Modern Horror Classics: The Mist

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Well, here we are in the last week of my look back at modern horror classics. Wednesday is Halloween and October will draw to a close. *SIGH* It is my favorite month. But before my post-Halloween depression sets in, let me tell you about one more of my favorite modern horror movies. My last pick is The Mist. I’m a big fan of Stephen King. But adaptations of his works have been pretty hit or miss. While The Mist may not have been a huge success critically or commercially, to me it’s one of the most underrated big screen versions of his work. Despite a change to the ending of the original novella (King himself even praised the film’s new, bleaker ending) this is a solid page to screen translation.

The Mist takes place when a freak storm descends on a small town. In the aftermath, David Drayton (Thomas Jane) and son Billy (Nathan Gamble) venture into town for supplies. When the two of them arrive at the grocery store, there is a flurry of police and military activity. An MP even enters the store and tells the patrons to evacuate. Shortly after, a panicking man enters the store warning everyone that there is something in the mist. Then a thick mist surrounds the store and there are earthquake-level tremors.

This leads a pious woman in the store named Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden) to believe that the time of Armageddon has arrived. It is revealed that something is indeed lurking in the mist when bag boy Norm (Chris Owen) volunteers to go outside, and is promptly attacked by tentacles of a monster that the patrons are unable to see through the mist. This mobilizes people to secure the store, putting up bags of dog food and doing anything they can to prevent the mist and whatever lurks within it from getting inside.

That’s the basic premise. Along with the monsters, the terrifying thing is how as the situation progresses the people in the grocery store turn on each other. Mrs. Carmody manages to whip half the people up with her religious zealot speeches. So two camps develop within the store and both have different ideas about what should be done in the situation.

What’s fascinating about The Mist is that it plays on something that the original Night of the Living Dead did. The person next to you is often scarier than the monster behind you. When the chips are down people will show their true colors. And while scares certainly do come from the creatures and the gore in The Mist, the really terrifying thing is the way that different people behave. The way Mrs. Carmody is able to so easily convince people to turn against David and his group shows the ugly tendency that humanity has to shun the outsider and how easily people can be manipulated when crippled by fear.

The Mist has a real sense of claustrophobia. You wouldn’t think such a compelling story could be told about people trapped in a grocery store with a supernatural presence outside. But it’s very effective because the character all feel like believable people. Everyone is solid, but the real scene stealer is Marcia Gay Harden. She gives the best female performance in a Stephen King film since Kathy Bates in Misery. Both women are so crazy underneath that matter of fact tone of voice that it’s downright chilling.

It’s worth noting that The Mist was directed by Frank Darabont. He also adapted Stephen King’s works for The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. While The Mist isn’t in the same league with those films, it’s a very good smaller scale story that plays like a modern Twilight Zone episode. And, be warned. The ending of The Mist is one of the most heartbreaking in modern horror film history. But it’s a fitting ending that doesn’t feel tacked on at all. The Mist may not have gotten a great reception on its initial release. But I think as time passes people will realize what a great little movie it is.

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Modern Horror Classics: Zodiac

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Greetings, readers! It’s week three of my look at modern horror classics. This week’s selection is twice as scary because the story is based on true events. The film is Zodiac. Based on the real-life Zodiac Killer murders that terrified residents of the San Fransisco Bay area in the late 1960’s and early 1970s, it’s one of the moodiest and most effective serial killer movies ever made. It ranks up there with The Silence of the Lambs and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. It’s that good.

Zodiac is about the manhunt for the Zodiac Killer. But it’s much more than a standard police procedural about one of the most infamous unsolved murder sprees. The film follows the case through the perspective of San Fransisco Chronicle political cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal). The Zodiac Killer sends encrypted letters to the San Fransisco Chronicle to taunt the police. Graysmith at first isn’t taken seriously at his paper or by the police investigating the case. But then he cracks the code of one of the letters, earning the respect of crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.).

The Zodiac Killer even sends the paper a bloodstained shirt of one of his victims and does interviews over the phone on TV through lawyer Melvin Belli (Brian Cox). As the body count continues to rise the police remain stumped. Graysmith decides to conduct his own investigation. He even manages to impress the killer with his knowledge of the case, leading to eventually receiving threatening phone calls. Graysmith decides to write a book about the case and does a TV interview. His obsession with the case causes his wife Melanie (Chloe Sevigny) to leave him, taking their children with her. The third act of Zodiac is such a tour de force I dare not reveal what unfolds. All I will say is that the ending will leave you sleeping with the lights on.

Zodiac was directed by David Fincher, famous for another absorbing crime thriller: Seven. While not as macabre as Seven, Zodiac is every bit as terrifying. Part of that stems from the fact that this isn’t some dreamt up Hollywood story. It really happened. And they never caught the twisted creep responsible for the murders. This film is a modern horror classic for me because of the brilliant way it develops the sense of paranoia in the Bay Area when this happened.

It also shows the toll that the case takes on everyone, including Inspector Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Inspector Armstrong (Anthony Edwards). And Jake Gyllenhaal is terrific as the anchor of the story. Graysmith is mousey but smart. And he makes the cartoonist much more than the stereotypical film nerd. Some of my favorite scenes are between Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr, Their working relationship at the paper feels very believable.

Another thing that must be noted about Zodiac is its creepy atmosphere. A huge part of that comes from the way the film was photographed. Credit the film’s cinematographer Harris Savides for dialing up the scare factor, especially during the night scenes. This is one of the best looking crime movies ever made.

Zodiac didn’t do great at the box office. And that’s really a shame. It takes a true life crime story and completely absorbs the audience in the case. It’s not a standard detective story by any stretch of the imagination. While the body count is high, it is not a nauseatingly gory movie. Much of the violence is implied or happens offscreen. But the way the details of the murders are revealed is downright chilling. At the end you’re hoping against hope that the suspect they have is the guilty party. We go through so much with the characters that the idea of the Zodiac Killer still being on the loose after all that is just terrifying. Zodiac is full of great performances, has a great look to it, and takes the police procedural movie to an art level. The film deserves to be have a wider audience. But, a word to the wise. Don’t watch it alone unless you want to have nightmares. The film definitely stays with you. And that is a mark of true cinematic greatness.

Modern Horror Classics: The Descent

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Greetings, readers! It’s week two of my look at modern horror classics. This time I’ve chosen one of the best horror films to come out in the last 20 years. It’s one of those scary movies that sneaks up on you and builds to one heck of a finale. It’s The Descent. The film has such a simple premise on the surface. But the tension builds up like a tight rope that’s about to snap. And when it does, you’re left with a lot more to think about than you imagined at the beginning.

The Descent follows a group of six women who embark on a spelunking expedition. They’re doing it on the one year anniversary of Sarah’s (Shauna Macdonald) car accident that killed Sarah’s husband Paul and daughter Jessica. The group of friends: Juno (Natalie Mendoza), Beth (Alex Reid), Sam (MyAnna Buring), Rebecca (Saskia Mulder), and Holly (Nora-Jane Noone) meet at a cabin in the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina. Right when they all meet, we sense tension among the group, especially between Sarah and Juno. Juno apologizes to Sarah for not being there for her after the accident. But Sarah is distant, clearly not over the trauma.

The day after their reunion at the cabin, the group goes to a cave entrance and descends. But things start to go wrong almost immediately, After moving through a narrow passage, it collapses behind them, leaving them trapped. Soon after, Juno reveals that they are in an uncharted cave system, so any hopes of a rescue are slim. Juno hoped that exploring a new cave would help mend her relationship with Sarah. From that point on the film becomes about the group’s struggle for survival. They find climbing equipment from a previous spelunker as well as a cave drawing, suggesting an exit does exist. While the group looks for the exit, they discover (SPOILER ALERT!) that they are not alone in the cave, The cave us home to some pale, humanoid crawlers. It’s a race against the clock to find the exit before the creatures can pick them off.

Most of what I’ve described sounds like bits and pieces of things you’ve seen in other horror movies. But The Descent sets itself apart by the way it develops the relationships of its characters and revealing their personalities gradually as the tension of the situation grows. Like another horror classic, Halloween, the women in The Descent are spunky and interesting heroines. They’re not just there to be predictable horror movie characters. What’s also worth noting about this movie is that while it does have monsters, it almost doesn’t need them. There’s enough compelling drama in the group dynamic and the struggle to resolve the situation that would make for an effective thriller all by itself. But when the creatures show up, boy are they terrifying! They will haunt your dreams for a couple of nights.

The Descent relies on human interaction for most of its drama without the material ever devolving into overdone melodrama. This is a horror movie that builds in a way that few horror movies do anymore. And while this is a great movie, I feel one disclaimer is needed. If you are claustrophobic…DO NOT WATCH The Descent! Some of the most terrifying moments come from the protagonists navigating tiny spaces in the caves and making narrow escapes. I’m not afraid of tight spaces. But this movie made me feel like I could be. Director Neil Marshall, cinematographer Sam McCurdy (the photography in the cave scenes is downright chilling) and his talented cast deserve the utmost praise for crafting one of the most truly spellbinding thrillers in recent years. Years from now, The Descent will take its place in the pantheon of horror classics.

Modern Horror Classics: The Cabin In The Woods

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It’s the most wonderful time of the year again. No. It’s not Christmas. It’s Halloween season. The month of October is my favorite because it means watching horror movies old and new. This month I’m going to be covering modern horror films that to me are destined to become classics. The first one I have selected came out only six years ago. But it’s one of the smartest and scariest films I have seen in a long time: The Cabin In The Woods. Like Scream and Shaun of the Dead, it manages to be a clever satire about horror movies while also being a very effective horror movie.

The film follows a classic horror film setup. Five college students decide to take a break and head to an isolated and creepy. That premise should sound familiar to anyone who saw Evil Dead and its countless imitators. But this isn’t just another mindless slasher movie.

The five college students: Dana (Kristen Connolly). Holden (Jesse Williams), Marty (Fran Kranz), Jules (Anna Hutchison), and Curt (Chris Hemsworth), all get thrown into the craziness right away at the cabin. They’re dosed with mind-altering drugs that prevent them from having rational thoughts. With a lack of inhibitions in place, the gang goes exploring the cabin. They discover several bizarre objects. One is the diary of Patience Buckner, a cabin resident abused by her family. Dana recites the incantations in the diary and unleashes a zombified version of the Buckner family. Then pheromones are released to induce Curt and Jules to sleep together. As anyone who has seen a teen horror movie knows: teens_sex=death. Jules gets killed. But Curt survives to warn the others.

Curt, Holden, and Dana attempt to escape in their RV. But one of the Buckners has been hiding in the RV and manages to off Curt and Holden. Dana survives after the RV crashes into the lack amidst the chaos. And we find out that Marty has survived as well. His use of marijuana made him immune to the mind-altering drugs.

The twist in The Cabin In The Woods (spoiler alert!) is that the kids are part of a ritual. Everything that happens to them is planned. There is an underground facility that has manipulated them to make the bad decisions that kids so often make in horror movies. Now, what is behind the facility’s scheme I’ll leave for you to discover. But I don’t want to mention that the facility staff features some wonderful supporting performances from Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins. And there’s a small part at the end of the movie played by, well, it’s a great surprise. It’s an actress who is perfect for the role given her previous work in the genre.

The Cabin In The Woods has a lot of fun with the movies it’s deconstructing. The screenplay was co-written by director Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon. It’s endlessly clever, and listening to the dialogue is one of the film’s pleasures. Yes, it has plenty of blood and guts. So on that level it succeeds as a horror movie. But it’s about so much more than the body count. It’s a very smart horror film, something we don’t see too often in the era of endless sequels and remakes. You don’t have to have seen an inordinate amount of horror movies to completely appreciate The Cabin In The Woods. But devotees of the genre will get more of the jokes and appreciate some of the tropes more.

I also want to mention that the main cast is a lot of fun to watch, especially Fran Kranz as Marty. Far too often in movies like this the characters are just there to do predictable, dumb things. In those cases I start making a mental list of who I think will get killed off next. But here, the characters are not just cookie cutter stereotypical horror genre people. They’re very believable college kids with spunky, interesting personalities. That’s what you get in great horror movies like Halloween and A Nightmare On Elm Street. The Cabin In The Woods is scary, funny, and, above all, smart. It’s one of the most please surprises of the last ten years.