Each month, the Paste staff brings you a look at the best new selections from The Criterion Collection. Much beloved by casual fans and cinephiles alike, The Criterion Collection has for over three decades presented special editions of important classic and contemporary films. You can explore the complete collection here. In the meantime, between ghost stories and domestic tragedies, creepy-gross musicals and creepy-old iconism (and, oh, also Barry Lyndon), here are some of our top picks for the spookiest month of the year:
Director: David Lynch
In retrospect, in light of The Return, in revisiting it through Criterion, David Lynch’s prequel to the Twin Peaks series emerges as an extraordinarily compassionate prayer in the midst of the director’s canon. If 25 years ago Fire Walk with Me bore a reputation for unnecessary brutality, nihilism even—booed at its Cannes premiere and a box office failure—today its brutality seems more necessary than ever, the depths of its bleakness matched only by just how deeply felt Lynch’s characters develop on screen. Everything, of course, feels weird, and somehow unsafe, though the horror we witness Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) survive and then succumb to is both rendered in all of its terrible boldness and tempered by Lynch’s inability to exploit the tragedy he unfolds.
This last week in Laura Palmer’s life, before she’s killed and bound within plastic, an image which still seems strange making it onto network TV then—this last week in Laura’s life passes with ever creeping intensity, malignant energies converging upon a poor girl’s soul. We learn the identity of her killer, though we probably should have known all along, because this is a David Lynch film, and the graphic, upsetting shitty absurdity of reality is always hiding in plain sight. Kiefer Sutherland and Chris Isaac are there too, playing FBI agents just as quirky and inevitably lovable as Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan); Agent Phillip Jeffries (David Bowie) emerges from nowhere at a Philadelphia FBI building, then disappears as if ripped from our reality into another. Fire Walk with Mepretty much works that way: People—especially “women in trouble,” a Lynch favorite—cross over into the film from different worlds regularly, usually carried by pain and trauma, two powerful forces that Lynch uses against women at the hands of men, who are all pretty much vessels for evil, except for those in the FBI, who are damn good folks. Is it misogyny? Maybe, though Lynch seems to really hate men.
Criterion’s transfer isn’t all that different from what you could get as part of the Twin Peaks: Entire Mystery boxset, replete with “The Missing Pieces” and new interviews with Sheryl Lee and Angelo Badalamenti. But everything new we can get from Lynch—every new bit of lore we can cull from his worlds—we should welcome, even if it feels like it is happening again. —Dom Sinacola
Year: 2016 (released in U.S. in 2017)
Director: Olivier Assayas
The pleasure of watching Personal Shopper may well be its inscrutability. After multiple viewings, your driving takeaway will probably be a question, or series of them: Is it a ghost story? Is it a thriller? A melancholic character study? Does it actually make any goddamn sense, or is Olivier Assayas merely taking the piss with our cinematic comprehension? What are we getting out of this experiment, conducted with one foot firmly in the luxuries of his last movie, The Clouds of Sils Maria, and the other planted in the phantasmagorical field of horror filmmaking? If nothing else, a fine Kristen Stewart performance, as is the new expectation for Stewart in her post-Twilight enterprises. As Assayas leaps from mode to mode and shifts tones with as much delicacy as an offensive tackle dancing allegro, Stewart is our rock, our anchor; she is the constant variable that keeps us from floating adrift in Personal Shopper’s elliptical genre waters. In fairness to Assayas, his self-assurance as a filmmaker keeps his viewers from feeling like passengers on the Titanic (confused and no longer onboard), but whether or not you actually like the movie has much more to do with your willingness to vibe with its quirks and its ambiguities. —Andy Crump
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr may be the originator of understated horror cinema, relying on an overall sense of dread rather than resorting to the grotesque imagery or jump scares. With such creeping genre films as It Follows, The Witch and It Comes at Night dwelling on similar anxieties, it makes sense for Criterion to dust off this title and give it a new Blu-ray release.
Vampyr is a fairly typical vampire story one can expect from the early twentieth century: A young man (Nicolas de Gunzburg) realizes that an innocent young woman (Sybille Schmitz) might have been bitten by a vampire, and in order to save her soul, he has to find the creature and drive a stake through its heart. Same goes for 1931’s Dracula, 1922’s Nosferatu, take your pick—but it’s Dreyer’s borderline surrealist nightmare-logic and powerfully effective depiction of the banality of evil that turns Vampyr into an important outlier of the genre. He seems to set out to prove that horror can be created simply through context, mood and performance. No real special optical or make-up effects can be found in the film; meanwhile, a big chunk of its runtime is spent worrying about the poor bitten woman’s soul while researching the history of vampirism.
Vampyr’s film stock went through a lot of abuse during the past 85 years. (A modicum of research on the subject will make one realize that it’s a small miracle for any copy to exist today.) That context is vital in our appreciation of the Blu-ray’s 1080p transfer, which is admittedly full of scratches and inconsistent quality, put together using various sources. That being said, this is the best possible version of this horror masterwork you’ll find anywhere. The wide range of extras includes an audio commentary, a visual essay on the film and a documentary on Dreyer’s career. However, the best extra is non-digital: A 250-page book that lays out the screenplay, as well as Sheridan Le Fanu’s story, “Carmilla,” which inspired Dreyer’s film. —Oktay Ege Kozak
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Stanley Kubrick is one of the few filmmakers in the medium’s history to have multiple masterpieces to his name, but among those masterpieces, it’s Barry Lyndon that’s both most masterful and least appreciated. Barry Lyndon embodies everything about Kubrick that today we identify as “Kubrickian”: his rigorous construction, his attention to detail, his sheer ambition, all while offering the polite argument that maybe history doesn’t give him proper credit for his skill as an actor’s director. Maybe that’s because most of Kubrick’s other films don’t exactly hinge on great performances as much as they pivot on great craft and great screenwriting (though this isn’t a bulletproof argument; see The Shining, for instance). Barry Lyndon is an actor’s stage, handsomely, deliberately, impeccably constructed for the sake of Kubrick’s cast—this is a movie designed to cede the spotlight to stars Ryan O’Neal, Marisa Berenson, Patrick Magee, et al. while making damn well sure that they’re working against the most beautiful backdrop possible.
Criterion has given Barry Lyndon a usually sterling restorative treatment, stacking the two-disc set with enough bonus content to match the film itself for weight: Interview after interview with names from Tony Lawson to Leon Vitali, essays, documentaries, programs and—well, you get the idea. The specials complement the feature, as specials tend to, but maybe they’re there more for appreciation than anything else. A film like Barry Lyndon is best honored with an excess of auxiliary material, and through endless repeat viewings spent basking in its overwhelming opulence (and a healthy dose of noxious self-indulgence). —Andy Crump
Year: 2015 (released in U.S. in 2017)
Director: Agnieszka Smoczynska
In Filmmaker Magazine, director Agnieszka Smoczynska called The Lure a “coming-of-age story” born of her past as the child of a nightclub owner: “I grew up breathing this atmosphere.” What she means to say, I’m guessing, is that The Lure is an even more restlessly plotted Boyhood if the Texan movie rebooted The Little Mermaid as a murderous synth-rock opera. (OK, maybe it’s nothing like Boyhood.) Smoczynska’s film resurrects prototypical fairy tale romance and fantasy without any of the false notes associated with Hollywood’s “gritty” reboot culture. Poland, the 1980s and the development of its leading young women provide a multi-genre milieu in which the film’s cannibalistic mermaids can sing their sultry, often violently funny siren songs to their dark hearts’re content. While Ariel the mermaid Disney princess finds empathy with young girls who watch her struggle with feelings of longing and entrapment, The Lure’s flesh-hungry, viscous, scaly fish-people are a gross, haptic and ultimately effective metaphor for the maturation of this same audience. In the water, the pair are innocent to the ways of humans (adults), but on land develop slimes and odors unfamiliar to themselves and odd (yet strangely attractive) to their new companions. Reckoning with bodily change, especially when shoved into the sex industry like many immigrants to Poland during the collapse of that country’s communist regime in the late ’80s, the film combines the politics of the time with the sexual politics of a girl becoming a woman (of having her body politicized). And though The Lure may bite off more human neck than it can chew, especially during its music-less plot wanderings, it’s just so wonderfully consistent in its oddball vision you won’t be able to help but be drawn in by its mesmerizing thrall. —Jacob Oller