(Article written for starpulse.com in time for Halloween)
Horror movies are some of the most consistent pieces of the film industry. Sure there have been highs and lows in the genre, and resurgences have come and gone, but one thing remains true: people will always yearn for those cinematic chills.
The demand, however big it may be, is always constant. The golden age of cinema through the 60s brought on big studio monster movies, sly noir thrillers, and of course, Hitchcockian suspense (a subgenre, respectively). The 1970s, arguably the paramount epoch of cinema, period, saw the expansion of the genre and gave filmgoers some of the best nail biters out there.
The creation of VHS and movie rental houses triggered a massive wave of low-budget, schlock video nasties from across the globe during the 1980s and helped spawn the current highly exploitative, gross-out horror phase that horror movies are stuck in now. Then there were the 90s, dominated by a fairly lame return to teen slasher films-the Party of Five horror heyday.
Some say the new millennium has been a breath of fresh air for the genre with an overall rise in popularity of no holds barred gore fests (Saw, uh hum, V opens soon) and a surge of film curiosities coming from East Asia, aka. the “fear the black haired ghost chick with eerie feline larynx” genre. It could be said that the horror of today is more focused on shock than on scares. Still, over the years (despite a saturated market of genre films) there have been a fair share of gems that managed to break through to stand the test of time.
The following is a run down of some of the most underrated thrillers out there. Some have a large niche following, others have gone under the radar for too long, but all are worthy of checking out this Halloween season.
Lost Highway – David Lynch, 1997
Trying to classify the films of David Lynch is one of those futile exercises that is part of the reason his work is so polarizing for filmgoers. Lynch does not make horror films in the traditional sense of the genre but he is a master of crafting horrifying scenes and psychologically disturbing stories. “Lost Highway” is often overlooked amidst the auteur’s more renowned films but it remains one of his creepiest. Much of this can be attributed to Robert Blake’s bone chilling portrayal of the Mystery Man-a pale-faced spook with shaved eyebrows and a knack for videotaping people while they sleep. Add this to an eerie soundtrack-a blend of Angelo Baldamenti’s creepy sonic ballads and 90s industrial rock-and menacing cinematography and you get what is not so much a horror movie but rather a surreal, nightmarish, and mind bending viewing experience. The late author and culture commentator David Foster Wallace once wrote, “The absence of point or recognizable agenda in David Lynch’s films lets Lynch get inside your head in a way movies normally don’t.” “Lost Highway” does just this and resonates in your subconscious long after the first viewing.”
Suspiria – Dario Argento, 1977
Dario Argento has always been an atmospheric weaver of gruesome films, which are drenched with stylized cinematic technique. From a storytelling point of view his films are full of plot holes, laughable dialogue and the kind of low-brow over dubbing that was the norm of so many 70s genre flicks. “Suspiria” is no exception. It is, however, one of the most frightening films for the senses. Already an established giallo or crime genre filmmaker, “Suspiria” was Argento’s first foray into the supernatural, blending classic ghost story themes with eye piercing gore. Thanks to a driving score from Euro prog-rockers Goblin and a visionary color and shadow palette, “Suspiria” manages to make some of the most unassuming moments truly hair-raising. A blind man walks a dog in an empty plaza, the protagonist is awoken to a spine chilling wheezing sound, even the creepy Bavarian dance school where the film is set carries the kind of unsettling gothic feel to arise suspicion during the daylight scenes. A possible remake is in talks with indie filmmaker David Gordon Green at the helm, but nothing will ever come close to capturing the brutal suspense of Suspiria.
Jacob’s Ladder – Adrian Lyne, 1990
Lyne is often painted as an erotic thriller filmmaker thanks to films like Fatal Attraction andUnfaithful but his true masterpiece is this little psychological thriller. Tim Robbins (in one of his best performances) plays a Vietnam Vet who is forced to deal with some inner demons, literally, and uncover some haunting discoveries about his past. The film deals with paranoia, the use of mind altering drugs, the collapse of the human psyche and true-life conspiracy theories regarding government experiments on American GIs in Vietnam. Going more into the plot might spoil the movie, which is best viewed fresh but it should be noted that one of many horrific dream sequences set in a hellish hospital ward remains one of the most frightening sequences on celluloid.
The Fly – David Cronenberg, 1986
To be fair Cronenberg’s gross-out remake of a mediocre, late-50s Vincent Price sci-fi vehicle is widely considered to be one of the best monster films of time. Those who view it as just that are missing Cronenberg’s true raison d’etre. The film is an allegory for themes of madness, romantic jealousy, the pitfalls of modern science, the deterioration of the human anatomy (flesh has long been one of Cronenberg’s many twisted fascinations) and even abortion and fear of childbirth (as seen through a truly horrifying larvae labor sequence). Then again it also lives up to its clichéd monster movie tagline of, “be afraid, be very afraid.” An operatic stage re-imagining of the film is in the works but there is no replacing Cronenberg’s grotesque but strangely poetic vision of modern day horror.
The Descent – Neil Marshall, 2005
Amidst a slew of procedural teen slasher flicks, remakes of Asian ghost stories, and countless torture porn gore fests there are a handful of modern day horror films that have joined the ranks of some of the staple horror classics. “The Descent” is one of these recent examples. Tagged as the ultimate spelunking nightmare film, “The Descent” is a one of a kind terrifying experience that taps into that exhilarating emotion of fear-fear of the dark, fear of the unknown, fear of tight spaces, fear of heights, etc. Sure the film features subterranean Gollum like monsters brutally terrorizing a group of fearless cave explorers, but the real horror comes in the films claustrophobic moments (an homage to Alien) as the characters descend deeper into the crevices of the unknown. By the time the monster element to the story arrives halfway into the film the viewer is already exhausted from the nail biting climbing sequences and that mounting sense of unavoidable doom that the protagonists are soon to face. See also Marshall’s premiere outing, Dog Soldiers, a smart little werewolf flick shot in Scottish forests.
Wait Until Dark – Terrence Young, 1966
One might not consider the oh-so-dainty Audrey Hepburn as being a horror movie icon but witnessing her shear brilliance in Wait Until Dark changes on all common misconceptions. Adapted to film (the original text was a play) during the grand old days of simply told tales of suspense, Dark is horrifying account of trust, loneliness and overcoming a physical disadvantage during harsh times. Hepburn stars as the blind tenant of a dimly lit basement apartment who is drawn into a home invasion scheme perpetrated by a gang of drug smugglers trying to track down some lost goods. The storyline is not without its flaws but the film is all about moments of intense shock, often shot in the dark. When the film was released theater patrons around the country killed the house lights during crucial moments of terror on screen as a neat little gimmick to enhance the experience. While not as grisly as the horror of today, this is film is an essential viewing for Hitchcock enthusiasts and those who like jumping out of their seats.
Repulsion – Roman Polanski, 1965
Polanski is generally credited for Rosemary’s Baby, an essential in the genre, respectively but two of his lesser known works, 1976s The Tenant and “Repulsion,” remain his unspoken masterpieces. Repulsion is, above all, a disturbing look at psychological trauma induced by sexual angst. The film was the first in what has now been coined Polanski’s “apartment trilogy” (“Baby” and The Tenant completed the run) due to its characters trip to madness in a confined space. “Repulsion’s” Carol (played by a very young Catherine Deneuve) is trapped inside a surreal world of paranoia, ill thoughts of her sister’s sexual habits and some external threats from male visitors. A scene involving a dark hallway with hands suddenly reaching out through the walls, boxing our protagonist in, is one of the film’s many unexpected scares.
Session 9 – Brad Anderson, 2001
Director Brad Anderson may be one of the most underappreciated thriller filmmakers working today. His most recent film, Transsiberian, is a sly “fear of travel” picture set largely on a confined Soviet train en route from China to Moscow and 2004s The Machinist (featuring one ofChristian Bale’s finest performances to date) was the type of twisty psychological thriller that someone like M. Night Shyamalan wishes he was still making. Session 9 remains one of the best modern ghost stories that actually avoids the supernatural. Set inside an extremely creepy and perfectly chosen mental hospital this film is dripping with atmospheric frights. The camera follows a group of asbestos removers as they roam the abandoned wards and discover secrets from the hospital’s twisted past, while also uncovering their own personal mysteries. Anderson is all about building a feasible story (in this case one part Poltergeist one part Blair Witch) and then destroying all preconceptions towards the climax. The scenes filmed at night (in that nauseating handheld camerawork style) are certain to draw unease no matter how well seasoned you are at scary movies.
The Begotten – E. Elias Merhige, 1991
Arguably the most obscure films on this list, “The Begotten” is a visually horrifying but fascinating piece of the avant-garde that is, dare I say, biblical horror. God, Mother Earth, mortal man, and evil humanoids make up the dialogue-free story, which plays out as a twisted end of days scenario with the self-induced death of God opening the film. If you thought the deadly videotape featured in The Ring was creepy, “The Begotten” may or may not be for you. From a filmmaking standpoint E. Elias Merhige’s film is one of those cinematic achievements that is both dazzling and disturbing. To this day there is nothing that even remotely matches the film’s lasting effects. Shot in grainy black and white and then painstakingly altered and deconstructed during editing (Merhige has said that each minute of the film took ten hours of alteration to create the signature, almost primitive look), “The Begotten” is a mystery of a film with unforgettable nightmarish imagery. Merhige would eventually follow his masterpiece up with the interesting but overly preachy Shadow of a Vampire and the disappointing psychological serial killer vehicle Suspect Zero.Marilyn Manson enthusiasts will see much of “The Begotten” in the equally creepy music video for the song “Cryptorchid,” which Merhige helmed.
Them – David Moreau, 2006
While the international horror scene is currently favoring all films coming out of the “Extreme Asian” movement of Japan, Hong Kong and S. Korea (a subgenre which has grown rather tired thanks to recycled themes and Americanized remakes), some of the truly best thrillers are being made by the French. Them (or Ils in its native tongue) is the ultimate home invasion thriller. Set deep in the woods of Romania (always an effective setting for horror) the film involves a French couple being plagued by a group of hooded evildoers who raid the large farm house and make lots of goose bump inducing noises along the way. The focus on silence interrupted by man made sounds (party noisemakers never sounded freakier) is part of this film’s charm not to mention the director’s knack for crafting quick, jump out of the shadow scares. Clocking in at a surprisingly appropriate 77-minutes, this film benefits from edge of your seat tension that erupts in the film’s opening and carries through to the end.