Phillip's Horror Lists, Part Two: The Rest of the Foreign
Last time around, I left you folks with my list of 5-star foreign horror films. This time around, I present to you the 4-star foreign films or "the best of the rest." Like my previous list, you really can't go wrong with any of the films here. Some of them are crowd-pleasers, some are more introspective fare and others should only be approached by adventurous viewers with strong stomachs. With no further ado, here's the list:
[REC] (2007) – The first in a (thus far) three-part series is (thus far) the best one. A strange illness befalls the residents of a Spanish apartment complex. When the authorities swoop in and quarantine the entire building, the residents are forced to fend for themselves. This is found-footage done right, with an ending that vacillates between truly terrifying and slightly too quirky. Highly recommended but stay away from the American remake, “Quarantine”: it’s pretty awful.
At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (1963) – As good an introduction to the demented world of Coffin Joe as any. A Satanic undertaker wages war on his ultra-religious Brazilian village until the underworld comes to settle the score. It’s a super-lo-fi film with some still shocking moments of sudden brutality and violence. Coffin Joe, with his giant, curled fingernails and black top hat is a pretty unforgettable figure.
Baron Blood (1972) – Not one of Mario Bava’s best, but still pretty darn good. A man discovers that his ancestor was a pretty terrible dude. Problem is, the man looks an awful lot like his ancestor and has begun to adopt some of his more blood-thirsty tendencies. What to do, what to do…?
Black Sabbath (1963) – Any horror anthology directed by Mario Bava has to be pretty good and this one certainly is. The most fully realized story is probably “The Wurdalak,” featuring Boris Karloff as a possessed farmer. For my money, however, the creepiest story will always be “The Drop of Water,” about a nurse that steals a ring from a dead woman’s finger. This, my friends, is the kind of things that nightmares are made of.
Black Sunday (1960) – Perhaps Mario Bava’s best know film and certainly one of his best. Barbara Steele is amazing as a resurrected witch out for revenge. The opening scene, where a spiked mask is nailed to her face is, without a doubt, one of the most horrifying and influential scenes (for modern horror cinema) in the genre. Highly recommended.
Blood and Black Lace (1963) – One of my favorite giallos. Bava’s classic involves a mysterious, black-gloved killer slaughtering fashion models. The film is violent, stylish, sensual and truly beautiful to look at. High-end gore for the discerning fanatic!
City of the Living Dead (1980) – Lucio Fulci’s Italo-gore epic has to be one of the most disgusting films ever made. It’s also one of my favorites. A sinister priest commits suicide, leading the way for the opening of the Gates of Hell. Really, the plot is only an excuse to execute any number of icky, splattery but ludicrously fun special effects. Don’t even THINK about popping this one in the VCR unless you have a cast-iron stomach: there’s a bit involving a drill press and another involving vomit that will send any but the bravest to the bathroom.
Cronos (1993) – One of my favorite del Toro movies. This slow, sad, elegiac film is about an aging antique store owner that stumbles upon the secret of eternal life. There is, of course, a terrible price to pay and everyone around the man, including his beloved grand-daughter, will be affected. This is a truly beautiful film, with a heart-breakingly lovely central relationship between the protagonist and his grand-daughter: I always tear up at the end of this film. Add to that a fantastic supporting role by Ron Perlman as the villainous nephew of the antagonist and you have one of my favorite films. A few minor pacing issues keep this from being a perfect movie.
Deep Red (1975) – One of my all-time favorite Argento films, “Deep Red” is also one of the finest giallos ever made. As can be expected with Argento, the violence is graphic, inventive and well-staged, while the plot and acting lean slightly towards the flamboyant side. See it in its original, subtitled version as “Profondo Rosso” for greatest effect.
Demons 2 (1986) – Lamberto Bava’s sequel to his own “Demons” takes the original film’s concept and expands upon it, creating a larger, richer universe: pretty much just what a sequel is supposed to do. In the original film, an evil movie possesses a theater audience, turning them into blood-thirsty creatures. In the sequel, the same thing happens to an entire apartment building. There are a few moments of comedy to lighten the mood but, for the most part, the film is grim, relentless and drenched in some very inventive gore and makeup effects. Anyone used to Italian splatter cinema will find a lot to love here. Neophytes, however, may want to steer clear.
Doghouse (2009) – Very funny and crude horror-comedy takes the concept of “boys being boys” and runs with it to absurd levels. A group of horny friends travel to a remote Irish village and discover that all of the women in the village have been transformed into man-hating, cannibalistic “zombie” things. They then must put aside their petty differences and band together to survive the onslaught. Talk about a war of the sexes!
Dream Home (2010) – Truly a film for our modern era, “Dream Home” deals with the cut-throat real estate industry in Hong Kong. A young urban professional wants nothing in life so much as her own “dream home.” When the world seems to conspire against her, however, the young woman takes matters into her own hands and slashes, bludgeon, stabs and burns her way to her goal. The violence in the film is extreme, but the acting is so good that you feel a tremendous amount of empathy for the protagonist, even as she brutally kills innocent people. A difficult film to watch, but a film with some important things to say.
Eyes Without a Face (1959) – Georges Franju’s poetic, lyrical horror masterpiece has influenced a number of cheap, grimy B-films but the original film is much closer to a European arthouse film than to a grindhouse film. An unhinged plastic surgeon, with the assistance of his loyal but morally corrupt nurse, kidnaps young woman. He does so in order to continue the research that will allow him to put a new face on his beloved daughter, injured years before in a tragic car accident. The figure of Christiane is such a tragic creature that he practically begs to be included in the classic pantheon of Universal monsters. Even though there are a few moments of graphic violence, this black-and-white masterpiece is highly restrained and haunting.
Fear(s) of the Dark (2007) – An anthology of short, animated horror films. The styles span a wide range, from simple black-and-white illustrations to more complex manga-inspired comic work. Most of the stories have the simple narrative thrust of a bad nightmare and a few of them may well stick with you for a couple sleepless nights.
Hands of the Ripper (1971) – Young Anna is plagued by nightmares for a very good reason: she’s Jack the Ripper’s daughter! Even worse, she witnessed her father kill her mother right before her eyes. Now that she’s older, Anna turns into a psycho killer whenever she sees a particular kind of flashing light. Will a kindly psychiatrist be able to “cure” Anna or will he just end up as another of her victims? Interesting mish-mash of serial killer and psycho-babble is never boring and ends up being one of Hammer Studios more intriguing, in non-traditional, offerings.
Hausu (1977) – The only words to describe this Japanese oddity are “bat-shit-insane.” A group of schoolgirls stay at the house of one of their aunts and fall prey to a series of…well…bat-shit insane hauntings. Very little in this film makes sense and the whole thing has the feverous energy of one of those old Merry Melodies cartoons. It isn’t particularly scary but you can definitely see how it played a HUGE influence on Raimi’s classic “Evil Dead.” Watch with a group of people, if possible.
Kill, Baby…Kill! (1966) – Mario Bava’s weird but highly atmospheric supernatural shocker involves the ghost of a little girl and a string of strange killings. Although the action can, occasionally, tend towards the ridiculous, there’s more than enough beautiful framing and interesting ideas to fill a hundred similar films.
Kill List (2011) – I’ve written extensively about this film in another blog, so I’ll keep it short: two best friends, who just happen to be hit men, take the wrong case. They begin to proceed down the rabbit hole at a frantic pace, arriving at a terrible, tragic conclusion before you know it. Highly disturbing and not for viewers with any kind of gentle sensibilities: the ending is truly nightmarish.
Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People (1963) – Odd Japanese film is sort of a cross between “Gilligan’s Island” and “Night of the Living Dead.” An assorted group of oddballs, including a vain pop star, wind up shipwrecked on a mysterious deserted island. They find another wrecked ship, along with lots and lots of strange fungus. Before long, the castaways are beginning to act rather strangely. Don’t forget: you are what you eat! This one oozes atmosphere and has a handful of truly unforgettable moments. Another good film to watch with a crowd.
Night of the Seagulls (1975) – My favorite of Amando de Ossorio’s “Blind Dead” series, “Night of the Seagulls” is one creeping mass of terror. The evil Knights Templar (blind zombie knights that ride horses and discover their prey through sound and smell) lay siege to a small fishing village. Any of the “Blind Dead” films are worth a watch but “Night of the Seagulls” wins due to its relative lack of irritating acting/characters.
Oldboy (2003) – Chan-wook Park’s Korean masterpiece, “Oldboy,” is another milestone in feel-bad cinema. Oh Dae-Su is kidnapped and held captive for fifteen years. One day, without warning, he’s set free and given just enough information to begin his revenge. Unfortunately, he’s also given just enough information to truly destroy his life. Like “Kill List,” “Oldboy” is a phenomenally bleak, depressing black-hole of a film. It’s always completely amazing. I still have no idea how Spike Lee expects to bring this film to American audiences intact: one of the taboos violated is still such a hot-button topic that I don’t think U.S. audiences can handle it.
Onibaba (1964) – One of the classics of Japanese cinema, “Onibaba” is a nearly perfect film. Languidly paced, beautifully filmed and powerfully emotional, the film is a searing indictment of the samurai culture in ancient Japan, as well as a hard-hitting examination of faith, loyalty and love. A mother and daughter-in-law do everything they can to get by in feudal Japan, while waiting from their son/husband to return from the war. Unfortunately, their chosen method of “getting by” is hijacking and killing returning samurai for their armor and weapons. One day, however, they meet a man with a strange demon mask that changes everything. Quite poetic and beautiful.
Opera (1987) – Restraint is not one of Argento’s better qualities and “Opera” is one of his most unhinged efforts ever. Ever so slightly a variation on “Phantom of the Opera” (which Argento remade wholesale in a terrible film of the same name), “Opera” involves a young opera stand-in that receives her chance at glory when everyone around her begins to die in horrible ways. The scene where she’s forced to witness a murder while razor-sharp needles keep her from closing her eyes is one of the most genius moments in Argento’s long and illustrious career. Equally gonzo is the “raven-eye” camera that leads us into one of the final setpieces.
Penumbra (2011) – Reviewed to greater extent in a previous blog, I’ll be brief: a bitchy Spanish real-estate agent must deal with a very strange group of would-be tenants during a complete solar eclipse. There are hints of Polanski’s “The Tenant” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” here, as well as “The Sentinel” and “House of the Devil.” Very old-school and lots of fun.
Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) – Like my other Weir entry in the previous list (“The Last Wave”), this film can probably only peripherally be considered a horror film. The themes of psychosexuality, the unforgiving destructive capability of the wilderness and the vulnerabilities of the flesh, however, are definitely the stock of horror films. Several schoolgirls and their teacher vanish while on a day-expedition to the Australian Outback. The answers hew more towards Bergman than “Wolf Creek,” but this one is dripping with potent atmosphere. Perfect for your high-brow friends who look down their noses at horror films.
Planet of the Vampires (1965) – My all-time favorite Bava film. “Planet of the Vampires” was a huge influence on Ridley Scott’s classic “Alien” and it shows. The barren, alien landscape of the planet, as well as the mysterious remains of huge alien species are all reminiscent of Giger’s work in “Alien.” If the actual plot, about body-possessing aliens is more sci-fi than horror, than the atmosphere and effects tend to swing the balance the other way. Plus, the colors in this film are some of the richest and most vibrant that I’ve ever seen. Truly a feast for the eyes!
Sheitan (2006) – Vincent Cassel (known to most American audiences as the smarmy dance instructor in “Black Swan”) is truly a treasure of French cinema and “Sheitan” is one of his best and bravest roles. In fact, Cassel is so amazing in the film that he literally and easily steals it from everyone else. A group of partying youth run afoul of Cassel in the French countryside. You see, he’s a shepherd and he and his “family” are preparing for a very special ceremony that the kids definitely play a part in. Shocking, jaw-dropping, unpleasant, brilliant and (at times) surprisingly funny, “Sheitan” is a truly one-of-a-kind experience. If there are moments in here that don’t make you feel extremely uncomfortable (swimming hole scene, I’m lookin’ at you, buddy!), then you may be a little too jaded.
Strigoi (2009) – This British film, set in Romania with an almost entirely Romanian cast, is a true jewel in the world of vampire films. More political treatise than horror film, “Strigoi” deals with the fall-out from the post-communist years in Romania. A young man returns to his small village only to discover that a killing has taken place. The villagers assert that they’ve merely killed a vampire (a “strigoi”) while the young man is not so sure. The outcome involves more twists and turns than the average vamp film and a land-grabbing plot twist worthy of “Chinatown.” A excellent, subtle film, with some laugh-out-loud funny moments.
Tenebre (1982) – Another of my favorite giallos, “Tenebre” features American star Anthony Franciosa as a crime novelist on the run from a mysterious, black-gloved killer in Rome. The killer is using methods found in Franciosa’s books, pointing the attention of local police in his direction. Now, racing against the clock, the novelist must uncover the real killer and clear his name. Great film with a truly great and (at the time) original twist.
The Beyond (1981) – One of the very best of Lucio Fulci’s Ialo-gore epics, “The Beyond” is a truly nightmarish film. Set in the swamps of Louisiana, the film involves a young woman inheriting a supposedly haunted hotel. The hotel does, indeed, turn out to be haunted, mostly due to the doorway to Hell located in the basement. This one has it all: flesh-eating tarantulas, killer dogs, zombies, the empty expanse of oblivion…it’s all here! Although the film still requires an extremely strong stomach, the focus is much more on atmosphere and chills than the all-out gross-outs of “City of the Living Dead.”
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1960) – A wr