10 Great Horror Movies From Around The World Part 2
Film is one of the best artistic mediums because it's always growing; it speaks every language, and every place in the world has their iteration as to what's scary, twisted, weird or just downright bizarre. Different countries offer different interpretations of horror, from China where vampires hop to Korean Shaman. They don't wave crosses, nor do they compel the power
Film is one of the best artistic mediums because it’s always growing; it speaks every language, and every place in the world has their iteration as to what’s scary, twisted, weird or just downright bizarre. Different countries offer different interpretations of horror, from China where vampires hop to Korean Shaman. They don’t wave crosses, nor do they compel the power of Christ upon anyone, but just don’t fall in love with Isabelle Adjani.
10. The Wailing (South Korea – Na Hong Jin, 2016)
The vicarious relationship we have with horror films is, more or less, the reason why we (“we” meaning fans of the genre) love them right? And there’s nothing that lures me in more than a movie that just lashes out, with something, scary, gross, or just downright creepy. The Wailing succeeds almost too well, to the point that it veers on abusive, but for horror fans that’s a quantitative part of the equation.
Most importantly, director Na Hong-jin leads us down an unfamiliar path with a deliberately dense narrative of ritualistic killings, stemming from (or causing?) a series of bizarre illnesses. Officer Jong-goo investigates the recent murders and believes that a new Japanese resident is a suspect; however, his daughter shows symptoms of the illness afflicting those connected with the case, and enlists a Shaman to drive the demonic spirits from her body.
What starts out as a cryptic provincial procedural rapidly accelerates into all-out spiritual warfare. The Wailing is a veritable minefield of horrific set pieces that veer from moody visuals to bombastic exorcism scenes that rival the hallowed ground walked by Max Von Sydow in The Exorcist. Framed with a diamond cutters eye and masterfully edited, the percussive, unrelentingly intense sequence of dueling Shamans is one of the most exciting sequences in contemporary horror. There is dancing, pounding on drums, howling prayers, burning effigies, wielding knives, driving nails into wooden totems – it’s as intense as it as fascinating going into this unseen (for many of those uneducated in Shaman rituals) rabbit hole of Korean/Shamist exorcism rites.
It might feel as if The Wailing is a film trying to outdo itself, but it’s horror on a credible level. The narrative beats are fully informed, and for all of its labyrinthine twists and turns the film never feels overstuffed.
The Wailing is more than this year’s most exciting horror film; it’s one of the best from 2016.
9. Tenebrae (Italy – Dario Argento, 1982)
Dario Argento cut his teeth (if you’re familiar with this movie a shiver ran up your spine I bet?) with quick-paced giallo/stalk and slash films – Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Cat O’ Nine Tails, and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage – then he went head first into his art deco blood-spattered expressionism with Deep Red, the seminal Suspiria, and the underrated Inferno. But Tenebrae is something of a miracle in his career – he returns to the serial killer story with the high concept giallo, but with an unlikely but eloquently gruesome white color palette accentuating the lurid red geysers of blood.
The story might seem pedestrian by contemporary standards, but anyone familiar with the director’s work will know that story is secondary and visuals come first. Yet Tenebrae actually follows a narrative thread pretty loyally, as a famous pulp author is enlisted in a murder investigation tracking a killer who’s imitating the murders described in his novel.
There’s a degree of catharsis here, as American author Peter Neal is an alter-ego of Argento. Similar to the Italian director, people cast blame on him for being a misogynist, which is a common claim in horror films since women are commonly targeted and murdered in various ways. There’s never a shortage of visual flair in Argento‘s work, but it’s not often that you get a self-reflexive allegory, nor social commentary on the nature of horror, and of art imitating life.
In addendum, Tenebrae looks brilliant; we’ve read plenty on Suspiria and Deep Red, but Tenebrae is one of the director’s best, breathing new life into the genre that groomed many famed Italian directors.
8. Cronos (Mexico – Guillermo del Toro, 1993)
My love affair with Guillermo del Toro started here, (bear with me if you can for a brief stroll down memory lane). A friend had given me a bag of VHS tapes when they were savvy enough to upgrade to DVD, and the first among many interesting titles was this bizarre little movie called Cronos.
It’s fun to look at Cronos in reference to del Toro’s following work, because you can see so much of his personality in this feature debut: the colorful reinvention of a horror genre, (as he would do with each subsequent effort), the improbable sense of humor, especially from recurring player Ron Perlman, who plays a thug whose contentious teasing of his dying uncle in need of a nose job is great and often humorous heavy. Seasoned veteran of Spanish cinema Federico Lupi is fantastic as the most unlikely vampire and perhaps warmest grandfather as well.
Cronos is a beautifully macabre film; that’s beautiful and grotesque. It is a unsanitized de-prettified fairy tale that examines immortality in a unique manner by not only giving us the most unlikely vampire in the kindhearted persona of Federico Lupi, but also a melancholic point of view from his granddaughter Aurora.
References are everywhere in del Toro’s work and and I can’t help but think of Victor Erice’s masterpiece The Spirit of the Beehive when watching this film. Cronos is treated with a touch of biblical symbolism as well as classical ghost story, repurposed as a highly original conceit of alchemy, mysticism, family drama, and comedy. Only in the yarns spun by an artist like Guillermo del Toro could this work so well.
7. Pulse (Japan – Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2001)
Amid the manifold Japanese horror films (I dare not say “J-horror” unless mocking the term) and the flashy jump cuts, pale-faced long haired girls stalking corridors, and crawling out of living room appliances, there’s the rather soft hand of Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Probably the most logical successor to B-movie virtuoso producer Val Lewton, Kurosawa’s chillers are mostly bloodless frissons of slow-burning atmospheric terror, and Pulse is probably his most well-known exploration of modern horror.
Kurosawa deviates from the mill of Japanese horror, in that he can enlighten us with hair-raising horror without resorting to clichés or excessive violence; however, he’s in concert with a recurring theme in horror from the east, in that he employs modern anxieties regarding the invasive presence of technology into palatable meditations of contemporary horror.
Pulse has a duel story-line that concerns malevolent spirits that seem bent on taking over the world through the interconnected world of the internet. Sound silly, lofty, or existential? Well, on paper “spooky internet ghosts” comes off like an aborted X-Files episode, but the proceedings are as credible and thoroughly scary as contemporary horror has had to offer. Pulse is smart in that it’s a film that treats evil as an overwhelming force, and that it’s operating in almost every home, shop, café, and domicile across the world; as a matter of fact, you’re using it right at this moment.
6. The Blood on Satan’s Claw (United Kingdom – Piers Haggard, 1968)
I won’t lie, but the first thing that stuck out to me for this movie was “awesome title.” Fortunately, after watching the film, I realized that there’s more to The Blood on Satan’s Claw than just a cool hook of a name. It is a gleefully twisted and earthy horror film from the genre’s implied homeland.
A small English village lose their collective minds when a mysterious chunk of skeletal matter is unearthed with an eye and some hair attached. Some pious villagers grow claws, others sprout clumps of hair on their bodies, and, for the most part, the village seems to be losing their minds.
This is a case of “you have to see it to believe it”. As far as location, I can’t imagine The Blood on Satan’s Claw taking place anywhere but the rural outskirts of England. The film feels as if the McCarthyist allegory was removed from The Crucible and cranked up to eleven. Paranoid and political, the film has young villagers parading around performing devilish rituals, but these kids aren’t playing the blame game or pointing fingers at one another, they want to conjure Satan and have no qualms offering up a human sacrifice if they have to.
There is an air of suggestion here, but I think that might have to do with the hazy nature of the story, which offers a veritable grab-bag of demented imagery and demonic practice before veering into some dense territory. If you get lost at some narrative junctures, the audacious visual eruptions will secure your attention.
Director Piers Haggard (whose credentials include the 1981 cult film Venom) doesn’t trace around the grit and grime of this earthy yarn. The Blood on Satan’s Claw is atmospheric, claustrophobic, lurid, and flagrantly demonic. It is a self-forged entry, as well as a tentpole title in the folk horror subgenre.
5. Possession (France/Germany – Andrzej Żuławski, 1981)
The genesis of Possession is simple, and the film itself is anything but. When Mark suspects that his wife Anna is having an affair, his suspicions get the worst of him and he becomes consumed with her infidelity.
Synopsizing Possession is like trying to explain the color red to a blind person; while the film does have a narrative it’s one that’s very much up to interpretation. This aforementioned avenue is usually reserved for moody think pieces, but the film doesn’t hold back from being unrelentingly repulsive while we pole vault from one mind warping set piece to another. Andrzej Zulawski’s bombastic camera work and passionate pedigree for bursts of kinetic violence hardly let up, and there’s no telling what will come around the next corner.
The film’s zealous material can be off-putting, as the director’s not afraid to drag us through the hellish escapades of its explosive crescendos, in a brazen, but smart way. It excels in its ultra texturization; going one step further, in that horror tends to romanticize the seductive nature of evil, yet here the horror is acted out (in two stellar performances from Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neil) by those already neck deep in debauched physical and spiritual debasement. The temptation for the viewers is thematic deconstruction. I don’t think Andrzej Zulawski tried to make a scary film, but of course this makes the affair more terrifying than anything made by a genre-savvy director.
Possession is the product of a director who knows how to fill a frame, and the aggressive actions are anchored by two incredibly dedicated and extremely physical performances from Adjani and Neil. Adjani stridently delivers an abundance of scenes of cryptic stares, violently flailing with blood and ooze gushing all over, not to mention having sex with a tentacled monster that may be the budding reincarnation of her husband.
While the title might imply demonic possession, it’s aimed at the psychological possession of people, and how the externalized can be more horrifying; the adage “people are the real monsters” is tired at best, but here it’s something entirely different.
4. The Babadook (Australia – Jennifer Kent, 2014)
While I thought to myself “should I include The Babadook, what more can I say about this film that people don’t already know?” Yet after some empirical research, this title was included because if more people are talking about and seeing this film, the better off we all are.
The Babadook is one of those movies that, if you’ll forgive the hyperbole, is about as perfect as a movie can be. If you scan the multitude of checks in the film’s favor, it stands as proof to the power of it. Here is an original film, with an original concept, untouched, unfettered and unadulterated, and free from the debt of source material, books, comics, pre-existing films, or any other influential coloring. Against the glut of stalk and slash, found footage, and spin-off reboots, The Babadook is more than a breath of fresh air, it’s a life-saving gasp.
Among the many accolades previously mentioned, this is a debut feature film for its director Jennifer Kent, who seems to navigate through cinematic vernacular with remarkable ease. The Babadook follows the all-too-overlooked school of thought where “less is more”, and keeps it simple while yielding the most efficient frissons of horror. Last but not least, it has the feeling of relativity.
I don’t know boo about being a vampire, or a mad doctor, but I do know that a terrifying prospect for a child is to lose your mother. Despite being childless and a male, as a mother I can imagine there’s no worse fear than losing your only kid. Clearly delineated thematic bullet points and horror arrives in the form of the most creepy goddamn book ever written.
Sheared of superfluous backstory and supporting players, The Babadook is a marriage of economy and intelligence. There’s Amelia, a stressed beyond her means single mother with a difficult child, and Samuel, who has a shared birthday with her husband’s death. A hefty burden for the veritable minefield of moral gray areas that are colored in thought constitutes the threat of the supernatural, or does it?
3. Under the Shadow (Iran – Babak Anvari, 2016)
Political allegory is what makes horror films stand out, and when “bigger” themes are handled well, with a light hand, it’s the push that can make a horror stand a cut above the rest. After watching Under the Shadow, the consensus is that this film is a cut above the abundant inventory of contemporary horror movies.
Strategically deliberate pacing and mood have everything to do with the eeriness of Under the Shadow; patience is required, but the investment of attention is reimbursed tenfold with a dimensional interpretation of a haunting/possession tale.
Set against the backdrop of 1980’s Teheran during the War of Cities (or the Iran/Iraqi War) while her husband Iraj is working as a doctor for the military, Shideh is at home with their daughter Dorsa. After repeated shellings and air raids, a tenant in their building dies. Shortly afterward, a neighbor believes that their family has been cursed by a Dijin, an aggressive spirit sometimes interpreted as a “genie” or in some cases “demons.”
Directed with the most steady of hands, Under the Shadow maintains an unimposing (but always present) air of political tension and slow burning horror anchored by a claustrophobic tale of an emotionally frayed mother-daughter who have to rely on each other. This is coupled with the psychological stress of living in a war zone, and possibly the presence of a malevolent demon? We could also subscribe to the validity that it’s both of these.
I guess if you direct an intelligent horror film with a maternal theme your film will be “this year’s The Babadook,” which is (flattering indeed) but a lazily conceived critical intonation. I can see the parallel, but having said that, Under the Shadow is best viewed as simply Under the Shadow.
2. Mr. Vampire (Hong Kong – Ricky Lau, 1985)
I have been enamored by Hong Kong cinema for a lifetime now, and Mr. Vampire is a little treasure in a large trove of films. In a country/region known especially for their wuxia/kung-fu movies, how does Chinese folklore play into their world of horror? I have a ball watching imperial swordsman leaping over walls and chivalrous heroes clobbering each other, and when you start adding vampires and sorcery into the mix, that is when things get really fun.
Mr. Vampire kicked off a slew of sequels, spinoffs, and knockoffs, clocking in at around eight movies, four of which include the original star Lam Ching-Ying. You could also count another horror-action hybrid (and personal favorite oddity of Hong Kong cinema), Magic Cop aka Mr. Vampire 5.
So, if you’re not familiar with Chinese Vampire Lore, a little intel is handy – vampires, the undead, and zombies are under the Jiangshi umbrella. This, more or less, translates to a reanimated dead body that is brought about by possession, improper burial rituals, a trapped soul (due to suicide/wrongful death), or a bolt of lightning.
In some instances, bodies can be herded by Taoist priests who, at the request of the deceased families, return the bodies by enlisting their help as a corpse herder. The Jiangshi in Mr. Vampire is westernized by making the threat transmittable by biting, but burial rights play a factor as well.
Oh, and Chinese vampires hop, with arms stretched out. Crosses won’t do much due to the lack of Christianity. They don’t like mirrors, certain grains of rice, threads soaked in ink, chicken blood, and also a talisman tacked to the front of the head will keep them in stasis.
With all of that working together with the hyper-energetic pacing and choreography of a martial arts film, it’s no wonder Hong Kong’s hybrid horror movies are such fun. Star and fight choreographer (member of Sammo Hung’s stunt team, and collaborator with Jackie Chan) Lam Ching Ying’s disciplined Master Kau role was one of his most notable, and revisited the role of the vampire fighting Taoist priest through many of the film’s sequels and spinoffs.
1. The 4th Man (The Netherlands – Paul Verhoeven, 1983)
Paul Verhoeven’s reputation in the states is vastly different from his work in The Netherlands; his punchy, English-language genre films have a virile, sharply witty sense of social satire that runs throughout. His Dutch films have an explosive sense of energy, and The 4th Man is in harmonious concert with his subsequent filmography.
Returning from Verhoeven’s Soldier of Orange, Jeroen Krabbé lends a thoroughly dedicated performance as an oversexed, lecherous, booze bag writer. Another recurring player, after Spetters, Renée Soutendijk embodies the two-sided nature of the film’s theme, implied horror and literal, playing the character in harmony with the film’s duality. As far as screen presence goes, Renée Soutendijk carries the icy blonde character so well that it’s shocking she wasn’t drafted by the master of suspense himself.
Gerard Reve, an alcoholic writer with a voracious sexual appetite for both men and women, takes a train to Vlissingen to deliver a lecture. Once Gerard Reve starts a sexual relationship with a seductive treasurer Christine Halsslag, he’s plagued by grisly visions, nightmares that could be a spectral forecast of his own death. The classic model of duality comes when Gerard learns of Christine’s marriage history – is she a powerful woman with a tragic past, or a black widow who curses anyone after their nuptials to a doomed fate?
What sounds like a prequel to Verhoeven’s later film Basic Instinct is more of a chiller. With the insistence of macabre visuals, it delivers an unnerving and flavorful dimension to a superlative interpretation of a sexually charged psychological chiller. The Christian allegories and voracious visuals will give you plenty to mull over long after viewing.
Wrapping it Up
The American landscape is interesting for the horror genre. Rodney Ascher‘s nightmarish essay films and documentary hybrids Room 237 and The Nightmare are thoroughly terrifying, looking at the nature of fear and eschewing the documentary form by employing a supernatural sense of artifice. 2015’s Bone Tomahawk, one of the year’s best, faithfully adheres to the western genre while turning to the grotesque in a film that’s more horrific and intelligent than any modern counterparts from either genre.
What makes this film standout isn’t the different languages spoken, or the stylistic confections not consistent with the films found stateside, but a fatigued hesitation that has resulted in a figurative stalemate in genre films in America. The catharsis hesitation doesn’t seem to affect international movies as much as it does stateside. More often than not our truly terrifying films are usually independents that smuggle the genre in wolves clothing ala Craig Zahler or Jeremy Saulnier. The culture of media necessity or nervy uncertainty that spurns the eggshell safe terrain leads to our finest work becoming genre hybrids.
The best slasher film in recent memory (Green Room) is cloaked as a story about a punk rock band that (like so many clay pigeons in splatter films) find themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time. A couple of westerns (both starring Kurt Russell no less) were our answer both to the monster and the whodunnit with Bone Tomahawk and The Hateful Eight.
But for recognizable, mainstream horror films, studios have given us a doll named Brahms, a suicide forest in Japan, and another Blair Witch movie, because we all remember how that went over the second time they tried to revise that title, right?
Some decent titles have made their way through: Rob Zombie’s hit or miss oeuvre landed somewhere in the middle with 31, Nicolas Winding Refn, which, despite my personal objection, scored a semi-hit with The Neon Demon. But if I want a good horror movie I think I’ll skip another trip to the ouija board and track down a copy of Train to Busan instead.
But, enough of what I think, any good horror flicks on the horizon? Don’t be shy and share your thoughts below!
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