Fright-fest season is in full swing: Paranormal Activity 2 has already cashed in on the annual lead-up-to-Halloween run, to the tune of $41 million. And this weekend Saw 3D—which thankfully promises to be the franchise's last entry—is poised to harrow audiences with the illusion of rusty instruments of torture jabbing off the screen and into the multiplex auditorium. But, for sequel-fatigued viewers seeking out scares, a few titles still haunting the new-release home-video racks deliver above-average jolts.
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Standing out among the recent crop of horror remakes, reboots, and regurgitations is The Crazies, an update of the 1973 George Romero film, directed by Breck Eisner, the son of Disney honcho Michael Eisner. The younger Eisner's big-budget big break, Sahara (2005)—a financial disappointment that also occasioned a protracted legal battle between its production studio and mass-market-paperback pooh-bah Clive Cussler—lingers in no one's memory, but The Crazies is well worth a look. The versatile Timothy Olyphant, a recent Office guest star, toplines as a capable small-town-Iowa sheriff. It's all baseball games and peacefully rustling cornfields until a nearby plane crash releases a top-secret biological weapon, turning townsfolk into rabid, veiny killing machines. The tension ratchets up as perimeter-securing military grunts swoop in. The sheriff and his panicked band of the uninfected have a tendency to make it out of dodgy situations by a hair's breadth, but clever choreography distinguishes each blood-soaked nick-of-time escape.
Ti West's 2009 film The House of the Devil—both a tribute to and a mild parody of the 1980s imperiled-babysitter trope—builds much more slowly and uses subtler creaking-floorboard scare tactics than does The Crazies, though it's no less unsettling for it. Jocelin Donahue stars as put-upon college student Samantha, who takes a kid-sitting job in the boonies so she can meet rent on her new apartment, a refuge from her staggeringly inconsiderate roommate. Despite protestations from her motor-mouth friend Megan (Greenberg's Greta Gerwig), Samantha goes it alone for the night, agreeing to look after not a child but for the mother-in-law of the supremely creepy Mr. Ullman (Tom Noonan, previously seen being hired by Philip Seymour Hoffman's character to play Philip Seymour Hoffman's character in Synecdoche, New York). During its Satanists-in-the-basement conclusion, the film too quickly squanders the dread it has sustained by observing Samantha tiptoeing fearfully around the cavernous house. Nonetheless, The House of the Devil deserves to become an American horror perennial.
The also residentially titled House, a hyperactively phantasmagoric 1977 Japanese movie released this week on DVD and Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection after a winter theatrical run, provides glee and terror in equal measure, telling a broken-family tale, laced with postwar unease, against sublimely cheesy matte backdrops. The feature-length debut from the still-working Nobuhiko Obayashi follows Gorgeous, who avoids summer vacation with her widowed father and his new girlfriend by taking several of her schoolgirl compatriots (Fantasy, Precious, Sweetie, etc.) to visit her semi-estranged aunt's rural house-on-a-hill. Once there, the girls find Gorgeous's aunt alone, accompanied only by a white housecat named Blanche, and acting very strangely: Wheelchair-bound when the girls arrive, she's soon walking on her own two feet; later we glimpse a third eye through her open mouth. What follows is an orgy of hilarious haunted-house violence—gnashing pianos, demon mattresses, bleeding clocks—a tour de force of gaudy colors and analog effects. House is, in a word, inimitable—a cracked masterpiece no one will tarnish with a sequel.