Seven Scary Movies to Watch in the Dark
Now that a certain chill is in the air and pumpkin food and drink is being hawked by every vendor in sight, we take a break from our regular film calendar (which isn't really doing much in the horror department this year–come on San Francisco!) to share some of the best overlooked horror flicks from the past. Unless you kept up with your Netflix 5-DVD plan or are an expert in covert internet film acquisition, you'll need to head over to one of SF's still-thriving video stores (Le Video, Lost Weekend) to pick up most of these gems on DVD, Blu-Ray or dirty VHS (which is really the best way to see a horror movie outside of the big black box), but don't worry, we promise it will be worth it.
Trouble Every Day
Don't be fooled by Claire Denis' 2001 film's pretenses to art or its association with the then-obscure film school variant of body horror, New French Extremity–it's a sexy vampire bloodbath through and through. A stoic scientist on vacation and a troubled woman (played with all appropriate degrees of longing, menace and erotic charge by oddball charismatics Vincent Gallo and Beatrice Dalle) travel separately across France seeking to cure the infection that ails them, and, when needed, savagely satisfy the urges it creates. Trouble reaches close to atmospheric perfection thanks to lingering, lush cinematography and a soundtrack by frequent Dennis collaborators Tindersticks that could almost make Tom Waits glare sidelong from behind his rusty piano. Honorable mention: Andrzej Zulawski's Possession.
I Saw the Devil
More than just another South Korean revenge thriller, what could have become an exercise in pointless gore is elevated to high art by the film's masterful cinematography and tight direction, not to mention a simultaneously terrifying and pathos-filled performance by Old Boy star Choi Min-sik as a rat in the trap of one of the coolest, cruelest "good guys" to ever hit the screen. The film's unheralded apex takes place in a taxi filled with testy serial murderers. Claustrophobic at first, once the first knife is unsheathed, it swiftly blossoms into a 360-degree, camera-swirling melee that pays tribute to the climactic scene of Masahiro Shinoda's uber-classic Double Suicide. Honorable mention: Park Chan-wook's Old Boy.
"Really?" I hear you saying. Yes, REALLY. A longtime video-store clerk favorite, this Canadian-made teen horror flick makes the case that turning into a werewolf can actually be a functional allegory for growing up, and not just in that cheesy Teen Wolf way. Hints of Donnie Darko-like sarcasm emerge at times, but the generally slick Ginger Snaps settles its main focus on the danger and allure of a certain strain of very teenage nihilism. Honorable mention: The Faculty.
The Wicker Man
Though it's a bit more than a "cult" classic at this point, it still bedevils the mind how few people have actually seen Robin Hardy's version of The Wicker Man (skip the odious Nicolas Cage remake). A hodgepodge of pagan rituals, odd turnarounds and druidic song may put some off to the film's autumnal vicissitudes, but the masks, mystery and majesty of this tale of a fool who believed he was king will stick with patient watchers long after its brutal climax. Honorable mention: Richard Stanley's Dust Devil: The Final Cut.
The only of these seven selections to star frequent frightener Sam Neill, who could easily be the subject of his own horror marathon. Event Horizon is–though not without dispute–possibly the most frightening space-horror film ever, and one of a few select elite space movies that contain no space miners, space mining, or allusions to space mining of any kind. Investigating an abandoned ship that has travelled beyond our world to another, darker galaxy, Neill and his cohorts discover and are changed, sometimes in disgusting, eye popping ways, by what it has brought back. Most of the scares are in the atmosphere; surrounded by darkness in a ship rumored to have been modeled after the Notre Dame Cathedral, we'd all go a bit mad, wouldn't we? Honorable mention: Danny Boyle's Sunshine.
This grim yarn concerning a priest executed for alleged witchcraft during the onset of the black plague (which is actually based on an Aldous Huxley book) isn't quite Ken Russell's freakiest film, nor his most slavish to the genre of "horror," but it's certainly his most horrifying portrayal of the dizzying condition of internal and external pandemonium, which says a lot for the typically out-there auteur. Originally banned in a number of countries in whole and in part, a directors cut with restored footage, including the immensely controversial "Rape of Christ" scene has been floating around for a few years. Costume alert: It also features hundreds of writhing, masturbating nuns (of which screen siren Vanessa Redgrave is the leader). Honorable mention: Ken Russell's Lair of the White Worm.
In this vastly under-appreciated period chiller, Tetsuo the Iron Man director Shinya Tsukamoto unlocks the surprising scare potential of Japanese country living around the turn of the 20th century, transforming every nook in a couple's paper house into a painting composed of ghastly shadows and hidden harm. This riff on the classic doppelganger trope is made all the more terrifying by late-80s industrial masterminds Einstürzende Neubauten's chilling soundscape, which Japanese cyberpunk touchstone Sogo Ishii first set to film way back in 1986. Honorable mention: Nobuhiko Obayashi's Hausu.