I’m not really a fan of horror movies. They’re just too creepy, and generally there’s too much focus on gross-out rather than spook factor for my taste. The ones that are genuinely scary usually just give me screaming nightmares, and why would I want to pay good money for that? There’s a fine balance between those, though, a razor’s edge where horror meets humor known as the macabre, or a finely tuned understanding of suspense that relies on shadows and darkness to send a chill up your spine and give you a twist ending that goes beyond simple surprise and into the realm of revelation. That’s where I like to spend my time, and there are a few movies that rarely seem to get mentioned that exemplify the tone for me.
Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight (1995) – Despite my protests about not liking horror flicks, for reasons I can never fully explain I was a HUGE fan of Tales from the Crypt as a kid. The episode I remember most to this day is “Chop Poker”, and I don’t think I’ve even seen it in twenty years or more. It was just that good. The show as a whole was just my brand of scary – not so long that I couldn’t sit all the way through it, and with that wonderfully gruesome Crypt Keeper giving it all a sick black humor to take the edge off (or twist the knife at the end) to make it all the better. When I found out they were making an entire movie out of it, I was onboard immediately, even before I knew what it was about. And wow, what a movie.
The story is of a man who carries the last of seven mystical keys that hold the blood of Christ and is being chased by demons, who ends up being cornered in a boarding house in the middle of nowhere. This could easily devolve into a B-grade slasher flick except for two things. First, the cast is amazing. Billy Zane alone could carry this movie. He is the most charismatic, compelling, likably vicious and evil villain I have ever seen, and he manages to pull off lines that would fall flat coming from almost anyone else. Jada Pinkett Smith makes a strong and likable (though unusual) heroine, not playing to the usual tropes, and William Sadler brings a surprising depth and humanity to the character Brayker. The rest of the cast delivers solid performances for what are for the most part stock characters, although each has their standout moments.
The other thing that elevates this movie from trash to triumph is the script. It combines a surprisingly deep story with some fantastic writing. With great lines such as “Do me a favor? Don’t scream. Just hear what I’ve gotta say… and then scream” and “You know this ‘Hell on Earth’ business? Big fucking deal – I’ve got hemorrhoids”, the script manages to range all over the emotional terrain from terrifying to tragic to comedic without breaking the moment or the momentum. The Crypt Keeper himself is an added bonus.
Death Becomes Her (1992) – Not a horror movie per se, but definitely a dark comedy that shades more to the dark than the comedy. With an amazing cast that includes Meryl Streep, Bruce Willis, and Goldie Hawn, you know you’re in for some solid comedy, but I have to admit I had no idea they could go so dark. The basic plot line revolves around the two women who are old rivals and constantly out to “one up” one another, and they both (unbeknownst to each other) discover a potion of youth and immortality. Of course, immortality isn’t always what you think it is, and things get very weird very fast.
The special effects in this film haven’t aged particularly well, but they’re not bad for what they are, and the performance from both leading ladies more than makes up for it. Bruce Willis manages to turn in a surprisingly subdued performance for people who are used to seeing him as the take-charge action star, and the twist ending is decidedly macabre. There’s more humor than horror, but there’s enough darkness to it to definitely put it in the category of spooky films.
Dark City (1998) – A neo-noir sci-fi flick in the vein of Twelve Monkeys, with the same sort of WTF ending that makes you want to watch the whole thing over again, Dark City is another film that doesn’t really fall into the genre of horror, but the dark and brooding atmosphere of noir definitely puts it in the same general ballpark of suspense and thriller films. A bizarre film that revolves around the unfolding story of John Murdoch (played by Rufus Sewell) and the ominously named Strangers, Dark City has plenty of action but also more than a little pop philosophy for those who are inclined to mix some thinking into their entertainment. There’s also a strong performance from the always entertaining Kiefer Sutherland. I could go into more detail, but frankly that would take away most of the joy of watching this unique film. Better to try it for yourself and enjoy the bittersweet ending.
There you have it, my picks for a dark and stormy night, when the wind is howling and the ghouls are knocking at the door. Halloween is fast approaching, so if you’re looking for something different for your filmfest than the usual slasher fare or zombierama, give ‘em a try. Just don’t blame me if you have to sleep with the light on.