Year in, year out, it’s always the same turn of events. The second that the leaves start to change the world turns its cinematic attentions on the horror genre, but the very instant that the very last Jack-o-Lantern dies out after the last trick-or-treater’s visit on Halloween night, the genre might as well not exist as far as the larger culture is concerned. People turn their attention to Thanksgiving or, more than likely, to the far-off Christmas, leaving nothing but discarded candy wrappers and a few well-worn DVDs of Psycho (1960) and Halloween (1978) to show for it.
That’s a real shame, because horror isn’t just some annual indulgence, to be picked up in October and forgotten about in November. It’s a genuine 9-5 gig: something to be enjoyed all year round. And the tiny, 31-day box that everybody seems content to put it in leaves very little room to plumb the depths of what is has to offer, especially beyond the constraint of Hollywood staples of the genre.
Horror deserves better than this and so do we! So let’s carve out some time over the next year to really dig into the horrific offerings buried deep beneath the usual suspects and annualized Paranormal Activity (2007) sequels. Think of this as your guided world tour to the nameless things that go bump in the night. It might just make you your family’s go-to for unexpected scares come next Halloween.
Deep Red (1975)
Before the slasher subgenre really broke out in the US with Halloween, the Italians spent two full decades tweaking the thrills explored in Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal Psycho. The resulting films, collectively referred to as giallo, are today a fascinating blend of pre-slasher tropes that are downright novel compared to the scares that we’re used to today. Essentially a hybrid of slashers and mysteries, these films combined serial killer through-lines with graphic, over-the-top kills and stylish cinematography. The best of these arguably came from Italian auteur Dario Argento, and the best of his offerings to the genre is inarguably Deep Red: a twisted tale of terror that inspired decades of American filmmakers (both within the horror genre and without it).
The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
Few directors have left as distinctive an impact on contemporary cinema as Mexican-born filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, whose dark romance, The Shape of Water (2017), was crowned as last year’s best film. He’s the kind of storyteller whose work blends between old world fairytales, spellbinding fantasies and nightmarish horror. But while most people are eager to crown Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) as his masterwork, I’ve always been more drawn towards The Devil’s Backbone, an earlier, more personal-feeling film of his that is also about the horrific truths of the Spanish Civil War.
From our vantage point in the 21st century, the early days of cinema almost seem quaint by comparison (that is, when we so much as consider it at all). The acting was stagey, the effects were primitive and the filmmaking language we take for granted was downright infantile. So much of the output from this period, and in particular the early years of sound filmmaking, just don’t seem to do it for us anymore. But the true classics – the enduring masterworks sprinkled throughout those nascent decades of the last century – are as impactful now as they’ve ever been. And of that rare company, the Universal monster movies, and in particular the studio’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, stands out. Bridging the silent and sound eras with arresting visuals, gripping performances and an enduring narrative that has never worked half so well in any other production.
During the transition from the last to the present century, something unseemly started to happen in France. Best known for whirlwind romances set against the City of Lights and the moving dramas of the upper classes, the country began producing some of the most lurid, gruesome and unrepentantly nihilistic horror films the world had ever seen. Predating American torture-porn and Australian outback thrillers by a full decade, the films of the New French Extremity stand front-and-center among the annals of recent horror cinema. And while genre aficionados are more likely to recognize the likes of High Tension (2003) and Martyrs (2008) as the central features in this movement, it is Frontier(s) – essentially the Parisian Chainsaw Massacre – that has always been most essential in my estimation.
J-Horror, or Japanese Horror Cinema (particular that surrounding the nightly hauntings of dispossessed spirits) took the world so thoroughly by storm at the start of the 21st century that it’s almost understandable that the world forgot about its long and lustrous history on the world stage. The likes of Onibaba (1964), Kuroneko (1968) and House (1977) have terrorized audiences for decades, and cleaned up at awards festivals the world over at the very same time. Chief among these masterclasses in terror, however, is Kwaidan (1964), a loosely connected series of horrific vignettes that feels as poignant now as it ever did on the silver screen.
Let the Right One In (2008)
Horror has always been my favorite genre. From ghosts to ghouls to things that go bump in the night, I was forever transfixed by the dark terrors lurking in the shadows of the movie screen. And although there are countless works that have clawed their way to the top of my all-time favorites, this Swedish vampire story, tracing the romance between a mesmeric bloodsucker and a budding sociopath, tops the list every time. It represents such a radically different take on the well-worn material, with such compelling characters at its center, from its opening credits to its unnerving end.
Despite its perception in the culture at large, Canada has a rich history working in the genre. It gave us Black Christmas (1974) the very same year as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), and from the same director as A Christmas Story (1983). It was the birthplace of legendary body horror director David Chronenberg and the site of his best known works. It was where George Romero turned to when he was through with Hollywood, where Cube (1997) and Splice (2009) director Vincenzo Natali got his start and where the esteemed Faculty of Horror broadcasts from every month. But even with such a monstrous pedigree as that, Pontypool (2008) looms large over the nation’s other genre outings. Born of the unique bilingual nature of the country, Pontypool is an invigorating take on the zombie subgenre: one in which the infection is spread not via bites nor blood, but through language. The English language itself has become corrupted by the disease, forcing our intrepid band of protagonists – trapped in the radio station that they broadcast from – to survive in an environment where their every utterance draws them ever-further into danger.
Remakes get a bad reputation in the film community: far beyond any actual “badness” that they might possess. People always complain about how they’re unoriginal, money-grubbing retreads that pale compared to the original, and yet they’ve produced such amazing films as A Star Is Born (2018), The Thing (1982), A Star Is Born (1976), The Magnificent Seven (196), A Star Is Born (1954), The Fly (1986) and even, arguably, A Star Is Born (1937). Just as remarkable an achievement in cinematic remixing, however, is esteemed German director Werner Herzog’s reworking of the silent classic Nosferatu (1922). Featuring a show-stopping performance by Herzog mainstay Klaus Kinski, it updates the off-brand Dracula for the modern world, including modern film language and modern filmmaking. Despite the legacy it, by definition, has been forced to live up to, it is as remarkable a feature of the horror canon as its storied forebear. And the fact that it is set to be remade again next year, this time by The Witch’s (2015) own Robert Eggers makes it all the more prescient to see for the discerning horror fan.
I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
Even more so than the aforementioned Frankenstein, Hollywood of the 1940s never seems to get its due as the producer of generation-defining horror films. Although it’s true that the strict enforcement of the Movie Production Code and the public pressures stemming from the ongoing Second World War virtually killed the genre in the US until the late 60s, horror, as ever, endured. RKO mega-producer saw to it that a string of exploitative horror films made their way into theaters. Today, these nine films – Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man (1943), The Seventh Victim (1943), The Ghost Ship (1943), The Curse of the Cat People (1944), The Body Snatcher (1945), Isle of the Dead (1945) and Bedlam (1946) – rank among the very best horror movies ever made. Although not the most well known among these, I Walked with a Zombie – a dark retelling of the novel Jane Eyre – is most certainly the best.
The Wicker Man (1973)
Britain was hard at work in the mid-twentieth century producing some of the most gruesome horror movies ever seen at the time. Emblematized by the Hammer Horror cycle in the late-fifties – which included Curse of Frankenstein (1957), The Horror of Dracula (1958) and The Mummy (1959) – they made a household name out of domineering actor Christopher Lee, whose career grew well beyond headlined costar Peter Cushing in the decades which followed. Arguably the most iconic British horror film ever made, The Wicker Man is a protracted battle between Christianized mainland Europe and the pagan fringes left over from centuries past. Connecting powerfully with the witching films of today – including Antichrist (2009), The Witch (2015), The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016) and Suspiria (2018) – it has only grown in power and relevance since its tumultuous release all those years ago.