The horror genre in recent years has become distinctly lacking. Relying on jumpscares and gore to make audiences feel anything for a batch of wooden, unlikeable characters, the films can often feel more like a shock-factor cash grab than a legitimate piece of cinema. Don’t even talk to me about found-footage affairs. But, in honour of Halloween, here are five contemporary horror films which will actually leave you on the edge of your seat – and not in order to get up and change the channel.
It Follows (2014) –
There isn’t an exercise in pure, unadulterated dread like David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows. So many horror movie monsters will kill you quickly, put you out of your misery before you’ve had more than twenty minutes to even realise what’s going on. The ‘it’ of It Follows instead tracks you constantly, untiringly striding directly towards you at all times, until it can catch up with you and cut your life short. This particular demon latches onto its host when they have sex with another person who’s ‘infected’ with the curse, and you can only rid yourself of its 24/7 stalk if you pass it along to another person. Don’t think you’re off the hook too easily though – if it kills the person you pass it onto, it’ll be straight back on your trail without a pause for breath. Which is far, far more terrifying than Freddy and/or Jason leaping out unexpectedly from behind your sofa one night to finish you off. You can never relax. You’ll probably never get a good night’s sleep. You must be constantly vigilant. Run as far as you like, sleep with as many people as you can, but unless you die of some other cause then you’ll always be aware in the back of your mind that eventually it will arrive.
There’s a truly chilling atmosphere surrounding the film. From its weaving, trapezing synth soundtrack, courtesy of Disasterpeace, to its impression of existing outside of time, as many vintage cars on the roads as modern ones, only old black and white movies shown on TV, but some technology owned by the characters appearing almost futuristic, there’s the impression even in scenes where no monster appears of something being not quite right. It’s the only horror movie that’s ever given me a nightmare as an adult. Check it out.
The Babadook (2014) –
Led by a truly phenomenal performance from Essie Davis, The Babadook unpicks the impact of grief on one family, the way it lurks in their home and refuses to let go. Amelia (Davis), and her son Sam (Noah Wiseman), still reeling from the car accident which killed Sam’s father, find themselves terrorised by some sort of creature they seem to have unwittingly invited into their home after reading about it in a children’s pop up book. At first, Amelia believes her son’s overactive imagination has latched onto this Babadook story, that he could even be the culprit for various supernatural phenomena in their home – glass in the soup, tapping in the night, a general sense of expressively cinematographed unease. So wrapped is Sam in the world he’s built for himself, it seems he’s actively trying to somehow create it in reality. He’s relentless in his various fantasies, so out of his mother’s control that the household begins to feel like a strong contender for the next series of Supernanny. But in this case, as the inexplicable occurrences expand far beyond the remit of a seven year old, we begin to see that there’s something far more sinister than a severe case of ADHD at work. There’s no horror trope quite so unwavering as child about whom there is something slightly off, slightly wrong – they’re possessed, they’re undead, they’re the antichrist. But even then it’s not as simple as all that – the monster is in fact very, very real.
The film feels very similar to Greif is the Thing With Feathers – after an unbearable sadness and loss, some malignant, sentient allegory takes its place. Mr. Babadook feels like a physicalisation of what Amelia and her son have been through. He’s shot like a mirage, present in the strangest of places, in the idle placement of a hat upon a stand, just as one may see figments of one they have lost quite out of the blue. This is a movie that’ll chill you to your very core, leave you flinching with every creak of the floorboards as your house settles for the night, but it’s also very moving, and in the end almost beautiful. It’s perhaps the lightest film in the list.
The Skin I Live In (2011) –
The oldest film on the list, The Skin I Live In is more a thriller with immensely disturbing elements than a traditional shit-your-pants horror affair. It definitely still fits comfortably into the genre, with director Pedro Almodóvar describing the film as “a horror story without screams or frights”. And if an kidnapping, rape, forced sex-change, and murder aren’t enough to make a horror film, I don’t know what is. A plastic surgeon becomes obsessed with being able to grow an impenetrable artificial skin, one which is immune to burns and breaks, even insect bites, after his wife is incinerated beyond recognition in a car accident. Think Luke Cage but really, really twisted. His desires end up expanding far beyond the skin, and when his daughter passes away he finally takes things to the next level. After all, he has nothing left to lose.
Truly terrifying is the way viewer may catch themselves feeling a slither of sympathy for the surgeon, named Robert (Antonio Banderas), overarching antagonist of piece. His actions end up a step beyond immoral, the choices of a madman, and absolutely not what his victim Vicente (Jan Cornet) is deserving of. Still, Vicente’s own behaviour is unquestionably deplorable and especially when we’re let into snapshots of the eight-year-long aftermath of what he’s done, it’s hard not to understand why Robert is inspired to seek some sort of revenge. There is ultimately no hero in The Skin I Live In, no character we can truly allow ourselves to sincerely like. Sympathy does grow for Vicente, but only after he has undergone something of a rebirth. He has to become a different person altogether, live in quite literally a completely different skin, in order to be forgiven. It’s a film which leaves you feeling like you need a shower and a hug, granted, but it’s so finely crafted that, if you can handle it, it’s completely worth the curling of your toes.
The Witch (2015) –
After being excommunicated from a puritan plantation for some vague ideologically motivated clash of wills, William (Ralph Ineson) and family must set up camp on a secluded patch of farmland, isolated from the rest of mankind. It’s historical-cum-horror-cum-kitchen-sink-drama, markedly well researched and infinitely chilling. When the family’s youngest child goes missing, quite literally out from under Thomasin’s (Anya Taylor-Joy) nose, the family begins to tear itself apart. While the true threat quite clearly lies beyond the pines that border their home, the characters can only pin the blame on each other, arguing until it is far too late. The acting is spectacular, and the screeching soundtrack and stunning visuals, muted in colour but strong in substance, make for an award worthy debut for director Robert Eggers.
It won’t be for everyone – it’s a slow burner, the dialogue is all in a 17th century dialect, and moments of true horror are sparse amongst scenes of bickering parents and squabbling siblings. But when the macabre steps into shot it really does pack a punch. With images castration, paedophilia, and one particularly disturbing incident involving breastfeeding (Kate Dickie is apparently becoming the first port of call for such scenes), The Witch taps into our most carnal dreads and fears, then makes us sit and watch them play out in some of the worst ways imaginable. It’s a refreshing break from the parade of jumpscares and torture porn horror cinema has become. It doesn’t make you feel sick to your stomach because of a loud noise or a spurt of blood – instead it creeps down your throat and settles there for days. You’ve seen something you shouldn’t, and it might not get out of your head for some time.
Goodnight Mommy (2014) –
The second foreign language release on the list, it’s rather unfortunate the marketing team for the US/UK release decided to go with such a substandard title. Known in German as Ich Seh, Ich Seh (I See, I See), this arthouse horror romp invites us into the home of two twin brothers, Elias and Lukas (played by Elias and Lukas Schwarz). When their mother returns home from a long stretch in hospital, her face swathed in bandages with only her eyes and mouth visible, the boys begin to suspect that the person who’s returned home isn’t the same woman who left. She’s crueller, more spiteful, and completely ignores Lukas. Gradually, things start to spiral out of control.
The violence begins with The Mother lashing out at Elias and ends in flames. It’s a dance with deceit that leaves you wondering who’s genuine and who’s a fake right up until the very end, with a twist expertly foreshadowed throughout, yet still quite unguessable. The mother, with her expressionless visage, is quite the haunting spectre, but equally unsettling are the twins – it’s the creepy child trope all over again, two mirror images of each other. It’s a film you have to watch twice to fully appreciate. It’s eerie, it’s unreal, it’s effective. We can only hope there isn’t a laissez faire Hollywood remake brewing on the horizon.