Horror movies are generally preferable when they deliver escapism and catharsis, substituting supernatural monsters for our real fears; but as the world outside grows ever scarier, the new generation of horror filmmakers isn’t so anxious to let us off the hook. At this year’s Screamfest, the villain in any given movie is just as likely to be a screwed-up human being as it is a monster or ghost, and that isn’t necessarily for the better. Two films, Eden Lake and King of the Hill, take a bold approach in demonizing obnoxious 12-year-old boys (who are presumably the movies’ target demographic), and while Eden Lake is effective, something feels not quite right about cheering for prepubescent kids to get their fatal comeuppance.
Nastier still is writer-director Paul Moore’s Keepsake, in which a mute trucker locks a beautiful female photographer in the basement of his barn for 30 days. It’s a skillfully shot piece but one that piles on constant brutal degradation, ultimately earning the “torture porn” definition far more accurately than the movies normally so labeled. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the lightweight The Collective, which has some pretty pictures of New York City but fails to make its eponymous cult into any kind of terrifying.
For those of us who prefer our horror with a greater sense of fun, there’s plenty to go around. Though X2 and Superman Returns screenwriter Michael Dougherty’s oft-delayed Trick ’r Treat and John Gulager’s reportedly over-the-top Feast II were unavailable for preview, Gregg Bishop’s Dance of the Dead gives us a backyard wrestler and friends facing off against zombies at the prom (the best combination of monster and venue since Snakes on a Plane), while Splinter delivers the year’s best beast — a spiny fungus that turns its victims into zombiefied walking pincushions. Harry Potter fans will want to catch Tom “Draco Malfoy” Felton wandering a haunted housing estate in The Disappeared; I found the plot uneven and awkwardly paced but have to admit the scares are solid.
Not to be missed: the artful Scandinavian vampire movie Let the Right One In, which has been receiving raves on the festival circuit and was easily the best thing I saw at this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival. Matt “Cloverfield” Reeves is set to helm a Hollywood remake, over original director Tomas Alfredson’s disapproval, so for the love of God don’t wait for that and take the right one in now. Also outstanding, especially for lovers of horror movie history, is the documentary Spine Tingler!, about the late William Castle, whose promotional gimmicks were often even more fun than his movies.
And if you want downright weird: superheroes get necrotic in Marvel Zombies: The Movie; and Marc Caro, co-director of Delicatessen and City of Lost Children, makes a comeback with Dante 01, best described as The Green Mile meets Solaris on the set of Alien Resurrection. It’s a meditative film that may require a second viewing to fully get, especially since the unfamiliar actors in matching uniforms with shaved heads are often hard to distinguish from one another. But since his former collaborator Jean-Pierre Jeunet got all romantic on us, it’s good to see that Caro stayed strange. (Mann Chinese 6; thru Sun., Oct. 19. www.screamfestla.com)