Maybe it’s the onset of October, or maybe it’s the experience of enduring the California gubernatorial last week, but either way, I’ve been thinking of horror lately. I’ve always appreciated atmospheric forays into the darker recesses of the human consciousness, so along with the many articles printed this time of year suggesting great horror films, I’ve decided to provide my own Top Ten. My criterion is that they must be “overlooked” gems of the genre, and although that term may convey different implications depending on the cinematic circles one frequents, these films should at least take some effort to track down.
One more caveat is that I’ve shied away from shocks and emphasized films with menacing tones, bravura filmmaking, and attention to theme. There may be a few jolts in my list, but by and large, these are elegant films by noteworthy filmmakers–movies that slowly envelop the viewer and settle uncomfortably into the imagination.
The Black Cat (US, 1934)
Universal’s famous horror cycle of the ’30s was already deeply influenced by German expressionism with its shadowy visual style recreated by the many German technicians who emigrated to Hollywood to escape the growing Nazi regime. Edgar G. Ulmer, a filmmaker who assisted Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau (see Faust, below), concocted this film–ostensibly based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe–but was an original creation all its own.
Uniting Bela Lugosi (Dracula) and Boris Karloff (Frankenstein, The Mummy) for the first time, Ulmer fashioned a dour tale that merges the old world with the new, both realms infused with death. Traveling in Hungary, some newlyweds meet Wedergast (Lugosi), a psychologically scarred prisoner of WWI who, after 15 years, has returned to take revenge on his betrayer, Poelzig (Karloff), a general who seduced Wedergast’s wife and daughter. Polzeig now lives in an elaborate art deco mansion on the ruins on a historical battlefield, and the two obsessive men clash in a battle of wills using the newlyweds as their pawns.
Trained as an architect, Ulmer emphasizes the unnatural angles and strict symmetry in every room of Polzeig’s mansion in a manner that externalizes the cold tension between Wedergast and Polzeig. Karloff is a surprising model of understated turmoil and Lugosi’s gentlemanly persona barely masks a simmering rage. When their confrontation finally erupts, its Grand Guignol violence is infused with a palpable sense of tragedy. Ulmer’s expressionist lighting and graceful camera moves lend the film an uncommon beauty which perfectly captures the dark, timeless emotions that swirl within it.
Carnival of Souls (US, 1962)
Filmmaker Herk Harvey spent years making industrial documentaries before directing this ultra-low budget marvel which somehow transcends its rough production values to offer a bizarre and unsettling portrait of illusion and fate. A young woman survives a car crash and moves to a small town in Utah, where she plays the organ for a church and experiences schizophrenic visions of an elderly man with a wild stare, random sounds and music, and an irresistable urge to loiter in an abandoned amusement park.
The film disarms the viewer through its low-key, even amateurish, approach to characters and setting, but this sense of comfort is undermined by baffling shifts in the film’s realism conveyed through bold manipulations of sounds and visuals. In one of the creepiest scenes, the protagonist drives down a dark road as organ music mysteriously begins on the radio. She begins changing the dial, but the music eminates from every station–and that is when she notices the face outside her window. The bizarre phantasmagorical intrusions are continually chilling and unexpected yet there’s a poetry to it as well, and intimations of lost romanticism.
The film developed a cult following over the years, and it’s a good example of how movies can affect audiences through inventive techniques despite the lack of traditional polish. Director Harvey claims he wanted “the look of a Bergman” and the “feel of a Cocteau,” and in its own strange mixture of mundane Americana and art house intensity, it remains a unique and frightening picture.
Night of the Demon (Curse of the Demon) (UK, 1957)
In the early-’40s, RKO producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur made a series of horror films with budgets so low they were forced to depend on careful chiaroscuro lighting and suggestion in place of actual monsters. As a result, they specialized in the fear of the unknown, ancient myths that prowled the modern world. Their films are among the most elegant, unsettling, and timeless to have ever been produced in Hollywood, so if you haven’t seen Cat People (1942), I Walked With a Zombie (1943), or The Leopard Man (1943), add them to this list.
Night of the Demon marked Tourneur’s return to the genre in the late-’50s. An American psychologist, Holden, travels to Britain to debunk rumors of sorcery but his dogmatic rationalism is put to the test when a series of seemingly supernatural events befall him. As Chris Fujiwara writes in his excellent study of Tourneur, The Cinema Before Nightfall, “the film repeatedly undermines Holden’s point of view” through unexpected elements (such as a raging storm on a sunny day or a mysterious hand on a shadowy banister that only appears sporadically). Tourneur’s exquisite lighting offers a constant visual metaphor for the tension between the seen and the unseen, the rational and the irrational, and the film balances these polarities with a sophistication that belies its budget.
Despite a couple of compromises (the producer insisted on showing the monster–clearly a man in a rubber suit–and then radically cut the American version by 13 minutes), the film remains literate and scary. Thankfully, Columbia released a DVD containing both versions of the film earlier this year.
The Fall of the House of Usher (La Chute de la maison Usher) (France, 1928)
Jean Epstein was not only a progressive filmmaker of the ’20s, but also one of the art form’s first theorists, writing such works as Bonjour CinÈma in 1921, a treatise that criticized narrative filmmaking and championed experimentalism. This silent film combines two Edgar Allan Poe stories, The Fall of the House of Usher and The Oval Portrait, to offer a haunting tone poem.
A man is summoned to the Gothic mansion of his dying friend, Roderick Usher, who is madly consumed with painting his wife’s portrait. Both of Poe’s original stories are dense mood pieces which go to great lengths to describe their disquieting settings:
The room in which I found myself was very large and lofty. The windows were long, narrow, and pointed, and at so vast a distance from the black oaken floor as to be altogether inaccessible from within. Feeble gleams of encrimsoned light made their way through the trellised panes, and served to render sufficiently distinct the more prominent objects around the eye, however, struggled in vain to reach the remoter angles of the chamber, or the recesses of the vaulted and fretted ceiling. Dark draperies hung upon the walls. The general furniture was profuse, comfortless, antique, and tattered. Many books and musical instruments lay scattered about, but failed to give any vitality to the scene. I felt that I breathed an atmosphere of sorrow. An air of stern, deep, and irredeemable gloom hung over and pervaded all. (Usher, 1839)
Epstein adheres to such literary imagery with remarkable translation. Incorporating frequent use of slow motion, superimpositions, and ethereal lighting, the film draws explicit connections between creativity, life, and death. Taking its cue from the incident in The Oval Portrait when a man mistakes a painting for a real person, Epstein occassionally replaces Roderick’s painting with the actress playing the wife within its frame, but it’s an effect that’s pleasingly subtle rather than shocking. As Usher maniacally rushes to the complete his work, marveling at its lifelike qualities, he comes mysteriously closer to paradoxically sapping the life from his beloved.
Usher was recently released on DVD by All Day Entertainment with an experimental score and French intertitles spoken by Jean-Pierre Aumont with an aged, ominous inflection. The surrealist filmmaker Luis BuÒuel actually assisted Epstein on the picture, and its abstract force lingers.
Faust (Germany, 1926)
Having directed the great Nosferatu (1922), director F.W. Murnau is no stranger to horror movie aficionados, but through his short and magnificent career, he also provided this freewheeling expressionist fantasy, which visually rivals anything Tim Burton has accomplished well over half a century later. With an opening act featured the skeletal Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse galloping through moonlit clouds and a heavenly wager between an archangel and Mephistopheles regarding the fate of humanity, it could only lose steam–which it unfortunately does once it descends into middlebrow farce for its second act. But the first thirty minutes (not to mention the grand finale) are worth any rental, as Murnau’s elaborate Ufa sets, imaginative costumes, and stunning cinematography are genuinely spellbinding.
The German actor Emil Jannings (The Last Laugh, The Blue Angel) portrays Mephistopheles as a crafty and larger-than-life figure who delights in evil and travels at will between the earthly plane and the celestial spheres.
For various reasons, there are actually five different versions of Faust floating around, though the only one currently available on video in North America is the version released by Kino International, which features a marvelous Wagnerian score by Timothy Brock. Spanish filmmaker and historian Luciano Berriat˙a has restored a more definitive version of the film and made a documentary about it, but this version is only currently available on a Spanish DVD release. (See DVDBeaver‘s comparison page for more information.)
Kwaidan (Japan, 1964)
This film is actually four short adaptations of Japanese folk tales involving ghosts. The films are highly stylized and deliberately artificial, the first color project by director Masaki Kobayashi filmed on mammoth sets constructed in an abandoned airport hangar. The sound was dubbed afterward and the effect is one of unnerving minimalism: each scene, whether a palace exterior, a cabin in the woods, or a chaotic battle on the sea between opposing samurai, has a carefully wrought selection of sonic textures that intensifies the drama and generates an overall sense of otherworldliness.
It’s a long, elegant anthology shot in stunning cinemascope and vivid hues. The initial two stories are morality tales: the first is about a man who leaves his lover to seek fame and fortune but later decides to revisit her ghost, the second concerns a secret, horrific vision that a snowbound survivor witnesses. The third portrays a deceased clan of samurai ghosts who seek the skills of a musician storyteller to aid their restful existence in the afterlife.
But in many ways my favorite may be the last, with its absurd tale of a man who continually perceives another man’s reflection whenever he peers into a bowl of liquid. Mystified, he stares at the other man, who stares back–a wry smile crossing the apparition’s lips. The scene is pure cinema, no dialogue whatsoever, just the opposing images of two men staring each other down in a moment that is at once absurd and everyday. The macabre humor is also refreshing after the somber tales that precede it.
Onibaba (Japan, 1964)
Based on a Japanese fable about an aging woman and her daughter-in-law who ruthlessly lure samurai to their deaths in a deep hole in the ground to scavage loot, and the drifter who disrupts their symbiosis and fosters sexual tension, this is a film atmospherically and thematically on par with the Japanese classic, Woman of the Dunes, also released in ’64. With its hypnotic setting amid endlessly blowing reeds and a highly-charged erotic component, the film works its moody scenes to a fevered pitch before suggesting aspects of the supernatural–the tall reeds obscure more unseen threats than the deadly hole in the ground, a hole that becomes a perfect metaphor for the moral vacuum at the heart of the film’s characters.
Director Kaneto Shindo was an assistant to Kenji Mizoguchi, and was described by Audie Bock as “Japan’s first successful independent film director.” Using minimal dialogue and depending on eerie sounds and a seemingly incongruous jazz score, the film portrays human isolation, greed, and lust with frightening immediacy.
The Spirit of the Beehive (El EspÌritu de la Colmena) (Spain, 1973)
Of all the films on this list, this one qualifies as “horror” only in a general thematic sense. The first feature of the remarkable Victor Erice, it takes place in a village in Catilia in 1940 immediately following the Spanish Civil War and focuses on the imagination of two young children, who create a rich inner life separate from the world of their loving but distracted parents. A roving cinema drives into town and screens James Whales’ 1931 Frankenstein and the children, particularly the younger Ana, are struck by the scene when the monster drowns a little girl. Her older sister explains that no one really dies in movies and that the monster’s spirit lives outside the village, and this child logic inspires a poetic and mysterious journey for Ana.
Erice described his film as having a “fundamentally lyrical, musical structure . . . whose images lie deep in the very heart of a mythical experience.” Somber and beautifully wrought, with little dialogue, the film captures a child’s imagination without condescension and layers it among recurring visual motifs of solitude, communal life, and the effects of a distant war. It’s an evocative assembly of images, open-ended and yet fully-realized–a film that encourages meditation.
Often compared to the American filmmaker Terrence Malick (Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line), Erice has a similarly lyrical and sparce oeuvre–three films in 30 years. (His other two features are 1983’s The South and 1992’s Dream of Light, which was recently voted the best film of the ’90s by an international poll of film programmers.) Watching Beehive recently reminded me just how overdue we are for another entry by this talented filmmaker. (I reviewed his latest short film, here.)
The Unknown (US, 1927)
Tod Browning, who proverbialy ran away and joined the circus as a child, grew up to become an actor and eventually a director specializing in the macabre. After 1931’s stodgy Dracula, his most famous film is certainly the masterful Freaks (1932), a movie which exhibits remarkable compassion for a circus community and the physically deformed people who are victimized by “normal” people with cruel hearts. The Unknown is one of his silent films with Lon Chaney, the actor noted for his painstaking costuming and makeup.
Chaney plays Alonzo, who pretends he’s an armless knife-thrower who dexterously uses his feet for everything from flinging knives to lighting and holding cigarettes. He’s secretly in love with Nanon (Joan Crawford), his female assistant, who has an irrational fear of being touched by men. When the local Strongman begins to woo Nanon, Alonzo confesses his love–and amputates his arms–thus setting in motion a story that is horrifying in its violent emotions of jealousy, anger, and dread. It’s not only one of the strangest love stories to eminate from Hollwood, but also one of the most emotionally resonant.
The Unknown will be included in a Lon Chaney DVD box set on October 28 by Turner Classic Movies, which will include a new electronic score by the Alloy Orchestra, which I happened to hear on TCM several years ago and recall as being pitch-perfect in its swirling, mesmerizing tones.
Vampyr (France, 1932)
Although Carl Theodor Dreyer‘s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) is universally considered one of the greatest films in history, it was not enthusiastically received and Dreyer developed a reputation as a difficult and demanding artist, which kept him from making another film for several years. That film eventually proved to be Vampyr, his first sound film, which Jean and Dale D. Drum describe in their wonderful Dreyer biography, My Only Great Passion, as “a world in which shadows leave their owners and commit murder, a man witnesses his own funeral from within his casket, and the machinations of vampires, so often made ludicrous in other movies, becomes real, incarnate evil.”
Dreyer had been living in Paris for a number of years and spoke of being highly influenced by innovative movements in abstract art during the ’20s (cubism, dadism, surrealism, etc.), which probably accounts for the film’s striking use of dream logic and imagery. (“I wanted to create a daydream on film,” Dreyer said.) The dreamlike narrative suggests a traveler who encounters a series of bizarre events surrounding an old chateau and its various inhabitants who struggle with a mysterious illness, strange visions, and the presence of a buried vampire in a nearby churchyard. When “really happens” in the story is probably anyone’s guess (even film historian David Bordwell has written that the film is remarkably difficult to simply follow), but the movie offers one eerie and beautiful image after another, intensified by Dreyer’s decision to film through a gauze to create ethereal, foggy visions.
The world is in need of a good restoration of Vampyr, but in the meantime, Image Entertainment’s DVD is passable (albeit with horrendously rendered subtitles), especially given its excellent bonus feature, Ladislas Starewicz‘s 26-minute, stop-motion animation film, The Mascot (1934).