Our fifth-annual celebration of the most frugal-friendly fright flicks on the Web!
By: Jimbo X
Since 2011, we here at the Internet is in America have paid our respects ... and sometimes, mercilessly savaged ... the absolute best/worst horror films available for free (legally) on YouTube's official "Horror Movies" channel. After slogging through old-school turds like Teenage Zombies, Suburban Sasquatch and Silent Night, Bloody Night, this year I decided to switch things up just a bit and focus on films that ... to at least some capacity ... are considered "good," "worthwhile," and at the very least, "not shit-tastic" in the eyes of the mainstream, movie-going public.
So, what does that mean, exactly? Well, that means this year, we're turning our attention to five movies that have been described, alternately, as camp classics, underappreciated genre gems and, in some circles, legitimate triumphs of early cinema. That said, with out iconoclastic tastes for fare like International Guerrillas and Gayniggers from Outer Space, do these much-celebrated fright-fests actually cut the mustard, or are they just artsy-fartsy relics needlessly revered solely for the sake of being old?
Oh, you just know I'm going to give it to you straight. And hard. Figuratively speaking, of course...
Director: F.W. Murnau
While Nosferatu wasn't the first horror film (George Mellies, after all, was making short fright flicks as early as the late 1800s), it is generally regarded as among the absolute best of the silent era. In that regard, I can meet the critics halfway; while I think Nosferatu is a fine little feature, complete with some neat aesthetics and some truly stellar makeup effects even by today's standards, on the whole, I really didn't enjoy it as much as its contemporaries, like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Phantom of the Opera and Haxan: Witchcraft Throughout the Ages.
By now, we all know the long, convoluted backstory behind the movie. Murnau wanted to make a Dracula movie, but the estate of Bram Stoker said no, so he made a damn Dracula movie anyway and called it "Nosferatu" (and by the way, in the movie, the titular antagonist is still referred to as "Count Dracula" numerous times.) This lead to Murnau getting hit by a copyright violation, with a judge requesting that all copies of the film be seized and destroyed. Alas, that didn't quite happen, and Murnau's shameless plagiarism never got the London After Midnight treatment.
The comparisons to Universal's Dracula are all but unavoidable, and in this case, I have to say I strongly prefer the later interpretation to this one. While the makeup on Max Shreck is cool and all, you REALLY have to suspend your disbelief whenever he is on screen, as all of the other actors seem totally oblivious to the fact that he is an eight foot tall pygmy Martian with antennas and four feet long incisors. I can buy people hanging out with Bela Lugosi for dinner, but agreeing to have supper with this pasty motherfucker? Yeah, I don't see that happening, ever.
The film follows the traditional Dracula story pretty well, and the set design is really good. There are also quite a few cool little tidbits, like this part when the Van Helsing analogue walks into Nosferatu's cellar and explains how he needs to sleep in the dirt he was originally buried in to stay immortal, and an even cooler scene where Nosferatu is flying around on rooftops at night, even though the scene was clearly filmed during broad daylight.
As stated earlier, it is a solid film, for the most part, but to me, it just never seemed to get rolling. Furthermore, there really wasn't a whole lot of pathos to be found here, which is a huge letdown (especially considering the emotional range you get out of something like The Man Who Laughs) and the general plot structure just seemed a bit too formulaic ... yes, even for a movie that came out in 1922. Really, this is one of those movies where I feel like I should like it just because it has historical merit; in that, it's a flick I can appreciate, but -- like oh so many pioneering genre works -- I don't actually enjoy as a standalone cinematic work.
White Zombie (1932)
Director: Victor Halperin
Ah, yes. The film that inspired the namesake of that classic horror-themed band, The Misfits.
White Zombie, much like Nosferatu, is a film that I can watch and appreciate, even though I don't necessarily "enjoy" what I am watching. It's always nice to see Bela Lugosi ham it up, and the black and white cinematography is downright excellent at times, but on the whole, this one is just a barely above average genre effort.
The premise is simple. Down in some unnamed Caribbean island nation, that no-good sumbitch played by Lugosi is using the dark arts to mind control indigenous folks into sugar-plantation slaves. Of course, this being the 1930s, nobody gives a shit about the practice until he starts turning white folks into zombies -- hence, the namesake, which means PRECISELY what it states.
The plot is very predictable. A woman gets kidnapped by Bela (who spends the entire movie whittling a candle into a wax statue) and it's up to your traditional white, Anglo-Saxon male protagonist to save the day (and dame.) It's all paint-by-numbers stuff, really, with hardly any plot swerves at all.
That said, the film does have some merits. As stated earlier, the cinematography is great, especially this scene early on when we see a bunch of zombies mindlessly pushing carts around and one of them even gets ground up in a gigantic wooden mixer. Then, there is the ending, where Bela commands his slaves to literally jump off a cliff to their respective demises -- terrific stuff, no doubt.
Be warned, however, that this movie has what is far and away the most annoying character in the history of horror movies -- this goddamn raven that keeps popping up and letting out this hideous metallic shriek that is eight times louder than everything else on the film soundtrack. Keep the remote control handy for this one, lest you want your cochleas to experience a thorough throttlin'.
House On Haunted Hill (1959)
Director: William Castle
Now here is a great little "meta" horror flick that is a lot more inventive and clever than most folks give it credit for. Think this one is just another generic, dime-a-dozen, pre Civil Rights -era haunted house movie? Think again, Holmes - it's actually a super subtle horror satire that was doing tremendous genre lampooning half a decade before Scream and Cabin in the Woods.
Forget that crappy remake from the late 1990s (or was it the early 2000s?), and doubly forget that crappy straight to DVD sequel that came after it (except for that part with the lesbian ghost zombies, you are definitely encouraged to remember that part.) The original House on Haunted Hill is where it's at, with a great murder-mystery motiff and some downright wonderful acting from Sir Vincent Price.
Man, Price absolutely owns this movie. He comes off as this bizarre, reverse Clark Gable, who probably could have had a legitimate film career had he not been typecast for being so goddamn great at being theatrically creepy. As a hen-pecked husband-cum-overnight-party-host, he brings such a professional air to the production; it's still a goofy flick, through and through, but his charisma just makes it so much more enjoyable then it would have been sans his presence. Virtually every line he has in the movie is an aural delight; if he's been in a more comprehensively outstanding performance, I've yet to view it.
As for the plot line, it's diabolically simple. Vincent Price is hosting a sleepover contest in an allegedly haunted house. He's invited a whole bunch of nefarious cannon fodder over -- a journalist with a gambling problem, a virginal secretary, a businessman trying to cut his annual losses, etc. -- and if any of them can make it overnight without screaming out of the building, they each get $10,000 smackers (which in 2015 USD, is about $4.3 million.) This being a horror movie, you can figure out what happens next: a mysterious old hag starts rolling around scaring the doo-doo out of people, and my word, just why is there such a massive acid bath just laying there in the basement, for not discernible reason?
Of course, there is a swerve that takes the supernatural hokum out of the equation, and it is brilliantly executed. Overall, the acting in this one is WAY better than its genre contemporaries, and it certainly has a more unique structure and sense of pacing than most fright flicks from the same timeframe (it's also way more tongue-in-cheek, with a hyper-subtle resentment for its own categorization as a "horror" flick.) And holy shit, is it ever awesome to hear Price's play-by-play as the skeleton slowly arises from the crypt, seeking vengeance from beyond the (alleged) grave. This is just a fun, fun, fun little throwback from the heyday of the drive-in, and you need to see it.
Dementia 13 (1963)
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Here is a movie that, like Night of the Living Dead and Carnival of Souls, peculiarly owes its now vaunted reputation to being public domain, and therefore, easily accessible to cheapskate broadcasters and compilation DVD manufacturers the world over.
This one is actually a well above average thriller from the early 1960s, with great atmosphere, a nice keep-em-guessing mystery and a lot more bloodshed than most genre offerings from the same timeframe. Oh, and it is directed by FRANCIS FORD FUCKIN' COPPOLA, only the same dude who later went on to direct The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, and, uh, Jack.
The movie begins with this dude on a boat, playing shitty rock and roll music while his wife smokes a cigarette. Then, he has a heart attack and dies, but not before yelling at her over and over again that if he dies, she is out of the family will.
So, about this family o' his: they are royally fucked up. The matriarch has dementia (hence, the title of the movie ... I think?) because way back in the day, one of her kids drowned in the family lake, but what do you know, a whole bunch of members of said family are also winding up drowning in the same lake as of late. Sure it could be just a coincidence, but if you've ever seen a horror film from ANY year, you know that happenstance and entropy can never be considered just rationales for anything.
Having come out three years after Psycho and Peeping Tom, Dementia 13 certainly feels cut from the same blood-drenched, pseudo-psychological thriller cloth. As a whodunit, it's a bit underwhelming, but just as a creepy old school offering, it brings the goods in intestine-wrapped spades. The music is terrific, the cinematography is tremendous (especially the underwater shots!) and the pacing is really, really well done. And, faithfully adhering to the number one rule of all great horror flicks, you truly have no idea who is going to die next ... and rest assured, there is some downright excellent beheadings in this one.
Class of Nuke 'Em High (1986)
Directors: Richard W. Haines, Michael Herz and Lloyd Kaufman
Even if for some stupid ass reason you are not a fan of their works, you at least have to admire Troma for putting up all of their pioneering B-movie opuses online for free. In between such indie classics as Bloodsucking Freaks and The Toxic Avenger, you will find Class of Nuke 'Em High, the first in a sprawling series of progressively sillier (but still pretty awesome) movies.
The thing that strikes me most about the original Nuke 'Em High is just how (almost) serious its tone is. Sure, it has plenty of corny jokes in the mix, but by and large, the film itself is played fairly straight. It has an anti-nuclear energy agenda, to be sure, but it's not as heavy-handed as it could be, and -- unlike Captain Planet -- it knows better than to try and force a truly serious message about a complex subject that's well beyond the scope of its own limited boundaries.
Plot-wise, the story here is simple. At Tromaville High, a nuclear gas leak at the nearby power plant has slowly transformed the student body into a gaggle of amoral, sexual degenerate criminals -- the worst being the honors-students-turned-gangbangers Cretins. We get our obligatory teenage love story (enhanced quite a bit by a subplot about atomic marijuana whose side effects are astonishingly similar to those of molly), and of course, a climactic subterranean throw down between the forces of good and evil (which, sadly, is sans a Toxie cameo, somehow.)
Stylistically, this one is much more reminiscent of something like The Class of 1984 than The Toxic Avenger, and that's a good thing. There are still plenty of puns and over-the-top visual jokes -- along with ample nudity, gore galore and some lesbian action that, while tame by today's standards, was rather cutting edge back in the day -- so it's still a palpable Troma offering, however.
It's a thoroughly unpretentious work, with all the usual Lloyd Kaufman shenanigans. It's violent and vile and viscous and ports about a half-baked pro-environmentalist message that's straight-forward enough to qualify it as legitimate social commentary, but at the same time, it's also obtuse enough to not come off as preachy propaganda. That, and it has some pretty damn funny tidbits scattered throughout all of the gore and gunge and monster penises ... in short, making it more or less mandatory viewing for any household with a steady Wi-Fi connection this Halloween season.