There I was: Ten minutes before midnight this past Saturday at a packed downtown multiplex auditorium, right before the coming attractions to Saw V, and not one pair of seats could be found together. Any way you sliced it, it was a lose-lose situation. Anyone else might have sucked it up and sat down, but A) I hate the Saw franchise pretty fiercely B) so did my buddy Bill, who had got me into watching the films for reasons I still can’t justify to myself and C) I was planning on attending The Craving, a cheesy 1980s werewolf pic starring Paul Naschy (think Spain’s Bela Lugosi) the following evening, fulfilling my taste for bad horror films for one weekend. I walked out, relieved.
As an unabashed horror fan, the impulse to hold out on the convoluted, ultra-solemn contemporary splatter pic in favor of the older, dubbed bit of grindhouse nonsense is a no-brainer. The well for mainstream scares has been poisoned long ago, a pessimistic half-truth confirmed by this year’s spate of derivative horror
titles showing at a local multiplex. First, there’s Quarantine, a remake of 2007’s [REC], Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza’s intriguing experiment in making a cinema verité zombie flick. (Unlike George Romero’s cantankerous Diary of the Dead, the movie [REC] is a story first and a polemic on the information age as a distant second.) Next, there’s The Haunting of Molly Hartley, a tame teen chiller that provides a mild high school variation to the superior work of William Friedkin and Roman Polanski. Finally, there’s Saw V, the latest “torture porn” flick and (hopefully) the penultimate chapter in a series that is more idiotically sleazy than creatively grisly.
The best kinds of horror films aren’t at a theater near you, leaving the horror buff with two options: Go the arthouse route or indulge in nostalgia, a manipulative but essential part of the horror fan’s experience. On the one hand, adventurous filmgoers determined to tough it out with (shudder) new films have some pretty good options, like Let the Right One In, an uncommonly good Swedish vampire teen romance and Splinter, a supernatural slasher pastiche. On the other hand, NYC filmgoers have a number of terrific older standards (depending on one’s acquired tastes) at their disposal, from a week-long run of Rosemary’s Baby at the Film Forum (Oct. 31-Nov. 6) to two midnight showings of A Nightmare on Elm Street at the Landmark Sunshine (Oct. 31 & Nov. 1).
Though both films have become so culturally attenuated as to almost neuter their transgressive heft, both cater to particular kinds of sadistic impulses. Obviously, because Rosemary’s Baby has more cultural pull than Elm Street, it has the coveted reputation of being scary in a subtle way. At the same time, Polanski’s most popular portrait of mental anguish spends three-quarters of its pudgy two-hour length following Rosemary as a passive victim that looks on while her husband and neighbors strip her of every shred of agency and dignity.
Rewatching the film, one can’t help but feel a surge of relief as she tentatively takes back control of her child and her life. It’s the kind of satisfaction one gets from watching Sophie Scholl denounce her judges right before she’s sent to the gallows, a guilty pleasure that Polanski knowingly taps into by shaving Mia Farrow, slathering her up in pancake make-up and in one scene, a gray-and-white vertical striped nightie.
Craven’s Nightmare doesn’t terrorize the viewer’s intellectual faculties nearly so well; but in its dream sequences, it shows a passion for the kind of alternately moody and cheesy nightmare imagery that Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci cultivated a decade earlier (it’s probably just coincidence, but character actor John Saxon, star of Argento’s Tenebre and many other C-grade Italian genre pics, plays the chief of police in Nightmares 1 and 3). As long as you can ignore Craven’s usual attempt to problematize traditional generic notions of “good”/“bad”—Saxon plays a clueless cop and negligent father while his wife crawls into a bottle after discovering that the victim of a lynching she participated in is no longer dead—and the white-bread plot that results from those lame moral complexities, you may have just found yourself a good guilty pleasure.
Whether it’s cerebral scares, unclean nostalgia or a cheap laugh you’re after, you can’t go wrong with the Two Boots’ Pioneer’s month-long Schlocktober Festival. Throughout October, the theater has been given genre fans everything the holiday needs, from contemporary indies like Ivan Zuccon’s H.P. Lovecraft’s Colour From the Dark and two separate nights of Wild Eye Releasing’s grindhouse trailer shows followed by B-movies like Lucio Fulci’s Zombi and The Craving. It all culminates on Halloween with Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.
It’s a toughie, but when faced with a choice between modern and retro schlock, remember: Saw V may be playing 20 times a day at the Regal down the street, but the good stuff comes and goes in a fraction of that time.
Rosemary’s Baby—at Film Forum, Oct. 31-Nov. 6
Nightmare on Elm Street—at Landmark Sunshine, Oct. 31 & Nov. 1
Schlocktober—at Two Boots Pioneer, Through Oct. 31
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