In an effort to help readers get into the holiday spirit, Cinedelphia asked Philly-based critics, bloggers, programmers, and filmmakers for their scary movie recommendations. I’ll kick things off…
I apologize in advance for the obscurity of my selection, but I was recently introduced (thanks Dan B.!) to what is possibly the most frightening documentary ever made that doesn’t feature genocide or true crime. In 1975, a couple of Michigan-based factory workers decided to make a low-budget horror film called Demon Lover [aka The Devil Master, released in 1977]. New York-based cinematographer Jeff Kreines was hired to shoot it and Kreines brought along his own soundman as well as his filmmaker girlfriend Joel DeMott who captured the whole experience on 16mm (Kreines and DeMott would later re-team for 1983’s equally impressive Seventeen). Demon Lover Diary (1980) begins as a portrait of the frustrations that predictably result from the clash between amateurs and professionals, but things take a frightening turn around the time that the gang ends up playing with guns at Ted Nugent’s house (the Motor City Madman’s appearance is probably one of the reasons why this film has never been released on home video). I’ll refrain from revealing Diary‘s memorably intense ending, but I will say that the subjects’ fear is infectious as a convention of the horror genre is played out in real life. It’s a remarkable film for a million reasons, somehow DeMott has the viewer equally disliking all participants (herself included) by film’s end, but it’s those seldom-captured moments of real human emotion that will stay with you for days.
I learned a lot from The Haunting (1963). Growing up a Fangoria-reading horror kid, I was inclined toward the gorier end of the spectrum – if you could somehow retrieve the mid-80s records of the Blockbuster Video within bike-riding distance of my parents’ house, you’d be able to track an adolescence spent on far too many rentals of Basket Case and Gates of Hell. But The Haunting was the first instance I can remember where subtlety and suggestion were so chilling. Robert Wise, who’d learned the power of shadows and hints under the mighty Val Lewton decades earlier, used the medium itself to generate his shocks. The camera’s distorted darting about the walls as indistinguishable sounds could be heard from… somewhere, wasn’t the first-person perspective from Halloween but something different, an impressionistic evocation of fear. Or madness, which was another of the film’s impacts; whether the ghosts of Hill House were real or simply a projection of the heroine’s neuroses was left unanswered. I always hated mystery stories for the sole reason that they inevitably ended up solved in the end, but here was an instance where ambiguity was left unnervingly unresolved. Julie Harris’ detached, otherworldly performance as the sheltered Nell was a revelation as well, a woman who embraces the haunted house because of the blessed relief it offers from her mundane, tortuous existence.
Writer, City Paper, Philadelphia Inquirer
This time of year I always revisit two movies in particular: the original Halloween and An American Werewolf in London (John Landis, 1981). American Werewolf, to me, is a perfect horror film. The dialogue immediately pulls the viewer in and the two leads are instantly relatable. The effects are amazing and still hold up. A perfect monster movie.
Robert Angelo Masciantonio
Writer/Director, Cold Hearts, Neighbor
I recently fell in love with Eye of the Devil (1966), which has been released by Warner Archives. Before making two of the Apes films and some real crap later in his career, and a few years after Cape Fear, J. Lee Thompson made this great thriller that predates The Wicker Man, but has the same vibe. David Niven is suave, a young David Hemmings is creepy, throw in Donald Pleasance, Sharon Tate and Deborah Kerr and you have an excellent, overlooked film that is perfect viewing around Halloween.
Co-founder, Exhumed Films; Co-owner, Diabolik DVD
I rented Pontypool (Bruce McDonald, 2008) on a whim. I’ll admit it – based on the cover art and tagline, I thought it would probably suck. I figured it was just a rehash, something to watch in the background. Man, was I wrong. Pontypool is terrific. It puts a creative new twist on the zombie genre – the virus spreads through language and speech patterns. Keeping away from jump scares and stings, it builds an atmosphere of creeping dread as our lead characters, radio DJ Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie – the best part of an already excellent movie) and his producer must deal with the outbreak while trapped inside the station. Once I started watching, I was riveted, and didn’t leave my seat until the very end of the credits (hint: watch until the end, there are treats to be had).
This film is more of a slow burn, more mood than gore, and it’s far from what you’d expect when you hear people say “cannibal zombie madness”. But don’t let that chase you away. If you want to see something brilliant and completely original, this is the film to watch.
Final Girl Support Group
Ask most people what the goriest horror film they’ve ever seen is and the majority of responses will probably be Dead Alive. If someone is really depraved and into truly extreme cinema, it might be Philosophy of a Knife, August Underground, or Guinea Pig. Honestly, there’s a lot worse out there than Peter Jackson’s zombie epic. But for all intents and purposes, I’m talking about films that people who still have their souls intact might enjoy. Rampant fans of Peter Jackson’s more tongue-in-cheek splatter fest probably haven’t seen Brian Yuzna’s underappreciated gross-out, Society (1989). The less said about the film the better. If you so choose to seek this out, it’s best to go in without having any of its taboo-shattering fun spoiled. Society was one of those awesome personal discoveries that could only have happened in the late 90’s. A close friend had purchased a beat up VHS from the dollar bin at a West Coast Video (remember those?). He knew nothing about the film other than the name of the Bride of Re-Animator director listed on the box. After watching the tape, he dubbed dozens of copies for me and all of the other horror geeks enrolled in Temple’s film program. It spread like wildfire. Society is a scathing satire of economic class warfare and gives new meaning to the rich feeding off of the poor. The film follows Bill, an awkward teenager who’s having a hard time relating to his new step siblings. His mother has re-married into a wealthy and aristocratic family that is part of an elite society that throws private parties once a month. Bill soon discoveries a tape recording of one of these parties and the sounds are…indescribable. The recording presents a primal, violent, animalistic orgy that will spark images in your imagination that you wish you didn’t have. Most often, true horror is best left unseen. Few films can actually match the average person’s worst fears…not Society. When we finally get to see what goes on at these private parties, well, you’ll never forget it. Equal measures campy comedy, scathing parable, and full-on body horror, Brian Yuzna’s debut video nasty is a must see for any real fan of genre films.
Writer, Twitchfilm.com; Founder, Hell Fire Film Club
Let’s face it, it’s hard to find a really scary movie. Most horror films are lousy. But [REC] (Jaume Balaguero + Paco Plaza, 2007) really scares the pants off me. It’s a documentary-style film about a reality TV camera crew shadowing a group of firemen for a night. There’s just something about a really good ‘found footage’ horror film that ramps up the fear factor. And foreign horror films are often scarier than American ones. Traditionally that award goes to Asian films, but this lesser known 2007 gem from Spain is the scariest I’ve seen. Not since the original Blair Witch Project have I been so creeped out. Don’t read the synopsis. Just turn off the lights and prepare to be terrified.
FliederOnFilm.com; Film Critic, FOX 35
The scariest film I have seen recently would have to be a Japanese SOV documentary called Orozco the Embalmer (Tsurisaki Kiyotaka, 2001) about a mortician operating in the small village of El Cartucho, one of the most dangerous areas of Columbia. I found it to be one of the most truthful depictions of the fragility of human life and the repercussions of savage violence ever depicted. The film doesn’t flinch at all when showing us all of the grisly details of this strange little man’s work and it had me seriously pondering the fear of my own mortality for quite a while afterwards.
Film Critic, Geekadelphia.com
For the uninitiated, Funny Games (Michael Haneke, 1997) is essentially a brutal commentary on the American obsession with graphically violent entertainment (a theme Haneke also explored in his equally terrific Benny’s Video, 1992). The film focuses on a well-to-do family of three whose vacation home is invaded by two polite, clean-cut young men who want to play a game. They bet that by the end of the night the entire family will be dead.
What starts as a calculated mind game involving a carton of broken eggs quickly escalates into a brutal scene of battery followed by one of the most cruel versions of “Hot and Cold” you’re likely to find elsewhere. It is during this sequence that Haneke begins to lay his cards on the table. As Anna, the mother and wife of the household, searches for the family dog, the more dominant villain turns to look directly at the viewer, gives us a playful wink, and turns his attention back to Anna. This breaking of the fourth wall is only the beginning and the motif of implicating the audience in the duo’s violent deeds continues throughout the rest of the picture. A wise someone once said “You have to know the rules in order to break them” and this notion is absolutely crucial to what makes Funny Games succeed, if not completely for the reasons Haneke intended. For all of the gimmicks, pokes and jabs the film has to offer (and there’s a BIG one that separates the lovers from the haters), the violence and the victims’ reactions to it are painfully real.
In 2007, Haneke shocked many by helming an English-language, shot-for-shot remake starring Naomi Watts and Tim Roth. I greatly prefer the original, but whichever version you go with you will probably either love or hate this film. You may also feel a little bit dirty.
Filmmaker, Morris County, Beating Hearts
A friend of mine confessed recently that he felt a little scared while driving home after a screening of Exorcist III. Really? I love horror films but they rarely push my buttons like that. I have no fear of being demoniacally possessed, being stalked from within my dreams, getting chomped by a vampire, or being chained in a basement with a hacksaw, although I admittedly enjoy watching all those things happen on screen. I was however truly unnerved by a film that came and went without fanfare, Maurice Devereaux’s 2007 apocalyptic thriller End of the Line, because it presents a threat of which I’m actually spooked: religious fanatics. News reports at the film’s opening tell of a mass movement of growing numbers that are converting to The Voice of Eternal Hope Church, whose “End is Near” congregants are every bit as scary as the religious fanatics who were onstage at the recent Republican debate. One night their leader gives the message that all non-believers must die and before you know it the glassy-eyed followers are unsheathing their crucifixes daggers. “God Loves You!” they joyfully exclaim before plunging the knives into an infidel’s chest. Most of the Canadian-shot thriller takes place in the city’s subway tunnels with the action resembling a zombie movie, but as punchy as those thrills are, it is the images of those death-wielding, true-believing Christians that are roosting in my psyche.
Film Critic, Phawker.com
As a child, my parents did everything they could to keep me away from the horror section of the local video store. Of course, this restriction only made my desire to peek into what I shouldn’t that much stronger. October is my favorite movie-going month because audiences permit themselves to enjoy a few scary movies without the guilt often associated with watching something a tad disreputable. What I love most about the horror genre is its mood, which often trumps narrative for purely cinematic delights. On Thursday, October 13th, I will be screening two of the moodiest post-World War II fright flicks at my free monthly screening series, Andrew’s Video Vault at the Rotunda. First up is the haunting, Messiah of Evil [aka Dead People] (Willard Huyck, 1973) followed by the eerie Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962). Both films are triumphs of atmosphere, ambiguity and nightmare logic that are sure to ignite the autumnal Halloween spirit within all of us.
Andrew Repasky McElhinney
Filmmaker, A Chronicle of Corpses, Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye
La Campana del infierno aka A Bell from Hell (Carlos Guerin, 1973) is a subversive, surreal, and at times funny slice of Eurohorror that has to be seen to be believed. There are a handful of films that I would write love letters to, if I could, and A Bell from Hell is certainly one of them. Juan, a rebellious practical joker with an anti-authoritarian streak a mile wide, is being released from an asylum. He heads home to seek revenge on his aunt and three cousins who had him placed there on false charges so that they could steal his inheritance. He prepares a series of complex “jokes” as revenge and prepares to slaughter all four women.
This truly singular film has been sadly neglected, but is a fine example of Spanish horror cinema, bearing a close relationship to other darkly surreal works of Franco-era cinema. It is awash with an atmosphere of the Gothic and has numerous Poe references. In many ways, it’s kind of a weird horror hybrid of Jean Rollin and Bunuel. There is a dreamy, disturbing atmosphere, as well as an insistently anti-bourgeois flavor.
Satanic Pandemonium; Cinedelphia.com contributor
To me, nothing is more frightening than actual human nightmares. Jesus, I have recurring night terrors that are absolutely horrifying (the most recent one featuring both cannibalistic zombies and nuclear apocalypse, thus combining my two greatest fears into one economical package). Therefore, the horror films that I find scariest are those that best mimic nightmares: they often lack a straightforward narrative, they feature characters with nonsensical motives, and they exist in some nebulous setting where geography and passage of time are confusing at best.
Two great silent films that successfully capture nightmarish qualities are Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) and Maya Deren/Alex Hammid’s short experimental film Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). But for the modern genre aficionado, I think the masterpiece of nightmarish horror is still Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond (1981). I know Fulci films are usually looked at as silly because of infamous moments like “zombie vs. shark,” but The Beyond is in a class by itself. It makes no sense, but in the best possible way: why would you hook a corpse up to a machine that checks for brainwave activity? What’s up with the blind woman and the dog? The Beyond transcends the usual goofy vibe and laughable moments that Fulci’s films produce, and manages to actually be legitimately disturbing instead of just stupidly gory. Go into the film expecting a surrealistic fever dream instead of a campy zombie romp, and you will not be disappointed.
Co-founder, Exhumed Films
It’s easy to miss the creepy Australian mockumentary Lake Mungo (Joel Anderson, 2008) among the many disappointments from After Dark Horrorfest and the glut of found footage flicks riding the success of Paranormal Activity. For fans of ghost stories with the patience for a slow burn, this hidden gem is worth tracking down.
The film chronicles the supposedly supernatural occurrences following the untimely death of teenage Alice Palmer in the style of a documentary. We see interviews with the family, photos with ghostly figures, recordings of hypnotism sessions, etc. This means the experience is more like watching an episode of Unsolved Mysteries than a horror movie, but a growing sense of dread takes hold as the plot reaches its deeply unsettling conclusion. One of the very few recent films to scare me, Lake Mungo is beautiful, haunting and criminally underrated.
Final Girl Support Group; Cinedelphia.com contributor
As an adult, what scares me is the hungry behemoth that is my mortgage or the thought of which flavor of cancer will eventually riddle my body and kill me. Or perhaps it’s the thought of being old, wretched and perpetually befuddled in a state-run old age home where obese nurses put their cigarettes out on my arm. Recommending a scary film to a reader whom I may not personally know is damn near impossible. After fourteen years of screenings with Exhumed Films, I’ve seen the ironic, post-modern detachment many patrons view horror films with, at least when they’re among others determined to laugh at every excess of past fashion. Having grown up in the ’70s, I find there are still some molecules within me that see the too-long hair, sideburns and synthetic fiber clothing as being part of a not-far-removed reality. It’s back to this reality that I must reach in order to re-connect with that which scared me as a child. For only as a child could a movie possibly frighten me. I can, these days, occasionally find myself disturbed by a film, but the creeping tendrils of despair-yet-to-come, as previously mentioned, are far more ominous and they remain a gurgling omnipresence in my subconscious.
I grew up in the post-Vietnam War era that can only truly be understood by those who felt the malaise America slipped into that only lifted, in varying degrees, in the 1980s. I grew up with a more acute awareness of the war and its considerable physical and psychological toll than some other kids of the era. It was in the mid- or late-’70s that I first caught Deathdream [aka Dead of Night or The Night Andy Came Home] (1974) on television under one of its titles. Bob Clark and Alan Ormsby’s take on Saki’s short story “The Monkey’s Paw” never specifically mentioned Vietnam; instead it was referred to vaguely. A minor character says something like, “You boys had it rough over there,” but that could apply to any war. But Vietnam it was. When Andy’s mother wishes for him to return from the war, she doesn’t anticipate that the son who returns home will not be the one who left. They never are. Andy doesn’t suffer from “combat fatigue,” “shell shock,” or “PTSD” (a term only coined after this film was released). Rather, he’s a vampire of a sort; a sickly, ever-weakening sort. Andy needs blood to “live,” but nothing can stop his physical (moral) decay. While I find it unfortunate and disgraceful that some segments of the American population viewed their returning soldiers and marines this way and certain exploitation filmmakers (most of whom who had never heard a shot fired in anger) helped to forge a foul stereotype that partially persists to this day, I can’t deny that the alienation and “otherness” felt by Andy was a valid experience for some veterans.
Deathdream shocked the adolescent me because it was one of the first examples of ’70s “feel bad” horror that I witnessed. While not particularly graphic (and probably only in need of minor trims to run on late night television despite early special effects work from a young Tom Savini), Deathdream disturbed me with its glamor-less view of vampirism, its lack of heroes, its nuclear family in meltdown (which features John Cassavettes regular and horse-head-in-the-bed Godfather actor John Marley) and its deadly-grim finale. The sadness that permeates Deathdream was a sadness that wormed through wood paneling, hooked up from shag carpeting and spun out from spider plants in the 1970s. As with every horror film I loved from the era, I’d watch Deathdream every time it aired as, in those pre-VCR days, there was no other way for me to see it. A part of me always wanted it to play out differently, for the tragedy to be avoided and those parents and sister not to have to suffer through the grotesque disintegration of their beloved son, once so filled with life and spirit and now addicted to a substance that only slowed his inevitable demise. But the movie always played out the same, again and again and again, and I was always there to watch it.
Joseph A. Gervasi
Co-founder, Exhumed Films; Co-owner, Diabolik DVD
Horror movies aren’t scary. The fears on which they prey tend to be unrealistic. You’re not going to be murdered in your dreams or become food for a zombie or tortured by a rich psycho in Eastern Europe. What’s truly scary are things no master of horror would ever dream of inflicting upon their audience: that rather than be gloriously offed while having amazing sex, you are more likely to spend your life watching as your ambitions shrink, your dreams go unrealized and your days amount to a mere collection of hours. You might settle down too early with someone you like but don’t love. If you don’t settle down too early, you will wander aimlessly by way of punishment for thinking outside the box. You will, in other words, have to settle for far less than you desired and will leave this world as just another meaningless statistic. This Halloween, rather than revisit a classic “scary” movie, go with actual scary. Watch the Up Series, Michael Apted’s beloved, ongoing documentary project that, since 1964, has visited the same people (or most of them, anyway) every seven years since they were seven (56 Up is slated to premiere next year). Better yet, watch them as a marathon. Let the cosmic rush of watching most of whole lives – some tragic and disappointing, others reasonably productive, most about subsisting on mere mediocrity – make you truly depressed. And scared. Because it’s probably happening to you right now. Happy Halloween!
Film Critic, Philadelphia Weekly
Big thanks to everyone who contributed. Have a scary movie suggestion of your own? Let us know in the comments! And be sure to check back tomorrow for a chance to win tickets to attend an advance screening of an upcoming horror film…
Author: Eric Bresler
Eric is the Founder/Site Editor of Cinedelphia.com whose additional activities are numerous: Director/Curator of the Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art (PhilaMOCA), founder of Tokyo No Records, the brain behind Video Pirates, and active local film programmer including the Unknown Japan screening series. He’s served as a TLA Video Manager, Philadelphia Film Society Managing Director, and Adjunct Professor in Cinema Studies at Drexel University. He is shy and modest. Email Eric.