Horror is all about the heavies. Few people remember the name of Janet Leigh’s character in Psycho, but there’s probably not one person reading this most frightful issue of Metro Pulse who doesn’t know the name of the character who helped her make such a memorable exit. We tend to forget Marion Crane, but we always remember Norman Bates.
Lately, though, the genre’s stars have undergone something of an identity crisis. If you like your monsters bare-chested and angsty, you’re in luck—Hollywood has defanged the vampire, neutered the werewolf, and served both up on a whiny silver platter. Even giant space monsters just want to steal your engine and go home; if they happen to eat your local sheriff in the process, it’s just because they’re misunderstood.
Those of us who would rather our monsters be, well, monstrous can have a hard time of it these days. Luckily, it’s not that hard to find creature features whose stars measure up to the monsters of cinema’s storied past. Here’s a round-up of movies whose heavies haven’t forgotten what they’re here to do in the first place.
God knows we need an anti-Twilight, and Stake Land (2010) is it. Jim Mickle’s post-apocalyptic road movie pits a group of survivors (yes, they are quite ragtag) against legions of snarling, baby-eating vamps who only sparkle because they’re covered in fresh blood. In true horror film fashion, Stake Land’s bloodsuckers are very nearly out-monstered by the Brotherhood, a right-wing religious group fronted by a sadistic zealot who thinks the vampires have been sent by God to purify the country. Featuring gorgeous cinematography, grisly make-up effects and strong performances, including Kelly McGillis as a strong-willed nun known only as Sister and genre darling Danielle Harris as the heroic—and very pregnant—Belle, Stake Land is gory, frightening, and genuinely moving.
It’s been awhile since Hollywood has gotten werewolves right, but other parts of the world have fared considerably better. The Brits, in particular, have a knack for the lycanthropy-challenged; makes perfect sense, as everyone knows you can’t walk across a moor at night without getting the hell mauled out of you by a werewolf. According to Neil Marshall’s terrific 2002 monster-comedy, Dog Soldiers, the Scottish wilderness is just as dangerous. Dog Soldiers is a mutt of a movie, playing like a mashup of Night of the Living Dead and The Howling. A group of British soldiers on a training exercise runs afoul of a pack of werewolves; they eventually make their way to a farmhouse, to which the monsters lay bloody siege. Featuring clever practical FX and plenty of inventive gore gags, Dog Soldiers is old-school, monster-movie fun.
As rotters continue their inexorable shamble toward overpopulation—or did they get there a long time ago?—it’s becoming harder and harder to do anything interesting with them. Irish director Glenn McQuaid somehow manages to break a bit of new ground with his Dickensian horror-comedy I Sell the Dead (2008), which pits a pair of scheming grave robbers against gangsters, vampires, aliens and, of course, zombies. The second movie on this list from filmmaking collective Glass Eye Pix (they also made Stake Land), I Sell the Dead pulls off one of the toughest challenges of the genre: Thanks to a thick patina of atmospheric 18th-century grime and a great cast, including genre stalwart Ron Perlman, it manages to be both funny and occasionally creepy.
Before he scored stateside box office hits with remakes of The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha, French director Alexandre Aja turned heads on the horror scene with 2003’s High Tension. It’s not technically an adaptation, but High Tension’s bare-bones plot has more than a fleeting resemblance to the Dean Koontz novel Intensity: When her best friend is kidnapped by a serial killer, a young woman stows away with them and tries to save her friend. Though it’s a fairly standard stalk-and-slash affair, Aja cranks up the tension with relentlessly creepy ambient sound design and explosive bouts of brutal, gory violence. The soap-opera-as-Grand-Guignol plot twist frustrates many viewers, but High Tension is a nasty break from glossy Hollywood slasher fare.
Though it took quite a beating for its similarities to Fred Dekker’s genre mashup Night of the Creeps (which predated it by an even 20 years), 2006’s Slither owes just as much to David Cronenberg’s body-horror classics Shivers and The Brood. Nathan Fillion stars as a sheriff who must defend his small town against an invasion of alien slugs; the body count quickly rises as the slugs infest the town’s residents, causing them to mutate into gooey, murderous monsters. Written and directed by Troma vet James Gunn, Slither is wonderfully gross and woefully underrated.
Thanks to The Human Centipede and its even more notorious sequel, mad scientists have gotten a bump in their Q Scores lately. One of the finest entries in the subgenre, though, is one whose connection to it is only realized in its final, disturbing frames. Lucky McKee’s May (2002) is about a painfully lonely young woman who is so desperate for companionship that she takes the phrase “making friends” a bit too literally. McKee saves most of the horror for the film’s bloody conclusion, but make no mistake about it—May is an eerie, unsettling viewing experience. Star Angela Bettis is the very best sort of villain: capable of horrible things, but sympathetic and utterly, agonizingly identifiable.
Whether it takes center stage (Contagion) or just serves as a means to an end (Rise of the Planet of the Apes), disease is a versatile narrative element that naturally lends itself to the horror genre. Few filmmakers, though, have been as inventive with the killer-virus trope as Spanish duo Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, whose fantastic 2007 shocker [REC] puts a creepy religious slant on the zombie-virus cliché. The American remake was serviceable, but you really need to check out the original to get the full effect. If the final reel doesn’t get your heart rate up, don’t bother checking your pulse—you probably don’t have one.
One of the few subgenres of horror to benefit creatively from digital visual effects, the giant-monster flick has also proven to be a surprisingly good fit for the “found footage” trend. Trollhunter (2010), Norway’s first Hollywood-style monster movie, combines both conventions with slick, entertaining results. A group of film students think they’re making a documentary about a notorious poacher, only to wind up stranded in the Norwegian wilderness with the country’s official troll hunter and, of course, lots of hungry trolls. The creatures have a distinct storybook look to them that separates them from insect-like monsters we’ve seen in bigger-budget films like Cloverfield and Super 8. The creature design and CGI effects shine, along with Trollhunter’s clever sense of humor and its tongue-in-cheek pokes at religion and bureaucracy.
Now that the Satanic Panic of the ’80s has spluttered into the Satanic Mild Annoyance fueled only by the religious whack-jobs who haunt the fringes of our political scene, devil-worshippers hardly ever get their due on the silver screen. Ti West’s retro romp House of the Devil (2009), won’t do much to boost their public image—it features a trio of inept Satanists who can’t even tie a decent knot, let alone subdue a babysitter—but it offers style to spare and plenty of creepy suspense. Jocelin Donahue is terrific as Samantha, a co-ed so desperate to escape her piggish dormmate that she accepts a shady babysitting job at a remote mansion. House favors the slow, tense build-up over the bloody payoff (though it has that, too) and West makes the most of the film’s early-’80s setting—no Internet or cellphones to save the day, but plenty of skin-tight denim and lovingly-feathered bangs.
From this point on, no Halloween should be complete without a viewing of Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat. For no good reason that anyone can find, the 2003 horror anthology was skipped over for theatrical release and dumped straight onto DVD. That’s just shameful, because it’s one of the best horror films of the 21st century so far. It could easily fit into a number of categories here, since its four separate-but-related tales feature slashers, werewolves, and a number of other genre tropes. The spookiest, though, a segment titled “The School Bus Massacre Revisited,” is a ghost story about a mean-spirited practical joke that goes awry, with horrifying results for the pranksters.
April Snellings is the online editor for Rue Morgue, the leading magazine devoted to horror entertainment.