In this seasonal edition of our regular Film Spotlight, Clare Patterson shines a light into the stygian abyss of the horror genre and illuminates an obscure selection of hideous and maddening eldritch treasures to be plucked from its depths.
Like any genre, horror has its classics: its works of excellence; its tried and tested masterpieces; its canon (almost) universally regarded as the best there is. And their place is often well-deserved – The Shining builds creeping tension and beautiful aesthetics like no other, while The Blair Witch Project redefined a genre and was genuinely terrifying with without showing any horror onscreen. But seasoned horror fans have visited these films many times before, and may be in search of some new thrills. If you’re planning to host a horror night – or to hole up in your room and watch Netflix this reading week – here are some lesser known gems to chill your blood this Halloween.
This low-budget, 70s indie affair has a slapdash, amateur quality to it, with some dodgy sound editing and clunky dialogue, but it has an intense, overwhelming sense of creepiness found in few other films. Jessica has just been released from psychiatric hospital and moves from New York to start a new life in a small Midwestern town. She finds her new house occupied by an enigmatic squatter, and the unfriendly townspeople covered with mysterious bandages. Very much a product of the end of 60s free love, it examines the darker side of that carefree drifter lifestyle in an America still reeling after the Charles Manson murders. A cloying, paranoid portrait of the uncertainty of mental illness, punctuated by bright-red 70s gore.
Brandon Cronenberg (son of David Cronenberg) has clearly inherited his father’s taste for audience discomfort and sexual horror in this film. Antiviral is a dystopian sci-fi in a stark palette of blood red and bone white. Lead actor Caleb Landry Jones is fascinating and vampiric, pallid of skin and flame-red of hair, as an employee of a company selling illnesses of celebrities to super-fans who long to feel close to them. This is a profoundly strange, disconcerting film, but one which is intriguing, disgusting and beautiful in equal measure.
A wonderfully observed take on the horrors of being a teenage girl. Ginger is bitten by a werewolf on the night of her first period and begins to experience some very strange physical changes. Ginger and her sister Brigitte’s gothic teenage angst is both amusingly accurate and deeply felt, and the horror of female puberty expressed as lycanthropy is a fascinating concept. A darkly comic product of 90s grunge and Daria cartoons, with a conclusion that is genuinely frightening.
Undoubtedly the best New Zealand horror comedy of all time, What We Do in the Shadows follows three vampires who share a house in the small New Zealand capital of Wellington. Written by Jermaine Clement from Flight of the Conchords and director of cult NZ comedy favourites “Boy” and “Eagle vs. Shark” Taika Waititi, it’s full of witty, dry humour with references to vampire classics, as well as lashings of gore. Immensely fun and easily on a par with Shaun of the Dead, I have high hopes for its future as a Halloween cult favourite.
This small British production follows Toby Jones as a shy sound engineer working on a seedy slasher horror in 70s Italy. Greatly inspired by the Giallo films which it both honours and critiques in an environment where misogyny and toxic masculinity run rife, the film draws horror from such benign subjects as the rotting vegetables used by foley artists for the gory sounds of blood, and from the red flashing “SILENZIO” of the studio light. The end of the film starts to fall apart in a very postmodern way and closes without a satisfying conclusion, but its disjointed style creates a creeping sense of doom.
An inventive take on the somewhat exhausted zombie genre, Pontypool follows a small town radio host during the outbreak of a zombifying disease that is spread not via bites of physical contact but via words. Set entirely inside the radio station, Pontypool is relatively low on gore and leaves much to the imagination, relying on its claustrophobic setting and slow, creeping build-up of horror. A fascinating and imaginative take on a well-trodden genre.
Released in 2009, this film makes every effort – from cameras and shooting angles, to costume, to its title sequence – to look as convincingly as possible like an 80s classic. Cash-strapped student Samantha takes a babysitting job last minute for a rich, eccentric family on the night of a lunar eclipse. The horror doesn’t really begin until three-quarters of the way through the film, building genuine tension and fear slowly via things as innocuous as a sneaky floorboard or ringing phone. When all Hell breaks loose, however, the buckets of blood come out.
[Clare Patterson – @clurrpatterson]