Few headlines are more tiresome than “X Films You Haven’t Seen.” Aside from being presumptuous about how much the reader knows, it’s also usually misleading, including popular favorites and well-known cult hits on the list of supposed unknowns (this one features such little-known sleepers as “Garden State” and “Boogie Nights”). A horror-themed “you haven’t seen” list from Rolling Stone, then, doesn’t sound terribly promising. But while the list does feature a few films that are widely-known, it’s mostly an example of how to do the “you haven’t seen” concept right: by actually including films that most readers probably haven’t heard of. Here’s the full slate of movies:
“Audition” (1999), Dir: Takashi Miike
“Deathdream” (1972), Dir: Bob Clark
“The Descent” (2005), Dir: Neil Marshall
“Excision” (2012), Dir: Richard Bates
“Funny Games” (1997), Dir: Michael Haneke
“God Told Me To” (1976), Dir: Larry Cohen
“The House of the Devil” (2009), Dir: Ti West
“I Saw the Devil” (2010), Dir: Kim Ji-woon”
“Inside” (2007), Dir: Alexandre Bustillo/Julien Maury
“Kill List” (2011), Dir: Ben Wheatley
“Martyrs” (2008), Dir: Pascal Laugier
“May” (2002), Dir: Lucky McKee
“The Orphanage” (2007), Dir: Juan Antonio Bayona
“Paperhouse” (1988), Dir: Bernard Rose
“Possession” (1981), Dir: Andrzej Zulawski
“Ravenous” (1999), Dir: Antonia Bird
“Severance” (2006), Dir: Christopher Smith
“The Signal” (2007), Dir: Jacob Gentry/Dan Bush/David Bruckner
“Thesis” (1996), Dir: Alejandro Amenabar
“Trouble Every Day” (2001), Claire Denis
Granted, the list features a handful of established foreign cult hits like “Audition” and “Funny Games,” as well as more recent films that have gained a sizable following (“The Descent,” “The House of the Devil”). But it also has a number of films that likely only rabid horror fans would be familiar with, like the trio of New French Extremity features (“Trouble Every Day,” “Martyrs,” “Inside”). Where the first might at least ring bells among world cinema fans, as it was directed by established auteur Claire Denis, the other two fine films come from directors with limited spotlight. “Martyrs” in particular might be worth seeking out by those looking for a near ultimate point of extreme horror. Here’s what Sean T. Collins has to say about it:
…the onslaught of French horror (see “High Tension,” “Inside”) during the mid-Aughts frequently made America’s “torture porn” highlights like look like the haunted hayride at your county fair. That wave arguably crested with “Martyrs,” a film that has at least as much in common with the art-house nihilism of Gaspar Noé’s “Irreversible” as it does with more standard horror fare. Nominally driven by the kind of victim-seeks-revenge plot that has fueled some of the genre’s most unpleasant entries ever since “The Last House on the Left,” it becomes a deeply disquieting meditation on suffering itself, as brutal philosophically as it is physically.
“Martyrs” is definitely advanced viewing for horror fans, likely to test the fight-or-flight responses of many viewers. For something less assaultive (though still disturbing), viewers can check out Lucky McKee’s creepy “May,” written up here by Brandon Geist:
“I’m weird,” says the title character of this modern cult classic to a prospective suitor. “I like weird,” he responds. But weird a relative term, as director Lucky McKee’s debut feature demonstrates, following a lonely, awkward veterinary technician as she tries to connect with the outside world. The experiment is less than successful; once she discovers that she simply does not fit in, a search for the personal “perfect” friend begins. With shades of “Carrie” and “Frankenstein,” the movie builds to a macabre denouement (hint: it involves body parts) that’s equally parts sad and totally sickening.
Many of the films on the list come from the last couple of decades, but it draws attention to underrated features from the wave of American horror that came in the 70s as well. Plenty of people know John Carpenter and George Romero’s features, but directors Bob Clark and Larry Cohen are frequently overlooked outside of a few breakout hits (“Black Christmas” for Clark, “It’s Alive” for Cohen). Both directors have a strong film on the list, Clark with the vietnam veteran horror film “Deathdream” and Cohen with the outright loony “God Told Me To,” which Eric Hynes draws attention to:
Easily the best 1970s New York noir-horror-alien-abduction-Catholic-guilt-love-triangle thriller ever made, this unfairly forgotten gem from Larry Cohen (“It’s Alive”) turns a concise justification tactic — “because God told me to” — into a street-smart prophesy of the perverse moral clarity behind 21st century extremism. Ace character actor Tony Lo Bianco plays a veteran detective whose hunt for a yellow-haired messiah urging people to arbitrarily murder fellow New Yorkers leads him to question his own faith and, surprisingly, a supernatural past. Yes, the narrative starts to get progressively nuttier (virgin births! alien vaginas!), but there’s a things-fall-apart vibe in the film’s scenes of random violence that’s genuinely unsettling — a fear of being snuffed out simply because you’re there.
Credit also goes to Rolling Stone for bringing attention to a few films even we at Criticwire hadn’t heard of. Here’s Geist again on Richard Bates’ “Excision”:
Horror cinema loves its misfit teens, but few are as twisted, funny, and challengingly unsympathetic as “Excision’s” Pauline. The young sociopath has surgical aspirations and necrophilic fantasies, and when her grotesque dream life bleeds over into reality, her family is torn apart — literally. “90210’s” AnnaLynne McCord devours the role, but first-time director Richard Bates is the real star here. He deftly uses black humor to underscore his script’s brutality, and his visual flair — Pauline’s gory yet gorgeous dream sequences are part Matthew Barney, part Dario Argento — turns this dark coming-of-age story into a genuine nightmare.
What’s great about Rolling Stone’s latest list is that it highlights what Halloween horror viewing should be about. It’s common to want to revisit canonical films like “Halloween” or “The Shining” every year, or to catch up with major horror classics and cross them off of a Must Watch list (I finally got around to Jack Clayton’s “The Innocents” this year).
But the most memorable horror viewings come from exploring new territory as a viewer – “The Exorcist” is still scary the fifteenth time, but nothing quite matches the first viewing, when the head-spinning and semi-subliminal demon faces come seemingly out of nowhere. That can’t be regained, but a viewer can stay scared by going off the beaten path and finding out just what the hell is up with the returning veteran in “Deathdream” for the first time. Great moviegoing/watching experiences are surprising, and rarely is that more true than when turning out the lights for a horror film that no one in the room knows.