|John Freiler||Mar 17|
This past Sunday was David Cronenberg’s birthday, which is an official religious holiday as far as this newsletter is concerned. My wife and I took the opportunity to cancel our social plans, sequester ourselves indoors, and crack open our stock of hoarded canned beans as we settled in to ease our anxieties about the world by submitting ourselves to hours of cinematic body horror that chronicled everything from scientific and medical catastrophe to the inevitable failure of our own flesh. Wait, what’s that? What do you mean “pandemic self-isolation”? That’s just what we do every weekend.
I’m not sure how everyone else manages their panic, but the most effective treatment for me has always been distracting myself with a bunch of fucked up horror and crime movies. And since we’re all probably about to spend a lot of time in our homes with not much else to do, I thought it would be a good time to provide another round-up of some lesser-seen and underappreciated titles from the streaming services we all otherwise mostly use to watch old sitcom episodes for fleeting comfort because we can’t afford medication or therapy.
THE WICKER MAN (1973)
Christopher Lee is Lord Summerisle in the greatest folk horror film ever made. If you liked Midsommar, you will like this. And please don’t reply to say something negative about the 2006 Nicolas Cage remake, because that one is a) good, and b) constantly willfully misinterpreted.
THE BLEEDING EDGE (2017)
This documentary about the dangers of medical implants is the scariest film I saw in 2017, and I basically only ever watch movies about terror and death. I still sort of squirm in my seat when I think about it.
DIRTY HARRY (1971)
You could watch Zero Dark Thirty and The Report and get a meticulous, researched overview of The War On Terror, but if you really want to understand American foreign policy in the 2000s you’re also going to have to watch 300 and Team America: World Police. All of which is to say, I love Zodiac and its painstakingly recreated 60s/70s San Francisco as much as anybody, but racist supercop Harry Callahan’s civil rights-defying hunt for the Scorpio Killer is just as authentic in its own way.
ABDUCTED IN PLAIN SIGHT (2017)
A perfect documentary, if your ideal documentary viewing experience is “Getting so furious at the movie that you’re red-faced screaming at the absolute morons on the TV by halfway through it.”
THE TRUST (2016)
You may have heard that I’m a fan of actor Nicolas Cage*. My favorite Cage roles are the weird character actor parts where he can free himself of the burden of anchoring a film as something approaching a relatable human being, allowing him to commit completely to a more expressionistic style of acting he refers to as “Western kabuki.” For instance, why does his character in this film put hot sauce on a lemon wedge and eat it like weird tapas? No idea really, but I can’t deny that it very effectively lets you know how unhinged this guy is, well before the heist plan starts to go bad.
(*If for some reason you wanted to hear me say a lot more about Saint Nicolas, you could listen to this episode of the Screen Drafts podcast, in which my buddy Marc and I become pariahs of Film Twitter for daring to love all Cage performances unironically.)
THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961)
Seems like a real missed opportunity on Amazon’s part to make this Roger Corman/Vincent Price Poe adaptation available to stream right now and not the more relevant The Masque of the Red Death, but what are ya gonna do. That’s okay, this one rules too.
THE KILLING OF AMERICA (1981)
It would be pretty irresponsible to call this fearmongering trash a “documentary,” in the same way you probably shouldn’t call the 1940 Nazi propaganda film The Eternal Jew a documentary. But if you share my mesmerized conflicted fascination for fearmongering trash (And you do; after all, you’re here reading this right now), this collection of race riot, school shooter and serial killer footage will scratch that itch you’re ashamed you have.
DEAD RINGERS (1988)
Cronenberg takes the wearying sadness that’s lurking just under the surface of all his previous goopy prosthetic make-up effects films and makes a whole movie in which that empty sucking melancholy is the monster. Jeremy Irons gives probably the best dual-role performance of all time as twin brother gynecologists developing “instruments for operating on mutant women.”
For what it’s worth, there are also two timelier Cronenberg-directed films about viral epidemics that are available to stream for free (Shivers and Rabid, on Tubi and Amazon, respectively), but neither is as good as Dead Ringers.
KING OF NEW YORK (1990)
Aside from being one of the best-ever showcases of 90s character actors (Steve Buscemi! Larry Fishburne when he was still Larry! James Lorinz from Frankenhooker!), this features my favorite Christopher Walken performance, playing a not-at-all-reformed drug kingpin emerging from prison to reclaim his empire. He veers back and forth between charismatic warmth and sociopathic rage so fluidly that it’s very hard not to think about Natalie Wood by the end of the movie.
Last time I recommended this one, it was only available on Shudder. Now it’s on Amazon and more of you may have access to it, so here’s what I wrote back in October:
I got to meet makeup effects legend Tom Savini at a horror convention in Burbank a few years ago. I told him how much I loved his work in this nearly plotless film about a sweaty oaf murdering women and nailing their scalps to mannequins in his disgusting studio apartment. He must have noticed a real Mark David Chapman-type gleam in my eyes, because he squinted at me and said, "No one should watch that movie."
(It’s free for a month, go sign up! Just try not to think too much about the fact that a horror streaming app is currently providing more meaningful economic relief than the federal government!)
Technically a limited series, but since all the episodes together add up to about 90 minutes I sort of suspect this was made as a feature film and later edited into episodic chunks to make it an easier sell to distributors. Either way, the “cursed piece of media” subgenre is one of my favorite kinds of horror, and the deadly vinyl record featured here is absolutely something I would listen to, given the opportunity.
THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932)
Spending your teen years obsessively listening to Nine Inch Nails and then eventually discovering David Bowie’s Low is a real eye-opening artistic experience, as you absorb the art that influenced the artist who influenced you. Bowie is to The Old Dark House as NIN is to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
THE ROAD MOVIE (2016)
This is literally just a long compilation of Russian dashboard camera videos, of car accidents and road rage and disasters, and it’s easily more thrilling and compelling than most big budget studio action movies. I said “Holy fuck” out loud a bunch of times when I watched this, which is probably as meaningful a compliment as I could give to any movie.
PEEPING TOM (1960)
Sixty years ago, Alfred Hitchcock made a movie about a deviant serial killer with Mommy issues and it became one of the most popular and influential films of all time. Michael Powell released a Daddy-obsessed serial killer film that same year, but in his movie the killer commits murders with a camera and symbolically implicates the viewer in his endless lust for blood and misogyny and death, so critics despised it and Powell’s career was destroyed. Go figure.
Jennifer Lynch (Yep, of that Lynch family) directs this thriller about FBI agents receiving conflicting information during a series of interrogations. It’s like Rashomon for people who thought Rashomon didn’t have enough sexual sadism.
THE SACRAMENT (2013)
One of the best films from last decade’s wave of found footage horror. Journalists travel to interview members of a cult at their South American compound, where they find that everyone is happy and thriving, and their not-megalomaniacal leader always has their best interests in mind. Nothing to worry about here!
HOT COFFEE (2011)
A documentary about a woman who was horribly burned by McDonald’s coffee and became an undeserved punchline just for seeking justice. A corporate boot stomping on your neck is pretty bad, but don’t say anything too rude to the boot or God forbid sue the boot, or Jay Leno might leer over the boot’s shoulder and make fun of your dumbass broken neck on national TV for months.
FRED 2: NIGHT OF THE LIVING FRED (2011)
The single most annoying movie I have ever seen. Remember earlier, when I said I would consume a cursed piece of media if given the opportunity? This one is as cursed as they come. If you watch this while you’re stuck inside with other people, it will instantly give you Overlook Hotel levels of family-annihilating cabin fever rage. I’m certainly not telling you to watch this (Really, don’t!), but in the spirit of the newsletter I feel obligated to make you aware that such a dangerous film exists. If you gaze long enough at Fred 2, Fred 2 will gaze back into you.