Review Index

Is It Just Me or Do These Movies Suck?

Here I'd like to take the opportunity to take some potshots at a number of horror's sacred cows.  I mentioned in a past column how loyal horror fans are to their favorite directors--a laudable credo, to be sure, but it can be taken too far.  Just look at the following list of overrated sell-outs. 

     The most depressing thing about these filmmakers is that they comprise the key players on the horror scene.  Yes, there are two noted exceptions, but only two.  Am I biting the hand that feeds me?  I sure hope so.  Let's take a look at horror's dirty dozen, and as we do so, consider many of the following titles and consider, is it just me, or do these movies suck?

One of the most influential filmmakers of any genre, Argento made some truly one-of-a-kind films in his day, and early works like DEEP RED, SUSPERIA, INFERNO, TENEBRAE and OPERA are rightfully considered classics of the horror film.  Unfortunately, the law of diminishing returns appears to have set in big time, starting with the disappointing TRAUMA in 1993, continuing with the even-worse STENDAHL SYNDROME and climaxing with the plain awful PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.  Whew!  I'm told his latest film SLEEPLESS is a bit better, but, based on Argento's last three turds, I'm reluctant to view it.

Carpenter seems to have played himself out, a situation that depresses me greatly, as he was one of my all-time favorites.  Adept not merely at horror (HALLOWEEN), but also comedy (DARK STAR), action (ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13), sci fi (ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, THE THING), fantasy (BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA) and even romance (STARMAN), John Carpenter, it seemed, could do no wrong.  Signs of decline, however, were evident in 1987's PRINCE OF DARKNESS and the next year's THEY LIVE, flawed but interesting movies that, as it turned out, were to be his last hurrahs.  From there it was a long, painful slide through the likes of MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN, IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (one of the most overrated horror films ever, IMO) and VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED.  Of his recent films, only 1996's ESCAPE FROM LA showed a glimmer of life, but still suffered from the indifferent scripting, poorly choreographed action sequences, stilted acting and lousy special effects that have crippled VAMPIRES and GHOSTS OF MARS, both of which were touted as Carpenter's "comeback."  Comedown is more like it!

Wes Craven has always been a very erratic filmmaker. His premiere efforts, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and THE HILLS HAVE EYES, are among the key modern horror films, but his next good movie, the original NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, wasn't until nearly ten years later.  Maybe you buy into the argument that Wes' shallow, trendy SCREAM trilogy "breathed new life" into the genre (I sure don't!).  Fine, but how do you account for THE HILLS HAVE EYES 2, SHOCKER, THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW, THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS, WES CRAVEN'S NEW NIGHTMARE, A VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN, MUSIC OF THE HEART, or the abominable CARNIVAL OF SOULS remake Craven so enthusiastically leant his name to?

One of the two admitted wild cards in the pack.  Although it's looked at times like he might lose his balance (M. BUTTERFLY, anyone?), Canada's foremost horrormeister remains just as vital and original as he did back in 1972, when his debut film SHIVERS turned the genre on its ear.  1996's CRASH was one of his best films IMO, and 1998's eXistenZ, while not as good, was still lots of gooey fun, a film that could only have been made by the one and only David Cronenberg.  I was worried for a while, when it looked as if he might lend his talents to BASIC INSTINCT 2, but the project thankfully fell apart, and DC is now adapting Patrick McGrath's superb novel SPIDER.

Brian DePalma is one of the most brilliant visual stylists on the scene, a talent he's retained in recent films like SNAKE EYES and MISSION TO MARS.  Unfortunately, he seems to have lost all interest in things like content and characterization.  His 1992 thriller RAISING CAIN, for instance, showed great visual flair (of course!) and had a structure as radical and unprecedented as PULP FICTION'S, but its hopelessly vapid characters were a far cry from Angie Dickinson's sexually frustrated housewife in DRESSED TO KILL or John Travolta's overly inquisitive sound man in BLOW OUT, people we cared about because they were so well fleshed out and convincing.  Alas, I didn't notice many of those in SNAKE EYES or MISSION TO MARS.

Stuart Gordon's H.P. Lovecraft adaptation RE-ANIMATOR was THE horror movie of the eighties: smart, stylish, stunningly gory, and boasting a cheerful willingness to go way over the top.  He followed with FROM BEYOND and DOLLS, two more rock-solid thrillers, and even managed, in 1993's Christopher Lambert headliner FORTRESS, to fashion a crackling B-movie from unpromising material.  Unfortunately, the lame CASTLE FREAK was next, followed by the even worse SPACE TRUCKERS and THE (not so) WONDERFUL ICE CREAM SUIT.  His latest film, the Spanish production DAGON, is a return to the Lovecraft-based hard core horror that made his name.  It has yet to be released in the US; I'm willing to give it the benefit of the doubt, but early reviews have NOT been promising.

There's nothing to be said here, really.  Everybody seems to know that Tobe Hooper made one of the all time great horror movies, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, and then went downhill--and FAST--with a seemingly unending string of shitty movies.  Hooper's undiminished fan base is, however, a perfect example of the undying loyalty of the horror movie fanatic: I'm always hearing about some upcoming project that's supposed to break his losing streak.  At one time it was LIFEFORCE.  Then it was SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION.  Then THE MANGLER.  For my views on those flicks, take another look at the title of this article.

The late-80's answer to John Carpenter, Peter Jackson was the demented Kiwi genius who single-handedly put New Zealand genre cinema on the map with freaky flicks like BAD TASTE, MEET THE FEEBLES, BRAINDEAD (a.k.a. DEAD ALIVE), HEAVENLY CREATURES and FORGOTTEN SILVER.  All are outrageous, original and, with the exception of FORGOTTEN SILVER (a hilarious mock documentary, though not a horror movie), unapologetically gruesome entertainments, with nary a loser in the bunch.  All that changed with the release of Jackson's mega-budgeted Michael J. Fox noise-maker THE FRIGHTENERS, an obnoxious GHOSTBUSTERS wannabe that fell into every conceivable big budget Hollywood trap.  And I know many of you think it's the greatest movie ever, but I found THE LORD OF THE RINGS to be an insufferable bore, quite possibly the longest three hours of my life--and to think, there are two more of these films on the way!

Along with the other David (Cronenberg, that is), Mr. Lynch is the only director on the list who's retained his integrity.  His trick is the way he's managed to stay so uncompromisingly true to himself, even with his 1999 G-rated Disney movie THE STRAIGHT STORY, which worked because, even in its most mawkish moments, it was so, well, Lynchian.  True, it did look for a while, in the early 90's to be exact, that Lynch was on his way to becoming a parody of himself in the manner of Carpenter or DePalma (try watching an episode of Lynch's failed sitcom ON THE AIR if you don't believe me), but he's since bounced back, and remains at the head of the class.

Perhaps I'm wrong in putting Polanski on a list of horror movie directors, but the fact is, his best films (REPULSION, ROSEMARY'S BABY, THE TENANT) fit firmly into the genre, and even ostensible mainstream works like A KNIFE IN THE WATER, CUL DE SAC, MACBETH, FRANTIC and CHINATOWN contain their share of horrific elements.  All of those, furthermore, are good if not great movies.  1985's PIRATES, on the other hand, is most definitely not.  Neither is 1994's DEATH AND THE MAIDEN (a film I'd put into the "okay" category).  I got a kick out of his 1992 sex opus BITTER MOON, but I fear I enjoyed it for the wrong reasons--which is to say, I don't think it was intended to be so funny!  In any event, his latest film, the interminable NINTH GATE, is most definitely a horror movie...and arguably his worst ever.

The textbook example of what can happen when a low budget horror moviemaker goes mainstream.  Raimi's 1981 no-budgeter THE EVIL DEAD and its 1986 sequel remain two of the most influential horror films ever made, but what else has he done?  His would-be comedy CRIMEWAVE is better left unseen, while DARKMAN to me was silly and overwrought, and I found even less to like in his Sharon Stone comedy western THE QUICK AND THE DEAD.  ARMY OF DARKNESS, the third EVIL DEAD movie, exists in a number of different versions--and the one I've seen sucks.  Alright, Sam did turn out the excellent A SIMPLE PLAN in 1997, but his most recent film THE GIFT, an attempt to return to his horror movie roots before the big budget bloat of his upcoming SPIDERMAN, is plain mediocre.  Furthermore, I don't know if I'll ever be able to forgive Sam for his Kevin Costner baseball turd FOR THE LOVE OF THE GAME.  I'll have to concede, though, that those SPIDERMAN trailers look pretty damn cool...

Yes, I'm aware that George Romero's seminal NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD set the standard for modern horror, but I also know he hasn't made a good movie in nearly 20 years.  DAWN OF THE DEAD and MARTIN were fitting follow-ups to NOTLD--and THE CRAZIES and CREEPSHOW were enjoyable enough--but DAY OF THE DEAD, MONKEY SHINES, the first part of TWO EVIL EYES, THE DARK HALF and BRUISER just don't cut it, particularly from such a (once) auspicious filmmaker.

     So tell me: Are these the masters of modern horror?  I don't think so.  With the exceptions of Lynch and Cronenberg, it seems that the above filmmakers have all long since worn themselves out.  The same thing seems to have afflicted lesser icons like Larry Cohen, Clive Barker, Ruggero Deodato, Lamberto Bava, Paul Verhoeven, Buddy Giovinazzo, Bob Clark, Jean Rollin and Ulli Lommell.  In the horror genre, Federico Fellini's claim that a film director has a shelf life of just 10-15 years seems to be a dreary reality.  Do these filmmakers, regardless of their past work, really deserve our continued devotion when they persist in churning out such lousy movies?

     It's time to move on to a new generation of promising filmmakers.  European and Asian whippersnappers like Shinya Tsukamoto (TOKYO FIST), Guillermo Del Toro (THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE), Nacho Cerda (AFTERMATH), Michael Haneke (THE PIANO TEACHER), Takashi Miike (AUDITION) and Kiyoshi Kurosawa (CURE) have helped to keep the horror tradition alive overseas, while guys like David Fincher (SE7EN), E. Elias Merhige (BEGOTTEN), Guy Maddin (TALES FROM THE GIMLI HOSPITAL) and Jim VanBebber (is his CHARLIE'S FAMILY ever gonna be released???) are keeping the faith here in North America.  These fresh and vital filmmakers are the ones we need to pay attention to, as the old guard has definitely passed on.