This is a repost of something I wrote for zekefilm.org. Enjoy!
Nothing divides movie fans faster than the subject of horror. Even among thoughtful, committed film lovers there are folks who just can’t stomach horror movies, and others who can’t get enough. I’m fascinated by that difference, but I’m not at either extreme. I don’t enjoy slasher films and I can work myself into a self-righteous dither over torture films. But give me supernatural terror, fantastic monsters, or a slow descent into madness and I’ll happily hand myself over to be frightened. It’s that time of year, of course, when the television schedules are packed with horror films, including some forgotten treasures. I enjoy the glut of horror movies as much as I do the fun size candy bars my kids will be sharing with me.
A few years back I compiled and posted a list of horror movies that deserve to be seen. This year I’ve updated and expanded my list. There are loads of bad horror films out there, unfortunately. Many filmmakers have been fooled into thinking that jump scares and gore can compensate for formulaic plots and a lack of character development. The films on this list show that it needn’t be that way. Some of these are classics, but their very reputations may prevent the “average” movie watcher from seeing them. Don’t worry; every last one of them is worth your time.
CARNIVAL OF SOULS, 1962 Sometimes a movie succeeds not in spite of a low budget, but because of it. Director Herk Harvey filmed most of CARNIVAL OF SOULDS in Lawrence, KS (!), using a cast of amateurs and unknowns, and played a central character, The Man, himself. The result is simple but imaginative and surprisingly effective. Candace Hilligoss plays a woman who survives a car accident only to find herself increasingly detached from the world around her, and pursued by a ghostly figure. I especially like the dance with death, a motif that has been used in films from THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER to THE SEVENTH SEAL. Before watching CARNIVAL OF SOULS, make the decision not to mock the low-tech effects and the occasionally clumsy acting, and let the movie work on you.
DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, 1931 Modern viewers may not see this as a horror movie, but it certainly was on release. The effects in the first transformation sequence are impressive even 70 years later. What qualifies this movie for my list, though, is how far Frederic March goes into darkness in his portrayal of Mr. Hyde. There’s a definite pre-code tone to his sadistic treatment of his mistress, and her terror in his presence is difficult to watch. It’s a more jarring depiction of domestic violence than you’ll find in tripe like SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY or ENOUGH.
FREAKS, 1932 Made one year after DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, FREAKS is not obviously a horror movie. But director Tod Browning was a horror-master, and when this movie is creepy, it’s very, very creepy. Casting real sideshow freaks to play sideshow freaks may seem an obvious choice now, but it made the movie controversial while also serving as the source of its power. FREAKS creates real tension in the viewer. We sympathize with the freaks, but we can never really identify with them. We do sometimes find ourselves uncomfortably identifying with the “normal” villainess in her aversion to the other circus performers – and nowhere more than in the wedding banquet scene. FREAKS helps tease out the difference between physical deformity and far less visible moral deformity. The final confrontation scene is brilliantly lit and nightmarish. As for the weird ending? Well, Gooble Gobble.
THE HAUNTING, 1963 First, if you have the time, watch the original versions of 13 GHOSTS and THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL. They were both directed by William Castle, who specialized in jolts, jump scares and gimmicks. When you watch a movie about a haunted house, do you want flying skeletons? Things popping out from behind doors? An experience like going to a charity haunted house run by the local Optimist Club? William Castle is your man. Now, watch The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise. There are no skeletons, no ghouls, no buckets of blood; just unrelenting, mounting dread. With no splashy effects, the house still seems to be genuinely alive, and truly malevolent.
*Note: By all means necessary, avoid the remake.
KWAIDON, 1964 The Japanese have a strong ghost-story tradition and KWAIDON is an anthology film of four, unconnected ghost stories. I include it here for three reasons in particular: Firstly, what is the deal with long, black, hair in Japanese horror? After KWAIDON, JU-ON and RINGU, all my oldest daughter had to do was flip her long, dark hair over her face and I’d run away. Secondly, there are some visuals in Kwaidon that are amazing, particularly in their use of color. The sets are expressionistic, often clearly artificial, but breathtaking. Thirdly, “Hoichi the Earless” is one heck of a ghost story. I still occasionally imitate the deep, ghostly voice calling out “Hoi-ii-chi”…but only when no one is around. Is KWAIDON scary? Not really, but it’s moody, hypnotic and lovely to look at. Beautifully Spooky.
NOSFERATU, 1922 F. W. Murnau was one of the great German Expressionist film makers of the silent era. He fills NOSFERATU with images of plague and pestilence, along with some troubling hints of anti-semitism. The effect is somehow less dated than Bela Lugosi’s DRACULA, made 9 years later, and Max Schrek’s vampire is much more frightening. His rat-like features, bent posture and claws for hands all add up to making him the most repulsive vampire in film history. And what’s more, the shot of Nosferatu rising straight up out of his coffin is a stunner. It’s one of the most iconic images of the silent era.
REPULSION, 1965 Roman Polanski was hired to direct a British exploitation film – his first English language film – and he managed to transcend the genre without losing the shocks. Catherine Deneuve is so young and beautiful and fragile looking here, which makes it all the more disturbing to watch her complete mental decompensation. Polanski doesn’t even give the the viewer the comfort of watching objectively. Instead, we see much of what happens as Deneuve’s character, Carol, sees it. We are forced to share in her psychosis. The apartment in which Carol spends the movie is almost a character itself, and visual details are shrewdly used to show the progress of her insanity. Watch the rabbit. I should have said at the beginning of this blog that what I want most from horror movies is not to be scared, but to be disturbed – and not just for a couple of hours, but every time I think of the movie. Repulsion scores big in that department. Not for the faint of heart.
HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, 2009 A movie about Satanists, sort of. But it’s really about a specific time (the ’80s) and a specific horror movie trope (the young babysitter in peril) and writer/director Ti West’s ability to take familiar elements and craft them into almost unbearable suspense. I watched this with a crowd at a festival, and the collective experience of one particular shock is a favorite movie-going memory. Hacks who think horror is all about creative kills should watch HOUSE OF THE DEVIL and get schooled.
DEAD OF NIGHT, 1945 A group of guests at an English country house entertain each other with stories of the supernatural. That’s the general idea, but the sum of the parts is much spookier than you might imagine, especially since one of the guests believes he’s seen all of the others in a recurring dream – and he is able to predict what will happen next. The stories are handled by different directors and each one has its merits. But for sheer scariness, Michael Redgrave as a ventriloquist with a dummy problem is tops. We’ve seen enough ventriloquist dummies in horror now to know that they’re always trouble. But this version came first (well, almost – see THE GREAT GABBO, 1929) and still packs a wallop.
I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, 1943 It’s a B movie title on an A level film. Made at a time when zombies were associated far more with Haiti and folk religion than Romero and plagues, this movie capitalized on it’s Caribbean setting rather than exploiting it. There is a serious and persistent critique of colonialism at work, and the menacing evil on the island is not simply “out there” among the natives. Morally complex characters and the Tourneur/Lewton touch – an atmosphere as heavy as a shroud and the power of what is unsaid and unseen – make this a movie that lingers with you long after the viewing.
BURN, WITCH, BURN!, 1962 There are several fine films about ordinary people dabbling in the dark arts (see, for instance, CURSE OF THE DEMON and THE DEVIL RIDES OUT). BURN, WITCH, BURN! is a little known but morally complicated tale in which a wife uses witchcraft to advance her husband’s career in academia. Given the vicious and backstabbing crowd he works with, we’re tempted to side with the wife, Tansy, on this one. But as film history tells us, if you dance with the devil….well, you get the idea. The mood of BURN, WITCH, BURN! is much more subtle than the title. There are some misogynistic elements, but the good witch/bad witch conundrum is gripping and we travel with the husband on his journey from skepticism to terror.
My son just wandered through and made suggestions of his own (THE HOST and DRAG ME TO HELL). I’m sure you have ideas as well. What horror movies do you think have been overlooked?