It could be that the horror genre has never been in worse shape it is now. It seems that horror cinema, in the mainstream at least, has become a home for shoddy remakes and reboots, with the occasional breakout hit so often the victim of franchising that myriad diminishing sequels fog the sight of what vague originality there once was. Regurgitated fast-food horrors take up the screen space, while the great and good indies generally find themselves restricted to festivals and art house theaters. There’s a solution: Fans craving a decent “new” horror fix need only look to cinema’s past, and to some of the underseen and underrated shockers lying in wait.
Stiflingly confined entirely to soundstages, Shiro Toyoda’s Portrait of Hell paints a colorful picture of classical-era Japan as an inescapable underworld. Korean painter Yoshihide (Tatsuya Nakadai) lives and makes art under the rule of Horikawa (Kinnosuke Nakamura), a tyrannical lord who executes anyone who tries to leave the territory and takes any woman he desires as his own. When he decrees Yoshihide’s daughter his latest concubine, Yoshihide composes a series of paintings depicting spirits of those killed under Horikawa’s rule, in a hope they’ll drive the corrupt daimyo to insanity.
It’s not the otherworldly that provides the worst of the horror in Portrait of Hell, despite intermittent appearances from those awful, placid ghouls come to haunt Horikawa. Rather, what disturbs is the suffering that Yoshihide and Horikawa are prepared to inflict on those around them in their struggle, with each man stubbornly toying with the other as innocents are tortured and loved ones are burned alive. As they persist, their individual selfishness leads not to victory on either side, but to their collective existential doom.
Based on a sinister Nikolai Gogol fable, Viy is made into something altogether more fun by directors Konstantin Yershov and Georgi Kropachyov. They present Gogol’s story as a high-concept chiller, in which oafish, vodka-swilling priest Khoma (Leonid Kuravlev) spends three nights of escalating terror inside a rural church praying for the soul of a young witch. Naïve Khoma is to find that, in this pleasant land (the directing duo make a splendid picture of 19th-century Russia), witchcraft still holds power over the Christianity that comforts him.
Fully aware they’re marshalling Soviet Russia’s first horror film, Yershov and Kropachyov throw all known special effects into the mix for Viy. Ugly, dust-coated phantoms climb en masse out of the chapel woodwork for the climax, before the clumsy title creature anticlimactically reveals itself. Flaws and all, Viy is a movie made with the joie de vivre of two debutante filmmakers revelling in cinema’s magic. It’s the first Russian film to have gotten access to the horror toolshed after decades of Soviet social realism. In that final scene, the shed doors come flying open.
Peter (John Hargreaves) is a smug narcissist with a penchant for gunning wild animals; Marcia (Briony Behets) is his quick-tempered wife, repulsed by the Australian wilderness her husband’s dragged her to for a weekend camping trip. Together, they’re a city-slicker couple so obnoxious you’ll be willing the elements to win in man vs. nature parable Long Weekend. Made with a Malthusian contempt for humanity’s negative impact upon Earth, the film takes an Adam and Eve spoiled by civilization, and places them back in a Garden of Eden now hostile to their selfishness.
To a soundtrack of distorted animal cries, Long Weekend’s unhappily holidaying pair pollute and hack at the New South Wales forest, merely as if to stamp their authority on the environment; in response, the native wildlife attacks—reacting, as director Colin Eggleston put it—like an immune system would to cancer cells. There’s a hint of the supernatural about the aggressive collusion of Long Weekend’s flora and fauna, but everything, up to and including the shock climax, can be explained away as modern man foolishly overestimating his hold over nature.
As if seeking to deny its schlocky nature from the off, Narciso Ibanez Serrador’s tale of children turning deadly against the adults on a sunny Spanish isle displays higher-brow aspirations in the opening credits. The protracted mondo montage that kick-starts the film relays horrors of the 20th century—the Holocaust, the Nigerian Civil War—and suggests that the madness of adults has finally warranted retribution from the children who so often become victims of such atrocities.
By boat onto the sun-scorched island of Almanzora comes a young English couple (Lewis Fiander and Prunella Ransome), who neglect the mainland in search of “the real Spain.” When they find knife-wielding children playing piñata with human corpses there, it becomes apparent the pair are unwittingly at war with a generation that’s either instinctively decided enough is enough or adopted lessons in cruelty from the very “responsible” adults who were supposed to show them the way. The title question is answered, but in a way that’s more chilling than its pulpiness would suggest; prepare yourself for the scene in which the pregnant wife’s baby starts to kick.
10 Rillington Place is at its surface a grisly true crime drama, a macabre biopic of a more disturbed kind of celebrity subject. But closer inspection reveals a horror movie twisted, with the bogeyman our protagonist, the haunted house our home and the slasher’s kills laid out for us in exacting close-up. Part three of director Richard Fleischer’s unofficial Capital Punishment Trilogy, 10 Rillington Place is a step beyond the riveting procedural studies of Compulsion and The Boston Strangler into sickeningly naturalistic horror.
Perhaps most distressingly of all, 10 Rillington Place transforms the avuncular Richard Attenborough into ghoulish serial murderer John Christie, who tricks John Hurt’s slow-witted Timothy into the hangman’s noose after he’s falsely convicted of Christie’s crimes. The crime and punishment element aside, the film’s a slow montage of murder sketches, with Attenborough’s softly spoken Yorkshireman luring young women into his home just so he can watch them die. The late reveal of what Christie’s been hiding in the walls of 10 Rillington Place makes for one of cinema’s most unsparingly chilling shots.
George C. Scott tempers his natural irascibility to play a melancholy composer grieving for his recently deceased wife and daughter in Peter Medak’s conflation of haunted house movie and supernatural whodunit. Dubbed one of the scariest movies of all time by Martin Scorsese, The Changeling deals the scares out in spades, with Medak playing up the tightening fear of the unknown with the precision of a horror maestro (indeed, it’s amazing Medak had never even been near the genre before).
Having moved into a new home, a century-old manor also occupied by the restless spirit of a young boy, Scott’s John Russell digs to discover the tale of an institutional cover-up, and of power wielded monstrously in the name of financial gain. The Changeling may be a showcase for an effortlessly magnetic veteran lead, but it’s also a mystery thriller that engrosses as it frightens. What begins as another haunted house story ends as a commentary on the history of America as a nation built not just on hard work, but also on blood and not-always-heroic sacrifice.
Trust Ingmar Bergman’s truest foray into horror (though some might argue Persona is equally as penetrating) to have deep roots in the psychological. A neurotically knotted portrayal of marriage disintegrating by the Swedish seaside, Hour of the Wolf begins as a sleepy marital drama before taking a turn at the halfway point into nightmare logic. Following a booze-fueled dinner party with some local elites, insomniac artist Johan (Max von Sydow) and his pregnant wife (Liv Ullmann) return home to experience together the early morning hour “when the most people die, and the most are born”: the hour of the wolf.
Hour of the Wolf’s abstract second half is the dark stream of a troubled mind reaching tipping point: Johan bludgeons a child to death, shoots his wife and finds himself in a castle meeting figures from his sketches. The foreboding score and eerie photography—overexposed and burned out for select scenes—confirm the genre. But it’s Bergman’s understanding of what troubles the mind of the artist—envy, creative bankruptcy, the inability to express—that marks Hour of the Wolf as a distinctive horror.
An uncharacteristic detour into genre filmmaking, Jean Renoir’s Jekyll and Hyde adaptation—quite possibly the best of them all—was made for TV and is bookended by narration from Renoir himself, almost as if to distance it from the rest of the director’s more classically styled filmography. Seemingly freed from himself like the eponymous Jekyll by his change in medium and budget, Renoir adopts a new, economic storytelling style and uses it to mesmerizing effect.
Though faithful to the source, The Testament of Dr. Cordelier (aka Experiment in Evil) changes the names and the setting—here, it’s the suburbs of ’50s Paris—and enhances unsettling qualities within Robert Louis Stevenson’s text. Renoir’s film, lit clearly rather than in the genre’s default heavy shadow, revels not in jump-scares or gore but in the inherent gruesomeness of the tale. The cold Dr. Cordelier (Jean Louis Barrault), our Hyde, was never all that identifiable or virtuous in the first place; his perverse, wolf-like id, Opale, is not truly a burden. Instead, he’s an excuse for the good doctor to finally indulge his aggressive sexual urges and innate sense of cruelty with a diminished fear of reprimand.
Ancient mysticism confronts an English society divorced from spirituality in Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Shout, as a black-clad drifter (Alan Bates) comes to terrorize a young married pair (John Hurt and Susannah York) with dark magic in their Devonshire home. Bates’ Crossley claims a set of tricks learned from aborigines in the Outback, including a terror shout powerful enough to kill. Most troubling for Hurt’s Anthony, however, is the love spell that Crossley places over his wife, to both punish the unfaithful husband and assert his masculine superiority.
The dubious story we see is the one told by Crossley to Tim Curry’s scorekeeper over a game of cricket at a lunatic asylum. Crossley, as one of the patients and a self-confessed unreliable narrator, could just be delusional; or he could be an extraordinarily gifted man declared mad by a world that’s no longer open to the imperceptible. The Shout’s collage of Roeg-ian editing and awesome sound design is faultless, but where Skolimowski truly succeeds is in building a new myth in the modern age. And in Bates, The Shout has a bogeyman of rare intelligence and intensity.
Terror and beauty have never been more effectively entangled than in Kwaidan, Masaki Kobayashi’s gorgeous, terrible anthology horror. One of cinema’s most ravishing successes, Kwaidan sees a master indulging in visual detail, and doing his utmost to sustain a sense of dread over three exhausting hours. Two tales of four loom large: In “The Black Hair,” a swordsman abandons his home and devoted wife to marry into wealth, before returning years later to find the ex-spouse’s vengeful spirit; in “Hoichi the Earless,” a blind musician unknowingly regales a story of battle to a royal audience of ghosts.
“The Woman of the Snow” and “In a Cup of Tea” complete the set; each is its own crushingly nihilistic mini-masterpiece, each could have undoubtedly benefited from trims in editing. Instead, Kobayashi chose not to deny viewers a single frame of the violent full color, of the immense artificiality. The set design is unparalleled: Winter skies are filled with watching eyes, a naval skirmish is reconstructed as epic indoor theater. It’s a wondrous confection, with the bitterest of aftertastes—of all the films on this list, Kwaidan is the most unsettlingly at ease with putting us through the trauma of horror.