In many ways, horror is the classic movie genre. 2022 marks a century since the release of F.W. Murnau directing Max Schreck in Nosferatu, which still has the power to send chills down the spine 100 years on. Some horrors draw from classic literature – think of how Washington Irving’s Sleepy Hollow and its Headless Horseman have been kept alive in the Halloween folklore of American popular culture by everyone from Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, to the 2013 Fox TV series, to The Simpsons having a headless Krusty in Treehouse Of Horror VI. Some, like The Exorcist and Carrie are straight adaptations of contemporaneous works, and there’s been a growing trend of remakes of other countries’ horror. The Ring started a craze for Japanese scares and paved the way to expand into Europe with movies like Funny Games and 2018’s version of Argento’s 1977 classic Suspiria.
What many horrors have in common, though, is a fairly everyday setting. While there are some notable exceptions – the sci-fi world gave us Alien and Event Horizon – the frights have more effect when they’re in a scenario the viewer is familiar with. Small towns? Check. Big cities? Cloverfield is set amongst the iconic Manhattan skyline. Hotels have been a favorite since Psycho. Casinos are perhaps underrepresented as a venue for vicarious violence, but there’s a winning hand of movies where cards and carnage combine.
Spirits Of The Dead
A trilogy of short films, based on Edgar Allen Poe short stories, Spirits Of The Dead was released as a feature-length anthology in 1968. Heavyweight directors Roger Vadim, Louis Malle and Franco Zeffirelli direct a star-studded cast that features Jane Fonda and Terence Stamp. The second of the trio, William Wilson, sees Alain Delon’s eponymous lead playing cards all night while baring his soul to courtesan Brigitte Bardot. Set in the early 1800s, it’s a confessional piece, rich in atmosphere and somewhat claustrophobic. Released in three languages, the English version is perhaps the ace in the deck, due to narration from the Prince of Menace himself, Vincent Price.
The Haunted Casino
As far as elegance and plotlines go, The Haunted Casino has very little of either, by contrast. The story is a well-worn standard – the main character inherits an abandoned property from a deceased relative, and upon going to check out their newly bequeathed gift, finds the place inhabited by malevolent spirits. The movie was originally titled Dead Man’s Hand as a nod to the dead man’s hand in poker – the aces and eights Wild Bill Hickok was holding when he met his end at the end of a pistol in a Deadwood gambling house. This was seen as a little obscure and changed to reach a wider audience. It was likely the more relevant direction – while Hickok may have a ghost, he doesn’t appear in this casino. However, horror icons Michael Berryman (Pluto in The Hills Have Eyes) and Sid Haig (Rob Zombie’s House Of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects) do and it’s a fun, if unchallenging schlocker.
This French-Georgian production scooped the World Cinema Jury Prize at 2006’s Sundance Film Festival, but failed to rake it in at the box office, only recouping half of it’s $1.5m budget. Audiences missed a trick, as it’s a stark, tense, minimalist gem. The story centers on a destitute Georgian immigrant in France who steals an envelope that contains details of a job that could net him a fortune. However on following the instructions, he finds himself in a remote farmhouse. Without giving away too much, he finds himself forced to play a particular variant of roulette. Shot in black and white, the oppressive setting and unknown cast combine to make the viewer wonder if they are indeed watching a work of fiction. Tzameti became part of the remake craze in 2010, reshot as 13 with Jason Statham, Ray Winstone and 50 Cent. While both movies share the same director, the introduction of household names breaks all of the tension of the original and a new emphasis on character’s origin stories leave it somewhat bloated and bogged down. The original is a stunning vindication of the concept in horror that ‘less is more’.