The 50 Greatest Horror Movies of the 21st Century

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Here’s a revised and updated version of this list, to which I contributed 5 capsule reviews as well as the introduction.

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The 20 Best Zombie Movies of All Time

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I contributed 7 capsule reviews to this list at Slant Magazine.

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And Soon the Darkness (Robert Fuest, 1970)

andsoonthedarkness1970br“Robert Fuest’s And Soon the Darkness is a taut, precision-crafted Hitchcockian thriller, drawing particular inspiration from one of the master of suspense’s most famous sequences: the crop-duster scene in North by Northwest. Like that now-classic set piece, Fuest’s film builds an escalating sense of menace and imminent danger from a confrontation with a location’s wide open spaces and bright sunshine. Only here the setting is rural France, and we’re accompanying two English girls on an ill-fated cycling holiday.”

Read my entire review on Slant Magazine.

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WHO SAW HER DIE? (Aldo Lado, 1972)

whosawherdie“The early 1970s brought us two thrillers with all of the following elements: an estranged couple mourning the tragic death of a daughter; a grief-stricken sex scene crosscut with glimpses of its doleful aftermath; a series of murders occurring against the backdrop of Venice in the offseason; and a canal-bound funeral in a black-draped barge. The more famous, of course, is Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. The other is Aldo Lado’s less acknowledged giallo film Who Saw Her Die? But the real surprise here, given the Italian film industry’s not entirely undeserved reputation for the quick cash-in and cheapjack rip-off, is that Who Saw Her Die? actually came out first.”

Read the rest of my review of Aldo Lado’s surprisingly elegiac giallo at Slant Magazine.

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Slant Magazine’s The 100 Best Sci-Fi Movies of All Time List

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““The [sci-fi] film has never really been more than an offshoot of its literary precursor, which to date has provided all the ideas, themes and inventiveness. [Sci-fi] cinema has been notoriously prone to cycles of exploitation and neglect, unsatisfactory mergings with horror films, thrillers, environmental and disaster movies.” So wrote J.G. Ballard about George Lucas’s Star Wars in a 1977 piece for Time Out. If Ballard’s view of science-fiction cinema was highly uncharitable and, as demonstrated by the 100 boldly imaginative and mind-expanding films below, essentially off-base, he nevertheless touched on a significant point: that literary and cinematic sci-fi are two fundamentally different art forms.”

I have six capsule reviews in Slant Magazine’s new list of the 100 Best SF Films of All Time.

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In Memoriam Rutger Hauer: FLESH AND BLOOD (Paul Verhoeven, 1985)

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Flesh and Blood is styled on screen as Flesh + Blood, as though writer-director Paul Verhoeven were consciously working out an algorithm to account for his filmmaking sensibilities. By all accounts, this should have been the filmmaker’s Vera Cruz: a down-and-dirty medieval romp that adumbrates the fallout when former partners in carnage part ways and turn on each other. But the burdens of helming a logistically convoluted international co-production, wrangling a diverse and opinionated cast, and running the gauntlet of studio interference in the central storyline inevitably took their toll. What resulted is a solid actioner with flashes of brilliance. Outrageous in its unabashed blend of ultraviolence and profanation, Flesh and Blood stands as another testament to its director’s determination not to push the envelope, but rather to fail to recognize the envelope’s very existence in the first place.

In other words, Flesh and Blood is the anti-Ladyhawke, the other presumptive epic of the Middle Ages starring Rutger Hauer to come out that same year. In place of the latter’s lush romanticism, complete with tortured shape-shifting lovers separated by a churchman’s curse, and a helpful little burglar played by Ferris Bueller, viewers are treated over the course of the film to the more dubious spectacle of a socialistic gang rape and a catapult flinging plague-ridden dog carcass into a besieged stronghold. “Pretty strong meat there,” as the sniffling film critic in “Sam Peckinpah’s ’Salad Days,’” one of Monty Python’s funniest sketches, would have observed. However compromised the film’s central conceit, moments of brazen effrontery help Flesh and Blood effectively shatter the staid sheen of chivalry studiously cultivated by many a medieval opus.

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Then, too, there’s Verhoeven’s cheeky appropriation of religious iconography for more sanguinary martial purposes. Early on, the sword-for-hire Martin (Hauer) unearths a statue of St. Martin of Tours, a saint with a sword, which the mercenary band of brothers’ resident cardinal (Ronald Lacey) promptly declares a sign from God above. Throughout the film, they will use this relic as a tool for divination to guide their way (with questionable results). Late in the film, Verhoeven brilliantly frames a shot with the saint in the background and Martin, a veritable double in the flesh, whetting his sword in the foreground. Needless to say, Martin’s proclivities are far from sanctified (witness the aforementioned sexual assault).

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Beyond the rather portentous irony contained in these saintly invocations, Verhoeven doubtless has a larger point: Throughout history, relics and iconography have been used as armaments in battles between cultures and religions. They have a double meaning. They seem to proclaim: “Not only is your god my devil, but my god has sanctioned, through martial figures like Martin of Tours, the deployment of all-too-earthly means by which to prove it.” In the end, Verhoeven’s greatest irony, and the often pedestrian narrative’s most brilliant stroke, isn’t to decide in favor or against Martin. He’s of a piece with his nature, and he leaves the story as he entered it: unchanged and unbowed by the carnage he’s both witness to and agent of.

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Godzilla (Ishirō Honda, 1954)

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“History shows again and again,” writes that unsung modern philosopher Buck Dharma, “how nature points up the folly of men.” Meaning, for those unfamiliar with Blue Öyster Cult’s 1979 monster hit, one Godzilla, 20-story-tall king of the monsters, and the most fearsome city-stomper in the history of cinema. Fifty years of sequels, tag-team monster mash-ups, and shitty Hollywood remakes have not blunted the sheer cinematographic force, let alone metaphorical heft, of Ishirô Honda’s Godzilla. Rarely has the open wound of widespread devastation been transposed to celluloid with greater visceral impact. Put another way, Godzilla is the Germany Year Zero of monster movies.

The impetus for Godzilla was a series of undeclared H-bomb tests conducted by the U.S. military at Bikini Atoll in March of 1954, into which maelstrom a lone Japanese fishing boat, christened with terrible irony Lucky Dragon 5, sailed unawares. Exposure to clouds of irradiated fallout, dubbed “death ash” by the sailors, led to the swift demise of at least one crewmember. The still-fresh notoriety of that incident, restaged as the opening sequence of Godzilla, would have alerted Japanese audiences from the get-go that they were in for more than just another creature feature. Add to that frequent mention of matters of wartime survival, whether the firebombing of Tokyo, or the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and it becomes something of an open secret that Godzilla represents American military might in all its blind destructiveness.

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Stylistically, Godzilla fluctuates between noir-refracted stylization (early scenes, for instance, are heavy on window blind-filtered lighting) and documentary verisimilitude (radio and television broadcasts abound). Honda bides his time, building up a free-floating atmosphere of atomic age anxiety by withholding any glimpse of the Big Bad until 20 minutes in, emphasizing instead the aftermath of Godzilla’s destructive path from maritime menace to the scourge of Odo Island, where it promptly takes out the sole survivor of its second ship-sinking, before wading its way into Tokyo Bay. The other narrative strand concerns an eminently conventional love triangle centered on Emiko (Momoko Kôchi), the daughter of renowned archeologist Dr. Yamane (Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura). In the interests of narrative expediency, Emiko’s torn between her newfound crush on Ogata (Akira Takarada), a salvage ship captain, and an arranged marriage with ugly duckling Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), who just happens to have invented the doomsday weapon that can put an end to Godzilla’s reign of terror.

It would be wrong to conclude that Godzilla heaps all of its eggs in one effects-driven basket, caring little for its human-sized drama: Honda infuses Serizawa’s conscientious desire not to unveil his prototype weapon, knowing full well doing so will inevitably lead to an escalating Oxygen Destroyer race, with sufficient emotional charge. In fact, considering how the nominal lead, Ogata, is presented as a sidelined and acutely feckless observer, Serizawa ought to be seen as the film’s secret hero, especially given his film-concluding act of self-sacrifice. Interestingly, this ultimate state of affairs flies smack in the face of the character’s initial presentation: His dark glasses, eye-patch, and facial scars (owing to injuries, we’re matter-of-factly told, suffered during the war) might lead viewers to put him down as a sort of Japanese Dr. Strangelove, which his mad scientist laboratory and unexplained-until-the-11th-hour death-dealing device seem to confirm. It’s a nifty little subversion of expectations, then, that Serizawa ends up the locus of viewer identification.

Furthermore, the artistry of Eiji Tsuburaya’s special-effects work encompasses far more than the sheer spectacle of a man in a rubber suit laying waste to those scale-model cityscapes. Tsuburaya and his team seamlessly integrate composites and matte paintings into the mise-en-scène; for every obvious—and potentially risible—miniature, there are a handful of effects-laden shots that still pack an affective wallop. In particular, Godzilla’s nighttime incursion into Tokyo proper, and the resultant swath of destruction, possesses a psychotronic potency, an air of abreacted absurdity, reminiscent of the Do Lung bridge sequence in Apocalypse Now. As though implacable death from above were somehow intrinsic to the human condition. Then again, taking the long view of 20th-century history, perhaps it is.

This review originally appeared in Slant Magazine.

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