In an assault on horror, popular critic and academic Morris Dickstein wrote that the genre had become a “routinized way of playing with death, like going on the roller coaster”. It’s not impossible to see where his criticisms are founded, given the whole genre has been so formulated; mathematicians have actually developed a generic horror equation.
What’s making things worse could be the plethora of classic remakes (Nightmare on Elm street, The Thing) and western renewals (The Ring, The Grudge [Let The Right One In was actually pretty good]), as if original ideas were so far depleted we could only turn our heads to the better days.
It’s not entirely grim though. There are still directors trying to break the modus operandi to varying degrees of success, and any fan of the genre at this point should praise each film where the antagonist isn’t a young girl clutching a teddy bear. So in honor of these valiant auteurs, here is a list of the top ten horror films that didn’t cave to the clichés of the horror annals.
Funny Games (1997)
Why Michael Haneke remade his own film will exist somewhere between The Da Vinci Code and Stonehenge as one of life’s true mysteries. Where his 2007 rendition was more hit and miss than M Night Shyamalan’s directorial career, his 1997 classic was eloquent and extremely uncomforting. The film completely removed the boundary between audience and story and the performances from nice guy serial killers Arno Frisch and Frank Giering are phenomenal. Funny Games was completely indifferent to the 90’s Hollywood rut and the final product is something both calm and repulsive.
Berberian Sound Studio (2012)
When David Lynch created Eraserhead, there was an overwhelming consensus that something brilliant had been borne, but no one really knew what it was. There’s a similar feeling to Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio, something that’s as confusing as it is confronting. The film features an unsurprising Toby Jones as a confused sound engineer working in the eponymous sound studio on what seems to be a horror film, or at least something sinister.
Them or ils (2007)
French film ils received it’s U.S rendition Them with little more than a title change, and so should have set the standards for any foreign adaption. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case, but at least Them makes it out alive. The story based on true events, puts French couple Lucas and Clementine in a remote Romanian countryside home. What plays out is an intense series of cat and mouse between faceless intruders and the young couple, something The Strangers should have aspired to, and the retained hour long suspense is something very rare and aspiring.
Observance is well-aligned with the low-budget horror trend of past years, and it’s one of the few films to actually succeed in the format. Grieving father Parker, suffers a psychological collapse while on duty as a voyeur, spying on an enigmatic woman from a sinister apartment. The subtle horror gradually builds into terror, and the film forms a harmonious mix of eastern and western influences to create a perplexing, grounded horror. Where the story takes place almost entirely in one apartment, not for one moment do audiences feel comfortable in their surroundings.
High Tension or Switchblade Romance (2003)
The second French film to this list is Alexandre Aja’s High Tension. This Euro-gothic is if not the most stylish film on the list, unquestionably the most grisly. Initially purchased by Lions Gate for U.S distribution in 2004, High Tension had to undergo several cuts to the gore-core before reaching western standards. The narrative pits two college roommates against a sociopathic deliveryman in the French farmlands; a true homage to the 70’s American slashers.
Check in next week for the second half of the list.