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Halloween is an irritating, commercialised season of hyper kids and ugly decorations. However, it does excuse ‘nights in’ watching frightening films of ghouls and grime. There is an overwhelming selection to choose from, with obvious candidates for a monstrous marathon being the likes of A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), or The Exorcist (1973). I’m hoping the following will help narrow down your choices and guide through some lesser known but equally frightening flicks, along with a host of scary staples of the horror genre — unmissable at this time of year.
"I have seen the future of the horror genre, and his name is Clive Barker" – Stephen King. This was what the literary king of horror had to say about Barkers darkly disturbing film, Hellraiser (1987). Based on the novella The Hellbound Heart, written by Barker, this grizzly recreation of its source material is as brilliantly cheesy as it is genuinely frightening. Hellraiser is known for its collection of extra-dimensional demons, demonstrating a mastery of practical effects in horror. Torn flesh and excoriated insides linger on the screen long after the film has finished — exactly what is needed for a Halloween night in. Visceral visual intensity takes the film to places of perversion, and lifts Hellraiser to a position alongside the likes of A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).
Many other adaptations have attempted to transfer the petrifying from page to picture. With many worthy of recognition; the likes of Carrie (1976), Psycho (1960), Misery (1990) and Frankenstein (1931) stand out. An obvious, but certainly deserving, candidate is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). Famously dismissed by Stephen King, this adaptation is generally considered a masterpiece. Intense, claustrophobic and eerie, it taps into everyone’s varying phobias. It’s a must watch for the spooky season.
Roman Polanksi’s contribution to the horror genre can’t be ignored. Rosemary’s Baby (1968) is an obvious candidate, acting as a template for much of future horror. However, another Polanski film that is horribly overlooked in lists of this genre is Repulsion (1965). Particularly pertinent in times of self-isolating and social distancing, this film captures the true essence of loneliness, isolation and the distortion of deep-seated anxieties. Saint Maud (2020), recently released in cinemas, clearly draws from this film’s attempts to capture a reclusive existence. Both compliment each as a perfect double bill for an isolated Halloween.
Japanese horror provides some of the best entries into this twisted genre. The aesthetically driven approach embraces gore and tends to lean more on a psychological focus. Takashi Miike’s horror/mystery Audition (2000) does exactly this. Beginning with the gentleness of a romantic comedy, it slowly gets under your skin and leaves you speechless in its horrific final sequence. Eihi Shiina possesses all the menace of Annie Wilkes, committing repulsive torture methods that will make you cringe more than any hammer-to-foot action ever could. It is an excellent contribution to Japanese horror that has been majorly overlooked.
Other additions to the ‘J-Horror’ genre include the unnervingly realistic Noroi: The Curse (2005) or Ringu (1998). However, another film sits superior to all of these, Onibaba (1964). An esteemed entry to the genre, it sucks its audience in with its rich atmosphere and visually striking style. Based in an overwhelming rural world of overgrown grass, the film captures your attention through minimalistic dialogue and a sensual cinematic style. Horror genres aside, Onibaba holds a position of superiority across Japanese cinema.
Another classic of the horror genre is the original Nosferatu (1922) directed by F.W Murnau. Capturing the freakish vampire in shadowy aesthetics, and the distorted design of German expressionism, this 1922 film is still genuinely nightmarish, and deserves a viewing during the spooky season. Other adaptations such as Werner Herzog’s 1979 version are similarly haunting. Capturing the same distorted mise en scène of the German expressionist movement is The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920). Another silent movie, this is technically penned as fantasy/mystery, but that doesn’t stop it from being relentlessly creepy. Warped sets and bizarre characters engage even a modern audience, remaining one of the most surreal and fascinating silent films ever made.
In the new-wave of modern horror, Robert Eggers’ movies have managed to produce a new genre of disquieting and uncomfortable films. Avoiding all tired tropes, Eggers excels in creating suspense through tight scripting and unnerving visual spectacle. Sights of dark trees in The Witch (2016) dominate the screen, reaffirming our natural fear of the unknown. The witches’ ritual climax is overwhelmingly scary – Mark Korven’s spectacular score swelling and only intensifying the fear. Eggers continued his hair-raising reputation with The Lighthouse (2019). Jan Blaschke’s ice-cold monochrome cinematography captured this 1890s New England Island exceptionally, complimented by Louis Ford’s precise editing. An intense atmosphere builds momentum throughout this mastery of horror- aided by unnervingly authentic performances from Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe.
Other films have also made clear that there is room for fresh approaches in horror. Hereditary (2018) was acclaimed for just this, and is certainly a decent modern mystery/horror. However, Jennifer Kent’s 2014 film The Babadook was even more assertive with it’s new angle on dated tales. A supernatural story which focused on the trials of a single mother caring for her troubled child gave a dramatic edge to a pretty conventional story. When the screams aren’t at the focus, the engagement with a struggling mother – portrayed by Essie Davis – will be.
Claustrophobia is a common theme in horror, targeting the innate fears within a lot of people. Combine this phobia with cannibal creatures, lurking in the dark, hunting you down, and you have The Descent (2005). This small film from Neil Marshall displays what can be done with a relatively low budget and a tight concept. Although a little hammy on the dialogue, the sheer terror of this film will keep you hooked. In the same way Jaws made everyone scared of the sea, this will have you creeped by the caves.
Another underrated entry is the James Watkins’ film Eden Lake (2008). Following the loved-up couple Jenny (Kelly Reilly) and Steve (Michael Fassbender) camping out by a lake, the opening act feels relatively tame. But an unknown presence lingers in the background, hiding in the woods. The terror of this film came with the ending. In its provocative and realistic nature, it is a relentlessly intense experience, and a film that doesn’t get mentioned enough in discussions of British horror.
Of all films in this genre, it is John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London (1981) that seems to stick out. The tube station sequence is intense, the nightmare scenes are both confusing and shocking and the transformation scene is simply remarkable. The transformation from man to werewolf is the finest display of practical effects that any of these films have shown.
Personally, I would place An American Werewolf in London at the top of this list. Its charming London setting and sharp dialogue make it a less terrifying, more enjoyable and more pleasurable horror experience. So, after working through the nightmare-inducing films above, maybe finish with this one. The comic relief of our American protagonists portrayed by David Naughton and Griffin Dunne makes for a slightly less intense experience. So you should be able to sleep with the lights off. Maybe.