FIVE FILMS FROM...1999
(Directed by Takashi Miike)
'Only pain and suffering will make you realize who you are.'
If there is one piece of work that sums up the style of the ridiculously prolific filmmaker Miike (111 directing credits and counting!!), then it is this sick and twisted little masterpiece. Audition (or Ōdishon if you want to be pedantic) is a startling movie that is primarily horror but subverts several genres in the process. It is also one of the more accessible films that Miike made in the first half of his career, not to say that it doesn't push the envelope in certain ways. It's just that it's more mainstream when compared with the body-fluid-fest of Ichi the Killer (2001) and the jaw-dropping weirdness of Gozu (2003). Based on a 1997 Japanese novel, the film has some dramatic shifts in tone and is arguably one of the first examples of "torture porn" horror (a bullshit term that it is) to become globally distributed.
However, you would be hard-pressed to think of the film that way during the first half and if you were none the wiser. In some respects, it is the From Dusk till Dawn of J-horror, starting strongly in another genre before shifting to become an all-out fright fest. Meek and mild widower Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) has a lonely social life but is encouraged to find love by his son. To help him find the perfect partner, a film producer friend sets up a mock audition for a faked project purely so that Aoyama can review the looks and personalities of prospective girlfriends. He is drawn to one girl in particular, the enigmatic and beautiful Asami (Eihi Shiina), who seems to have some real depth to her identity. So far, so rom-com/love story. Except for the fact that Asami has a dark past and some powerful issues about commitment. Something that the obsessed Aoyama learns to his cost…
The contrasting narratives and very gradual descent into cinematic queasiness make this film a real throat grabber. Despite its simplicity and set-up, it packs a lot of themes and impact into its 2hr running time. If you want to read it as such, the low-key humorous opening takes pot-shots at accepted misogyny in society, with the idea that Aoyama's date can be selected from duped and unaware women who are being basically treated like items on a menu (future shades of social media dating surely). But then it also highlights extreme forms of narcissism or empowerment, as Asami goes off the deep-end merely because Aoyama still feels the loss of his dead wife and obviously loves his son. For her, love must be absolute and exclusive… or else.
However, alongside all those clever but unobtrusive layers, Audition is also just a great and very straightforward urban horror fable. How Miike ramps up the tension is textbook, from the first moment of uneasiness ("something" writhing around in a sack in the background) to the gradual revelations and the finger-biting last act. Not to spoil things if you haven't seen it yet, but the last scene involves mutilation, piano-wire, amputation, and facial queasiness. This is all rounded out by a feeling of total helplessness and empathy, which most filmmakers miss when they insert extreme scenes of sadistic and personal violence into their works. The gruesomeness of this is massively sold by Eihi's performance, which manages to be sweet and gentle despite the horrendous acts she is involved with. Without a doubt, the single most disturbing thing that people take away from the film is her character incessantly trilling "kiri kiri kiri" ("Deeper Deeper Deeper") whilst doing something not-right with acupuncture needles. The ending is as close as you'll get to a mainstream one from Miike, but the whole film is a classic and unsettling cult experience. Make sure you watch it at least once and then delete your Tinder app.
"Fun" Fact: According to IMDB, the dog bowl of vomit that is used for malicious purposes at a certain point in the film was genuine and naturally supplied by lead actress Eihi!!
(Directed by Steve Miner)
'I'm rooting for the crocodile. I hope he swallows your friends whole. You might want to arrest me for that too. Is that a crime? To wish the chewing of law enforcement?'
For the most part, the reputation of horror classics are not always affected by the duff sequels that follow them. "Jaws" is still regarded as a seminal classic, despite the unfortunate existence of Jaws 3D and Jaws: The Revenge ("This time it's personal", my arse!!). Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is still a genre benchmark, despite variable sequels, remakes, "reimaginings", and prequels. One film that has arguably been forgotten and suffered some reputational damage is good old' Lake Placid. The 1999 original film was decently budgeted, with a great cast, good SFX, and some killer dialogue. A good-sized hit at the time, the brand has somewhat needlessly become sullied with a slew of cheap sequels and reboots. These have descended into so-bad-it's-nearly-good territory personified by the Sharknado franchise. The four sequels and one reboot (Lake Placid: Legacy) were primarily notable for awful CGI, soap-actress nudity, dopey plotlines, and an absence of any thrills. The only good points are snarky appearances by Yancy Butler and Robert Englund and a totally fun-but-pointless crossover with the Anaconda franchise. But we digress… Check out the excellent cast list it has; Bill Pullman, Bridget Fonda, Oliver Platt, Brendan Gleason, and Betty White (!)
The original has a hilariously dysfunction group of lovable oddball professionals who combine their talents to defeat a 30-foot-long saltwater crocodile that has inexplicably taken up residence in the fictional location of "Black Lake" set in Maine. Yup, the waterway is NOT actually called "Lake Placid", although this is qualified at one point. Fish and Game officer Jack Wells (Pullman) is investigating the death of a fellow officer in the lake (bitten in half), along with sarky Sheriff Hank Keough (Gleason), scientist Kelly Scott (Fonda), and Professor Hank Cyr (Platt). After proving the existence of the unlikely reptile (following a few decapitations and deaths), they have to work together to either kill or trap it.
It's very surprising to look back on most of the mainstream reviews of the film at the time, many of which are more vicious than the croc. Most genre fans (including us) look at the film as a beloved classic. Because this is a fun creature feature that manages to be genuinely hilarious at points and also thrilling or scary when it needs to be. Forget about repeated overlayed shots of unconvincing crocs, this baby was made by FX maestro Stan Winston, and it shows. A mixture of convincing animatronics and CG brings the breathes life into this toothy lake-dweller. Whilst there are the obligatory comparisons to be made with Jaws and other aquatic horrors, this is a cut above the rest. The "hide-and-seek" underwater sequence with Fonda and the Croc is one such example. The jump-scare attacks with heads and limbs being lost are also quite gory compared to the overall "frothy" and good-natured tone of the piece.
The perfect blend of droll humour and genuine animal horror is what makes this original entry such a good time. Pullman and Fonda are fine with their lead performances and chemistry. But it is the interplay and delivery that Platt and Gleason give onscreen that really elevates it. Platt's nervousness and Gleason's I'm-too-country-for-this-shit schtick is absolutely brilliant. When confronted by a salvaged toe from an attack and asked if it belonged to a certain character, Gleason says, "I don't know. He seemed … taller" with deadpan brilliance. And that's not even mentioned the contribution that White makes. Her foul-mouthed stint as the ageing and irresponsible widow Mrs Bickerman is drop-dead funny ("Thank you, Officer Fuck-Meat!!"), and she's carried this persona over into her future roles. It really is an entertaining piece of whimsy, and it's a shame that no further bigger-budgeted entries with the surviving cast were made. Ignore the rest and just review the best. This croc rocks!
Fun fact: The film was due to be filmed and released much earlier, but the schedule was delayed by bad weather, enabling Miner to helm the previous year's "H20".
(Directed by Tim Burton) 'Watch your heads.'
Remember when both Tim Burton and Johnny Depp were seen as box office gold by Hollywood. What a difference a few years makes. Depp has been dropped from many a production because of … well, let's not go there. Burton has gone from being seen as the visionary and darkly imaginative filmmaker of such classic movies as Beetlejuice, Batman, and Ed Wood to the hack responsible for unnecessary and duff remakes such as Planet of the Apes, Dumbo, and Dark Shadows. Where did it all go wrong? Well, not here, that's for sure. This is arguably the last good genre film that Burton made (although Sweeney Todd and Miss Peregrine's Home have their few moments). Absolutely nothing to do with the initially enjoyable-but-convoluted TV series or other projects; this has a star-studded cast including Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Christopher Walken, Michael Gambon, and the late great Christopher Lee. The story was co-written by FX master Kevin Yagher and showcased some of the best head-offery shown in a studio horror up to that date.
Diverting from the classic Ichabod Crane fable and his encounter with the Headless Horseman (Disney's quirky animated version from 1949 remains the benchmark), this genre-heavy version sees Crane portrayed as a forward-thinking New York Police officer in 1799. Ridiculed for his dependence on overly-scientific methods for solving crimes, he is despatched to the titular hamlet to look into murders supposedly committed by the bonce-less apparition. There he becomes romantically involved with Katrina Van Tassel (Ricci) and the (extremely) complex series of events that have unleashed a demonic entity onto the earth, guided to take human heads in the name of human evil.
Those expecting PG-rated chills or lightweight Beetlejuice-type ghoulish whimsy might be surprised by the hard-edge that this film has. There are some well-choreographed sword fight scenes (one character gets sliced in half), and the beheadings are brilliantly realised. ILM and Yagher use CG to "touch up" the scenes rather than make them "plasticky" or over-splattery. So we great scenes where victims have their heads removed from their body seamlessly and in full view of the camera, rather than cutting away or having a modelled head thrown in from the sides. Burton even throws in a smidgin of rumpy-pumpy, witchcraft, and satanism, which shows he could handle the darker stuff if needed. We still get the elements of dark gothic scenery, with gnarled trees and German expressionism, but it's well incorporated into the narrative. Even the credits "interact" with their surroundings. Of course, Danny Elfman does the score, but it's more orchestral and action-orientated rather than choirs-vocalising-in-the-snow type stuff. In fact, this is probably the creepiest and closest that Burton has even come to balls-out horror.
The Headless Horseman could have looked silly or clunky, but with Ray Park (Star War's Darth Maul) handling the swordfights and good old Chris Walken playing the character with his head on, it's actually a formidable threat. The plot is quite intricate as well. It's not just a haunting-and-a-slashing; there's a whodunnit mystery and some genuine supernatural shenanigans to make Crane soil his britches. Depp is good, although he does go a bit hammy and overacts when to comes to showing Crane's initial squeamishness. He does better in the scenes where he interacts with Ricci and Richardson (who is brilliant). Nice to see small cameos by Lee and Martin Landau as well. It's an atypical genre piece, both for Burton and studios in general, and quite highly regarded by genre fans in general. It's a pity that Burton never followed it up with harder-edged gothic goings-on of the same calibre afterwards.
Fun Fact: For those that are counting, there is a grand total of eighteen decapitations in the film, which is much more than "Highlander" (1986) and probably on-par with kung-fu classic "The Flying Guillotine" (1975 – Bonkers. See it.).
THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT
(Directed by Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick)
'I'm afraid to close my eyes. I'm afraid to open them.' Okay, Okay. Our top fives picks aren't really supposed to be the obvious big hitters but let's face it, to leave The Blair Witch Project off this list would be sacrilege. Not only is it a bloody good horror film in its own right, it's also one of the most profitable films ever made. It cost around half a million dollars to produce but raked in $250m at the box office. But as impressive as the profit margins and the film itself actually are, they are perhaps eclipsed by the legacy that the film left behind. It effectively birthed an entire new sub-genre that would saturate the world of horror for years to come. The found footage genre. And although these movies are not nearly as common as they once were, we still get the odd great one (see 2021's Host)
The plot of Blair Witch is really quite simple. Three student film-makers head to the Black Hills of Maryland to shoot a documentary about the Blair Witch, a legend of the small town of Burkitsville. They interview some locals before hiking into the woods, who fill them in on some of the details – including a place called Coffin Rock, were five men were found ritualistically murdered in the 1800s. Of course, the trio go straight there before setting up camp for the night. After another day of exploring they spend another restless night on site before awakening to find that someone – or something – has built three cairns around their tent. And things only get more strange and sinister from here on out...
The Blair Witch Project really was a case of the perfect storm and had the film been released a couple of years earlier or later, it may well have not done so well. However, by the late 90s, the internet was becoming a thing and the marketing of the movie made the very most of this medium. A website was set up prior to the film's release, with newsreel style interviews and supposed police reports. The three lead actors were labelled as 'missing, presumed dead' on IMDB and the actors kept a low profile in order to keep up this cover story. Basically, there was enough stuff here for audiences to wonder if the footage they were about to watch was actually genuine or not. It was viral marketing at its best, with the website hitting over 150,000,000 hits by the summer of 99.
Of course, all of this hype and intrigue led to some viewers feeling rather aggrieved by the time they'd finished watching it. 'Nothing happens!'. 'We don't see anything!'. 'I got motion sickness!'.
Those 'complaints' were not unfounded. The documentary style did indeed make some feel queasy and we DON'T really see anything. But that's kind of the point. Blair Witch is proof that what we don't see is potentially far scarier than anything we do see. For some, that will be seen as a lack of pay off but the reality is that it's sole aim is to make you feel threatened and rattled and in this way it succeeds absolutely. There scene where they are forced out of their tent in the middle of the night and the last few minutes in particular are still spine-tinglingly effective.
We've gone on to get a substandard sequel (2000) and a remake that is pretty solid (2016). However, both lack the punch and authentic horror of the original.
Fun fact: Whilst recovering in hospital after a serious car accident, Stephen King's son brought him in a copy of the movie to watch whilst her recovered. Halfway through, King told his son to turn it off because it was 'too freaky'.
(Directed by Joel Schumacher)
'If you dance with the devil, the devil don't change, the devil changes you!'
Before you have a freak out and start bitchin' about how this isn't a horror film, just hear me out. Firstly, it's about snuff movies. That's pretty hardcore, right? Secondly, it's got genre icon Nicolas Cage in it. Thirdly...ok, well that's pretty much all I got. But I'm still counting it.
Cage plays Tom Welles, a private investigator who is trying to juggle work and recently becoming a father for the first time. He is contacted by the attorney of a wealthy widow whose husband has recently passed away. Whilst going through his belongings, they discover an 8mm movie locked away in a safe that appears to show a young woman being brutally murdered. The widow tasks Welles with finding out if the movie is genuine. Although he has his doubts, he agrees to take the case on and after a bit of sleuthing, discovers the identity of the girl on the tape. His attempts to locate her put him – and his family – in some very real danger however...
8mm is a film that probably wouldn't get made today. Not with a $40m budget anyway. However, we are in the nineties here and writer Andrew Kevin Walker was still basking in the glory of Seven (1995) (another film that we're counting as horror by the way) and gritty, dark shit was the order of the day. Saying that, this is a film that almost didn't get made. The studio asked Walker to tone down the script as they felt it was a bit too dark. A sentiment that director Joel Schumacher also agreed with. So much so that he decided to rewrite parts of it. Walker walked away and basically disowned the film. Apparently he still refuses to watch it (his loss!)
It begs the question; how dark was that original script. Because what we ended up with wasn't exactly a laugh riot, let me tell you! 8mm is a murky, grim exploration of sexual depravity, a subject that is rarely touched by the genre (I mean, it's easy to see why). Joel Schumacher doesn't feel like the best fit for a film like this but the truth is that his stock has been lowered after the travesty that was Batman and Robin two years earlier and Sony were having real trouble finding a Director of any worth to take it on. It turned out to be a good match though. Schumacher does a solid job in giving the film the sorrowful and brutalist edge that the subject matter requires. It's a film about the horrors that lurk underneath the surface of society and it's LA backdrop is the perfect setting. It's a world where men are largely amoral and women pay the price.
For long stretches 8mm acts as a rather standard procedural, however we are occasionally exposed to some quite gnarly stuff. None more so than the catalyst. The snuff movie itself is nightmarish, the 8mm format somehow adding to the horror of it all. A device put to great use in films such as Sinister, more than a decade later.
The large budget not only allows the story more space to sprawl over, but it also means that we get a great cast to boot. Cage is...well, he's Nicolas Cage. What more do you want? The supporting cast includes people like Joaquin Phoenix, James Gandolfini, Peter Stormare and Anthony Heald (honestly, does Anthony Heald ever play any other role than that of an asshole?) - not too shabby.
Truth be told, this is really a disturbing neo-noir thriller for the most part. But the depravity and thick atmosphere make this at the very least, horror adjacent. And well worth your time.
Fun fact: Bruce Willis turned down the leading role.