My 13 contributions to A Great Horror From Every Year from 1922, first published by BFI, 28 October 2022
Includes capsules of: Nosferatu, The White Reindeer, Carnival of Souls, Onibaba, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Possession, Re-Animator, Cronos, Cure, A Tale of Two Sisters, Rec, Let The Right One In, Berberian Sound Studio
Cinema’s first vampire feature is a story of plague and plagiarism. Henrik Galeen’s screenplay is an unlicensed adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (1887), and its pestiferous antagonist Count Orlok (the extraordinary Max Schreck) embodies real contemporary anxieties about post-war pandemic – as well as anti-Semitic stereotypes of verminous otherness. F.W. Murnau’s film is best remembered for its expressionist realisation of the vampire, whose very presence attracts all manner of uncanny effects (shadow play, sped-up film, superimposition, images shown in negative, breaches in spatio-temporal continuity) that transform his every environment into a landscape of twilit surrealism.
Alone and horny, newlywed Lapland woman Pirita (played by director Erik Blomberg’s co-writer and wife Mirjami Kuosmanen) is transformed by a shaman into a shape-shifting deer that seduces and preys upon male hunters – until her husband (Kalervo Nissilä) returns home to tame her with his phallic spear. Both a black-and-(mostly-)white ethnography of Sámi customs and rituals, and a mannered creature feature, this snowy saga pits humans against monster, men against woman, and Christianity against paganism, in a bittersweet allegory of the indigenous culture’s gradual subjugation to Church and patriarchy. It is abstract, enigmatic and archetypal.
The only feature of industrial filmmaker Herk Harvey, this loose spin on Ambrose Bierce’s short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1890) sees a young woman emerge from the river after a rail-bridge car accident, only to find her new life in Utah still close to both the water and the dead. Canted camerawork, stilted performances and unnerving sound design combine to create a mood of eerie disorientation, as Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss), frigid, faithless, independent and estranged from her own family, occupies the liminal lakeside while lost in the shifting frontiers of an increasingly secularised, liberated, educated American youth.
Deemed by William Friedkin “the scariest film I ever saw”, Kaneto Shindo’s feature takes place in feudal Japan, where a woman and her daughter-in-law, both abandoned by their conscripted husbands, have resorted to murdering soldiers who pass through the tall susuki grass, and selling their stripped armour for food – until a love triangle with a returned neighbour leads the mother to don a demonic mask. Having lived through the Second World War himself, Shindo uses his medieval setting to expose war’s power to corrupt and dehumanise. Mask or no mask, in this amoral landscape, everyone is a monster.
Tobe Hooper’s influential feature is three distinct films: the shocker promised by the title; the near bloodless (and mostly chainsaw-free) restraint of the actual film; and the gorefest that we imagine we have seen. As young travellers encounter a family of retrenched, cannibalistic slaughtermen, unexpected domestic comedy offsets the grisly horror – but from the outset a pervasive atmosphere of dirty, doom-laden wrongness gets right under the skin, and once Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) starts screaming (and does not stop), viewers are treated to one of the most sustained and harrowing nightmares of unhinged madness ever caught on film.
Enjoying a dual status as respected Palme d’Or nominee and banned Video Nasty, Andrzej Zulawski’s shrill drama of marital collapse has different dualities at its very core. Double agent Mark (Sam Neill) returns to divided Berlin, where his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) has been two-timing him with a pair of lovers, one human, one a tentacular creature. Mark starts his own affair with Helen (also Adjani), who is everything that Anna is not – but as husband and wife both seek outlets for their conflicted desires, Zulawski’s apocalyptic, Lovecraftian film reveals the divisions that exist around, between and within us all.
When the new housemate (Jeffrey Combs) of Miskatonic Medical School student Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) turns out to be an arrogant genius experimenting with a green-glowing, brain-reviving reagent, Dan will soon be embroiled in morgue-set mayhem and face life-or-death dilemmas with a randy rival professor (David Gale) and his own girlfriend Megan (Barbara Crampton). Updating one of H.P. Lovecraft’s weaker short stories (Herbert West – Re-Animator, 1922), Stuart Gordon crafts a schlockily psychosexual take on the Frankenstein myth that is pure Eighties in its exaggerated excess – funny, outrageous, gory and wrong in every way.
In this esoteric variant on the vampire myth, antiques dealer Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi) discovers an alchemical ‘Cronos device’ hidden in a carved archangel, and over the Christmas period, as evil men come for the contraption, darkly reenacts his Biblical namesake’s story. In his debut feature, Guillermo del Toro already exhibits what would later become obsessive motifs in his genre filmmaking: cogs and clockwork, heroic monsters and monstrous humans, and adult affairs seen from a child’s view (here Jesus’ granddaughter Aurora bears mute witness to the unfolding passion play). Del Toro regular Ron Perlman is there too, as a thuggish villain.
When not looking after his ailing wife, police detective Takabe (Koji Yakushe) investigates a bizarre series of murders, all with a common signature but each carried out by different individuals who confess but are confused by their own motives. The multiple killers’ sense of perplexity pervades Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s mesmerising enigma, as his narrative becomes a conversation between criminology and psychology, with a nation’s repressed rage under consultation. In a style that is measured and unnervingly aloof, Kurosawa hypnotises the viewer into a state of uncertainty over where reality ends and delusion – individual or collective – begins. Nihilism is rarely so quiet.
Loosely adapted from a Joseon-era Korean folk tale, Kim Jee-woon’s shocker tells the story of two close young sisters – one recently released from an asylum – who are not sure what they find more terrifying in their father’s traditionally decorated home: their abusive stepmother, or the resident phantoms. A deft, disorienting hybrid of ghost story and psychodrama, this boasts swooning production design, right from the exquisitely patterned wallpaper that accompanies the opening credits, but it also positively drips with domestic dysfunction and madness, leading to a harrowing, tragic revelation. It is the very finest horror feature of the Korean Wave.
For their TV show While You’re Sleeping, Ángela (Manuela Vasco) and her unseen cameraman follow a night shift of firemen into a building to help release an elderly woman locked into her apartment – and find themselves at the epicentre of a rapidly unfolding apocalypse. Drawing on the imagery (and associated anxieties) of 9/11, directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza stick to a first-person, found footage format that brings involving immediacy to increasingly irrational events in the residential block, while deftly, and jarringly, switching from one horror subgenre to another, ultimately ascending to high tension and terror in the penthouse.
In 1981 Stockholm, as a Soviet sub runs aground in violation of Sweden’s borders, meek 12-year-old Oscar (Kåre Hedebrant), engaged in his own Cold War with vicious bullies, practically conjures his new neighbour Eli (Lina Leandersson), who helps him realise his closeted fantasies of revenge. Adapting the 2004 novel of John Ajvide Lindquist, Tomas Alfredson merges pre-adolescent angst and timeless vampiric longing. In its cool distance, this is almost the anti-Twlight, perfectly nailing the pain of growing up, the beauty of melancholy and the irresistibility of violence, and miraculously managing to be utterly unsentimental yet still moving.
Working in an Italian post-production studio in the Seventies, British sound engineer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) observes that the director and producer are as sadistic towards women as the unseen-but-heard horror film which he is scoring and mixing. Yet even as Gilderoy retreats into recordings from home sent by his mother, his craven retreat into Englishness may be more a fugue state of someone denying his own small but significant part in all the ambient misogyny. Peter Strickland’s elegantly crafted period piece is also an ambiguous experiment in metacinematic horror, interrogating where we all stand in relation to the genre’s violence.