Since Sunday is a notoriously slow day for the Mojo Wire, and since we still have a few more guest blogs to go, I thought I might take today to throw a few of my honorable mentions for the past decade in horror. Some of these are just movies that didn’t quite make my list, and don’t seem to be making anyone’s else’s, but still deserve to be recognized because they’re freaking cool. A couple others aren’t movies at all, but episodes of television shows that actually did a better job at the whole horror thing than the movies in their shared genre.
Zombieland (2009) – I wanted to put this on my list so much it was ridiculous, but just couldn’t do so in good conscience. Yes, it is about a world destroyed by the zombie apocalypse, yes, it easily one of the most entertaining movies in the genre, and yes, it even made me forgive Woody Harrelson for being, well… Woody Harrelson, but let’s face it there’s just nothing all that… horrific about it. So much about the film is about being safe, and staying safe, and with Harrelson’s character being so good at what he does, there’s never any real fear or peril in the movie – and even at the end, when the undead horde really come out in numbers for one last hurrah, Zombieland feels more like an action movie than survival horror, more Mad Max than Night of the Living Dead. Even some of the more heartfelt realizations, like the ones about Tallahassee’s son or Columbus’s family fall a little flat, because there’s still this four-color cheerfulness, this promise the movie makes to never take anything too seriously, to stay, above all else, fun.
And what’s wrong with that? There’s something brilliant about one of the movie’s many credos – “enjoy the small things” – that looks at the end of the world in a surprisingly pragmatic way. Bleak, dreary visions of post-apocalyptic life abound in the zombie genre, going from not only common, to expected. Zombieland looks at the end of the world as a very bad thing that there’s no reason to get all that depressed over, yes it sucks, but why not make the best of it? Why not destroy a tawdry tourist trap, or paint a rallying tribute to Dale Earnhardt on your newly stolen car? It’s already as bad as it can possibly get – let’s go have a Twinkie, or watch Ghostbusters.
Oh, and speaking of which. Best. Cameo. Ever.
“Smile Time” (Angel - S05E14. 2004) - Obviously not in the running proper because of its status as a television show, even if you weren’t a fan of Joss Whedon’s polarizing “Buffyverse,” you’d be hard pressed not to appreciate the craftsmanship of this episode of Angel. The short version is that a group of demons manage to take over the felt-covered members of Sesame Street-like cast, and use their new position to suck the souls out of the helpless children watching. When our eponymous hero, the vampire-with-a-soul, steps in to stop the demons from feasting on the kiddies, the late-90s to early 00s poster child for dark, brooding, and bad-ass gets turned into, well…
“A wee puppet man.”
Though both the cult hits Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and Angel relied heavily on camp [and there is a lot of that here, too], “Smile Time” has a plenty of disturbing touches, from the rictus grins left on the affected children’s faces, to how the demon puppets control their Jim Henson-esque creator in truly ironic fashion. Plus, as a kid who grew up on Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, and the Muppets, there was just something overall disturbing about the concept that really… bugged me, and kept me slightly unsettled even during the funny bits. Maybe it’s not strictly horror, but if Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, and Freddy vs. Jason deserve praise, then “Smile Time” at least deserves a bit of attention.
But for the doubters, it doesn’t hurt to praise this particular episode’s pedigree – Ben Edlund, creator of “The Tick,” wrote and directed “Smile Time,” Whedon himself was the son of Muppet’s writer Tom Whedon, and numerous Jim Henson Company puppeteers joined the cast to bring puppet Angel to life. With the comedy, a few scares, and a couple of gross out moments, “Smile Time” showed just how good Angel could be, a real shame because just days before the episode aired, the series found itself cancelled.
Land of the Dead (2005)/Diary of the Dead (2008) – With the wealth of zombie horror that came out in the last ten years, it’s baffling that George Romero wound up gaining so little attention for his newest entries genre.
The first, Land of the Dead, was an excellent movie, and a proper continuation of the Romero zombie saga that started with “Night of…,” was followed by “Dawn of…,” and then finished [at the time] by “Day of…” There’s everything in this you expect from a George Romero movie – lots of scares, the obligatory gross-out feeding scene [I love those, I’ll admit], and healthy, artful social commentary, this time focusing on the haves and the have nots, and the great divide between the rich and the poor, which not surprisingly we humans have carried over into our post-Apocalyptic society. It garnered a lot of attention, grossed a higher box-office than any of Romero’s other films, and garnered overwhelmingly positive reviews. And all the modern day horror aficionados and autors came out in spades to celebrate it – from Roth, to Wright, to Del Toro.
Where the movie falls short is its standing as a sequel – it just isn’t as accessible as the other zombie films that came out in the past ten years, which keeps it from quite having the pop movies like the Dawn of the Dead remake and 28 Days Later had. It feels a bit dated, and in all fairness, it is, as there isn’t much in the movie Romero didn’t already cover in his time working on Creepshow or “Tales from the Darkside.” It’s a great movie, but its history, regrettably, drags it down, making it feel a little like Romero is constantly referencing his own work.
Diary of Dead meanwhile, has the opposite problem. Romero starts his mythos over from scratch, and attempts to view his zombie apocalypse as a POV-style docudrama, which sounds absolutely genius, but doesn’t quite come off as well as a film like [REC] did. There are still some great scares, and a lot of good laughs [and arguably some of the best characters Romero has written to date], but it doesn’t feel quite like the “A” game you’d expect from someone who more or less invented the genre.
The biggest problem is a split of focus – Romero’s work always shines brightest when he’s got a message he’s after, and at first glance Diary of the Dead seems like a sharp look, if not a criticism, at how interconnected our world has come to be. It certainly is interesting to think about how something like zombie outbreak would be viewed in a time where nearly everyone has some sort of camera at hand, and the internet allows for fast dispersal of any and all information, and in theory this should all play well with the ever pervasive question not just in Romero zombie movies, but all films in the genre – how good or bad regular people can be. But while trying to get at this, there’s also something about “Diary of…” that seems like a filmmaker’s movie, like Romero’s attempting a commentary about how far removed the man behind the camera can become, and when trying to get at so much, the end result just isn’t as grand as it ought to be.
Still, zombie movies ruled the last decade of horror, and the father of the genre deserves his due. And George Romero’s clearly back in the game.
And anyway, I thought they were both awesome.
Splinter (2008) – If instead of a top ten, I’d have done a top eleven, Splinter would have made the cut. This has everything a good horror film should have in it – a slow burn beginning, steady development, victims you can actually give a damn about, and a creature that terrifies you before you ever get a real good look at it. In some ways it’s amazing how many of the different genres of horror Splinter pulls from, complete with the middle of nowhere setting, and the themes of almost zombie-like infection. In some ways, you could even describe it as Cabin Fever with an actual monster, but that would be unfair to Splinter because it suggests it’s far more derivative than it actually is. There’s something about Splinter that really feels original, and the movie deserves an immense amount of credit for that.
My only complaint, and the one I hear a lot from other reviews of Splinter is that the ending falls a little flat. By the time we reach the end of the movie, a big reveal of the creature feels necessary, but we don’t really get that, we’re not rewarded with enough proper face time with the creature – which, for budgetary or special effects reasons might be good idea from the filmmakers standpoint [think Jaws], but it just isn’t quite as satisfying as we’d like it to be.
Still, a great horror film, and it deserves mention just so more people will seek it out, and see it.
“Blink” (Doctor Who - S03E10. 2007) – There have been a lot of scary things in the Doctor Who revivals, from zombie-like mutants in gas masks to the Doctor fighting the Devil himself, but along with being one of the best episodes of the new series, “Blink” is easily the scariest.
The Doctor is mostly absent from this episode, with the focus on one-off character Sally Sparrow [played by the beautiful and talented Carey Mulligan] and getting into the particulars of the plot would take a lot of explanation of time travel rules in “Doctor Who” that I just don’t have the time [puns!] to get into here. But what’s truly scary about the episode are the alien baddies known as “The Weeping Angels.” Essentially creatures that only exist when no one is looking at them, these monsters take the form of stone angel statues, which hide their eyes even from each other. Keep your eyes on them, and you’re fine, they stay frozen in stone – but that’s easier said than done since there are four of these things and you only have two eyes.
Just how scary this can be is near impossible to describe without actually seeing the episode, but to give you some idea, just remember you can’t run backwards, which means occasionally you have to turn around and see this.
Right on your heels. Sweet Jesus, forget Daleks. That’ll keep me behind my couch – with my back to the wall.
"Whatever you do, whatever you do no matter what – don’t blink."
30 Days of Night (2007) - Stylised, violent, and terrifying, and based off some great subject matter. The pacing is a little off, and the subtitles are just...weird, but this is one of the more original vampire films the American system has managed to produce [even if it is an adaptation], and it deserves credit for that. Plus, my experience seeing it was one the most wonderful I ever had in a theater.
That’s the bulk of my honorable mentions. Expect my full list after the last guest blog is posted. We’ve had quite the turnout, so happily there are still a couple to go.