Arguably the most subtextually loaded and vividly symbolic of all film genres, the horror film has been experiencing something of a decades-long Dark Ages in this country—pasteurized of subversive bacteria along with the bulk of Hollywood outpourings. Beyond the sensory-deprivation freakitude of The Blair Witch Project, the capacity of film to express doubt and dread has been all but lost; anyone born after 1980 can be forgiven for believing that a ventricle-clubbing Dolby blam is the most the genre has to offer. A wicked assault on this orthodoxy, the new Walter Reade series of underappreciated creep-outs considers the horror film less as an experience of narrative trauma than as an inquiry into the grotesque shape of social anxiety.
For example, the low-budget Canadian stunner Deathdream (1972), directed by Bob Clark before he hit the Porky’s lode, transposes “The Monkey’s Paw” to Nixon-era Middle America. Cassavetes vets Lynn Carlin and John Marley receive news about their son’s death in Vietnam, just hours before the lad knocks on the front door—churlish, uncommunicative, and very undead. Clark’s metaphoric nerve is as astonishing as his filmmaking is crude, and there may not be a more quietly galling movie about the war’s psychosocial devastation.
Familiar icons John Carpenter and Larry Cohen are saluted along with Sam Raimi (each will appear in person for a pre-movie schmooze), but the rarities overshadow the cable classics. Here is the chance to see Eugenio Martín’s post-Hammer, Alien precursor Horror Express (1972), featuring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee trapped on the Orient Express with a thawed prehistoric extraterrestrial demon, and Mario Bava’s last film, Shock (1976), a doleful semi-sequel to Beyond the Door that makes you pay dearly for its occasional moments of startling visual awe. (Bava justifies his rather forgiving reputation with one shot: a boy running down a hallway to his mother and, via the subtlest camera movement, transforming off-frame into a full-grown man-ghoul.)
Andrzej Zulawski’s notorious Possession (1981), a marital-meltdown-with-incubus-birth four-alarm fire that redefines the term “psychodrama,” is a must-see for connoisseurs —and at 129 minutes is six to 11 crucially explosive minutes longer than video versions. Not on video in any form, Gary Sherman’s Death Line (1972)—otherwise known as Raw Meat—is a daring, melancholy humanization of the zombified flesh-eater scenario, in which the last remaining spawn of trapped Victorian tunnel workers stumbles up into modern London. It’s a hostile, cynical document of its place and era, while Richard Blackburn’s long-fabled Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural (also 1972, obviously a key year) exists in a suffocating, ur-Southern Gothic nightscape all its own. Unashamedly shoestring, Blackburn’s dream odyssey through pubertal agony drips with Freudian syrup, but it’s also a fervidly physical film—the midnight back alleys of Old South ghost towns are not places you’ll be longing to revisit. More so even than Carnival of Souls and Night of the Living Dead, this mysterious phantasm plays like a visit to the underworld, and it may be the best film of the series.
Just as vital, however, are Hideo Nakata’s famous Ring films, the first of which (1998) was a gargantuan hit in Japan that birthed two sequels, both seeing their New York premieres. Based on a vapor-thin urban-legend premise—a haunted broadcast signal-on-video that curses the viewer to an abrupt death in seven days—Nakata’s films are an enigmatic hell-cellar that becomes more inexplicable and qualmy the more information you’re given. Mercilessly paranoid where Cronenberg’s Videodrome was squishy-philosophical, the Ring cycle is also prone to breathtaking eruptions of oneiric lyricism—for instance, the second film’s Orphic ordeal in the trilogy’s iconic well—that go far beyond the by-the-book Hollywood remake, Gore Verbinski’s The Ring.
The DreamWorks version starts out with a few grisly images, and Naomi Watts and David Dorfman as the all-business working heroine and her dismayingly introverted son are potent figures. But the video itself scans less as the original’s fractured ghost residue and more like a Nine Inch Nails clip. The grave ex-husband has been replaced by blue-eyed slacker hunk Martin Henderson, and every integer in the story’s aimless equation is repeated ad infinitum. Non sequiturs abound (from a video fly growing a third dimension to a horrifying scene involving a suicidal stallion running amok aboard a ferry), and as one of Nakata’s double-whammy climaxes gets neutered by over-enthusiastic digital effects, the other is simply elided. Requiring an enormous amount of suspended disbelief, the original Rings may be a culture-specific phenom; despite strenuous efforts to Americanize Nakata’s field of bad dreams, the preview audience did a lot of cackling.