Horror is one of those genres that many have a love/hate relationship with. Often mistreated, Horror seems to attract the hackiest writers and film-makers and as such many Horror movies released today are exercises in the drab and formulaic. Far from producing truly great scares contemporary Horror often commits the worst sin in Cinema: predictability. In general, audiences today are some of the smartest and most discerning in the medium's history. Even a layman, with little academic or practical experience in film can produce a verbal reading that is often on the money. This is a tough crowd to unleash a movie on, especially from a genre that is so rife with established conventions and clichés. And yet we cannot get enough. Its the same reason that a traffic jam forms around a vicious road accident; as a species we are morbidly fascinated with death and destruction. Small wonder then that Horror as a cinematic genre is still as prevalent today as it has been throughout the development of story. But this is arguably one of the root causes of its insipidness. We have been exposed to Horror, in varying forms, throughout our lives and even throughout societal progression. As a modern audience we are simply much harder to scare. As with all well-defined genres, large scale releases must adhere to expectation lest the suits in charge lay an egg due to fear of bombing at the box office. With Executive Producers at risk of losing their jobs over a failing feature film, careful attention must be paid to opinion polls and audience test figures before a large scale studio picture will even be considered. This is the reason that the most original and satisfying Horror available today is usually relatively under the radar; with less money involved in general, writers and directors are more able to take risks in the pursuit of a good story, told well. The movies compiled below were all released and exhibited below the radar over the last fifteen years. Maybe youve seen them, maybe you havent but the fact remains that these indie gems do justice to a genre that often gets boned by the mainstream.
Pontypool - Directed by Bruce Macdonald (2008)Pontypool is a tiny little movie which has grossed only $32,000 since its limited release in 2008. Starring Steven McHattie (Hollis Mason from Watchmen) as burnt out DJ Grant Mazzy, on the graveyard shift at a local radio station, Pontypool weaves the classic yarn of the Zombie holocaust, but with a few interesting twists. The budget or lack thereof, is apparent from the outset. But a shoestring budget doesnt necessarily mean that were not watching a great movie. The script is stellar and has to be as we rarely leave the tiny radio booth in which McHattie reports on the apocalypse, getting information fed to him from his producer and other sources in the field. Pontypool has no money for schlocky effects or slick CGI wizardry and so relies on the greatest and most realistic special effects engine in existence: the imagination. It paints word pictures across the mind that are much worse, much more visceral and disturbing than even the grand master Tom Savini could have created. The action scenes have such a grandiose context and the mind doesnt skimp on extras, so in effect and in spite of its limitations, Pontypool pulls off a blockbuster of a story wrapped around the plot of an indie. The Zombie itself (of which we see but a few throughout) is not your typical Romero ghoul, and without giving too much away, lets just say that the films reliance on language also serves as the films controlling idea. Language has power, more than people often realise. Language starts wars, destroys marriages and conspires to murder. And it has the power to turn what could have easily been boredom into riveted, heart-pounding excitement. If you can, get yourself a copy of Pontypool and listen. You might enjoy what it has to say.
Martyrs Directed by Pascal Laugier (2008)Contemporary and indeed Classic Horror Cinema is littered with Torture-Porn. Buxom and beautiful women and chiselled, handsome men are essentially tortured near to death for no reason other than their captors leisure. Typically these detainees escape, while getting revenge on their torturers along the way (or not in some cases). In lesser examples of this sub-genre, shocking is extrinsic surface level brutality that stimulates little inside us other than an inherent aversion to violent and painful death. Martyrs is not a lesser example. Martyrs starts with what would typically be the ending, immediately pulling us away from usual genre territory and wiping with slate clean of predictable conventions. Lucie (Mylene Jampanoi), a young, bruised and malnourished kidnap victim, escapes her captors and is immediately put under psychiatric evaluation. Whilst in care, she meets Anna (Morjana Alaoui) who is also a victim of child abuse and the pair strike a bond which transcends morality as the film itself attempts to, come the credits. That isnt to say that Martyrs doesnt deliver the goods when it comes to brutality. The movie contains some of the most intense depravity since Texas Chainsaw Massacre but chooses to focus not on the extrinsic but on the intrinsic. The film is shocking, but not for shockings sake. The torture isnt just present to sicken us, but exists to beat every morsel of hope out of its audience as well as its central character, making us malleable for the third act climax. Martyrs true horror comes from its ending. We know that murder, torture and violence are inherently wrong. Most of us believe that at our very core. This movie has no such belief; its third act brushes aside notions we might have of good and evil and its existential climax will leave even the most hard-core horror aficionados struggling to see decency in the world. Be warned, Martyrs is not for the faint of heart.
The Loved Ones Directed by Sean Byrne (2009)A hidden gem of a movie plucked from the underbelly of the Australian film scene. The Loved Ones starts as your typical family drama a death in the family, a troubled kid and a shattered home life. A dysfunctional family but one we sense has its heart in the right place. However, without revealing too much, we are soon introduced to a different family: one whose dysfunction goes much deeper than family dramatics. The Loved Ones dishes out unease in generous helpings. From the creepy incestuous relationship between the father and daughter to the shocking implications behind the complacency of the mother, we are constantly forced to deal with an uncomfortable squirming in our stomachs. This is the hallmark of a decent horror- that were never allowed to relax after that initial period of calm in the first act. Maybe familial depravity is a common genre theme. Its prevalent in some of the classics, Psycho and Texas Chainsaw Massacre being among the notable. Family should conjure feelings of support and love and so when we see that usually innocent notion perverted to darkness, it creates that feeling of restlessness that all good horrors should constantly attempt to evoke from its audience. The Loved Ones never tries to break into any particularly new territory theme-wise, but does use this tried and tested method of repulsion to maximum, gut-wrenching effect. The Loved Ones is a satisfyingly dark and macabre horror that stands head and shoulders above many from the same year. It may not have the most convention defying story but it certainly has insight into what is scary, what is creepy and what is just plain wrong.
Funny Games Directed by Michael Haneke (1997/2007)There is little worse socially, than when a person just wont take the hint and leave. Funny Games pushes this idea to its furthermost extremes. Its worth mentioning that the 2007 U.S remake starring Tim Roth and Naomi Watts is near shot-for-shot identical to the 1997 Austrian original, upon Hanekes insistence. This arguably renders its validity as an adaptation as questionable, however the remake does pack in just as much bite and ferocity as the original. Funny Games is a non-stop assault on the senses that takes and takes emotionally, and with no reciprocation. From the moment the two antagonists appear on screen an eerily polite and well-dressed pair of marauding sociopaths until the moment the credits are over Funny Games twists at a well-earned knot of tension and never lets up. It leaves you feeling as a good horror should: drained and deeply affected. With Funny Games, Haneke is undoubtedly indicting the concept of dramatized violence. As an audience, a Torture-Porn movie such as this usually gives us the role of passive antagonists. We are incorporeal voyeurs- looking in on the unspeakable acts, willing them to go further- and as a result we leave the film with that morbidly satisfied feeling that only horrific imagery can evoke. Funny Games gives us tangibility, where we may not want it. It acknowledges our presence across the fourth wall several times throughout in order to make us feel more participant than observer. It is much harder to glean satisfaction from the imagery when we feel personally included in what made it horrific. For many Haneke fans, the 2007 remake was likely old hat but in truth, thanks to his painstakingly faithful self-adaptation, either version will yield the fully intended effect. It is by no means an easy watch however and I would advise against entering into Funny Games unless you are prepared to have your expectations of wrong challenged.
The Devil's Backbone Directed by Guillermo Del Toro (2001)Definitely the tamest movie on the list, The Devil's Backbone goes for subtly over shock value. A great purveyor of strong otherworldly tone, Guillermo Del Toro doesnt disappoint here; the movie feels eerily displaced from reality despite being set during the Spanish Civil War. Carlos (Fernando Tielve) lives at a remote orphanage where he struggles to find his place among his peers. Tormented by the fascist caretaker Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega) Carlos is soon visited by the ghost of a child- known to the orphans as the one who sighs. The Devil's Backbone weaves multiple story arcs that splinter the film into more than one genre. Were definitely still in the territory of horror, albeit in a more classical sense of the word, but we also tread on murder mystery grounds as well as childhood coming-of-age. These multiple threads have seemingly non-related bonds to each other but tie satisfyingly together in a chilling yet poignant conclusion that carries a moral as well as a shiver. Much of contemporary Horror is peppered with examples of the brutal and shocking and while there is much to be communicated through violent imagery if used well, The Devil's Backbone reminds us that the genre need not be used exclusively to perturb. In place of true fear-factor, the movie presents rich and realistic characters whose motivations give the plot meaning and resonance. Any deaths we see are steeped in metaphor and act as events that drive the narrative as opposed to obligatory set-pieces. Well written drama will always have a place in Cinema, especially in this cynical age, and is often ignored completely in Horror in favour of cheap, unearned shock. The Devil's Backbone is not a particularly frightening movie but never does it try to be. Instead Del Toro creates a consistently chilling tone that serves to strengthen its superior drama and delivers a deeply satisfying if somewhat traditional horror experience.
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