In October, it's common for horror nerds to commit to watching a horror movie a day. With "Hundreds Of Dead Bodies" (which is also a podcast available at thewonderofitall.xyz), I wanted to do something different and focus on movies that convey the sense of horror rather than the genre of horror and all its trappings. Some of these are undervalued horror classics, while others will probably never be categorized as horror outside of this list.
"Targets" (Peter Bogdanovich, 1968): A cinema-as-criticism reflexivity exercise featuring classic horror icon Boris Karloff making a promotional appearance at a drive-in contrasted sharply with the mechanical, stark movements of a 'Nam vet turned spree killer. When old horror and new horror clash at a drive-in, it's revealed that new horror's terror lies in its banality.
"Ravenous" (Antonia Bird, 1999): A scrappy frontier horror movie setting grisly cannibalism against a backdrop of naturalistic performances by indie film stalwarts. Clearly an inspiration for "Bone Tomahawk," its explicit references to Carpenter's "The Thing," looming claustrophobia, and use of cartoonish violence also casts a long shadow over Tarantino's "The Hateful Eight."
"Sole Survivor" (Thom Eberhardt, 1983): A lone survivor of a plane crash is stalked by the bodies of the recently dead. "It Follows" and "Final Destination" appear to draw heavily from "Sole Survivor" but its nervy, deadpan articulation of survivor guilt is closer to Cronenberg. A confrontational, literal interpretation of a trauma incubating a whole ecosystem of emotional grotesquery.
"Eyes of Fire" (Avery Crounse, 1983): Recently acclaimed "The Witch" feels like a focus-grouped "Eyes Of Fire." If "The Witch" is that viral video of a bro doing modern dance on a skateboard then "Eyes Of Fire" is that vine of a shirtless guy grinding a rail into a river and emerging victorious holding a gigantic live fish.
"Black Panther" (Ian Merrick, 1977): A retelling of the Donald Nielson case—a British criminal infamous for murderous armed robbery and the botched kidnapping of an heiress—and made just two years after Nielson's arrest, "Black Panther" stews the audience in the tedium of an uncharismatic, messy killer's private world. Shockingly contemporary.
"Rampage" (William Friedkin, 1988): An odd mix of potent horror and meandering courtroom drama based on blood-fetish killer Richard Chase fueled by Friedkin's trademark propulsive style, clashing mundane viscera with abstract fantasy and contrasting the experiences of the victims with the perceptions of their killer.
"Cold Light of Day" (Fhiona Louise, 1989): Idling somewhere between a cheap Discovery crime documentary and one of those Throbbing Gristle "Annual Report" bootlegs, "Cold Light Of Day," is the barely-disguised story of serial killer Dennis Nilsen, showing the details of the harsh, repulsive murders and dismemberments that Nilsen still insists were entirely a symptom of his isolation.
"Thesis" (Alejandro Amenábar, 1996): Though it almost buckles under the weight of a million plot twists, this loaded story of a snuff ring in a Spanish college remains a powerful examination of how the camera can transform and dictate violence.
"Unedited Footage Of A Bear" (Ben O'Brien and Alan Resnick, 2014): The story of a woman beset by the side effects of an anti-allergen medication being beaten up by a doppelganger which groggily replaces her may seem a fairly cut-and-dry allegory, but "Unedited Footage Of A Bear" muddies the waters with all-too-accurate recreations of medication-induced haze.
"You Are Not I" (Sarah Driver, 1983): This adaptation of a Paul Bowles short story from frequent Jim Jarmuch collaborator Sarah Driver emits wave after wave of controlled dread. Everything we see is from the point of view of the main character, an escaped mental patient navigating forces that she cannot understand and that refuse to understand her.
"Mafu Cage" (Karen Arthur, 1978): The story of two sisters living in the shadow of their dead anthropologist father: one trying to move on, the other constructing a cage in their house to keep what she calls "Mafus" who live as long as they obey her unknowable rules. The story of uncontrolled solipsism spurred on by a dutiful enabler.
"Page of Madness" (Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1926): A man gets a job at an asylum in the hopes of freeing his wife, only to fall victim to madness himself. Marrying a dizzying array of techniques with a queasy atmosphere, Kinugasa's silent film is totally modern—the reportedly missing 20 minutes from the original cut only heightens its disorientation.
"The Other Side of the Underneath" (Jane Arden, 1972): An effort to portray the mental state of a schizophrenic woman, "The Other Side Of Underneath" is an unrelenting tide of blood-curdling, tragic images. While filming, the separation between fact and fiction on the set began to blur, leading to a kind of psychedelically-rendered pulverizing rawness seen nowhere else.
"The Appointment" (Lindsey C. Vickers, 1981): A man cannot attend his daughter's string recital because he has to drive across country for an appointment. As the man has a restless night sleep, black magic seeps into his consciousness, represented by three monstrous black dogs padding through his house. He does not have long.
"The Stone Tape" (Peter Sasdy, 1972): Confronted with a haunted room endlessly reverberating with the sound of woman falling to her death, a bunch of scientists try to figure out how to replicate, patent, and capitalize on the room's recording ability instead of running for their lives. The most terrifying sound design of all time.
"The Shout" (Jerzy Skolimowski, 1978): A noise musician encounters a mysterious stranger who claims to command the "terror shout," allowing him to kill anything with a ferocious scream. An incredible depiction of control, magic, and transgression in the English countryside and a masterpiece with a logic all its own.
"One For The Road" (Harold Pinter, 2003): Not exactly a "horror" movie, but Pinter's ever-prickly language is a bandsaw here, tackling head-on the power structure's method of twisting language into a vast and filthy prison. A family's fate is implied, overstated, and finally an afterthought. Few pieces of fiction have captured an evil as total as "One For The Road."
"Sleepwalker" (Saxon Logan, 1984): Balancing pulverizing dialogue with a hallucinogenic giallo finale, 49-minute curio "Sleepwalker" seethes social awkwardness up to a final explosion of violence, making it not only clear that one couldn't exist without the other but that one is the other.
"They Have Changed Their Faces" (Corrado Farina, 1971): This satirical vampire story posits that the bald-face evils of capitalism are as blatantly obvious as the supposedly incognito Draculas that star in so many horror stories. An atmospheric tale with unforgettable details, like Dracula's wolves rendered as a roaming horde of Fiat 500s.
"No Telling" (Larry Fessenden, 1991): The Frankenstein story shrunk right down to romantic tensions stemming from a scientist's insistence on live animal testing in his garage. "No Telling" is a slow burn but anything that successfully argues quotidian images of animal testing are horrific enough to sustain a horror movie is worth your time.
"Ginger Snaps" (John Fawcett, 2000): Lycanthropy as an allegory for menstruation is only the jumping-off point for this witty chronicle of the impossibly complex social order teenagers manifest in preparation for adulthood and the uneasy line between concern and jealousy. A perfect punk statement of how close friends can suddenly become total strangers during those traumatic teen years.
"Body Snatchers" (Abel Ferrara, 1993): One of the most beautiful, most frightening movies ever made. The concept of body snatching doppelgangers from the movie's previous incarnations is slowly, rhizomatically expanded until it encompasses a litany of alienation: from other people, from the family unit, from state institutions, from neighborhoods, and from the state itself.
"Paper House" (Bernard Rose, 1988): The ghostly, ethereal story of a sick girl who draws a house and finds herself outside it when she falls asleep. Quietly meditating on dream logic, acceptance of death, and the nature of desire, "Paper House" makes for a great companion piece to the director's all-time classic follow-up "Candyman."
"Pulse" (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2001): The peripheral menace and placid interior terror of Kiyoshi Kurasawa's directing means any one of his films could plausibly be called a haunted house movie. However, there is no larger, more desolate haunted house than the Internet and "Pulse" captures its endless capacity for pure alienation before many saw it coming.
"#Horror" (Tara Subkoff, 2015): Critical revulsion is an odd fate to befall a cyberbullying parable channeling Holly Herndon music videos and Dario Argento's original plan to have "Suspiria" star 12-year-old girls. Though Timothy Hutton's venal psychotic crashes the party with patriarchal menace, it is the Internet's capacity to incubate hatred that becomes the antagonist.
"Possibly In Michigan" (Cecelia Condit, 1983): This depiction of women stalked by a cannibal through a ghostly mall feels like the delicate, exacting logic of a Fabo ad lib applied to a horror framework. Every shot creates a different kind of unease, building to an overwhelming ending and a wonderfully deadpan coda.
"Arrebato" (Iván Zulueta, 1980): Twinning extreme experimentation and extreme horror, Ivan Zulueta's only feature-length horror movie takes bridging this gap as its central plot. A hundred different shades of obsession are painted by this vampire film in which the vampire is filmmaking itself.
"The White Of The Eye" (Donald Cammell, 1987): This serial killer tale goes to great pains to set up a conventional, if odd, thriller plot before completely disintegrating it in the last 40 minutes, careening into a flailing vision of violent misogyny and bruised male ego that becomes exponentially more wild until the literally explosive finale.
"Angst" (Gerald Kargl, 1983): The camera haunts and glides around a recently-released, gibbering criminal, barely ever straying from him as he staggers around a house, roughly dispatching a family. The killer's mind and actions are an alien landscape. Compounding its cruelty with vanta-black humor, "Angst" is a movie to watch once and think about forever.
"Messiah Of Evil" (Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, 1972): This doesn't even feel like a film—more like a stricken, purgatorial zone. The best midnight movies have one trailer-making moment where the creaky pace and vacant performances click into a perfect harmony, but "Messiah of Evil" sustains this throughout, repeatedly flooding your brain with nightmare.
"Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary" (Guy Maddin, 2002): Marrying the stylistic tricks of silent cinema with ballet, Guy Maddin's masterstroke ignores the cardinal rule of dance movies: He doesn't care about feet. Beautiful, hilarious, touching, and unique. Happy Halloween.