Why do I have the feeling that horror films are always underappreciated? One thing is certain: in this age of geekdom ruling supreme, critics and academics no longer condemn the genre with the same vehemence as they once did. Even now, there’s talk of “elevated horror,” which refers to more artistic explorations of dread and terror — Ari Aster’s “Hereditary” and Luca Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” are two contemporary examples — that are easily separated from, well, non-elevated horror. The idea is that they do more than just display brains splattered across the wall to stimulate your brain. How can films that stimulate your adrenal glands, send shivers down your spine, cause goosebumps, and cause you to shorten your breath also be cerebral experiences? We forget all the time that, as Marianne Renoir, Anna Karina’s Pierrot Le Fou character, says, “There might be thoughts in sensations.” What terrifies individuals reveals a lot about them, as the current argument over whether certain components of “Get Out” are terrifying or humorous proved quite plainly. “Get Out” demonstrated the parallels between horror and comedy, two genres that are frequently expected to elicit an immediate, emotional response. Perhaps some viewers’ dislike to both genres stems from a fear of losing control: of laughing so hard that you snort or turning away in terror, of embarrassing yourself. Many people simply do not want to lose control under any circumstances. What’s interesting is that horror, like comedy, is a genre in which each filmmaker must exercise complete control over the material, to fine-tune the tale to the point where we lose interest. Extreme control is used in order for the audience to lose control.
“The Blood on Satan’s Claw” (Piers Haggard, 1971)
Piers Haggard’s “The Blood on Satan’s Claws,” one of the “Unholy Trinity” of films that gave birth to the folk horror sub-genre (which Kier-La Janisse’s recent documentary “Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched” compellingly presents as a storytelling mode unto itself), continues to feel ancient and otherworldly even as its entire style screams 1970s. Haggard’s lack of familiarity with the horror genre lends a strange insecurity to this bucolic tale of demonic possession in 18th century England, as if the film is nervous and unsure about the sexually charged witchcraft that appears to be spreading throughout the pious little village where the film takes place, and why some of the locals are growing patches of animal fur out of their bacchanals. “Beware the wiles of women” warns Patrick Wymark in the second-to-last role he shot before his death, but there’s no defense against the sinister Angel Blake, who an unforgettable Linda Hayden embodies as the smirking personification of every patriarchal anxiety the church has ever had. What “The Blood on Satan’s Claw” lacks in spine-tingling terror, it more than makes up for in elemental dread and the pervasive (even hallucinogenic) fear that nature can only be wrapped in darkness.
“Inside” (Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury, 2007)
Since “Rosemary’s Baby,” the best pregnancy thriller has also been one of the most unsettling slasher films ever created. For this tale of a pregnant lady battling off a house invader who desires the kid in her womb, French directorial pair Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury (whose comparatively subdued gothic following “Livid” is completely different) held nothing back. “Inside,” which was never released in American theaters, has some really insane visuals, but not before building up the scares with Hitchcockian technical perfection. The majority of “Inside” centres around Sarah (Alysson Paradis), a pregnant single mother, trying to prevent an intruder from literally tearing a kid from her abdomen. Knives and scissors fly freely, yet the film’s exquisite camerawork reveals that the creators aren’t going for pure shock value. Instead, “Inside” is a traditional home invasion narrative with suspense dialed up to eleven and brutal punchlines dialed up to twelve. After seeing it, every slasher film you see following will have to work a bit harder to justify its existence. –EK
“Paranormal Activity” (Oren Peli, 2007)
“Paranormal Activity” began as a ruthlessly successful low-budget thriller that earned national notice on its way to becoming one of the most profitable film releases in history before becoming a never-ending franchise of mediocre horror films. “Paranormal Activity” recounts a simple story about a couple plagued by a demonic presence in their San Diego home, similar to its found footage precursor “The Blair Witch Project.” Director Oren Peli chose to shoot the majority of the picture with stationary cameras (rather than the mobile camera used in “Blair Witch”), and it’s a risky option. The audience is compelled to scrutinize every inch of the home as sequences linger on and the camera never moves, until something creeks or something moves and the anxiety becomes too real to bear. The inevitable franchise that followed has become a touch unwieldy, but the simple joys of the first “Paranormal Activity” remain intact.
“Sinister” (Scott Derrickson, 2012)
Scott Derrickson’s wall-to-wall gloomy, dismal “Sinister,” one of the loneliest horror films ever made, offers no hope. It’s about a true crime writer named Ellison Oswalt, played by a bespectacled Ethan Hawke, who begins isolating himself in the attack after moving into a new home, where a family was previously murdered, for research, and begins watching terrifying Super 8 tape left for him by a ghost. The frightening movie records the brutal and increasingly intricate killings of various families, including, perhaps most notably, a lawnmower ride to hell. It’s no surprise that the film spawned a successful sequel, while the film’s absolutely heartless finale (turning the concept of infanticide on its head) would have been a powerful finale to this story anyway. RL —
“The Orphanage” (J.A. Bayona, 2007)
Spanish filmmaker Juan Antonio Bayona’s debut, which combines the gothic storybook atmosphere of “Pan’s Labyrinth” with maternal dread, finds a lady returning to the orphanage where she grew up and confronting the actual ghosts of her past; while there, her little adoptive son goes missing on a barren beach nearby. The drama, set in the 1970s, is a traditional eerie tale that veers into dark terrain as the woman becomes increasingly sad and her world begins to crumble. The film’s eerie encounter with demonic forces culminates in one of the most memorable terrifying moments of all time: a slow countdown in the dark with a bunch of ghostly youngsters inexorably approaching. With this first-rate collection of anxieties, Bayona single-handedly revitalized the aesthetic potential of the horror genre. The film presents a jumble of materials that make this genre such a necessary medium for contending with terrible things that go bump in the night, from the minimalist environment to the frightened children and invisible forces.
“Mandy” (Panos Cosmatos, 2018)
Panos Cosmatos’ follow-up to his stunning science-fiction debut “Beyond the Black Rainbow,” “Mandy,” is a psychedelic and deranged tidal wave. Nicolas Cage plays a man who is compelled to go on a vengeance spree when his marriage is torn apart by a cult of demon-biker henchmen. Using the concept of a horror-revenge film, Cosmatos provides Cage with the ideal vehicle to express his most insane tendencies. The thrill of “Mandy” comes from observing the insane dance between Cage’s performance and Cosmatos’ unwavering vision. Sequences in “Mandy” feel downright expressionistic because the filmmaker and actor push each other to such mesmerizing, horrific lengths. Cage has spent years looking for the right kind of gonzo material for his approach, and he’s finally found it with “Mandy.”
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“[Rec]” (Jaume Balagueró & Paco Plaza, 2007)
Sorry, “Paranormal Activity,” but this unrelenting Spanish take on the zombie genre from co-directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, which finds a news reporter trapped in a building with doomed firefighters and fending off hordes of demonically possessed undead, is the best found footage horror movie of the new millennium. Sony bought the rights to the film and buried it on DVD, only to follow up with the shot-for-shot remake “Quarantine.” The English language version gives you the idea, but the original keeps its visceral immediacy, which is so filled with fear that the filmmakers rushed into a sequel that takes up where the first one left off. “REC 2” is worth seeing for a comparable thrill trip, but “REC” stands alone as a dramatic illustration of how the ambiguity of shaky cam film isn’t an excuse for lousy narrative; “REC” offers a continual stream of frights because its camera guy never knows where to look — and by the time he does, it may be too late.
“Saint Maud” (Rose Glass, 2020)
Rose Glass’ tense and trembling “Saint Maud,” an unholy mix between “First Reformed” and “The Exorcist,” transmutes a young woman’s spiritual crisis into such a sophisticated drama of physical horror that watching it nearly feels like a religious experience. Maud (a magnificent Morfydd Clark), a palliative care nurse in a gloomy town somewhere along the British coast, is doing her best to seal the region surrounding her soul. That appears to be an uphill battle. Maud is a soft-spoken serial killer who rarely opens her mouth unless she’s talking to God within her tiny small apartment, reminding her lord and savior that she was meant for something better. Maud’s irritable new patient (Jennifer Ehle) doesn’t share Maud’s religion. Glass’ harsh and viciously made debut picture, like most secular films about the fire of ardent religious devotion, is skeptical of its protagonist’s conviction; “Saint Maud” isn’t in a hurry to define its terms, but there’s no denying that Maud is a horror movie unto herself. She looks like the creature from “Under the Skin” dressed as a nun. It’s not just the streaming red scars across her abdomen or the constant rumble of cellos following her around; it’s also the way she walks through Glass’ delicate frames as if she’s terrified of shattering them, and how she clenches everything she can whenever someone attempts to speak to her. Is it possible that one of those voices is that of God? Will Maud be given a ticket to heaven if she can save the soul of her patient? Glass is adamant about not hedging her bets. The filmmaker, like her character, is a hardliner in her own right, and “Saint Maud” is all the more horrifying for its refusal to back down from its reality.
“Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (Philip Kaufman, 1978)
Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake of Don Siegel’s 1956 feature “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” ditches the B-movie armature (as beautiful as that film may be) in favor of wallowing in the waters of dripping 1970s paranoia. With a scenario by W.D. Richter, it sits comfortably among Alan J. Pakula’s films like “The Parallax View” and “Klute” as a slice of Cold War chilliness from the 1970s. Donald Sutherland as a coolly collected scientist, Jeff Goldblum as his dweeby companion, Brooke Adams, Leonard Nimoy, and Veronica Cartwright round out a fantastic group. The gelatinous set pieces and alien pod bodies that appear to blossom are nasty delights, but the picture also evocatively captures the Bay Area, serving as a rare reminder of how fantastic a 1970s San Francisco movie could look.