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THE 10 BEST UNRELEASED HORROR MOVIES: 1993-2003

In the spirit of those “10 Best Unproduced Scripts” lists that periodically appear in movie mags like PREMIERE and FILM COMMENT, I’ve decided to compile my own list covering the best unreleased films.  Films, in other words, that remain undistributed theatrically, on television or on video/DVD within the US.  In keeping with the sight’s overall focus, I’m restricting the list to horror-themed fare and, in order to keep it manageable, included only films completed within the last 10 years.

     As a sometime filmmaker myself, I can tell you that making an independent film is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do, but securing distribution is even more difficult.  The road to US distribution is rockier for foreign filmmakers, especially in the wake of the 90’s American indie boom (never mind that most US indies suck).  There are, however, signs of hope: Don Coscarelli’s wonderful BUBBA HO-TEP, which waited over a year to find US distribution, has finally been released.  Ditto Takashi Miike’s ICHI THE KILLER, which is set to show up on DVD sometime in the next few months.  Other upcoming releases include long-on-the-shelf masterworks like RUBBER’S LOVER, AFTERMATH, WILD ZERO, CURE and SUICIDE CIRCLE.  Here’s hoping the films listed below will get the same treatment:
 

1.  SZAMANKA (1996)
The astounding SZAMANKA ranks with the likes of CRASH, SEVEN and NATURAL BORN KILLERS as one of the decade’s most genuinely subversive films.  In this film the inimitable Polish filmmaker Andrzej Zulawski recaptures all the shock, rage and excess of his 1979 masterpiece POSSESSION and creates what may be his most memorable work to date.  In place of the earlier film’s morphing cucumber monster, SZAMANKA centers on the mummified remains of an ancient shaman, discovered by a sex-crazed anthropology lecturer.  Said lecturer takes up with an equally nutty young woman, unforgettably essayed by Iwona Petry, whose performance is one of the highlights of the film: smolderingly sexy yet also deeply unhinged and scary (and, I might add, rarely clothed).  As the man’s obsession with the shaman grows more encompassing (the corpse actually sits up and speaks with him at one point), his relationship with Petry degenerates into a series of increasingly perverted sexual encounters that culminate in an unspeakably brain-fried finale, which I’ll leave you to experience for yourself.  The whole film, in fact, must simply be experienced, as no words can possibly do justice to the astonishing boldness of Zulawski’s vision.

2.  METAL SKIN (1995)
Australian filmmaker Geoffrey Wright’s violent and kinetic ROMPER STOMPER (1992) created quite a stir.  He followed it with the even more powerful METAL SKIN, a bleak and disturbing mélange of teen rebellion, car worship, witchcraft and madness, all encompassed within the Aussie “Rev Head” subculture.  As he did in the former film, Wright packs a blistering amount of rage and frustration into the proceedings, which all but boil over in a climax that might charitably be described as mind-blowing.  The film is intense, often uncomfortably so (Ben Mendolsohn, one of its stars, remarked after a screening of MS that he was “glad to be out of there”), which probably explains why it’s never been seen (legally) in the US.  A few years ago Miramax was supposed to release it but didn’t.
(2008 Postscript: This film is now available on DVD in the U.S.)

3.  MOEBIUS (1997)
This haunting and fascinating Argentine horror/sci fi pastiche was actually a film school project supervised by “Prof.” Gustavo Mosquera (TIMES TO COME), a pretty amazing feat considering that MOEBIUS outdoes most professional cinema as both a dark fantasy and an ominous political allegory.  Its story of the mysterious disappearance of a subway train and its passengers has a disturbing real-life parallel in the thousands of political dissidents who “vanished” under the reign of Argentina’s despotic rulers during the seventies and eighties.  The film, however, works best as a mind tugging fantasy (it’s no accident that a subway tunnel is named “Borges”).  As literally everyone I know of who’s seen this film has been deeply impressed, I can only conclude that its non-release is accidental; MOEBIUS, in other words, simply “slipped through the cracks.”

4.  GEMINI (SOSEIJI; 1999)
A recent film by Japan’s foremost cult auteur Shinya Tsukamoto, who specializes in frenzied and horrific explorations of violence like TETSUO and TOKYO FISTGEMINI may seem like a departure, at least on the surface: it’s set in the 19th Century and has a quiet, even stately veneer.  But its story of a wealthy doctor terrorized by a guy from the slums who happens to look just like him is pure Tsukamoto, right down to the deadly love triangle that rounds things out (by now something of a ST trademark).  Stunningly photographed, powerfully disturbing stuff that deserves a much wider audience than it’s gotten thus far--Tsukamoto remains one of the most vital filmmakers on the scene, even if American distributors have lost interest.  BTW, Tsukamoto’s ’02 follow-up A SNAKE OF JUNE likewise remains without US distribution, and is also highly recommended.
(2008 P.S.: Now available on DVD)

5.  THE LEGEND OF THE SACRED STONE (SHENG SHI CHUAN SHUO; 1999)
I can guarantee you’ve never seen anything quite like this Taiwanese jaw-dropper.  It’s a special effects-filled horror/fantasy/martial arts epic very much in the mold of classic eastern fare like ZU WARRIORS FROM THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN and A CHINESE GHOST STORY...but here’s the thing that really makes this movie unique: it’s done entirely with PUPPETS!  And it’s almost certainly the most impressive puppet movie I’ve seen, with incredibly elaborate miniature sets and characters with an amazing range of movement--these puppets run, dance, fly and engage in numerous martial arts duels.  The story is a bit of a jumble, but it does contain the requisite evil demons, sorcerers and magical talismans any self-respecting Asian film fanatic might reasonably expect; the film is far from perfect, in other words, but it’s FUN! 

6.  THE NAMELESS (LOS SIN NOMBRE; 1999)
This masterful Spanish chiller has all the things we’ve come to expect from a great horror movie: a creepy and unpredictable storyline, a vivid atmosphere, some genuine shocks and great performances all around.  The kidnapping of a young girl by a creepy cult makes for an extremely compelling story, and the ending provides a good, nasty jolt.  THE NAMELESS seems to have satisfied nearly everyone who’s seen it—everyone, that is, but Hollywood studio execs, who seem to view horror as consisting of buckets of blood and little else.
(P.S.: Now available on DVD)

7.  LOVE GOD (1994)
Director Frank Grow’s LOVE GOD is an unrelentingly kinetic assault that mixes rapid-fire experimentation with old-fashioned B-movie thrills.  It may possibly have been released theatrically on the East Coast, thus disqualifying it from this list, but I’m far from certain about that.  I am sure, however, that it never turned up on the West Coast (believe me, I’d have known if it had!), and certainly not on video or DVD, which is a shame.  It’s definitely the only movie I can think of that combines irredeemably loony ex-mental patients, an out-of-control brain parasite, a mother-daughter crime scene clean-up team, lumbering prosthetic creatures, a homeless serial killer and lots more.  Not all of it works, but the damn thing moves so fast it’s impossible to ever grow bored. 

8.  THE BABY OF MACON (1993)
The only one of British iconoclast Peter Greenaway’s theatrical features not to have been released in this country, and easily the most depraved, satanic and grotesque film he’s ever made.  Starring future Hollywood hotshots Julia Ormond and Ralph Fiennes, it’s the story of an old woman who gives birth to a baby with magical powers.  The woman’s virgin daughter (Ormond) claims the baby as her own, uses it for her personal gain and has her loving mother locked up.  She’s found out before too long, and the church further exploits the BofM by selling its blood.  In a jealous rage, the baby’s “mother” smothers it to death.  The church wants to execute her for the crime, but their own laws prohibit the killing of a virgin.  No problem: every man in town is called upon to rape her...and then she’s put to death!  A singularly bleak, mean spirited film, although its nasty edge is softened somewhat by Greenaway’s conceit of presenting the whole thing as a play presented to audience members who are frequently called upon to join in the onstage action.  Beautifully photographed and staged, like all Greenaway’s features, and a fascinating play on illusion and reality—plus, for those who like gore, the sight of a naked Ralph Fiennes graphically maimed by a bull’s horns should more than satisfy.

9. THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION (1997)
Unlike most of the other films on this list, I can fully understand why US distributors gave this one the cold shoulder: it’s so out there that the only potential audience would be an extremely limited one.  Think David Cronenberg’s CRASH was weird?  The nonlinear ATROCITY EXHIBITION, also based on a novel by J.G. Ballard, gives Cronenberg’s film some serious competition in that area.  TAE is beautifully filmed, though often quite agonizing to sit through...and so makes for an excellent companion piece to Ballard’s heavily experimental book (which is anything but an “easy read”).  Director Jonathan Weiss crafts some compellingly bizarre imagery—a woman getting banged in the back seat of a car with a picture of Ronald Reagan wrapped around her head; a space suit wearing jogger; a lady chased through a ware house by a toy helicopter—spiced with references to Vietnam, Marilyn Monroe and the JFK assassination.  Having read the book beforehand, I still understood very little of the film--Weiss appears to be onto something, but I’m not sure what.

10.  DEADLY MARIA (DIE TODLICHE MARIA; 1994)
German filmmaker Tom Tykwer became an arthouse darling in the wake of his international smash RUN LOLA RUN (LOLA RENT; 1997).  He subsequently made two higher budgeted films, THE PRINCESS AND THE WARRIOR and HEAVEN, and his middling 1996 effort WINTER SLEEPERS was even granted American distribution in the wake of LOLA’S success.  I find it rather puzzling, then, that Tykwer’s first film, the stylish and macabre DEADLY MARIA, has never been released in this country.  I vividly remember viewing it at the 1994 Vancouver Film Festival and being impressed by its superbly delineated atmosphere of oppression and claustrophobia.  It’s set mostly within the confines of the dark, cavernous house where the meek and mousy Maria (the excellent Nina Petri, who also appeared briefly in LOLA) lives with her abusive, domineering husband and invalid father.  Her situation is a hopeless one, to be sure...but, as the title implies, Maria’s true nature isn’t nearly as benign as it might appear. 

Other worthy non-releases: THE DEAD MOTHER (LA MADRE MUERTA; 1993), MEMENTO MORI (YEOGO GOEDAM II; 1999), FAUSTO 5.0 (2001), ELECTRIC DRAGON 80,000V (2001), PULSE (KAIRO; 2001), RING VIRUS (1999), RINGU 2 (1999), 99.9 (1998) and, although it’s not really a horror movie, SHELF LIFE (1993).  (P.S.: All these films are currently available on US DVD but for THE DEAD MOTHER and SHELF LIFE)  And while I’m at it, I’d like to profile one more film as an Honorable Mention:   

BATTLE ROYALE (2000)
I’m not a huge fan of this Kinji Fukasaku thriller about pre-teens killing each other on a deserted island.  There’s really no point going into much more plot detail, as you’ve most likely seen the film already.  It’s become quite popular on the American cult movie circuit, so much so that its Japanese distributor now manufactures DVDs designed expressly for importation into the US.  Even the 1999 novel that inspired the film has been translated into English and issued as a trade paperback...so why hasn’t the movie been officially released in the US?  A lack of consumer interest?  The above info doesn’t support that hypothesis.  Perhaps movie distributors fancy they’re “protecting” us from this film’s malignant power.  Sorry, but the film is extremely accessible—and quite popular—as a DVD import.  I’ve heard the “official” rationale, that the film’s copyright holders are asking for too much money, but I don’t know if I buy that.  Miramax, after all, shelled out a reported $10 million for the US rights to HAPPY, TEXAS (anyone remember that film?) and even the deeply under whelming CABIN FEVER inspired a costly bidding war at last year’s Toronto Film Festival.  If BATTLE ROYALE or any of the above listed films prove anything, it’s that American movie lovers will seek out the films they want regardless of what “normal” distribution channels decree.

 

--11/7/03 
(9/2/08)

 

     

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