8. Ravenous (1999)
This intense, unsettling, and underrated horror-western is not only unusual because of its genre-mixing madness (including some odd comic moments as well), but because its director is Antonia Bird (of Safe and Priest), handling material stereotypically associated with the male of the species.
Starring Guy Pearce, Robert Carlyle, and a small ensemble cast, Ravenous offers a horrifying cautionary tale, told by a survivor of a doomed mountain crossing (Donner Party of twelve? four? one?) Captain John Boyd, recently stationed in the winter at a remote and sparsely manned fort in the Sierra Nevadas, listens as the starving man relates his tale of survival cannibalism, which (without giving too much away) speaks to man’s potential for inhumanity.
The film put off audiences because of its subject matter, and puzzled many who saw it. Is it a dark satire? A commentary on the high price of Manifest Destiny? However you slice it, Ravenous will stick with you, as will its eerie omnipresent soundtrack, and its grim take on the question of who writes history as embodied by the powerful and the powerless.
7. An American Werewolf in London (1981)
From the moment we hear Bobby Vinton’s version of Blue Moon under the opening credit sequence (and, later on, Moondance and Bad Moon Rising), we know that John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London is going to be an ironic comedy of horrors. Landis grew up watching genre mashups like Bob Hope’s The Ghost Breakers (the first zombie-comedy?) and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (and Dracula and the Wolfman and the Invisible Man and The Mummy).
The director struggled to get this, his own monster project, off the ground for more than a decade, and finally succeeded in 1981, using cultural clashing and his knowledge of the genres to great advantage, gleefully subverting audience expectations at almost every plot turn.
Once backpacking buddies David Kessler (played charmingly by David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (a wonderful Griffin Dunne) stray from the path onto the moors of England despite warnings of a full moon, audiences familiar with the lore of the lycanthrope know what to expect. For that matter, so do David and Jack, whose nervous running commentary on monster movie history is part of the joke (and predates the meta-horror movies like Wes Craven’s Scream and its sequels a decade later.)
After an inevitable yet truly frightening blood-soaked attack, which turns David into a monster-in-training and Jack a “walking meatloaf,” the plot moves deceptively and deftly between comedy and horror, adding romance to the mix with a sexy Jenny Agutter as the neophyte werewolf’s Florence Nightingale. The real star of the film, of course, is Rick Baker’s spectacular state-of-the-art make-up and special effects, making the nightmare of David’s transformation all the more real and Jack’s progressively gruesome disintegration darkly funny.
6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
This inventive and mesmerizing 2004 mashup (think Philip K. Dick rewrites Strangers On A Train combined with elements of Casablanca) is a mind-expanding blend of realism and surrealism, of low-tech science-fiction time-traveling (aided by equally impressive special effects) with romantic-dramedy. Written by the brilliant Charlie Kaufmann (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Synecdoche NY) and directed by Michel Gondry, Eternal Sunshine is by turns bizarre and beautiful, touching and troubling in what it says about the reckless whims of the human heart.
The cast, tangled up in an intricately double-plotted tale of love lost and found and lost and found (the world forgetting by the world forgot) is superb. With a remarkably poignant and restrained performance by Jim Carrey as a heartsick Joel and a luscious and loony Kate Winslet as the darling Clementine, this film surprises at nearly every plot twist. The rest of the cast — Tom Wilson, Kirsten Dunst, Elijah Wood and Mark Ruffalo – also give wonderful performances.
If you want to see a high-tech version with a similar sense and sensibility, watch Her, Spike Jonze’s clever and imaginative 2013 mashup of love and near-future science-fiction, in which a shy guy (played by Joaquin Phoenix) falls for Scarlett Johanssen (well, sort of.)
5. Se7en (1995)
David Fincher’s Se7en is so steeped in the purgatory of a psychopathic mind that even as we follow (in typical cop-film fashion) a blood-soaked trail through seven sins and several levels of hell to a shocking and appalling conclusion, it is hard not to put this film squarely in the horror genre (much like Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs).
Despite a plot that on the surface seems to have been done to death – the hunt for a crazed serial killer (aptly named John Doe) by a dedicated veteran detective and brash younger partner — the script by Andrew Kevin Walker is anything but predictable, twisting itself in ways that steer clear of the generic clichés and stereotypes.
It is also one of the few crime films that manages to subtly exploit our belief (reinforced by countless other films) that good will prevail and that the ending will be happy (as it must when you have Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt as the detectives and Gwyneth Paltrow as Pitt’s smart and beautiful young wife). Suffice to say, and no spoilers here, be prepared for the horror, the horror.
4. Harold and Maude (1971)
This 1971 film has rightfully earned a cult following, thanks to its unique story and quirky yet endearing performances by Bud Cort (in his career-defining role) and the perpetually loopy Ruth Gordon. But its status also owes much to director Hal Ashby’s deft handling of his material, a cross-genre mashup, mixing love with more than a whiff of death — and generation-crossed lovers whose age difference may still shock or elicit squeamishness from some viewers.
A May-December romance is nothing new, you say? Well, Harold and Maude turns that particular trope on its head. The plot involves a teen-aged Harold, morbidly-obsessed with mortality, who tries to get a rise from his wealthy but distant match-making mother by faking his death in various gruesome ways.
After scaring away a number of potential matches his own age, Harold serendipitously finds true love when he meets Maude who, like him, enjoys attending funerals and is more than “half in love with easeful death.” The trick here is that Maude is equally in love with living — and nearing 80. Despite the usual disapproving parent-figures, priests, and psychiatrists, this odd couple “hooks up” and Harold learns a thing or two about the meaning of life as well as death.
For some, this irreverent dark comedy-love story may be somewhat dated because of certain stereotypes. But its title characters and satire of the generation gap, accompanied by a Cat Stevens soundtrack, moves nicely to a surprising ending that transcends its time period. For an updated version (of sorts), you should watch Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, complete with the music of Cat Stevens.
3. The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter’s 1982 reworking of the 1951 sci-fi classic, The Thing From Another World (produced and directed by the great Howard Hawkes and Christian Nyby) is a mashup masterpiece, combining nerve-wracking horror with the familiar beats of an action-thriller, all the while sampling deep sci-fi roots and more than a few well-worn war movie tropes. There are even Hawkesian hints of the wild west (minus quite conspicuously any women folk), in the desolate artic outpost where a group of isolated Americans have unwittingly de-iced a monster in their midst.
A heavily bearded, cowboy-hatted Kurt Russell, as chopper pilot MacReady, heads a stellar ensemble cast that also includes Wilford Brimley and Keith David in key roles. Carpenter’s film is visceral in every sense of the word, and cuts to the black heart of early 80’s cynicism and paranoia.
It also has a distinct advantage over its predecessor, thanks to Rob Bottin’s mind-blowing-head-growing-shape-shifting special effects. Although there are a number of harrowing scenes and “showdowns” in the film, the one that sticks with viewers is done with petri dishes not guns. As MacReady conducts a blood-curdling blood-letting, we are forced to watch not a trial of manhood but a test of the men’s very humanity.
More faithful in essence to John. W. Campbell’s short story “Who Goes There?” than the Hawkes’ adaptation, Carpenter’s Thing goes beyond the cold war warning to “keep watching the skies.” Instead it forces us to watch each other, and by the end, the line “I know I’m human” rings either eerily hollow or sounds a feeble last note of hope for the human race. Given the horror we have witnessed, one may be more likely than the other.
2. Blade Runner (1982)
Based on Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” Ridley Scott’s fantastic 1982 neo-noir-sci-fi-crime thriller is a seamless mashup of style and substance, its genres perfectly folded into and over themselves like an origami animal.
Offering up a dizzying and kaleidoscopic vision of Los Angeles circa 2019, fresh from his genre-crossing Alien (a haunted house of horrors in outer space) Scott combines the best (or worst) of a projected dystopian future on earth with a collective cultural nostalgia for a past that may never have existed.
The Blade Runner of the title is Rick Deckard, a trench-coated cop assigned to hunt down and terminate four replicants who have come back to earth in a stolen spaceship in search of their creator, a lonely little genius suffering from progeria, a premature aging disease.
As the plot corkscrews down rain-slicked shadowy streets and the halls of faceless mega-corporate high-rises, the issues raised regarding memory, desire, death, and creation are at the genetically-engineered heart of this sci-fi noir film. What separates man from machine? And how far will we allow technology to imprint itself on how we define identity? Played with alternately desperate and deadpan machismo by Harrison Ford, Deckard’s hunt for the replicants ultimately pits him against the terrifying yet tragic Roy Batty, played magnificently by Rutger Hauer.
Few mashups have done what Blade Runner does so well and with such inventiveness, which is to maintain the superficial tropes while getting under the skin (if it is skin) to question the very meaning of existence.
1. The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Alternately beautiful and terrifying, The Night of the Hunter is the only film ever directed by brilliant character actor Charles Laughton, who might not have been a one-hit wonder if people in 1955 had understood the method to his artful mashup.
The deceptively simple plot of this crime-does-not-payfairy tale-turned noir-horror-nightmare was adapted by Laughton and James Agee from a novel based on a real life serial killer’s exploits during the Depression. It involves fanatic Harry Powell, played to perverse perfection by a monstrously creepy Robert Mitchum, who preys on Willa Harper (Shelley Winters), a gullible and cringe-inducing masochistic mother of two.
The black-hatted preacher (with the famous and often copied LOVE and HATE tattooed on the fingers of his right and left hands) systematically menaces Willa’s children as he tries to force them to tell him where their bank-robber father (a young Peter Graves in a brief role) has hidden a fortune.
Combining starkly simple sets with moody, expressionistic, black and white lighting (think Grimm’s meets Caligari), the film begins and ends with the almost-magical appearance of Lillian Gish, one of the queens of the silent screen. Indeed much of this film owes a debt to the silent era and shows Laughton’s intimate knowledge of its grammar and potential for visual poetry.
Accompanied during key sequences by an unsettling nursery rhyme score, the child actors are perfectly suited to their roles. Angel-faced Billy Chapin is heartbreakingly believable as the resourceful and defiant John Harper, and Sally Jane Bruce, as baby sister Pearl, is at times as unnerving in her strangeness as Mitchum. Unfortunately for Laughton and film history, the dark and disturbing psychology lurking beneath the surface of this film was an incomprehensible mix for audiences, most of whom chose HATE over LOVE when it came to The Night of the Hunter.
Author Bio: Paula Uruburu is a Fullprofessor of English and Film Studies at Hofstra University (Francis FordCoppola’s alma mater) where she teaches auteur, genre, and special studies filmcourses. Her philosophy of life is the same as Scorsese’s vision of cinema – “it’sa matter of what’s in frame and what’s out.” And, her name is a palindrome.