With Halloween just two weeks away, it’s high time to revisit some of your favorite horror films or discover new ones on demand. October is also a time when top ten horror lists get passed around like candy — yet each one is as uninspired as the last. “The Exorcist,” “Psycho” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” the Citizen Kanes of horror, tend to top these lists. And sure, those are great films, and scary too, but there are so many other, more terrifying films that never make the cut.
In an age of dime-a-dozen jump scare flicks and found footage travesties at the multiplex, we just may need to broaden our definition of the genre of horror. Here, I’ve rounded up some of my favorites. More films and trailers after the jump. (Also check out last week’s column highlighting more international horror movies on Fandor.)
While I’m not a fan of James Wan‘s old-school throwback “The Conjuring” (iTunes, Cable On Demand) by any stretch, it did enormously well at the US box office and hopefully portends more high-minded, stylish horror films to come. The problem is that Wan, director of the equally profitable and insipid “Insidious” franchise, does more than just throw back — he throws in every horror trope in the book. Exorcism, creepy kids, demonically possessed dolls, you name it. And it makes for an undisciplined experience while also falling victim to the incessant “gotcha!” jump moments that, when used sparingly, can and do work. But the bumps in the night here are just too loud. “The Conjuring” represents a troubling moment for the horror fanatic — when are these filmmakers going to stop trying to revisit the salad days of horror and start reinventing and reshaping the genre with something new and exciting? I’ll be waiting.
Naysayers be damned, I credit Lars von Trier for the last great contemporary horror film. With hauntingly lensed images (by MVP DP Anthony Dod Mantle) both baroque and also austere in the Dogme tradition, and two guileless performances by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe, “Antichrist” (Netflix) is the ultimate art house horror. In the several theatrical screenings I attended when the film came out in 2009, audiences laughed at the talking fox (“Chaos reigns!”) and scoffed at that infamous, ridiculous, soul-sickening “climax” (snip, snip!). But every time I watch this film, I am horrified throughout, caught up in von Trier’s psychodramatic spell and utterly arrested by the palpable sense of dread in every frame. Originally, the Danish director made this followup to “The Boss of It All” and “Manderlay” to exorcise some of his own personal demons. Judging from his grim next film, “Melancholia,” I’m thinking that didn’t work out for him.
Also treading in the realm of arthouse horror is French enfant terrible Gaspar Noe‘s backwards-unspooling “Irreversible” (Netflix) which, I’m guessing, was the most booed and walked-out film to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in 2002. Would this rape revenge thriller starring Vincent Cassel and Monica Belucci work as well if it moved chronologically? Probably not, as the otherwise straightforward plot of a beleaguered boyfriend out for blood after his girlfriend is sexually violated in a Parisian tunnel doesn’t have much to offer. But Noe’s enthralling, audience-assailing style, owing many debts to Kubrick, is really the reason to watch this film. You wouldn’t be the first to fast-forward through the ten-minute rape scene because it really is that horrifying.
Speaking of Stanley Kubrick, Rodney Ascher‘s meta-doc “Room 237,” about the interpretive puzzle that is “The Shining,” is now up on Netflix. If you’ve taken a film studies or even one liberal arts course, much of the unfocused pontificating and critical grasping-at-straws on display will try your patience. Like one critic’s earnest belief that the film is really about the extermination of Native Americans or another’s conviction that Kubrick wants to tell us about how he helped stage the Apollo 11 landing, some of these half-baked, stoner-ific theories are like patterns in the clouds: they’re there if you’re looking. But for fans of Kubrick’s film, a few of the arguments are pretty damn compelling and if nothing else, they will make you want to revisit one of the all-time best horror films. (Here’s Beth Hanna’s take on the doc for TOH!)
“Wake in Fright,” “The Blair Witch Project” and more after the jump.
Another film that ranks among the great horror classics, could “The Blair Witch Project” (Amazon) be the most influential movie of the last 15 years? You can certainly make that case for Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez‘s micro-budget cult classic that, when it came out in 1999 on the heels of one of the great viral marketing campaigns, inaugurated a host of found footage horrors to come. A faux-doc about a trio of film students who head into the Maryland woods to debunk the so-called Blair Witch myth, only to unravel as their worst nightmares unfold in the wilderness, this film came like a bat from hell out of Sundance. And horror was never the same again. The film’s final image is an ultimate movie moment you never forget. Heather Donahue’s infamous panic-stricken, on-camera snotting (seen in the trailer) rivals that of even Viola Davis, patron saint of nasal drippage.
Directed by Panos Cosmatos, “Beyond the Black Rainbow” offers plenty of style-over-substance in the form of a midnight movie equal parts sci-fi and horror. This spare story of a heavily sedated girl’s attempts to escape the elaborate futuristic prison of her perverse captor — like H.H. Holmes’ murder castle as designed by the “2001: A Space Odyssey” production team — keeps your at your seat’s edge even as it lulls you into confusion and even boredom with random strobe effects and a slowly unpeeling, sinister atmosphere. Panned as pretentious by critics, and to their credit understandably so, “Black Rainbow” broadens the definitions of both horror and sci-fi while also being unlike anything else you’ve seen. And like other films I mentioned, it just goes to show the indelible influence Mr. Kubrick has had on horror filmmakers of today.
Also finally available on Netflix is Ted Kotcheff‘s recently resurfaced Aussie outback horror film “Wake in Fright,” which came out the same year as Sam Peckinpah‘s original “Straw Dogs” (1971) and works as a parallel piece about man’s descent into madness among the wilderness. An especially unnerving, delicately lit scene involving a pack of swilling, backwards hunters and a kangaroo will haunt your dreams. But it’s just one among the many centerpiece moments in this ultra-violent thriller starring Gary Bond and Donald Pleasence.
Finally, perhaps the most frightening film on this list, for my money, is Kiyoshi Kurosawa‘s 2001 Japanese Y2K-era nightmare “Pulse” (Netflix). Sadly, this provocative film got lost somewhere among all the shoddy J-horror remakes and revamps and it’s a pity because “Pulse” could be the best of them all. EW critic Owen Gleiberman once called David Lynch‘s “Fire Walk with Me” “‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ directed by Michelangelo Antonioni.” That enticing description — which he didn’t intend as a compliment — rings true for “Pulse,” which imagines Tokyo as a desolate, lonely, industrial landscape that picks off its young folk by the numbers. In this intricately plotted film, a group of twenty-somethings is haunted by ghostly images and cryptic messages that appear from nowhere on their computer screens. Ghosts seem to be communicating with them through the internet — or are they? — and soon the already blurry line between reality and phantasma gets even murkier in this dark, twisted new classic that contains one of the most bone-chilling images I’ve ever seen in cinema.