There are films that are great, timeless and classic.Then there films that have an edge and atmosphere that resonates and stays with you. For me there is many and I’ll start with this handful. Some you’ll want to visit again and some you wont, they are a good and bad selection but one thing they have in common is that they ooze atmosphere.
Dead and Buried (1981)
There are a handful of horror films that I can say are underrated and exude atmosphere, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971), Dead People (1973) and Dellamorte Dellamore (1994) rank as some unsung cult sleepers. Dead and Buried while better known sits fittingly with the above for sheer eeriness, as director Gary Sherman takes you to the odd, clicky, fishing town of Potters Bluff where visiting tourists and passer through are killed only for their corpses to be brought back to
life to serve the town.
Reminiscent of Jaws 2 (no one believes the sheriff), The Wickerman (1973) (plotting towns people) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) (they are not who they clam to be) to name a few, Dead and Buried still manages to remain fresh and intriguing until the shocking end.
James Farentino wonderfully plays sheriff Dan Gillis who must solve the case and wrap up the mystery, and Melody Anderson is perfect as his wife. Jack Albertson gives a fine performance as the mortician and Robert Englund has a small role, the rest of the cast are first-rate.
Dead and Buried is only hankered by some choppy editing and despite the amount of writers on board, Sherman’s well crafted film benefits from ‘too many fingers in the pie’, including Alien scribe Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett. The film is enhanced from a shot on location look which adds to the genuine creepiness of the goings ons and Joe Renzetti’s music is fitting. There’s some notable blood and gore effects by the late great Stan Winston which even though are a by product of the story they are excellently executed.
Overall, a must see excellent underrated chiller.
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971)
A disturbed woman recently released from a mental institute has various nightmarish experiences. She becomes further disturbed after moving to an old farmhouse on a Connecticut island with her husband and friend where they meet a mysterious squatter.
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is a 1971 low budget gem, possibly the foundation or inspiration for many horror films that followed. It’s skillful directed by John D. Hancock who creates a foreboding atmospheric horror, with chills and spills.
The supporting cast are notable and Zohra Lampert plays the lead role of Jessica admirably, with emotional range and depth. In addition, Mariclare Costello is excellent as the creepy lodger Emily.
It suffers slightly from some 70’s film trappings, the intrusive use of the score, choppy editing and the sound is a little off but these are only small distractions, and to the movies credit it doesn’t look like a low budget film.
The on location shoot adds to the realism and there are many surreal moments, involving the odd towns people, a girl in a graveyard and the body in a lake. Creepy old photos, folkloric tales, unexplained noises all add to the unease and tension of this smouldering horror.
It draws in the viewer making you consider is what Jessica experiencing real or not. The film builds up modestly, tackling possible vampirism, haunting and ghosts which are all handled in a believable manner. I can only compare the ambiance to that of The Haunting (1963), Exorcist (1973), House of the Devil (2009) Carnival of Souls (1962) and another underrated horror Dead People a.k.a Messiah of Evil made the same year (although not released until 1973).
It’s Hancocks ability to execute pure creepiness and eeriness that sets Let’s Scare Jessica to Death apart from many horrors. If only the majority of modern horrors could stir up the same sensations experienced.
The House of the Devil (2009)
Student Samantha Hughes takes a babysitting job that coincides with a full lunar eclipse, she soon realises her clients harbour a terrifying secret.
Director writer Ti West delivers an elaborate painstakingly created homage to 70’s and early 80’s style thriller/horrors. It feels authentic, from the period costumes, 70’s style title sequence, complete with font, swipes and stills reminiscent of countless films, to the music and camera work to match. The film is pure nostalgia and he does a fantastic job at handling a slow set up which keeps the viewer interested.
You fall back in love with the time and more importantly the innocent, struggling student character of Samantha, played superbly by Jocelin Donahue. There’s no 80’s style bad performances, it’s naturalist oozing 70’s grittiness. The House of the Devil is wonderfully acted, every member of the cast is first-rate with their subtle and realistic portrayals. There is an exceptional stand out supporting cast which include Tom Noonan (Manhunter 1986); Dee Wallace (Howling 1981); cult horror actress Mary Woronov and newcomer Greta Gerwig as Megan is notable.
The first three quarters of the film is crisp building up an everyday tension after a series of odd phone calls and awkward situations while taking the viewer back to around 1983 America. Pay phones, walk-men, Fawett hair and skinny jeans. The last last reel is a Rosemary’s Baby (1968) set up as you are jarred out of the normality that came before and the film turns on it’s head to blood, violence, murder and satanic ritual.
The lighting is naturalist, West is not afraid to cast shadows creating an eerie and ominous atmosphere. The effects and make up are excellent and the music soundtrack and score is well placed.
A tension building 70’s/80’s crafted horror but made in 2009. Perfect.
Valhalla Rising (2009)
Less conforming than 2005’s Beowulf and Grendel and more experimental, this is an artistic, slow and wonderfully filmed piece of cinema. Sadly, marketed as something of a 300 type spectacle will leave some critics annoyed.
A fighting one eyed slave escapes from the Vikings to end up with Knights on their journey to the Holy Land but they end up in a strange and primitive land.
The small cast led by ‘One Eye’ Mads Mikkelsen and ‘The Boy’ Maarten Stevenson who speaks for him is more than adequate in the lead roles. With sparse dialogue, strong visuals and stunning scenery. Feel the icy wind, taste the fresh cold water, watch the mist, smell the bark of the tree’s. This type of film is an acquired taste, it has a dreamlike quality to it. The bloody fight scenes are few and far between, heightened by a strong modern distorted guitar score that suits the film.
Valhalla Rising is earthly, atmospheric, religious, conventual and anticlimactic. Conventional viewers will be disappointed but others may enjoy the journey.
Day of the Woman (1978) a.k.a I Spit on Your Grave
Meir Zarchi’s Day of the Woman, better known as I Spit on your Grave was a longtime banned VHS in the UK. Later passed by BBFC like Evil Dead (laugh) and The Last House on the Left to name a few ‘video nasties’.
It’s a basic tale also written by Meir Zarchi, a New Yorker Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton) rents a lakeside cottage in the woods of Connecticut, however, later is she gang raped and thought dead. However, alive and recovered she takes her revenge against the rapists.
Those who say it’s a feminism film are off the mark. It’s nasty, needless and arguably gratuitous exploitation. The rape scenes are graphic and I feel unfairly more intense than the revenge scenes later. A product of its time and made to shock, it certainly does that. It’s not a film I would want to watch again or have in my collection. However, I’m sure there is a strange audience out there who would.
The film is well constructed and directed. The locations are for the most part picturesque and ooze the 70’s vibe of that time gone by, in contrast, the lack of a music score sinisterly adds to the realism of the barbaric violence. The cast are below average, however, the unknown lead Keaton gives an amazing performance, and it’s a shame she’s only known for this film. As a side-note I was surprised to find out that she is the granddaughter of actor Buster Keaton.
Only watch for curiosity, Keaton’s performance or possibly the revenge kills. That said, it’s not recommended.
Dead People (1973) a.k.a Messiah of evil
Before Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and The Crazies, there was Dead people a.k.a Messiah of evil. Shot in 1971 the film was not released until 1973. Like H.P. Lovecraft’s Dagon and The Wicker Man (1973), weird locals are hiding a horrific secret… In Messiah, the people of Point Dune worship the rise of a red moon as they become zombies.
The story-line is disjointed, but this adds to the mystic, surreal and dreamlike quality of the film. Admittedly, there is some irregular editing and the score is very much of its time, but there’s plenty to like about it.
Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) and the aforementioned clearly have taken its cue from Willard Huyck’s jumbled but effective film. Especially the scene where slinky brunette Anitra Ford is pursued through a supermarket. There is also truly creepy scene again with Ford and an albino trucker, played by Bennie Robinson,you’d think he would have been in a lot more movies.
It oozes dread and suspense, it’s a chilling 70’s horror flick that despite its faults is a lot better than some of today’s so called horrors.
Dellamorte Dellamore (1994)
1994’s underrated zombie horror classic based on the comic Dylan Dog by Tiziano Sclavi, it stars Rupert Everett (in his best role) and enchanting Anna Falchi.
“Zombies, guns, and sex, OH MY!!!” was the tag line, and while it’s true it has those things Dellamorte Dellamore is so much more, macabre and violent, with atmosphere you can taste. Excellent music by Riccardo Biseo & Manuel De Sica and direction amazingly executed by Michele Soavi.
Spellbinding and arguably the strangest, most effective zombie film out there to-date.
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Dawn of the dead, there’s loads of reviews here. I’ll start with the bad, make-up consistency, poorly edited, poor sound, intrusive score music and a pie fight. Sounds horrid eh? Like a bad B-movie? Well Dawn of the Dead through all it’s faults is still a classic sub-genre film. I wont go into all the under tones, subtext of consumerism, mass hysteria, social commentary and satire yada, yada.
This is possibly George A. Romero’s most balanced and satisfying of all his zombie films. What it boils down to is film has dated.. Even so, the script is very well written and the film oozes atmosphere, the emptiness, notably the basement, and airfield scenes.
Tom Savini provides some fantastic gore effects, many of which stand up effectively today. While it’s gory, bloody, violent and disturbing, I would think today’s film viewer has hardened up to it, but this is not fault of the film, it is an amazing product of it’s time.
Many horror buffs think it’s overrated, but it’s more that just a straight horror, the character interaction, even down to the priest speech is understated. Should they have had a bigger budget and more time, maybe the faults I mentioned wouldn’t have been made. However, made they were and Dawn of the Dead is still the finest zombie film to date, a must see.
The Living Dead (1974)
Non si deve profanare il sonno dei morti (original title)
A crop dusting machine from the agricultural pest-control is emitting ultra-sonic waves that are re-animating corpses…
A lot have said this is underrated, granted it’s overlooked. It is Atmospheric with an ominous feel. It has great locations and is at times genuinely creepy. However, it’s shares more with Fulci than Romero. The acting is not aided by the bad dubbing. To its credit it has an eerie musical score by Giuliano Sorgini and a number of suspenseful sequences but it borrows many of its best sequences from Night of the Living Dead.
I watched director Jorge Grau’s offering under the title of ‘Let Sleeping Corpse Lie’ but whichever name you see the film under don’t be mistaken or mislead, it’s a solid zombie horror movie and of its time with fine cinematography from Francisco Sempere. It’s a lot better than the low budget DTV zombie films that there’s no shortage of at the moment.
Blade Runner (1982)
I must admit I’m a huge fan of Ridley Scott’s and Blade Runner is one of his finest moments, panned by critics and by most on its release, it was ahead of its time on every level.
Whichever version of Blade Runner you prefer, it has atmosphere, great costumes and a mood of gritty realism about it. The neo-cityscapes, the dark street life and polluted air; all paint a grim futuristic picture complimented by a Vangelis score; which is touching and haunting. The lines are memorable and there are fantastic performances from Rutger Hauer, Sean Young and Edward James Olmos. Harrison Ford is perfect as the moody ex- Blade Runner and Joe Turkel should have won an award as the Frankenstein -like creator.
Blade Runner is quite a simplistic tale that is complicated by the fantastic visuals and effects. Lying beneath the plot that many writers contributed to, there’s heart and soul, questions of what it means to be human and even delves into our own mortality.
Its edgy hi-tech art-house that brings science fiction to life and while it’s not the most fulfilling sci-fi film it certainly is a fantastic visual experience.