I got into an argument over the weekend over the usefulness of all those top whatever lists of horror movies you see show up every year. You know the ones, I'm sure: they always have some combination of The Exorcist, Night of the Living Dead, The Shining, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Psycho, Alien, etc at the top? Yeah. Those. You don't even need an advanced degree in horror movie-ology to know about those films. They're in the culture. I mean, Night of the Living Dead's influence is so all-pervasive that it shows up on sitcoms and commercials. Seriously, you don't need my voice added to the din.
Lately, though, I've been thinking about the role of the critic. In a world where movies proliferate faster than ever, the critic is a cartographer. The critic has an obligation to wander into the parts of cinema that are labeled terra incognito on the map and bring back their findings. I've been a hardcore student of horror since I was very young, so here are some of my findings. Here are some films that DON'T show up on those annual lists of great horror movies even though they're certainly worthy films. This is in no order. There is no ranking, no hierarchy. Think of this as a kind of high-altitude mapping expedition. I'll be posting ten of these a day for the next week, so hang on to your seat. It might get bumpy.
The Black Pit of Doctor M (1959, directed by Fernando Méndez)
Mexican horror movies in the 1950s and 1960s were nothing if not enthusiastic. I tend to refer to these films as "blender" films, because they take a bunch of elements lying around in the genre, throw them in the blender, and hit "puree." This one is one of the best, in which two doctors make a pact that the first one of them to die will find a way to come back and let the other know what waits on the other side of death and if there's a way back. There is, but it's so convoluted that by the time the film reaches its resolution, the original impetus of its plot seems almost beside the point. What this is is enthusiastic. There's nothing that could be described as a "black pit" in this film, but there IS a deformed maniac, a murder plot, a seance, a love story, and, ultimately, a sense of cosmic justice in the tradition of The Twilight Zone. This is essentially conservative, given that it posits that old chestnut that "there are things man was not meant to know..." but it's also completely bonkers. It throws plots against the wall like they're spaghetti in order to see what sticks. Following it off the rails is half the fun.
The Mill of the Stone Women (1960, directed by Giorgio Ferroni)
Another "blender" film, this time from Europe. Mostly Italian, though filmed in Belgium and financed by France, this is an early version of the European gothics that would shortly dominate the 1960s. Gorgeous technicolor and unusual locations highlight this film, which is mostly a mood piece. Its plot plays like a cross between House of Wax and Eyes Without a Face. A beautiful cast, too. Plays like a lost Mario Bava film (it was made before Bava started making films in color, so this is prescient.
Longer review here.
Spider Forest (2004, directed by Il-gon Song)
This Korean film is closer to David Lynch than George Romero as horror movies go (and it is a horror movie, which may not be immediately evident). It's a genre-buster in which horror stems not from graphic violence or supernatural apparitions--there are instances of both in the film--but from questions of identity and basic epistemology. This sort of thing used to be part and parcel of the genre, back when horror stories hadn't yet been cut whole and bleeding from the Gothic novel. Spider Forest takes the horror film back to that first principle. At its core, it is a Gothic narrative, a spiraling introspection whose ultimate destination isn't nearly as important as the path it follows to get there. This has more in common with Absalom, Absalom than it does with The Ring. Its narrative is essentially cubist, examining its central horrible event from a number of sides at once. It's narrative threads radiate like the fault lines on a shattered piece of glass. It starts with a man who wakes in a forest with no memory of how he got there and then proceeds to provide multiple explanations, each horrible. It's a beautiful movie, replete with symbolism and filmcraft. If its ultimate destination is sorrow and loss, well that doesn't make it less horrific.
Longer review here.
Let's Scare Jessica To Death (1971, directed by John Hancock)
The classic slow burn Gothic mindfuck, concerning a recently institutionalized woman who moves into a supposedly haunted country house, where strange things impinge on her sanity. The Gothics of the early 1970s had an ambiance all their own and this film is a distillation of that mood. Director John Hancock shot this in a palette of autumnal colors that lends the film a longing sense of melancholy, while the story itself resolves itself into a beautiful ambiguity. One of the creepiest films ever made.
Hukkle (2002, directed by György Pálfi)
This starts off like an experimental documentary. We get image after idyllic image of mudane life in a rural Hungarian town, as if the filmmakers were making some sort of moving collage of found images. There is a seductive, quirky rhythm to the shots in the film. One could be forgiven for mistaking this as some kind of non-narrative experiment. Whatever it is, it’s fascinating to watch from the get-go. Gergely Pohárnok’s photography is a testament to the beauty of shooting on film. Hukkle captures the textures of everyday objects and of human faces like no other. And it doesn’t clutter things up with dialogue either. The film is in Hungarian, but what dialogue there is is completely superfluous. No subtitles needed.
It’s NOT a non-narrative film, though. There’s a plot hiding in the midst of its idyll, one that is deliciously sinister. It reveals itself with such subtlety, a casual viewer might stop themselves and ask ”did I just see that?” at various points in the film. The undercurrents get darker and darker as the film progresses. The end is very dark indeed.
Island of Terror (1966, directed by Terence Fisher)
For a film that was directed by Terence Fisher and stars Peter Cushing, this is certainly under the radar. Perhaps because it's more science fiction than Gothic horror. Whatever the case, it's a proper monster movie, in which a cancer experiment goes awry, releasing monsters onto a remote island where the trapped inhabitants must fight a desperate battle for survival. Fisher and Cushing are in fine form.
Wolf Girl (aka Blood Moon, 2001, directed by Thom Fitzgerald)
An examination of what it means to be a freak from the point of view of the freakshow, this follows a teenage girl who makes her living as a "wolf girl" in a side show and the temptation she feels when a cure for her condition presents itself. In a lot of ways, this is an old school horror movie, in which the monster is entirely sympathetic and tragic, but it's modern, too, in the way it turns its camera on "normal" people in order to reveal their monstrosity. It's also one of the queerest horror movies of the current century, with a strong thread of androgyny running through it. Tim Curry and Grace Jones are in the cast, and they're talismans of queer culture, made manifest by the nature of the film's narrative.
Longer review here.
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970, directed by Jaromil Jires)
Another cometary remnant of the Prague Spring, this is one of those arty surrealist horror movies that proliferated in Europe in the late sixties and early seventies. A girl on the eve of menarche hallucinates a dark world of vampires around her. This is an epistemological mind fuck of a movie, but even if you have no patience with such things, it's also utterly gorgeous. One of the most beautiful horror movies ever made, and one of the cornerstones of the menstrual horror film.
Frailty (2002, directed by Bill Paxton)
A rare horror film that puts the screws to the believer and the unbeliever alike, this chronicle of an abusive household where a father forces his sons to participate in the extermination of demons (other people whom God directs him to kill) is a film that fires on all cylinders and on multiple layers of storytelling. Star/Director Bill Paxton is a revelation both in front and behind the camera, and the two actors who play his sons give a pair of the best child performances in recent memory. This is more a philosophical and sociological horror movie than a visceral one, but when the suspense comes into the picture, this turns the screws hard.
Longer review here.
The Toolbox Murders (2004, directed by Tobe Hooper)
Face it, Tobe Hooper is never going to live up to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and his last several decades have been littered with career-shaking body blows. The remake of The Toolbox Murders is not one of those missteps. It's a nasty little item that takes the title of the original and not much else and performs some sleight of hand with the audience's expectations. It starts like a slasher film, but it ends up somewhere else entirely. Angela Bettis is good in the lead, discovering darker and darker things about her new place of residence. And there are dark things indeed. This has a perverse connection with Ghostbusters, given that both films are contingent on "wrong" architecture. Plus, this film has a mean streak a mile wide.
Longer review here.
Anyway that's a start. That'll do for now. Come back tomorrow for the next installment.
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