How do you keep a horror franchise going when your villain has been unquestionably and irrevocably killed off? That’s a conundrum any number of genre series have tackled–to varying degrees of success–and the problem facing the sadistic Saw films in its latest entry, Saw V. The filmmakers’ answer–faithful henchmen–is at first blush a savvy idea, as it allows the mayhem of original bad guy Jigsaw to continue unabated, despite the fact that he was dissected on a morgue slab in the previous film. Saw V extends the premise by having disgraced detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor from the previous two films) don the pig mask to unleash horrific tortures on another group of seemingly unconnected strangers. Scott Patterson (Aliens in America) also returns as Hoffman’s Javert, a dogged fellow agent who escapes death in the fourth film and an ugly fate in this entry to continue his pursuit. All the elements that have made the Saw series popular with horror fans–the elaborate killing machines, the trompe l’oeil plotting, and the sociopathic judgments handed down by Jigsaw–are intact in Saw V, which is a positive for its most faithful followers, but a negative for just about everyone else. Saw V covers no new ground, expands no part of the mythology of the series and seems perfectly content to present a lifeless retread of Saw III and IV. It also suffers from the absence of Tobin Bell as Jigsaw, who despite his top billing, is glimpsed only in brief flashbacks. Bell, who could be unsettling even in the stillest moments, gave the series a gravity that kept its least plausible moments in check, and Mandylor, though game, simply cannot provide the same. What’s left is dreary and relentlessly downbeat, and to make matters worse, ends on an open note that clearly indicates that a sixth film is in the works, no matter how obvious that the diabolical ingenuity of the original Saw has been worn to the bone by its sequels. Only diehard Saw fans need to sign up for this round of Jigsaw’s games. — Paul Gaita
The 2003 version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre adheres to the pure and simple slasher movie formula: Introduce a gaggle of sexy young people, make vague gestures to distinguish them–Jessica Biel (Summer Catch) wants to get married and doesn’t like pot, so she’s our moral compass–then start hacking them to pieces one by one. The visual palette includes grimy crucified dolls, fly-specked pig carcasses, body parts floating in murky jars, a tobacco-chewing redneck sheriff, and many slender beams of sunlight cutting through dank, dusty interiors. The camera lovingly photographs Biel’s tank-topped bosom and sculpted abs as she’s running in terror from a bloated, chainsaw-wielding, human-skin-wearing maniac. This remake lacks the macabre comedy of the original; it’s all about the nauseating sensation of waiting for something to jump out of the dark. Also featuring Eric Balfour (Six Feet Under) and R. Lee Ermey (Full Metal Jacket, Mail Call). –Bret Fetzer
Is there anything scarier than clowns? Of course not. And who knows scary better than Stephen King? You see where we’re going. It puts a malevolent clown (given demented life by a powdered, red-nosed Tim Curry) front and center, as King’s fat novel gets the TV-movie treatment. Even at three hours plus, the action is condensed, but an engaging Stand by Me vibe prevails for much of the running time. The seven main characters, as adolescents, conquered a force of pure evil in their Maine hometown. Now, the cackling Pennywise is back, and they must come home to fight him–or, should we say, It–again. Admitting the TV-movie trappings and sometimes hysterical performances, this is a genuinely gripping thriller. As so often with King, the basic idea (the bond formed during a childhood trauma) is clean and powerful, a lifeline anchored in reality that leads us to the supernatural. –Robert Horton
Adam (Leigh Whannell) wakes up in a dank room across from Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) and the body of a guy who has blown his own brains out. Not a happy place, obviously, and it gets worse when both men realize that they’ve been chained and pitted against one another by an unseen but apparently omniscient maniac who’s screwing with their psyches as payment for past sins. Director James Wan, who concocted this grimy distraction with screenwriter Whannell, has seen Seven and any number of other arty existential-psycho-cat-and-mouse thrillers, so he’s provided Saw with a little flash, a little blood, and a lot of ways to distract you from the fact that it doesn’t make a whole hell of a lot of sense. Wan and Whannell (who’s not the most accomplished actor, either) pile on the plot twists, which after some initially novel ideas become increasingly juvenile. Elwes works hard but looks embarrassed, and the estimable Danny Glover suffers as the obsessed detective on the case. The denouement will probably surprise you, but it won’t get you back the previous 98 minutes. –Steve Wiecking
The films of Tim Burton shine through the muck like a jack-o-lantern on a foggy October night. After such successes as The Nightmare Before Christmas and Edward Scissorhands, it should come as no surprise that Sleepy Hollow is a dazzling film, a delicious reworking of Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Dark and moody, the film is a thrilling ride back to the turn of the 19th century. Johnny Depp stars as Ichabod Crane, a seemingly hapless constable from New York City who is sent to the small town of Sleepy Hollow to solve the mystery of the decapitations that are plaguing the town. Crane is a bumbling sort, with a tremendous faith in science over mysticism, and he comes up against town secrets, bewitching women, and a number of bodies missing heads. Christina Ricci, as beautiful as ever, is Katrina Van Tassel, the offbeat love interest who alternately charms and frightens Crane.
The film, while occasionally gory (as one should expect from a movie about a headless horseman), is not terribly frightening, although it is suspenseful. Both Depp and Ricci are convincing, and the art direction and production values give the village its harsh feel. Toward the end, once the secrets are revealed, the film does slow down; however, this stylistic horror film provides many tricks and even more treats. –Jenny Brown
Halloween is as pure and undiluted as its title. In the small town of Haddonfield, Illinois, a teenage baby sitter tries to survive a Halloween night of relentless terror, during which a knife-wielding maniac goes after the town’s hormonally charged youths. Director John Carpenter takes this simple situation and orchestrates a superbly mounted symphony of horrors. It’s a movie much scarier for its dark spaces and ominous camera movements than for its explicit bloodletting (which is actually minimal). Composed by Carpenter himself, the movie’s freaky music sets the tone; and his script (cowritten with Debra Hill) is laced with references to other horror pictures, especially Psycho. The baby sitter is played by Jamie Lee Curtis, the real-life daughter of Psycho victim Janet Leigh; and the obsessed policeman played by Donald Pleasence is named Sam Loomis, after John Gavin’s character in Psycho. In the end, though, Halloween stands on its own as an uncannily frightening experience–it’s one of those movies that had audiences literally jumping out of their seats and shouting at the screen. (“No! Don’t drop that knife!”) Produced on a low budget, the picture turned a monster profit, and spawned many sequels, none of which approached the 1978 original. Curtis returned for two more installments: 1981’s dismal Halloween II, which picked up the story the day after the unfortunate events, and 1998’s occasionally gripping Halloween H20, which proved the former baby sitter was still haunted after 20 years. –Robert Horton
Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is less an adaptation of Stephen King’s bestselling horror novel than a complete reimagining of it from the inside out. In King’s book, the Overlook Hotel is a haunted place that takes possession of its off-season caretaker and provokes him to murderous rage against his wife and young son. Kubrick’s movie is an existential Road Runner cartoon (his steadicam scurrying through the hotel’s labyrinthine hallways), in which the cavernously empty spaces inside the Overlook mirror the emptiness in the soul of the blocked writer, who’s settled in for a long winter’s hibernation. As many have pointed out, King’s protagonist goes mad, but Kubrick’s Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is Looney Tunes from the moment we meet him–all arching eyebrows and mischievous grin. (Both Nicholson and Shelley Duvall reach new levels of hysteria in their performances, driven to extremes by the director’s fanatical demands for take after take after take.) The Shining is terrifying–but not in the way fans of the novel might expect. When it was redone as a TV miniseries (reportedly because of King’s dissatisfaction with the Kubrick film), the famous topiary-animal attack (which was deemed impossible to film in 1980) was there–but the deeper horror was lost. Kubrick’s The Shining gets under your skin and chills your bones; it stays with you, inhabits you, haunts you. And there’s no place to hide… –Jim Emerson
Director William Friedkin was a hot ticket in Hollywood after the success of The French Connection, and he turned heads (in more ways than one) when he decided to make The Exorcist as his follow-up film. Adapted by William Peter Blatty from his controversial bestseller, this shocking 1973 thriller set an intense and often-copied milestone for screen terror with its unflinching depiction of a young girl (Linda Blair) who is possessed by an evil spirit. Jason Miller and Max von Sydow are perfectly cast as the priests who risk their sanity and their lives to administer the rites of demonic exorcism, and Ellen Burstyn plays Blair’s mother, who can only stand by in horror as her daughter’s body is wracked by satanic disfiguration. One of the most frightening films ever made with a soundtrack that’s guaranteed to curl your blood, The Exorcist was mysteriously plagued by troubles during production, and the years have not diminished its capacity to disturb even the most stoical viewers. Don’t say you weren’t warned! –Jeff Shannon
With dizzying cinematic tricks and astonishing performances, Francis Coppola’s 1992 version of the oft-filmed Dracula story is one of the most exuberant, extravagant films of the 1990s. Gary Oldman and Winona Ryder, as the Count and Mina Murray, are quite a pair of star-crossed lovers. She’s betrothed to another man; he can’t kick the habit of feeding off the living. Anthony Hopkins plays Van Helsing, the vampire slayer, with tongue firmly in cheek. Tom Waits is great fun as Renfield, the hapless slave of Dracula who craves the blood of insects and cats. Sadie Frost is a sexy Lucy Westenra. And poor Keanu Reeves, as Jonathan Harker, has the misfortune to be seduced by Dracula’s three half-naked wives. There’s a little bit of everything in this version of Dracula: gore, high-speed horseback chases, passion, and longing.
Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a feverishly inventive movie that often overwhelms its own narrative flow, yet proves irresistible to watch. Coppola’s baroque, operatic set design, costumes, and cinematography look as lavish as they did on the film’s first release. The director’s grab-bag of visual effects are still bold and unabashed, if often over-the-top, and the actors still appear caught up in a certain hysterical pitch that feels a little forced but can be a lot of fun to watch. Gary Oldman’s imaginative performance as the titular vampire carries the weight of Coppola’s vision of Count Dracula as a tragic-romantic hero with Christ-like overtones. Keanu Reeves still looks a little lost in the pivotal role of Jonathan Harker, the London clerk who finds himself a prisoner in a Transylvanian castle while a 400-year-old vampire makes a play for his fiancée back home (Winona Ryder). Anthony Hopkins is fearless as a daft Von Helsing, and Sadie Frost is very good as the doomed Lucy. –Tom Keogh
Vacationing in northern California, Alfred Hitchcock was struck by a story in a Santa Cruz newspaper: “Seabird Invasion Hits Coastal Homes.” From this peculiar incident, and his memory of a short story by Daphne du Maurier, the master of suspense created one of his strangest and most terrifying films. The Birds follows a chic blonde, Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), as she travels to the coastal town of Bodega Bay to hook up with a rugged fellow (Rod Taylor) she’s only just met. Before long the town is attacked by marauding birds, and Hitchcock’s skill at staging action is brought to the fore. Beyond the superb effects, however, The Birds is also one of Hitchcock’s most psychologically complicated scenarios, a tense study of violence, loneliness, and complacency. What really gets under your skin are not the bird skirmishes but the anxiety and the eerie quiet between attacks. The director elevated an unknown model, Tippi Hedren (mother of Melanie Griffith), to being his latest cool, blond leading lady, an experience that was not always easy on the much-pecked Ms. Hedren. Still, she returned for the next Hitchcock picture, the underrated Marnie. Treated with scant attention by serious critics in 1963, The Birds has grown into a classic and–despite the sci-fi trappings–one of Hitchcock’s most serious films. –Robert Horton