Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Best Non-Horror Horror Films

Every October the internet is awash with suggestions for Halloween-themed movie watching. This isn't exactly one of those lists. Rundowns of the best horror movies have a year after year sameness to them due to the fact that the genre has been in a creative rut for a quite a few years. On the one hand you have Paranormal Activity and its dozens of clones, and on the other you have torture porn/slasher films that only exist to highlight the work of the prosthetics wing of the SFX department. So here's a list of films that provide the fear and existential dread of the best horror films, but without any supernatural content or masked men wielding knives/axes/garlic presses.

Onibaba (1964)

It gets scarier than this.
 Set in a marsh in rural Japan, a woman and her widowed daughter-in-law make a living killing lone samurai who cross their path. They dump the bodies in a deep hole in the marsh and sell the armour and weapons they've stripped from the bodies. Things go awry when the young woman acquires a love interest and her mother-in-law finds a "demon" mask. This is a seriously creepy and atmospheric film thanks to some amazing cinematography that's reminiscent of Val Lewton's horror films.


Innocence (2004)

"This doesn't look like Hogwarts."
The girls who live and study in this French boarding school make their first arrival at the school in coffins in which they seem to have been sleeping. Things get weirder. The school is in a walled park and no one is allowed out. After a peculiar course of study the girls are sent...but, no, that would be a spoiler. Marion Cotillard is one of the teachers in this sumptuous-looking film, which creates tension and dread by not giving us any clues as to what's really happening.

Winter's Bone (2010)

And they live in the good part of town.
Every minute of this dark crime drama is filled with dread. Jennifer Lawrence's character, Ree, has to prove that her father's dead, and to do that involves running a gauntlet of back country characters who'd probably regard Deliverance as a sitcom. The hills of rural Missouri are filled with crazed crackheads,  meth dealers, and garden variety bug-eyed rednecks, all of whom Ree has to negotiate with or cower in terror from. It's a hair-raising film that's almost devoid of violence.

The Parallax View (1974)

One of them gets down the quick way.
One of the key tropes in most supernatural films is that ordinary things aren't necessarily what they appear to be; see that sweet-looking doll over there? Turn away for a second and suddenly it's got it's hands around your throat. This political conspiracy thriller about a shadowy corporation that assassinates US politicians works a bit like that. Warren Beatty is a journalist who starts uncovering the truth but faces danger and double-crosses every step of the way. Director Alan J. Pakula brings the same mood of paranoid spookiness to this film as he did to Klute and All the President's Men.

Wake In Fright (1971)

Watch out! He's reaching for his pouch!
Yet another horror film trope is the character who keeps making terrible choices, such as taking midnight strolls in cemeteries, going into attics/basements to investigate odd noises, and admitting men into the house who introduce themselves by saying, "I'm Count...uh...Alucard. Yeah, that's it, Count Alucard!" The central character in this Aussie film (but directed by Canuck Ted Kotcheff) is an Englishman who has to spend one night in a godawful Outback town for a flight that will take him back to England and civilization. He then makes a series of bad decisions that land him in one horrible situation after another, all involving the very unappetizing locals. The film has a gritty, documentary feel, an unrelenting sense of impending doom, a big, brassy performance from Donald Pleasance, and cinema's only knife fight between a man and a kangaroo.

The Hill (1965)

Harry Andrews isn't keen on Connery's moustache.
A tried and tested horror film structure is to have our hero(es) battle/run from a seemingly invulnerable maniac killer or supernatural entity. In the last few minutes of the film the baddie is bloodily defeated and all is well...or is it? The Evil One inevitably leaps back to life and things end badly for everyone except the film's producers, who've thereby left the door open for sequels. The Hill is set in a British military prison in North Africa that holds deserters and shirkers and the like. The officers in charge of the camp are a collection of bullies and incompetents, and one of their prisoners is worked to death as part of a punishment detail. A few of the prisoners, led by Sean Connery's character, try and have the responsible officer brought to justice. It seems like an impossible fight, and just when it looks like they've won...This is probably Connery's best performance, and he's supported by an A-list cast of Brit character actors all of whom try and outshout and outact each other; it's like a thespian version of WWE.

Juliet of the Spirits (1965)

I'm telling you it's not a horror movie!
 The title character, an upper-middle-class Roman housewife, finds out her husband is having an affair and has a nervous breakdown. Her breakdown takes the form of seeing visions, and this being a Fellini film, the visions are eye-popping celebrations of Technicolor, sound design, and visual imagination. Fellini isn't trying for scares or even dread, but some of his imagery, especially in the final section of the film, makes you realize that he could have made an amazing horror film.


So there you have it; seven "horror" films that are largely blood and viscera free. And if you absolutely have to have celebrate Halloween with a horror film, check out Lake Mungo, an Australian film that could almost make this list because it keeps its supernatural elements to an absolute minimum and becomes all the scarier because of it. 

3 comments:

KIKAREN said...

You missed two:
Martha Marcy May Marlene
+
Funny Games

Cary Watson said...

So there's two more films for my must-watch list. Thanks, Kikaren

Leigh said...

Those should be interesting- not the usual slash and burn.