I fully understand the clichéd phrase “creatures of habit” but this Halloween I wanted to switch it up a bit. Here’s an in depth look at nine films I recommend my horror lovers check out. We’re taking it back with this one. Enjoy!
1. Freaks (1932) dir. Tod Browning
The first film on this list is an interesting one and probably the most impactful. There’s Freaks and then there’s everything else. When originally released, the film was considered too much for movie-goers and was quickly edited. Unfortunately the original version no longer exists so we’ll never get to see Browning’s true vision. The film was made during a time before censorship guidelines became enforced, therefore allowing Browning to get away with a few things that wouldn't be allowed shortly after.
Freaks is the story of a tight-knit group of sideshow performers at a carnival and quickly develops into a story that hinges on the vices of the crew. Throw in a fake marriage, an inheritance, a little mob mentality and of course it leads to the dissension of this chaotic group. I must say it was fun to watch and you might even find yourself unexpectedly laughing. While Freaks was not appreciated during its original release the film’s resurgence almost three decades later led to its eventual cult status. After watching this film it’s influence within the genre becomes apparent, with American Horror Story: Freak Show being a glaring example.
Browning’s Freaks is unique in the sense that it’s not your average horror film. In many ways, it’s this blending of several genres with hints of horror elements. Throughout most of Freaks the true monsters of the film are the able-bodied individuals. Browning is successful at taking characters that are usually looked down upon and effectively make them the kind of people that viewers want to root for. With Freaks Browning subverts the typical ideas about what or who can be considered a “monster”. Monstrosity like fear comes in many different forms. It’s easy to play on general fears like killing and death while not truly knowing which parts will resonate with whom. Often a director can tap into a fear that viewers didn’t even know they had. However, the truth of fear is that it has a lot to do with what a person already brings to the viewing. Many times the things people fear the most are mundane and rooted in parts of that person’s everyday life. Browning understood how disabled bodies are viewed, taps into that fear and in his own way forces the audience to contend with their own biases.
2. Blacula (1972) dir. William Crain
Blacula is so intriguing because it’s the right mixture of blaxploitation with horror. In the 1780s Prince Mamuwalde is sent as a delegate to ask Count Dracula to assist in combating the slave trade. Dracula pretty much laughed in his face and also found time to threaten Mamuwalde’s life. A fight ensued, Mamuwalde is turned into a vampire, and imprisoned in a coffin until 1972. After awakening in the present the cursed Blacula goes on a tirade that is further flamed by his new love interest.
Blacula is by no means the best film on this list but like Freaks its cinematic importance deserves to be highlighted. My favorite aspect of the film are the costumes and the amazing choice in music. Crain decided to forego the traditional classical score and instead went with a soulful yet haunting soundtrack. Imagine the music from Shaft but spookier. I highly recommend checking it out on YouTube. The film is at times expectedly campy and awkwardly humorous but even with its shortcomings it remains enjoyable.
While blaxploitation is a controversial genre it was a moment in cinema that should be highlighted. This is the only film on the list that was directed by a Black man with the majority of its cast being black. In its own way Blacula challenges how Black villains are characterized. Prince Mamuwalde is educated, intriguing, and suave. Yes he’s still the bad guy but he’s also a well-rounded character. The success of Blacula sparked a wave of Black centered horror films and for that I’m appreciative.
3. Videodrome (1983) dir. David Cronenberg
I’m not really sure what Videodrome is but it’s definitely a VHS era classic. This film depicts the unraveling of a television executive named Max Renn who comes across a broadcast that features gruesome torture. In an attempt to discover the origins of its signal Max changes the trajectory of his own existence. The story develops into this scientific conspiracy theory riddled world whose reality is not easily discernible. I suggest watching the trailer first because it’s simply weird and confusing on it’s own. I’ve watched the film and I remain continuously in awe of the human imagination.
The film poignantly exhibits a future society where technology has infiltrated every aspect of human life. Videodrome is socially conscious but not in a way that feels obnoxious. Films that constantly remind you how smart they are is extremely annoying but this is not that. Videodrome feels like it was definitely ahead of its time in the 80s but somehow today’s climate makes it perfect for present audiences. Cronenberg has never made films that were easily accessible to the average audience. I appreciate that this film isn’t the most palatable experience. I expect those that watch to either like it or detest everything about it.
Videodrome is eerily accurate in its prediction that presently continues to develop. It’s reality questioning plot predates the popularity of the Matrix franchise and that’s a testament to Cronenberg’s vision. Visually this film is bold and at times disorienting. Thankfully the visual effects hold up all these years later. The plot feels timeless because it can always serve as an examination of our relationship with technology and comments on society’s borderline masochistic obsession with violence. However, Videodrome’s outlandishness can become a little too much. I do guarantee that a few expletives will fly and by the end you may not fully understand what you watched. I suggest you just go with it.
4. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) dir. David Lynch
This film was meant to serve as a prequel to Lynch’s tv show of the same name, which aired two years before its release. What’s personally interesting about Fire Walk with Me is that I watched it with little to no knowledge about Twin Peaks. However, I was very familiar with David Lynch‘s other work. The film opens with an investigation into the murder of local teenager and quickly spirals into something else all together. Laura Palmer whose death serves as the catalyst for the tv show is the focal point of the entire film. Laura serves as the audience’s surrogate and entry into the underbelly of this seemingly quiet town. Even without watching the show I knew that this would likely end in her death. With this knowledge in hand Lynch takes viewers on a unusual hypnotic ride that never fails in its attempts to pull you into this young woman’s hectic life. I don’t want to spoil the Bob storyline but its a direct tie-in to Season 2 episode seven, also known as “Lonely Souls”. Commercially Fire Walk with Me did not receive the same acclaim its television counterpart garnered. The reviews are actually hilarious and possibly exaggerated. After researching its reception I wasn't sure what to expect but unlike everyone else I really enjoyed it.
Honestly, I’m not fully sure how I would initiate a discussion of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. This film is at this weird intersection of several genres. The horror elements within the film are some of the most recognizable. Whether it’s the tense atmosphere, haunting music, voyeuristic shots, or familiar camera angles, they all scream horror. While the presence of the character Bob is meant to freak out the audience he is not a traditional horror villain or monster. He combines the supernatural, a slasher, with a mixture of a sadistic serial killer that you would find in a thriller. Bob is not actually a person but more like this otherworldly being whose essence radiates pure evil. He rarely speaks in his true form and instead is mostly shown utilizing a human host. Bob has the scary factor of Freddy with the creepiness of Norman Bates. Many attributes he displays on screen not only felt familiar but also visually harkened back to his horror predecessors.
While you may not fully understand what’s going on a lot of the time the emotional essence of the film is familiar. Laura’s portrayal was grounded in this childlike emotionality that could quickly transition to depressive and at times horrific. She conveys these emotions in way that can be relatable to the audience. Instead of continuing to try and find meaning in what I was seeing I begun to simply sit back and watch. I found myself enjoying Fire Walk With Me more when I immersed myself in the film and allowed it to steer my experience.
4. Audition (1999) dir. Takashi Miike
Audition is one of my favorite foreign horror films. This film is a great introduction into Japanese horror, an area of cinema I highly suggest checking out. At the behest of his son recent widower Shigeharu Aoyama attempts to move on and find a new wife. Aoyama’s producer friend decides to help and pushes him to stage a fake audition as a guise to find a wife. Initially opposed to the idea Aoyama changes his mind when he reads a letter written by the enigmatic Asami. After pursuing each other the dynamic of the relationship becomes quite grim.
Asami becomes this symbolic stand in for the women in her culture that have been victims of an inherently patriarchal society. Aoyama is the typical “nice guy” that doesn’t understand why anything is happening to him. What I love about this film is that even when you think you've figured everything out it finds a way to challenge this very notion. Like many others on the list Audition really toys with the audience’s sense of what’s real. As I’ve stated the main character isn’t really a likeable guy but even I was left speechless by the end. Ironically this film is very fitting for the sociopolitical climate within our own country. Subtitles don’t deter me from a film but I do know that they’re not for everyone. There’s tons of dialogue therefore I wouldn’t recommend being distracted while watching this. I do foresee anyone who watches this film talking at their tv, possibly shouting (prepare yourself).
This one is also for all my color theory people out there. You’re welcome. Audition uses color to accent the inner turmoil of the characters and the emotions that envelop them. Color is such an important tool in visual storytelling. Many of the best directors and cinematographers have the ability to write color in as an entire character within a script. As viewers we typically have an innate psychological reaction to color and this is utilized to enhance the quality of horror within this film. By the end of it all I was still left unpacking everything I had observed and experienced. This film lingers long after it’s over and you will likely find yourself thinking about it at the oddest times.
5. The Cell (2000) dir. Tarsem Singh
The Cell was Singh’s directorial debut and I’m thoroughly impressed by it. The film details child psychologist Catherine Deane’s struggle to obtain information from a killer through the use of an experimental treatment for coma patients. Catherine’s relatability and position as the good natured hero creates a genuine connection between her character and the viewers. It’s hard not to root for her at every turn. Stargher on the other hand is menacing and chilling as the film’s villain. I found myself fascinated and simultaneously repulsed by his presence.
The Cell is one of the few films of the 2000s that kind of slipped through the cracks. I only found it because I was actively searching for a horror film with stunning mise-en-scène. The Cell popped up on a few recommendations and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. I will admit that there are a few plot points that could have been better but visually there was so much to take in. I’m a sucker for anything that has dream sequences and explores the subconscious mind. There’s such a psychological minefield to get through when watching this film. The Cell definitely draws upon Silence of the Lambs with its own psychopathic killer that could rival Hannibal Lecter himself.
The film features a thrilling performance in the depiction of Carl Rudolph Stargher. Also Jennifer Lopez’s costumes alone warrants a watch. The cinematographer, props department, make-up, and wardrobe designer deserve so much credit for this visual tour de force. The film rightly deserved its Oscar nomination for Best Make-Up. It’s interesting the way the film crosses so many genre lines. It’s science fiction, fantasy, a thriller, while also borrowing the classic action trope of needing to complete a mission in a specific period of time. From a storytelling standpoint there is so much to juggle. The Cell is remarkably adventurous in its storytelling and for that reason it deserves a spot on this list.
6. The Orphanage/El Orfanato (2007) dir. J.A. Bayona
Another amazing foreign film that utilized the most common elements of horror but in a way that didn’t feel outdated. This film knows it’s lane and it stays true to its format. Executing a good horror film is not easy and we know when certain aspects are not working. This is not the case with the Orphanage, they somehow found a way to correctly incorporate jumpscares and maintain a certain atmosphere throughout the film. Guillermo del Toro helped produce the film and his presence is definitely felt and greatly appreciated.
Bayona’s Spanish horror film The Orphanage brilliantly combines the menacing with the mundane. The film’s horrific events are grounded in the familiar. Bayona seeks to explore the deeper emotions behind the genre, which extends beyond mere fright. The film portrays the terror that lies within the domestic. The film takes place in a coastal gothic home that previously functioned as an orphanage. Laura a former orphan who grew up there has decided to use the house as a home for children with special needs. Laura’s family initially appears to be this ideal familial unit, however, the situation changes when the disappearance of her young son Simon sends them into an emotional spiral. The horror in The Orphanage stems from its complicated depictions of family: how the unit is affected by trauma and how children are alienated within it. Laura’s character depicts the difficulty of parenting within the realm of horror. The act of motherhood and even carrying a child is often a source of horror in many films (i.e. Rosemary's Baby). In Laura’s case this is further complicated by the fact that she adopted her son.
In horror houses are not only the realm of the domestic but also serve as symbolic monuments for the trauma contained within them. The house is as much a character in a horror film as the ghosts, zombies, psychos and demons. In this same home Laura was part of an untraditional family consisting of the other orphans. By leaving the orphanage Laura is initially able to avoid the trauma, however, by returning with her family to the site of the events they are unable to escape its lingering effects. Rooms within the orphanage are enshrouded with shadows, filled with dark corners with imprints of haunting events that previously occurred there. In some instances, the house itself becomes the real embodiment of horror with suffering and fear embedded in its walls. Homes are seen as receptors because they are so intimately tied with the daily lives of its residents. Ironically society often confines mothers within the house in order to contain them. As the horror takes place the home like any other evil entity turns heartless and the domestic space becomes dysfunctional.
7. It Follows (2014) dir. David Robert Mitchell
It Follows was a breath of fresh air in a very hit or miss genre. It was riddled with tons of iconic horror elements but still found ways to be an inventive and terrifying horror film. It combined the best elements of a teen drama with the atmosphere of a classic slasher. The quickest way to describe this film is to think of the weirdest safe sex ad you’ve seen but turn it into a horror film. The film follows high school student Jay who is assaulted and left with a supernatural entity that is spread by having sex. Trying to get rid of the entity is where all of Jay’s problems begin. Solely from a perspective of entertainment this film was so enjoyable to watch. As soon as I heard the first bit of music I knew this film would be an interesting one. That initial music set the tone for all the weird and crazy things that followed. This was not a traditional horror score in any way and yet it still managed to keep you on edge throughout its entirety.
While watching It Follows it’s so important for viewers to pay close attention to what is in the frame of a shot. There is so much information to take in and if you blink too long you will miss it.
The movement of the camera is so fluid and it’s amazing how it becomes tailored to what is needed for a particular scene. When the entity is near just like it the camera moves slow and meticulously within the environment. While there are well-placed jump-scares throughout the film much of the fear the audience experiences is secondhand. Most of the time viewers are seeing the terror through Jay’s eyes. The camera lingers on her expressions and reactions to what’s taking place. AIDs, herpes, and several other sexually transmitted diseases are already frightening enough. When considering how STD’s ravish through high schoolers and 20-somethings it is no surprise that this is easily applicable within a horror film.
Even with all the unanswered questions, this does not hinder a viewer from enjoying It Follows. I appreciated how the audience in a way becomes investigators trying to understand everything about the entity. By allowing the audience to be active participants this lets them become more invested in the narrative. It Follows is definitely a welcomed addition to the genre and I expect to see more films that operate in this same realm.
8. Raw (2016) dir. Julia Ducournau
Alright, this is our last foreign entry and once again there are subtitles. France really did there thing with this one. Raw is the most recent and honestly the most refreshing of them all. Ducournau’s debut film Raw depicts a unique foray into the genre of horror. This cannibalistic coming of age tale provides a glimpse into the life of sixteen-year-old Justine as she attends veterinarian school. As she adapts to her new setting Justine is forced to participate in a hazing ritual that ends with her eating a piece of raw rabbit kidney. While not initially apparent this event triggers an interesting exploration of flesh. The suffering Justine endures while completely devastating becomes the catalyst of her growth as a woman.
In the film Ducournau utilizes color and composition in a manner that visually enhances the storytelling while also using these elements to approach horror in relatable yet unconventional ways. Ducournau does not try to overload the viewers with tons of color instead she only employs it when it services the story. The best cinema can tell a story through something as simple as the arrangement of an image. Deciding the placement of subjects is not merely a technical decision but also a creative one. In Raw, the camera is unforgiving, the close ups are not made to look appealing, and it does not glorify the atrocities taking place. The director poignantly uses her camera in an honest exploration of the human condition. Throughout Raw Justine is at the mercy of her own body. Justine’s movements on camera reveals an emotional depth that extends beyond what is projected on the surface.
The true horror of Raw lies within the realness of enduring puberty. This untraditional use of horror depicts the struggles of a young teenage girl coming into her own. It just so happens that Justine taking ownership of her body coincides with her literal exploration of flesh. It is rare to see a truly engrossing horror film with plot developments that are not immediately discernible. Ducournau uniquely charts the darker parts of female development without making Justine a monster, completely destroying her, or overly sexualizing her.