The year is not even two weeks old but it already has one electrifyingly brilliant film to its credit.
Neil Marshall's acclaimed British horror-thriller "The Descent" draws on plenty of other genre classics for visual inspiration, from otherworldly mysteries ("Picnic at Hanging Rock") to oudoor adventure ("Deliverance," "Jaws") to science-fiction ("Alien") and straight-out horror ("The Blair Witch Project"). All these movies are essential to any horror fan's movie education. Here's a sample of Roger Ebert's appraisals of these originals, from 1972 to 1999:
Director John Boorman and his cameraman, Vilmos Zsigmond, get some tremendously good (and unfaked) footage of the foursome shooting some fairly hairy rapids. The scenes of violence and rape also work, it must be admitted, although in a disgusting way. The appeal to latent sadism is so crudely made that the audience is embarrassed....
The adventures that occur in the film belong in Freudian dreams, and many of the exploits (particularly Voight's scaling of a cliff) are so incredible that we are back in a James Bond universe.
"Don't Look Now" (1973)
The movie is billed as a "psychic thriller," and that's fair enough. Its supernatural content (or ESP content, depending on your prejudice) is taken at face value; this isn't a movie like "Rosemary’s Baby," where you can never quite be sure there's not some rational explanation. Almost all of it was shot in Venice, that fantastical city that anticipated the Gothic style, and the locations are so much a part of the effect that it's impossible to imagine the movie being set anywhere else.
It's a film that's as frightening as "The Exorcist," and yet it's a nicer kind of fright, somehow more fun because we're being scared by an outdoor-adventure saga instead of by a brimstone-and-vomit devil.
The story, as I guess everyone knows by now, involves a series of attacks on swimmers by a great white shark, the response of the threatened resort island to its loss of tourist business, and, finally, the epic attempt by three men to track the shark and kill it. There are no doubt supposed to be all sorts of levels of meanings in such an archetypal story, but Spielberg wisely decides not to underline any of them. This is an action film content to stay entirely within the perimeters of its story, and none of the characters has to wade through speeches expounding on the significance of it all.
"Picnic at Hanging Rock" (1975) Great Movies review
On a drowsy St. Valentine's Day in 1900, a party of girls from a strict boarding school in Australia goes on a day's outing to Hanging Rock, a geological outcropping not far from their school. Three of the girls and one of their teachers disappear into thin air. One of them is found a week or so later, but can remember almost nothing. The others are never found.
On this foundation, Peter Weir's "Picnic at Hanging Rock" (1975) constructs a film of haunting mystery and buried sexual hysteria. It also employs two of the hallmarks of modern Australian films: beautiful cinematography and stories about the chasm between settlers from Europe and the mysteries of their ancient new home.
Brian DePalma's "Carrie" is an absolutely spellbinding horror movie, with a shock at the end that's the best thing along those lines since the shark leaped aboard in "Jaws." It's also (and this is what makes it so good) an observant human portrait. This girl Carrie isn't another stereotyped product of the horror production line; she's a shy, pretty, and complicated high school senior who's a lot like kids we once knew.
"Alien" (1979) Great Movies review
"Alien" has been called the most influential of modern action pictures, and so it is, although "Halloween" also belongs on the list. Unfortunately, the films it influenced studied its thrills but not its thinking. We have now descended into a bog of Gotcha! movies in which various horrible beings spring on a series of victims, usually teenagers. The ultimate extension of the genre is the Geek Movie, illustrated by the remake of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (2003), which essentially sets the audience the same test as an old-time carnival geek show: Now that you've paid your money, can you keep your eyes open while we disgust you? A few more ambitious and serious sci-fi films have also followed in the footsteps of "Alien," notably the well-made "Aliens" (1986) and "Dark City" (1998). But the original still vibrates with a dark and frightening intensity.
"Dead Calm" (1999)
The key image of "Dead Calm" is of two ships drawing near each other in the middle of a vast, empty expanse of ocean. The emotions generated by this shot, near the beginning of the film, underlie everything that follows, making us acutely aware that help is not going to arrive from anywhere, that the built-in protections of civilization are irrelevant and that the characters will have to settle their own destinies.
"The Blair Witch Project" (1999)
"The Blair Witch Project," an extraordinarily effective horror film, knows this and uses it. It has no fancy special effects or digital monsters, but its characters get lost in the woods, hear noises in the night and find disturbing stick figures hanging from trees. One of them discovers slime on his backpack. Because their imaginations have been inflamed by talk of witches, hermits and child murderers in the forest, because their food is running out and their smokes are gone, they (and we) are a lot more scared than if they were merely being chased by some guy in a ski mask.
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