Happy October, a time of year to wrap yourself up in sweaters, kick back with pumpkin beer, and carve a few or a dozen jack o’lanterns to ward away evil spirits gliding outside your door. If you’re in for the night, fending off skeletons, spirits, and haunts, you may as well throw on a scary flick, too; ‘tis the season for the best horror movies.
This year, try a picture from off the beaten path, maybe something that doesn’t show up on every “best of” list from year to year — like these 10 films below.
Apart from its logline — ”spurred by her unborn child, pregnant woman murders the people responsible for her baby daddy’s death” — Alice Lowe’s Prevenge has two things going for it: A chilling final image (no spoilers) and Alice Lowe, who wrote, directed, and starred in the film, and got the whole shebang in the can in two weeks while pregnant herself. Prevenge’s black-as-pitch comedy slays as surely as mother-to-be Ruth does; Lowe marries macabre humor with blunt violence, preferring minimalism to excess in her bloodletting. Austerity drives home Prevenge’s unsettling atmosphere, but Lowe’s commitment to the production makes it memorable.
The Brits like themselves a liberal dose of misery in their stories, whether the Irish (James Joyce) or the English (Charles Dickens). Matthew Holness’ debut feature, Possum, relishes the kind of curated despair his forebears made, except there’s also an arachnid puppet monster skittering around the story’s imagination. Failure is Possum’s bread and butter: Phillip (Sean Harris), a children’s puppeteer struggling with behavioral health, returns to his childhood home to deal with his all-time terrible uncle (Alun Armstrong) as well as his past. That means dealing with the title critter, a truly revolting spider-like puppet that, like the cat who came back the very next day, Phillip cannot rid himself of. Possum doesn’t terrify so much as haunt its viewers, lingering in the imagination long after the credits cease rolling.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe
If H.P. Lovecraft and Agatha Christie adapted Deborah Tannen’s 1990 nonfiction text You Just Don’t Understand into a CSI-style film, it’d probably look something like André Øvredal’s The Autopsy of Jane Doe. Men, as the old trope goes, truly don’t “get” women. Even when men are able to cut a woman open and catalogue her insides, they’re still left flummoxed.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe isn’t a playful film (certainly not by the standards Øvredal set for himself in 2010’s Trollhunter), but the mounting questions that arise as father-son coroner duo Tommy (Brian Cox) and Austin (Emile Hirsch) dissect the body of the dearly departed Jane (Olwen Kelly in a stealth-masterful performance) provide a small breath of comic relief amidst escalating spookiness and vengeful femininity.
For fans of unrelenting gore and surrealist imagery of Lovecraftian proportions, there’s Steven Kostanski and Jeremy Gillespie’s The Void, a goopy, gruesome monster-fest that delivers on batshit violence while maintaining an unexpected core of sadness. For all of the film’s grimier elements, born from Kostanski and Gillespie’s DIY, 1980s aesthetic, The Void is innately melancholic; the loss of a child and marital estrangement between policeman Daniel (Aaron Poole) and his wife, Allison (Kathleen Munroe), influence its shape more than does fear, though of course the threat of attack—whether by mutated corpses, otherworldly beasts, or the deranged cultists bent on bringing the former two friends into our world—haunts every frame and lurks around every corner. In The Void, where reality bends beyond human understanding, heartache is the only certainty.
A movie about the lowkey dread of having a sliver of wood stuck in one’s pinky finger would probably work like gangbusters. No one likes it when that happens, but no one likes it when splinters mutate the splintered into prickly, flesh-hungry zombies, either. So we highly recommend Toby Wilkins’ inspired body horror movie that feels right at home alongside John Carpenter and David Cronenberg’s grosser works. A low-budget, creative monster movie metastasizes into its own unique vision while wearing its influences unabashedly on its sleeve. The film’s a gnarly delight with terrific effects and creature design, but it’s the cast — Paulo Costanzo, Shea Whigham, and Jill Wagner — that give it real staying power.
A Bay of Blood
The likeliest films to appear on an “essential Mario Bava” list include Black Sunday, Blood and Black Lace, Lisa and the Devil, Hatchet for the Honeymoon, and Kidnapped because they’re universally praised. But put A Bay of Blood on there, too; in several ways this is the single most significant film in Bava’s body of work, at least if you care about the genesis of the American slasher.
A tale of murder set against the backdrop of a lake where unlikeable characters are brutally knocked off one by one? Sound familiar? The rhythm created by each kill provided a template for Friday the 13th, the defining American slasher. But Brava does mindless slaughter better here, with more misanthropy and infinitely superior filmmaking. Try watching the first 15 minutes without subtitles, and it’ll make sense even when it doesn’t. That’s what good craft looks like.
When you’re short on time and need a late-night shot in the dark, truth in advertising matters. So here’s Eaten Alive, Tobe Hooper’s 1997 followup to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the tale of a deranged hotel owner who feeds his guests to his pet crocodile in between delivering increasingly unhinged monologues. There are people. They’re alive. There is a crocodile who eats people while they’re alive. It doesn’t get more cut and dry than that.
What the title does leave out is Neville Brand’s habit of goring people with a scythe, but Hooper’s sweaty, grimy take on Psycho doesn’t skimp on animal violence or surrealist air in the Lone Star State, so the omission is forgivable.
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Fulfilling all of your cannibal mermaid, punk-rock-disco musical needs is Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s 2015 import, The Lure. You may be unaware that you needed a cannibal mermaid, punk-rock-disco musical at all, but likely you’ve changed your mind after eyeballing the ingredients in that genre stew twice; if you remain unconvinced, add in “adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid,” too.
The Lure’s best pleasures lie in Smoczyńska’s vibrant, loopy aesthetic, providing the audience their only buoy to stay afloat through the movie’s less coherent moments. If only more musicals stopped at around the halfway mark to throw an orgy.
The 7th Victim
Mark Robson’s The 7th Victim is almost as much a blast for behind the scenes trivia as for the movie itself; the opening scene recycles the set used in 1942’s The Magnificent Ambersons, and Tom Conway reprises his character from Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People, also released in 1942.
But put the emphasis on the “almost,” because The 7th Victim does rich, doleful, unassuming art horror proud. If this movie came out today, a specific cadre of cineastes would be in a hurry to call it elevated horror. Yet Robson has no interest in elevating anything: the film’s a Greenwich Village-set Satanic cult flick that turns urban space into an agoraphobe’s worst nightmare. Well-heeled as the presentation’s pedigree may be, The 7th Victim rebels against heredity by draping shock and bewitchery in high-end trappings.
Someone out there might be able to make a convincing case that Michael O’Shea’s The Transfiguration isn’t quite a horror film at all, given that its protagonist isn’t actually a vampire; he just playacts vampirism behind closed doors, actualizing his troubling obsession with bloodsucking monsters of myth as a way of escaping his from violence and economic repression. Young Milo’s (Eric Ruffin) loner predilections love of vampire movies function as a preferable alternative to life outside his apartment, which speaks volumes to that life’s unrelenting awfulness. Like The Void, The Transfiguration’s mood is depressed. Unlike The Void, its setting is the real world. Maybe The Transfiguration isn’t a horror movie, but it’s hushed and horrific regardless.