There are as many definitions of ‘horror’ as there are horror fans. Fear is subjective, as are film experiences, and diversity of views is one of the most exciting things about the genre. For every mainstream spookfest, then, there is an unusual, daring and experimental horror film that breaks boundaries and challenges audiences. While they are often polarizing, they also give the genre its fullness and life. Here we celebrate ten such films that throw “standard” definitions out the window.
HOUR OF THE WOLF (VARGTIMMEN)
Ingmar Bergman is the master of the psychological story – and horror is a genre that attacks the subconscious. Thus, it is inevitable that Bergman would create a surreal, darkly comic, and subtly disturbing horror film. As a young woman delves into her artist boyfriend’s unsettling mind, haunted by several types of demons (a 200-year-old woman who removes her face, a crow-man, a seductress), she finds herself infected by his psychoses. The images are purely Gothic, and the underlying themes are terrifying – what if insanity is contagious?
Horror icon Larry Fessenden started in the world of 90s independent cinema alongside Kelly Reichardt. Fessenden used familiar indie techniques – improvised-sounding dialogue, impressionistic camerawork, a free-flowing narrative – to tell macabre stories, including this vampiric tale of a man’s downward spiral. One minute it feels like a gritty New York drama; the next, it’s a frightening supernatural nightmare. The mix might be a bit confusing for some people, but for those who fall under its spell, the effect is haunting and tragic.
LISA AND THE DEVIL
Mario Bava is one of the most recognizable horror directors. His use of color, flamboyant camerawork, and Gothic tropes have left their mark on the genre, particularly in his explosions of violence. His passion project, LISA AND THE DEVIL, features some of these tropes – extravagant sets, supernatural menace, convoluted story – but it also features tender romance and melancholy that his other films rarely evoke. This is his strangest, saddest, and most poetic film, a softly unsettling counterpoint to BLACK SUNDAY and BAY OF BLOOD.
FEAR(S) OF THE DARK
Dark, adult animation is rare – which is unfortunate, because the medium offers ample opportunity to bend the laws of reality and show things that live action film can never achieve. This French anthology, animated by renowned graphic novelists like Charles Burns, proves this point beautifully and chillingly. From charcoal-smeared folk tales to a haunted house vignette told with vivid black-and-white imagery, which makes the darkness stand out in stark dread, the individual segments are marvels of visual language and classic terror.
TROUBLE EVERY DAY
What if Krzysztof Kieslowski directed a vampire movie? Claire Denis answers this question in her seminal horror film. It begins as a subdued, glacially paced drama about a honeymooning couple who encounter tension in Paris, but soon seeps into full-blooded grotesqueries. On one hand, it’s an eerie and poetic exploration of aberrance. Then the violence occurs, with such realistic force that I almost couldn’t bear it. The screams still haunt my mind. A lesson in brutality as well as poetry, Denis’s film can never be imitated.
VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS
Some of the first horror stories were fairy tales – Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel & Gretel, tales of children straying into dark corners of the world. This insane and gorgeous Czech film takes elements from several of these stories, mainly Red Riding and vampire myth, to weave a surreal look at a young girl’s sexual coming of age. Valerie must battle a hypnotic and monstrous devil, a ghostly relative, and paranoid villagers, all while being pursued by a man who may or may not be her brother (?). It’s weird, it’s arthouse, and it’s absolutely ravishing.
FISTS IN THE POCKET
Many would argue that this Italian classic is not horror at all, but a rebellious drama about youth. Who says the two are mutually exclusive? From the perspective of an anarchic and egomaniacal young man, we look into the macabre decay of a great family including a blind mother, mentally challenged brother, and “normal” eldest sibling, all tormented by the young man’s sudden lust for blood. It feels like something from the mind of Shirley Jackson, masterfully shot, and utterly disturbing. This proves that horror can inhabit many other genres, too.
THE IRON ROSE
Jean Rollin is best known for his Gothic sexploitation films, drawing inspiration from Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla.” This film is sexual, but also morbid and chilling on top of that. Not much happens – it’s about a young couple who have sex in a crypt, then find themselves trapped in the cemetery after dark. That’s it. Yet Rollin infuses the mundane events with such patient, haunting atmosphere that the simplest occurrence seems sinister. The ending left me feeling raw and cold. It’s like a ninety minute Poe poem. Only the French could pull that off.
Weird cinema would not be what it is today without Jodorowsky. While THE HOLY MOUNTAIN and EL TOPO defy genre, his later effort, SANTA SANGRE, clearly identifies as horror. Imagine Norman Bates growing up in a circus, dropping acid, and performing as a sideshow act rather than running a motel – that’s a small idea of what this film is like. In true Jodorowsky fashion, it’s baffling, stunning, and grotesque. Rarely does melodrama reach such fascinating, and ghastly, heights.
Polish horror cinema is typically defined by Roman Polanski, but Andrzej Zulawski deserves some serious notice after directing this nightmare of jealousy, monstrosity and tentacle-covered revenge. The visuals are truly disturbing, and Isabelle Adjani’s performance is the definition of chaos. Few times has a film sent me through this many different stages of terror. It’s frenetic, high-pitched, and tragic in an operatic sense. Lovecraft and love itself have rarely merged so powerfully into one story.