By Steve Guntli
The horror genre, when done right, produces some of the most potent and memorable films of all time, films that act as a time capsule of our national anxieties.
Unfortunately, there are relatively few great or even good horror films, and for every masterpiece like “Jaws” or “The Shining” there are about 50 like “Sharknado” or “Hostel” to sully the landscape. Finding a high-quality horror film means slogging through a whole lot of garbage first.
Luckily for you, dear reader, I’ve already done the dirty work. Here, for your Halloween viewing pleasure, are three fantastic horror films that may have escaped your notice.
The Babadook (2014)
Directed by Jennifer Kent
Female directors are poorly represented in cinema, and that’s especially true with horror films. Only a handful of female directors have tackled the genre, and even fewer have produced great films. Australian Jennifer Kent can now add her name to that elite list. “The Babadook” is singularly scary and imaginative, and makes a compelling case for more women to take charge in the horror genre.
Amelia (Essie Davis) is a recently widowed mother of a young boy (Noah Wiseman), with whom she struggles to connect. Stressed out from work, lonely and hating herself for not being the mother she feels she should be, Amelia begins to lose sleep. Her troubles are compounded by the appearance of a mysterious children’s book, which speaks of an evil creature called the Babadook that will invade your home and refuse to leave. Even worse, she’s starting to suspect the book isn’t a work of fiction.
The tension ramps up from there, and while the prospect of a creaky-voiced specter haunting the house is terrifying enough, it’s the anxious subtext that makes the film truly frightening. Amelia is a woman who fears she’s failing at the role society has told her she is biologically built for, and she feels overwhelmed with loneliness and failure. This is a perspective that’s been missing from horror films, and film in general, and it adds a welcome depth to the spooky proceedings.
The Stepfather (1987)
Directed by Joseph Ruben
At first glance, this under-viewed gem would appear to be another mindless entry in the late ’80s slasher film craze. More than just an empty scare-fest, “The Stepfather” is a sharp and often quite funny satire of suburban American values.
Terry O’Quinn stars as the titular character, a milquetoast insurance agent harboring a deadly secret. He is obsessed with a 1950s ideal of the perfect American family: white picket fences, strong moral values, everything in its place.
When the realities of modern family dynamics intrude on his vision, he snaps, murdering his current family, changing his identity and moving on to the next town. Now, under the assumed identity of “Jerry Blake,” he’s married a lonely widow with a rebellious teenage daughter, who is the only one to see beneath his perfect façade.
At times bracingly scary and laughably absurd, “The Stepfather” walks a fine line that horror-comedy hybrids often tend to miss. O’Quinn (best known for TV’s “Lost”) is phenomenally scary in this role, making even the most banal gestures and glances menacing. Just be sure to avoid the awful 2009 remake. That one actually is a mindless slasher flick.
Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (2010)
Directed by Eli Craig
“Tucker and Dale vs. Evil” takes delight in subverting the expectations that decades of horror films have instilled: It has attractive college kids, drugs, sex and menacing-looking hillbillies. The only difference is that those hillbillies, the titular Tucker and Dale (Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine), are sweet, harmless goofballs just out for a weekend of fishing.
The college kids, stereotypically drunk and stupid and raised on the conventions of the horror genre, immediately and irrationally decide Tucker and Dale are a threat. In the process of arming themselves to defend against the inevitable hillbilly massacre, the idiot college kids, through a series of hilarious slapstick misunderstandings, begin to accidentally kill themselves all over Tucker and Dale’s property.
“Tucker and Dale” is really more of an elaborate farce than a straight-up horror film, but it has a healthy amount of decent scares sprinkled amongst the silliness. The performances at the center make the concept work. Labine steals the show as the sweet, insecure Dale, who can’t believe his luck when beautiful psychology major Allison (Katrina Bowden) seems to take a shine to him.
It’s Allison who instigates the film’s funniest moment: a détente between the hillbillies and the frat boys, where the horror movie stock characters discuss their feelings over a cup of tea. Just think how many lives could have been spared if Freddy or Jason had just brewed some chamomile.
Each of these titles is available through the Blaine Public Library. To reserve a copy, visit the local branch or go online to wcls.org. Happy Halloween!