Friday, March 19, 2010

Let the Sunshine In. Then Die.

Daylight Savings is a cruel calendar trick and a reason to distrust farmers, but we can be thankful for  one thing: sunshine. Bright, warm, orange hued illumination a whole 60 minutes ahead of schedule.

As I walked home this week and actually saw things, I started thinking about the effectiveness of daylight and its underuse in horror. Sure, there’s some primal fear and easy camera tricks to harvest in midnight cinema, but today, let’s take a look at films not afraid to let the sunshine in.

In rough chronological order:

1. The Wicker Man

Some of the earlier eeriness occurs in that sexy witching hour, when snails cuddle and Britt Ekland’s body double booty shakes, but Robin Hardy’s 1974 classic enigma truly comes to pagan life in its last terrifying act set during a beautiful fall early afternoon (well it starts in the morning, but those choral parades take forever). With the bright glare sometimes forcing you to look away, the film bypasses any of the tricks of night vision, letting all the weirdness of bunny masks, pancake makeup, and group singing hang out in full view. When (SPOILER ALERT) Sergeant Howie screams his final hymn from a blazing, goats a’fire filled sacrificial structure, the glory of the natural sun shines straight through to the audience.

2. I Spit On Your Grave

Brutal gang rape is horrifying any time of day, but this 1978 shocker is made all the worse by its fully lit cruelty. Filmmaker Meir Zarchi doesn't shy away from showing you the horrors experienced by lead Camille Keaton, filming her pale body with a matter-of-fact detachment that simply lets the crime speak for itself.

3. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Spanning dusk to dawn, Tobe Hooper’s classic set the bar for all-out backwoods psychohorror. The introduction of Leatherface--silent, husky, and full of gutty grime--is shocking not just because of his untamed violence, but also due to the sudden appearance of such a grotesque human in full light. It’s fitting then that TCM ends on such a memorable, sun-lit shot as our chainsaw-wielding madman swings his roaring sword across a slowly waking Texas morning landscape.

4. Jaws

Quint’s account of the USS Indianapolis may be told in haunting shadow, but his lower half gets crunched on what may otherwise be a perfect July beach morning. 

5. The Brood

Generally, kindergarten days begin with the Pledge of Allegiance and one kid vomiting in the morning circle, but leave it to David Cronenberg to capture a different sort of start to alphabet games and adding practice. This 1979 chiller features many fine sequences, but it’s the schoolteacher slaughter that truly horrifies anybody with a pulse. A sunny winter morning turns exceedingly bloody as two evil gnomish creatures bludgeon Ms. Mayer with kiddie tools...right in front of a classroom full of 6 year olds. Time for milk and cookies yet?

6. Friday the 13th

A good deal of this series benefits from those summer days, fitting when the entire concept is based on camping. Since we already know what Jason Voohres looks like by Part III, there’s really no more point in hiding his face in the nighttime shadows (something the misguided remake didn’t seem to understand). All this sunny machete action began in its ‘80s glory with the initial film, where several counselors met their end before they got the chance to put on their pajamas. More notably, the 1980 hallmark of dead teenager movies ends with one of the best jump scares in horror history, when final girl Alice survives into the early morning, only to get a terrifying wake-up call with a dozen and counting sequel potential.

7. The Burning

Yes, George Costanza himself--with hair--handing out condoms to camp counselors intent on seducing underage high schoolers is reason enough see this not-so-good 1981 slasher, but the real highlight is a raft massacre of a dozen kid campers via sharp, rusty garden shears. A great scene of gruesome cruelty and refreshingly timed for all to see.

8. Day of the Dead

Not the best Romero installment by any means (or at least, mine), but it’s hard to argue with those opening five minutes, where scabby, rotting zombies shuffle through an abandoned Florida street on what could otherwise be a fine day for a jog.

9. The Devil’s Rejects

The perfect flip side to the rave-colored black-lit House of 1000 Corpses (look close enough and I’m sure you’ll find some velvety neon posters of wizards hanging on Dr. Satan's walls), Rob Zombie’s matured throwback followup is dripping with the sweaty grime from a hot southern sun. From the daytime hotel massacre and truck scramble to the slow-motion Freebird finale, The Devil’s Rejects makes you feel the heat, one stabbed banjoist at a time.

10. Dawn of the Dead

Zach Snyder's surprisingly spry reimagining of zombies gone shopping smartly avoids the better-in-the-dark style of so many other modern films by opening and closing with two beautifully spring-like sunny days...that just happen to include Olympian trained sprinting undead. Before Johnny Cash's Man Comes Around or Ving Rhames' cool rears its shiny bald head, Dawn of the Dead starts so innocently in a bland, postcard worthy suburb of middle America before waking up the next day to neighborhood shootouts and helicopter crashes. It's fitting that the film ends at its titular time of day as our survivors make their way to a new--probably very short--life sailing a yacht on what would otherwise be an expensive mini vacation.

11. All the Boys Love Mandy Lane

Sure, the bulk of this still unjustly unreleased slasher takes place overnight on a blood-soaked ranch, but its grand finale gets the hot desert morning treatment, making its stunning twist all the more jarring. See it to believe it...when it actually gets legally put into theaters.

While the majority of this unofficial Ils remake occurs in the quiet midnight hours, the real horror is saved for sunrise. To avoid spoiling a fairly recent film, I’ll tread softer than the barely audible whispering of star Liv Tyler and simply say that in this surprisingly vicious minimalist slasher, the terror doesn’t end just because it’s time for waffles.

13. 28 Weeks Later

Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later offered a few effective AM shots, but it’s Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s underrated sequel that takes full advantage of the rare British sun with one of the most terrifying opening sequences of recent years. There’s a reason you have to seal yourself indoors in the event of an infected cannibal rampage, and all it takes is one open eyehole to let the chaos destroy any safety you’ve built with fellow survivors. Watching a horde of infected chase after Robert Carlyle, operatic classical music playing maniacally in the background, is enough to make you turn out the lights.

Most vacationing college students traveling to Central America want nothing more than to surround themselves with hot people and work on their tans, but that gets taken a little too far in this 2008 adaptation of Scott Smith’s novel. Five fresh-faced young folks find themselves trapped on a mysterious Mayan structure, battling the threat of homicidal vines and--cue the sound cue--each other. While the film’s screaming plants lurk inside darkened caves, most of the more disturbing action occurs under the dry, scorching sun to ill-prepared twentysomethings running low on water and high on tequila. Nearly everything is fully visible, and all of it horrific in a way rarely seen in your typical pretty-people-in-trouble flicks of the 21st century.

Highly contagious disease is ravaging its way through America--and presumably, the world--but you’d never know it if you just glanced out your window. The gorgeous weather offers an intriguing contrast to the increasingly tense atmosphere of this 2009 thriller as humans die off and plague erodes the line between morality and survival. There’s something disturbing, and yet perfectly fine about nature’s continuance in the face of human obliteration, and Carriers captures it with sunshine to spare.

and a few Honorable Mentions via some fine folks on Twitter

Cabin Fever
The Crazies
Drag Me to Hell
Let the Right One In
Picnic At Hanging Rock
Rosemary’s Baby

plus & Recommendations I Haven’t Seen:
And Soon the Darkness
The Children
Dead Snow


  1. I love the suspense of the hidden fears, however god damned AVP2 was nothing but impenetrable blackness which pissed me off.. My vote is for mostly night with the final break in morning towards the end of the film ;)

  2. Such a great concept! And stellar picks...

  3. I hear ya Carl. That's where TCM and Mandy Lane really fly for me. There's something natural about surviving into the morning, but amazing about seeing the potential horror in fully lit daylight.

    And thanks Ashley!