Video stores have become as much an antique as the VHS tapes and DVDs they once dispensed to a hungry public. The idea of hunting for a movie you’ve desperately wanted to watch; the excitement of happening upon something you might never have found otherwise; the deliriousness that greets the eyes when presented with a room’s worth of colorful cover art — those physical, tactile sensations have all been lost in recent times. The yearly Film Society of Lincoln Center series “Scary Movies,” which in the past has sometimes been programmed closer to Halloween but this week unleashes its eleventh edition, provides its audience with emotional reactions of many stripes — shock, release, relief — but the one for which to be most grateful is its reclamation of the giddy anticipation of walking into a video store. Somewhere in the spirit of this series lies the tantalizing possibility of being scared worse than you’ve ever been scared before, by a film you would normally never come across.
The programmers behind “Scary Movies” have an admirable and essential devotion to international horror, allowing attendees a window into different cultures from around the globe through the images and ideas they fear. The United Kingdom is represented here by Johnny Kevorkian’s Await Further Instructions and John McPhail’s zombie musical — and opening-night selection — Anna and the Apocalypse, which approach horror from opposing polarities. Anna uses the zombie movie as just one more piece of its genre puzzle (musical, coming-of-age tale, Christmas movie), never really trying to out-and-out scare its audience. Kevorkian’s film looks like it’s going to be a Christmas movie — like McPhail’s — but almost immediately a laudable ugliness emerges. A dysfunctional family beset by ideological differences — many of the members harbor racist feelings and can’t stomach young Nick (Sam Gittins) dating and introducing to them an Indian woman (Neerja Naik) — find their troubles amplified after their house is suddenly quarantined and locked down. They can’t leave, and any attempts to pry the strange bars off the doors and windows result in severed appendages. The only clue to their situation is broadcast on every channel of the TV: await further instructions. Those instructions do come, and they get increasingly grim, testing the family’s mettle and slowly guiding them toward their worst instincts and prejudices. Like a twisted hybrid of Funny Games and William Wellman’s The Next Voice You Hear…, the movie examines us through our television sets. The prognosis isn’t encouraging.
If Kevorkian’s movie shows a family tearing itself apart from the inside, others throughout the lineup gauge their characters’ morality through externally abusive power structures. In J.C. Feyer’s The Trace We Leave Behind, a doctor in Rio (Rafael Cardoso) treats a girl who soon vanishes (or was she only a figment of his imagination?). Searching for her means stalking the halls of a condemned hospital and discovering clues regarding a major conspiracy launched against the poorest patients. Naturally, no one believes João, or wants to help him: There’s too much hideous truth to be found where he’s going. A disturbing coda involving organ transplants works as well as (or better than) any of the film’s myriad jump scares; knowing what pieces of the least fortunate were used to fertilize the ground off of which the rest live is more chilling than a movie ghost popping up out of thin air. Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid tills the same soil with more poetic means. It concerns the untold scores of “disappeared” during Mexico’s war on drugs, who emerge here in the form of plastic-coated corpses with accusing fingers extended at guilty survivors. A gang of children (shades of Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone) roam the streets unaccompanied thanks to the murder of their parents by the cartels, looking to stay alive long enough to achieve justice. Guillermo Amoedo’s engrossing The Inhabitant appears to be about three sisters robbing the house of a politician, until the trio discovers a sickly-looking girl in the basement. Each ensuing twist reveals a depraved new depth to which this religion-run state is willing to sink to keep the hierarchy in place.
These films’ visions of predatory governing bodies are shared by the series’ retrospective sidebar, “Tainted Waters,” which features a batch of four movies (all showing on 35mm) potentially familiar to anyone who grew up fishing in video stores for obscure horror. In Stuart Gordon’s Dagon (2001), a jittery H.P. Lovecraft adaptation, the people of a poor fishing village worship and toil for their queen — a fish-woman living in a mansion on the outskirts of town. In Lewis Teague’s Alligator (1981), the corrupt mayor of Chicago is in the pocket of corporate interests; together, the amoral forces hamstring the police tasked with stopping an alligator living in the sewers and feeding off the bodies of the poor. In Ken Wiederhorn’s inspired, sui generis Shock Waves (1977), a couple of rich idlers see their pleasure cruise interrupted by the appearance of waterlogged Nazi zombies looking to pick up where they left off when their vessel ran aground during the war. No one in the “Tainted Waters” pictures is equipped for the consequences of deeply entrenched violence and exploitation. The ruling machinery is wound too tightly to be shut off: The rich get richer, ghosts haunt the living, zombies can’t stay dead, and monsters must hunt.
The ever-tightening wheel of ritual drives a goodly sum of this year’s “Scary Movies” premieres. We know how these stories must end, and we sit helplessly as we’re dragged closer to the conclusion, as if by conveyor belt. Jonas Åkerlund’s Lords of Chaos, like a black-metal Sunset Boulevard, opens with the death of producer and musician — and our narrator — Øystein Aarseth, a/k/a Euronymous (Rory Culkin). The film rewinds to the start of his flirtation with the raucous lifestyle and characters who wound up killing him in the most horrible way. Andy Mitton’s pastoral yarn The Witch in the Window introduces a spectral presence sitting in the second floor of a Vermont fixer-upper; it’s only a matter of time before she’ll be reckoned with. Mitton has…well, maybe not fun, but he certainly milks the scenario for all the hysterics it’s capable of producing, without breaking his focus. The doting father (Alex Draper) and precocious son (Charlie Tacker) who aim to flip the house must do something about their ghastly tenant, but it’s an open question which party is in control of the situation. The movie is frightening and shockingly emotional, given how doggedly rational Mitton’s script is about the rules of this haunting. Of course, knowing what’s happening doesn’t necessarily mean feeling any safer. Colin Minihan’s ruthlessly gripping What Keeps You Alive also proves that maxim. The movie details the exacting arrangements made by a sociopath to get the upper hand on her intended quarry, currently vacationing at a remote cabin. Minihan’s point-by-point revelations may spell out the villain’s plan, but they do nothing to alleviate the unbearable tension. Like the best films in the program, it plays dirty and trusts that you think you know what might happen next. That’s when you realize there’s something behind you.
Many of the “Scary Movies” selections resist the easy appeal of homage — they invoke classic formulas, only to upset them through extremely idiosyncratic methods. Sonny Mallhi’s fine Hurt is like a slasher movie with the serial numbers sanded off. People start disappearing; murders are committed by a man in a mask; swaths of time vanish; and then, out of nowhere, the mounting creepiness explodes into a haze of cruelty and razor wire. Patrick von Barkenberg’s Blood Paradise is more or less a remake of James Kenelm Clarke’s video-nasty deep cut The House on Straw Hill — and that’d be novelty enough, without factoring in the modern veneer of sexual frustration and dependency. Justin Decloux’s Adderall-laced Impossible Horror sounds like a standard postmodern exercise on paper but keeps veering into strangely empowering cul-de-sacs. Brad Michael Elmore’s Boogeyman Pop is split into three chapters linked by a designer drug and a killer with an aluminum baseball bat, and plays like Eighties pastiche shoved in a blender.
The deliberate narrative and stylistic tributes on offer throughout the series don’t present a shortcoming; rather, they feed directly into the collective sensation provided by the program as a whole. Surveying these movies, you feel as if you’re browsing through a miniature genre history in the corner of the video store marked “horror.” The fiendish titles and outlandish plots — and the VHS tapes, fraying cardboard sleeves, and nightmare-inducing cover art you can imagine once accompanying them — set the imagination on fire. Digital may have killed the video store, but our hunger — our need to hunt — lives on.
‘Scary Movies XI’
Film Society of Lincoln Center