As we approach Halloween, the thoughts of the film fanatic naturally turn toward the macabre. It’s time to plan those all-night gorefests, slasher marathons, and as many ghost stories as dangerously disturbed sleep will allow. The canon is stuffed with unimpeachable classics to dust off and enjoy again so it would be easy to stick with what you know. It’s surely tempting to see Hannibal Lecter get ready to have an old friend for dinner once more, go hunting for the Blair Witch, and yet again escort Carrie White to the prom. But instead of arranging a reunion with your old chums Freddy, Jason, and Michael, checking in for your annual stay at the Overlook Hotel, or popping in for a pint at the Slaughtered Lamb, why not try some of these lesser-seen alternatives? Each of these five films are worthy of your attention but have, for various reasons, not burned themselves into the horror community’s collective consciousness with quite the force of some of the genre’s indomitable icons.
Given its practically unclassifiable nature and a chaotic production, it’s not surprising that Ravenous made little impact on release. Simultaneously a frontier Western comedy, a cannibal horror, and a supernatural thriller, it is determinedly eccentric in its approach and unmerciful in its butchering of the old idea of American Manifest Destiny.
Guy Pearce plays a soldier shipped out to a remote outpost during the Mexican-American War. No sooner has he become acquainted with the ragtag bunch of misfits that make up his new comrades, than a crazed, half-starved Robert Carlyle staggers into the base raving about a group of travellers trapped in hellish conditions, cold, starving, and driven to murder and cannibalism. The few Native Americans at the outpost warn of the Wendigo, a man who absorbs the strength and character of another man once he consumes his flesh, leading to insatiable hunger.
After several directors came and went, Carlyle lobbied for Antonia Bird, with whom he’d worked on Face, to take over, and the choice was inspired. Obviously comfortable with her in the chair, Carlyle goes full gonzo, forming a winning antagonism with Pearce, who counterbalances the increasingly absurd situation with an admirable deadpan. Throw in some great gore, a distinctly British take on American exceptionalism, and a bubbling undercurrent of homoeroticism, and it is clear why American audiences were unimpressed. Ravenous’ reputation has risen recently but it still remains something of a hidden gem. Watching it now, it’s clear that its tone and the characterisation of its military men paved the way for the likes of Dog Soldiers.
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The Loved Ones (2009)
Another film with a sublime grasp of conflicting tones, The Loved Ones is almost universally beloved among those who have seen it but feels like a future classic patiently awaiting its audience. The debut from Australian writer/ director Sean Byrne shares some of the grimy, grungy DNA of the likes of Wolf Creek, Snowtown, and Hounds of Love, a visceral nastiness that seems endemic in Aussie horror, but has a distinctly lighter touch. Even in its toughest moments, it’s a wildly entertaining ride.
Brent (Xavier Samuel) is a troubled teen who gently turns down the awkward Lola (Robin McLeavy) when she asks him to the prom. He’s later kidnapped by her father (John Brumpton) and horribly tortured during a mock prom staged for his psychotic daughter’s benefit.
Somehow, Byrne adopts the tropes of torture porn without falling into its nihilistic traps. He also manages to get away with a subplot involving Brent’s best friend (Richard Wilson) and his prom night with a masochistically hedonistic goth girl (Jessica McNamee) that seems at best tangential and at worst whimsical compared to the ordeal suffered by Brent.
Perhaps its because there is a very human core, even amongst the knives through feet, drills through skulls, and possibly the ickiest Electra complex in cinema history. Brent is completely blameless, and even Lola is humanised by McLeavy’s incredible performance.
It’s a real shame that, apart from The Devil’s Candy in 2015, Sean Byrne seems to have vanished from view. Like Ravenous, there’s a real alchemy at work in The Loved Ones, an instinctive knack at making something not just coherent, but amazing, from disparate elements.
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The Eye (2002)
Horror audiences seem to be suffering from cataracts when it comes to The Eye. While lacking the impressive worldbuilding and mythology of its East Asian contemporaries Ring and The Grudge, it more than competes in terms of terrifying set pieces.
It’s a brilliant concept for a spooky tale. Blind violinist Mun (Angelica Lee) receives a cornea transplant that allows her to see again. When she begins to see strange shapes and shadows, she puts it down to continual adjustment to her new vision. But Mun eventually realises she’s inherited two things from the donor: the ability to see the dead, and a Cassandra-like gift of prophecy, with the curse of never being believed.
While Danny and Oxide Pang’s film isn’t ground-breaking, and occasionally feels a little soapy and overwrought, it is a thought-provoking and genuinely creepy tale that draws on repeated reports of organ recipients unknowingly adopting the characteristics of the donors, a detail which adds a sense of plausibility to the outlandish premise. The deceptively delicate Angelica Lee anchors proceedings well in a role that primarily requires reaction shots of escalating terror.
The story itself is something of a slow burn, but there are several scenes unlikely to be forgotten. One extended scare in an elevator, for example, is nightmare fuel of the highest order. The Pangs shift tack toward the end, leaning into the mystery of the donor, a move which recalls the investigative element of Ring in particular. This does The Eye no favours, but not being quite as good as Hideo Nakata’s masterpiece is hardly damning with faint praise and it deserves a further reappraisal.
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The Awakening (2011)
This year’s The Night House is a timely reminder that Rebecca Hall is an ideal heroine for a ghost story. She is one of those actors that seems slightly out-of-time, with something of the haunted Victorian governess about her. As such, this excellent period chiller is a brilliant fit for her, a comfortingly old-fashioned tale in the tradition of The Innocents, The Haunting, and The Others.
In The Awakening, Hall plays an author who exposes fraudulent spiritualist activities. She is enlisted by teacher Dominic West to investigate reports of a ghostly child at a boarding school in Cumbria, whose presence may be attributed to the death of one of the pupils. Initially sceptical, a series of strange events make her question her beliefs.
Bound in a tight corset of repressed grief and trauma, The Awakening isn’t concerned with reinventing the genre, but aims for an atmosphere of swooning melancholy. The post-Great War setting works beautifully as millions of families, loved ones and friends craved answers, solace, and comfort in the wake of the unimaginable slaughter of the conflict and the subsequent sweep of Spanish flu.
Hall is superb as a desperately lonely woman, one of those who lost a partner in the war, who wears her studious rationality like a suit of armour. She easily carries the film through some of the more familiar spooky tropes. Dominic West and Imelda Staunton provide able support. A tad cosy and buttoned-up it may be in places, but The Awakening is a very strong traditional ghost story with an achingly sad atmosphere that deserves to be more widely seen.
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Sleep Tight (2011)
Probably the most obscure film on this list, and certainly the most mean-spirited. Sleep Tight is a terrifying portrayal of unhappiness petrifying into misanthropy and misogyny. No supernatural element is required to send a shiver down the spine in this super bleak home invasion psychological thriller from Jaume Balagueró (of [Rec] infamy) .
César (a chilling Luis Tosar) is a concierge for an apartment block in Barcelona. Unable to find any happiness since childhood, he has made it his aim in life to make the tenants as miserable as he is. César pays special attention to the cheery, completely blameless Clara (Marta Etura), going as far as hiding under her bed, using chloroform on her to ensure a deep sleep, and sabotaging things in her apartment. As this fails to break Clara’s demeanour, he begins to take ever more drastic and horrendous action.
Although not strictly a horror movie, Sleep Tight is possibly the scariest film on this list due to its plausibility. Too many people, especially women, have found themselves the focus of unwanted, escalating attention. Balagueró’s film takes that entirely reasonable fear and pushes it to its logical conclusion and beyond. As in [Rec], it’s an apartment block that is the location of horror, but César is as scary in his own way as any horde of rampaging zombies.
Tosar goes for broke as the vile César, sucking the viewer inexorably into his point of view like a tarpit. At first, he retains an element of sympathy, as an unhappy man taking out his problems on others in various petty ways. He’s weirdly compelling to watch, until his actions get steadily more extreme and spending time in his company becomes almost unbearable. It’s a stealthy claim for one of the great horror performances of the 2010s.