I recently spent some time with comic book scribe Scott Snyder, discussing his new project Wytches and the benefit that scary stories provide humanity at large. It’s an odd concept to explore when so many logical, intelligent people (my mother included) don’t realize the value in observing characters challenged, both mentally and physically, to ridiculous extremes. Why do we find entertainment in watching others suffer? There is a breed of horror cinema the excels in this area (watch this analysis of Cabin in the Woods for why horror cinema is often disgustingly bad), but horror’s roots are much more provocative and thoughtful.
Here’s Scott Snyder’s take on the issue:
The monsters that I gravitate toward show us the things we’re afraid of or are true about ourselves. They put pressure on us in certain ways to face mortality and constantly remind you that you’re not in control; these things come for you in ways that you can’t stop. But I think secondarily, the kind of monsters and monster stories that I love put pressure on us by forcing us to look at that end, or look at this kind of terrible marching doom that’s coming at you. To act in ways that are true to your own nature, to see people who are behaving in those ways in those stories. When that mirror is held up to them that is very telling.
With this in mind, I tried to think of the best horror films that dug into this criteria. Obviously, some of these films (REC, Trick ‘r Treat) function more as dissections of the film genre than what Snyder describes above, but they’re still excellent. Also: I know Hausu was made in 1977. I included it anyway, because it’s amazing and I know for a fact you haven’t seen it.
Director: Neil Jordan
Who knows what compelled Neil Jordan to return to the erotic bloodsucker genre he helped resuscitate with Interview With A Vampire, because god only knows how neutered that niche has become. But he did, and the results are stunningly gorgeous. Byzantium’s mother/daughter pairing of actresses Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Arterton peels back the layers of what it means to be a monster under a feminist microscope. When the male majority backs you into a corner of forced prostitution and subjugation, nobody can fault the oppressed for biting back — shades of grey far overwhelm the black here. The vampire myth also receives a compelling revamp (sorry); inductees face their inner demon (a literal clone of themselves) on a stark island before bathing in a waterfall of blood. The metaphor for embracing your own inner monster is powerful; Arterton absolutely dominates as a vagrant who manages pop-up brothels. Saoirse counters the primal equation as a perpetual youth exhausted by her adopted mother’s survivalism. The production stands as a salient treatise on the manipulative seduction and feral honesty behind America’s favorite monster. Also: lots of “Claire de Lune.”
Directors: Jaume Balaguero, Luiso Berdejo
This Spanish film innovates on the claustrophobic zombie template nicely, but its ending is…Jesus, something else. Directors/writers Jaume Balaguero and Luiso Berdejo adopt the pandemic horror angle (not unlike 28 Days Later) and thrust a group of public servants inside an apartment building plagued by the ravenous undead. The first 90% of [Rec] is fantastic if unexceptional; a survivor group’s numbers dwindle as it ascends a spiral staircase into madness, framed through the most dedicated tv camera man in Europe. The biting humor on the media’s willingness to unearth horror at its own sensational expense isn’t exactly subtle. The revelation in the top of the building blows the entire narrative into a new league of awful, though. Science melds with Catholic demonology while a genderless, towering human-shaped thing haphazardly swings a construction hammer with miserable abandon. It’s awful and exciting simultaneously, a series of images designed to time release in your brain when the world is at its darkest and most predatory.
Director: Takashi Miike
Audition is so ahead of its time it’s almost astounding. Yes, Match.com may have launched back in 1995, but online dating didn’t quite reach mass threshold till the mid aughties, and while Audition has absolutely nothing to do with online dating, it does revel in the worst-case scenario of systemic romance. The movie features likable widower Shigeharu, whose film producer buddy sets him up to interview a slew of young actresses under the guise of the titular film audition. Shigeharu meets Asami, a girl who looks very, very, soft. She emanates a velvety kindness and maternity that most would reward with a ring and fertilized ovaries. Unfortunately for Shigeharu, Asami’s warm exterior houses a soul wrecked by romantic pathos. Men in bags, absurdly long needles, and Sex and the City viewings ensue.
This is the cautionary tale of calculated dating filtered through dismemberment and piano wire, an omen of what every man and woman fears when they date the other man or woman with the 15-year-old photo on OKCupid. This film is why you tell a friend to call you at 10 PM to ensure that you still have a pulse and clothes on during the course of a first date. More than that, it’s the portrait of what happens when the callousness of serial romance overwhelms the vulnerable. Even as she descends into sadomasochistic splatterhouse, Asami still remains deeply relatable as a lover scorned beyond repair. And that’s the ultimate question: what’s more unsettling than seeing a monster you pity, or have even been?
6. Let the Right One In
Director: Tomas Alfredson
The Swedish vampire anti-fantasy Let the Right One In and its American remake suck every once of romance from the bloodsucker myth. The childhood escapism of the situation is alluring at the onset: Oskar, a very normal child who suffers frequently at the hands of bullies, meets Eli, a strange girl seen at night with an older man assumed to be her father. Oskar sifts through Eli’s mystery to discover an ancient, wandering soul who can only survive with the help of a handler—someone to protect her during the day and find human livestock to feast on at night. When that handler meets an incredibly bittersweet end at the hands of his client, Oskar faces a complex decision. The opportunity to flee the mundane chains of life with an immortal is electric; protection, mystery, and untapped knowledge of aeons passed. Unbeknownst to a child (but fully conveyed by the preceding ‘father’), death, anxiety, and exhaustion loom within the parasitic union. What’s worse: a visceral death, or enabling a monster to thrive for the rest of your life? That said, the vengeance scene in the pool would make anyone devote his or her life to an adolescent vampire.
5. House of the Devil
Director: Ti West
Ty West makes horror movies the same way Jack London writes novels: plain-spoken, muscular, and harrowing. This is storytelling with minimum wind-resistance. That’s not to say West doesn’t take his time building to a finale that will exhaust your adrenaline glands, and that’s the point in House of the Devil. A detached, documentarian camera clings to heroine Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) for a solid hour, letting us empathize, associate and feel her. Not only do we care for the every-woman undergrad, we are her. We empathize with her money troubles, hilarious mom jeans, and condescend alongside Sam at her fornicating roommate. By the time satanist Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan) recruits her for a babysitting gig, the audience has assumed the role of surrogate parent. The gore is neither overt nor shocking; however, the fact that the atrocities target a fictional character who we’ve bonded with certainly is. This movie inspired me to do a marketing stint for Magnolia, who have been pushing out intelligent genre gold (mostly under their Magnet banner) for years. If you like House of the Devil, Honeymoon is a nice extension, though it doesn’t quite scale the same heights. The movie poster of House also recalls the amazing ‘80s Bob Ross era of VHS cover art.
4. Trick r’ Treat
Director: Michael Dougherty
Michael Dougherty went to my rival high school in Columbus, Ohio, before graduating to Los Angeles, where he helped pen the screenplays for X-Men 2 and Superman Returns. This is significant because Trick ‘R Treat, the director’s homage to old school creep comic anthologies, brims with Midwestern flavor. The fictional town of Warren Valley represents a combination of Ohio University’s inebriated Halloween party and the rural flavor of events like the The Circleville Pumpkin Show. That aura of timeless Middle America nostalgia merges around a cast featuring Anna Paquin, Brian Cox, Dylan Baker, and Leslie Bibb, who all nail one of the most atmospheric, memorable genre films of the past decade.
The film reinterprets the themes of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow for adults. Dougherty takes the cautionary tale undercurrent of horror cinema and reinterprets it, crafting four stories where poor souls meddle with Halloween tradition and die in spectacularly interesting ways. Instead of Linus worshipping a fictional pumpkin god, a homicidal toddler made of hay and gourd viscera enforces the ancient pagan traditions of the holiday. The best story? The ghouls of mentally-ill children left to rot at the bottom of a rock quarry subvert an evil prank. Bonus points for non-linear story structure and foreshadowing.
Director: Henry Selick
The Nightmare Before Christmas deserves a place on any list, but its director and production team (Henry Selick and Laika) followed a much more insidious path with their next feature, rooted in Neil Gaiman’s book of the same name. I wrote a review when Coraline released, charting its lineage from other gothic stop-motion pioneers Brothers Quay and Jans Savankmajer, as well as connecting the obvious Alice in Wonderland tropes. Much can be said for the innate horror in stop-motion production; the jerky, spartan frames inject a wrongness into the cinematic flow. Things move as if they’re hurt, broken, or just off.
Ironically, Coraline also flexes some of the silkiest stop-motion animation of the medium, despite being one of the grimmest movies marketed toward children. A young girl trips into a mirrored version of her house where an Other Mother with sewed-on button eyes strives to feed off her soul. The button metaphor nicely captures the theme; children think they want their parents to dote on them like pets and dolls, unaware that the hardships of growth and discipline will only benefit them in the future. Undercurrents of wish fulfillment, resentment, and maturity coalesce beautifully with the mind-melt imagery. Show this to your kids if they ever begin to resent you, or you just want to scare the shit out of them.
Director: Nobuhiko Ôbayashi
There’s so little I could say about this film that Steve Dollar didn’t analyze in his brilliant review. Hausu, or House, thrusts the anxiety and hopelessness of a post-nuclear Japan through surrealist death fantasies and pastel terror. What wonders director Nobuhiko Ôbayashi accomplishes can’t be understated; the veneer of candy-colored commercialism trips blindly into batshit madness as a troupe of teenage girls falls victim to a possessed ranch house. The tone inflates and deflates between moments of childhood escapism and cartoonish terror. Example: one visitor suffocates underneath a waterfall of endless couch cushions. Also, a piano ingests a girl, trapping her spirit so disembodied fingers can tickle the ivories a few scenes later. It’s ADD, LCD Tex Avery awesome, doused in splashes of neon color that Dario Argento couldn’t not have been inspired by. And I’ll be damned if Sam Raimi’s love of fire-hose bleeding didn’t come from this intoxicating gem. Colorful as it may be, the heart of this film is sobering, showing a country haunted by the tolls of war.
1. The Orphanage
Director: J.A. Bayona
I adore The Orphanage. It’s lushly shot and impeccably well-executed on every level. Modern fantasy/horror godfather Guillermo del Toro tossed his name behind this production, and it’s not hard to see why. The plot balances between domestic hell and a supernatural mystery. A couple assumes a seaside mansion that once served as the wife’s childhood orphanage. The pair’s son inexplicably goes missing while the spirits of her past hint at atrocities yet discovered. The searing conflict in The Orphanage stems from the couple’s anguish; actress Belena Rueda (equally excellent in Julia’s Eyes) makes her misery yours. She reaches deep into the primal fear that the people who define your life can disappear in seconds, leaving a void of identity and purpose. The climax dives into the depths of maternal responsibility and demands much from its audience, perfectly capping off one of the most intense, engaging explorations of the human conditions in the horror genre.