7. The Neon Demon
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
I am fan of Nicolas Winding Refn’s hyper-real, heavily stylized and hypnotic visuals. Yet, his psychological horror drama The Neon Demon turned out mildly disappointing. The saving grace was the sumptuous visual design of the dog-eat-dog fashion world atmosphere. Plot-wise, Refn uses the vixens-filled-melodramas like Valley of the Dolls to provide the framework for his modern rework on the witchcraft ceremony. Elle Fanning plays the beautiful, alienated Jesse, whose sudden rise to stardom disturbs three rejected, aspiring models. The surrealistic glitter is as beautiful and disturbing as in Refn’s other movies, but it felt like a stretch to sit through some of the portions that are plain boring.
Director: Lucile Hadzihalilovic
Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s ambiguous French horror is a nightmarish fairy tale about childhood, puberty, and sexual reproduction. The film is set in an isolated island, populated with only women and children. The narrative is set in the perspective of a smart, curious 11-year-old boy Nicolas. A women-run hospital subjects him to a bizarre medical procedure. One day, the boy witnesses a nightmarish thing, as the woman of the island huddle around the shores at night. Although the narrative is light on explanation, the visuals maintain a sense of dread as well as strangeness. The body horror element offers some disturbing images in the vein of David Cronenberg’s works.
5. Train to Busan
Director: Yeon Sang-ho
Yeon Sang-ho’s highly entertaining action/horror thriller has some inventive set-pieces for zombie films. The protagonist is a apathetic fund manager taking his smart, little daughter to see her mom (his divorced wife) in Busan. They take a high-speed KTX train, unaware that the country is in the grip of a rapidly spreading zombie infection. One infected lady jumps into the train at the last minute of its departure, leading to a blood-curdling frenzy. Alongside the characters’ efforts to survive, the director makes a overt reference to indict the behavior of those at the top rungs of class structure and socio-economic hierarchies. There are plenty of cliches in the narrative and the Korean brand of sentimentality gets a bit over the top. Nevertheless, the chillingly crafted ‘zombie’ chases create a thoroughly engrossing movie experience.
4. Don’t Breathe
Director: Federico Álvarez
Fede Alvarez’s taut horror/thriller smartly reverses the traditional roles in the tired home-invasion narrative. Here, sinister element inside the house terrorize our thieving protagonists. We enter into the story through the lawless young thieve’s perspective and see no big threat in robbing an old man living with a dog, in the only occupied housing complex of the dilapidated street. They, like us, don’t know what they’re against. Alvarez creates scares as well as suspense from simple, practical things. The second-half twist looks perfectly organic when compared with ridiculous 360 degree twists in other horror thrillers (10 Clover-field Lane, for instance).
Through the blind man’s background as Iraq war vet as well as the town’s social decay, the director provides ample space for a dry social commentary. When you ponder over the blind man’s distorted view of family bond (especially in the way he commodifies it), you can see it as the product of the collective moral collapse. So the twist isn’t just thrown in as an afterthought.
3. Under the Shadow
Director: Babak Anvari
Babak Anvari’s feature-film debut constructs a form of terror, which has deep social and personal context. The film is set in 1988, during Iraq’s war with Iran. Tehran is in the firing line of Saddam Hussein’s missiles. An Iraqi missile hits protagonist Shideh’s apartment. Her neighbor believes that the missile carried a malevolent spirit (djinn). Shideh stubbornly stayed in Tehran with her little daughter Dorsa, although her doctor husband, before getting compulsorily drafted to battlefront, warns Shideh to get out of the city. Dorsa loses her favorite doll and believes the spirit has taken it.
Supernatural powers create chaos while psychological and sociopolitical threats tear apart Shideh’s life. In fact, Anvari seamlessly blends the Iranian political context with horror movies’ stuffs. It sticks to few horror genre rules, but the unusual backdrop and the impactful social commentary immerses us in this fearful atmosphere.
2. The Witch
Director: Robert Eggers
Robert Eggers’ unnerving art-house horror opens on a one cold, grey day in a New England plantation, in the year 1630. The family of William faces a trial for violating a doctrine set by their Puritan Church. William, his wife and five children are cast out of the town. They set up a farm in an isolated place near the dark, towering forest. The disorder commences with the disappearance of the family’s small baby. Their neatly divided religious belief of good and evil implodes the familial harmony from within.
For a debutante director, Eggers shows acute eye for perfectly setting up atmospheric dread, reminding us of the masterful earlier works from Ken Russell, Michael Haneke, Kubrick, and Von Trier. Although the oft-explored Christian hegemony happens to be the predominant theme, the brilliant formal structure of the shots dares us to imagine the wickedness rather than blatantly show it.
1. The Wailing
Director: Na Hong-jin
Korean filmmaker Na Hong-jin’s horror/thriller is an entertaining as well as profoundly contemplative examination of the nature of doubt, fear and sin. The story unfolds in a small town ‘Goksung’, where two people are stabbed to death by a family member. The protagonist is an inept, awkward police sergeant named Jeon Jong-goo. He lives with his wife, daughter and a condescending mother-in-law. Few days after the murders, another family faces the same fate. Meanwhile, talks about a fearful foreign demon spread rapidly throughout the small town. Nightmarish visions haunt Jong-goo, while his little daughter starts behaving in a strange manner.
Horror movies are most effective when they kindle our basic fears, escalated further by religious and societal beliefs. There are brilliantly executed gory, violent scenes in The Wailing, but the film transcends its scope when horror becomes psychological and is cloaked in ambiguity. It is rare to see horror movies that meticulously construct chaos and handle it without resorting to cheap scares.
Hush, The Greasy Strangler, The Neighbor, Trash Fire
By Arun Kumar
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An ardent cinephile, who truly believes in the transformative power and shared-dream experience of cinema. He blogs at ‘Passion for Movies.’