WANNA SEE SOMETHING REEAALY SCARY?
My husband and I were watching a movie the other night. It was one of the most suspenseful, enthralling, edge-of-your seat flicks I have ever seen. There was a body count, and the first time I watched it I had no idea until the very end who would survive and who wouldn't. And I realized that it would never play at a horror movie festival. That got me thinking about some of the most frightening and disturbing movies I've seen that wouldn't be considered "horror" by conventional standards, yet they deliver more darkness than most of the flicks wholly embraced by the genre.
Ladybug, Ladybug was a 1963 flick centered around an elementary school. This was one of the tenser times of the cold war, and each public area had a nuclear bomb alarm, the way places have fire alarms today. The alarm goes off at a school, and all signs point to it not being a drill but the real thing, and they are forced to react as such. The children are sent home to be with their families before the bombs fall. Most of their parents are away at work, so the kids are left to their own devices on how to either survive, or how to spend their last few minutes. The children react in very human ways, with panic, nobility, and petty callousness. They lock the less popular kids out of their bomb shelters. They try and find ways to protect elderly grandparents, all the while the fear and uncertainty loom on their faces. Whether or not the bombs will truly fall is of no consequence-they have been forever altered.
While watching this, I was sucked into the film's world. While bomb shelters and "duck and cover" drills are things of many decades past, that very palatable fear of foreign invasion still looms. They filmmakers did a wonderful job of building the dread of impending death, and I could easily picture myself in the situation of wondering just how I would react, being separated from the people I love and care, knowing the end is near. By far, one of the most horrific situations imaginable, and one so realistically and subtly played out by the writer, director, and surprisingly by the young actors. Compared to the Saw movies, Ladybug, Ladybug probably caused more nightmares and frightened moments. All without a single drop of blood or without a crazed killer. That might be what made it more frightening-there was no clear villain, nobody to fight against for a happy ending. For most of the kids, their chances for survival were completely out of their control. When you are that helpless, the fear becomes that much more intense. Yet, sadly, more people will list House of 1000 Corpses in more best-of horror lists than have ever seen Ladybug, Ladybug.
Seventeen years later, a mini-series aired on both NBC and the BBC, an adaptation of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. I'll admit that when I first sat down to watch it, I was expecting to hate it. Brave New World is one of my favorite books of all time, and I'm usually disappointed in book-to-movie adaptations (as readers of the Movie vs. Book reviews that Bill and I do are aware). During the first few minutes I thought my fears were coming to life. The production is painfully low-budget, probably produced for the same amount of money as Ladybug, Ladybug. The sets were as painfully bad as a high school play. The futuristic uniforms seemed to be made of sweat suits and duct tape. It wasn't long, though, before I was sucked in and forgot the painfully cheesy dressings and was absorbed into the story.
I won't get into the plot too much, seeing as how most people have either read it or know the basics (if you haven't read it yet, go read it. Now. I'll wait). To create as loyal an adaptation as they could, they start the movie about twenty years before the start of the novel. Rather than have flashbacks to Linda and Thomas' adventure to the Savage Reservation, and her subsequent abandonment, that is where the story begins. From there, it follows the book as closely as can be done without making the mini-series a 30-parter. We see Helmholtz and John Savage struggling to find a sense of individuality, while the majority of the Brave New World accept comfort in exchange for freedom. We get a sad look at Bernard Marx as he goes from being a unique person to selling into the life of cushioned complacency the first moment he gets. And most frightening of all is watching Mustapha Mond orchestrate experiments with human lives, all for his own curiosity. If the novel affected you at all, this damn near perfect adaptation will chill you even more. (NOTE-be careful. There is a 1998 adaptation with Leonard Nimoy. Do not be fooled. This one is an abomination that will make you want to throw small, heavy objects at the television).
Jump ahead two decades, and we get to a small German movie, Das Experiment (The Experiment in its US release). This is the only movie I've seen in a theatre that disturbed me on such a base level, I was tempted to leave. I didn't, because I had to find a payoff for what I was experiencing. I'm glad I stayed, because the payoff was there. Big time.
The movie is based off the infamous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment. 20 volunteers were randomly separated into two groups: 12 prisoners, 8 guards. For two weeks they were to exist in a mock prison, to see what both having power and losing power do to an individual. In a way, it was a success-normal, everyday people became sadists when given the Guard power. So much so that it was called off in six days.
Das Experiment takes the premise and dramatizes it. It's brought forward in time thirty years and taken to Germany. The results, however, are the same. It didn't take too long for the guards to revel in their new-found power, or for the prisoners to feel the sheer terror, despite being under 24 hour surveillance by the research team. That is disturbing enough, but the movie goes very dark when the guards seek more power, and take on the researchers.
Das Experiment has been compared to an Italian movie, 120 Days of Sodom, a notoriously chilling look at fascism. I honestly find Das Experiment much more frightening. Sodom is too stylized, and once the viewer gets over the initial shock of the on-screen violence, it's easy to separate one's self from what they see and say, "This is not like me. This is not like people I know." Das Experiment was filmed with such real characters and dialogue that you do recognize a little of yourself in all of them.
Finally, we come to the movie I watched with my husband, La Habitacion de Fermat (Fermat's Room). From the first line of voice-overed dialogue, you know this won't be your typical mindless slasher: "Do you know what prime numbers are? Because if you don't, you should just leave now." Four mathematicians are locked in a room, with a cell phone texting puzzles every so often. They have 60 seconds to text back the answer. If they take longer, the walls start to close in. The premise is somewhat familiar to the Canadian flick, Cube. However, in Fermat, the focus on the characters is what creates the suspense. We get to know them, know why each of them is there, and what they have to lose if they can't solve the biggest puzzle of them all. Then there are the puzzles themselves. I was trying to figure them out at the same time the characters were, watching the time count down. The pacing was spot on, as there didn't seem to be one moment without palpable tension. With barely two or three drops of blood shed, Fermat's Room creates more of a sense of danger and dread than any of the Saw movies.
Now, don't get me wrong. I love horror movies. Put together the time spent watching them, and I bet I've logged in a few good months. And I have fun watching them. But after a while, they don't get to me the way they used to. It's like eating your favorite ice cream every day. Soon, the taste doesn't have that special zing anymore. After watching enough Hammer Horror or slasher movies, I start feeling a little desensitized, like nothing can scare me anymore. That's when I dig a little farther into the dark side of the movies, and find these little gems that gnaw at my brain long after the end. It's nice to know I can still feel the horror. There's plenty of dark films out there, if you're willing to step outside genre conventions. And these four are but a small example of how worth it that is.
WHERE TO FIND THE MOVIES:
Fermat's Room was recently released on DVD in the US by IFC films. Das Experiment is currently out of print, but used DVDs can be found for less than twenty bucks from various online outlets. I don't think Brave New World ever got an official release, but some kind soul has uploaded the entire thing onto Google video at http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-3536993421073315692# . Ladybug, Ladybug...well, good luck. I can't seem to find a record of any sort of legitimate release, or any sign of it online. If anyone knows of a DVD, VHS, hell, even a laserdisc, PLEASE let me know. If you want a copy of it, send me an email