Halloween is creeping up on us once again. I’ve featured great horror movies in my last couple of columns (here and here) but there’s still a glut of terrifying chillers awaiting your eyeballs. The most unsettling thing of all is that many of the films I would have chosen aren’t available On Demand or, for that matter, anywhere: Andrezj Zulawski’s masterpiece “Possession” (which distributor Mondo Vision claims they’re still tweaking for a stateside Blu-Ray release), Roman Polanski’s “The Tenant” or Takashi Miike’s “Visitor Q,” to name a few.
But you can still satisfy your taste for the weird, disturbing and life-scarring with these 10 classic, indie and cult horror films that will melt your brain and rot your soul.
“Don’t Look Now” (1973)
While the twitchy jump cuts and LSD-tinged montages are dated, Nicolas Roeg‘s elegant chiller about a grieving couple adrift in Venice remains one of the most artful and moving films of the genre. Because its searing portrayal of loss cuts deeper than any slasher or ghost movie, it feels wrong to call “Don’t Look Now” a horror film. But it slow-boils with vivid color, atmosphere and a prickly sense of dread as Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland lose themselves amid the winding Italian streets. There’s that infamous, tender and startling sex scene with lots of armpit-licking, cunnilingus and Sutherland O-face. And of course the legendary last-minute zinger with the geriatric little red riding hood in the shadows of a watchtower. Fans of “Antichrist” will eat up this dizzy fever dream of doppelgangers, clairvoyants and sexual psychosis. Amazon Prime.
Most Life-Scarring Moment: There’s that sex scene, of course, but also an operatic opening sequence in which Sutherland (who almost died on-set when a wire broke on a church scaffold) cradles his drowned daughter in his arms.
“In A Glass Cage” (1987)
A recent Blu-Ray reissue of “In a Glass Cage” has reignited fervor around Agusti Villaronga‘s 1987 art house horror film about a Nazi doctor, encased in an iron lung, whose erstwhile appetite for young boys comes back to haunt him when his nubile male nurse is a witness to one of his past crimes. With steely blue imagery by DP Jaume Peracaula, in which everything looks embalmed, this was the biggest international shocker since “Salo.” And like Pasolini’s unforgiving vision of Fascist Italy, this film doesn’t flinch at the traumas of history and child abuse. While this isn’t a sweet Halloween bonbon by any stretch, it is a pungent cinematic experience that stays in your body long after the film is over. Amazon, $3.99.
Most Life-Scarring Moment: Nurse Angelo (David Sust) forces Dr. Klaus (Gunter Meisner) to watch from the iron lung as he recites smutty passages from the doctor’s diary and reenacts the wartime child tortures described.
“The Descent” (2005)
Genre geeks will agree: English director Neil Marshall‘s gory subterranean epic of terror is one of the most effective horror films to come around in the last ten years. And it also works as a female psychodrama. Six girlfriends with a bitter history behind them head deep down into the Appalachian Mountains for a light weekend of spelunking. Even before they meet the humanoid creepy crawlers lurking in the caves, everything goes awry. If scenes of distressed women wriggling through narrow passageways or plunging to their doom in bottomless chasms don’t tighten the noose for you, the film’s final hour — especially if you can get your hands on the director’s cut, with an ending far grimmer than the US version’s “gotcha!” finish — is as tense and bloody an act of vengeance as the last stretch of “Apocalypse Now.” Amazon, iTunes.
Most Life-Scarring Moment: Like a fed-up phoenix from the ashes (or Captain Willard from the swamp), ticked-off Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) rises from a pool of blood and bones, ready to kick cave-crawler ass.
“Michael.” Yikes. This isn’t Nora Ephron’s “Michael” starring John Travolta as an angel with a heart of gold. Nope, this is Austrian director Markus Schleinzer‘s below-freezing, nasty, pitiless piece of work about an icky adult introvert (Michael Huith, branded for life) who keeps a 10-year-old boy locked in his basement as sexual concubine. Here’s a director who has seen too many films by fellow Austrian Michael Haneke, because Herr Schleinzer’s stifling cinematic atmosphere makes even Haneke’s “Amour,” “The Piano Teacher” or “Funny Games” look like Saturday morning cartoons. I’m not recommending this movie, though it is, for better or worse, unforgettable. I’m just saying, it exists, and you can watch it on Amazon Prime.
Most Life-Scarring Moment: In a crowded shopping mall, Michael goes in search of a playmate for his basement buddy.
For extra credit, stream Michael Haneke’s original “Funny Games” (1997) for free (!) on SnagFilms. Schleinzer served as casting director on many of Haneke’s films, and this truly evil film surely inspired the look and feel of “Michael.”
“Gozu” is yet another tasty treat from sick freak Takashi Miike. If he’s not making a yakuza movie like “Dead or Alive” or a horror movie like “Audition,” he directs a two-in-one like this art house torture porn about an assassin looking for his brother, who’s MIA in a surreal small town. As we fall down his delirious rabbit hole, Miike takes the cake for the most messed-up sex scene ever filmed. It has been called the Japanese “Eraserhead,” but “Gozu” has none of that film’s precious artifice to make you feel safe and cozy. Fandor.
Most Life-Scarring Moment: Minami (Yuta Stone) is having sex with a woman when he starts to feel a “squeeze” down below, and finds out the hard way the real hiding place of his missing brother.
“Splice,” “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” trailers and more after the jump.
A lot of fucked up things go bump in “Cube” director Vincenzo Natali‘s Freudian sci-fi horror “Splice” — from girl-on-girl mutant rape, to Adrien Brody-on-mutant-daughter sex and more cheery fun — but what sticks with you is the fiendish, clever script. It couches big ideas about evolution and man’s tinkering with the gene pool into a nihilistic B-picture, sparing none of the characters (a scientist couple played by Brody and the lovely Sarah Polley) from the stupidity of their actions and foolish lack of foresight. A heady dose of psychosexual terror looms after Dren, the manmade alien-human hybrid child, catches her parents in the act. It’s a squeamish, uncomfortable sit, but also a sick sort of pleasure. Amazon, $2.99.
Most Life-Scarring Moment: Aforementioned sexual encounter between a blissed-out Adrien Brody and his grown up test-tube monster.
If you want sexual trauma, incest, pedophilia and vegetable rape with your Snickers bars and candy apples this Halloween, leave it to French auteur Claire Denis and her troubling head-scratcher “Bastards,” the latest film from the beloved director of “Beau Travail” and “White Material.” While “Bastards” is more domestic drama than horror film proper, you won’t see a 2013 film as bleak or traumatizing. It opens with an elliptical crosscut of flashbacks and forwards: a man has jumped to his death in the street, a young woman with a bloody vagina goes for a naked nighttime stroll, and a grumpy shipyard worker moves into the flat below a nervous shut-in played by Chiari Mastroianni. You’re left in a gloom-sodden haze of confusion through most of the film, but these disparate narratives converge in a harrowing final 20 minutes. After it’s over, you may never eat corn-on-the-cob again. iTunes and Cable on Demand via Sundance Selects.
Most Life-Scarring Moment: Need I say more?
“We Need to Talk About Kevin” (2011)
The unsavory subject matter at the bloodless heart of Lynne Ramsay‘s extraordinary “We Need to Talk About Kevin” — a high-school sociopath goes batshit, massacres his classmates and leaves behind his guilty mother to sort out the carnage — repelled some viewers and left the film struggling for distribution after its Cannes premiere. Understandable? Maybe. With its disorienting style, unlikable characters played to hair-raising perfection by Ezra Miller and Tilda Swinton, and moral ambivalence, “Kevin” is hard to warm up to. But given the genre elements here, including Jonny Greenwood‘s nerve-plucking score, horror fans should have no trouble embracing this impossible-to-shake film about a mother who may have never loved her own son, much less the monster he came to be. Here’s a movie with no hope to make you feel dirty and lost. And since the film is mostly one long montage, it’s like the nightmare inverse of Malick’s “Tree of Life.” Amazon
Most Life-Scarring Moment: After her son has done his bloody worst, Mommy (Swinton) comes home, pulls back the curtains and unveils Kevin’s final, grandest act of vengeance.
“The Snowtown Murders” (2011)
Here it is, folks. The feel good movie of 2011. Based on an actual spate of murders in Australia, Justin Kurzel‘s downright mean movie centered on a dominant personality and his dazed cult of killers is one of the grisliest, most realistic serial killer movies ever made. But it’s no procedural. With threads of incest, hate-crimes and child abuse (there’s that theme again!), “The Snowtown Murders” piles on the ugly with no reserve. But Kurzel’s horrifying film is leavened by a sprawl of excellent performances by young non-actors as the kids willed into the spell of an alluring psychopath (Daniel Henshall, creepy). Kurzel’s direction has a European flavor, a style akin to the Dardennes or Cristian Mungiu if either made a horror movie. Netflix
Most Life-Scarring Moment: Boy-next-door Jamie (Lucas Pittaway) is forced to clean up the corpse of his half-brother after he is badly tortured and left for dead in a bathtub.
“Black Sunday” (1960)
Before Dario Argento was Mario Bava, one of the most prolific Italian genre directors and the grandaddy of the giallo film. In the 1600s-set gothic “Black Sunday,” Barbara Steele plays a Russian witch who, after being burned at the stake, returns from the grave 200 years later to cast a deadly pall over those who wronged her. This horror classic is rendered in gorgeous black-and-white, and sizzles with eerie sound design. –Fandor
Most Life-Scarring Moment: The cherry on top of this “Sunday” is the opening scene, where the Mask of Satan is fixed to the witch’s face as she’s still alive at the stake. Oh, and that mask is lined with nails.