So part of this post is dedicated to one of my favourite genres (horror that is) and the other part is devoted to my favourite pastime: openly shaming people. And by people, I mean you. You should be ashamed. If you haven’t watched any of the following ten movies I mean. I’ve decided to kick off In the Dark Air by summarising a list of ten horror movies, in no particular order, that I think are widely underrated or unknown but deserve to be watched far more than, let’s say, the steaming pile of banality that is Paranormal Activity. I’ve split the list into two parts, in a desperate bid to make it slightly more manageable. So let’s kick start the list with an old classic.
- And Then There Were None (1974)
The first word that comes to mind with any horror movie made in the 70s is certainly “dated”. But “dated” doesn’t necessarily mean “bad”. And, in the case of And Then There Were None, “dated” means a sense of dread that is created by simple (and sometimes mildly hilarious) means. Based on the Agatha Christie novel of the same name, And Then There Were None tells the story of 10 hapless guests who have all been invited to stay in a hotel deep in the deserts of Iran. Yet the mystery host is mysteriously absent. Immediately one would think alarm bells would start to ring. Why is the host not present? Why has no one attending the gathering ever met the host before? And how have a judge, a police officer and a doctor made it all the way to the middle of the Iranian desert?
The thing that I love about And Then There Were None is that it makes no apologies for itself. The acting is shamelessly bad, the set looks painfully cheap, as if had been made by a group of kindergarteners as part of their “Introduction to Papier Mache” class, and the camera conveniently cuts away before every murder scene. Yet somehow, the rasping voice of the omnipresent host, U. N. Owen, and the stone silence of the 10 little figurines that gradually get destroyed with each murder, has stuck with me for many years. Long before CGI, long before creepy little Japanese girls crawling out of televisions, there was And Then There Were None. And, dated though it may be, it still gives me the shivers just thinking about it.
- Switchblade Romance (2003)
Switchblade Romance is a French horror movie that was originally made solely for the Toronto Film Festival but was later picked up by Lions Gate Entertainment after its debut brought it much critical acclaim. Tragically, from the get go it appears something has been lost in translation. For whatever reason, throughout the rest of the world it is referred to by its French title, Haute Tension (“High Tension”), which makes far more sense than the UK title of Switchblade Romance. That being said, this strange title does little to detract from the overall brilliance of the film. I’d recommend watching the film with subtitles rather than the dubbed version, as all dubbed films tend to be jarring and will shatter the natural believability of the film.
Switchblade Romance tells the story of long-term friends Alex and Marie, who are travelling into the beautiful but isolated French countryside to stay at Alex’s family home and enjoy a rural sabbatical. From the outset, we are introduced to the nebulous presence of an unknown man, hiding in the cornfields in his filthy truck. On arrival, Marie is introduced to Alex’s parents and younger brother before settling into her guest bedroom. Yet, as night falls, the terror begins. Marie is suddenly, horrifyingly made aware of sounds of distress echoing from downstairs and does what any sane person in her situation would do; she panics.
The horror that ensues is gorey, gritty and, most importantly, terrifyingly believable. Marie behaves exactly how I feel I’d act if I were trapped in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by endless, silent fields, aware that something terrible is happening but not absolutely sure what it is. Switchblade Romance is a slasher flick with a twist and does more than enough to earn it the title of High Tension. Although I’ve become somewhat disillusioned with slasher films ever since Scream went from sheer, Meta genius to complete cash-cow, Switchblade Romance had me on the edge of my seat, eyes glued to the screen, cringing and wincing at every close encounter, near miss, and gruesome fatality. It is a slasher film for the thinking man, so if you’re in the mood for a little gore but can’t bear another torture-driven, story-less Saw film, Switchblade Romance is the one for you.
- Dream Home (2010)
If there’s anything I love more than a good horror movie, it’s a good horror movie that also makes social commentary, and Dream Home is just that. When I was first introduced to this Cantonese slasher flick, I was immediately sceptical. What kind of place is Hong Kong for a horror movie? An idyllic, coastal paradise with a burgeoning, wealthy population and a politically autonomous, diplomatic state? I can’t imagine a worse hell. But on a serious note, I’d never even heard of a horror film coming out of Hong Kong, let alone seen one. Dream Home shattered my expectations and quashed my cynicism, which is no mean feat. I am British, after all. Cynicism is my lifeblood.
Dream Home is the touching story of Cheng Lai-sheung, a Hong Kong local who is working two jobs in a desperate bid to try and raise money for her dream apartment whilst paying off her father’s medical bills. Though Hong Kong is an incredibly wealthy region, I soon came to realise that Cheng’s predicament is the tragic reality for so many Hong Kong locals. Working yourself to death, scraping together the pennies, and failing to make ends meet, this is the awful cycle that so many young Cantonese people find themselves in. And Cheng Lai-sheung is no different. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that she comes up with an unorthodox, darkly ingenious way of getting her dream home on Victoria Bay.
Dream Home is an astute commentary on modern-day consumerism, where properties and possessions mean more to us than our relationships with other people, perhaps even more than other people’s lives. Cheng’s frantic desperation to achieve her dream reflects the changing values of a modern world, where the “I” matters far more than the “we” and the violent quashing of others can be easily explained away as “ambition” and “survival of the fittest”. Cheng manages to achieve her dream, but at what cost?
- Grave Encounters (2011)
If you’re a fan of tacky ghost hunting shows like Most Haunted and Ghost Hunters, then you’re sure to love Grave Encounters (or perhaps hate it for its brazen parody of said, awful shows). Grave Encounters is a found footage movie about the “first” ghost hunting series ever made, but mysteriously never finished. Cut to the most poorly acted scene of the film, where the producer of “Grave Encounters” (the T.V. show), Jerry Hartfield, explains the premise of the show and what we are about to see with a register so deadpan that you’re left wondering whether he’s slowly slipping into a coma or just plain doesn’t care. Just bear with Jerry because, in spite of his glazed fish eyes, the acting in Grave Encounters is largely very good. In fact, far too good for a film with a budget of only 2 million dollars. Where did they find these actors? Are they just incredibly talented hobos? We don’t know. But what we do know is Grave Encounters was so blood-curdlingly terrifying that, when I first watched it, I very nearly threw up.
The film, or rather the sixth episode, is set in an abandoned insane asylum where patients were supposedly abused and experimented on by a psychiatrist named Dr. Arthur Friedkin, a medical professional so notoriously evil that he’d give Mengele a run for his money. The crew are to be locked in said insane asylum, where they will spend the night documenting any paranormal activity with their cameras, EVP recorders and various other supernatural paraphernalia. One of the best parts of the film is undoubtedly the introduction of Houston Grey, a fake medium/real actor who “attempts” to communicate with the dead for the cameras but who is in fact a delightfully talentless hack hired by the production company to give the show credibility. The film follows the crew as they slowly, painfully come to the realisation that, for once in their lives, they may have gotten exactly what they wanted, they may have actually made a grave encounter. Grave Encounters builds up gradually, perfectly, to a crescendo of pure terror that will have you wishing you’d watched it in daylight. With the curtains open. Outside. With the television off.
- Silent House (2011)
Silent House was one of those little, low budget horror movies that took the Sundance Film Festival by storm. The film is actually a remake of a Uruguayan film called La Casa Muda (literally “The Silent House”), which I have tragically yet to see, but the technical mastery of Silent House appears to far outrank its predecessor. Make no mistake, Silent House is not a brilliant horror movie. It will not blow you away. It will not make you rethink your life. And it certainly won’t have you hiding under the sheets for night after night. But, with any luck, it should shock you. And, failing that, it should at least impress you. Silent House was filmed in “real time”, as if it was all a single, continuous shot and, if you weren’t purposefully looking for the cuts, I hazard a guess that you wouldn’t notice them at all. This becomes immediately unnerving, as you start to latch on to the female protagonist, following her story as if it were your own.
The camera doggedly follows Sarah, the main protagonist, as she helps her father and uncle prepare their family’s holiday home to be renovated and sold. The role of Sarah is played by Elizabeth Olsen and, despite my reservations at seeing yet another talentless Olsen on screen, her performance is refreshingly candid. The film’s effectiveness, particularly with regards to the horror element, solely rests on her shoulders and she carries it well. As the film drew on I began to feel for her, sympathise with her and, eventually, fear for her. As she makes her way through the silent childhood home that she once loved, desperately trying to avoid assailants and come to terms with what is happening to her, I felt truly involved with her plight. Critics are currently still split on the ending, with some decrying it as exploitative and unoriginal whilst others finding it hauntingly realistic. I personally enjoyed the ending, but I’ll leave it up to you to decide.