Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Horror Hotlist of Emil Hyde (The Landlord)

Emil Hyde, writer-director of the movie The Landlord, agreed to partake in a little feature that we like to call 'Horror Hotlist', where members of the indie horror community tell us, the audience, about some of their favorite genre films.  Hyde says, "Here's my totally pretentious Top 6 - I try to explain why I like each film, and how it's impacted my own movie-making."

When you're done checking out his list, click here to read my review of his film, and be sure to visit the official website.


My friends and I stumbled upon CEMETERY MAN during our quixotic attempt to watch *every* movie in our neighborhood video store. With no advance knowledge of the plot, I watched in amazement as writer Gianni Romoli and director Michel Soavri turned the simple tale of a grave-digger at a cemetery where the corpses rise at night into a surreal meditation on relationships - romantic and otherwise - and how we keep making the same mistakes again and again. For lack of a better description, it's DAWN OF THE DEAD meets GROUNDHOG DAY, with lots of sex.

CEMETERY MAN set the bar very high in my mind for how intelligent, beautiful, and unpredictable horror movies can be. It's a standard that most other horror films fall short of, and that I tried my damnedest to match in my own movie, THE LANDLORD.


I usually prefer movies with a decent plot, unless they're Dario Argento movies, in which case they should have no plot at all. Telling a coherent story runs counter to what Argento does best, i.e., capturing the diabolically illogical world of nightmares on celluloid. SUSPRIRIA, for me, is the purest example of Argento's aesthetic. Plot-wise, all you've got is some pretty ballerinas locked in a creepy old dance school, dying in strange, shocking ways. The rest is all style.

And what style! The most noticeable element is the lighting: Argento doesn't bother with a "natural" look... if a particular scene would look scariest with green and blue light, that's what Argento uses, never mind where the green and blue light is supposed to be "coming from". Next comes the music: famed horror soundtrack composers Goblin are at the top of their game, mixing weird Indian percussion and eerie music boxes, with little or none of the 70s disco cheese that creeps into some of their work. Lastly, there's the set design: I was told that Argento had the sets built with the proportions ever so slightly off - ceilings were a little too tall, staircases a little too narrow, doorknobs a little too low. If it's true - and I swear it is - then that explains a lot as to why SUSPIRIA feels more like a nightmare than any other movie I've seen.

I'm not sure how much SUSPIRIA influences my own work: there are some flashback sequences in THE LANDLORD where we imitate Argento's odd lighting schemes to depict the weird, half-remembered feel of childhood memories. But, beyond that, my brain doesn't work like Argento's. I could never make movies like he does, though I'll watch them all day.


NIGHTBREED, like the X-MEN movies, is basically a parable about what it's like to be gay in straight society, with "mutants" and "monsters" standing in for any group that society is too afraid of to accept as human beings. It follows the tradition of FRANKENSTEIN in questioning humanity's compulsion to destroy what it cannot understand. When the police invade the underground monster city of Midian in NIGHTBREED's final scene, they're basically the modern equivalent of a torch-wielding mob.

The most radical thing about NIGHTBREED, that everyone mentions in reviews, is how it presents the monsters in broad daylight, instead of hiding them in shadows. This was risky, especially since makeup effects in 1990 arguably weren't ready for that kind of harsh exposure. But it works on a symbolic level: NIGHTBREED takes monsters out of the darkness, so we can see them in all their complexity and variety. Yes, some are murderous and amoral, but others are ethical and humane, and there's no telling what they're like on the inside by their bizarre exteriors.

In THE LANDLORD, I tried to present the demons the same way, neither purely good nor purely evil, and we also imitate NIGHTBREED by showing our monsters in daylight, sometimes at our own low-budget peril. Beyond that, we make a zillion Clive Barker references in THE LANDLORD, from the fact that the main character's homeowner's insurance is from "MIDIAN FINANCIAL GROUP" (you might need the Blu-Ray to see that detail), to the original Clive Barker painting that the yuppie tenants are hanging on their wall in the opening scene. NIGHTBREED is one of only two horror movies that I'd go out of my way to remake if the opportunity ever presented itself. Best of all, between the comics, the novella, and the innate richness of the mythology, there's plenty of territory you could explore in a NIGHTBREED remake that the original didn't cover.


If Guillermo del Toro stopped making movies today (Heaven forbid), then PAN'S LABYRINTH would stand as his masterpiece. With this story about a young girl who escapes the horrors of civil war (and an abusive stepfather) by retreating into a dark fantasy world, del Toro proves two points. First, that all those old Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales were infinitely scarier than your average horror movie (at least until Disney defanged them), and second that neither fairy tales nor horror flicks can compete with the real world in terms of sheer brutality and terror.

Seriously, while there may be a few horror fans among the world's arch-psychos (North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il reportedly loves slashers), the fact is that real-world atrocities are more often perpetrated by those who'd ban horror movies than those who enjoy them. Case in point: among the first works of art banned by Hitler's regime were the seminal horror films NOSFERATU and THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (the latter's message that those in power might be crazy really irked the Nazis). Meanwhile, Stalin signed thousands of death warrants while watching... musical comedies!

Getting back to PAN, this movie examines how fantasy is both powerful and powerless in the face of reality, while managing to be a beautiful specimen of fantastic film in its own right (the mythical creatures in the fantasy sequences are shockingly imaginative and beautifully realized). This movie, more than any other, prompted me to inject a dose of reality into THE LANDLORD, giving certain characters real-life problems that are almost scarier than being devoured by demons... almost.


Stephen King might not like what Stanley Kubrick did with his book, but THE SHINING is a "shining" example (go ahead and groan) of how to adapt a novel for the screen. First you read the book, then you study the book, then you toss the book out the window and make the best movie you can out of whatever elements of the book you found most compelling. Which is exactly what Kubrick did.

King's big complaint is that Kubrick's SHINING ignores the central theme of the book, which is that hotel groundskeeper Jack Torrence's descent into demon-induced madness is supposed to parallel his (and King's) alcoholism. And in that respect King's right: by the time Jack Nicholson's Torrence starts drinking in the movie, he's already been driven completely loco by the evil spirits.

But that's irrelevant. Kubrick's movie doesn't care about alcoholism - it's too busy obsessing over the creepiness of empty buildings, the terror of being isolated in the wilderness, the scariness of ax-wielding maniacs, and the spookiness of evil little girls. It's more visual than psychological, which is another way of saying it's more cinematic than literary, which is another way of saying it works better as a movie than a "straight" adaptation of the book ever could (if you don't believe me, watch this then try sitting through the King-approved TV miniseries of the same name).

I'm not ripping on Stephen King - he's a wonderful author, and his books provided my initiation into horror (my deeply religious parents wouldn't let me watch horror movies at home, but I could read King's books in my school's library). But you know what the beauty of it is? We don't have to choose! We can read King's book AND watch Kubrick's movie and appreciate them both for the very different experiences they are. Contrast that to the slavishly literal, frame-for-frame adaptation of WATCHMEN, which looked gorgeous but didn't say anything new. So, in summary, if any best-selling author ever entrusts me with the film rights to their book, they'd better brace themselves for some heavy re-interpretation... Do you hear me, Jack Womack?


Yes, I realize you're supposed to do a "Top 5" or a "Top 10", but this is a horror movie list, and 6 is the devil's number, so here's one more for the record...

NEAR DARK was my favorite vampire movie of all time until a month ago, when I finally saw THIRST. I like both of them for the same reason: they take seriously the question of "What would it REALLY be like to become a vampire?"

With endless apologies to the wonderful people who made NEAR DARK, between the two, THIRST offers the more compelling answer. It's an amazing film, and if you haven't seen it already, stop reading this (spoilers below) and rent it right now (it's also available on Netflix Instant).

If you woke up a bloodsucker tomorrow (or should I say "tomorrow night"), would you immediately sever ties to your human friends and family and start hanging out in goth clubs? Probably not. In NEAR DARK, the vampire hero does leave his human family to go marauding with a vampire clan, but he misses them and ultimately returns. THIRST takes this scenario one step further: after a hospital priest turns vampire from a blood transfusion, he continues to minister to his patients (while surreptitiously sucking their blood). And even after he turns his girlfriend into a vampire, they still cart her disabled mother around everywhere they go.

These scenarios play out in ways both hilarious and heartbreaking, with the "horror" arising less from jump-scares than fearing for the characters and worrying if they'll ever escape their fucked-up situation (and this is where NEAR DARK falls just short - its ending is too much of a cop-out, whereas THIRST lets the vampire angle play out to its logical, ghoulish conclusion).


It's worth pointing out that THIRST is a Korean movie, PAN'S LABYRINTH is a Spanish movie, and all the others on this list are old movies. This is not a coincidence. Too many recent American horror movies are either soulless remakes that reheat 70s and 80s "classics" with more explicit, CG-enhanced gore, or soulless splatterfests that invite audiences to laugh at how many inventive ways there are to kill off under-developed characters that no one in the theater gives a shit about. Hollywood isn't telling horror *stories* anymore, it's just peddling slasher nostalgia and death porn. I think the challenge for American horror in the coming decade is to reconnect with its lost humanity, to stop obsessing over effects (although those are useful) and pay more attention to character and story... because, in the end, no cheap jump-scare can compete with seeing characters you love and care about in peril.

HorrorBlips: vote it up!

1 comment:

  1. i never understood King's gripe with Kubrick's movie. then again i never read the book. i did see the mini series thing though. i watched it from start to finish and I'll never get that time back sadly. that said since the mini series was so loyal to the book i'll probably never read the book either. oh well.

    you win some you lose some Stephen king.

    i did just reading the first of the Dark Tower series. pretty great so far.


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