Highly recommended horror

"Let the Right One In"

"Let the Right One In"

So of course I had to do it. It’s Halloween, and I couldn’t let the day of fright go by without a small homage to some of my favorite scary movies. But I wanted to bring attention to a few films that are not as celebrated as the big horror hits, franchises and cult classics. I already blogged about one of them, Ti West’s 2009 throwback to the 1980s, “House of the Devil” (see below).

Here are a few others that are just as good, if not better, than some of the go-to choices for horror fans.

“Let the Right One In” (2008)

I can’t speak to the remake starring Chloe Grace Moretz (“Let Me In”), but the original Swedish film about a bullied 12-year-old boy’s newfound friendship with his neighbor – a strange, nocturnal girl his age – is a fantastic study in understated horror. But there’s still enough gore to satisfy those with a taste for blood.

“From Hell” (2001)

Johnny Depp stars as a Sherlock Holmesian detective seeking the serial killer for the ages, Jack the Ripper, in a dark, damp London set up by directors Albert and Allen Hughes. One of Depp’s seemingly rare performances as a “relatively” normal person, he is joined by Robbie Coltrane, Heather Graham, and the great Ian Holm.

“Angel Heart” (1987)

It makes sense that the devil would turn up in a lot of horror movies, including the requisite classics like “The Exorcist” and “Rosemary’s Baby.” One of the best is Alan Parker’s atmospheric tale of lost loves and lost souls set in New York and New Orleans. The movie is steeped in voodoo and villainy, but it all sneaks up on you amid the striking imagery and characterizations – like Mickey Rourke’s bumbling but determined detective and our man Robert DeNiro as Louis Cypher.

“Joy Ride” (2001)

Yes, I’m talking about the Paul Walker vehicle in which he and his buddy, the ubiquitous Steve Zahn, take a road trip to pick up Walker’s girl, the not-so-ubiquitous Leelee Sobieski. They take a wrong turn when they foolishly wind up a truck driving psychopath called Rusty Nails, who rivaled the traditional slasher movie bad boys like Jason and Michael Myers. But I have to give credit to director John Dahl for making it terrifyingly suspenseful before the predictable ending. Dahl is the brains behind the 1990s sleeper hit suspense yarns “The Last Seduction” and “Red Rock West.”

“Death Proof/Planet Terror” (2007)

Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez tag team the horror genre with two B-movie, drive-in tributes that are wonderfully gory and grim but have great humor, too. In Tarantino’s “Death Proof,” Kurt Russell can’t seem to “hang up his chick habit” until he runs across the wrong chicks. And Rodriguez takes the zombie route with Rose McGowan and Freddy Rodriguez fighting the gross creatures with everything they’ve got – in some cases with weaponized amputated limbs. Bruce Willis and Josh Brolin are along for the fun.   

One thing leads to another

Several weeks ago, yet another horror movie topped the box office – “The Purge.” It has an unusual premise so it may be worthy of the attention it has gotten, and I’m sure its star, Ethan Hawke, is very pleased (although I’m much more excited about his other movie this season – “Before Midnight”). And now "World War Z" is on the scene and raking in big bucks (although in my mind zombie movies are a breed apart from traditional horror films). But I want to draw your attention to a little-seen horror gem from several years ago. It’s director Ti West’s “The House of the Devil” from 2009. Here are four reasons it ranks among my favorite horror films:

The nostalgia

The movie is set in the 1980s – the decade of my formative years – so the references resonate. From the feathered hair styles to lead actress Jocelin Donahue dancing around the house listening to The Fixx’s “One Thing Leads to Another” on her Walkman, it’s a 1980s love fest. And the movie is an homage to those cheesy (but fabulous) ‘80s horror movies like “Christine” and “Cujo.” Dee Wallace has a bit part, for crying out loud. I was so happy to see her because it let me know that this director, who also wrote the script, was a man after my own generation.  

The set up

You’re a college kid desperately needing to get away from your annoying roommate and the prospect of any other roommates. Dee Wallace offers you the perfect little apartment for a reasonable rent. Your mission: Raise money for the first month’s rent. Why look, how fortuitous – someone has put out a request for a babysitter on various flagpoles and bulletin boards around campus. That is exactly how good parents would seek a babysitter. There’s nothing suspicious going on here. It all seems very above-board …  Fortunately, you have a smart, worldly best friend, played by Greta Gerwig (very Natasha Lyonne from “American Pie”), who doesn’t trust it for a minute, but is willing to drop you off as long as you let her scope out the scene before leaving you. If only worldliness were enough in these movies. For the chance to get your whole month’s rent in just one night, you go along with the job even when you learn that it’s a grandmother (not little darling children) who needs babysitting and she is not to be disturbed under any circumstances. (Did someone mention 1979’s “When a Stanger Calls”?) You mean you get paid just to hang around the house and probably never even see the old biddy? Jackpot, right? Ugh.

The suspense

Setting the movie in the ‘80s automatically gave writer/director West a big boost in the suspense-building department. It meant there were no cell phones – at least not for struggling college kids. In the “making of” featurette, West talks about using the lack of technology at the time to his advantage. Clearly, if you run into trouble and your best friend is nowhere near a land line phone, you’re on your own. And since this is a horror movie, the land line wouldn’t be working anyway. But aside from no cell phone access, what’s great about West’s story is that he takes his time. You keep wondering when all hell is going to break loose. Don’t worry; it does. But the suspense keeps building because as a movie-goer these days, you’re probably expecting a blood bath from the first reel. The waiting makes it even better when you finally learn what’s up with grandma.  

The pay off

Obviously, I can’t say too much about the ending without being a spoiler. I will say that while it is somewhat anti-climactic, it is still satisfying and worth experiencing. I’m sure a lot of women out there understand what I mean through other contexts.

Director: Ti West | Writer: Ti West | STARRING: Jocelin Donahue, Greta Gerwig, Tom Noonan, Mary Woronov, AJ Bowen & Dee Wallace