In Defense of (Specific) Long Horror Movies

Y’all know me. You know how old I am (almost at my 30s! I’m dying!), how I give myself a bedtime and shit. You know if I have to watch a long-ass movie, it better get to the damn point of it all. So in the proper spirit of this post, I’d like to just get right to it: sometimes movies earn their lengthy runtime and sometimes those movies are horror movies. So I’d like to take a minute to honor 5 horror movies I deeply admire that make a unmistakable boon out of their willingness to extend themselves out in the pursuit of the creeping atmosphere that makes a horror movie work so well under your skin.

Dawn of the Dead (1978, George Romero, USA/Italy)

One of two movies on this list that has been famously subject to separate cuts: I’ve seen Dario Argento’s 119-minute European-market Zombi cut and certainly think it’s an exciting bit of zombie action on its own merit, but no masterpiece. The movie as writer/director George A. Romero finished it – 127 minutes in runtime – contains a very slow-moving and ambling middle part that Argento saw to remove and that makes sense given that I think the message Romero wanted to make out of quite possibly horror cinema’s most famous satire is American-centric: the exhausting and dead-end rise of Consumerism, the greed and selfishness it imbues in people. Of which arguably the most powerful way it gets to make that point loud and clear is letting four characters just fuck around in a mall and slowly run out of things to do and eventually run out of soul in their daily survivalism within the walls of that contemporary institution that is the shopping mall. 40 minutes where the zombies just feel like a complete afterthought and all the resources in the world cannot satisfy a small group of people’s personal qualms is the perfect usage of that additional time and a Dawn of the Dead without that is not as rich thematically.

(Better get this out of the way: most of the movies on this list are already pretty well canonized and not of the sort that demand defense given the amount of critical acclaim they’ve received [it would be take up more space to name beloved horror titles that would be close to the level of masterpiece that these films are if they weren’t too long, ie. Rosemary’s Baby and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?]. This is once again more of an illustration of my regular rule that movies really push it with their runtimes but sometimes they actually do something with that runtime).

The Shining (1980, Stanley Kubrick, USA/UK)

The other movie on this list that famously has alternative cuts and I’ve long suspected that watching the 119-minute European cut sounded like an experience that I’d prefer to the already masterful 144-minute American cut (I confess that part of this was hearing that the European cut removes what is absolutely my least favorite shot in the movie). It certainly has more momentum, but to my great surprise, I found it was a bit less compelling as an aggravating experience watching a family collapse. Public consensus it seems has come around to figuring out that Shelly Duvall’s performance is just as essential to The Shining working as a character piece as Jack Nicholson and she’s not as favored by screentime in the European cut, but there’s also the fact that Danny Lloyd (who is not only as essential in my opinion, but he is in fact my favorite of the three central performances) losing presence as well. And anyway, I think removing a single frame of the famous Steadicam shots where Lloyd rides around in the hallways is a bigger mistake as having the skeletons shot. That hypnotic ride is pretty much representative of the movie’s power as a whole.

OK, removing it is not a BIGGER mistake, but it is almost as big.

Bone Tomahawk (2015, S. Craig Zahler, USA)

The 2010s have brought some of the most unnecessarily long horror movies that I at least have seen (The Conjuring 2, It: Chapter Two, Midsommar, A Cure for Wellness, Suspiria, even the very sequel of The Shining above… Doctor Sleep). Bone Tomahawk is not the only super long horror movie of the 2010s that I love (Conjuring 2, A Cure for Wellness, and Suspiria) but it is in fact one of only two that I could say is EXACTLY the right length it needs to be (something that can not be said about the other two features Zahler has made since).

Upon giving us enough knowledge about what’s going on very early in the picture, Zahler sees to let the tensions burn up slowly and particularly off of the relationship of its central characters rather than the fact that it is a cannibal horror film. And the characters are truly the pay off of this film: it’s certainly in its interest to deliver on the expected gore effects that a cannibal film would, but those are uniformly backloaded (in fact, the actual plot basically kicks in late once we get an idea of the rhythms of the town the characters ride out of). The real interest is in giving us something of a horror movie Searchers: investigating a group of archetypal forms of masculinity slowly getting more and more fatigued and tired at their performativity, delivered by central performances and makeup that pace themselves within the generous runtime admirably.

Plus it’s just so much more unnerving to know that something horrifying is in the distance and that you’re headed right toward rather than just have it delivered to you prematurely. You need to be sunk into that harsh and empty environment before your ears start listening in on what’s wrong and intruding in that alienating isolation and once that begins, it’s a creepy enough vibe to satisfy us before the monsters come out. If that isn’t tension, I don’t know what is.

The Wailing (2016, Na Hong-jin, South Korea)

And the other 2010s horror film that is perfect in its runtime for something of an opposite reason. The Wailing is an extremely heavy horror movie, the sort that its density only reveals itself the longer it runs. For it starts as a small town police procedural, then a family drama, then layers in the demonic possession element, then starts going into the ironic Christian allegory, and before we know it all that weight crushes us just as much as the oppressively gorgeous mountainside atmosphere that this movie sets itself in. The Wailing‘s 156 minute runtime is essential to transforming this into as epic a story as horror films get and it also applies fatigue on the viewer to watch the hero keep running into false leads and twists that show he has been looking in the wrong places for answers, without ending up a bore because the desperation for the characters tightens further and further. It’s a length that is wielded with maximum power for the viewer and paced remarkably well for our investment in this ultimate possession tragedy and that results in maybe the best possession film I’ve seen yet.

The Empty Man (2020, David Prior, USA)

A movie that got hosed badly over its proper release last year that feels like it’s developing a second life in streaming akin to how some movies that don’t catch their audiences in theaters discovered their cult on DVD or VHS, The Empty Man is a wild movie that takes a lot of swings. Enough swings to be basically made up of a lot of stuff, ever changing throughout its 137 minute runtime. Which is something that, say, Luca Guadagnino’s afore-mentioned Suspiria remake gets close to accomplishing but there’s certainly one subplot in there that I think should go without any hesitation. The Empty Man certainly feels its length at points, but I can’t think of what’s the first thing I’d cut. And it’s simply hard to claim a movie is too long when it all feels like it’s in motion the way this one is, even when it feels slow at points. When you shift gears as many times as The Empty Man does without completely collapsing, it’s hard to complain about how much time you’d like to cruise on each one.

HONORABLE MENTION: It feels like cheating to invoke the name of Grindhouse in here, especially since its status as one movie or two movies is up for debate. But if you do think of it as a single movie (I don’t have an answer to if I do), know that it is a movie with my deepest endorsement for every minute of its 3+ hours as a one-of-a-kind theatrical experience.

Horror Show

I like to pair stuff and I like double features. It feels like a holistic exercise in thinking about movies and provides extra shape to the experience of watching them. Of course, this is easier to perform at home these days than to encounter in theaters, even prior to COVID busting in on us, since who wants to spend a large amount of time at the cinema. I do, but I expect for some, it’s the same exhausting feeling I had having to stay after school for certain activities. But that’s what home media and streaming and piracy is for.

Still, because it is October, and I haven’t posted during this month yet (working on a couple of horror movie reviews for y’all and maybe another bit of general rambling), I’ve provided a handful of marquee partners – some more obvious than others – to arrange in your household when you have an empty night and just want to get into some really fun personal watch parties. I certainly plan to perform some of these within my own home over the next few weeks:

1977: THE YEAR OF THE WITCH – Suspiria (Argento, 1977) and House (Obayashi, 1977)\

1977 happened to be a special time that included two of my favorite horrors movies ever, but on top of that: those two horror movies were related to a bunch of little girls staying together in a creepy building and watching logic complete collapse onto them as it figures they are being preyed upon by evil and dark witches. It’s not just that 1977 was the year of the witch, it was the year of two horror movies that have no interest in giving you psychological footage through its visual and audial absurdities.

1981: THE YEAR OF THE DOG – An American Werewolf in London (Landis, 1981) and The Howling (Dante, 1981)

As it says on the tin, these are two of the three major Werewolf releases in the year of 1981 (Wolfen is the third, but I have not yet seen it and so cannot speak on its quality) and I think personally they also happen to have the two best werewolf transformation sequences ever: one is basically a cartoon of sorts, the other feels like it yanks at your heart strings as the character screams in pain. On top of having two very excellent and divergent senses of humor about their situation, it feels like a tonal match in addition to the obvious werewolf connection.

ROBOT SLASHERS – Chopping Mall (Wynorski, 1986) and Hardware (Stanley, 1990)

This was one I ran into completely by accident when I was looking for random and short horror features to watch a couple of years ago and damned if this didn’t pay off massively. Two surprise instances of just watching robots rampage around and kill others, with a satirical edge to both pictures but not enough to just distract from the straightforward wackiness of these killing machines.

VISUAL NOISE NIGHTMARES – Eraserhead (Lynch, 1977) and Tetsuo: The Iron Man (Tsukamoto, 1989)

I have to credit Tim Brayton at Bride of Alternate Ending for this connection, but it feels so obvious that I’m astounded I didn’t see it beforehand. The debut features of two filmmakers, shot in high contrast black-and-white and through painstaking productions that took several years, and dousing us in unpleasant experiences of nightmare imagery. Yet they aim their angry aesthetic in separate directions: Eraserhead‘s obsession with the flesh and Tetsuo‘s obsession with the technological (which ok does end up converging with flesh) leaves the zero stone unturned for hatred by the time you’re done with these two.

BETWEEN PLEASURE AND PAIN – From Beyond (Gordon, 1986) and Hellraiser (Barker, 1987)

Clive Barker adapting his own work should particularly be a no brainer for sense-overwhelming body horror, especially given how Hellraiser stands among his best literary works as a gamechanger. It’s From Beyond, the OTHER Stuart Gordon Lovecraft adaptation (THE adaptation will be showing up a few spaces below) that probably needs more explanation for those who haven’t seen, but it is very much something transgressive and nasty of a picture that is just as dedicated in elaborating on the perverse connection between violence and sexuality. Both are repulsive but fascinating works that I am surprised I haven’t paired this way on a watch before.

WEIRD MONSTER PICTURES – Godzilla vs. Hedorah (Banno, 1971) and Q (Cohen, 1982) – with The Host (Bong, 2006) as a potential alternate

So in a genre that includes oh so many kaiju and monster movies, why these two together? Well, because they don’t act the way we expect our kaiju monsters. Godzilla vs. Hedorah was such a movie that Toho had no clue what to do with in its switching between cartoon silliness and deep solemness and its relevant hippie aesthetics that Banno Yoshimitsu ended up effectively banned from directing anymore movies for the remainder of his life. What a shame because Hedorah feels like a movie anybody can love with the right mindset. Meanwhile, Q is essentially a monster movie that gets hijacked by Michael Moriarty’s one of a kind performance, transforming the whole thing into an episode of Seinfeld by way of The Giant Claw and its relentless New York personality makes it one that speaks to me and also feels unlike most other horror films.

And then The Host didn’t nearly have the pains in its release as the other two, but it makes a fair alternate as the movie that introduced me to Bong Joon-ho’s deft handling of various moods through a wacky family comedy interrupted by monsters and US interventionalist criticism.

SPLATTERHOUSE ROCK – Re-Animator (Gordon, 1985) and Evil Dead II (Raimi, 1987) with Braindead (Jackson, 1992) as a potential alternate

Part of the basis of my love for horror: I like practical special effects and I especially like gore effects. I find they not only bring out a lot of imagination and creativity, but they tell you something about the mindset and personality of the effects artist and film director behind them. Certainly those exposed to enough of them can tell the works of Tom Savini, Greg Nicotero, Screaming Mad George, and John Carl Buechler (whose work was the feature of Re-Animator) apart… they have a loving fingerprint on each of their creations. Anyway, this particular double feature is dedicated to two of those gory pictures that indulge in absolute fun at the absurd amounts of blood they can splash on an actors or elaborate effects they can throw upon them to play around with: the sort of movies that not only made me want to make movies, but mad me wish I could have been on set with them as you can imagine Stuart Gordon and Sam Raimi laughing their heads off looking at dailies. Peter Jackson is of course no less a disciple to the exhilaration of making theatrics out of shoestring and heart in his early works and that’s why I suggest his best film, Braindead, as the alternate.

BIG-BUDGET TRASH – A Cure for Wellness (Verbinski, 2016) and Malignant (Wan, 2021) – with Gremlins 2: The New Batch (Dante, 1990) as a “potential take the money and run” alternate.

So this is a tough one to make sense of except in my mind entirely, but A Cure for Wellness and Malignant happen to share two distinctions to me: they are both gleefully stupid movies indulging in the most crass and unrefined of trash horror elements and they both happen to have been made for an amount of money disproportionate to the amount of money anybody with the slightest foresight could tell they weren’t going to make back. But every bit of that money is seen on the screen and it’s used in a manner that makes clear that the filmmakers – Gore Verbinski and James Wan, who earned their way by making some extremely tight genre pictures for studios up ’til this point – were happy to use such an exorbitant budget to make sloppy horror cinema mashed up from their favorite flicks. I’m sure the Splatterhouse Rock selections already reinforced my attitude that the best horror movies are the ones that come from people happy to make ’em but I mean this one rewards those people by letting them go whole hog with the resources used to make fucking tentpoles and it results in the effect of watching a grimy horror VHS from your favorite video store with gleeful polish.

Gremlins 2: The New Batch is an alternate if you would like a movie that also happens to be an absolute fucking masterpiece, one of the great “fuck studios, give me the money and let me fuck around” movies.

THE LIFE OF THE MIND – The Cell (Singh, 2000) and The Blazing World (Young, 2021) with Barton Fink (Coen, 1991) as a potential alternate.

Part of this is how the two features selected have received, in my opinion, an unfair reception (not the case for alternate Barton Fink, which was so beloved in its Cannes 1991 premiere that the festival had to make a rule after limiting the amount of awards a movie could win there, but it IS the source of this double feature’s name). Maybe people would rather talk shit about good movies than go to therapy. In any case, The Cell and The Blazing World aren’t the most abstract movies you could pull together – they’re not even the most abstract movies in this whole fucking post, given the Visual Noise Nightmares – but they do seem to be entangled with an idea of rendering states of mind in gorgeously lavish visuals that maintain the unnerving emotional tenor that the stories demand: one the curdled brain of a serial killer, the other the traumatized retreat of somebody trying to figure out what her sister’s death did to her family. I find them both very transporting and visionary movies and maybe that might be the case for others besides me. In case that ain’t, I’ve added the much-harder-to-parse cod-horror Barton Fink as the alternate (and hey there’s also Mulholland Dr. and Persona to consider, but those are two very much huge stretches – though maybe Fink and Mulholland and Persona could also make their own anti-cinema combo).

BONUS TRIPLE FEATURE: JOHN SAYLES’ MONSTER MOVIES – Piranha (Dante, 1976), Alligator (Teague, 1980), and The Howling (Dante, 1981)

John Sayles is among my favorite filmmakers ever. But before he made such on-point indie American masterpieces as Matewan and Lone Star, he had to pay bills and of course that patron saint of independent American cinema, Roger Corman, took Sayles under the wing same as he did with many genius cinema creatives in their incubation. The only movie from that era in this triple feature is Piranha, but it was nevertheless an era that introduced Sayles to a side career of writing genre screenplays on the side (and of course began his extended collaborations with Piranha/The Howling director Joe Dante and Alligator director Lewis Teague) and my friends… you would be hard-pressed to find smarter genre movie writing around. The directors themselves are no slouches – this is the post’s fourth appearance of Dante for a reason – but Sayles is almost single-handedly responsible for the launchpad of wit and working-class humanity that these movies have while Dante and Teague just make extremely fun and trashy monster movies out of it. They were my introductions to the sort of nuanced storytelling Sayles is into and also made for excellent undemanding comfort food on their own ends and insofar as I’m looking forward to indulging any of these concepts… this one I’m definitely going to go through before the end of the Halloween season for sure.