time, to my knowledge, that Merle Haggard’s song “Mama Tried” has ever been used in a horror film. Based on this debut, I can safely say that I’m really looking forward to Bertino’s next film.
I LOVE Storm Warning. There’s nothing original about it in terms of the story. If you’ve seen Hostel and Wrong Turn then you already know the plot. A couple of yuppies from the city — a liberal barrister and his artist wife — find themselves way over their heads in a remote mangrove swamp that happens to be the home of a psychotic family of redneck marijuana farmers. But it’s an impeccably crafted horror film with virtually no wasted dialogue, scene, or even camera shot. And the film is fantastically bloody and gruesome, but the director Jamie Banks knows just when to pull his punches. He also has a wicked sense of humor as he exploits cultural stereotypes and basic film conventions, but, again, he knows how to keep it in check. Plus, there’s an altogether intelligent sub-text involving the conflict between natural and positive law that would satisfy most philosophy majors without being too preachy or pretentious about it.
While not technically a horror film, Stuart Gordon knows his way around old-fashioned blood and gore, and he based his latest film on a horrifying true story about an unfortunate man who is hit by a car, gets stuck in its windshield, and is then hidden in the garage of his hit-and-run assailant who does nothing to help him. What makes Gordon’s adaptation so powerful are the mesmerizing parallels between the driver, Brandi Boski, and the victim, Thomas Bardo. Brandi, brilliantly played by Mena Suvari, is a young woman who is on the verge of advancing her career as an orderly at an assisted living home, despite her destructive, party-going lifestyle and her drug-dealing thug of a boyfriend. If Brandi just might be on her way up, Thomas Bardo is on a miserable downward spiral. A former project manager, Bardo becomes the victim of bad luck and a frustrating, Kafka-esque bureaucracy that renders him homeless. Their paths quite literally and dramatically cross when Brandi, freshly stoned after a night of partying, hits Bardo with her car. It’s fascinating to watch how Brandi’s survival instincts kick in and plummet her into one act of self-serving depravity after another, while Bardo quite simply refuses to give up and die. He even shows some degree of pity for Brandi during his horrible ordeal. I wouldn’t exactly call this film triumphant, but it does suggest that our human spirit is as indomitable and wondrous as it is vulgar and selfish. Call me crazy, but I think that sentiment seems entirely appropriate for the holiday season.