#76: The Wicker Man

Absolutely terrifying.

Absolutely terrifying.

Director: Robin Hardy
Year: 1973
Genre: Horror

The Wicker Man is a strange addition to the horror genre and is perhaps one of the most unique films ever made. It just may be due to the film’s strangeness that it’s so critically acclaimed yet so unfamiliar to the public.

To most of today’s youngsters The Wicker Man is known as that shitty 2006 movie where Nicolas Cage gave his worst and most hilarious performance. Now, I love “bad” Nicolas Cage almost as much as I love “good” Nicolas Cage, but it’s a shame that the story of The Wicker Man was introduced to contemporary audiences with an awful film because the original 1973 picture is a masterpiece.

What is this movie? The story follows a police officer, Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), to a remote Scottish island in search of a missing girl. Howie, being a devout and celibate Christian, is shocked to find that the islanders all follow a peculiar pagan religion. What’s worse is that no one seems to know anything about the missing girl and Howie must plunge himself deeper into the island’s strange and haunting society in order to uncover this conspiracy.

There is nothing supernatural about this film. The horror comes from the surreal and elaborate rituals the islanders take part in, and the alienation we feel being thrown into this incredibly cliquey society. Welcome to the land of public fornication, chanting children and enchanting hippy song numbers. Unless you’re a devout Christian, like our protagonist, you’ll find that there’s nothing inherently wrong with these people’s habits, but the fear comes from what they’re not telling us. Mystery is equally fascinating and threatening and that’s exactly how I would describe The Wicker Man.

One of the most intriguing elements of The Wicker Man is its religious content. There’s this battle between Christianity and paganism and, as a non-religious viewer, you’re constantly at war with yourself deciding who you should be rooting for. Howie is such a Christian extremist that you find yourself hoping the pagans get the better of him. Conversely, Howie is so morally pure that you’re hoping he shakes up the pagans and comes home with the truth.

You also get the pleasure of seeing Christopher Lee, in arguably his best role, as the community leader, Lord Summerisle. His two dimensional, yet captivating, camp, villainous antics take on a third dimension in this more restrained performance. Edward Woodward, however, has the most difficult role as the film’s Christian protagonist. His ability to physically express his devotion and spiritual struggle under pressure and temptation is spellbinding and adds to the horror of the film.

If you’re looking for a truly different experience in cinema that’s easy to follow and thematically challenging seek out The Wicker Man: The Director’s Cut. Whether you like it or not, you won’t be able to turn away till the credits roll and you’ll be talking about it for a while longer.

#82: Jaws

I don’t think we can eat that…

Director: Steven Spielberg
Year: 1975
Genre: Horror

Steven Spielberg takes a b-movie concept, a shark attack movie, and coats it with sophisticated film production values to create the world’s first blockbuster movie.

What can one say about Jaws that hasn’t already been said? It’s an obvious choice for any Top Film list and a necessary one.

For those of you who’ve not seen this classic Adventure/Horror film, I suppose you may feel inundated with pop-culture references, John Williams’ famous film score and various shark movies that followed, and fear that Jaws may be boring and predictable.
I must admit that had I never seen it I would be a bit “CBF’d” about seeing a film featuring a killer shark mainly set on water but I can assure you that there is nothing boring about Jaws.

Jaws has all the ingredients for an exhilarating yarn. It set the ground rules for what a blockbuster should be; an exciting genre story with top notch production values, loveable characters, sexy special effects, and a fistful of emotions!

The film is exceptionally paced with the first half exploring the hysteria of a small town as it’s threatened by a man-eating great white shark. In its second half the film evolves into more of an adventure where the three lead characters set out on a great hunt for the great white.

Whilst Jaws is masterfully effective with its scares and suspense, don’t be expecting a celebration of guts and limbs; there is ample bloodshed but this ain’t no gore-fest.
On the other side of the spectrum, you’ll be gravely disappointed if you’re looking for mind-blowing plot-twists, existential moments or deep touches of profundity. Jaws is, after all, a blockbuster, but its elegant craft, memorable characters and sharp dialogue turn light entertainment into first-class escapism.

#85: Suspiria

The Rainbow Connection…of fear!

Director: Dario Argento
Year: 1977
Genre: Horror

Strange that our next stop after Dancer in the Dark should be a psychedelic horror, or giallo, film about a dancer in a very dark environment. Let’s just pretend that I’ve wanked on about the similarities between these two wonderful movies, joked about how Suspiria could perhaps be one of Selma’s musical dream sequences in Dancer in the Dark, and move right on to exploring Suspiria as a film in its own right.

Suspiria is, Italian horror master, Dario Argento’s undisputed masterpiece. Though I’ve not seen his previous classic, Deep Red (1975), I doubt it will compete against Suspiria‘s dream-like qualities, which I find particularly appealing. The narrative follows an American dance student, Suzy, who arrives at a prestigious dance academy on a stormy night in Germany. Stormy nights and foreign surroundings help set the tone for this psychedelic nightmare. Our American protagonist is very much the outcast from the get-go, and we watch her become more and more alienated as each student mysteriously disappears, the death count rises, and circumstances get stranger and stranger.

Suspiria is one of the most visually stunning films I’ve ever seen with its highly saturated colour palette, elaborate set designs and stylised camera work. The acting style is quite odd, as it is in most giallo films, which may be due to the mix of English speaking and non-English speaking cast members. Many may shrug it off as bad acting, but I think it adds to the film’ s surreal atmosphere. Watching Suspiria is like letting a nightmare play out in front of you. Mesmerising and terrifying.

If you aren’t already down with the antics of Dario Argento and the Giallo film genre then do some fucking homework! Alright, settle down. I’m no giallo expert myself, and I’ve only seen about four Argento films, which means that you don’t have to be an Italian Cinema enthusiast to enjoy Suspiria. You should probably be partial to a bit of blood and gore before you delve into this nightmare however, ‘cos IT. IS. VIOLENT. Start drooling, gore-hounds. There is bloodshed by the bucket load and internal organ extractions a plenty! One thing to note about giallo films, and Italian cinema in general, is that most of the violence is shot gracefully with death scenes being framed as visual art as opposed to gritty, disgusting visions of reality. The blood is bright red providing a more striking contrast to the imagery. The placement of the subjects within the frame is often composed symmetrically and/or melodramatically distancing the viewer from the reality of the scene. The finished corpse is then exhibited in all its bloody glory as one of the director’s killer’s works of art. Such sensibilities, the art of finding beauty in the revolting, reflect the desires of those who enjoy on screen violence. It’s a form of escapism, for those of us who aren’t already sickos. I’m not saying that I’m rooting for the killers in these movies but one certainly relishes in the danger and the fear. The ability to enjoy fear in a simulated environment is an interesting one.

If you’re looking for a new experience in horror…

I recommend Suspiria,

after midnight,

alone.

#93: Eraserhead

Baby’s got a fever…

Director: David Lynch
Year: 1977
Genre: Horror

Dare to delve into the unknown. Your whole life you’ve been wishing that life could be a dream and now you’re in one but you can’t control it. The unexplainable events that keep occurring are unsettling, this is not what you expected but that’s what makes the experience so fascinating. Open your mind and become…Eraserhead.

Eraserhead is probably the weirdest narrative feature film I have ever seen thus marking a landmark in my cinema viewing history. I first discovered the world of director David Lynch when I was 16 (in 2002) when I hired his breathtaking Mulholland Drive (2001) on VHS. That experience alone will be addressed in further detail later down the track but it lead to me hunting down and watching every Lynch film. I think I just about saw all of them, to date, that year and whilst Eraserhead is not my favourite of his films it’s certainly his most bizarre. At the ripe age of 16 I’m sure watching this film had some sort of marvelous effect on the development of my own mind.

What’s so weird about it? As hinted at in the beginning of this entry Eraserhead plays out like a dream starting with our beloved protagonist Henry Spencer, played by the late Jack Nance, floating in space. We soon jump from this surreal imagery to a bizarre domestic narrative about Henry and his girlfriend’s struggle to raise their new born baby – THAT FUCKING THING IN THE PICTURE ABOVE! I’m not going to proceed listing all the weird shit that occurs in the film, nor am I even going to bother giving you a plot summary as this is the sort film, like most Lynch films, that is best watched with little or no prior knowledge so as not to let your mind get distracted by unnecessary details when trying to consume what the film has to offer. The film is fucking weird both in terms of its content, it has strange characters and strange shit happens, and its form. The way in which the film is constructed is surreal. We jump from scene to scene without fully understanding the resolution of the previous scene(s) and it may not be clear how far into the future we have jumped from one scene to another, if we’ve even jumped “forward” at all.

Basically, I love this film because it’s fucking weird? Yes. Of course it has its technical brilliance, the sound design is mind-meltingly mesmerising and the black and white cinematography is lusciously nightmarish but what makes Eraserhead stand out is literally how fucking odd it is. I mentioned in my previous post that what I love most about movies is that they allow us to escape into other worlds. Dreams offer us that service too, only we can’t choose our genre, and this film is like a dream. Also, for similar reasons I love mystery, I love thinking about the unknown, you may notice a lot of mystery/thriller films cropping up on this journey through my Top 100. Whilst it is admittedly a difficult film to watch, depending on your mood, Eraserhead is a surreal dream like experience with plenty of mystery to keep you wondering for an age, which is why I am glad to dub it my 93rd favourite film of all time.

If you wake up one day and realise that you’re sick of watching the same old shit and you have enough curiosity to “kill the cat” WATCH ERASERHEAD. You better watch it on a decent sized screen with the volume turned way up and the lights turned all the way off, otherwise, you’re daft!

#100: Mad Max

Young Gibbo lookin’ sexy.


Director:
George Miller
Year: 1979
Genre: Action

Welcome to 1979. A time where one could look to the future of Australian cinema (and Mel Gibson) with great anticipation. A time before I was born.  Being an Australian myself, I am proud to begin my Top 100 with an Australian film. Ranking at #100…George Miller’s Mad Max.

I’m the kind of movie goer who watches to escape, to experience worlds and situations that are alien to me. In other words I have a hard-on for ‘genre’ films, i.e. sci-fi, horror, action, western, noir. Mad Max has all the ingredients for a rockin’ genre movie, it’s set in a dystopian future, it has cops and biker gangs, it has car chases, it’s violent and ultimately it’s about bloody vengeance! Then again you can help yourself to bucket loads of that shit in the thousands of bad exploitation films and b-movies that are out there, but like most ‘good’ genre movies Mad Max has a great sophistication which dulls the bad taste that a lot of its ‘genre qualities’ may leave. Slick cinematography, stand-out performances and ‘phat’ car chase sequences aside, the best thing about Mad Max is its ability to establish a world (dystopian outback Australia of all places) and display such vivid genre characteristics with a simple plot and a budget of under $400,000. Sure, there are some great action set pieces but they are few which makes them all the more riveting. The baron Australian outback location seemed to have been unaltered for the film and the things that were altered in the production design were as simple as car paint jobs and leather police outfits. The movie works because of its style and atmosphere which boils down to the direction. The melodramatic 60’s-esque score, composed by Brian May (NOT the guy from Queen) and the over-the-top acting style make the bleak atmosphere and world all the more unsettling, like telling a joke to someone on death row. George Miller managed to create a thrilling iconic action out of what could have ended up being a forgettable Ozploitation movie.

Mad Max is probably the first Aussie genre film to hit the mainstream and even to this day the country’s “talent” struggles to release genre product that is both critically and commercially successful. I first saw Mad Max as a teenager in the early 00’s, by that stage the film was over 20 years old (now it’s over 30) and Australian cinema hadn’t seen any commercial and critical successes since the 90’s (Wolf Creek came close in 2005). Watching the film then was like peering into a window of time and witnessing an alternate reality where Australia had style and talent. I guess that is, after all, what films really are “alternate realities frozen in time”, windows through which our minds escape for a short period. In a way Mad Max is Australia’s window.