I’d really like to see a truly scary, yet beautifully put together movie with psychological elements and plausibility, but maybe some surrealism as well. Something like Eyes Without a Face or Suspiria. Where the fear is more from the vibe than from the definable foe and allures me so that I can’t look away from it even while it’s unsettling. — Chloe P.
Editor’s Note (12/4/14): We no longer answer movie questions through our advice column. We answer them in the mailbag segment of our podcast. Send them to Cody@SmugFilm.com and we will answer on the show!
Cody Clarke: Just saw The Lords of Salem last night, and dear god that thing is wonderful, and definitely fits what you’re looking for. I haven’t liked a Rob Zombie movie before this one, although I haven’t seen Halloween II, which I hear is actually quite good. I’ll have to check that one out soon. But man, The Lords of Salem is a fucking beast. It’s kinda like the Spring Breakers of horror movies in a bunch of ways that aren’t worth me describing because you should just go watch the thing and have an organic experience with it. And actually, now that I think of it, Spring Breakers definitely fits what you’re looking for too. It’s not technically a horror movie, but one could definitely call it that, so watch that one too if you haven’t already.
Alright, now that I’ve recommended two that fit exactly what you want, I’m gonna recommend two that don’t necessarily fit, but that you’ll probably still enjoy. Definitely check out The Seventh Continent, which has an extremely unsettling can’t-look-away vibe, and is very psychological, and very plausible as well, as it’s based on a true story. The director, Michael Haneke, is quite well-regarded and fairly well-known nowadays, but few have explored his filmography beyond Funny Games, Caché, The White Ribbon, and Amour. This is a shame, because all his other movies are good. Watch ‘em all eventually, but Seventh Continent certainly fits what you’re looking for the most out of any of them.
Another one you should check out is The Gift, which Sam Raimi directed and which nobody seems to care about for some reason. Damn shame, because everyone’s acting in it is incredible, including, gasp, Katie Holmes and Keanu Reeves. Keanu seriously gives the best performance of his life. I urge anyone who thinks he ‘can’t act’ to watch him in this. He gives a very well-rounded performance in a very well-rounded movie that transcends its simple as hell premise and balances cheese with seriousness better than any of Raimi’s other films. Don’t get me wrong, he’s made way better films, but this is the only one I can think of where the balance between those two elements is just right.
Oh fuck I forgot to recommend the best thing ever. You gotta watch this movie Riding the Bullet that I saw like last week. It’s fucking brilliant. I picked it up at Book Off for $3.00, blind buy, because on the cover it said it was Stephen King’s favorite movie adaptation of his work or whatever. And I love all sorts of cheesy adaptations of his stuff like Thinner and Silver Bullet, so I knew that even if it was bad I’d probably still like it. It’s fucking incredible though. It’s very psychological and fits everything you want. I dunno why I didn’t think of it earlier. And it really is one of the very best Stephen King adaptations. The director really fucking gets King. Arguably more so than Darabont even. You’ll see what I mean, movie is dope.
John D’Amico: You’re asking for what I’ve seen described as “nightmare films.” Not quite a genre, more a characteristic—the sense of something “off,” like the world of the film is skewed slightly out of phase with our own. I am also constantly on the hunt for such films.
One of the first and best of this breed is Carl Th. Dreyer’s unstoppable Vampyr. Dreyer’s film, inspired by the works of Goya, the shattered faces of the first World War, and the same obsessive spiritual heartbreak that informed his Joan of Arc film, was created with the stated goal of capturing the feeling of suddenly realizing there’s a dead body in the room with you, and god does it ever. There’s a haunted unease to the whole thing; it feels like a product from another world. His later Ordet, though not a horror film, also captures this disquiet in the face of the unearthly. Along these more surrealist lines be sure to check out Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast and Blood of a Poet.
One of the highest profile and best of these films is Carnival of Souls, a true masterpiece of American independent film. It has the spiritual awe/terror of Dreyer’s work but with a distinctly American brand of banal loneliness, that Edward Hopper feeling of being embalmed in a sterile, tamed, and expansive landscape. Now read those sentences again verbatim but swap the words ‘Carnival of Souls’ for Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. The deeply underrated director Curtis Harrington, protégé of the great Maya Deren, also hit this mood a few times with his Night Tide and Queen of Blood. Both are low budget and sorta grimy, and that contributes a lot. Queen of Blood takes some settling in, but if you let it wash over you there’s a sense of constant menace and inscrutability that you rarely see anywhere else.
The ‘70s thrived on this kind of thing. Try Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural, Ganja and Hess, The Signalman, The Grapes of Death, and Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. All hypnotic, chilling, technically perfect, slow, subtle, mysterious, and unlike just about anything made outside of that era. I’ve already pimped Messiah of Evil here in my 10 Audacious Zombie Movies article. I think it’s the best of the ‘70s spate of nightmare films.
This is one area where short films reign supreme. One of my favorites is Ed Emschwiller’s Thanatopsis, based obliquely on the William Cullen Bryant poem of the same name (“each shall take his chamber in the silent halls of death”). Raoul Servais’s Harpya is also essential.