Horror is one hell of a genre, relying upon developing a personal connection with the viewer its very existence is divisive. It’s also relentlessly unpredictable, there is no such thing as a guaranteed success within the horror market, big studio flops happen constantly, and indie debuts can set the box office alight. It can be a difficult and intimidating area of cinema to safely explore, but you’re guaranteed zero duds on the following list, making choosing what to watch this spooky season that bit easier.
The Evil Dead
From Sam Raimi, who brought you the definitive Spider Man series, comes one of the most audaciously gory horror films ever created. Notorious for its controversial content, leading to several bans and cuts (the uncut version only became available in the UK after 2001), the film is a fast-paced descent into madness following five teens who accidentally release a horde of demons upon their cabin in the woods. This plot may not scream originality by today’s standards but in 1982 Friday the 13th only had one sequel, and teenagers getting hunted in secluded locations was still an innovative premise. The originality hasn’t dissipated in how Raimi handles the terror of the film, it’s relentless pace and extreme violence still shock to this day making it physically impossible to look away from its brutal brilliance. However, should you not be keen on intense horrors then move right onto Evil Dead two, which contains all the same set pieces but with a lot more tongue in cheek dark comedy.
Moving across to Austria, next on the list is a psychological nightmare from directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala. Goodnight Mommy is a slow burn fever dream in which two young children (played by brothers Elias and Lukas Schwarz) are reunited with a woman who is supposedly their mother after a lengthy absence. The matriarchal figure has allegedly returned to the family home after extensive facial surgery, leaving her identity hidden behind a shroud of bandages. This mystery drives the film’s plot to some very uncomfortable places as tensions rise between the generations, leading to a third act which will shock even hardened horror fans into silence. If you saw Hereditary and enjoyed the slow lead up to THAT scene, then Goodnight Mommy is for you. A truly disquieting horror about the frailty of familial bonds that holds its cards close by, until it’s ready to let you in on the grotesque full picture.
Japanese director Takashi Miike has made over 100 feature films, and in this period has dealt with some seriously shocking content. Features like Ichi the Killer, and his Masters of Horror episode “Imprint” are undeniably disturbing, but lack the nuance found within Audition. A relatively simple story, we observe the life of widowed businessman Shigeharu Ayoama (Ryo Ishibasi), as he auditions potential wives to combat his loneliness. Only what Shigeharu doesn’t count on is the arrival of the beautiful, and intelligent Asami Yamazaki (Eihi Shiina) who instantly captivates him with her charm. What follows is a sprawling tale of obsession, punctuated by a series of shocking reveals and plot twists. The ending of Audition has become notorious with horror fans, but the sheer weirdness of everything preceding it makes it exceptionally haunting. The film’s impact has not diminished since its release 19 years ago either, especially when you discover exactly what’s in that bag.
John Carpenter’s 1978 classic is possibly the most iconic entry so far. Without the original Halloween the slasher genre would never have come to exist. Essentially, no Michael Myers means no Freddy, no Jason, and no Freddy vs Jason (wait…), and it’s worth noting the original entry is better than any of its imitators. This is in part due to its brutal simplicity, we are given no long explanation surrounding why Michael kills or why he’s homed in on teenager babysitter Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), rather than the fact he’s seemingly driven by no force other than pure hate. A hate which is shown with surprising intensity, Myers is able to move from place to place with such swiftness that viewers will scan every corner of the screen searching for a glimpse of the iconic mask. The perfect pacing is backed up by Carpenter’s pounding score which uses an assortment of synths and keys driving home the feeling of watching a predator close in on its prey with ruthless efficiency.
Under the Shadow
Tehran, 1988 a single mother and her daughter are living in an apartment block when a bomb strikes the building forcing many residents to evacuate. However, mother and daughter, Shideh and Dorsa, decide to stay and soon realise that something else with malicious intent may have entered their lives. Again, a horror based around family but with far less cruel intentions than the previously mentioned Goodnight Mommy. Under the Shadow instead focuses on the bond between mother and daughter, and its attempted dissolution under supernatural terrorisation.
If you enjoyed 2014’s The Babadook, then this is a perfect companion piece. Both are excruciatingly tense, and feature great performances, the only difference being that Under the Shadow has a far stronger ending. Under the Shadow is available on Netflix, and should be a must watch for everyone with the service.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
One of the original “video nasties” Tobe Hooper’s twisted slice of Americana horror has become infamous like Carpenter’s Halloween and has similarly spawned several lesser sequels since then. Regardless of this however, the original is a very smart horror which deals with psychological terror more than you may expect. Yes, it’s a story surrounding a group of teenagers getting stuck in a backwater town, only to be then hunted by an unstoppable killer. But, Texas Chainsaw… is also an interesting film detailing post-Vietnam depression within America in the early 70s, the final parts of youth being crushed against societal expectations of being a hardworking family member, and the idea that moral sincerity is seen as disadvantage in the modern world.
On top of this though, it’s bloody scary. Leatherface became an iconic villain the moment he came on screen, and the surprises in store for you in the swift hour or so after his reveal bewilder to this day. Everyone knows the ending to this film, it’s almost synonymous with the word horror, but make sure you’ve experienced the madness that precedes it.
Creepy children in horror are a mainstay of the genre; from Damien in the Omen, to the possession of Linda Blair in the Exorcist there’s something creepy about seeing kids doing decidedly unchildlike things. However, Rosemary’s Baby asks the more interesting question of what would you do if the child you wanted so desperately was in fact to be the living embodiment of Satan? This is the position which newlyweds Rosemary and John Woodhouse (Mia Farrow and John Cassavettes) find themselves in upon moving to New York city.
This story based off the classic novel by Ira Levin is a stunning examination of the limits of faith, extremes of desperation, and hysteria surrounding pregnancy. Director Roman Polanski treats the film like his personal puzzle box, manipulating it bit by bit until he’s ready to reveal just what lies beneath those sliding tiles. The film may be over two hours long (making it one of the longest on this list) but no moment is superfluous or wasted, this is truly a masterclass in horror film making.
Stephen King has a difficult relationship with adaptations, his good to bad ratio leaning decidedly towards the latter. Yet he’s not to blame for this, rather it’s been some questionable choices in filmmakers. Frankly, who’s to say that The Lawnmower Man wouldn’t have been a masterpiece, or at least good, with Brian De Palma at the helm rather than Brett Leonard? Thankfully the pairing of King and Kubrick for the 1980 rendition of The Shining is a fantastic one. Visually Kubrick’s trademarks such as his one-point perspectives and tracking shots are present, warping an abridged version of King’s novel into a totally unique experience.
The film also has a darkly comic tone to it which was absent from the book, but melds nicely against Jack Nicholson’s performance as demented caretaker Jack Terrance as he and his family settle in for a long winter at the Overlook Hotel. Another longer entry, the Shining is a very satisfying ghost story which draws again upon themes of familial destruction, this time by a patriarchal figure. To go into too much detail on what awaits Jack, his wife Wendy (Shelly Duvall), and infant son Danny (Danny Lloyd) would take away from the suspense of seeing The Shining for the first time. And, if you haven’t seen it then stop reading this and amend that immediately.
From caretakers to cannibals, we’re back to world cinema for this next entry which was a debut feature film from French director Julia Ducournau. Within the first twenty minutes of RAW, we’ve experienced brutal hazing rituals, hedonistic parties, and bucketloads of blood drenching our protagonist. The echoes of Carrie in that last entry are not coincidental by any means, rather a tonal descriptor for strict vegetarian vet student Justine’s (Garance Marillier) experiences in freshman year of uni. Unlike Carrie though we are given no telekinetic redemption against those who have wronged her though.
Instead the film is more interested in exploring her torments to unbearable levels, after a taste of raw rabbit liver irreversibly corrupts Justine’s sensibilities and worldview. From here it’s a phantasmagorical descent into excess, as the film parallels Justine’s sexual awakening alongside her increasing bloodlust. Lit using a sea of overwhelming neon, and with a synth heavy score courtesy of Jim Williams, RAW is an assault on the senses and one of the most strikingly original horror films of the past decade at least.
The remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 horror is currently gaining a lot of attention, having won over audiences at the Venice film festival with its severe violence and Tilda Swinton playing an old man. However, as it still hasn’t been put on general release there’s no way to tell how the public will react to the rework. It’s certainly a controversial film to remake given that (in this writer’s opinion) it’s the best horror film ever made. Like RAW it is a multicoloured hellscape, only this time it’s a ballet school not a university, the score is nightmare fuel from Italian prog rockers Goblin, and there’s a hell of a lot of witches. Suspiria’s opening fifteen minutes stand out as some of the most intense horror ever made.
It sets a precedent for pace that doesn’t let up for a minute of this outstanding film. It takes the basis of the Italian Giallo movement popular in the late 60s/early 70s and revitalises it with a supernatural twist, revitalising a genre Dario Argento was a leader in. There is no extra padding here at all either, Suspiria wants to confront you until you’re afraid of it, demanding attention for every minute of its runtime. An antagonistic film that is equal parts ruthless, dazzling, and grotesque, Suspiria really is an example of just how creative horror cinema can be.