It’s that time of year. Halloween is just around the cor—well, down the hall a bit. It’s time to connect with the true spirit of the holiday, which like all holidays, has been corrupted by outside influences…like Christmas was before people muddied it with a religious message. Halloween is not about costume parties and candy; it’s about turning off your lights, putting in a movie and having the wits scared out of you.
Horror movies as a genre can be frustrating. Edgar Allen Poe was able to combine the dark, nightmarish ideas of comic books with high art. This combination allowed one young boy in particular (who thought he was an intellectual) to indulge his dark fantasy sensibility with the pretense that he was engaging his own artistic muse. My years of self-discovery have revealed that I can no more argue Poe’s symbolism than I can conjugate Chinese verbs, but I still look for that mixture of horror and art. In the age of the “Saw” franchise, why can’t there be a great horror movie that’s more than a genre piece. (I don’t count best picture winner “Silence of the Lambs.” While it was technically a horror film, this movie about the hunt for a serial killer–great as it is–lacks the supernatural element I’ve arbitrarily decided to require for this discussion.)
On the other hand, there is a benefit to being a fan of what is considered a lowbrow genre. Low expectations can lead to surprising movie experiences, and the results can be so exciting, you earn another reason you can’t sleep at night. Here are some movies you may have never heard of which will scare the hell out of you.
1. Lake Mungo
Lake Mungo is a subtle, remarkably clever movie that has moments which will whiten your hair. It’s a fake documentary about the young daughter in a family of four who accidentally drowns while at the family outing by Lake Mungo, Australia. She returns to haunt her family (maybe) and she is herself haunted. It’s a slow, surprising piece of work with twists that will silently make your scalp tingle as you look around for a family member to pretend it’s no big deal. Since Mungo is structured like a documentary, it makes heavy use of digital images–video and photography–but it avoids the artificiality of “found footage” films by avoiding the hand-held running shots and artificial screams. This movie is creepy.
2. The Devil’s Backbone
This movie has real scares, but it probably comes closest to that ideal of horror married with artistic and socio-political relevance, and I write that only because I wanted to write the word “socio-political.” A young boy, Carlos, arrives at an orphanage during the Spanish Civil War, and is left to cope with the loss of his parents, the bullying of the other orphans, and that boy Santi who disappeared before Carlos arrived but still seems to be hanging around. It was written and directed by Guillermo del Toro, who’s become a nerd-God with the Hellboy franchise and the brilliant “Pan’s Labyrinth.” It’s a great story, with compelling characters, social relevance and scares.
3. Let The Right One In.
I was looking for movies at Netflix one night and I saw this blurb on the DVD cover: “Best. Vampire. Movie. Ever.” Much as I hate that silly punctuation idiom (People. Can’t. Write.), and much as I am not generally swayed by blurbs from the “Washington Examiner,” I thought that the “best vampire movie ever” must be worth checking out. Sure, vampire movies suck as a rule, but the best ever should at least be good. It was great.
12 year old Oskar is the son of divorced parents, a withdrawn kid horribly bullied by classmates when he meets the girl who moves into an apartment next to his. She seems to be his age (she’s been 12 for “a long time”). What follows is a surprisingly touching love story between two lonely “people,” one of whom keeps an middle-aged man to make her kills for her and collect the blood she needs to survive. This isn’t really scary, but it is remarkably moving, with terrific performances. Further, the author fully-realized and thought out the genre requirements while avoiding vows of chastity from glowing teenagers.
This is just outright creepy. Some moments in it will take your breath away, although the story line’s not so much. “Ju On” (The Curse) is about…uhm…it’s about a haunted house which…ahhh…ah who cares? It’s a collection of vignettes about people haunted by a creepy long-haired Japanese girl before she became a J-Cliche. (Pulse is also very good and has a better story, but this one’s scarier.)
5. The Descent
This is one of the most well-constructed horror movies you’ll see. For about an hour of set-up, you join 6 women on a spelunking adventure through unmapped subterranean caves. As they squeeze themselves through narrow gaps and crevices, you’re so creeped out with claustrophobia that the monster attack comes as a relief.
Believe it or not, I was completely unaware while intially typing this essay that not one of these movies is American. In order, they are Australian, Spanish, Swedish, Japanese, and British. It’s no accident that these movies are relatively unknown, and it’s also no coincidence they’re scarier than their American counterparts. Virtually without gore (save The Descent), and without the blaring strings directors use to tell you you’re seeing something scary, these movies will make your Halloween scary…as it should be.