The recent death of "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, who starred in such memorable films as "They Live" and such immemorable ones as "Hell Comes to Frog Town" and "Sci-Fighter", really got me thinking about movies that were ahead of their time in one way or another. So I'm not boring my readers to death, I'm restricting myself to the five best examples that I believe fit this mold and I'm only allowing one John Carpenter flick on the list. That said, here are my picks:
5) John Carpenter's The Thing (1982)
Let's get one thing straight: Carpenter's sci-fi horror epic is not a remake of the 1951 film "The Thing From Another World" no matter what you have been told. Literally the only thing (no pun intended) these two films have in common is a set-up which can best be described as, "A creature from another planet terrorizes a bunch of humans in an isolated setting."
Carpenter's film is what the 1951 version should have been in the first place had it not decided to ignore virtually all of the John W. Campbell, Jr. short story ("Who Goes There?") upon which it was based. John Carpenter did not remake "The Thing From Another World", he made a film which made up for the fact that the 1951 film failed to make it in the first place. His is perhaps the first cinematic apology where one director looked at the work of a previous one and said, "I'm sorry, he got it all wrong. Let's fix that." Or at least it's the first one that actually followed through on that promise.
Let's get another thing straight: I love "The Thing From Another World." It's a beautifully-shot, excellently-produced, competently-acted black-and-white scare-fest from an age when the biggest thing the Western World had to fear was the Red Scare of Communism. Like the 1956 "Invasion of the Body Snatchers", it holds up to this day as its own film. But let's not for one minute pretend it bears more than a passing resemblance to the original story which inspired its creation.
Carpenter's film was ahead of its time for many reasons, especially the practical effects and make-up of Rob Bottin which still hold up to this day, but it was hamstrung by a release date that saw its tale of alien invasion and body horror derailed by Spielberg's heart-warming story of a boy trying to help a gentle extra-terrestrial find his way home. After audiences were done crying over "E.T.", they weren't interested in viewing aliens as the bad guys and the film languished at the box office until people re-discovered "The Thing" in all its g(l)ory thanks to the video rental market.
4) The Blob (1988)
I don't care what you think about the 1958 original, where a going-on-thirty Steve McQueen tries to pass as a teenage heart-throb and manages to beat back his outer-world adversary using an ordinary fire extinguisher. On the other hand, I care quite deeply what you think about the 1988 remake which had exactly one purpose: to take everything they couldn't show in the 1950's and rub your nose in it until you felt the need to take a long shower.
The entire horror franchise is built around the idea that there are rules all great horror films follow which determine who's still alive when the credits start rolling, and the first thing director Chuck Russell does with his version of "The Blob" is to gather up all those rules into a neat little pile and urinate on them. The 1988 Blob-fest doesn't care if you're supposed to be the hero of the story. It doesn't matter if you're the guy riding to the rescue. It doesn't matter if you're a scrappy kid, or a beloved family pet, or a virgin, the hero's love interest, the heroine's love interest, the well-intentioned secondary character with the heart of gold, or any of the other tropes which should guarantee your survival because sometimes, though no fault of your own, shit happens and you're gonna die.
Russell's version of "The Blob" pre-dates "The Walking Dead's" 'anyone can die at any point for any reason even if it's just because the writer is a sadistic prick' attitude by twenty-two frigging years, which is probably why most people don't have the first clue it even exists. It doesn't help that neither Matt's younger brother Kevin Dillon nor Shawnee Smith (who you know from the "Saw" series even if you don't recognize her by name) are exactly big-name draws at the box office. This Blob got lost amid horror's declining late-80s years as movie-goers began to tire of horror films becoming nothing but sequel-generating cash cows where the bad guys were the most charismatic people on the screen and got the most cheers, even when they were butchering innocent teenagers. It fits into no molds of preconception, relentlessly toys with the audience, and does not shy away from showing any of the face-melting, body-digesting, small-town-consuming horror we've grown accustomed to seeing today.
Also, by some coincidence, the screenplay was developed by Frank Darabont, who would go on to create "The Walking Dead" a couple decades later, and features Jeffrey DeMunn, who would go on to play Dale on "The Walking Dead". Ain't life funny like that?
3) Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994)
"New Nightmare" bombed because audiences at the time didn't understand what Craven was trying to do. They went in expecting a brand new installment of "Freddy Krueger slices people up with his wit and razor-claws", and instead got their brains handed to them by a director postulating a more metaphysical reason for the existence of the horror film. As opposed to entertainment, what if horror films existed to take the 'bite' (or 'slash', or 'machete') out of something truly scary?
The idea of a horror film taking itself seriously at a meta-level was about as difficult a pill for audiences to swallow as the previous year's attempt to do it with blockbuster action flicks, "Last Action Hero." Audiences were not ready to see people like Heather Langenkamp, John Saxon, and Robert Englund playing Heather Langenkamp, John Saxon, and Robert Englund respectively. "New Nightmare" dared to forge new ground and ask some serious questions about the role of the horror movie in today's society, and it was met by yawns and jeers from an audience who only showed up to watch half-naked bimbos scream and run up the stairs when they should have been running out the front door.
Two years later, in 1996, Craven would be given a second chance to confront a similar theme with "Scream", but let the record show he tried to drag us into uncharted territory with "New Nightmare" first. Sadly, like with Crazy Ralph in the "Friday the 13th" films, none of us was willing to listen the first time.
2) Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
People went absolutely ga-ga over "The Blair Witch Project", a low-budget feature shot using no-name actors wandering around in a forest and arguing about who was more lost and exactly how screwed they all would be if they didn't get home by the end of the weekend. This "found footage" genre of film exploded overnight, garnering a ton of praise for its unique premise, and spawning a slew of imitators like "Paranormal Activity", "Cloverfield", and "[REC]". What everyone forgot was that twenty years earlier, Italian director Ruggero Deodato used this exact same "found footage" technique to frame "Cannibal Holocaust", his own entry into the splatter film genre.
You thought the marketing campaign behind "Blair Witch" was crazy, with all of its claims of being a true story? Well, none of the people behind the production of "Blair Witch" ever got dragged before a judge to find themselves indicted on murder charges. See, the no-name actors and actresses used by Deodato actually signed a contract before filming began, the terms of which required them to disappear from their own lives for a full year after Holocaust's release. In theory, this was supposed to lend credence to the whole idea that, while half of the film was comprised of actual footage shot by Deodato and using a named actor like Robert Kerman, the other half was comprised of the legit footage shot by a group of documentarians who were actually assholes and got what was coming to them. in other words, Deodato's intention the whole time was that people would think these people were really dead.
It didn't help Deodato's case that the special effects on Holocaust were ridiculously effective at conveying the death, impalement, and dismemberment of cast members, and he was forced, in the middle of an Italian courtroom, to re-create the film's most iconic effect (a woman impaled through the groin with the tip of the pole protruding from her mouth) to prove it could be done without actually driving a pole through a young girl's torso the long way. It also didn't help that the animal deaths shown on screen were not faked in any way, which kinda lent credence to the theory he might have been batshit insane enough to murder some humans if he thought doing so would pay off in the verisimilitude department.
Deodato eventually got the charges dropped when he was able to get the supposedly-dead documentary film crew to show up in court (not an easy thing to do when your stars are living completely incommunicado in a pre-Internet and pre-cell phone age), thus proving that they hadn't been ground into cannibal chow in the jungles of South America. After that fiasco, the "found footage" genre of horror film fell out of favour for the most part until Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez proved it could be a money-maker again in 1999.
1) The Mist (2007)
I watched "The Mist" at a midnight showing on its opening day in November of 2007, by myself, in a theatre where there were maybe fifteen other people who, like me, had nothing else going on. By the time the credits began to roll, I felt like I had gone the distance with Rocky. The novella, by Stephen King, is one of my favorite short horror stories of all time, and I have a personal theory that the only person who understands how to translate King's work to the big screen is Frank Darabont. "The Mist", "The Green Mile", "The Shawshank Redemption"...all of the best films made from King's prodigious body of work have been helmed by this man, and it's clear he 'gets' King like no one else. I was expecting to have a great time.
What I absolutely was not expecting was to get the ever living hell scared out of me, my mind absolutely screwed with, and an ending that took the next logical step from where the novella leaves off. No, I'm not spoiling it--if you haven't seen it, I refuse to tell you anything else. Go watch it right now.
"The Mist", both the novella and the film, is a dark, dark journey down into the twisted roots of human psychology, groupthink, and what happens when all of society's rules go out the window and our safety nets we all take for granted are uprooted and blown away. But Darabont's film gleefully bends, twists, and shatters the rules of an ordinary horror film with a screenplay that goes out of its way to prove even the most well-meaning and heroic protagonists can be wrong, with devastating consequences. Like Chuck Russell before him, Darabont has no qualms handing out fatalities to the deserving and the undeserving alike. We don't even know the state of roughly half the people trapped in the market at the end of the film, but it doesn't matter. What does matter is a choice made in the ending, a twist from that in the book, which King himself was so impressed by that he's gone on record saying he wished he'd thought of it thirty years earlier when he wrote the story. Said twist has made "The Mist" one of the most debated horror films of all time, with one camp deriding it as being pessimistic and nasty, and another camp hailing it as a cinematic triumph.
I've never had a horror film brutalize me psychologically the way I felt after leaving the theatre in the aftermath of "The Mist." At the end of most films, you hear the audience start to stir, stand up, walk around, applaud, etc... At my screening of "The Mist", nobody got up. Nobody walked out during the credits. There was no applause. Only when it became clear Darabont wasn't going to offer up some slice of hope in a post-credit sequence did people begin to talk. It's a talk that keeps going to this very day.