Fear is such a personal thing. Some people are scared of heights, others spiders. Who knows what scares one person to the next, which makes compiling a horror film list a particularly personal exercise. Some films scared us as children, but not anymore. Some films aren’t scary at all, but are fun in their over-the-top gore effects and cheapness. Some films have no gore whatsoever, but linger with you for days and sometimes years, probing into your psyche. And because the month of October is basically dedicated to horror, the really famous and popular horror films – The Exorcist, Jaws, Halloween, Rosemary’s Baby, Nightmare on Elm Street – are hard to miss. But what about the ones that don’t screen at the cinematheque every Halloween or play 24 hours-a-day on HBO and TCM all month long? The horrors you may or may not have heard of or had forgotten all about?
For this year’s Halloween, we’ve put together a list of 10 horror gems you might have missed. Horrors that are perhaps a little off the beaten path and not always given their due. Horrors that you should definitely watch – some in the dead of night with a big bag of popcorn for a good time, others on a bright sunny afternoon with the doors firmly locked because they’re not going to be fun. They’re going to be disturbing. You have been warned. No kids allowed.
THE TENANT (1976)
A Kafkaesque nightmare exploration through the eyes of Roman Polanski, coming off Chinatown and directing at the height of his powers. The film is brilliant on a technical level, but suffers in other areas, such as pacing and bad dubbing – shot without sound in Paris and with some foreign actors, the film was dubbed into English later and suffers for it. What we’re left with is a flawed masterpiece that doesn’t quite live up to the promise of his two earlier horrors in the so-called “apartment trilogy”, Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby (still his best film for my money), but somehow still manages to be creepier than both of them put together. Polanski takes on the central role himself, descending admirably into utter madness which results in pulling out his teeth, a brilliantly filmed attempted suicide, and an ending I wouldn’t wish to spoil.
THE VANISHING (1988)
Talk about endings. Stanley Kubrick supposedly called this Dutch horror the most terrifying film he’d ever seen. Because the film feels almost like a drama for so much of the time, it’s easy to forget that it is a horror, but like a couple of other films on this list that pretend to be something else, by the end of the film nobody feels anything other than horror. The story is simple enough – a girlfriend goes missing at a gas station in France, never to be seen again (played brilliantly by Johanna ter Steege). But the plot is so free of gimmicks, and unfolds with such ease and logic, that by the time the protagonist decides to take his fate into his own hands, you suddenly realize you’re on the edge of your seat but don’t know how that happened. Brilliant filmmaking, that’s how. It also has the greatest (and possibly most disturbing) ending of any film ever.
DEAD RINGERS (1988)
Some people argue that this is a psychological thriller. It is. But it’s also a horror. Here – what does it sound like to you? Identical twin gynecologists sleep with the same woman, who doesn’t realize it, who in turn has a mutated cervix. Together they get hooked on pain killers while also engaging in bondage, and design new super creepy instrumentations used for “mutated women”. Add to that, the film is written and directed by body-horror master David Cronenberg, and I think you can safely place this in the horror pile – where it bloody well belongs. That said, most people would probably pick The Brood over Dead Ringers for an all-out Cronenberg horror, and maybe they’d be right. But this is a better movie. And Jeremy Irons puts in a performance of a lifetime as the identical twins, so much so that he thanked Cronenberg upon collecting his Oscar the next year for a different film, which everyone – including he – believed he was really getting for this.
DEEP RED (1975)
The only giallo on the list, Deep Red is a truly unnerving horror from Italian master Dario Argento. It may not be as famous as his next film, Suspiria, but it remains his true masterpiece. Probably the best of all Italian horrors (although it’s in English), Deep Red has influenced countless directors, including John Carpenter with his sublime Halloween in 1978. It also introduced the band Goblin to audiences worldwide with their awesome synth soundtrack, paving the way for other films and bands to follow. It might also be the best-looking horror film ever made (a close call with Don’t Look Now, also shot in Italy), but is certainly the most visually striking. A must see for any horror fan, and maybe any director too.
HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH (1982)
This one is more of a guilty pleasure. Unlike the other films on this list, this is not really a terribly good film, but God it’s a hell of a fun one, and the ending may be the best ending of any horror anywhere (after The Vanishing, of course). Part science fiction, part horror, what makes this entry in the Halloween franchise stand out is that it’s the only one not to feature (or have anything to do with) the character of Michael Myers/The Shape. It’s also just a really great concept and feels like a modern throwback to Twilight Zone type horror tropes. Of course, it’s no Halloween, but it is by far the best of any of its sequels, and you probably haven’t seen it. Also the masks are fantastic.
One of those horrors that bothered me so much I only needed to see it once. This Japanese film sets itself up as a rather tawdry romantic melodrama about a widower looking for a new partner. But then he meets Asami, played with horrifying restraint and sadism by Eihi Shiina, and very soon his world (and body) will never be the same again. A pre-curser to the torture-porn films which swept down over American horrors in the ensuing decade, Audition holds its head above the later copies not only by its superior direction and subtlety, but also because – like the best horrors – it can be seen as an allegory, in this case commenting on Japanese male culture and sexism.
HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER (1986/1990)
The most disturbing film on the list and the only one I would seriously warn viewers about. This is not for the faint of heart. It is not funny or charming or so bad it’s good. It’s cheap, nasty, terrifying and truly brilliant. Shot in 1985 on 16mm in less than a month, Henry was originally entered into film festivals in 1986, but didn’t actually manage to get distribution until 1990 due to its extreme violence, in particular a truly shocking home invasion in which the two protagonists murderer a family of three while videotaping it, and a rape involving sodomy between a brother and sister. Wow – that was a lot just to write, let alone to watch. That said, this film is a tour de force. Truly. Shooting it without flare or clever techniques only adds to the documentary feel of the film (without actually descending into faux documentary like Man Bites Dog), which makes it that much more horrifying to think about. And think about it you will. For a very long time indeed.
THE HUNGER (1983)
The only vampire movie on the list, and being the 1980s, an erotic horror with some tastefully shot lesbian fare at that. The first film from director Tony Scott (and looking a lot more like a Ridley Scott film), this movie is really all about aging – fear of aging, how horrible the aging process is, and all that goes with it. Catherine Deneuve stars as the ultra-beautiful, super sexy main vampire, and David Bowie (yes, David Bowie!) is her soon-to-be-spurned and aging lover whom she replaces with young Susan Sarandon. And if that’s not enough to entice you, it also has an often mimicked, fantastically cool opening sequence cut to the song Bela Lugosi’s Dead by Bauhaus. A sexier music video you have not seen.
PEEPING TOM (1960)
Coming out the same year as Psycho, this film incensed critics so much that it basically destroyed Michael Powell’s career, one of Britain’s foremost directors. Powell and Hitchcock were friends (Powell had been a set photographer on Hitchcock’s early English films) and Peeping Tom and Psycho both share a lot of similarities. Both are made by British directors – although Psycho is a very American film and Peeping Tom a very British one. Both fall into the slasher sub-genre which they basically invented. Both involve peeping Toms, clearly, and the murder of a beautiful, sexually active blonde. Both are somewhat psychologically complex – although Peeping Tom actually has far more in common with Vertigo when it comes to psychology. But where they differ greatly is that Peeping Tom is primarily about cinema, and specifically about directing. The modus operandi of the killer hinges on using a camera to film his victims – and actually using a mirror too, so they can see their own deaths while he films them. This idea of voyeurism and, in cinematic terms, the male gaze as murder weapon/impetus is what makes Peeping Tom such an effectively disturbing horror film, even these sixty plus years later.
SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004)
To finish things off, here’s a comedy-horror to clean your palette with, which helped introduce the world to director Edgar Wright and writer/star Simon Pegg. It also happens to be a brilliant take on the zombie horror genre, primarily – of course – the films of George A. Romero. The film is definitely not scary, but it is hilarious – especially if you’re a fan of the genre – and it’s by far the best of the “Cornetto trilogy” that Wright, Pegg and Nick Frost made together. It’s also interesting to note that the two best zombie movies of the last 25 years both came out of England with 28 Days Later in 2002, and Shaun of the Dead in 2004.