I always like a good scary movie, and seeing as how it’s Halloween, it seems like a pretty good time to see one. Here are five frighteningly good movies that you haven’t seen to get you sufficiently freaked out for Halloween.
5. The Haunting
No, not the craptacular 1999 movie in which Catherine Zeta Jones and Liam Neeson are attacked by various pieces of CGI furniture before eventually fighting a possessed tornado (or something). No, that stinking pile of ectoplasmic poo was a Hollywood remake of 1963’s The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise (of, oddly enough, Sound of Music fame).
Essentially, it’s just a haunted house movie: a parapsychologist, a clairvoyant, a (slightly unhinged) survivor of poltergeist activity, and a jaded cynic agree to stay for several nights in the famously haunted Hill House. During the day, they explore the gothic corners of the house and learn the colored history of its infamously cruel owner; at night they experience ever more disturbing supernatural events, culminating in the eventual disappearance of one of the boarders and the utter mental annihilation of another.
But what The Haunting may lack in plot line novelty it more than makes up for in projecting a relentless atmosphere of supernatural fright. The nighttime poltergeist attacks are frightening in both their intensity and their ambiguity, and the white-knuckle terror of Julie Harris’ Nell is so utterly believable that I had no trouble suspending any disbelief. What’s all the more impressive is that The Haunting has almost no physical or visual special effects in it (save one near the end, which is both effectively subtle and spooky), and instead relies almost exclusively on disorientating sounds, the play of light on shadow, and the ever-unraveling inner monologue of the perpetually tormented Nell to concoct personal horrors in the imaginations of its viewers.
As the parapsychologist says, “I know the supernatural isn’t something that’s supposed to happen, but it does happen.” And how.
Yeah, you heard me, an animated movie. But hear me out. It’s about three kids who are convinced that the decrepit Nebbercracker house across the street is haunted. When Old Man Nebbercracker dies on his lawn after attempting to throttle on of the kids, the house goes from being merely haunted to being homicidally possessed, and it begins luring the citizens of the suburbs inside its doors, never to be seen again.
Monster House employs the same kind of performance-capture technology that Robert Zemekis used to turn The Polar Express from a lovable children’s story to a frighteningly macabre cadaver puppet show of a movie, but that’s not really the scary part about the movie. In fact, it is paradoxical that, freed from the structural constraints of making the digital protagonists appear realistically hominid in stature, the characters of Monster House are in fact much more endearing and believably human (especially Jenny’s perpetual looks of girlish disgust at the boyish antics of her compatriots — I’ve seen each one of those looks from my sisters over the course of my life).
Part of the creepy charm of Monster House results from another animation innovation: the lack of motion blur. Usually computer animation employs a digitally rendered “blurring” effect that accurately mimics the way film captures actual motion, the end effect of which is the illusion of fluid motion. Monster House does not do this: each frame is crystal clear in its static perfection, and the end result of it is a sense of motion that is disconcerting and unnatural in a way that’s very difficult to put your finger on, like watching clay-mation on computer. The effect, though seemingly unnatural, made the entire movie feel like it was filmed in miniature in the real-world, a freakish blurring of virtual and physical realities.
But beyond the technogeek aspects, Monster House does deliver some good scares as the house becomes more and more proficient at dispatching the neighbors. The very organic nature of the house (once the children find a way inside) is freakish and surprisingly ghastly. And yes, when the house finally uproots itself from its foundation and becomes very frighteningly ambulatory, it’s a frickin’ spooky thing to behold. The concept of a haunted house is spooky enough, but you know you’re safe when you’re not in it. The concept of a haunted house that can actually hunt you down and follow you is an altogether more horrifying experience. Trust me, Monster House is not a children’s movie…
…Unless you’re talking about the Children of the Corn.
In terms of plot, The Host is a standard Hollywood monster movie: poorly disposed of toxic chemicals create a giant monster that terrorizes Seoul, and a dysfunctional rag-tag team seeks it out to destroy it. Beyond that, however, it’s a whole ‘nother thing. The movie opens with the barest minimum of back-story — American prick contaminates Korea’s Han River and a nasty mutated thing grows in it — before the monster launches into a midday feeding frenzy through Seoul in what has to be one of the best action/horror set pieces I can remember.
The opening ends with the monster snatching away young Hyun-seo, and the rest of the movie focuses on the attempts of her family to hunt the beast down and her attempts to escape from its den. In many ways, The Host is more the story of Hyun-seo’s estranged family coming together under exceptional duress. And even though the language and culture of Korea may be alien to a Western observer, the dynamics of family are so universal that this aspect of the movie has a strong emotional resonance that elevate The Host above your typical slimy-monster-flick.
The Host isn’t all just family melodrama, of course. Now, while the pacing in the middle lags a bit (it tries to alternate between dark comedy and political statement, both of which are lost on someone without a Korean worldview), the movie is peppered with white-knuckle encounters with the monster thing that reminded me a great deal of Jaws: this isn’t some supernatural thing lurking in the shadows with an axe to grind, but a big hungry animal out on the hunt, and the little tiny people trying to bring it down are seriously outclassed. Hence, The Host is not so much scary as alternately action-packed and cringingly suspenseful, with a surprisingly degree of heart beating underneath the thrills and chills.
It’s certainly not perfect creature feature, but it definitely ranks up there with best.
Of course, Halloween is more about haunted houses and ghosts and general creepiness, and if that’s what you’re looking for, you can’t get much better than 2003’s A Tale of Two Sisters, another Korean entry.
Based on a Korean folk story, A Tale of Two Sisters centers on two young sisters who return home to their father and stepmother after some ill-defined hospital stay. Upon their return, the two struggle to come to grips with their tragic yet obscurely forgotten past, and in doing so supernatural events build up while their stepmother’s sanity breaks down.
A Tale of Two Sisters is partly a ghost story, but it is mostly an exercise in unsettling creepiness. Everything about the family is off-kilter and discomforting, from the strange aloofness of the father to the deranged obsessiveness of the stepmother. Whenever any of the bizarrely uncomfortable family events disbands, the girls are then tormented by fragments of memory and ghosts in the wardrobe. There are sudden scares and creeping horror scares and a general feeling of squeamishness throughout the entire affair.
And by the conclusion of the movie, when sufficient history is revealed, you’ll need to watch it a second time in order to understand the reason for the creepiness from the first time around. And oddly enough, watching the movie a second time is creepy and unsettling in an entirely different way, and while it answers many questions, it raises new ones that can only be answered (if they can be answered at all) by a third viewing. Fortunately, the movie stands up to repeated viewings, for it is lovely to look at, being expertly framed and beautifully shot, and deliberately vague, leaving aspects of the story to the viewer’s own terrible imagination.
A Tale of Two Sisters is frightening and unsettling and just a wee-bit confusing, but it’s creepy as hell and highly recommended.
Speaking of a movie that’s frightening and unsettling and creepy and beautiful and enigmatic, I give you my number one Halloween pick:
No, not the craptacular 2006 movie in which Veronica Mars and that dude from Lost are attacked by pasty white people who jump out of driers and laptops and crappy FM radios (or something). No, that stinking pile of techo-turd was a Hollywood remake of a 2001 Japanese movie called Kairo, directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa.
On the face of it, it’s a movie about two groups of friends who discover that a creepy website inviting the living to meet the dead may in fact do just that, but only at the expense of the living. If building an entire movie around that idea sounds stupid and dumb, well, go see the American Pulse and congratulate yourself on how right you are.
Fortunately for the viewer, Kairo is as much a movie about killer ghosts jumping out of your computer, say, Casablanca was a movie about WWII nightclub management. Instead, Kairo is a soulful rumination on loneliness and isolation. In it, cell phones and the internet and all the technologies meant to connect people actually do nothing but compartmentalize and separate them, rendering human-to-human connection almost unattainable; in it, the ghosts and spirits are not monsters bent on destruction, but themselves empty shells devoid of contact, desperately seeking to connect with anyone or anything. Kairo is utter heartache and despair rendered on celluloid.
But don’t get me wrong: Kairo is absolutely frightening too. Like The Haunting, it relies not on shocking special effects and “Gotcha!” scares, but instead on a relentlessly increasing sense of isolation and preternatural terror. Each of the ghostly encounters is sublimely horrifying, each using various techniques to complete disorient and disturb the viewer. In particular, Kairo‘s use of sound as a scare tactic is the best I’ve ever witnessed: rather than scaring the audience with a sudden screech of strings and screams, Kairo instead employs moments of silence that are absolutely deafening, if you imagine such a thing. Perhaps the best (or worst) aspect of Kairo is that there is never any moment of release — no monster to go “Boo!,” no enemy to destroy — so your sense of unease and discomfort merely increases continuously throughout the movie.
But beyond that, Kairo is also one of the most starkly beautiful and thought-provoking movies I’ve ever seen, too. Each of the supernatural encounters is uniquely, horrifyingly beautiful, and it was that effect that stayed with me for days after viewing, long after the initial shock wore off, and they still haunt me: Yabe’s encounter with the woman in the Forbidden Room; Kawashima’s encounter with the shades in the school library; the destruction of the plane; Junco’s eventual surrender to her desolation (this last being one of the most utterly beautiful and profoundly sad scenes I’ve ever seen).
Kairo is a masterpiece, and you should see it.
Happy Halloween, everyone!