31 Days of Horror
The Definitive Foreign Language Horror Films
In an odd turn of events, this list has a number of films that don’t have English-language titles. They just go by whatever the original title was. Good for us. What we do see in this portion of the list is a few movies that weren’t really created specifically to be horror films, but their themes and visuals made it so. In addition, we have some heavyweights of non-horror cinema creating horror films that push the genre all the more upward. “Thinking man horror,” if you will.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published under our old brand, Sound On Sight.
25. Vargtimmen (1968)
English Title: Hour of the Wolf
Directed by: Ingmar Bergman
In between all his existential films touching on religion and self-exploration, Ingmar Bergman made a quiet psychological horror film. Hour of the Wolf is broken into two parts (the title isn’t shown until the transition between the two parts). Part one focuses on a flashback through the eyes of Alma (Liv Ullmann), who informs us that her husband has disappeared. She and her painter husband Johan (Max Von Sydow) are living on a secluded island while Johan recovers from an unspecified crisis. He is regularly visited by strange people who he believes are demons. Alma learns that Johan is also haunted by the voices of his ex-lover, who materializes herself in part two. Hour of the Wolf has the typical Bergman atmosphere, but with a much darker, intense feel. The psychological interplay between Ullmann and von Sydow is remarkable, only heightened by the fourth wall breaking monologues of Ullmann in certain moments. We learn that the time defined in the film’s title is detailed as the brief window where most births and deaths occur from Johan, in between his many stories which may be memories or dreams. It’s dark. It’s creepy. It’s simple, effective horror.
24. Opera (1987)
English Title: Terror at the Opera
Directed by: Dario Argento
One of Argento’s most commercially successful films, Opera took a much more straightforward approach, focusing on one young opera singer named Betty (Cristina Marsillach) and her nightmare of a debut on stage. Unexpectedly, she is pulled in to lead Verdi’s Macbeth for her first performance. But, during that performance, a murder takes place in one of the opera boxes (as is oft to happen). Betty is then stalked by the killer, as she watches all the people around her die and, eventually, comes face to face with the killer and the dark secret of her past. Of Argento’s catalog, it’s not his most effective and doesn’t do anything different than what his other films have done, but where Argento elevates Opera is the inventive nature of the murder sequences, which includes the memorable use of tape and pins to hold someone’s eyes open (an idea that was pitched as a joke by Argento, who hated that people looked away during the graphic moments of his films). It’s far from forgettable, but Opera simply loses impact when compared to the rest of the master’s filmography. Doesn’t mean it’s not scary as Hell.
23. Santa Sangre (1989)
English Title: Holy Blood
Directed by: Alejandro Jodorowsky
Jodorowsky’s style is not an easy sit, but those familiar with what he typically does will find this trippy horror film a delight. Santa Sangre is the visionary story of a young man named Fenix (Axel Jodorowsky) stuck in a mental ward, which is broken into a flashback and a flash-forward. We learn of the horrors Fenix went through as a child, traveling with his family of circus performers. He witnesses his mother’s arms being removed by his fanatical father, who then commits suicide. The jump forward shows Fenix trying to reconnect with his now limbless mother, eventually becoming her unsuspecting slave in a quest for vengeance. Rated NC-17 upon its release, Santa Sangre depicts incredibly grisly violence, even for a time when violence on screen was becoming a commonplace thing. But, just as Jodorowsky’s films tend to, it contains an intense surrealism to it that is even more unsettling. After his failed attempt to adapt Dune to the screen, he took nearly 20 years to bring another film to the screen and this was it. What results is a haunting tale of psychological horror that may truly be the one honest “art-horror film” on the list. It’s on this list, but it’s not really a horror film. It defies genre in a way that films never do. It’s sadomasochistic and unnerving and any further exposition wouldn’t do it justice.
22. Onibaba (1964)
Directed by: Kaneto Shindô
Japanese for “Demon Hag,” Onibaba is both a horror film and a historical drama, set during the country’s civil war of the fourteenth century. As the war rages, the wife (Jitsuko Yoshimura) and mother (Nobuko Otowa) of a soldier are left on their own, scraping together a living by killing warriors that come near their property and selling their belongings to a merchant. When a soldier comes looking for a lost friend, the wife finds herself drawn to him, forcing the mother to give in to her jealousy and fear, slowly plotting her revenge. The catch: the mother has also decided to begin wearing a demon mask she found on one of their victims. Much like with Kuroneko (also on the list), Shindô takes a female perspective as he tells his story of horror and loneliness, focusing much more on the ambiance of his location and setting than the actual violence. Onibaba relies heavily on the relationship between the two women in the film, a collective need for love and attention, while at the same time a stronger need to survive. When one begins to move in an unexpected direction, we see the rift starting, a chasm widening between the two, and the beginnings of what would eventually become a terribly effective atmospheric horror film. Plus, that mask is freaky.
21. Sei donne per l’assassino (1964)
English Title: Blood and Black Lace, Six Women for the Murderer
Directed by: Mario Bava
After his previous two films were such worldwide successes, full control was given to Mario Bava on 1964′s Blood and Black Lace, where he was originally expected to create a simple serial killer mystery. Clearly, he decided that would be too easy, so he pushed a much heavier focus on the actual pursuit and murder of the victims in the film, moving further and further away from what could have been a boring “whodunit.” Blood and Black Lace is basically just kill after kill, all of the victims being scantily clad models at the mercy of a masked murderer. It’s simple, yet aggressive plot served as one of the most important early giallo films, as well as a go-to template for all the repetitive slasher films of the 80′s. The keys: for the most part, the victims all live in the same house; the murderer is looking for a diary with incriminating facts in it; the murderer tends to be creative with the ways he kills everybody. In the end, a film that could have functioned as a boring “detective looking for a serial killer” film ended up being one of the most important films in Italian horror history because the great Mario Bava decided he didn’t feel like following the rules.
20. Le locataire (1976)
English Language Title: The Tenant
Directed by: Roman Polanski
Roman Polanski has made one of the greatest horror “trilogies” of all time with 1965′s British production Repulsion, 1968′s American production Rosemary’s Baby, and 1976′s French production The Tenant, completing his “Apartment Trilogy.” Unlike the other two, Polanski actually stars in The Tenant as Trelkovsky, a reserved man renting an apartment in Paris. The apartment’s previous inhabitant Simone had attempted suicide, leaving her hospitalized. Slowly, Trelkovsky feels agitated by his neighbors and begins to notice strange things happening with them. His relationship with one of Simone’s friends has progressed, but he finds himself convinced that she is working in tandem with his neighbors to ruin his life. The Tenant serves as a perfect companion film for the other two in the trilogy (especially Repulsion), as it deals specifically with loneliness and the unnatural life lived within four walls. Polanski uses the apartment setting as a coffin – a restricted space where people may acknowledge the resident, but have no real connection with him. Much like Repulsion, the horror is not in what does happen – it’s in what could happen and what the protagonist feels will happen. It’s a horror of paranoia, unrest, and mental deterioration of the highest order.
19. Funny Games (1997)
Directed by: Michael Haneke
Well, you can’t claim that Michael Haneke ever wanted his audiences to feel comfortable. Haneke’s filmography includes plenty of films that lend themselves to the horror genre, but never jump into the realm; Caché and especially Time of the Wolf have themes that could veer into horror, but never really do. But, in 1997, before either of those films, Haneke’s Funny Games threw caution to the wind and provided a sadistic bottleneck story of pain and suffering. A wealthy German family decides to go to their vacation home in Austria. By chance, they meet young men who claim to be friends of their neighbor Fred, named Peter and Paul (Frank Giering and Arno Frisch). The two start pushing themselves into the family’s lives and home, eventually resulting in a hostage situation. From there, Peter and Paul take pleasure in forcing the family to play games, all of which end in extreme pain and suffering, and even death. Sounds dark and twisted, but Haneke throws a wrench even deeper: its lead antagonist Paul is very aware of the audience. The fourth wall is continuously broken and actions are taken that change the entire structure of the narrative, resulting in hopeful moments becoming pointless fantasies. Haneke never intended the film as a horror film, purposefully making a film he claimed was meant to be incredibly violent for no reason as a criticism of violence in the media (although, the vast majority of the violence takes place off-screen). He remade the film ten years later in English, pretty much shot for shot, starring Naomi Watts and Tim Roth, but the original is still the stronger of the two (not by much).
18. Martyrs (2008)
Directed by: Pascal Laugier
A recent entry in the New French Extremity movement, 2008′s Martyrs is a graphic story of two girl who meet in an orphanage. We meet them as children, then jump forward 15 years, when Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï) breaks into a house and kills a family with a shotgun. Anna (Morjana Alaoui) follows her and tries to stop her, only to have Lucie eventually die in her arms, claiming that she has punished the people who abused her before she came to the orphanage. Then, it becomes Anna’s story, as she tries to clean up the mess, only to be taken prisoner by a society of transcendental philosophers who perform torture on women to help them achieve an insight into what could be in the afterlife. Of course, their experiments have yet to work (but, never give up; quitters never prosper). Martyrs is stomach-turning. It’s extreme approach to body horror comes folded with the larger religious theme of exploring the afterlife, which makes the perpetrators all the more disturbing. As is with some more inventive horror films, the villains are portrayed as people who have a plan; an ethos, if you will. They aren’t simply axe-wielding murderers killing for fun. They have a process – a twisted scientific method to learn everything they can about what comes next. And that’s what makes it unsettling. Not that any point made during Martyrs is justifiable, but the fact that these characters feel it makes your skin crawl more than any of the graphic imagery in the film (well, an equal amount).
17. [REC] (2007)
Directed by: Jaume Balagueró, Paco Plaza
In recent years, the found footage horror film has become a standard, to the point that it is basically played out. You could argue it all started in 1980 with #13 on our list below, reached a mass acculturation in 1999 with The Blair Witch Project, and has since been made and remade and remade. But, in 2007, Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza co-wrote and directed a fresh, purely terrifying take on the genre with [REC]. The film follows a reporter named Ángela (Manuela Velasco) as she accompanies police and fire rescue to an apartment building, only to be sealed in the building after fears of hazardous material. From there, we follow Pablo the cameraman (Pablo Rosso) and Ángela as they move through this quarantined complex, eventually trying to escape from what appears to be a biological disease that originated from demonic possession. For fans of the found footage genre who aren’t bothered by the shaky camera technique, [REC] sits very near the top of the list of “must-sees.” The film is incredibly dark (visually and thematically) and well-edited, never resting for a moment to catch its breath. An English language remake premiered the following year titled Quarantine to middling reviews, not improving upon the original premise at all, coming off like a rushed response to a superior product. In the end, [REC] may not be the first of its kind, but it’s definitely one of the best.
16. Hausu (1977)
English Language Title: House
Directed by: Nobuhiko Ôbayashi
Word to the wise: if your studio comes to you after a successful film premieres (in this case, Jaws), asks you to write a script on the same level, and you decide to run to your pre-teen daughter to get her thoughts, this is what you get. Hausu is the mind-boggling brainchild of Nobuhiko Obayashi (and his daughter Chigumi), about a young girl named Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami) and her six friends as they travel to Gorgeous’ aunt’s house. Oh, and her friends are named Prof, Melody, Kung Fu, Mac, Sweet, and Fantasy. And things go insane. Among the events in this film: a decapitated head bites someone in the ass, a mattress attacks someone, a piano bites off some fingers before eating one of the girls, one girl gets stuck in a grandfather clock, one girl is eaten by a light fixture, and a painting shoots blood and floods a room. The film shoehorns in a bit of symbolism that focuses on World War II and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but it all gets lost in the shuffle. Regardless of any amount of sub-par acting or special effects, Hausu will never leave your psyche because of the incredulous imagery. In Obayashi’s words, “adults only think about things they understand…everything stays on that boring human level, while children can come up with things that can’t be explained.” If that’s what he was going for, that’s what he got: a fantastical mind-meld that broke every cinematic rule imaginable.
15. Haute Tension (2003)
English Language Title: High Tension, Switchblade Romance
Directed by: Alexandre Aja
If Hausu is a fantasy horror, High Tension is anything but, included in TIME Magazine’s list of 10 most ridiculously violent films. Alexandre Aja’s first stamp on the movie scene (he would go on to direct the remake of The Hills Have Eyes, as well as the camp-tacular Piranha 3D), High Tension is a brutal tale of two friends named Alex (Maïwenn) and Marie (Cécile de France) as they visit Alex’s parents house for the weekend. After dinner, everything goes downhill when a man comes to the door and just starts killing everybody: dad, mom, etc. And these aren’t just run-of-the-mill gun shots or stabbings; these are gruesome – razor blades and concrete saws galore (and one fun decapitation with a bookcase). Horror films have given the world of cinema some of the best twist endings – some are brilliant, others are atrocious. High Tension owns one of those, but it’s for you to determine. Many critics felt it was unreasonable and deceiving, others felt it was a fascinating decision that makes the rest of the film all the more unnerving. Whether or not the reveal is a success or not, High Tension‘s relentless gore is tough to escape, despite its detractors. When informed of the possible plagiarism the film committed by lifting ideas from author Dead Koontz’s novel Intensity, Koontz decided against pressing charges “because he found the film so puerile, so disgusting, and so intellectually bankrupt that he didn’t want the association with it that would inevitably come if he pursued an action against the filmmaker.” So, there’s that.
14. Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (1975)
English Language Title: Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom
Directed by: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Based on the Marquis de Sade’s seminal 120 Days of Sodom, Pasolini’s excessively controversial film is still banned in a number of countries. Salò was not really conceived as a horror film, but I’m not sure what Pasolini expected people to think, given that, in addition to Sade’s work, Pasolini also took cues from Dante’s Infermo. It’s simple: in Mussolini’s Italy in 1943, four rich fascists kidnap eighteen teenagers and just spend four months screwing them up. This includes a wholesale amount of rape, torture, murder, and, just for good measure, eating feces. If there was a more divisive film on this list, I don’t know what it is. It’s been banned in a number of countries, while also being hailed as an artistic masterpiece. Viewers and screeners of the film have been arrested for obscenity, while talented filmmakers (including Martin Scorsese) came to their defense. Director Michael Haneke (#19 above) voted it #4 in his most recent Sight & Sound Poll of the greatest movies of all time. While Salò′s artistic merit is up for debate, there’s no arguing that, despite it not fitting the mold of a typical horror film, it’s one of the most difficult to sit through. Pasolini was murdered shortly before the film’s release, but he and this film’s influence can be seen across the spectrum, with its clear message of the dangers of power and corruption. A biographical film about Pasolini and his last days is due to premiere within the year, with Willem Dafoe taking on the lead role.
13. Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
Directed by: Ruggero Deodato
Long before The Blair Witch Project staged a publicity stunt to get its viewership up, director Ruggero Deodato blazed a trail with one of the first real “found footage” horror films. Cannibal Holocaust centers on a lost documentary filmed by an American crew in the Amazon rainforest about cannibalistic tribes. The crew is headed by Monroe (Robert Kerman), who finds two tribes – the Ya̧nomamö and the Shamatari – deep in the jungle, engaged in a tribal war. What results is the rest of the crew being killed mysteriously, leaving only Monroe, who is forced to take part in a cannibalistic ritual with one of the tribes. Eventually, he is invited back to New York to host a broadcast of the documentary, though he asks to see the footage first. At odds with the studio, he decides to show them the remaining footage only he has seen, which shifts their perspective. Deodato’s film has an international cast, though a good portion of it is in English to appeal to a broader audience. The documentary realism of the rainforest scenes was convincing enough to get Deodato arrested for obscenity, thanks to its portrayal of graphic violence, sexual assault, and violence towards animals, also resulting in the film still being banned in some countries. Written by Italian screenwriter Gianfranco Clerici, he penned the film with a working title “The Green Inferno,” which is the title of horror director Eli Roth’s latest film, directly inspired by Cannibal Holocaust, about a group of New York students who head to the rainforest as protesters. It’s dirty, it’s inventive, and the lead actor was an adult film star who was in Debby Does Dallas. What more could you ask for?
12. Les Diaboliques (1955)
English Language Title: Diabolique, The Devils, The Fiends
Directed by: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Any question this was going to make a good horror film stops here: French new wave director Henri-Georges Clouzot bought the rights to the source material – the novel She Who Was No More by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac – preventing Alfred Hitchcock from doing the same, who also showed interest. Clouzot’s film focuses on a woman and her husband’s mistress teaming up to kill their shared lover. You know, like The Other Woman, but with more murder and less female hormonal pills. The film takes place at a boarding school run by Michel (Paul Meurisse). His wife Christina (Véra Clouzot) is a teacher who owns the school, which doesn’t stop Michel from being very open about his relationship with another teacher named Nicole (Simone Signoret). But, unexpectedly, the two women seem relatively close, sharing in their hatred of the physically and emotionally abusive Michel. They devise a plan to kill him, but, when the act is seemingly committed, the body disappears. From there, strange things begin happening while the police investigate, the plot twists and turns, and Christina and Nicole begin to have doubts about each other’s commitment to the original plan. There’s plenty of darkness, shadows, and deliberate pacing to define Les Diaboliques as a horror film, but the film leans closer to thriller (much like Hitchcock’s work) than anything else. It was an early adopter of the “anti-spoiler message,” which appeared during the film’s credits, asking the audience not to give away the surprises in it (it might be the best twist ending on the list). Five years after its release, Véra Clouzot died of a heart attack at the age of 46, suffering from similar heart problems that her character did in the film. English language remakes have been made (one involving Sharon Stone), but none could top the eerie noirish quality of Clouzot’s original.
11. Ju-on: The Grudge (2002)
Directed by: Takashi Shimizu
There are seven Japanese films in this franchise. Seven. Technically, the Ju-on films began in 1998 with a low-budget made-for-television movie called Katasumi and 4444444444, which led to two V-Cinema movies titled Ju-on: The Curse and Ju-on: The Curse 2. After their unexpected success, Shimizu was given the freedom to make a feature film and made Ju-on: The Grudge, a continuation of the first films (not a remake), but with a stand-alone narrative. It centers on Rika (Megumi Okina), a social worker assisting an elderly woman at a quiet suburban house. She hears odd noises and uncovered what appears to be the mistreatment of a child who has been locked in the closet. Then it all goes to Hell. We are moved through six separate vignettes, all of which are singular, but interconnected. We meet the elderly woman’s family, then a retired detective brought on to help, who originally investigated murders that took place in the home. And – you guessed it – the house might be haunted. The curse that inhabits the house is relentless – Shimizu uses some incredibly frightening imagery to portray it, with techniques that feel like stop-motion animation at times, applied to living actors (not to mention the ghost kids are terrifying). Ju-on: The Grudge is one of the group of Asian horror films that birthed American remakes in the 2000′s, a 2004 film called The Grudge starring Sarah Michelle Gellar. The difference – Shimizu directed the remake as well and, to appeal to a wider audience, changed the ending (boring). While not directing, Shimizu has been involved in the remaining films in the series – Ju-on: The Grudge 2, Ju-on: White Ghost, Ju-on: Black Ghost, and Ju-on: The Beginning of the End, which premiered this year in Japan. Haunted houses are a cliched tradition, but when approached inventively, they’re the gift that keeps on giving.
Here we are at what is a surprisingly modern list. At the beginning of this, I didn’t expect to see so much cultural impact coming from films so recently made, but that’s the way it goes. The films that define the horror genre aren’t necessarily the scariest or the most expensive or even the best. The films that define the genre point to a movement – movies that changed the game and influenced all the films after it. Movies that transcend the horror genre. Movies that broke the mold and changed the way horror can be created.
10. El laberinto del fauno (2006)
English Language Title: Pan’s Labyrinth
Directed by: Gullermo del Toro
It’s more a dark fantasy film than a horror film, but it would be tough to make a list of 50 of those. Plus, it has enough graphic, nightmarish images to push it over the threshold. Guillermo del Toro’s critically adored 2006 film Pan’s Labyrinth centers on Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a young girl five years removed from the Spanish Civil War, with a sadistic stepfather hunting down rebels and a pregnant mother who is getting sicker by the minute. Ofelia explores a nearby overgrown maze where she meets a faun creature, who tells her she must complete three tasks to fulfill her destiny, which he feels is eternal life and rebirth as a fairy princess. First, retrieving a key from the belly of a giant toad. Second, taking a knife from the lair of a child-eating pale monster, easily the most memorable image from the film. The film won three Academy Awards and felt like the culmination of del Toro’s work – a film with a horror bend that still manages to build texture and atmosphere without sacrificing imagination or plot. It’s one of the most breathtaking films on the list and normally wouldn’t fall into the horror category, but look at that screengrab. That thing is horrifying.
9. El orfanato (2007)
English Language Title: The Orphanage
Directed by: J.A. Bayona
A debut film makes the top ten, thanks in part to Guillermo del Toro, who helped produce the film. The Orphanage is the story of Laura, traveling to her childhood home, the title orphanage. She plans to convert it into a home for disabled children, but, after an argument with him, her son Simon goes missing, after telling her of his friendship with a friend named Tomas who always wears a mask over his head. They suspect their social worker Benigna, who they learn once worked at the orphanage with her son, Tomas. Unlike many other horror films of the era, The Orphanage refuses to resort to cheap, unoriginal scares, relying on the creepy ambiance of the setting, as well as the excellent performances. Most importantly, The Orphanage signaled a new wave of talented filmmakers following in the footsteps of del Toro, carving out a new niche for Spanish language horror. And Tomas is easily one of the creepiest children conceived in a horror film.
8. Låt den rätte komma in (2008)
English Language Title: Let the Right One In
Directed by: Tomas Alfredson
Another “on the fence” horror film, Tomas Alfredson’s brilliantly paced, wonderfully imagined story of young love and loneliness isn’t just another boring spin on the vampire genre. Let the Right One In is based on the John Ajvide Lindqvist (also co-wrote the screenplay) novel of the same name, and introduces us to Oskar, a lonely boy outside of Stockholm who gets bullied at school. He splits his time between his parents’ homes, one night meeting a neighbor of his father’s, a girl about his age named Eli. The two develop a close friendship, as Oskar places full trust and obedience is his newfound young love. Eli is, of course, actually an aged vampire who needs to feed off of human blood (the attacks shown on film are brutal, but not violent – they feel necessary and almost welcome). The characterization of Oskar and Eli, the performances, and the beautifully wrought relationship between the two is surprisingly effective, almost eschewing any of the horror elements in exchange for more heart than is usually seen in the genre. In the end, it’s not really scary, so much as it is nostalgic and emotional.
7. El espinazo del diablo (2001)
English Language Title: The Devil’s Backbone
Directed by: Gullermo del Toro
Pan’s Labyrinth may be his better film (and a spiritual sequel to this one, in del Toro’s words), but the first of his works to really help usher in a new era for foreign horror was The Devil’s Backbone, a Spanish Civil War-era film that takes place at a small orphanage, run by Casares and Carmen, who are also hiding gold used by the Republicans, partly the read on the orphanage has been attacked by the Franco army, with a diffused bomb sitting in the front yard. One day, a young boy named Carlos arrives looking for shelter after his father dies. He immediately becomes friends with the house troublemaker, Jaime. Carlos then begins seeing visions that he can’t explain, which only gets worse after learning about a child named Santi, who disappeared the day the bomb arrived. This ghost of Santi becomes attached to Carlos, predicting death along the way, as Carlos watches many of these predictions come true. Del Toro mixes the themes of political unrest with a delicate ghost story, one that twists the definitions of life and death and adds layers of unrest through the eyes of Carlos, but, more importantly, in the memorable Santi, an unforgettable character that drives the story in a way that few living characters on this list can.
6. Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979)
English Language Title: Nosferatu the Vampyre
Directed by: Werner Herzog
Certainly not the first “almost Dracula” film, but it is the one with sound (F.W. Murnau’s original was disqualified since it’s a silent film…I run a tight ship), partly based on the story of Dracula, but with an expansion of the lore. Directed by the great Werner Herzog and starring his regular lead Klaus Kinski as the title monster (their second film together), Nosferatu was a much more stylized remake of the Murnau original, focusing on estate agent Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) as he travels to Transylvania to secure a sale to Count Dracula. From there, the often-told legend is depicted, with Dracula traveling to his new land neighboring Harker’s, drawn because of his wife Lucy’s (Isabelle Adjani) beauty, shown to him in a photo Harker shared. While Kinski would gain notoriety for his aggressively insanity driven roles (with Herzog), his performance as the Count is relatively subdued and effectively ethereal. Unlike many other vampire-centric (and Dracula focused) horror films, Nosferatu’s main goal is to explore the loneliness of the titular villain, though it doesn’t cut back on the amount of murder. He’s not evil in the traditional sense – he’s tired, suffering, and unhappy with his role as a bloodthirsty monster. Rather than making the character a charming predator, Herzog and Kinski created a weary victim of his own immortality.
5. Les yeux sans visage (1960)
English Language Title: Eyes Without a Face
Directed by: Georges Franju
Adapted from Jean Redon’s novel, Eyes Without a Face took the overall themes but eschewed some of the more graphic imagery and mad scientist style in favor of a more emotionally wrenching approach. Dr. Genessier’s (Pierre Brasseur) is a surgeon attempting repeated failed experiments to graft a face for his disfigured daughter Christiane (Edith Scob). His plot is to kidnap women, remove their faces, and place it upon his daughter’s, thereby restoring her beauty. He is supported by his assistant Louise (Alida Valli), who helps him lure the women and dispose of their bodies post-surgery. While all this is happening, Christiane hides with a featureless white mask, only revealing her eyes. While the film’s original release was critically divided, Franju’s film has since grown in reputation, inheriting a type of “poetic horror” title. It was well ahead of its time, most of its criticism coming from its uncomfortable topic, more than anything. In 1960, the world was also getting hit with Psycho and Peeping Tom – this was just another uncomfortable sit. It still sits squarely on the fence in terms of critical acclaim, but there’s no denying the influence it’s had on other filmmakers from John Carpenter to Pedro Almodovar.
4. Ringu (1998)
Directed by: Hideo Nakata
Blame the wave of American remakes of Japanese horror films on this trailblazer, based on the novel Ring by Kōji Suzuki, which also borrowed from the Japanese folk tale “Banchō Sarayashiki.” Ringu is the story of a cursed videotape that caused anyone who watches it to die seven days later. A reporter named Reiko (Nanako Matsushima) is investigating the mystery, only to learn that her niece and friends died in a similar fashion. When Reiko goes to cabin where her niece supposedly watched the tape, she finds it and, of course, pops it in the VCR, revealing disturbing imagery, followed by a phone call informing her she will be killed in seven days. From there, it’s a race to make sure she finds out how to break the curse, save her son (who watches the tape without her knowing), and find out where the curse came from. As with many other films from the “Ring-universe,” Ringu doesn’t feel the need to wrap everything up in a neat little bow. The horror is truly within the imagery, but also at the insistence that this is not over and will probably never end. The tape still exists. The curse can never be broken. Gore Verbinski’s 2002 American remake The Ring is definitely the best of all the remakes that would follow it, but it still cannot match the horrifying visions originated by Ringu and that watery corpse emerging from the television.
3. M (1931)
Directed by: Fritz Lang
Whether you call it a dark drama, a thriller, or a horror film, Fritz Lang’s 1931 masterpiece M is, without a doubt, a landmark in the genre in its creative approach to characterizing a serial killer, thanks also to a mind-blowing performance from the great Peter Lorre. M is a German film written by Lang and his wife Thea von Harbou, as well as some various collaborators. It centers on Hans Beckert (Lorre), a child murderer in Berlin with an unforgettable trademark – whistling Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” As the police search intensifies, it results in the disruption of a criminal ring, who then decide to form their own search party. The pursuit of Beckert is exciting, watching both sides trailing him: good and, well, not as evil. In the end, Beckert is seen partly as a victim, when he is taken prisoner by other criminals, planning to kill him mercilessly as he begs to be turned over to the police. It’s not horrifying. There’s no real gore. But M set the stage – a deeper look at a man who is unforgivable, but somehow manages to get a level of sympathy from the audience. You aren’t supposed to feel sorry for a child murderer. Lorre’s performance almost gets you there – a man who doesn’t understand why he functions the way he does and, just like the rest of us, may believe that the only way to control it is to put him behind bars. Few films will make you hug your kids more than this brilliant predecessor to, well, almost everything.
2. Ôdishon (1999)
English Language Title: Audition
Directed by: Takashi Miike
Welcome to one of the greatest gearshift movies of all time, a film that starts out incredibly sweet and almost touching, then goes off the deep end. Audition stars Ryo Ishibashi as Shigeharu Aoyama, a middle-aged man who lost his wife seven years earlier with the inability to recover. His teenage son Shigehiko (Tetsu Sawaki) wants him to find happiness and get back out in the dating scene, finding help from his father’s friend, a film producer who decides to fake a casting call in an effort to find a woman to fill the “role” of his friend’s new mate. Aoyama agrees and finds himself drawn to a woman named Asami (Eihi Shiina), and begins to court her. Then we see the world behind Asami’s curtain…and it is twisted. When she disappears, Aoyama looks everywhere for her, finding only dead ends that seem to have violent histories. Asami does reemerge…and she is none too pleased. It’s best to leave the rest of the plot to your own “enjoyment,” but the graphic material Miike puts on screen is unflinching. While the film’s story points to some incredibly difficult imagery, Miike’s approach is actually more focused on the behavior of the characters – their pain, their anguish, and their enjoyment. There’s something all the more terrifying when we have to not only watch someone cause pain to another but to smile and laugh throughout the process. They are apparently working on an English-language remake, but it can’t possibly approach the wholly unbelievable, remarkable turns Miike’s film takes.
1. Suspiria (1977)
Directed by: Dario Argento
The top ten has been surprisingly modern, save a few classics. But it all comes back to this: the horror master and his most prolific work, a surreal beauty of gore and mayhem. Based on Thomas De Quincey’s Suspiria de Profundis, Suspiria takes place at a prestigious dance academy in Freiburg, Germany, following Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), an American ballet student beginning her studies at the school. She doesn’t plan to stay in the dormitories, but somehow gets moved into them against her wishes. And then, as expected with any Argento film, everything starts to go to Hell. But the journey is beautiful. The academy is discovered to be under the command of a coven of witches, led by Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett), originally founded by a Greek witch named Helena Markos. As you would expect from Argento, the gore is mesmerizing, only enhanced by the vivid colors throughout the film. The edifice is a beautiful setting, complete with stained glass and cathedral ceilings, providing nooks and crannies everywhere for mayhem to take place. Argento’s use of imbibition Technicolor prints, which heats up the colorization to a borderline chaotic level. Complete with a progressive rock soundtrack (as was Argento’s style), Suspiria is a feast for the senses. It’s best put by Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader: “Argento works so hard for his effects—throwing around shock cuts, colored lights and peculiar camera angles—that it would be impolite not to be a little frightened.” It’s not just impolite…it’s near impossible.
– Written by Joshua Gaul