Why is it that so many horror movies look exactly the same as every other horror movie? It doesn't have to be so -- this week's new DVD releases include a straight-to-video gem called The Burrowers about a post-Civil War rescue party, looking for a kidnapped family in the Dakota Territories, who discover that something more horrible than Indians snatched the locals. It's a beautifully shot, intelligent film that owes more to John Ford's The Searchers or to Terence Malick than to modern scare flicks, and a brilliant example of cross-genre horror. The film got a little play at small film fests, where it was well received. But most of us have had to wait for DVD to discover that it even exists, which is a shame.
All of which raises an interesting question: Why don't more directors mix up the stale old conventions, and combine horror with other film genres? Some of the best, scariest films in recent memory have broken away from the standard horror template, finding fresh ways to creep us out along the way. Here's a few:
Army of Darkness -- The third in Sam Raimi's Evil Dead trilogy is a delightful, bizarre mix of time-travel comedy, sword-and-shield action flick, and horror, with Ash (Bruce Campbell) announcing to the "primitive screwheads" of an alternate dimension that he has no qualms about blasting them with his boom-stick. It's also interesting to note how much of the big castle-storming set-piece was stolen by Peter Jackson for LOTR: Return of the King's assault on Minis Tirith.
Ravenous -- Inspired in part by the story of Alferd Packer (hero of Parker/Stone's Cannibal! The Musical), this dark, often funny, brutally gruesome period piece uses the Wendigo myth to bring crazy-cannibal gore to an 1840's Army fort in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The cast includes Guy Pearce, Robert Carlyle, and Jeffrey Jones, and deftly mixes character drama with terror:
Brotherhood of the Wolf -- Hands down, the best French costume drama with kung-fu and werewolves ever made. In his review for the Village Voice, Michael Atkinson called it the "most disarming and inventive movie made for genre geeks in years." Plus, it features Monica Belluci and Vincent Cassel. Did I mention the kung-fu and werewolves?
From Dusk til Dawn -- People either love it or hate it, which says something about the impact of this Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino collaboration from 1996. The first half of the film is a tense, creepy Tarantino-style suspense film, with a pair of robber-brothers (Tarantino and George Clooney) hijacking vacationing dad Harvey Keitel's RV, along with his daughter (Juliette Lewis) and son (Ernest Liu), then heading for the border. But when they get to Mexico? They have to all band together ... to fight vampires! Effects-master Tom Savini plays a character named "Sex Machine," who has an interesting way with a pistol:
Ginger Snaps -- The teenage coming-of-age film gets a weird twist with this Canadian indie flick. Two morbid, Goth-ish sisters, Ginger and Brigitte Fitzgerald (Katharine Isabelle and Emily Perkins), are very, very close, until the older, prettier Ginger is bitten by a werewolf, grows a tail, and starts indulging her animal instincts. A great parable about puberty, and a marvelous, disturbing piece of modern horror.
Shaun of the Dead -- Part relationship comedy (see: BBC's Coupling) and all kick-ass zombie picture, Edgar Wright's wholly original 2004 film made Simon Pegg a household name, and insured that we'd never again hear Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now" without thinking of the walking dead, and cricket bats.
Tremors -- All the way back in 1990, a classic was born when director Ron Underwood took a group of desert-dwelling hicks (Kevin Bacon, Michael Gross, Reba McIntyre and Fred Ward) and placed them at the mercy of blood-thirsty sandworms. A nearly perfect movie that's as funny as it is scary, and written with far more smarts than your average horror flick. And yes ... it still holds up: