I consider myself to be quite well-traveled and one thing I always try to do in a foreign country is visit the cinema.
In Thailand I discovered that you have to stand for the national anthem before each movie. In Korea you can eat squid dipped in peanut butter. Turkey has the most ads before a film and every movie has an interval. America has the biggest seats/snacks, which may or may not be a coincidence. And in Cape Town there’s a cinema that serves alcohol and looks like it might collapse at any minute (it’s called The Labia Theatre and is amazing).
The one constant are the viewers. There will always be the talkers, the phone checkers, the loud chewers, and the wrapper crinklers. At the same time there will always be the gaspers, the laughing so hard they chokers, the breath holders, and the guy who shouted out a bad word during a particularly shocking moment in a Thai cinema (spoiler, it was me.)
Cube was two firsts for me. It was the first time I watched an independent movie that wasn’t some crap about people finding themselves, and it was the first time I saw a man chopped into tiny cubes by a booby trap (but not the last…that’s another story).
Cube is a very simple concept executed well. A group of strangers wake up inside a giant cube linked to a seemingly infinite chain of similar cubes and must escape. Some of the rooms are booby trapped, some are not, they need to move from cube to cube without being killed by traps or each other. Cube uses it’s sparse resources well (the cube set is reused again and again and simply relit to appear as a new cube) and creates a Hitchcockian tension of strangers trapped together and forced to rely on each other for their own survival. The fun of this movie is the inventiveness of the traps and the video game style progression through the ‘levels’ of the movie. Cube shares an advantage of a lot of low budget horror films in the fact that cast is made up of unknowns, meaning that no one’s survival is guaranteed and everyone could end up as a pile of bloody meat cubes.
The Exorcist is the best American horror movie/best horror movie. However, I have already spilled quite enough ink talking about that film so I chose another American horror.
The Cabin in the Woods should be the last ever horror film. Should you ever decide that you are finished with the genre then you should watch Cabin and no other horrors after it (same with Unforgiven and Westerns). Cabin is an immensely clever movie in the way that it tears apart horror clichés while at the same time using them in a subversive way to make a perfectly competent horror movie. Compare it with Scream, another postmodern, knowing wink of a movie, and you can see the vast difference in skill on display. Without it’s ‘Oh we all know we’re in a movie’ smugness Scream is simply a slasher film, while Cabin in the Woods manages to be a very funny, creepy movie, and the added meta-ness of it is simply a bonus.
Cabin is one of those movies that deserves more lauding and should have vastly transformed the horror landscape. Or at least completely destroyed it.
Found footage is a genre that faces a very big weakness that a lot of movies in the genre fail to overcome. The weakness is simply the question, “Why are you filming this?” Some movies with interesting concepts have been ruined by a reliance on the found footage ploy, as though the creators didn’t have enough confidence in their idea and thought they had to rely on a gimmick to keep people interested (I’m looking at you Cloverfield and Chronicle). In both of those films there were far too many scenes where I couldn’t believe that the characters would be filming their situation, and this dragged me kicking and screaming out of the movie. REC bypasses this by having the main characters be a news reporter and her cameraman as they make a show about workers on night shifts. I was willing to suspend belief when it came to the constant filming because there was enough of a set-up to show that these characters believed the situation they were in would be their big break, so they needed to chronicle everything. REC is a tightly made film. It has a lean running time and keeps things rolling at a sprinting pace. The plot (people trapped in a quarantined apartment building full of infected people) is simple and horrific, and the night vision finale is masterful. Found footage is an overdone genre these days but when it’s done well, as it is here, it can still be very effective.
I actually toyed with putting both Pan’s Labyrinth and Devil’s Backbone as the Mexico entry (both set in Spain but Guillermo Del Toro’s awesomeness/Mexican-ness gets him on the list) as they are very close companion pieces. Both are set during the Spanish Civil War and focus upon children (in Labyrinth it’s a girl, in Backbone a boy) who find themselves embroiled in supernatural stories.
I chose Backbone for this list because, while Labyrinth has it’s scary moments (The Pale Man is the scariest thing that has ever happened), it is presented as a fairy story while this is a straight-up ghost story.
Carlos is young boy dumped into an orphanage plagued by a ghost (the-one-who-sighs), the threat of war, a shifty custodian, and a unexploded bomb that rests in the courtyard. Something that Del Toro does very well is to merge two plots while giving equal attention to each. In both this and Labyrinth he manages to craft a compelling story line in the real world and a compelling fantasy/horror story line as well. Remove the ghost from this film and you would still have the story of a group of young, forgotten boys struggling to survive the machinations of the adult world. Remove the war plot and you would still have a solid ghost story about murder, deceit, and revenge. Another satisfying trait of Del Toro’s is that he likes to present his ghosts and monsters up front. He designs his monsters so well and makes them so captivating to look at, that it would be a waste to hide them. The ghost in Backbone is no exception.
I would suggest double-billing these two movies as they stand together like a pair of twins (though one is a ghost and the other a faun.)
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