Halloween is right around the corner and this week’s new disc and streaming releases are (aside from Sorry to Bother You, which we’ll cover in this space next week) a little underwhelming. So rather than focusing on those titles, here’s a special edition of the weekly home viewing column, tilted in the direction of horror movie viewing — with our picks for the top creeper from each of the big subscription services, plus a new Blu-ray release that’s also suspenseful as hell.
The Amityville Horror: There’s no horror subset more reliable than the haunted house movie (as you know if you’ve been watching The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix), and few out there with the blunt efficiency of Stuart Rosenberg’s 1979 adaptation of Jay Anson’s book — itself based on the true story of George and Kathy Lutz, who moved into a too-good-to-be-true home in upstate New York, only to discover it was the site of a mass murder the year before. The producer was AIP’s Samuel Z. Arkoff, so Rosenberg delivers the exploitation goods; there are scares a-plenty here. But Rosenberg is no hack (he also directed Cool Hand Luke, Brubaker, and The Laughing Policeman), and he and his stellar cast (including James Brolin and Margot Kidder) don’t condescend to the material, resulting in a well-crafted, convincingly acted piece of pulp.
The Brood: As with the best of David Cronenberg’s work, this 1979 chiller grounds its horror in real-world domestic drama, marital jealousy, and familial anxieties, which help transform a fundamentally silly premise into something scary as hell. An early production, it’s filled with hints of the directions he’d take, from obvious trademarks like body horror to intense, bristling therapy sessions (shades of A Dangerous Method). He takes an almost flat approach to the material, placing his actors in ugly interiors, giving his camera movements an unnerving unsteadiness, wielding cutaways like a blunt instrument. It comes to a stomach-churning (and tensely edited) conclusion, up to and including its wittily inevitable final cuts. Creepy, sharp, funny stuff.
Halloween: If you’re a horror fan, you’ve probably already got Shudder — and if you don’t, well, it’s the only place you can stream John Carpenter’s horror classic, which on a lot of minds this month, thanks to its 40th anniversary and well-reviewed new sequel. And that respect is overdue; the picture has been long tainted by its artless imitators (and, often, its own sequels), presumed by casual viewers to be yet another mindless slasher flick. But the filmmaker is more interested in tension than gore, and its murders are surprisingly bloodless affairs; more noteworthy are his deft compositions, shock edits, and surprising background action, making this would-be exploitation movie closer to Psycho than Friday the 13th.
It Follows: From the opening images of tree-lined streets to the synth score and gliding camera that follows, writer/director David Robert Mitchell wears his debt to Halloween like a badge of honor. But he’s not just making a tribute film; as with Carpenter’s classic, he emphasizes tension over gore and dread over jolts (though there’s plenty of all to go around). And as with the best horror, his story is anchored by real fears — of intimacy, vulnerability, humiliation, and being watched. The deconstructive nature of how Mitchell plays with the promiscuity tropes of traditional slasher flicks is welcome, but at the end of the day, it’s just a stylish, effective thriller, coming to a head with a climax of brutal, slow-boil efficiency.
ON AMAZON PRIME
Carrie: Everybody always talks about the prom night climax of Carrie, and they always talk about the wrong damn part. Yes, the split-screen fire-and-bloodshed death orgy at its conclusion is one for the books, among the all-time great set pieces in horror cinema (or, frankly, cinema in general). But the part that really cooks — particularly on re-watch, when you know what’s coming — is what precedes it, the agonizing seven-and-a-half minutes between the top of the ballot-box-to-bucket tracking shot and that bucket’s inevitable landing on our heroine’s golden locks, a deft and magnificently executed passage of sheer tension and wait-for-it suspense. Even on first viewing, even if you haven’t read Stephen King’s source novel, you know this is about to go awry, and director Brian De Palma takes unmistakable pleasure in toying with his audience as they wait for that moment to arrive. And the rest of the movie is great too, as De Palma adroitly fuses King’s sensibility with his own baroque high style, cooking up one of the best horror films of the 1970s — no mean feat, that.
ON BLU-RAY / FILMSTRUCK
Sisters: This twisted 1973 thriller, also from De Palma (newly upgraded to Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection), was his first stab at the Hitchockian thrillers that would become his legacy; before that he’d mainly dabbled in comedy, though this decidedly self-aware and darkly witty picture certainly doesn’t take itself too seriously. Yet the hallmarks of his style are firmly in place: operatic suspense, ingenious use of split-screen, homages galore (including a score by the great Bernard Herrmann), and a delicious sense of a director — and, in many ways, his audience — getting away with something. (Also streaming on FilmStruck.)