We usually think of summer as a season of joy and carefree relaxation. Children are home from school, families go on vacations, couples take trips to the beach and frolic in the waves. But summer is also the prime season for horror films. What was light is reflected and distorted through a fun house mirror. The home becomes dark and threatening, vacations end in tragedy, and dark creatures lurk just beyond the beach. This week, we have some classic horror films to cool down the summer heat. Plus, a David Lynch primer for anyone who’s been bombarded with social media posts about the new Twin Peaks, and a comedy for the end of Pride month.
Some people will pick The Brood (1979) or Scanners (1981) as David Cronenberg’s first great movie, but my money is on Videodrome. James Woods plays Max Renn, a sleazy TV executive with a cable channel devoted to exotic porn. When he discovers Videodrome, a show composed of disturbing erotic torture, he snaps it up for his channel. But Videodrome isn’t just a TV show—it alters the minds (and possibly bodies) of those who view it. After Max’s girlfriend (played by Blondie’s Debbie Harry) becomes hooked on Videodrome and disappears, Max (and the movie) descend into madness.
Cronenberg stuffs his film with his usual assortment of extreme body horror, but it’s cleverer here than in some of his other movies. The “cancer gun” scene is as grotesque as anything in John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), and the make out session with the TV is something you’re not likely to forget. (Fun fact: the enveloping screen was created by blowing up a dental dam.) The movie is a comment on the way people consumed TV in the early ’80s, but perhaps it’s also a vision of what will happen when the Peak TV bubble finally bursts. The film is available to stream with certain cable providers, and you can rent it on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and Google Play. The Criterion Collection also has a very nice Blu-ray/DVD version.
N.B. If you live in Los Angeles, Quentin Tarantino’s New Beverly Cinema is showing a 35mm print this Saturday at midnight. It’s sold out, but there’ll be a standby line if you’re feeling adventurous.
The Beguiled (1971)
It’s not the first, or second, or tenth Clint Eastwood film most people would think of, but it’s one of his best and most intriguing. The Beguiled was Eastwood’s second collaboration with director Don Siegel, and was made just before their best-known film, Dirty Harry (1971). Eastwood plays Union soldier John McBurney, who’s badly wounded in a Civil War battle. He stumbles upon a boarding school for girls hidden away in a Greek revival Southern mansion. After the women nurse him back to health, McBurney plays on their affections to convince them not to turn him over to Confederate troops. But his position becomes hopelessly compromised when jealousy spreads.
Throughout much of its history, Hollywood has had a strange obsession with the Confederacy—it was common to write Confederate soldiers as the heroes of Civil War films, going all the way back to D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) and Buster Keaton’s The General (1926). In a more conventional film, the women of the boarding school would have been the film’s heroes, but their racism and disdain for the Union complicates that role. McBurney is nominally on the right side, but he’s also devious, and has plenty of his own prejudices. The film is more of a psychosexual thriller than an exploration of the Civil War, but it remains compelling even today. Stream it on HBO GO, or rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and Google Play.
Beginners was Mike Mills’s second film, but the first that truly showcased his talent and allowed his style to take flight. Ewan McGregor plays Oliver, whose father has just died from cancer. The film switches effortlessly between flashbacks of his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), who belatedly came out as gay five years earlier, and Oliver’s blooming relationship with a mysterious French woman (Mélanie Laurent) amidst his grief. It’s a wonderfully inventive and moving film that earned Plummer his first Oscar at 82 (a record). Stream it on Netflix, rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and Google Play.
A David Lynch Primer
David Lynch’s first feature is also one of his strangest. The surrealistic project originated as a twenty-one-page screenplay (which would suggest a twenty-one-minute film) funded by the American Film Institute. But the film hallucinatory visuals helped it balloon to ninety minutes and took years to film. Longtime Lynch collaborator Jack Nance plays the lead, a man living in an urban wasteland (influenced by Lynch’s time living in Philadelphia). The movie is filled with nightmarish scenes and images, including a chilling family dinner, disgusting cat spines, and a “baby” that would give anyone second thoughts about procreating. If you’re having trouble making sense of episode eight of the revived Twin Peaks, this won’t help, but it’ll at least explain where Lynch’s nightmarish vision originated. Stream on FilmStruck, rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and Google Play. Criterion also has a high quality Blu-ray/DVD.
Blue Velvet (1986)
Lynch’s first masterpiece was also his first project to explore the darkness lurking within pristine suburbs, a subject he would examine more in depth in Twin Peaks. Lynch’s longtime leading man Kyle MacLachlan plays Jeffrey Beaumont. While strolling through an abandoned lot, Beaumont stumbles upon a strange object—a severed ear. That ear leads him to the tormented Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) and Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), one of the most evil and frightening people to ever appear on screen. Beaumont’s amateur investigations are aided by Sandy (Laura Dern, in her first role for Lynch). The movie evolves from suburban pastoral to noirish mystery to outright terror. Stream on Amazon and Hulu, rent on iTunes, Vudu, and Google Play.
Mulholland Dr. (2001)
Lynch emerged creatively renewed in the current century. Mulholland Dr. originated as a ninety-minute TV pilot for ABC that was ultimately rejected as being too weird and non-linear. Lynch reedited the footage and shot a new second half to bring the story to a conclusion. It’s clear that the project originated as a TV series—there are far too many jumbled plot lines to resolve, even in a two-and-a-half-hour film. The movie opens with a car accident on the titular title road, from which a single woman emerges alive (Laura Harring). Suffering from amnesia, she’s taken in by Betty (Naomi Watts), an aspiring actress who nurses her back to health. They set off on an adventure to discover the woman’s true identity.
Like Blue Velvet, their investigation turns up the city’s dark underbelly. The movie becomes a horror film in its final hour, the first time Lynch had gone that far since Eraserhead. (He would explore the horror mode more fully with his next film, Inland Empire). Viewers of the new Twin Peaks will notice a lot of tonal and thematic similarities between the starts of the two projects—shady conspiracies and sleazy criminals dominate both. Stream on Netflix, rent on Amazon, iTunes, and Vudu, or check out Criterion‘s excellent Blu-ray/DVD.