The 411 Movies Top 5 06.10.11: Week 273 - Top 5 Small Town Genre Films
Posted by Trevor Snyder on 06.10.2011
In honor of J.J. Abrams' throwback Super 8, the 411 crew takes a look at some of the best sci-fi and horror films to ever be set in small towns.
THE TOP 5 SMALL TOWN GENRE FILMS
5. Storm of the Century (1999)
Alright, I'll be the first to admit that this 1999 mini-series, written for the screen by Stephen King, isn't really one of the greatest horror films of all time or anything. There are a couple other movies that I think would be more natural choices for this spot on my list, but a) I fully trust my fellow 411 writers to adequately cover those movies below, and b) I do want to highlight this film because, for all its flaws, it is a damn good example of the "small town horror" that this list is paying tribute to. When a mysterious stranger shows up on the small community of Little Tall Island during a blizzard, he displays an amazing knowledge of each resident's dark and dirty secrets, as well as a terrifying ability to force them to do things against their will. Eventually, the town is forced to listen to his demands – he is a demon, who needs one of the town's children to become his heir. The catch is that the child must be given to him willingly. This means the town must then vote on whether it is better to all be slaughtered, or actually give the demon what he desires. While it would have worked a lot better as a two hour movie rather than an over-long 260 minute mini-series, the film is still a potent examination of how even the most close-knit of communities can start to unravel and turn on each other in times of extreme crisis.
4. Children of the Corn (1984)
While the 2009 made-for-TV version was actually closer to Stephen King's terrific short story, I've still always had a soft spot in my heart for this version (which, if nothing else, we can all at least agree is much better than the hundred or so straight-to-video sequels that followed). The movie follows a couple that, during a cross-country trip, end up in the small town of Gatlin, Nebraska, where all of the town's adults have been murdered by their children, as a sacrifice to a demon known as "He Who Walks Behind the Rows." The movie gives the tale a heavier adventure/survival feel, and ditches the pessimistic ending of the original story, but the undeniable creepiness of a town full of killer children is still present. I mean, I get nervous enough around a room full of normal children…it's not hard to imagine this is the next logical step.
3. Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964)
The middle film in splatter-Godfather Herschell Gordon Lewis's infamous "Blood Trilogy" craftily plays on many city-goers secret fear of rural areas. Six Northern tourists end up in the small Southern town of Pleasant Valley, where they are informed they are to be the guests of honor in a centennial celebration of when the town was invaded and destroyed by Union soldiers during the Civil War. That might sound sort of fun, until you realize that in this case, the guests of honor are forced to participate in a number of horrifyingly brutal "games," such as putting one of them in a barrel embedded with nails and rolling it down a hill. Oddly enough, this gore-fest is actually loosely based on the classic musical Brigadoon. I say "loosely" because I'm pretty sure there aren't any scenes in Brigadoon where a character is roasted in a BBQ pit.
2. Tremors (1990)
You want small town horror? Well, you don't get towns much smaller than Perfection, Nevada, which boasts a whopping population of 14. In this loving tribute to giant monster B-movies of old, this ex-mining town finds itself under siege from a previously unknown form of life – giant, underground worms that hunt by sound and vibration. Tremors is more concerned with being fun than with being scary, and it definitely succeeds, thanks in large part to the personalities that make up Perfecttion's town-folk (especially Michael Gross as hardcore survivalist Burt Gummer, who would go on to become the franchise's main character as it continued on into three sequels and television series).
1. The Wicker Man (1973)
The most unnerving thing about being in a small town that you are not from is the feeling of isolation – everyone knows everyone, but you are the outside encroaching on their territory. That idea taken to the extreme – as evidenced by a couple other movies in my list – is the notion that everyone is out to get you. And nowhere is that more extreme, or more terrifying, than in Robin Hardy's cult classic British horror film The Wicker Man, about a police sergeant investigating the disappearance of a small girl on a remote island, where all the inhabitants still practice an ancient Pagan religion. The audience shares the main characters unease as, at every turn, he encounters strange behavior and unwelcoming attitudes from the town's residents. To say any more would be to possibly give away one of the best endings in horror history. Let's just say that, after seeing The Wicker Man, you may never consider a quaint little town a nice, relaxing place to visit ever again.
5. Beware! Children at Play (1989)
A small rural town's children are disappearing and no one knows why. A cop and a reporter decide to investigate and find out that the kids are being kidnapped by a weird beard cult run by a wacked out teenager. The cult lives out in the woods, kills adults, and eats people. I don't remember why the cult eats people (I haven't seen the movie in a while and some of the details are a tad sketchy) or what the cult was really all about. However, there's an ultra right wing religious fanatic in town that believes the missing children is all part of some demonic conspiracy and manages to convince the town's citizens, after the cop and the reporter find the cult's hideout in the woods, that all of the kids have to die. And that's exactly what happens. Kids get shot in the head (exploding head, gun in the mouth with brain splatter out the back), stabbed in the gut and back, and, my favorite, one kid gets stabbed in the neck with a pitchfork. Disgusting? Absolutely. Horrendous? Definitely. But it's from the fine folks at Troma so you should expect nothing less. Kim Richards city.
4. Carrie (1976)
Based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, this Brian De Palma horror flick features classic performances from both Sissy Spacek as Carrie, the pissed off picked on girl with deadly telekinesis, Piper Laurie as her religious fanatic mother that gets crucified at the end, and the always fun to watch prom night massacre. But the scenes that lead up to that grand finale, where we see Carrie struggle with all of the new things in her life (she got her first period, a boy played by William Katt asks her out to the prom, and the whole discovering I can move stuff with my mind thing) and her high school tormentors (Nancy Allen, P.J. Soles, John Travolta, etc.) figure out what to do to get back at her (the gym teacher makes their life hell for making Carrie's life hell) are what make the movie work. Those kids are such fucking assholes. And they're probably assholes because they're bored. Or they're just that way because they're naturally assholes. A bored asshole is dangerous, though. Would they have tried that pig's blood trick if they lived in a big, hip and edgy city?
3. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
While the just starting zombie plague is widespread (at least across the United States. It's probably all over the world, too) the action on display in this George A. Romero classic takes place in a small town somewhere in rural Pennsylvania and features the locals trying to beat back the undead hordes. Well, Barbara and her brother Johnny live three hours away from the unnamed town in question so maybe they can be considered outsiders but that's probably stretching things a bit. They have roots in the town (they came out to put a wreath on their dead father's grave). So anyway, the people that hole up in the farmhouse eventually dwindle down to one, poor old Ben, and at the end he's shot in the head by the local posse of heavily armed rednecks that banded together, with the full authority of the local chief of police, to deal with the zombie menace. So, I guess, in the end, you're not really safe anywhere. Someone is eventually going to get you.
2. Slither (2006)
An alien parasite arrives via meteor in a small southern town and starts taking over the town's populace. The first victim, the great Michael Rooker's Grant Grant, starts the ball rolling in the big takeover plan, becoming the main zombie in control of everyone else (the old "hive mind" thing). We've got slithery alien slugs, zombies, piles of rotting meat, and one of the most disgusting orgies in movie history. It's too bad the movie flopped when it came out because writer/director James Gunn would probably be up to Slither 3 by now. Awesome stuff.
1. Halloween (1978)
John Carpenter's slasher classic takes place in Haddonfield, Illinois, a small town famous for Michael Myers, the psycho little kid that offed his sister for no apparent reason. Then on Halloween night, 1978, a grown Michael Myers escapes from a mental hospital, goes back to Haddonfield and starts killing again. And Haddonfield becomes famous again. Yeah for Haddonfield, right? Curious tourists will be in by the busload now. You've got to think positively, you know? Local legends equal money.
5. The Crazies (2010)
There are a plethora of options when thinking of small town horror movies. However, the first two that came to my mind were The Crazies and Halloween. Of the five films on this list, I don't think The Crazies is quite as good as the others, but the story of what happens in Ogden Marsh, Iowa is both interesting and scary, and perfectly captures the horror possibilities inherent in small town America. George A. Romero gave us the original version in 1973, however, I prefer the remake from last year starring Timothy Olyphant and Radha Mitchell. In the span of a few days, "the friendliest place on Earth" is overrun by psuedo-zombies who become incredibly violent and the town becomes something akin to a war zone. Perhaps the most memorable scene is the at the local baseball field during a game as the first infected towns-person determinedly walks toward the crowd, weapon in hand and trouble in mind.
4. Donnie Darko (2001)
Very few films that failed at the domestic box office have been able to muster the commercial success, critical praise and rabid fan-base that Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko was able to gather. With a talented cast, mind-bending storytelling and enormous themes, the film is not simple in any regard. Middlesex is the town where Donnie goes about trying to save the world. It's beautiful, dark, disturbing, complex, tragic – and is one of the best small town films ever made.
3. Halloween (1978)
One of the films on the Mount Rushmore of modern horror, John Carpenter's 1978 masterpiece is perhaps the ultimate and most famous example of horror in a small town. Haddonfield, Illinois is the backdrop for the rampage of Michael Myers (aka "The Shape") who returns home after escaping from an asylum. Halloween is credited with jump-starting the slasher era of horror and also went on to give us perhaps the ultimate cinematic boogeyman ever created. Carpenter picks up where Hitchcock left off in Psycho moving us from the seclusion of the Bates Motel to the more recognizable and commonplace Haddonfield, while turning the twisted child killer into a more menacing, almost supernatural presence.
2. Jaws (1975)
Amity Island may not be the overused mid-western horror locales from other horror films such as Ogden Marsh or Haddonfield, but what happens in the waters off of the island include some of the scariest scenes ever put to film. Even all these years later, Jaws holds up well, as Steven Spielberg crafted a horror film that placed him in the upper pantheon of American filmmakers and instantaneously established the summer as Hollywood's prime release season.Jaws was a film so frightening that it caused countless film-goers to never step foot in the water again and perfectly captured the problems posed for a coastal resort town if word spreads of a shark in the waters during the holiday season. As Mayor Vaughn says, doing his best to assure nervous vacationers: "it's a beautiful day, the beaches are open and people are having a wonderful time. Amity, as you know, means "friendship".
1. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
One of the greatest science fiction movies of all time, Spielberg's 1977 opus goes from the small towns of Indiana to Devil's Tower, Wyoming, giving audiences one hell of a ride along the way. Small town America is a great locale for alien and UFO films, and Spielberg does a great job at playing that up for about 90 minutes. Just one of Spielberg's iconic films, Close Encounters has been oft-repeated but never quite duplicated by other filmmakers, especially in the new age of science fiction. With the final thrid of the picture set in Wyoming, Spielberg does some really compelling stuff, especially scenes at the train station and the government compount at the base of the monument. The magic of Close Encounters just wouldn't have worked quite as well if it had been set somewhere else, unable to see the stars or worry about large swaths of people spotting the aliens. It reinforces how special it is for those involved (particularly Dreyfuss, Dillon and Truffaut), to be able to see and experience what others cannot. And that isolation makes Devil's Tower and Close Encounters even that more iconic.
5. 30 Days of Night (2007)
One of the things that makes small-town horror so frightening is the isolation that a small town brings. You have limited access to phones and roads, the police force is generally small and more used to handling pranks by kids on farms and everything is more spread out. This means that the victims are more segregated from any help that might come and it plays to the heart of America--taking horror out of the "evil big cities" into a place that is supposed to be safe. David Slade's 30 Days of Night takes that to the extreme as it is set in an Alaskan town that shuts down for the long winter, which is the perfect opportunity for Danny Huston's troupe of wonderfully demonic vampires to come in and wreak havoc. This has all of the hallmarks of Small-Town Genre Filmmaking--the sheriff lead character, the logical lack of a quick egress, survivors getting picked off one at a time. Add in the fact that the vampires are really creepy and the beatufiul snow-covered setting and you have a great genre film in this little subcategory.
4. Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
This film is only ranked as low as it is because the setting is more boonies than "Small Town." There are a lot of great genre films that are variations on "Small Town" that didn't qualify for me--Halloween, which is my favorite horror flick of all time, was DQ'd because Haddonfield is more suburbia than small town to me. Texas Chainsaw is just small town-enough to qualify because it carries all of those hallmarks of the subgenre. Undoubtedly it's a horror film classic and deserves inclusion on the list; I'm sure I'll get crapped on for ranking this lower than my #3 film. C'est la vie.
3. The Crazies (2010)
While Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the better film overall, Breck Esiner's remake of George Romero's 1973 sci-fi political allegory is more of a small-town film. While Romero's film is great, it is Eisner's that I enjoy more. Sure, you have the zombie-like characteristics that the diseased townies take--a trait that is overused in horror these days--and the film goes more for scares than a political point. But it's the latter that I appreciate; I tend to think that the 1973 The Crazies is one of Romero's more hamfisted statement films. Tim Olyphant shows why he's one of the more underrated genre actors working today in his performance as the sheriff while Joe Anderson and Radha Mitchell give him some great support as his deputy and wife, respectively. I recently picked it up on Blu-Ray and rewatched it for the first time since I saw it in theaters and it really holds up well. This is a good reason to fear those small towns...sometimes, those people go nuts.
2. The Wicker Man (1973)
Ignore the horrifically bad Nicolas Cage remake, which is one of my least favorite genre films of all-time. The original is a fantastic piece of work, putting Edward Woodward's protagonist in the midst of an island village where nothing is as it seems. Paranoia is a powerful tool and it's put to great effect here, while Christopher Lee gives a great performance as Lord Summerisle. Have you ever gone to a town, whether on vacation or whatnot, where you were looked upon as an outsider and all the villagers seemed out to get you? That feeling is exactly what makes The Wicker Man such a wonderfully unsettling movie. Great stuff and if you've only seen Neil LaBute's travesty, you're missing out on a great genre film.
1. The Fog (1980)
It's kind of funny that, looking back at my list, four out of the five are either a 1970s to 1980s film that was eventually remade, or the remake of a film from the same era. If not for Halloween's DQ, it would have been five for five. But yes, this was another film that was given an abominable remake, starring Tom Welling and pretty much destroying the reputation of the original in the minds of younger moviegoers. That's deeply unfortunate because John Carpenter's 1980 rendition is an absolute classic example of small town horror. I mean, here is a movie about a small town with a dark secret that goes all the way back to its founding, featuring an important town festival and involving a newcomer who finds her way into the town and helps with the supernatural crisis. Carpenter made the isolation that these films evoke tangible with the inclusion of the fog. Sure, the special effects are a bit dated, but the fog is creepy as all hell and Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis and the rest of the cast give great performances. For my money, this one is small town genre filmmaking at its best.
Agree with our choices? Disagree? This is one where I know there are a lot of other valid options, so be sure to share your thoughts and your own Top 5's below. And don't forget to include suggestions for future Top 5 columns...we're always looking for the next great list.
Till then, be sure to check out (and "like," if you so wish) Trevor Likes Movies, my personal page at Facebook. I'll be posting reviews of pretty much every movie I watch, whether it be in the theater or my latest Netflix rental, as well as sharing quick thoughts on movie news. If you're in the mood for more Snyder-brand movie-related sarcasm, it's the place to be!