Geek Speak

Five Thought-Provoking Horror Films in Honor of Dismember the Alamo

This weekend, Dismember the Alamo will host its second Halloween mystery-movie marathon: four movies, not to be revealed until they start, plus a special guest tied to one or more of the films. When I spoke to Steve Bessette, creative manager of the Alamo Drafthouse in Littleton, he promised me the program would include some movies outside the usual pantheon of classic horror. "I like thinkers, things that challenge with theme — like sexual and religious [themes], heady stuff," he said. This got my wheels turning, because as much as I love classic horror, I fucking adore the weird, fringe stuff even more, and I couldn't resist making my own program of "thinkers" — or, really, mind-warpers, because nothing makes me think like brain-twisting plots that question the very nature of reality. Never one to let an obsessive thought-experiment gone awry go to waste, I hereby present my dream program of weird, thought-provoking horror on the very edge of reality.

(Note: This should in no way be taken as a preview or prediction of what Bessette has programmed for Dismember. These are my own selections, inspired by his brief description of the kind of horror movies he loves and chose for the series. If there's any overlap, it will be purely coincidental, and an indication that his taste is as awesome as my own. I also picked five films instead of four, because I could.)

5) In the Mouth of Madness
I've written about In the Mouth of Madness before, but it's worth revisiting because for all its flaws, this is a really cool film with a lot of weird shit going on. Sam Neill plays an insurance adjuster hired to track down the world's most popular horror novelist, Sutter Cane, and finds that the closer he gets to the truth, the further away reality recedes. It plays with the ideas of fiction's relation to reality, and the idea that maybe we make it all up as we go along, and how scary would it be if someone else, maybe a horror author, was making it up for us? It's also probably the best film adaptation of the Cthulu mythos ever made, despite never mentioning either Cthulu or the mythos. Sure, it all kind of falls apart by the end, and it's more than a little cheesy — but start thinking about these ideas before bed some night and see if they don't keep you awake and more than a little freaked-out. 

4) Pontypool
One part zombie movie, one part meditation on the nature of reality as mediated by language, all with a twist of Snow Crash thrown in for good measure, Pontypool is an incredible film that almost defies description. It takes place almost entirely within a radio station where a former shock-jock mans the airwaves on the weirdest day ever for the small Canadian town that shares the film's name. Riots, murder and mayhem are breaking out everywhere, which is pretty weird for a place where the typical crime blotter is yet another report of the town drunk falling asleep in the street again. In time, it's revealed that a language-based virus is wreaking havoc, causing all sorts of psychotic behavior, and it just gets weirder from there. Then things get really weird. Stay through the credits for an out-of-this-world coda that adds even more WTF to the mix.

3) Altered States
I've already written an entire essay on my feelings for Altered States, so let me just hit the highlights here. The tale of a rogue drug researcher who gets so fucking high he reverts to a prehuman state is absolutely nutty and totally awesome. It's more than a little cheesy, and it's all but required viewing for anyone who's ever eaten so many mushrooms that they ended up chatting with aliens about the purpose of life, and still manages to be pretty enjoyable for its sheer weirdness even if you've never gotten closer to a psychedelic drug than a DARE class. It's barely horror, but it will definitely freak you out a little bit, especially if you've ever propped the doors of perception a little too far open yourself.

2) Perfect Blue
Is Satoshi Kon's anime masterpiece Perfect Blue even horror? It's up for debate, but it is certainly horrific as hell, and guaranteed to get you thinking, too. The tale of a young pop star who is trying to transition to life as an actress but finds herself trapped by others' perceptions of her and a creepy stalker with a taste for murder, it's a far cry from the usual anime subject matter. An unsettling look at fame, madness and the ephemeral nature of identity, Perfect Blue is the kind of film it takes two or three viewings to really grasp. By the time you do that, you'll have a pretty good understanding of the film — but don't be too surprised if you never look at anything else the same way again.

1) Jacob's Ladder
Films don't come more creepy, unsettling and thought-provoking than Jacob's Ladder. It's a film about a Vietnam vet who comes home, only to find he doesn't quite fit in. And he sees demons everywhere. And maybe he never left Vietnam at all. Is he having flashbacks? Did he die there? WTF is actually going on? You can watch it ten times and never be quite sure, but it sure does keep you up nights pondering, and manages to scare the pants off you in the meantime, making it just about a perfect horror thinker. 

Remember, none of the films above may be in the Dismember the Alamo program on October 24. Find more details on this Alamo Drafthouse page.