When it comes to shit that gets dumped on video, most of the time you can see why. If it’s action, you’ve got your Seagal movies, Snipes movies, Van Damme movies, and those odd Jason Statham movies that come out in between his theatrical releases. All are junk. (The Seagal movies are a great source of guilty pleasure because each one is a greater trainwreck than the last one…trainwrecks beyond imagination.) And then you’ve got your thrillers with Morgan Freeman or Christian Slater or even Gene Hackman these days. It’s always clear why they are not in the theater, usually because their plot lines are indecipherable and the movies are just plain boring (even more so than the boring shit they actually do release in the theater) or, you know, it’s because they star Christian Slater. As far as I can tell, the only genre that provides little gems in the straight-to-video market is the horror genre. It’s tricky to navigate, of course, because there are also more unwatchable DIY movies in the horror genre than any other.
But there are horror movies out there that are genuinely scary, certainly scarier than the latest bland studio horrors (such as Prom Night, The Strangers, and Mirrors–the last of which does have some entertainment value because of great gore and the fun in watching Keifer Sutherland constantly cursing out his own reflection) that don’t seem all that interested in even scaring you, let alone using horror on a metaphorical level (which the greatest and truly scary horror tales always do, see Frank Darabont’s The Mist for example.) So when I stumble on movies such as the three I’m about to discuss, I get very excited. And then I wonder who in distribution was asleep at the wheel to let these movies slip through his or her fingers and right onto the shelves at Blockbuster.
First up, let me tell you about The Signal. Essentially a zombie movie, this one is about a signal that comes through the television and turns anyone who watches into blood-crazed ghouls. Structurally, it is an interesting combination of the horror anthology and a feature length narrative. Each of the three acts were directed by three different people, the first plays for straight scares, the second plays like a horror-comedy, and the third is back to sheer thrills. (My favorite part was the horror-comedy, because not only was I busting a gut, but suddenly it turned on me at the end and actually became the most unsettling of the three parts.) It plays on themes of our dependence on technology and the way it has changed us as a human race, but of course never gets too pretentious. (And it isn’t using current events to give weight to wonky effects like a Day After Tomorrow.) The acting is mostly excellent, another element that always helps in delivering scares, true characters in extraordinary circumstances, not a bunch of pretty, upper-class teens who I can’t imagine giving less of a crap about. There are some nice bits of gore, too, if you like that sort of thing. (Come on, you love it.)
Second, I saw this Irish picture called Isolation. According to its write-up on Netflix, it is a thriller about mutant cows. Now, I enjoyed New Zealand’s horror-comedy-gore romp Black Sheep quite a bit, so I was curious what Ireland might do differently with cows. Imagine my surprise when I wasn’t laughing one bit, but I was actually terrified. Yes, they managed to make cows scary. The set-up is the classic science-gone-wrong deal, with a mad scientist performing genetic experiments on a down-and-out farmer’s livestock. The picture has a dreary slow-burn creepiness to start, and at first it seems ridiculous that they are actually trying to make cows scary, but then dammit, THE COWS ARE TERRIFYING! Again, you can see where themes play with modern corporate farming and other such environmental manipulations. But who cares about themes when you are being pursued by a calf that looks like it has been through a wheat thresher but still moves like lightning and only desires to bite your head off (or bury some more mutant cow fetuses in your belly, depending on who you are.)
Last, there is The Last Winter, another environmentally themed horror ride that exists in a realm somewhere between John Carpenter’s The Thing and the seventies remake of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. This one was the scariest of these three wickedly entertaining features, with a solid cast including the always fun Ron Perlman. The characters are trapped in a desolate, icy oil outpost, and are slowly destroyed by an environment that seems bent on revenge. My fear going into this one that it would simply be yet another political bashing of our current government and the oil industry, but it dug much deeper (not that I don’t think the government and big oil don’t deserve it, but generally these types of movies come off as one-sided and dull.) This one explores everyone’s culpability in what we’ve done to our planet, but like any great horror metaphor, never lets up enough on the creepiness to beat you over the head with any message. This is a movie of grey areas, a movie about the inevetible terror we are bringing on ourselves, and Mother Nature doesn’t care how you voted in the last election, She just wants to kill us all.
So, if the recent slate of studio releases has left you unsatisfied (like me) then these three pictures are the perfect antidote. And while I’m all about cheap thrills, when true thoughts and emotions are layered into those cheap thrills, you’ve got a true scare on your hands.
Love always, T.