Category Archives: A Week of Horror

Our Favourite Horror Films (Part 1)

The Shining (1980 – Stanley Kubrick)

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A film that tops most “top horror film” lists, and for good reason. The horror works on many levels, isolation, supernatural and more importantly the domestic manifestation of the loss of creative control and masculinity. All this adds to a cinematic experience which is very unique and some would say arguably the best Stanley Kubrick film.

Audition (1999 -Takashi Miike)

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A slow-burner of a horror film from Japan, this is an unusually understated affair from director Miike (until the vicious final act). A film that has fascinated me for several years since my first viewing, it starts off almost as a melancholic drama before cleverly and insidiously introducing unsettling elements that work the viewer’s perception of events. At its heart it’s an observation on loneliness and the consuming need for love and affection. Miike explores the darker side of infatuation with some brilliant composition and layered performances from his actors. It can be read several ways and is one of the most innovative horror films you’ll see.

The Others (2001 – Alejandro Amenabar) 

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Fresh from the fast and vibrant Moulin Rouge, Nicole Kidman produced a masterclass of a performance as a socially repressed housewife looking after two children who are unable to be exposed to light. Alejandro Gonzalez Inniartu plays beautifully on the conventions of the genre, never opting for jump scares but utilising mood, lighting, acting, an unexplained mist and his own quite brilliant script to create a magnificent ghost story. Kidman may get most of the praise but it’s the small ensemble that create the magic with experienced hands Eric Sykes and Fionulla Flanagan playing off brilliantly against newcomers James Bentley and Alakina Mann. From the opening credit sequence to the memorable revelation, this is a perfectly crafted supernatural chiller.

The Exorcist (1973 – William Friedkin)

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The definitive battle of good versus evil, cynics say it doesn’t scare but a) I disagree and b) don’t think that is the point. I have only seen it fully once but it has stuck with me ever since. There are so many readings – obviously the religious overtones but also broken homes, horror happening in everyday (as Mark Cousins pointed out in Story of Film), teenage awakening and psychoanalysis (the infamous crucifix scene). Over time the film has risen above the controversies (quite how religious groups could be so angry about a film in which God defeats the devil can be answered with the simple argument – they hadn’t seen it) and its impact is so powerful, it’s no wonder Mark Kermode champions it at every opportunity.

The Thing (1982 – John Carpenter)

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When horror goes below the surface and examines the human condition, few genres can match it as an allegory for our behaviour and deep-seated fears. In this bleak atmosphere of swirling Arctic blizzards, enigmatic relationships and lonely scientific outposts, I believe John Carpenter found the height of his artistic powers. Built as it is on minimal dialogue, high concept and thematic mise-en-scene, this has the make-up of an art-house horror, expanded by the brutal alien effects. Exploring the fear that resides in man and our conflicting mistrust and need of each other, Carpenter beautifully plays on the audience never truly understanding what The Thing actually is (the alien reference is vague and the creature only appears as distortions of man). The claustrophobia, paranoia and atmosphere are all vice-like and the acting is subtle and meaningful. A menacing, composed treat that elevates the exploitative side of the genre to an art form.

Under The Bed: Twelve Horror Films You May Have Missed

As we move into the Halloween season, Outward would like to share a selection of films in the horror genre that might have slipped under your radar. Whether your taste is for psychological chills, unnerving mystery or straight-up gore fests, we might just have some new favourites for your collection…

Ravenous (dir: Antonia Bird, 1999)

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A great opportunity to nod to the criminally underrated British director Antonia Bird, who sadly passed long before her time last year, with this clever, character-driven tale of 19th Century cannibalism. Set on a remote military outpost during the American Civil War, cowardly Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce) must overcome his querulous nature and strengthen his stomach, as he encounters a horrifying discovery while on a rescue mission. Bolstered by a terrific soundtrack from Michael Nyman and Blur’s Damon Albarn, Bird derives great performances from her excellent cast (Robert Carlyle is particularly on red hot form) and she crafts a blackly humorous, unsettling and tense piece of storytelling. Bird’s triumph is in understanding the consumption of our own flesh acts as a telling metaphor for the internal struggle human beings face with their own inner demons.

The Guardpost (dir: Kong Su-Chang, 2008)

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This little-discussed Korean film deserves much more attention, with the combination of an intricate plot, meaty direction and deep, dark atmosphere creating a full on horror experience. Improving on his similarly plotted R-Point, director Kong effectively delivers a terrifying ordeal as a squad of soldiers are sent to investigate a seemingly deserted military outpost, only to find a deeper horror lurking within. The inviting premise has been undercooked by many in the past but Kong succeeds by keeping the film within a human sphere and thereby exploring the group dynamic among the soldiers. Effective equally as a body horror, psychological thriller and blood and guts action picture, its attention to detail carries you through some serious twists, right up to the satisfying finale.

Soft For Digging (dir: J T Petty, 2001)

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A genuine zero budget shout out in this list, The Burrowers director Petty made this unusual and abstract horror film while still a student on a reputed budget of $6,000. An old man living alone in the woods goes searching for his missing cat one day and discovers the body of a young girl. The film’s key gimmick is that there is barely any dialogue and Petty uses the absence of verbal communication effectively to create a film that is really about loneliness (the mystery is resolved but the ambiguity never entirely deserts the picture). The budget restraints are obvious but there’s an impressive imagination and skill at work behind it.

Dumplings (dir: Fruit Chan, 2004)

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This tale of the human quest for immortality effectively disorients and disturbs, with a ‘yuk’ factor that never borders too much on the exploitative. Like all quality horror films, it’s a film where the imagination is running wild and the human factor drives the story. Even though you can guess what the final twist will ultimately be, Chan ensures the ride is well worth taking in the full-length version of his original Three Extremes short.

Rubber (dir: Quentin Dupieux, 2010)

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This daft and admittedly inconsistent splatter flick about a homicidal car tyre is nonetheless great fun if you’re in the mood. The nods to genre classics like David Cronenberg’s Scanners are welcome and the film does often hit the mark with a pleasing sense of irony. Quentin Dupieux proves that great B-movies need intelligence in their creation to make a true impression. And the tyre itself is strangely charismatic.

Hour of the Wolf (dir: Ingmar Bergman, 1968)

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The great Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman had a gift for horror that was only ever acknowledged explicitly in this chilling portrait of madness and isolation of the soul. The great Max Von Sydow commands the screen as an artist confronting his repressed desires during a holiday in the country and subsequently slips into wild abandon, largely at the expense of his pregnant wife. Bergman’s use of imagery still stuns even by modern standards and the mise-en-scene really helps the story seep under the skin.

Possession (dir: Andrzej Zulawski, 1981)

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As surreal an experience in horror that you could wish for, Polish art-house director Andrzej Zulawski’s exploration of a relationship falling apart combines some of the most compelling imagery in horror cinema with a frenzied sense of tension and pace. Nicely militarising the locations and production design, there is an astute political commentary behind that of the human tragedy of a marriage disintegrating. It’s a film that is so much more than a genre piece but I’m happy for the excuse to include it.

Dust Devil (dir: Richard Stanley, 1992)

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This atmospheric and abstract horror film by Hardware director Richard Stanley moves like a waking nightmare. A shape shifter preys on the lonely and vulnerable and the edge-of-the-world feel to the setting really work on the nerves and plays with your expectations. Mysticism pervades the film without it ever being too on the nose about the supernatural elements and Stanley keeps the mystery cooking nicely right up to the end.

Vampyr (dir: Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1932)

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Legendary Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer brought his unique cinematic language to the horror realm with this superbly constructed flip side to the spiritual themes at work in his better known movies such as Ordet and The Passion of Joan of Ark. The black-and-white cinematography is beautifully detailed, allowing the creeping shadows to run up and down your senses and the storyline keeps everything on a knife’s edge. Despite its age, it still has a certain power to unnerve and it is a brilliantly made film by a brilliant filmmaker.

Infection (dir: Masayuki Ochiai, 2004)

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A sorely overlooked addition to the golden period of Asian horror films, this focuses on a viral outbreak at a remote hospital that turns the afflicted into homicidal zombie maniacs. The plot is the very best in B-movie but, for all that, it is a mature and deeply disturbing work. The atmosphere has something of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (though Ochiai’s film ups the viscera) and is driven by our fear of our only true predator, bacteria, and even touches on evolutionary theory. The gore is well integrated into the themes and it’s hard not to duck behind the sofa during many scenes.

The Borderlands (dir: Elliot Goldner, 2013)

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This low-budget, found footage, British-made tale of a Vatican crack team investigating paranormal goings-on in a remote village doesn’t promise much more than cliché but delivers the goods with aplomb. The employment of the camera is cleverly utilised to avoid the normally incredulous contrivances of the found footage sub-genre and succeeds in being unbearably tense. There’re some pleasingly subtle riffs on Hammer traditions and it’s a film that deserved a wider appraisal.

Stake Land (dir: Jim Mickle, 2010)

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There’s an ugly, realist interpretation of vampire lore through Jim Mickle’s eyes and his 2010 vision does feel like a world on the edge. The well-worn post-apocalyptic plot surprisingly produces intelligent commentary on political and economic decay (in fact, you could even view the vampires as the disenfranchised and forgotten lower classes) and this adds weight to the meaty action scenes. It’s dark, grim and soaked in blood and it feels spookily close to what an abandoned society might entail.

Horror: The Good and Bad.

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I admit, I’m not a massive horror fan. This could be seen as odd, considering we’re dedicating the week to the horror genre, but there are a few issues worthy of discussion. Before highlighting those problems, it’s only fair to show respect to the films and filmmakers which have moulded and influenced horror.

The Good

Despite my negativity above, I do like the horror genre. The potential of the genre is great. What other genre of film allows low budget filmmakers to find distribution? So many great writers and directors found their craft making horror films; it’s a great way to test you as a filmmaker. The disciplines of writing within the genre and interpreting conventions allow the filmmaker to test his or her abilities. These are key ingredients to anyone wishing to develop and put their hat in the ring with iconic filmmakers such as Hitchcock, Lynch and Carpenter.

Psycho HitchcockSeeing what other filmmakers have done with the genre should inspire us, it should motivate us to want to make film. The key to any great filmmaker is innovation. Innovation in horror is magnified, everyone remembers those moments when great filmmakers turned the horror conventions inside out. Hitchcock gave the leading role to Psycho (1960), Scream (1996) presented a logical antagonist and The Blair Witch Project (1999) (via Cannibal Holocaust and Last Broadcast) not only gave found footage to the mainstream, but also was responsible for the birth of viral film marketing. These innovations stand out as markers for future filmmakers to build upon. This is good news, not only for the horror genre but for film and filmmaking in general.

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The horror genre is iconic, great filmmakers are often influenced and been inspired by it. Horror can give film depth, it can be atmospheric, it can be satirical and it can be symbolic of something we repress. We connect with fear and this is why it can be both mesmerising and addictive for filmmakers.  A great example of how horror can be multilayered is in Jennifer Kent’s Babadook (2014). On the surface, its chilling imagery can create the very fear I’ve mentioned above. Such imagery sticks with you. It strikes a chord with the audience and allows for the participation that’s essential for escapism in film. If you delve deeper you get an exploration of parental repression and how it can manifest into something very dark. The confidence of the filmmaker here is what’s impressive. Jennifer Kent knows this story and its characters inside out, for this, the horror benefits.

The above can also be applied to films such as The Shining, It Follows, The Exorcist, The Wicker Man and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Each of these films show there’s much potential with the genre; it has potential to show us a world we want to avoid, but can’t help but to take a peek. These films show iconic imagery, whilst exploring themes which have depth and most importantly, comment on who we are.

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The films that do more than rely on horror are the ones we invest in and will often appear on the annual “top ten horror films” lists. They’re more than just horror, they’re great films. Yes, there’s plenty to get from a jump scare, but the best horror films make you believe this horror actually exists in our world.

The Bad

There’s one reason I don’t call myself a passionate horror fan and that’s down to the fact that I’ve seen a lot of terrible horror films. I’m not a keen viewer of the “I watch it because it’s bad” films, and I feel there are a lot of filmmakers exploiting the foundations the previous (great) filmmakers have built.

For me, the horror genre is a way for some not-so-good filmmakers to get films made. They think by ticking a box (blood, guts and jump scares) they’re adding to the great films we’ve had in the past. Relying on the same tricks is not innovative, it’s lazy and unfortunately quite common in modern horror.

For us to believe in horror, first we have to be dealt a script written by someone who understands human nature. For us to believe what we see, we need a director who not only understands the script but also shows innovation. The motives of the filmmaker have to be right and when they are not, you notice the difference.

Every Halloween we’re now dealt a new franchise. We get seven or eight films which are identical. There’s an acceptance now of quantity over quality and as long as you tick certain boxes, your film will get some viewers. The majority of what’s released is template filmmaking, and this is at all levels within horror. Be it mainstream or low budget, I know if I were to watch a horror film that’s just been given a release, it’s more than likely going to rely on the conventions which have diluted the horror genre.

paranormal-activityA great example of this is found footage. As I mentioned above, The Blair Witch Project created something new upon its release in 1999. It goes without saying, the success of this was pretty impressive both critically and commercially.  The profit the film’s made is insane. Not only at the time but it still continues today. Since the release back in 1999 we’ve had a barrage of found footage films. They’re cheap to make and show potential for vast profits. This is the reason they’re made, and it tells. Cliché after cliché.

The Saw films, Paranormal Activity and even the film we discussed last night Halloween (Halloween – Masterful filmmaking on a Miniscule Budget) gave birth to a series of films which focused more on profit than story. I appreciate people want to make money but by doing so, those responsible should be open to criticism and we shouldn’t be afraid to speak out when the bar has dropped.

Fear is as powerful as laughter and sadness, and when it’s done right, there’s not much better. Unfortunately there are some people who have exploited this and therefore hindered the genre. For every one or two great horror films that get released, there are a lot more we have to consciously avoid.

There’s one way to avoid the dilution of horror, this is by watching and rewatching the classics. Be it Dracula, Frankenstein, Leatherface or The Babadook, there’s plenty of wonderful horror out there to help us avoid those just wanting to line their pockets.

John Carpenters Halloween: Masterful filmmaking on a miniscule budget.

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‘What’s your favourite scary movie?’ is not only a question posed by the psychotic killers in Wes Craven’s brilliant Scream series but one that pops up every year at Halloween.

For many, the answer is the same as the name of the festival, for John Carpenter’s 1978 classic is revered as a masterpiece for many reasons. From the iconic opening tracking sequence to the surprising (at the time) ending, via the creation of one of cinema’s greatest boogeymen, it’s a film rich with ideologies of its own (intended or otherwise), Freudian overtones and genuine scares. It’s the definitive slasher flick; a film that created all the rules.

Yet what is not often talked about is that Halloween is also a masterclass in low budget filmmaking. It was filmed for a not immodest but hardly expensive $300,000 and became one of the most successful independent films of all time. The techniques to get around the shoestring budget were not only necessary, they were masterful. Halloween is a masterclass in making a masterpiece without the money.

HalloweenIt starts, very simply, with an idea. Carpenter and co-writer/producer Deborah Hill wanted to make a film about a killer coming back to his home town on the scariest night of the year. A strikingly original pitch but a basic plot. Halloween doesn’t get pulled down in backstory – much of that comes later – but it also doesn’t get too involved in plot development either. Michael Myers kills his sister, goes to an institution, escapes, is pursued by his psychiatrist Dr. Loomis and stalks teenagers with the intent to kill. What made him a murderer and quite why he is so fixated on Laurie Strode are somewhat ambiguous, leaving the audience to discuss and ponder upon afterwards. It means the script limits the need for exposition and treated the audience with intelligence, meaning the film could focus on mood and atmosphere with all the themes and story theories carrying on in the background.

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Initially, the murders were set to take place over a series of nights but the bulk of the action is limited to one evening – 31st October. By confining the action to largely one street on one night, the need for costume and set changes were limited and money was saved. In fact, hardly a penny was spent on costumes at all – the actors, in true low-budget filmmaking style, wore their own clothes. One thing that the filmmakers did have to spend money on was the now infamous mask. The frightening, emotionless look of Michael Myers has entered filmmaking legend – and it was all made from a $2 William Shatner mask that was turned inside out, spray painted white and had the hair cut off and the eyes cut out. One of horrors most iconic images was made for next to no money and in little time. Part of the genius of this is that were Halloween a real story, this is something Myers himself could have done quite easily.

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Yet there is a more overt, logistical element to John Carpenters Halloween that is related to its (lack of) budget but that also is one of its many selling points. For a film about murders, there is very little blood. In Scream 2, Randy (Jamie Kennedy) discusses the rules of a horror sequel. 1. The body count is always bigger. 2 The death scenes are always much more elaborate – more blood, more gore…carnage candy. This obviously ties in to the ‘bigger, louder’ element of sequels that affects films in all genres. Yet one of the reasons this is possible is again the old factor of money. Halloween could not afford a big cast or gallons of red paint, so relied heavily on the power of suggestion…and it’s all the better for it. In this day and age, horror films are over-reliant on blood and guts but would Halloween have been more effective with more innards exposed? The death itself is not the scary part, but the build-up of tension and dread. Power of suggestion.screenshot-295

Halloween shares much DNA with Hitchcock’s Psycho both in a postmodern way (Jamie Lee Curtis is Janet Leigh’s daughter), a knowing self-referential fashion (both have a character with the surname Loomis) and in their ability to convince the audience that they’re seeing more than they actually are. We never actually see the knife going into Marion Crane during the famous shower scene in the same way we never actually see the knife going into Judith at the opening of Halloween. Again, this removed the need for prosthetics and special effects, with the sound being created with a knife and a cabbage.

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The brooding atmosphere of Halloween can also be attributed to what lies in the shadows and once again, this was as much about logistical necessity – there wasn’t enough money for more lights. Carpenter and his crew had to work with what they had. This did include a simple dimmer switch and during the films climax, this was used to slowly illuminate Myers to make it look as if he was appearing out of the dark behind Laurie. Another iconic moment, another simple effect.

There are many other stories which highlight Halloween’s low budget – the autumnal leaves from one scene to the next were swept up by the crew and re-used, and the filming period lasted just twenty days. It has a credited cast of just 20 people and a crew of less than 50.

Yet with little money, no CGI, hardly any blood and no costume department, they created an influential horror masterpiece that still shocks and scares to this day and has transcended the great many sequels, re-makes and re-boots to retain its iconic status as a classic of the horror genre. It’s proof that a good idea, a great script and working with what you have can create cinematic gold.

Phil Slatter