Loyal readers probably realized that I have been watching many horror movies lately. Barring Ju-on: The Curse, a direct-to-video movie, I found none of them to be scary. Now that I thought about it a little, I think Alfred Hitchcock, known for Psycho and The Birds, could shed some light on this with his doctrine of “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” I think where many horror movies really went wrong was by showing too much on screen and not leaving enough to the viewer’s imagination.
Recently, I saw and reviewed Alpha Girls. I copied and pasted my review onto Alpha Girls’ IMDb page only for it to be the most epically downvoted review on the site, but that’s another issue altogether. Alpha Girls followed Morgan (Falon Joslyn), a transfer student at an unnamed Philadelphia university rushing for the Alpha Beta sorority. Alpha Beta alumni are known to have become among the world’s most influential people, but Morgan finds out this power comes with a sinister price.
The movie went wrong almost right at the beginning. The first thing to happen is a human sacrifice flashback that occurred in 1896. I was expecting the human sacrifice to be the movie’s main surprise, but it was laid out right in front of me at the beginning. As a result, there was no room for the movie to surprise me in anyway. Sure, the movie had its fair share of blood (did I mention the movie involved cannibal zombies?). However, (at least to me) blood is gross, not scary. It didn’t help that my eyes were inevitably drawn to the victim’s jiggling (and soon to be bared) breasts, thus giving the scene more the feel of a porno than that of a horror film.
As I said multiple times before on this blog, I think the best horror movies are the ones made on more modest budgets. I don’t even know if Alpha Girls can qualify as that as it had the capacity to afford all the movie’s (surprisingly good) special effects on top of Ron Jeremy’s and Schooly-D’s (don’t ask) paychecks.
Besides the opening scene, Alpha Girls fell into the same trap that many indie films do, and that is it showed a very undying love for itself. In the aftermath of Veronica’s (Nikki Bell) murder, the girls are cleaning the room up in what basically felt like a tribute to Southwork’s cover of “The House of the Rising Sun” as made famous by The Animals as opposed to something meant to advance the story. The movie’s use of a soundtrack that just wouldn’t end overwhelmed many scenes and felt absolutely nothing short of narcissistic as did scenes like the “girls day out” when the pledges were out and about in Philadelphia.
The movie’s acting talent did little to help things, though there was little they could do as the dialogue was generally very stiff and unnatural. As the release date of the movie drew near, writers/directors Tony Trov and Johnny Zito rebilled Alpha Girls as a “Horror/Comedy Film About Satanic Sorority Sisters” from “Satanic Sorority Slasher” when they watched it after editing and it became clear there was no way audiences would be able to take the movie seriously. I would’ve bought it if more of the movie’s humor was intentional a la Zombieland (2009) or Dead Snow (2009).
I will spare you comparing Alpha Girls to Ju-on: The Grudge as the latter, while I wasn’t totally in love with it, was undoubtedly a better movie in just about every way. Where The Grudge failed where The Curse succeeded was the fact that director Shimizu Takashi decided to show a lot more on screen as a result of having a lot more money to work with, as opposed to letting scenes drag on until they became really uncomfortable at which he hits the viewer with the scare.
However, The Grudge had one really good scene, and that was when Hitomi (Ito Misaki) came home, already freaked out by the events at her office. She lay in bed not having any clue what to expect. Surprisingly, Ito’s acting had improved quite a bit from You’re Under Arrest!, which was made the same year, and thus allowed for the viewer to empathize with her.
The “anticipation” doctrine was used most effectively in The Curse. The reason there was actually completely because of the (lack of) budget Shimizu Takashi had to work with. Thus, he was unable to explicitly show a lot on screen.
The main highlight of that movie was the scene in which Mizuho (Kuriyama Chiaki) was alone in the teachers’ office. That scene was very well constructed so, like the scene in The Grudge, you are every bit as uncomfortable as Mizuho is. It dragged on for just long enough to make the scene unsettling before showing the surprise.
The Curse has one thing in common with many of my favorite movies, and that is the fact that it is a movie where you are likely to notice something new every time you see it (it’s one of few movies I actually recommend seeing more than once). It was a movie that really performed the art of subtlety when creating horror.
I think with the advent of budgets and special effects technology, horror movie directors really lost sight of the idea of taking advantage of the audience’s psychology. Instead, they opt to show as much on screen as they can. In fact, this is precisely something people fault George Lucas with when he went back and added CG special effects to the original Star Wars trilogy. It almost feels like modern filmmakers are actually doubting the intelligence of modern filmgoing audiences. I almost suspect if modern people were to watch the original The Haunting (1963), they would actually get bored, despite that I thought it was the single scariest movie I have ever seen.
I’ll admit: I think horror movies that I actually enjoy are rare things. However, there are movies even from this genre that I enjoyed. Personally, I think there is something even more chilling in good horror movies when a pretty face is also involved. Thus inspiring this list of some beautiful women to have starred in my favorite horror movies.
5. Shiina Eihi
Notable work: Audition (1999)
Audition (オーディション, oudishon) was a creation of acclaimed Japanese horror movie director Miike Takashi, and is easily one of his more famous works alongside Ichi the Killer. It follows the widowed Shigeharu (Ishibashi Ryo), and how he holds an audition to find a new wife upon his son’s recommendation. Little does he know that the winner of said audition is a psychotic killer. Much of the appeal of the movie came from the first half leading you into thinking it is a romantic comedy and the incredibly disturbing performance Shiina Eihi gave as Asami, the woman almost marries (and kills) Shigeharu. The last 15 minutes were easily the most memorable part of the movie, which featured easily the most disturbing scene of torture I have ever seen, and that was partly because of Shiina saying, “kiri kiri kiri!” in a stereotypical, cute Japanese way as she was driving long pins into Shigeharu. Needless to say, Audition is not an easy movie to watch (many veteran horror movie directors walked out of the movie before it was over), but it’s worth seeing for Shiina Eihi’s performance if you can handle it.
4. Kuroki Hitomi
Notable work: Dark Water (original Japanese version, 2002)
The second entry on this list is also Japanese. Dark Water (仄暗い水の底から, Honogurai Mizu no Soko kara) follows Yoshimi (Kuroki), a woman of questionable mental health, as she moves into an apartment with her daughter while fighting a nasty divorce case. Dark Water is an instance of the common theme in Japanese horror of spirits haunting something the deceased had strong emotional ties to, in this case the apartment building. What I really liked about this movie was how Yoshimi’s psychological state played into the movie, where oftentimes she had no idea if what was going on around her was the result of an actual haunting or her own mind. Kuroki was already at the “old woman” age of 40 when she made Dark Water, but I have to say she still looked absolutely stunning as the increasingly crazed Yoshimi, and I thought her performance in general was easily the best part of the film.
3. Kara Zhang
Notable work: Retribution (2012)
Retribution was a short movie (which was reviewed here) and filmed in the Philadelphia independent film scene. It also happens to star my good friend, the lovely Kara Zhang as Jill, a woman about to go on a date with murderer Marcus (Walter DeShields). This movie pulls an interesting twist about halfway in (that is to say, half of the 9-minute length). Furthermore, I will reiterate what I said in my review of the movie: I think the best horror movies are the ones filmed on a more modest budget and rely a lot less on special effects. Overall, the movie had some pretty solid acting both from Zhang and from DeSheilds. Also, I think director Bernard Grey made some terrific directing decisions for Miss Zhang’s appearance onscreen. Kara will also be starring in the upcoming feature-length film Alpha Girls, and you can see the trailer here.
2. Naomi Watts
Notable work: The Ring (2002), Mulholland Drive (2001)
Australian actress Naomi Watts is rapidly becoming known as one of the best bits of acting talent to have entered American cinema. Her big break came in with 2001′s Mulholland Drive, directed by David Lynch. Mulholland Drive was an interesting movie, thanks to Lynch’s direction, because while nothing jumped out and scares you, you always have this feeling that something is just off about what is going on. Watts then followed up with the 2002 American remake of Japanese horror movie Ringu (The Ring) where she starred as a single mother who stumbled upon a video cassette and receives a warning on the phone informing her she has seven days to live. In both movies, Naomi Watts was not exactly the blonde beauty in need of saving from the leading man as is typically seen in Hitchcock, but rather pulled her own weight both times and looked great doing it. And speaking of Hitchcock….
1. Janet Leigh
Notable work: Psycho (1963)
I think it’s impossible to make a list like this without mentioning Janet Leigh in her memorable scene from Pyscho. Having watched the scene again just a few hours ago on YouTube, despite the relatively primitive special effects, the shower stab scene remains every bit as chilling to me in 2012 as it probably did to audiences in 1963. Despite having only made two major horror films (this one and The Birds), Alfred Hitchcock is regarded as one of the best horror movie directors to have ever filmed, and a lot of that can owe itself to the rightfully acclaimed Psycho.
Ok, so normally I don’t do plugs for movie projects, but I’m making an exception here. And it’s not because my friend, the lovely Kara Zhang (who starred in Retribution), is starring in it. And it’s definitely not because I donated to help make this movie happen. Ok, maybe it is for both of these reasons. But I think now’s a good time for horror mavens to get excited for Alpha Girls, a new indie horror project that was shot in the great city of Philadelphia. Just by watching this trailer, I’m already a little freaked out by this, but it could be really good. Stay tuned for a release early this fall!
And now The Pop Culture Historian will do something it has never done before: Review a short film.
Retribution is a short horror film directed by Bernard Gray and released by Diamond Entertainment Productions starring Walter DeShields and Kara Zhang. Since the movie is so short at about 9 minutes long, I can’t really give a plot summary without divulging major plot points and giving something away.
If you ask me, the best horror movies are the ones that were made on a more modest budget. Retribution succeeded in being creepy, where blood is only visible in one scene (I’m looking at you, Saw 7). Both this movie and Saw 7 did a good job showing “slasher” and “blood” aren’t synonymous with “horror”. Overall, the movie was well acted, especially on the part of Zhang, and I thought Gray did a good job with his mise-en-scene throughout.
There was exactly one thing that bothered me: The music. I recognize that the production crew didn’t have a lot to work with, but I think music that was less distracting (or maybe not use music at all?) would have helped especially with the climactic scene in helping the atmosphere. If I had to nitpick, it also would have helped if the movie was a little longer to give the main character some more development. I wasn’t entirely sure what his motivation for his actions were.
Nonetheless, it is definitely a good effort on the part of the ensemble and crew, and I’m excited to see what else they have to offer.