Friday, October 29, 2010

Horror Triple Feature

Over my fall break last weekend, I took the opportunity to check out three horror classics (though the "horror" label is debatable). And now, as in my previous post, I present three reviews in the spirit of All Hallows Eve.
I've already mentioned that the Alien movies are difficult for me to watch. So when I decided to include this movie in my marathon, I had my trepidations about whether I would actually watch it or if I would go with something else instead (The Sixth Sense was my fallback plan). But I started it. And I finished it. As you can tell, I survived.
Aliens is not like the original Alien, namely in that it's not a deliberate horror film. Instead, director James Cameron makes the film more of an sci-fi action film, where the xenomorphs are just an enemy that has to be defeated in order to survive. Like all sequels (though Cameron claims he didn't envision the film as a direct sequel, but rather wrote the film on spec), it's bigger in scope than the first film. Ripley awakens from hibernation 57 years after the first film's events, only to learn that her help is needed at a colony on the planet where she picked up her unwanted passenger last time. The colony has lost contact, and it's up to a brigade of Space Marines to go in and assess the situation, along with Ripley (sound familiar?). And of course, things go from bad to worse when night falls and the xenomorph swarm awakens.
There's not as much gore and frights in this film as there was in the first, but that doesn't mean it has it's share of frightening scenes. But that level of tension is still there, and the film delivers as an action epic. There are memorable fighting scenes, and some very well-developed and interesting characters. Even though his dialogue and plotting can be clunky and unoriginal (check out the Avatar script sometime), credit Cameron with this: he knows how to shoot an incredible action sequence. He's also got a real knack for women as action heroes, as Ripley stands a testament to (Sigourney Weaver even earned an Oscar nomination for returning to the role). Overall, it's a surprisingly good film, even if it didn't quite help me get over my xenomorph fear.
The Exorcist
The Exorcist has a reputation for being one of the scariest movies ever made. The film is about how actress Chris McNeill's daughter, Regan, becomes possessed by the devil himself, and the trials of the priest who has to perform the exorcism. Make no mistake, there is plenty of disgusting, creepy imagery here, and even though the film is now approaching it's 40th year of existence, it still holds up incredibly well against today's horror effects. It's a film that's very well-written (William Peter Blatty adapted his own novel), well-directed (William Friedkin, master of grime and grit), and well-acted (Ellen Burstyn as Chris is phenomenal).
What makes The Exorcist still works well today is that it doesn't fall into it's imitator's traps; that is, it's scares don't really come from the possessed Regan herself. Although she is indeed a terrifying figure, spouting profanity and vomit, horribly disfigured, and masturbating with crucifixes, the profound fears come from what isn't explicitly seen on screen. The film volleys back and forth between whether or not Regan is possessed by a demon or just mentally ill, giving a lovely critique of psychoanalysis and studies in mental health. Through Father Karras (and later Father Merrin), the film poses an even more frightening dilemma: the loss of faith, which plays a huge role in the exorcism. The film, then, proposes the real reason why this film has been deemed so truly scary, implying something even more scary than Satan: what if God doesn't exist. Though it's not explicit, and most people won't tell you that's what scared them the most, it's this notion that has provided the deepest fears.
One of the things I love the most about Jaws is how it was a film that almost wasn't. By now, everyone knows the story: the animatronic shark, aka Bruce, was so fickle and difficult that Spielberg was forced to film most of the movie with the shark hidden, only seeing bits and pieces. And the film is all the better for it.
Instead of what would have been a well-acted Roger Corman creature feature, Spielberg has crafted a suspense thriller that's almost Hitchcockian, building suspense slowly until it comes to the big final showdown with the monster great white. The acting really is phenomenal here, and there's some great character work here, particularly once the three main characters (played by Robert Shaw, Roy Schnider, and Richard Dreyfuss) are isolated on the boat together. It may be best known as the film that invented the summer blockbuster and made people afraid to go to the beach, but it's also a terrific, well-crafted film. And, in perhaps a less-than-desirable accomplishment, it started another horror trend: the quickly-diminishing-returns, never-ending sequels.
Oh, and it also gave us this:
Personal aside: I remember going to visit relatives in Mobile, Alabama every Fourth of July, and without fail there would always be a Jaws marathon on one of the local stations. And I don't mean the sequels too; just Jaws. Unless, of course, it was showing Rocky (again, only the first one) for no apparent reason.

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