As part of Halloween Week this year we asked our contributors to recommend films for readers to watch on Halloween. The parameters were intentionally vague, not tethered to horror films per se but anything that could fit under the broad umbrella of unsettling cinema. Fittingly, what we got was a supremely eclectic and interesting set of films, running the gamut from unfairly maligned slasher sequels to avant-garde video art.
Conor Bateman: Halloween tends to bring out the desire in people to marathon through gore-laden franchises of dubious quality, so in the spirit of that I’ll suggest a double feature that consists of a film and its sequel – Sion Sono’s Suicide Club and Noriko’s Dinner Table. It’s a weird double, for sure, the former a lurid serial killer mystery that strays into an absurd look at mass suicide and technology, the latter a slow-burning drama that tries to unpack the allure of the cult partially featured in Suicide Club. In a sense they are two sides of the same coin, the bizarre view of technology and its power to corrupt and brainwash schoolchildren is a throughline, yet their difference is an interesting showcase of Sono’s versatility. Earlier this year Sono spoke to us about his career and said that his intention with Suicide Club was just to do shocking things – to bait the viewing public, in a sense. Noriko is the better (and more disturbing) of the two, partly because it’s a surprisingly intelligent and complex answer to the visceral depravity of the earlier film and a visual return to Sono’s independent roots; he shot the film with cinematographer Sohei Tanikawa on mini-DV and in only two weeks, and the film runs for nearly three hours.
Tope Ogundare: A convicted murderer is released on parole and immediately goes in search of someone to kill. This premise pretty much encapsulates the unnerving and disaffected simplicity of Austrian Gerald Kargl’s 1983 directorial debut/swansong Angst, which Gaspar Noé has described as ‘the best psycho-killer movie [he has] ever seen.’ In a way, Noé’s phrasing comes across a little playful, as if to suggest that the film’s depiction of antisociality and violence is dripping with enjoyable kitsch. On the contrary, being the film whose DNA likely resides in Noé’s I Stand Alone and Irreversible, Angst couldn’t be more sombre, more gruelling; and horrific in the truest sense. Saddled with a decaying colour palette while boasting eerie camerawork suggestive of a dissociative state, Angst plays like a procedural, tracking the central offender as he preys on a family of isolated invalids. However, like the titular Martin in George A.Romero’s 1976 vampire gem, the character in Angst is not a professional but an obsessed amateur. He is messy and semi-incompetent and a slave to his debased constitution. But he is scarily driven and has a quietly vampiric method which Kargl chooses to capture with distressing attention and intimacy. Ultimately, the key to Angst’s lingering effect is that it dares to be…sympathetic. Somehow. The unnamed ‘protagonist’ indulges his deepest darkness, but is also sickened and clearly tortured by it. Horrible as the violence is, the movie’s most unsettling aspect is its ability to evoke the very experience of being trapped in the bleakest, most wretched of psychological prisons. Horror films, in general, tend to possess some entertainment value. Angst possesses precious little, which is why it will never be a Halloween favourite while still being the very definition of horrific. That’s Angst: a film barely marred by an unnecessarily synth-y score by former Tangerine Dreamer Klaus Schulze.
Felix Hubble: Taking place during a very different kind of holiday, and serving itself as a precursor to John Carpenter’s Halloween and the expansive slate of brutal slashers that followed, Bob Clarke’s Black Christmas is one of the most underrated films in the contemporary horror canon. A much nastier, far more frightening film than many of its contemporaries, with some stunning set dressing and cinematography – every sequence is drenched in rich, black cinematography and the neon of Christmas lights – pre-dating unlikable protagonists and hero villains, Black Christmas deserves a place on everybody’s watchlist. The film follows a sorority house stalked by a malicious, shadowy harasser, who prank calls and verbally assaults prospective victims before they meet their grisly demise. Planting you firmly in the shoes of the female protagonist, Clark proficiently conveys the pure, unabashed terror of the situation, lacing his feature with an undercurrent of social criticism concerning harassment that pre-dates the internet age.
Keeping with the theme of “holiday horror”, albeit one that looks at a false celebration, is Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man. The precursor to Neil LaBute/Nicolas Cage’s much maligned, woeful failure of a remake,1 Hardy’s film places us in the fictional Summerisle, a Pagan island in the midst of their “May Day” celebrations. Following the tale of Seargeant Howie (Edward Woodward), a devout Christian who is investigating the disappearance of a young girl, The Wicker Man sees Howie’s values challenged by Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) and the island’s sexually progressive and generally edgy inhabitants. The film was once seen as a cautionary tale about the threat of the cult, although it feels much more akin to a takedown of religious intolerance – at least, for the most part – in a contemporary context. For those looking for something more abstract, experimental or unconventional, it’s worth having a gander at The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears – a magnificently deranged Giallo throwback flick, Honeymoon – a look at the disintegration of a relationship framed through the horror lens – and Suburban Gothic – an ultra-dumb, ultra-goofy Scooby Doo-esque folly unlike anything you’ve quite seen before, certainly the most “spooky” movie you’ll find on this list.
Dominic Barlow: Halloween is the litmus test for classic horror films, as the likes of Carrie and, well, Halloween have showed, and this one sees the first chance for It Follows to step up to the plate since its impressive theatrical run earlier this year. The same chatter that’s primed it for the canon has seen it lessened through rank STD analogising and plot-hole poking, but it’s ultimately just that: chatter, which does nothing to dent the boundless confidence of writer/director David Robert Mitchell’s sophomore feature. As heroine Jay (Maika Monroe) and her friends evade a monstrous shapeshifter whose target shifts to whomever its victim has sex with, he eschews the romantic despair of his previous teen drama, The Myth of the American Sleepover, to hold his twenty-something protagonists’ feet to the deadly flame, making their own fecklessness the real beast. With the parent-less world around them soaked in wordless mood and inspirations from titans come before (Carpenter especially, through a chilling electronic score from Disasterpeace), the tale is one with an eerie focus on making the hearts of couch-surfing millennials everywhere jump into their mouths. Sure enough, it’s streaming on Netflix.
Jeremy Elphick: Alongside the gargantuan The Human Condition and his international sucess of Harakiri, sits Masaki Koboyashi’s Kwaidan; one of the director’s most ambitious and rewarding works. Kwaidan is a nuanced, engrossing and fascinating take on the horror genre and one of the most expensive films of its era, with it holding up surprisingly well for something made in the 1960s. This quality permeates the work; in the intricately constructed sets,2 the complex approach to the horror genre, and the way in which the film operates both as its own work as well as anthology of the smaller works within it. As a 3-hour loose adaptation of Lafcadi Hearn’s anthology of Japanese folklore of the same name, it’s also a work that sits in a particularly unique aesthetic position; of a Japanese director adapting a collection of Japanese horror interpreted by a foreigner in the land; creating a densely-layered and complex work.
Jesse Thompson: When I first came across Bernard Rose’s Candyman, it was among a collection of mostly shoddy and largely forgotten slasher films rented out for a sleepover. I was 12 and the movie didn’t stray far from this benchmark, but certain moments have haunted me ever since. Early in the film, a character complains that something has been moving her apartment walls. An honours researcher, the headstrong Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen), travels to a decrepit social housing block to demystify the Candyman mythology – call him five times, turn the lights out, and await disembowelment by hook – but finds the line between lore and socially-produced crime thoroughly blurred. It’s good horror writing because it equates Helen’s deepening search for truth to increasingly sinister run-ins with her hook-handed assailant, hearkening to the explainable/unknowable binary that has informed the genre for centuries. And the title sequence, a bird’s eye view of cars moving through a motorway to an operatic Philip Glass score, still gives me jitters for reasons I can’t articulate. Candyman might have been the first film I saw that analogised inequality to a sinister third party – it was also the first that didn’t terrify, but deeply unsettled.
James Hennessy: In between whatever other gory cuts of cinema you’ve undoubtedly got planned for your lonely Halloween night hunched like a gremlin over your computer keyboard, make a little time for John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns – Carpenter’s second-to-last production and the last one to not suck beyond measure (The Ward ought to be burnt and its ashes seeded with salt). It’s an hour long – it was produced for the spotty Masters of Horror series – and quite lo-fi, but it maintains the creepy weird fiction vibe Carpenter built on throughout the eighties and early nineties. It’s a good entry in the ‘lost film’ genre: a pre-Walking Dead Norman Reedus pursues a forgotten film named La Fin Absolue du Monde, which was rumoured to depict the torture of an angel and caused a homicidal riot at its film festival premiere. It’s classic Carpenter fare in a digestible timeframe: gore aplenty, big synth soundtrack, endless rumination on madness, a man feeding his own intestines into a film projector. The whole kit and kaboodle. I’ve known a lot of horror fans who have overlooked it – give it a glance this Halloween.
Luke Goodsell: One of my favourite horror discoveries of the year—insomuch as it could be considered horror, which I think it can—is Brunello Rondi’s Il demonio from 1963. Set in a rural village in Southern Italy where the patriarchy reigns supreme, it centres around Purif (Dalia Lavi), a peasant girl who’s jilted by her lover for a more socially-upward companion, thus becoming an outcast in the village where’s she’s vilified and considered a witch. Already mentally unhinged, Purif is driven to full-blown madness when the town priests declare she’s possessed, and Rondi tracks her harrowing descent—and thrilling, feral defiance—over the next few weeks. It’s an astonishing all-timer of a performance by Lavi, who twists and contorts and thrashes against the narrow mindedness of her village (including a scene of what appears to be the “spider walk” that inspired Friedkin in The Exorcist), and while the movie certainly chills in a traditional horror sense, it’s even more bracing as an indictment of a male- and religion-dominated society hellbent on crushing what they consider the monstrous female. Oh, and if you’re so inclined, you can watch it in its entirety (albeit in mediocre quality) on YouTube.
Lidiya Josifova: Admittedly I’ve never ventured too far beyond ‘mainstream’ horror or slasher flicks. My preference leans towards thrillers with an edge of horror, just sharp enough to prick that paranoid corner of the mind. It’s with this in consideration that Stoker pops up as a great Halloween movie choice. Despite lacking in malevolent supernatural phenomena or axe-wielding madmen, it harbours a slow, creeping quality that promises to raise goosebumps one at a time. Mia Wasikowska’s India is reserved, inscrutable, an unpredictable protagonist in the midst of blossoming womanhood. The magnetism between her and Matthew Goode’s Uncle Charlie is undeniable, establishing a dynamic both repulsive and enthralling. Lush, meticulously crafted cinematography zeroes in every detail, including blood-spattered grass blades. And, you know, I guess there are also some violent deaths to fill the Halloween quota.
Ali Schnabel: As I’ve gotten older and less easily terrified by horror films, the only movies guaranteed to make me jump are foreign horrors. It sounds contradictory, but when you consider that you can’t really cover your eyes when watching a foreign film for the subtitles, it makes sense. High Tension is a French slasher that fills all the good gore-porn prerequisites, with some imaginative (or ridiculous, depending on how much disbelief you can suspend) deaths thrown in for good measure. If you’re after a bit more of a story, Martyrs is your go-to – it tells of a young woman held captive by an unnamed group who want to torture her to the point of transcendence, in the hopes of gleaning some understanding about the afterlife from her spiritual experience. The film is certainly an endurance test, and does a good job of imparting the psychological damage and melodrama so central to the story onto its audience. With less melodrama and more emotional weight is the classic Japanese psychological-horror Audition, which, although known for some intense torture scenes, works harder to capture the emotional climate of its unstable murderess. For something that encapsulates all the good things about the horror genre – creative gore, suspense and compelling character stories, you’ll never need to look any further than Sweden’s Let The Right One In, which tells of the relationship between the lonely 12-year-old Oskar and Eli, a vampire girl. The endlessly engrossing film is equal parts disturbing and endearing, and you’d be really hard pressed to find something as emotionally salient or beautifully shot in the vampire sub-genre.
Chris Neill: It’s weird to think that at one point the Halloween franchise was going to be an anthology series, but the extremely underrated Halloween III: Season of the Witch is a great reminder of what could have been (directed and written by Tommy Lee Wallace, with both John Carpenter and Nigel Kneale adding story elements). It’s an absolutely batshit insane movie, swapping the slasher genre of the previous two films with this bizarre sci-fi thriller featuring cyborg doppelgängers and Stonehenge occultism. While some might see this departure from the Michael Myers mythos as being a huge misstep, what we got was a wonderfully weird commentary on consumer culture (specifically the tradition of Halloween) and an undoubtedly interesting film, which also features some of John Carpenter’s best soundtrack work.
I’d also recommend watching Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue; an animated psychological-thriller that follows an ex-J-Pop star as she attempts to a more “mature” acting career and is stalked by a fan. Kon was fascinated with blurring the line between reality and the imaginary, and crafts an amazingly uncomfortable commentary on the obsessive nature of fandoms. It’s known as being one of Darren Aronofsky’s favourite films, and hugely influential on both Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan – if that’s any indication of its tone.
Virat Nehru: Okay, confession time. I can’t actually physically watch horror films. I can read horror stories alright, there’s just something about the visual element that I can’t stomach. My friends often make plans for a movie night with the promise of watching a comedy and they deliberately put on a horror film just to see me squirm! The point of this – apart from choosing your ‘friends’ more carefully – is that I’ve often relegated myself to somewhat spooky films; films that give the illusion of horror but are kinder to my timid heart. The ‘fright’ element in the two films I list here is more of a psychological bent, but well-suited for a Halloween night viewing.
Anurag Kashyap is having a very bad year. So it’s nice to throw back to a time when things were much better in Kashyap land. Kaun? (Who’s There?) 1999 is a minimalist Kashyap brainchild from a simpler time: much before the gigantic international success of Gangs of Wasseypur. The film revolves around a simple but effective premise – two men try to enter the house of a woman living alone on a dark and stormy night. It’s a tightly focused narrative of around 90 minutes that builds surreptitiously. With Ram Gopal Varma at the helm, Kashyap’s script becomes a tantalising exploration of loneliness and the twist ending has ample repeat value. All three leads do a compelling job. The versatile Manoj Bajpai (who played Sardar Khan in Gangs of Wasseypur Part 1) is almost unrecognisable as the bumbling first intruder. Because the film just has three characters, Verma’s directorial vision makes the setting – the vast expanse of the empty house – an important visual element that increases the creepiness factor tenfold by incorporating gothic elements. The camera is stealthy companion and we are often greeted with point-of-view shots of different characters. For example, the way we are introduced to the first intruder – through his voice and then via the creepy POV shot through the peephole of the main door. The way the film is framed, it’s almost as if we – the audience – are also an unknown and unwelcome intruder in the house. It’s a disturbing film, not only because it’s creepy, but also because of its visual framing. Definitely will make you think twice about staying home alone at night, especially if you are a cat lady. To entice even more – it’s available on YouTube with English subtitles.
Karthik Subbaraj’s Pizza is one of the most impressive films I’ve seen by an Indian debutant director in recent memory. It fuses supernatural elements with noir, as well as psychological-thriller sensibilities with those of horror and gothic genre. The end result is visually arresting and the spook element is a nuanced understanding of how much of the narrative is actually left for the audience’s imagination. The film follows the ordeal of Michael, a pizza delivery boy who doesn’t believe in the supernatural. He lives with his girlfriend Anu who is a ghost-story writer. One day, he goes to deliver pizza to a house that is supposedly haunted. Once there, he gets trapped in the house and has several encounters of the supernatural kind. Whether he makes it out of the house alive and what is the mystery of the haunted house forms the crux of the narrative. The film takes the ‘survival’ and ‘haunted house’ arc of horror stories and turns that on its head. The screenplay takes time to build-up, but once all the elements are in play, the film is a tantalising ride. The cinematography has a noir oeuvre while examining Michael’s questionable mental health state being trapped in the house. That is then juxtaposed with gothic and horror elements as the protagonist starts having apparitions. Subbaraj’s command over these different cinematic sensibilities is commendable. The eerie music score and the dark cinematographic tonal hues complement the director’s vision. With a runtime of just over two hours, give it a shot if you’re looking to go beyond conventional horror sensibilities.
Jaymes Durante: These don’t exactly meet the horror criteria per se, but the films of Peter Tscherkassky’s Cinemascope Trilogy (1999-2001), a series of found footage shorts by the renowned Austrian experimentalist, are some of the most sublime and deeply unsettling I’ve seen. L’Arrivee — at two minutes — is a modest warm-up, but Outer Space and Dreamwork — ten minutes apiece — are arrhythmic and deeply uncanny little marvels. They’re cameraless, made at an editing table using footage excised from a second-hand print of 1982 supernatural thriller The Entity, starring Barbara Hershey. With dense layering, maddening hyper-editing, formal mutation and sonorous sound design and musical overlaying, Tscherkassky reshapes the existing footage into a fugue of chaos and uncertainty, a liminal world of uprooted psychological bearings and vanishing logic. Their avant-garde nature makes them ripe for intellectual reading, with some critics suggesting that they could be deconstructive of the role of women in the horror genre, perpetually haunted by masculine-coded phantoms (Dreamwork is undoubtedly psychosexual in nature, and clearly tormenting, lending favour to this interpretation). For me, less versed in horror lore, their impact is purely visceral. Put them on the biggest screen you can find, turn the lights off, and blast the sound; the shuddering effect of these mini-masterworks is confounding, frightening and — on the deepest psychological planes, if watched attentively — immeasurable, like climactic David Lynch exacerbated tenfold. If that ain’t horror… On the web here, here and here.
Brad Mariano: There may be no perfectly adequate description of the horror genre, but there are some technical markers that can be cited – more than anything else, the use of image and sound to not just tell a story, but also produce a pure visceral reaction in the viewer at a base level. With that in mind, there are few films more effective and…well, horrific, than Alexei German’s opus Hard To Be A God. These qualities that I associate with horror – sharp aural sound cues and claustrophobic, dark visuals make German’s vision a uniquely unpleasant and terrifying experience that puts us in a distinctly horror viewing mode, apprehending grotesquery and violence around every corner with a central first-person perspective that brings the films hellish landscapes all the more immediate. Ostensibly a science-fiction film, it’s a film nonetheless deeply rooted in our own past and the depths of depravity we’re just a few short years removed from. For all of horror’s famous villains and jump scares, Hard To Be A God presents some of our deepest fears – our own human, base instincts – writ large in tableaux reminiscent of Bruegel and Bosch. So it’s as good a horror film in recent memory, but it just might kill the mood if played during a Halloween sleepover.