Ever since I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo when I was thirteen-years-old, I have relished the pleasure of being freaked-out by a decent scary movie. But the problem is, 90 percent of films that set out to be scary suck balls and are in no way scary.
So on the rare occasion that I find one which actually gives me the jitters, it’s cause for joy. Jitters, then joy. In this blog entry I’m gonna talk about some genuinely freaky movies (well, freaky to me at least…) that aren’t quite as well-known as they should be. They may not be masterpieces, but they’re very much worth a watch if you enjoy a scary movie that doesn’t totally suck.
I’m gonna start with a film I talked about at length in this blog entry: Phillip Kaufman’s 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
I don’t really focus on how scary the film is in the blog linked above, but boy does this film feature some disconcerting stuff, not least of which is a scene where the body-snatching process has gone awry and accidentally created a dog with a man’s head. It’s well freaky.
Kaufman secretly filmed people on the street simply going about their private business, but when you see these shots in the context of the film, from the perspective of Donald Sutherland’s character, they’re disarmingly creepy. That such innocuous footage can come across so sinister speaks to the power of the uneasy tone Kaufman sustains throughout. The scares here speak to the base human fear of everyone being out to get you, something a lot of filmmakers attempt, but few achieve with any significance.
Ultra-wonderful character actor-turned leading man Bill Paxton (Weird Science; Predator 2) has directed two movies. One of them is about a golf game and stars a pre-Transformers Shia LaBeouf, the other is a kick-ass Southern Gothic horror heavily informed by the real-life terror of fundamentalist faith. It’s called Frailty, and it rules.
Paxton also stars, as a good Christian American who arrives home one day to inform his two young sons that he has experienced a vision from God, who has tasked him with eliminating the demons from our world. Demons that take human form.
So he starts bringing home strangers, and murdering them in front of his sons. The younger son is stoked that Dad has turned out to be a superhero who kills demons, while the other one is old enough to realise something has gone very wrong in Pa’s head.
Frailty didn’t find much of an audience upon it’s release in 2001, but I can’t think of any other movie since 1976’s Carrie that so effectively harnessed the power of religious fananticism to invoke horror. Matthew McConaughey even manages to deliver a subtle performance as one of the grown up sons, who tells the whole story in flashback.
Director Brad Anderson’s best known movie is probably the creepy 2004 Christian Bale thriller The Machinist, but his previous movie, 2001’s Session 9, is the better, and scarier, film.
It’s about a team of guys (the eclectic cast includes Josh Lucas; David Caruso and Peter Mullan) who go into an abandoned insane asylum to remove the asbestos before it is demolished. An ancient, dilapidated, condemned insane asylum. With a sketchy history.
It seems like a slam dunk set-up, but Anderson exploits it with nuance and sublety. As the tensions rise within the group, the asylum itself takes on an intangible menace. It’s only furthered by the awesome story around the making of the film – an insane asylum Anderson was familiar with was due to be demolished, so he hastily put together a script and filmed the whole thing on location before they levelled the buildings.
Knowing that patients really were subjected the the kind of horrific treatments the film details greatly enhances its impact.
Malefique is a French film from 2002 that comes with an irresistable premise – four inmates sharing a cell in a crappy French prison discover a book of black magic in the wall, and attempt to use it to escape.
The film is filled with creatively icky set-pieces and projects a palpable claustrophobia. The ending is a tad abrupt, but will delight fans of The Twilight Zone. The French trailer below contains no subtitles, but you get the general idea.
Australian James Wan marked himself as a horror director to watch with the original Saw film, which he also co-wrote with his film school buddy Leigh Whannell. When that film hit it big, the studio immediately started churning out increasingly awful sequels while Wan and Whannell went off to make their own unrelated follow-up – Dead Silence.
Wan’s obsession with dolls and dummies reared its head in Saw, but with Dead Silence he stated that he wanted to make the “ultimate ventriloquist’s dummy horror”. What resulted is less than a modern classic, but it’s got heaps of cool ideas and plenty of freaky-ass set-pieces. Plus there really aren’t enough ventriloquist’s dummy movies.
Former Home and Away and current True Blood star Ryan Kwanten stars as a young man who returns to the town of his youth after the death of his wife, which is somehow connected to the town’s unpleasant history with a female ventriloquist. As Wan well knows, dummies and dolls are inherently creepy, and he exploits this to great effect in Dead Silence, which is filled to the brim with ’em.
After this film flopped in cinemas (it went straight to video in NZ), Wan followed it up with the weird Kevin Bacon revenge thriller Death Sentence. But he returned to the horror genre recently (along with Whannell) with the just-released-in-America haunted house movie Insidious, which I frankly cannot wait to see.
I sincerely hope it gets a cinematic release here, as I watched all of the films listed above on DVD, and there’s nothing like being freaked-out in a movie theatre. The last time that happened to me was in 2009’s The Orphanage – the greatest scary movie of the last ten years in my opinion. But I don’t really consider it to be overlooked. So I didn’t talk about it here. Except for this paragraph. But it’s great. And scary. Please no english language remake. Thank you.
Are there any scary movies that you think are underappreciated? Comment below! It’s one genre where you really have to trudge through a lot of dreck to find the good stuff, so I’m always looking out for recommendations.
Oh, and one more thing, if you think I’m a nancy for being freaked out by non-horror Vertigo, go and watch the dream sequence again. In the dark. By yourself. When you’re thirteen.