10. “Kill List” (2011)
Every now and again, a film grabs you by the throat and never relents. By the end of “Kill List,” we felt dazed, confused and like we’d been kicked square in the balls. Many subsequent viewings and attempts to understand what the puzzle added up to followed, but it doesn’t matter so much: this is a film much more about mood and atmosphere than narrative, and what a mood it conjures! Things come to a screeching, upsetting halt in British indie genre master Ben Wheatley’s second feature, a wicked hybrid of “The Wicker Man,” hitman flick, kitchen sink Brit domestic drama, and occult movie. Structured around the titular list, our hero(?) confronts evil men he has few qualms dispatching, but then the early-sown seeds of creepiness begin to sprout and fully bloom into a series of terrifying realizations by the climax. By then it’s too late. The film puts you under its spell and lets go just when you’re not ready for it to end. Then you’re left picking up the pieces, with Wheatley’s eerie tone and nightmarish sound design haunting you for hours, days and weeks to come.
9. “Kairo” (2001)
As we said above, J-horror remakes were all the rage in the early 2000s, a trend that came and went fast, but not before Hollywood could co-opt that style to make quick bucks. There were a few quality entries (“The Ring” features on this list for good reason), but that can’t be said for the 2006 American take on Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s fantastic, incredibly sad apocalyptic story about ghosts in our machines. “Kairo” is still the cream of the crop, a very scary film at times but more reliant on atmosphere, mood and quiet to unsettle the viewer, an extremely artful and contemplative take on a ghost story. Kurosawa delves into the nature of our technological dependence and obsession, not so much fearing these new toys and them kids with their internets (an often unfair criticism against J-horror releases), but instead, it uses this brave new world to explore a basic, ultimate human fear: dying alone. What comes out in the end won’t leave you feeling warm and fuzzy, but it will leave an impact if you can get on the film’s peculiar wavelength. Though it only has a few moments of true terror, this one, in particular, stands out for being scary as hell, even out of context.
8. “Black Swan” (2010)
If people were surprised that Darren Aronofsky was following up “The Fountain” and “The Wrestler” with a movie set in the high falutin’ world of ballet, they must have been truly stunned when that film, “Black Swan,” turned out to be for all intents and purposes a werewolf picture as indebted to Argento as it was to the Archers. But they must have been shocked into minor cardiac arrest when it also turned out to be totally brilliant, a bonkers and beautifully made genre picture that somehow ended up being a minor award phenomenon. The Oscar-winning Natalie Portman stars as Nina, a young ballerina marked for big things after the retirement of the company’s previous star (a meta-tastic Winona Ryder, who’d have played Portman’s part fifteen years earlier), but who can’t quite convince the director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) that she has the requisite darkness to play the Black Swan as well as the White in “Swan Lake.” But the arrival of a potential rival/lover in the shape of Mila Kunis’ Lily seems to unleash a lingering darkness in the young ingenue. Melding Cronenbergian body horror with “All About Eve”-style melodrama, and shot with visionary control by Aronofsky, the film is weird, disturbing, hallucinatory and peculiarly beautiful, not least in its glorious climax. It’s still the director’s best, and one of the classier horror pictures of recent years.
7. “The Orphanage” (2007)
Kids are creepy; deformed kids forced to wear Scarecrow-style sackcloth hoods with crudely sewn in features are terrifying. Juan Antonio Bayona’s “The Orphanage” is as close to perfect a ghost story as this list boasts, a perfectly uncanny tale that abounds in both physical, visceral shock moments and ratcheting gradual unease. Exquisitely mounted and shot so that while it’s contemporary it almost feels of a period with “The Others” or “Pan’s Labyrinth” which came out around the same time and were of a similar style, the film is also elevated by a terrific central turn by the beautiful Belen Rueda, who brings a kind of earthy strength to the character of Laura that serves to ground the supernatural aspects of the plot. But most brilliantly, “The Orphanage,” for all it manifests classic horror movie set pieces (like the times we see Tomas, the sackcloth kid, and then he isn’t there, etc), derives its real power and real underlying emotion from real-life terrors. Laura’s adopted son Simon has been diagnosed HIV positive; Tomas’ story of bullying and shame feel tragically possible; it’s the interference of the social worker on Simon’s case that compounds the mystery; and Laura, herself an orphan who was adopted from that same place many years before, has a very believable kind of survivor’s guilt towards those children left behind, which is what moves her to reopen the orphanage in the first place. The connection to our past, the inescapability of our earthly fates and the unfairness and cruelty that children can both experience and visit on one another are all heady, resonant areas that Bayona expertly orchestrates, yet for all the gut-punching horror and frightening revelations, the thing that makes “The Orphanage” truly great is just how sorrowful a film it turns out to be. Its perfectly poised ending (again very reminiscent of the similarly knife-edge hopeful/tragic close of “Pan’s Labyrinth”) may leave us with a kind of acceptance, and on its way the film may have scared us silly, but after the credits roll and all the mysteries are solved, its beauty remains in its desperate, terribly human sadness.
6. “Trouble Every Day” (2001)
You don’t necessarily associate Gallic arthouse darling Claire Denis with the horror genre, but as anyone who saw her most recent film “Bastards” knows, she’s capable of shocking and appalling with the best of them. But for her purest horror picture, you have to go back to 2002‘s “Trouble Every Day,” an oddity in the Denis canon, but no less terrifying for it. Unfortunately, the title “The Hunger” was already taken, as it does a solid job emphasizing the carnal rage with which Denis’ sojourn into more horrific territory is concerned. Along the French countryside, a curvy animalistic nymphomaniac (Béatrice Dalle) can’t help but devour her lovers, only held back by the dutiful concern of her male paramour. At the same time, two Americans (Vincent Gallo and Tricia Vessey) struggle to understand how they’ve arrived at this place of sensual longing and flesh-eating scientifically, while simulataneously struggling with how their passions seem both exactly the same, and, because of a lack of compatibility, completely opposite to their interests. “Trouble Every Day” is a gory test for the average arthouse consumer, but it continues Denis’ sensuous obsession with the matters of the flesh and the chasm that separates even the most dedicated of lovers. It also boasts a solid score by the Tindersticks.