[1 July 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Okay - so you suffered through the first three Twilight films and came away more or less unscathed (unless you are reading this as part of some court-ordered rehabilitation…or in preparation for a five state killing spree). You may have even hit up Rifftrax for a couple of aesthetic-calming audio commentary tracks. Maybe, just maybe, you even enjoyed a moment or two of the recent installment (though it has to be said that the whole “shattering diamond head” concept is a little farfetched, even for this franchise). Still, it’s easy to hear the voice in your head arguing “there must be better vampire/werewolf” movies than this. It’s also easy to hear the other voices compelling you toward violence on anything remotely related to the series - it comes with the Twilight territory.
So, after promising your paramour an infinity of love and then sending them off to bed for dreams of Jasper and any other random, non-famous member of the Cullen/Quileute gang, call up your Netflix account and try one of these superior scary movies on for size. Granted, they might also inspire you to senseless acts of self-destruction, but at least you won’t have to suffer through endless sequences of pale actors making cow eyes at each other. Oh, and one more caveat. This is not meant as some kind of BEST OF list. Don’t get angry if your favorite ginger snapping dog soldier Nosferatu is not represented or that old school Universal shivers somehow got left out. This is your first post-Twilight attempt at righting an artistic wrong after all. We’re going to take it slow before building to the bigger stuff.
Let the Right One In
This Swedish gem, a true reinvention of what is typically thought of as a tired, tedious genre, gets even better with multiple viewings. There, the subtle horrors created by filmmaker Tomas Alfredson resonate all the more clearly, while the coming of age subtext gains reams more credibility. You may not find answers to all your questions here (web nation continues its fascination with this film), but you will definitely enjoy its pre-teen angst a lot more than a visit to Forks, Washington.
Joe Dante’s brilliant satire on the end of Me Decade self-help and the beginning of Greed decade arrogance is still one powerful bit of beast mastery. The universally acclaimed work by F/X master Rob Bottin is still astonishing almost 30 years later and the performances by Dee Wallace Stone, Robert Picardo, and Christopher Stone are first rate. Especially memorable for a moment when our heroine’s husband beds a lupine babe by the fireside - and they both experience some coitus transmogrificationus.
Before she won an Oscar for The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow was known for saving the sorry low budget vampire movie from itself with this wicked update on the neckbiter. More or less a macabre post-modern western, the central love story between waifish undead teen Mae and country boy Caleb puts the efforts of Bella and Edward to shame. Besides, when you’ve got Lance Henricksen, Bill Paxton, and Jenette Goldstein as your main villains, there’s really no need for all the lovey-dovey stuff.
The Curse of the Werewolf
There is only one reason to endure this often hokey Hammer production - the pure animal magnetism of Oliver Reed in his pre-inebriation days. The fledgling star, soon to find surer footing under the auspices of filmmaking genius Ken Russell, gets a chance to emulate other British cinematic gods such as Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, creating a version of the classic lycanthrope that’s both incredibly sinister and surprisingly sympathetic.
Proving he was/is the future of revisionists terror, Guillermo Del Toro took the story of a scarab shaped pendant, an elderly jeweler, and the trinket’s terrifying secret and turned it into a terrific riff on vampires and the lure of immortality. Boasting the kind of bloodshed few films of its kind indulge in, it argued for Del Toro’s place among the potential greats. Ever since then, he’s shown that such early praise and recognition was wholly warranted.
Stephen King’s Silver Bullet
The Big Mac and Fries of literature was always unlucky when it came to cinematic interpretations of his works. Luckily, the pulpy precepts of his werewolf amuck novella find perfect sanctuary in this equally campy schlocker. With Gary Busey, Corey Haim, and Terry O’Quinn, this represents one of the few times when small town superstition successfully merges with what is essentially a boy’s adventure tale. His similarly themed Sleepwalkers sucked, however.
Though Hollywood is planning on remaking this terrific Tom Holland film, no one can match the clever combination of fear, gore, and ersatz eroticism present in this tale of a jumpy young man and the potential neckbiter who just moved in next door. Thanks to the stellar F/X work by Richard Edlund and the equally impressive acting of William Ragsdale, Chris Sarandon, Amanda Bearse, and Stephen “Evil Ed” Geoffreys, it remains a seminal ‘80s effort.
An American Werewolf in London
As one of the first proponents of horror comedy, John Landis looked to make-up whiz Rick Baker to make his monster on the loose lampoon work. He ended up redefining the potential of prosthetics and animatronics. Even today, where CG handles most of the transformative heavy lifting, Baker’s work (with some input from Bottin) is outstanding. That the film itself is a creative combination of ribtickler and spinetingler stands as one of Landis’ greatest achievement.
Ganja and Hess
Bill Gunn’s highly unusual attempt at “serious” blaxsploitation is more of a mediation on the spirit of evil rather than a serious consideration of the nocturnal neckbiter. While the vampire myth is indeed part of the proceedings and the need for blood explored (if subtlety), there is really more philosophical unease and psychological dread than anything remotely terrifying. Yet it’s because of the unusual approach to both story and subject that makes this movie a post-modern marvel.
The Night Stalker
We will always have a soft spot in our heart for Dan Curtis’ ABC Movie of the Week masterpiece. After all, it features the undeniably great Darren McGavin as fearless investigative monster hunter journalist Carl Kolchek, a screenplay by I Am Legend‘s Richard Matheson, and a delicious ‘70s decadent Las Vegas atmosphere. Add in some solid scares and the memorable work by the rest of the cast, and you have something that even cynical Me Decade refugees remember fondly.