The horror genre promises more than any other in respect to emotive impact, and for this reason it is probably the genre in which failure is most common (along with comedy, perhaps). Horror films are very rarely actually scary, and worse than this, they are usually appallingly made. In fact, horror is one of the few genres in which incompetence and lack of technical proficiency can be overlooked and ironically proclaimed as an asset (E.g. Reanimator, Plan 9 from Outer Space).
It’s for this reason that I have a love/hate relationship with the genre – it is so loaded with potential, and yet so rarely achieves its goal. And so, in order to assist those people looking for horror films of note that are not widely known, I’ve assembled a list of ten films that are not necessarily canon, but probably should be. In choosing the below, I ended up producing a list of about fifty films, so you can expect a sequel to this particular post in the near future.
Eyes without a Face (1960)
For those curious about the origins of the horror genre’s more macabre and brutal imagery, one must look further back than The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This is Georges Franju’s rather severe tale of a brilliant surgeon who must cut off the faces of beautiful girls in order to cure his heavily disfigured daughter. One of the creepiest films around, all the more so for its gorgeous black and white cinematography and technical restraint.
David Lynch’s surreal meditation on the horrors of rearing a child was largely an expression and exploration of the fears and anxieties that Lynch had felt during the birth of his own child a few years earlier.
Jack Nance plays Henry Spencer, a young man with unusually large hair (very much like Lynch) who finds himself dealing with the unexpected pregnancy of his girlfriend. When the child is born hideously deformed, and closely resembling a giant spermatozoa, Henry’s mental state begins to deteriorate. A kind of ghostly mutated siren who lives in his heater begins to convince him of the benefits of suicide (or perhaps infanticide). And then things start to get weird.
An absolutely incredible film, only for those willing to venture off the path of narrative coherence.
Spider Baby (1968)
Jack Hill’s underappreciated classic takes the (at the time) unique approach of providing a sympathetic view of its deranged villains. A group of mentally disturbed siblings is looked after by the family caretaker after their father dies. His task is complicated by their habit of torturing and murdering unwanted guests. Despite how it sounds, you’ll have trouble not feeling a little sympathy for everybody involved in this tragic affair.
The Beyond (1981)
The Italians aren’t known for their restraint when it comes to horror cinema, and this is no exception. Lucio Fulci’s most effective film (I went to write finest and found the term slightly inappropriate) is narratively incoherent, awfully dubbed and lazily assembled. But over the course of eighty minutes all of these negatives are inverted into a kind of surreal ball of nihilistic hopelessness that will totally ruin your chances of a good night’s sleep. Creepy.
One of Romero’s lesser known films, and perhaps his finest, follows the story of a young man who believes that he is an old vampire destined to roam the earth killing people for their blood. However, the film is ambiguous on the truth of Martin’s claims, and a detached clinical style adds to the more disturbing suspicion that Martin is not a supernatural creature, but actually a deeply disturbed psychopath. A film that should not be missed.
Don’t Look Now (1973)
Nicholas Roeg directs this incredibly disturbing film about John and Laura Baxter, a married couple who have recently lost their daughter in a horrible accident. Sometime after the accident the couple end up in Venice, where John begins to catch glimpses of what appears to be his dead daughter. When John finally solves this mystery… well… you need to see this film. It’s particularly notable for some incredible cinematography and forceful use of the colour red to invoke a sense of trauma, loss and desperation.
The Wicker Man (1973)
Before this film was brutally torn to pieces in the disastrous remake starring Nicholas Cage, it was a highly regarded and rarely seen British horror classic.
When a police officer visits a small Scottish island to investigate the disappearance of a girl, he encounters a series of deliberate attempts to block his investigation that only serve to peak his curiosity. As his investigation continues, it becomes clear that the community is involved in some rather sinister and archaic practices.
Worth seeing for the unexpected musical number and presence of Christopher Lee alone, this is an obscure little film that gains much of its force from the eerie sense of the everyday which permeates its horrors. Special stuff.
Wake in Fright (1971)
I’ve mentioned this one in an earlier post, but it’s certainly worth revisiting.
This Peckinpah-esque nightmare-vision (originally a novel of the same name by Kenneth Cook) presents an alternative Australia, littered with aimless, uneducated ockers endlessly drowning themselves in incompressible amounts of beer while engaging in acts of extreme violence towards each other AND the local wild-life.
The story, so far as it goes, concerns a school-teacher who finds himself stuck in an outback town (or perhaps small city) on his way to a holiday in Sydney. Having lost all his money in a local game of Two-Up, this teacher finds himself equally horrified and enthralled by the grotesque lifestyle of the locals. Things escalate, as they often do, leading to a night of incredible debauchery, much of which concerns horribly sadistic behavior towards kangaroos.
The Brood (1979)
One of Cronenberg’s best but lesser known films, The Brood follows the recently separated father of a young girl, who has recently seen his wife have a complete nervous breakdown. When a psychiatrist, played by the late great Oliver Reed, starts providing her with a unique form of therapy, the consequences are beyond disastrous. This is a wonderfully tight meditation not only on the trials and tribulations of divorce and its traumatic implications, but also a further examination of the broader themes that have concerned Cronenberg throughout his career. Goosebumps.
Peeping Tom (1960)
An absolute masterpiece from Michael Powell that pretty much destroyed his career. The title probably didn’t help. This textually rich meditation on voyeurism and perversion follows the “adventures” of a deeply disturbed photographer tormented by memories of severe child abuse. You’d feel sorry for him if he weren’t a serial killer.
This is one of those films that stopped me in my tracks and further opened my mind to the possibilities of cinema. This is good. Hitchcock good.
The Shining (1980)
Okay, I know this is a pretty obvious member of the high-brow horror canon, but I couldn’t possibly leave it out, so I’ve added it as number eleven.
There are those who have criticised Kubrick’s film for a lack of adherence to its source material, the Stephen King novel of the same name (King is one of the critics). I personally have no great reverence for King’s work, and am quite astounded that he could be anything but grateful that a supreme auteur like Kubrick would even deign to open his book in the first place.
While it is true that Kubrick’s film no longer focuses on the protagonist’s descent into madness via alcoholism, this seems to be a minor concern as he opens the text up to a larger meditation on death, immortality, the unseen and everything in between. It’s no surprise that an entire cult has built around attempting to interpret the textual complexities and abstractions of this near perfect film. A masterpiece.