With contributions from: James McAllister, Stephen Mayne, Jim Mackney, Michael McNulty, and Sam Inglis
The night is dark and full of terrors… but enough about the trick-or-treaters. For us film fans, Halloween is generally a time to indulge in some creepy thrills from the comfort of our sofas, all the while exerting a tremendous amount of willpower by ensuring we don’t eat all the sweets brought for those hooded figures who come knocking on our doors in search of candy… although maybe that last part only applies to me.
Every year, however, many are haunted by the same sinister conundrum; which movie should be watched? When choosing which title to settle in with on a chilly Hallows’ Eve, it’s easy to opt for a classic of the genre; the likes of Leatherface, Michael Myers and Freddy Kruger have become so synonymous with horror that it’s easy to forget this is one of the most creatively rich areas of the medium. And so this year, we’re hope to encourage you to face your fears by celebrating some of our favourites from the genre that perhaps don’t get the sort of recognition we think they deserve – 10 great horror films that you may not have seen… but definitely should!
Wake In Fright (Dir. Ted Kotcheff, 1971)
The best horror plays not on cheap shocks, but on suppressed fears. It can come in the form of monsters, aliens, or grotesque killers, but it doesn’t have to. In Wake in Fright, the great lost film of Australian cinema, the source is much more mundane, and arguably more terrifying for it.
It’s not lost anymore, although for years it was after the master negative went missing. Only in 2009 did a remastered version find re-release, pushing Ted Kotcheff’s psychological thriller to the top of a pedestal it should always have been on. Now the sweat and alcohol induced barbarism can be enjoyed once again, if “enjoy” even applies to this sun-soaked nightmare.
Originally released in 1971, it follows the efforts of a middle-class schoolteacher trying to escape a mining town in the outback. After running himself into debt, he gets sucked into a world of drinking, fighting, and morally questionable behaviour that seems to offer no way out. Near the end, there’s an infamous kangaroo hunt, all the more horrific for being real. Kotcheff and crew, tagging along on an actual hunt, watched as it descended into drunken violence just for kicks. They included the footage to show how awful the reality of a hunt is. It’s the hardest scene to watch in a film that’s full of them. SM
Nosferatu the Vampyre (Dir. Werner Herzog, 1979)
To dismiss Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu as nothing more than a remake of F.W. Murnau’s early Expressionist classic is a great disservice to the visionary German auteur. Herzog has said he considers Murnau to be Germany’s greatest director, and while his film follows the same narrative as the silent original, he also draws further on Bram Stoker’s literary source material.
Like Murnau’s original, it is a film pivoted around an incredible central performance. Klaus Kinski masterly makes the role of Nosferatu the Vampyre his own. While paying respect to Schreck’s performance in appearance, the actor uses his exceptional prowess to develop the character. It’s a menacing turn, the blood red lips & protruding fangs making him a startling presence to behold. Yet his lust for Isabelle Adjani’s Lucy, our hero’s lady, gives him a vulnerability that brings an emotional depth, particularly to the final scene of sacrifice.
The horror in Herzog’s film, meanwhile, comes from a finely crafted sense of dread. Herzog’s opening montage of decaying corpses, set to the eerie tones of a medieval choir, is deeply affecting; this is a tale that’s firmly rooted in the morbid reality of death. Later on, the high-angle shots of multiple coffins being carried through Wismar Square show the unforgiving power of Dracula, his curse bringing an inescapable plague to the town. Once again, the terror is in our knowledge of what has happened; we never see the individual deaths, and as a result our fear is far more palpable. JMcAllister
The Orphanage (Dir. J.A. Bayona, 2007)
The debut feature from director J.A. Bayona, The Orphanage is a horror that’s predicated on atmosphere. It doesn’t descend into typical shock scares, although the director has every chance to. Instead, Bayona allows the film to build and lets the audience experience the narrative rather than witness it. And when he does pull the trigger, halfway through, it is done to genuinely terrifying effect.
This is a film that understands the difference between suspense and surprise, and deploys the former to great effect. Though it is supposedly a ghost story, we are left wondering if there are any ghosts in the film at all. What we experience is seen the eyes of Belén Rueda’s heroine, and the occurrences or illusions she has in her mind, leading us to question whether or not what we are seeing is real or make believe. The film drips with dread when she walks down an unlit corridor, into a gloomy room, compounding the fact that we are unaware if we are experiencing a haunted house or a haunted mind. JMackney
Black Christmas (Dir. Bob Clarke, 1974)
Directed by Bob Clarke (that’s right, the director of festive classic, A Christmas Story) and sailing beneath the radar for over 30 years, Black Christmas has missed out on some much-needed popular recognition. The modern slasher movie owes much more to Black Christmas than film history may let on. Halloween might get all the credit, but turn the clock back four years and you’d be surprised by what this little, Canadian horror flick had already done.
Set in a sorority house the night before uni breaks up for the holidays, a deranged murderer slips through an upstairs window and begins to slowly knock the girls off one by one. It has all the slasher film tropes that have been popularized and parodied over the years, but there is room to argue (depending on how you feel about Psycho and Peeping Tom) that most of it was brand new at the time. Although it may burn a little slower than it’s successors, this is a skin crawlingly unsettling film, light on the gore, but heavy on the mystery and suspense. The deranged killer is a frighteningly ambiguous character, confined to the shadows and dark spaces of the house. He torments the sorority through a series of increasingly depraved phone calls, delivering grossly sexual monologues that deteriorate into horrifying screams and moans, which are enough to keep you up at night. One pair of brown trousers, please. MM
See The Sea (Regard La Mer) (Dir. François Ozon, 1997)
Francois Ozon made this film just before embarking on his feature debut, Sitcom. At 52 minutes it’s a tough sell for distribution, neither a short nor a feature, but Ozon tells a compelling and complete story, with more horror overtones than anything else in his filmography. Sasha Hails plays a young Mother, staying alone on the French coast while her husband is away working. One day, a drifter played by Marina De Van asks if she can pitch her tent outside the house. The two become friends, but there is a sinister undertone and eventually things take a very dark turn.
See The Sea trades, for the most part, on a feeling of unease. There is just something off about De Van’s character, which we initially sense from her distance and her brittleness – even in the face of kindness – but then we see it in action. In one especially nasty and disturbing moment, she takes Hails’ toothbrush and runs it along the inside rim of the toilet bowl. Ozon expertly teases out the tension both in this relationship and in the way Hails’ character regards her baby, right up until the film’s shocking ending. SI
Stalker (Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979)
As if Solaris wasn’t already a disturbing enough trip into what it means to be human, Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky dove right back in to full eerie effect with Stalker. It’s not horror as such, but it sure felt like it to me. This journey through a dangerous and mysterious zone to reach a room supposedly granting innermost desires is full of off-kilter imagery, uneasy conversation, and a complicated web of fears, desires, and unhealthy obsessions.
You can add to that the fact the making of Stalker became something of a horror show for Tarkovsky himself. After spending a good year shooting outdoor scenes, it turned out all the footage was unusable. Who knows what that original would have been like, because pretty much everything was reshot, the film shifting shape along the way.
What we do have is close to three hours of sustained tension, with no sudden lurches in pace or tone. It’s a long, disturbing poem to the dark recesses of the soul, holding a mirror up to our hidden wants. And just like a mirror, what we see staring back might not be what we’d imagined. SM
Berberian Sound Studio (Dir. Peter Strickland, 2012)
Drawing on both the aural and visual tableaux of 70’s Italian Giallo horror, this playfully enigmatic sophomore feature from Peter Strickland proved the British director to be one of the most distinctive new voices in UK cinema.
Set almost entirely within the ominously drab walls of the eponymous film studio, the film follows Toby Jones’ mild-mannered sound engineer, Gilderoy, who arrives at the Berberian studio and begins to work tirelessly on a mysterious giallo horror entitled The Equestrian Vortex; mixing voiceovers, and wryly creating sound effects for the film’s increasingly gory torture sequences by assaulting various vegetables with carving knives. The more he is exposed to the mysterious picture, however, the blurrier his grasp on reality becomes.
Berberian Sound Studio may not be a horror in the traditional sense; there are no jump scares, no ghosts or ghouls, and no bogeymen to fear. Yet Strickland’s erratic tone and pace fixes you to the edge of your seat in fright; it’s eerie, uncomfortable, and utterly mesmerising. To try and explain exactly how Strickland holds this icy grip on you would never do justice to the oppressively anxious atmosphere he crafts. Like a half-remembered nightmare that wakes you in the night, this is a film that’s hard to comprehend, and impossible to shake. JMcAllister
Funny Games (Dir. Michael Haneke, 2007)
To see Hollywood remake a well-liked European art house horror is always an experience that leads to disappointment. The freedom, sophistication and craftsmanship can often feel like it has been removed, forcing the film to lose its heart and become another stock horror. Michael Haneke, on the other hand, went to America and remade his own film.
Funny Games is a cruel & sadistic film, relishing in the pain it inflicts on its bland upper-middle class family, who feel safe in their cocoon of blandness… Blandness here could be changed for whiteness.
The film is malevolent, and utterly horrifying. Yes, Haneke has made a shot-for-shot remake of his own film, but this doesn’t mean it loses any of its power. If anything, having it now moved to a Hollywood setting, where such films can simply be more sanitised versions of their European counterparts, makes the horror even more affecting.
Released in a post-9/11 world and to an American audience that was far more used to genre horror, Funny Games is a middle finger to middle-class sensibilities. The classic home invader threat that Americans are so terrified of is ratcheted up, and you suspect the NRA could use this film as a reason to keeping selling semi-automatics to their members. Ultimately, however, Haneke is being mischievous. He understands the fear that runs through the heart of America, and he is twisting his knife just enough to get a reaction. JMackney
The Invitation (Dir. Karyn Kusama, 2015)
Things don’t get off to a great start for young couple, Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi). As they make their way through the Hollywood hills to attend a reunion dinner with Will’s ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard), her new husband David (Michiel Huisman), and their friends, all of whom haven’t seen each other in two years, they run down a coyote and Will is forced to put the beast out of its misery.
Upon arrival, Will’s suspicion is immediately aroused. The forced air of hospitality, an uncomfortable video screening, and Eden’s ethereal, white gown, something doesn’t feel quite right.
Karyn Kusama’s film breathes down your neck, sending chills up your spine and excellently crafts an atmosphere of palpable unease. And through smartly placed flashback, we are shown the tragic event that led to the deterioration of Eden & Will’s marriage.
Aligning us closely with Will, Kusama follows him as he questions whether this extravagant dinner is a genuine attempt to reconnect broken ties, or something more sinister. The film is confident in its pacing, taking time to unfold much in the way an awkward dinner party might, with characters constantly holding hushed conversations in the spaces between the action. And the pay-off is superbly satisfying, culminating in a nail-biting sequence of devastating horror.
This is a brilliantly unnerving film, dripping in suspense and paranoia. It is as if Karyn Kusama made Jennifer’s Body just so that she could wait three years, jump out of a cupboard with The Invitation and shout “FAKE OUT!” MM
Don’t Go In The Woods… Alone (Dir. James Bryan, 1981)
Don’t Go In The Woods… Alone is not a good movie… in fact, it’s not even a competent movie… in fact ‘movie’ might be too kind a term. It’s a backwoods slasher with a group of campers being hunted by some kind of mountain man, and you would never have heard of it had it not landed on the DPP list of ‘Video Nasties’ in the early 80s. For better or worse, that list has led to the roughly 72 films on it being preserved for posterity. Don’t Go In The Woods… Alone (I’m still not clear on whether ‘Alone’ is officially part of the title, for the record) might be the very worst of them.
The camerawork and writing are comically inept and the acting, by a cast of unknowns, the only notable name among them being Mary Gail Artz, now a well known casting director, is as wooden as the forest the film is set in. The effects are as obviously low budget as you’d imagine, but sometimes they are so terrible it’s hilarious. One notable moment has a character that has been stabbed, clearly holding the spear under his arm. The score is an abomination that may have been achieved by the composer randomly leaning on his My First Casio keyboard. The overall effect though, against all the odds, is kind of hypnotic. This isn’t a good film, but it’s a hugely fun one to watch, especially if you’ve got a couple of funny friends to riff it with. SI