Horror, as a genre, has been around for a long time. The ghost tales told around campfires as the darkness gathers in are the continuance of a tradition that goes all the way back to the cave-dwelling primitives who hunted megafauna across continents we wouldn’t recognise.
The ‘simple scare’ was frequently used as a morality tale, to enforce desirable behaviour: “If you don’t behave, then this gruesome end is likely to befall you.” Some of our oldest children’s tales have original versions where death and mutilation feature a lot more than you’d believe.
With the rise of the printing press and those learning to read – after they escaped from being the sole province of the ruling classes – the public’s taste for the horrific could be sated by imaginary horrors, allowing them to get their chill thrills away from public executions and the like.
Wherever we are, it seems that we enjoy being scared; almost a pathological need to be frightened. Whether this ‘love of the fright’ harks back to our earliest instincts – an antithesis to the thrill of the hunt, the hyperaware wakefulness of being hunted – an antidote to the banality of civilised lives, or a vicarious thrill, is a topic for discussion on a different website.
You’re looking for entertainment. So, please allow me to introduce myself: I’m a ‘lightweight’ horror fan, a lover of the implicit scare and the terrifying concept, that which stalks the night unseen, and Lovecraftian dooms. I also have a weakness for monster movies, well-wrought dark humour, quality world building, and outright bloody mayhem. Above all, I want my movies to entertain me while telling a good story. However, I must point out that a good story doesn’t necessarily need a clever plot.
So, with that in mind, here’s a devil’s dozen, old and new, from off the beaten track for your consideration. I’ve kept the descriptions spoiler-free bar the obvious items; hopefully just enough to wet your appetites.
The Crazies (The remake starring Timothy Olyphant) – Almost a reference piece in well-paced desperate investigation against creeping deterioration. Goes from action to survival horror and back several times with consummate ease.
Dagon – Italian horror films of a certain vintage have a deserved reputation for gore and nudity. This Lovecraftian piece is no exception, but uses both horrifyingly well and – despite many other cinematic attempts – is the only horror film I’ve seen that translates-but-captures a Lovecraftian feel without labouring it.
Dark Was the Night (UK title: Monster Hunter) – A dangerous monster is threatening a quiet town. We all know the scenario. What makes this stand out is Kevin Durand stepping up into a beautifully nuanced lead role within a masterpiece of subdued colour cinematography that maintains a palpable menace with flashes of fitting humour.
Dead Snow 2: Red vs Dead (Norwegian, English subtitles) – The first Dead Snow was an excellent zombie survival film, where the survivors earned their escapes in blood and loss. This, however, is a different beast entirely. To be precise, it’s a zombie overkill localised apocalypse necromantic taboo eating monster. I haven’t laughed so much at a gore-laden film, ever.
Fallen – Here’s a truly terrifying concept portrayed brilliantly in an investigative thriller with increasingly supernatural overtones. Denzel Washington plays the police officer discovering the world is far darker than he thought.
Gabriel – With the late Andy Whitfield showing the star he was destined to be, this Heaven versus Hell for the souls in Purgatory film is stunning. Low budget but deep hearted and a classic theme told within a powerful story. All the usual cues leading to a place you didn’t expect.
He Never Died – Henry Rollins playing a part that I suspect many couldn’t pull off. Darkly humorous, occasionally (very) bloody, a strong refresh of a classic concept.
Let Us Prey – Possibly the most brutal film on this list. Set in a little Scottish village one night, an unexpected visitor brings horror and revelations to further a deeper need. Slow burning, grim, and with surprising depth.
The Monster – While this film does indeed have a full-on predatory nasty doing what it does best, this film is more harrowing for the vivid, flashbacked, honest portrayal of a dysfunctional family, as mother and daughter go to hell and back to survive. We go with them, seeing what made the current situation and what eventuates, one night on a rain-swept backroad.
The Rezort – A post zombie apocalypse zombie survival film. Possibly the only one of its kind and surprisingly good, with subtle touches building to reveal an underlying horror that exceeds the obvious one.
The Order (UK title: The Sin Eater) – The late Heath Ledger (reuniting with some of the cast from A Knight’s Tale) in a dark story about sin – what it is and how you pay for it. A tale of the Roman Catholic church, manipulation, the quest for power, and what people will do to enter heaven.
Thale (Norwegian, English subtitles) – For me, Halloween isn’t about scares (in fact, for many of the pagan faiths, it’s New Year). Acknowledging that, I couldn’t do a list without including at least one film that touches on the ‘apparent world’. So, here’s a beautiful and disturbing film about the unseen things that share this world with us and what happens when you mess with them.
We Are the Night (German: ‘Wir sind die Nacht’, English subtitles) – I’m a long-time vampire fan, but no lover of the modern dilutions of the form. This superb film portrays nightwalkers as the apex predators they are, and shows how their residual humanity binds them in emotional obsessions they seek to deny. All this is set within a straightforward but gripping tale of love, lust and the ties that bind.