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page created: 10/31/05
originally published: 10/26/05





Jahnke's Electric Theatre

Jahnke's Electric Theatre #19
The Killing Grounds


Jahnke's Electric Theatre - Main Page

Greetings once again, boils and ghouls. It's been a jam-packed couple of weeks here in Electric Theatre-land. Unfortunately for you, it's been jam-packed full of real world business, leaving yours truly precious little time to waste going to the picture show. I did see one movie, Domino, but quite honestly it's so bad, it's not even worth talking about.

But I don't want to leave y'all high and dry for another two weeks, so I thought I'd do something a bit different this time. As you may have noticed, Halloween is coming up on Monday. It's my favorite holiday and not just because that's the day my good-lady wife Tisha and I became joined in unholy matrimony. It's a day when imagination takes hold, giving everyone a chance to lose themselves in the impossible. And one of our favorite ways to do that is by watching movies.

The only trouble is that most horror movies just aren't scary. There are dozens of flicks in the horror genre that I enjoy very much but that I find about as frightening as a melted ice cube. So for those of you who might actually want to be shook up this Halloween, I thought I'd put together thirteen genuinely scary movies. And nothing against movies like The Exorcist or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre but you won't find them here. The truly great horror movies, the ones that really do scare us, are all pretty familiar by now. I love those movies and the best of them do creep you out even after you've seen them time and time again. But nothing's as scary as the unknown, so hopefully this list will go a little deeper than the tried and true.

Before we start, let me save you some time. The nitpickers and hair-splitters among you will complain that some of the movies I've chosen are more disturbing than scary. Yeah, well, whatever. If you want to analyze the subtle emotional changes between being scared, freaked out, creeped out, and unsettled, that's your business. For my purposes, anything that makes you feel like the real world has taken a seismic shift to the left and danger is lurking just around the corner qualifies. Let's begin and remember... to avoid fainting, keep repeating: it's only a movie... only a movie...


Alice

Everybody has at least one movie that they saw as a very young child that traumatized them, despite the fact that it isn't a horror movie at all. You know what I'm talking about, movies like The Wizard of Oz, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. (For me, it was probably The Sunshine Boys. Damn you, Neil Simon!) Jan Svankmajer's 1988 adaptation of Alice in Wonderland is probably about as close as you'll get to recapturing that childhood feeling as an adult. Filled to bursting with delirious, surreal images, this live-action/animation hybrid manages to give you that queasy feeling that the world just isn't right. Lewis Carroll's books are horrific and off-kilter. Svankmajer captures that essence better than just about anyone.


Audition

This one isn't exactly a buried treasure anymore but its reputation is well earned and the film's power hasn't been diminished by overexposure. If you haven't seen Takashi Miike's 1999 movie yet, you're in for an unforgettable experience. Part of what makes Audition so frightening is that for about the first 45 minutes or so, it's easy to forget you're even watching a horror movie. Miike tricks you, staging scenes that could easily fit into a romantic comedy, before pulling the rug out and hauling out the big guns... or more accurately, the big needles. The best way to see Audition is cold, knowing as little as possible about it beforehand. See this movie before some blabbermouth like me ruins it for you.


Brimstone & Treacle

Dennis Potter's work is often disturbing but rarely has he gone this far into semi-traditional horror territory. Sting is unbearably creepy as Martin, a charming drifter who enters the household of Denholm Elliott and Joan Plowright. He pretends to be the ex-boyfriend of their near-catatonic daughter (Suzana Hamilton), caring for her by day and raping the bedridden girl at night. Richard Loncraine's 1982 movie doesn't offer many answers. Martin could be the Devil, he could be a figment of their collective imagination, or he could just be a nutjob con man. Potter himself apparently didn't care much for this movie but in this instance, I think he was off the mark. Brimstone & Treacle is deeply strange, darkly humorous, and above all, very, very unsettling.


Cannibal Holocaust

Spaghetti horror can be loads of fun but it isn't often all that scary. Ruggero Deodato's notorious 1981 shocker is something of an exception. A film crew disappears in the jungles of South America. Their footage is discovered, revealing that the crew participated in some particularly nasty ritual killings and pissed off the natives by bringing along some atrocities of their own. Cannibal Holocaust is not for the squeamish. Animals are slaughtered for real, making the fake stuff look all that much more convincing. I can't really defend this movie. It's exploitative and hypocritical but it's undeniably effective. It's one of the few movies I've seen where just the act of watching it feels transgressive. Have a shower handy after you watch it.


The Changeling

On a much, much classier note, George C. Scott stars in this extremely underrated 1979 creepout. Scott plays a widower who moves into a new house and begins to hear from the ghost of a dead child murdered there decades earlier. Director Peter Medak understands that ghost stories work best when you get just hints of the supernatural. Restrained and spooky, The Changeling is one of the few ghost stories that succeeds at provoking a real chill.


Dead Ringers

It's no secret that I love me some David Cronenberg, so I knew I had to include at least one of his movies on this list. Tisha convinced me it had to be this one with her argument that for women, there is no scarier movie than this 1988 classic. Jeremy Irons should have won an Oscar for his performances as Beverly and Elliot Mantle, twin gynecologists who share everything. A somber and stylish meditation on identity, Dead Ringers is certainly much more than just a horror movie. But any movie that introduces gynecological instruments for operating on mutant women deserves to be seen at this time of year.


The Exorcist III

That's right, there is a sequel to The Exorcist that's not only worth watching, it's actually chilling. George C. Scott (him again) takes over the role of Lt. Kinderman from the late Lee J. Cobb, investigating the Gemini killer. The trail leads him to "Patient X" (Jason Miller), who might just be the long-dead Father Karras. Warner Bros. insisted that William Peter Blatty reshoot his original film, adding some pointless exorcism effects that admittedly feel tacked on. But while this would likely have been a better movie without studio interference, what's left is still well worth watching. That long-shot sequence in the hospital hallway is one of the best "gotcha" scares in movies. If you've seen the movie, you already know the scene I'm talking about. If you haven't, check it out. You may be pleasantly surprised.


Frenzy

Alfred Hitchcock's 1972 thriller is too often overlooked but I think it's one of his best. On some levels, this is another of Hitchcock's classic wrong-man suspense thrillers, with Jon Finch unjustly accused of being a notorious serial killer. But Frenzy also contains some of Hitchcock's most shocking and brutal violence. Suspense, black comedy and genuinely upsetting murders combine to make Frenzy unforgettable. If you've never seen it or it's been awhile, give it another look.


Just, Melvin: Just Evil

Because nothing Hollywood can come up with is scarier than real life, I had to include this, one of the most unsettling documentaries you'll ever see. Director James Ronald Whitney turns his camera on himself and his family to explore the devastating effects of the serial sexual abuse done by his grandfather, Melvin Just, on many members of Whitney's family. When Whitney interviews Melvin and confronts him with his past, Melvin shows absolutely no remorse. It'll make your skin crawl, as will the disturbing familial catharsis captured at Melvin's funeral. I'm certainly not trying to make light of this movie by including it here. But if you think nothing can scare you, nothing can shock you, check this out. Movie evil is nothing compared with what the real world has to offer.


Manhunter

Yeah, I know, it's not really a horror movie. So what? If The Silence of the Lambs can be considered a horror classic, then so can Michael Mann's 1985 Manhunter, the first movie to feature Hannibal Lecter. Anthony Hopkins brought the character to near operatic levels but Brian Cox was a more down-to-earth and believable (and therefore, more menacing) Lecter. Serial killers are a dime a dozen in crime thrillers but rarely are they as frightening as they are here. The final sequence with Iron Butterfly's "In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida" is one of the scariest you're likely to come across.


Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me

Just about all of David Lynch's movies with the exception of The Straight Story have some horror elements to them. But Twin Peaks, with its Black Lodge, cryptic dialogue and a terrifying spirit named Bob, edged closer to the genre than anything else. Lynch's 1992 movie prequel to the series has been unjustly maligned and contains some of Lynch's most intense, frightening setpieces. For a real scare, watch it in complete darkness, the way it was meant to be seen in the theatres.


The Vanishing

For years, George Sluizer's 1988 original has been my go-to title whenever people say they want to see something really scary. The premise is all-too believable. A young couple on vacation stops at a rest area where the woman simply disappears without a trace. For years after, the man obsessively tries to figure out what happened to her. Eventually, he does and the knowing is much, much worse. Avoid Sluizer's American remake like the plague and stick with the Dutch original. It'll keep you on edge from start to finish and linger in your mind afterward like an intense nightmare.


The Wicker Man

Another one of my favorites, this 1973 British thriller couldn't be more unsettling if it tried. Edward Woodward plays an ultra-conservative police inspector who travels to a remote island to investigate the disappearance of a child. What he finds is a cult of modern pagans led by Christopher Lee whose beliefs and practices rock Woodward to his very soul. Bizarre, erotic and blessed with a truly frightening finale, The Wicker Man is one of the best cult movies (as in, a movie about a cult) that you'll ever see. Oddly enough, both The Wicker Man and Frenzy were written by Anthony Shaffer.


So there you have it. Thirteen movies to help you get your freak on this holiday season. I'm going to do my damnedest to see some movies here in the next two weeks and return you to your regularly scheduled Electric Theatre. Otherwise I might have to come up with a list of movies to help you celebrate Veterans Day.

Until then, have a very happy Halloween.

Your pal,

Adam "bastard son of a thousand maniacs" Jahnke
ajahnke@thedigitalbits.com


Dedicated to Charles Rocket

"Electric Theatre - Where You See All the Latest Life Size Moving Pictures, Moral and Refined, Pleasing to Ladies, Gentlemen and Children!"

- Legend on a traveling moving picture show tent, c.1900


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