Okay, title got your attention? Good. Now the disclaimer. I was thinking of calling this piece “Ten Horrors From the Path Less Travelled,” but that would have been a bit precious. I’m not going to pretend that the serious horror fans out there are unfamiliar with these titles. Nor is this list meant really and truly as a “Top Ten” (see, two lies already in my title). But consider this a reminder that there’s something other than the umpteenth rental of The Exorcist or latest iteration of Saw out there for your Halloween pleasure. So here, chronological order, are ten fine films for the season.
In the mid-forties, as the Universal Studios horror films declined in a series of entertaining but hardly ambitious monster mashes, producer Val Lewton, over at RKO, oversaw a group of horror films that were notable for their literacy, for their restraint, and for their willingness to work out rather dark ideas to the fullest. The most famous of these films is the first: Cat People. It was given a sequel – The Curse of the Cat People. The Seventh Victim is not a sequel, but is a kind of prequel, thanks to the presence of Tom Conway, reprising his role of psychiatrist Dr. Louis Judd. The film tells the story of Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter) combing New York for her missing sister, the morbid, suicidally depressed Jacqueline (Jean Brooks). It transpires that Jacqueline has fallen in with a group of Satanists. This is not a horror film designed to make viewers jump. Instead, it meticulously constructs an atmosphere of suffocating, existential despair. This is made all the more acute if the film is viewed immediately after Cat People, which has the effect of making all of Louis Judd’s moral pronouncements appear utterly hollow. The ending features what might be the bleakest sound effect in the history of horror.
[Cover courtesy of Noir of the Week]
Sure, zombies are creepy and all. But how about blind zombies! In white robes! Carrying swords! On horses! In slow motion! And to top it off, these are Templar zombies, though they are a long, long way from the sorts of Templars we encounter in The Da Vinci Code. Though there are plenty of creepy digressions, the essence of the plot has a group of unwary travellers making the mistake of spending the night (and having sex) in a ruined monastery. The zombie Templars, shown to be sexually sadistic in gruesome flashback, arise. This Spanish film was the first and best of director Amando de Ossorio’s quartet, and despite some clumsy day-for-night shots, still conjures a nice atmosphere of sexual malaise and, in the blind Templars (who hunt by sound), offers some truly wonderful and nightmarish gothic images.
[Cover courtesy of Gotterdammerung.org]
It would be wrong to put together such a list and not consider the contributions of the British Gothic, whose peak ran from 1957 (with the release of The Curse of Frankenstein) to the mid-seventies. The bulk of such films came from Hammer, but this one comes from rival Tigon, though the director (Freddie Francis) and stars (Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee) were Hammer stalwarts. Cushing is the 19th-Century scientist who finds a skeleton that turns out to be the remains of a being that was the very incarnation of evil, an evil that regenerates as soon as water touches the bones. The film is moody, spooky, and smart, acting not only as a great creature feature but also as a meditation on the nature of evil in the century that would follow, and on the destructive qualities of the patriarchal system.
Another Spanish effort, directed by Agustin Villaronga, this is one for the more hardened viewers out there. Don’t pick it up unless being seriously, unpleasantly disturbed is on your list of things to do this Halloween. Easily the best quadriplegic-iron-lung-bound-homicidal-pedophile-Nazi movie ever made, this is the supremely nasty tale of the aforementioned character and what happens when one of his former victims, now a young man, returns, insinuates himself in the household, and proceeds to both titillate and torture his victimizer by continuing his crimes and bringing calamity down on the family. This is a film where one is almost weepingly grateful to see a credit informing one a child psychologist was present on-set at all times. Beautifully shot and performed, this is the horror film at its most ruthless. Those who think they’ve been rendered unshockable by Saw and its torture-porn cousins are likely in for a nasty shock when they encounter this sick puppy.
Well, blow me down, another Spanish film. (I guess that’s what happens when you deliberately avoid the better-known Italian horrors.) Jaume Balagueró here adapts the novel of the same name by Ramsey Campbell. Campbell’s meticulously crafted fiction is as elegant as it is dark, and his carefully wrought atmosphere, so dependent on his deployment of the language, would seem to be inimical to adaptation, but Balagueró has done a superb job in bringing to cinematic life Campbell’s tale of a mother searching for the daughter she thought was dead, but who has suddenly called her. Dread is the order of the day here, dread from start to finish. Campbell, hardly the Mr. Shunshine of horror novelists, has gone on record as congratulating Balagueró for making a film even darker than the book it is based on.
If it’s Halloween, we should consider at least one haunted house story, and here’s a doozy. A haunted house is scary enough, but what about a haunted asylum? Now THAT’S spooky, especially since the asylum here is not a set, but an actual location. A crew of hazmat disposal experts sign on to clear the extremely sinister building of asbestos, only to have each of their weaknesses preyed upon by something in the asylum. Director Brad Anderson has made it clear that his film is in part a tribute to The Shining, and the parentage is visible, but his work also stands very much on its own. It features some of the most sinister sound design since The Exorcist, and builds to a climax as appalling as it is chilling.
Larry Fessenden, who has a small part in Session 9, wrote and directed this wonderful exercise in atmosphere. A family hits a deer on their way out to their Catskills holiday, thus incurring the wrath of a homicidal hunter. As events pile up, the young boy has visions of the titular spirit. Though, as I’ve stated in the past, the actual visualization of the Wendigo is unconvincing, and should have been dispensed with, the film is otherwise superb. Fessenden here proves himself a master of summoning total paranoia and anxiety out of thin air. This is one of those films where the viewer is convinced, from almost the very first frame, that something awful is about to happen. The viewer would be correct.
Okay all you fans of torture/captivity narratives, here’s a really smart, squirm-inducing one from Belgium. Laurent Lucas is a struggling entertainer who does song and dance routines at nursing homes. When his van breaks down in the middle of nowhere, he finds welcome at an inn where the elderly owner (Jackie Berroyer) seems, at first, to be odd but harmless. He greets Lucas as a fellow artist, but the next morning comes to believe that Lucas is his wife returned to him. He brutally assaults Lucas and forces him into that role. What’s worse is that the rest of the town (whose entire population is male) also believes Lucas is Berroyer’s wife. This is a violent creep-fest in the vein of Deliverance, Straw Dogs and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, with a touch of David Lynch added to the mix. Bizarre and disturbing in equal measure, it takes no prisoners. Make sure you watch it all the way through the closing credits for some truly haunting sound effects.
It has been said that there is nothing new under the sun (and there is certainly nothing new about that saying). Movies endlessly recycle old ideas, and it’s the execution of that recycling that can be the mark of an actual breath of fresh air. That’s what Isolation accomplishes. A genetic experiment on a remote Irish farm leads to terrible results. The nature of the threat takes us back to Alien and Carpenter’s The Thing, but those films were returns to the past in the first place, so fair enough. What works wonders her is the meticulously detailed farm, which not only feels utterly real, but is also just as full of dark nooks and shadows as an farm would be. Perfect for a little creature with too many teeth to hide. So here’s our old-fashioned monster flick for the list. It’s a familiar recipe, served up to perfection.
I wrote about this for Brain Blasters some time ago, but it can’t hurt to mention it again. And good heavens, in Nacho Cerdà we have yet another Spanish director. This moody tale of ghosts and past murder is set in a remote corner of Russia (so that’s REALLY remote) where the heroine has arrived, looking for information about her birth mother. She encounters far more than she bargained for in a house where the past is quite literally coming to a terrible form of life. The plot twists and turns, but Cerdà never loses sight of the goal of seriously goosing the audience. If you want a picture with plenty of BOO moments, this is probably the entry on this list that most effectively fits that bill.
So there you have it. Something, I hope, to make life dark for just about everyone.