These six suggestions will resuscitate your faith in the horror genre
If you’re tired of rewatching the same old horror classics every year and have stopped caring for the latest Paranormal Activity or what-have-you, you may want to think outside of the box for this Halloween movie night. Here are six films, all released within the last five years, that will both chill you and give you something to think about. Most of them are independently produced, some of them are foreign, and one of them is a spoof, but all of them are truly original, while carrying along the horror tradition in a time when studios have led the genre down a very narrow path.
It Follows, U.S.A., 2014
This is a real blast—a high-concept, thoroughly terrifying tribute to ‘80s horror, complete with a John Carpenter-inspired score. While the plot may sound familiar—it involves a group of teenagers fighting off a mysterious force—it has a terrific premise and its simplicity makes it all the more effective. The plot is as follows (no pun intended): a young girl gets a sexually transmitted curse, and unless she passes on the curse to somebody else, she will eventually be found, followed and killed by a shapeshifting being. “It” can be anyone in the crowd, walking towards you at a skin-crawlingly slow pace. And even if she manages to pass on the curse to somebody else, it will eventually come back once its next bearers have been killed.
The fact that you know “it” is always walking towards you, even when out of sight, will keep you tense throughout, since you know “it” could catch up with you at any given time. And of course, if you’re willing to dig a bit deeper, you’ll find that, like with all great horror, the film uses its boogeyman as a way to address very rational fears—in this case, fears of mortality, aging and sexual anxiety.
The Babadook, Australia, 2014
Long before the eponymous creature makes its appearance—first as a children’s book and then in an increasingly physicalized form—there is a sense of mounting dread which arises from a single mother’s inability to deal with her young son, a six-year-old boy who obliviously causes destruction and requires vampiric amounts of attention. Through its colour scheme of cold whites and blues, the film is permeated by the untimely death of the boy’s father. It is that interior darkness, which eventually turns the mother into a Jack Torrence-like character, that seems to invoke the “babadook”—a grotesque spirit in a top hat and a cape portrayed, miraculously, through old-fashioned means and not CGI.
The film is psychologically astute and has impressive acting performances, especially from Noah Wiseman in his first role as the young boy. The way it approaches grief, insomnia and children’s fears makes it an almost therapeutic experience, but before you get spooked off by that word, I’ll add that The Babadook has a generous amount of scares, and rarely has it been more terrifying—or fun, for that matter—to scrutinize the dark corners of a basement in the dead of night.
Goodnight Mommy, Austria, 2014
This Austrian import, made with no scare jumps or ominous music, is probably the quietest film on this list, but that doesn’t make it any less sinister. It uses a classic horror film setting—a house in the woods—to tell the story of two young twins who start to suspect that their mother, who has just come back from a facial surgery and is covered in bandages, is an impostor. At first, the boys are set off by her erratic behaviour and aggression, unfamiliar to them from previous interactions, but soon they find a picture of their mother with a look-alike woman, and start thinking their suspicions may in fact be well-founded.
All the same, the film is devilish in that you never know what to believe—when the boys have the woman tied up and are torturing her for answers, the line between victim and aggressor is effectively blurred. Could she simply have forgotten what her son’s favourite song was? Or is she actually not who she says she is? While some final twists may feel a bit forced, this is an entertainingly creepy film and, surprisingly, Austria’s submission to next year’s Oscar race.
Julia’s Eyes, Spain, 2010
Mexican-born director Guillermo del Toro has produced several Spanish and English-language horror films over the years, and one thing that implies is a great sense of style. In fact, Julia’s Eyes is distinguished by gorgeous camera work and some delicious gimmickry, which plays on the fact that its main character is starting to go blind.
The young woman must race against time and overcome a disease that slowly plunges her into literal darkness. And as if that wasn’t enough, she also finds herself investigating her sister’s mysterious suicide and trying to find the man who follows her every move without ever being seen.
This is the kind of horror film in which it is the mystery itself that largely acts as the monster figure, and the process of deciphering an enigma takes the viewer on a dark and perilous adventure. It has enough thrills and twists to last you a while, and Spanish actress Belen Rueda is an involving lead who manages to add an emotional edge to the story. If your idea of a good time is a two-hour, startlingly well-shot guessing game, you should go with Julia’s Eyes.
The Cabin in the Woods, U.S.A., 2010
This is a film for people who are sick and tired of horror film clichés and want to see them torn to shreds—which is literally what happens in The Cabin in the Woods. While the film may be a bit short on scares, it is decidedly clever and accomplishes what the original Scream did in 1996—it deconstructs the horror genre from inside out in a way that is both funny and thrilling. It’s hard to describe the plot without giving too much away, but, as has been done to death, it starts with five young people—one of them played by Chris Hemsworth—going to a cabin in the woods for a nice few days. But at the same time, an underground surveillance-like agency seems to be preparing for their arrival, manipulating them as puppets.
Joss Whedon, who co-wrote and produced the film, described it as a “loving hate letter” to the horror genre, and that’s exactly what it is—at once a feast for every horror fan to appreciate and a spoof that will delight those who can’t stand the genre.
I Saw the Devil, South Korea, 2010
Here’s an opportunity to discover South Korean cinema, which has some of the most twisted, violent and brilliant films you’ll ever see. I Saw the Devil, directed by the great Kim Jee-woon, is a demented cat-and-mouse game between a serial killer and a secret agent seeking to avenge his murdered wife. While the agent has the killer cornered rather fast, he decides to leave him alive to enact a slow and painful revenge. However, in doing so he underestimates how much of a monster the killer is.
What qualifies the film for the horror genre is its extreme gore and violence, which caused it to be completely recut in its home country. However, none (or almost none) of it is gratuitous, and serves as an entertaining and weirdly lyrical story. Asian films, and South Korean films in particular, tend to be more violent than films made in the West, but this one takes the palm. I Saw the Devil will take you on a wild ride with Choi Min-sik, of Oldboy fame, as the serial killer.