The Classics of Horror #11 – Alien (1979)

Upon re-watching Alien for the umpteenth time last night, I love it even more than I remember.

Do you want to know why? Because it almost made me forget about Alien: Covenant

alien-1979-movie-review-ridley-scott-science-fiction-film-xenomorph-john-hurtAll jokes apart, Alien is a masterpiece of horror cinema in space. It tells the story of the crew of a space vessel (the Nostromo) that perceives an unknown transmission as a distress call from an uncharted planet. When one of the crew members is attached by a mysterious, spider-like creature, the others take him back on the ship to check on him and, as you know, all hell breaks loose.

The chest-bursting scene, the fast growth process of the xenomorph, the revelation of Ash being an android, the badassery of Ripley, the design of the creature, the atmosphere on the Nostromo: everything in Alien delivers awesomeness.

You probably already know the stuff I’ve written so far. Therefore, let me explain why I think Alien deserves a spot in a classic of horror list and what I love about it.

Directed by Ridley Scott, Alien paved the way to all the Sci-Fi monster movies that came out within the next 40 years or so from its release. The sense of dread and isolation delivered by this film is something many directors have tried to achieve with mixed results, never reaching the level of Alien nonetheless.

Such atmosphere gradually builds up throughout the movie, but it’s already there when, after the opening credits, the space vessel is shown in its entire, desolated form. The darkness surrounding every single scene helps to keep the viewer on the edge, without the need of loud noises, jump-scares and characters overreacting.

MV5BMjY1NzQ3Mzk3N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMjM2NTUyMw@@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1495,1000_AL_.jpgIndeed, the crew members and their actions are also what sets this movie apart from endless of imitators: their comradery is palpable since the very first scenes, as well as the internal struggles they have with each other and with the protocols they must follow. As opposed to them, Ash (masterfully played by Ian Holm) looks strangely out of place, being rarely nice to his colleagues. Thus, Ash’s reveal as a synthetic comes unexpected and surprising.

Ah, the good old days when the evil android wasn’t a posh, British asshole with power deliriums!

tumblr_m4qfv49wnW1rs1ef6o1_500Yet, mentioning the characters is impossible to overlook to Ripley. Sigourney Weaver pulls it off in this film, being able to seamlessly switch from one feeling to the other according to the situation. Every time I re-watch the scene in which Ripley tells Parker off, my level of testosterone increases and I felt so pumped I could fight a xenomorph bare-handed!

Okay, that was silly, but you got the point. The character of Ripley was so ahead of his time: a heroine who’s more resourceful than every other man on the ship and transmits charisma every time is on screen. Ridley Scott, thanks for Ellen Ripley!

And thanks for the xenomorphs. It’s a bit sad that, in almost 40 years, none could come up with a creature design better than the one in Alien. Simultaneously, though, this is a clear and undisputable merit of makeup team, cinematographers and director of the movie. Lurking in the dark, waiting for its next victim, the xenomorph is a perfect killing machine that needs no motivation or any further explanation for its existence. Nor did it need an origin story, damn Alien: Covenant!

Yet, Alien is scary. I know, as a horror reviewer I should use this adjective more often: unfortunately, it’s not easy to find something that really frightens the audience.

Alien, though, delivers. In my opinion, it’s a timeless, suspenseful generator of fear and uneasiness.

In all honesty, I don’t know what else to say about it. Upon my 7th (seventh!) view of the film, I still didn’t find any flaw. To me, Alien is technically perfect – yes, the final explosion of the Nostromo at the end looks quite dated, but that’s it.

Alien_1979_Directors_Cut_1080p_Bluray_DTS_x264_VBesides this tiny detail, the movie holds up perfectly since it’s all practical: the Nostromo, the xenomorph, the chest-bursting scene, the decapitation of Ash… they are all made through practical effects that will never ever look old or dated.

Do yourself a favour and watch Alien now if you haven’t seen it yet. Otherwise, if you have, just re-watch it right away and appreciate its greatness.

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Classics of Horror #10 – Halloween (1978)

John Carpenter’s Halloween is the first modern slasher and, therefore, it inspired every other flick of this sub-genre ever since, including the beloved Friday the 13th and Nightmare franchises.

Halloween 1For horror purists, I know that some previous films could be considered as slasher as well: Psycho (1960) represents a prime example. Nonetheless, Halloween had redefined the sub-genre and made it suitable for mass audiences and many forms of exploitation.

Basically, John Carpenter’s low-budget film represents for the slasher sub-genre what The Blair Witch Project (1999) meant for the found-footage style: it’s been done before by Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust, but BWP undeniably gave it an unprecedented popularity.

Halloween 2.jpgHalloween, which is the turning point of my series on The Classics of Horror, tells the simple story of Michael Myers who escapes a psychiatric institution he’s been locked up in 15 years before, in light of the murder of his sister when he was only a child.

The serial killer on a loose comes back to Haddonfield on a Halloween night to satisfy his blood thirst and kill the local teenagers.

As oppose to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), which I didn’t like as much upon second view, Halloween deeply struck me the second time I watched, in order to right this review.

In general, the first film of what would have become a successful franchise based on Michael Myers is just an amazing, unpretentious, entertaining movie.

However, three factors made me fall in love with it.

Firstly, the good characters are extremely compelling. In comparison to the majority of slasher flicks (actually, 99% of the slasher flicks), the three main girls (played by Jamie Lee Curtis, Nancy Kyes and P.J. Soles) are well-rounded and feature different, distinguishable traits. Their ways of speaking resemble closely the way teenage girls used to argue with each other in the late 70s, which provides the film with an extra layer of realism.

Halloween 6.jpgYet, Donald Pleasence as Doctor Loomis – the psychiatrist who took care of Myers for 15 years – is simply eye-grabbing. His performance is fully rounded and features a vast range of emotions which make for a compelling character who, basically, carries an entire sub-plot along by himself.

Another prime character in Halloween is the soundtrack: composed by John Carpenter himself, the score is iconic to say the least and it’s able to deliver a subtle sense of angst that never fades away. Personally, I think the sound design alone makes the film worth watching.

Halloween 3.pngFinally, the cinematography is spotless. Every single shot is a feist for the eye and, in my humble opinion, such a high level of gorgeous cinematography has never been reached since in a non-artsy horror film (with the exception of It Follows, 2014, which indeed constantly pays homage to Halloween).

Halloween 4The combination between music, camera-work and photography creates an overall dreadful atmosphere which doesn’t need Michael Myers on screen to give the audience goosebumps. Some shots that frame Myers from behind, while focusing on other characters are just so simply beautiful. At the same time, long sequences composed by single takes give a realistic impression, make you feel like you’re integral part of the Haddonfield community to the point that you could communicate with Laurie, Annie or Linda.

Besides that, Halloween is just an entertaining flick with a few, tiny, plot holes that can be easily overlooked: for instance, after having been in a mental institution for 15 years, Myers escapes and drives a car, something that, realistically, he shouldn’t be able to do.

Halloween 5If I could only change something about the film, it would be Myers’ behaviour in certain scenes. In the first half of the movie, the villain just stares at people from behind bushes, cars, trees and so on, which is not really scary or unsettling in my opinion.

On the other hand, though, I understand that this specific behaviour humanises his character rather than turning him into an indestructible monster – which, eventually, he became in the sequels.

All in all, I think Halloween should on everybody’s must-watch list and, although not really frightening, it well deserves its spot among the classics of the genre. One last suggestion: if you can get the Blu-ray of this film, please do, it will make your viewing experience unforgettable.

The Classics of Horror #5 – Psycho (1960)

As I previously mentioned in my Rosemary’s Baby review, I have a ‘special’ chapter of The Classics of Horror dedicated to Psycho.

My girlfriend and I, in fact, went to watch the screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece at Grosvenor Park – a quiet oasis in the middle of the chaotic Londoner nightlife on a summer Friday night.

The location itself – which my girlfriend will talk about shortly on her blog – was worth the price of the ticket (22£ each, including a glass of fine wine) and created a mystical atmosphere that added to the quality of the film.

If you’re interested in Nomad Cinema initiatives and want to catch a glimpse of our day at the outdoor screening, check their website and enjoy the photo gallery at the end of this post.

In regards to Psycho itself, I thought to write about what makes it so iconic and inspirational to these days, since its plot, cinematography and general features have been discussed quite a lot within the last… well, 57 years!

Considered as the first slasher flick ever – although the origins of this sub-genre may find their roots back in Maurice Tourneur’s The Lunatics (1912) and countless giallo novels in the late 1880s – Psycho is much more than that.

Its influence spread through various cinema genres, such as psychological thriller, mystery and, of course, horror. Putting aside various attempts on imitations of sorts and a shot-by-shot shameless – and soulless – remake (Psycho, 1998), Hitchcock’s movie has inspired, deliberately or unconsciously, an endless number of directors and filmmakers.

Needless to say, the iconic stabbing in the shower has had tons of reenactments in probably half of the modern horror movies. That specific sequence has been received as shocking and gut-wrenching for the 60s audience but, in all fairness, experiencing it before a big screen and surrounded by an excellent sound system… well, it’s striking enough even today.

Again, the sudden change of main character – typical Hitchcock’s signature – has pushed brilliant directors to try unconventional story-telling patterns.

As if atmosphere, cinematography and music (damn, that score!) weren’t enough, the abrupt switch from one protagonist to the other puts the viewer in an uneasy condition, where the audience feels abandoned within a film universe where there is no one left to rely on.

However, what keeps me – and, I guess, all the cinema lovers – going back to Psycho and re-watch it any time with the same attitude is the character of Norman Bates (masterfully portrayed by Anthony Perkins, in the role that made him immortal). First great horror villain, Bates’ personality and psychology are compelling and captivating to these days. His character, despite the psychiatrist’s exposition scene towards the end of the film, is still a mystery for viewers and critics.

Even though the direction of Psycho is nearly immaculate, in my opinion the success of the movie – as well as its effectiveness – massively rely on Norman’s bony shoulders. Bates is an unsolvable enigma, portrayed in a various range of emotions that make him more and more unpredictable as the movie progresses. He’s also such a quotable villain, whose statements will remain impressed in people’s memories, similarly to Darth Vader’s and Heath Ledger’s Joker’s.

No antagonist in slasher flicks history has ever reached such a complexed and all-rounded characterisation. The invincibility of Myers and Voorhees, the sarcasm of Krueger, the cruelty of Leatherface, the intelligence of Vernon, the pure evil of Pinehead can’t rival with the ‘regular madness’ of Norman Bates.

Hitchcock, similarly to a few directors in cinema history, had also a strong faith in audience’s intelligence and pleasure in challenging it. There aren’t many films, in cinema history, that feature nearly no exposition as Psycho did. Here, the story-telling develops through the characters’ actions and the actions, whereas the dialogues serve as creation of compelling protagonists.

Nonetheless, there is a huge exposition scene towards the end of Psycho, which makes it a bit less timeless than it could have been, although it doesn’t affect the perfection of the film itself.

Needless to say, I strongly recommend this film. If you can, try to find a cinema nearby where they show old classics, so that you can enjoy Psycho to its finest. Cheers!

The Classics of Horror #3 – Creature of the Black Lagoon

Creature of the Black Lagoon (1954) was released in a quirky period of time for the history of cinema.

In 1953, a few production companies attempted the 3D technology for the first time. Jack Arnold, director of many Sci-Fi movies in the 50s, decided to tag along and follow the trend.

Unfortunately, the 3D wasn’t quite appealing for the audience at the time, mostly because the filmmakers couldn’t get its and make the best of its potential. Creature of the Black Lagoon was part of this faulty experiment.

However, the film itself had much more to offer than a pure 3D gaming. As a consequence, Jack Arnold’s movie became one of the most influential motion pictures in the history of both Sci-Fi and Horror.

Creature of the Black Lagoon is clearly the product of an age of transition, where horror cinema opened the door to modern standards whilst still relying on elder modules in terms of acting and character development.

Following a quite simple storyline – scientists discover an unknown fossil in the Amazon rainforest, team up to find out more and come across an amphibious monster who won’t let them go away easily – the film develops a dreadful atmosphere which is constant throughout the 89 minutes of runtime.

The choice of not showing the monster in its entirety until half way through the film makes him scarier – probably terrifying at the time the movie was shot – than it should have if its design was unveiled straight away.

The main location – a fisherman boat sailing through the Amazon River – is also effective, since it confines our characters within a secluded place that’s not easy – or safe – to abandon.

creaturefromtheblacklagoonWhat I honestly found astounding, though, was the design and the practical effects the creature was made with. Surprisingly, they hold up and age very well: the creature of the Black Lagoon – which is a guy wearing well-made mask and costume – is more unsettling than many CGI monsters we are used to see on screen nowadays.

Yet, the underwater cinematography is worth praising. Made with a ground-breaking technology for the time, the camera work is convincing and spotless even for a contemporary eye. The waving and swinging of the pond weed gave an extra layer of realism to the whole underwater photography.

Nevertheless, although more enjoyable for modern audiences than Nosferatu or Frankenstein, Creature of the Black Lagoon is not flawless.

Firstly, neither the screenwriter nor the director bothered to check the differences between Spanish and Portuguese. For instance, at the very beginning of the film, there is a sign which tells us we are in front of the Instituto de Biologia Marina of Sao Paolo. However, in Portuguese it should have been spelled as Instituto de Biologia Marinha. It’s nit-picking, I know, but these lazy mistakes always annoy me for some odd reason.

creature-from-the-black-lagoon-sliceThe other thing that turned me off quite a bit was the role of the only female character in the film. I get that Julia Adams is in the movie purely because she’s good-looking, but why her only lines consist of her whining about her fiancé diving into the water and annoyingly screaming as soon as she sees the monster? Her presence in the movie was completely unnecessary and useless.

Even though, in all honesty, I guess that was the typical female role in the 50s’ cinema, where women couldn’t look after themselves nor make their own decisions – alike the patriarchal American society of the time wanted the viewers to perceive them.

All in all, though, Creature of the Black Lagoon is worth watching both for its influence in the creature-feature sub-genre and the level of entertainment it provides the viewers with. Cheers!

The Classics of Horror #2 – Frankenstein (1932)

Alongside Bela Lugosi’s Dracula (1931), James Whale’s Frankenstein is one of the milestones of the pre-Code, a brief era between the introduction of sound pictures in 1929 and the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code censorship guidelines.

Successful and quite faithful to the original novel, Frankenstein had a generally positive reception and, to these days, is considered among the best horror movies in cinema history.

Nevertheless, the film encountered many troubles straight after its release. The scene in which the monster throws the little girl into the lake and accidentally drowns her has long been controversial. Upon its original 1931 release, the second part of this scene was cut by state censorship boards in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and New York.

frankenstein-theredlist.jpgThose states also objected to a line they considered blasphemous, one that occurred during Frankenstein’s exuberance when he first learns that his creature is alive. The original line – “It’s alive! It’s alive! In the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!” – has been changed in many ways by censors.

Regardless, Frankenstein presents timeless themes and food for thought that survived censorships and controversy.

Alike Nosferatu (1922), the creature represents what’s different from the society and its values. It’s scary because unknown and incomprehensible.

Yet, the relationship between science and religion is a key elements, as well as the conflict between the inevitable death and the urge for immortality.

Filled with great performances – according to the standards of that time – Frankenstein still manages to be unsettling at points, more so for the angry outburst of the commoners than for the creature itself, which is presented as both culprit and victim.

frankenstein1931eSimilarly, Henry Frankenstein (perfectly portrayed by Colin Clive) shows a contrasting nature, in precarious balance between haughtiness and scientific curiosity.

Overall, still to these days Frankenstein is a modern movie – in regards to its contents – and probably the best adaptation of the novel of the same name. Obviously, there are editing and sound design issues that most of contemporary movies don’t deal with.

frankenstein-19752070-1579-1223

Nevertheless, this is a monster movie that has more to offer than what some could think. Give it a watch, it’s definitely worth your time and attention. Cheers!

The Classics of Horror – Nosferatu (1922)

Nosferatu instilled in the mass audience the fear for vampires before the blood-thirsty creatures became a cult, before the story of Dracula was buried alive in clichés, jokes, marketing and more than 35 following movies.

And no, I’m not talking about that abomination against humanity known as Twilight, because even in the later – and better – performances, from Bela Lugosi to Cristopher Lee to Frank Langella to Gary Oldman, the vampire comes across like a flamboyant actor, instead of a man suffering from a dread curse.

This happens instead through the acting of Max Schreck, the actor who portrays the character of Nosferatu in such a unique, inimitable way that he’s able to convey an overall sense of dread.

Which is something exceptional, considering that Nosferatu is a silent, black and white movie, where the narration is carried by slides.

It’s, indeed, obvious to state that the movie is old and quite difficult to judge through modern standards. Some might think, for instance, that the acting is mostly laughable and over-the-top, but that’s a consequence of the strong influence theater had played on cinema in its early stages.

Copy_of_nosferatTherefore, this film must be observed as a piece of cinema history – and, in my opinion – the first, fundamental milestone of horror cinema and, thus, its value should be measured in terms of the impact it had in those years.

None was reported as fainting while the movie was playing – contrarily to what the production company claim today in their taglines about flicks that wouldn’t scare a toddler – but it nevertheless had a huge shock value among the viewers at the time.

However, Nosferatu contains the seeds of recurrent themes in the following better horror movie: the fear for what is different, the loneliness of being excluded from the society, the relationship between mortality and immortality.

nosferatu-shadowAlso, from a technical standpoint, the movie directed by the German Expressionist F. W. Murnau presents a few astoundingly modern elements, such as the use of shadows to create tension and sense of threaten.

Nevertheless, other techniques look obviously ridiculous nowadays. For example, the editing doesn’t hold up anymore and seems very sloppy.

All in all, though, Nosferatu is the first, great horror movie in cinema history and, although quite aged, it’s still inspiring numerous directors working today. Give it a take if you’re passionate of cinema. Cheers!