14. [REC] (2007, Spain)
The problem with foreign horror, though not really its own fault, is Hollywood’s need to remake high quality examples into English, inexplicably softening the material and removing what was essential about the original. [Rec] is one such example: within a year remade as the blander Quarantine, although this does not make [Rec] any less of a classic.
Following the doomed story of a television reporter and cameraman who are filming footage of emergency workers who have been called out to an apartment block, believing that there is a story behind it. The small news crew do not realise that something deadly dwells within the building and they are now trapped inside.
One of the rare iterations of the found footage film that has managed to improve on the formula laid out by late nineties phenomenon The Blair Witch Project. The first person perspective, the flustered female protagonist and heightened emotions are present in Blair Witch… but the addition of an actual physical threat increases the horror faction immeasurably.
Confined corridor corners make the jumps more unexpected, and the perfectly pitched set-pieces make [Rec] the most memorable found footage this side of Paranormal Activity. The advantage of foreign horror remakes is awareness of the original increases, provoking horror fiends return to the source in search of proper scares.
13. Berberian Sound Studio (2012, UK)
Though “sound mixer” is not the most exciting job to base a film around, Berberian Sound Studio is not without precursor: Brian DePalma’s Blow Out previously mined the profession for sick thrills; in fact the “actress cannot scream properly” narrative thread is referenced several times in this, Peter Strickland’s supernatural making-of film.
A fish out of water vein runs throughout; Toby Jones’ doormouse of a sound mixer Gilderoy is not only confused by the language barrier but also the reason why he has been employed for this Giallo-styled horror film when his previous expertise had been in nature documentaries and children’s films. This confusion and the shabby treatment from his employers leads to his gradual descent into psychosis.
Though the fictional film they are working on, The Equestrian Vortex, is never seen outright the viewer does get a good idea of the seemingly nonsensical film due to the abundance of audio work, and the quietly hilarious cue titles: “The dangerously aroused Goblin prowls the dormitory”, “A flashback to the Priest stabbing a witch’s body” and “Interrogation of a witch in which a red hot poker inserted into her vagina”.
Berberian Sound Studio itself is more a creeping, psychological terror than the entertaining shlock that is The Equestrian Vortex but as the end suggests, maybe this was not the film they were working on. Both a loving pastiche and a beast all its own, Berberian Sound Studio is an utterly original watch.
12. Amer (2009, France/Belgium)
With a title simply meaning bitter, Amer is a flurry of razor-sharp editing, note perfect sound design, sighs, groans, breathing, and dreamily psychedelic cinematography (featuring many tinted lightings, but mainly red, green and blue.)
A rare example of modern Giallo, the obvious reference points are Dario Argento (especially Profundo Russo, Suspiria and Opera) as well as Sergio Leone in terms of editing and tension building: Close-ups of eyes, mouths and sweat dripping down skin strung out to infinity complimented by the extreme lack of dialogue. Side note: despite their obvious influence on modern horror with director’s like Argento, Mario Bava and Federico Fulci there are sadly no Italian horror films on this list.
Amer comprises of three tales of muted female sexuality, as a child, an adolescent, and finally an adult. It could be argued that the antagonist could in fact be the male gaze, most of the film consisting of leering shots of the protagonist’s form. Sexist, possibly. A visual treat, definitely. Similar to Ti West’s The House of the Devil in that both films have a keen eye for genre conventions and details but are very much their own entity. That does not stop there being a Goblin-esque prog-jazz freakout accompanying the closing scene. Directors’ Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani’s follow up The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears is also recommended viewing.
11. Trollhunter (2010, Norway)
Comedy and horror are perfect genre partners: both deal with heightened emotions, have set-ups, double-bluffs and releases. A terrible comedy is horrific while a terrible horror is generally comedic. The second and last found-footage film in this list, Trollhunter gets the balance between the two genres just right which is a very rare thing (An American Werewolf in London, Scream and Shaun of the Dead somehow also pull off this feat). A bunch of amateur film-makers decide to investigate a spate of bear attacks only to find out that the attacks are caused by something decidedly bigger (spoiler: it’s trolls).
Based on an offhand comment that the Norwegian Prime Minister said in a press conference about the existence of trolls in Norway, the film takes great care in recreating these mythological creatures for the film, each one having its own characteristics and personality. There is even references to Grimm’s folklore in the bridge dwelling Ringlefinch, an illusion to the Three Billy Goats Gruff.
The trolls’ anti-Christian stance is played for laughs as the crew have to replace their former deceased Christian cameraman for a Muslim with whom trolls have no problem. Despite the levity there is still room for some quality scares. Fellow Norwegian comedy horror Dead Snow is also worth a look because of the concept alone – Nazi zombies.
10. The Skin I Live In (2011, Spain)
The Skin I Live In is, at face value, a modern Spanish update of French horror classic Eyes Without a Face with an overprotective husband replacing the father and with shades of Frankenstein in perfectionist mad scientist character. Pedro Almodóvar is not a director previously known for this horrors, but identity is a key theme he deals with and it is covered here in spades.
After his wife dies in a fire-y car crash, plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) attempts to create a skin substitute that is able to survive burns, cuts and other threats. He begins experimenting on a mysterious woman whose secret is slowly revealed as the story progresses.
The non-linear method of storytelling blocks the viewer from truly knowing what is happening until the very end, and so making for a completely unexpected end. As well as a compelling narrative, elements of body horror and realistic surgical gore make it so the film also delivers on a visceral level. While the majority of horror films are happy to just entertain The Skin I Live In forces the audience to ask questions: Do looks define a person? How far should scientists meddle? Who was she?
9. Inside (2007, France)
Out of the three New French Extremity films in this list Inside is the most efficient slasher, the uncut version being a trim 82 minutes long. Despite this relatively short run time Inside is probably the bloodiest, oceans of blood – by the end of the opening titles there has been more blood than the entirety of most of this list. A regular staccato rhythm of ultra-violence, the death implements used are astonishingly inventive; knitting needles, toasters, and massive scissors all get in on the action with added home-made weapon ingenuity on par with Evil Dead 2 (extendo-knife, anyone?)
A story of motherhood, mutilation and matricide. Survivor of a car crash that claimed the life of her husband, Sarah is now home alone on Christmas Eve and severely pregnant. When thinking of a pregnant protagonist in horror one’s mind instantly leaps to Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby, but Sarah’s concern is not on what is growing inside her.
Betty Blue’s Beatrice Dalle (listed in the credits as “la Femme”) plays the relentlessly violent attacker devoted to doing Sarah, and anyone around Sarah, harm. But what are her motives? The endangerment of the unborn child may sicken some (the CGI baby-cam will exacerbate those feelings), but that is the aim with New French Extremity. If you want blood, you got it.
8. A Serbian Film (2010, Serbia)
A great way to sour a friendship is to convince someone that A Serbian Film is a funny spoof film comparable to Scary Movie. Up until the midway point it is fairly comical, there are some awkward laughs at the film’s former pornstar main character Milos walking in on his son watching porn, porn which stars Milos – pure cringe humour.
The larger-than-life porn director Vukmir Vukmir and his way with words also spawns some snickers (Sample: “It’s a pleasure to shake the hand that has jerked such a big cock“). The subterfuge unravels as soon as Milos is pumped with a mixture of amphetamines and and forced to fornicate and then maim women in front of a camera. By the time the film comes to its unholy conclusion that friend is no longer talking to you and is unable to sleep properly.
Some horror films are there to shock or disgust, with A Serbian Film the sole purpose is to imprint images on your mind that may never leave you. No doubt there is an allegorical subtext behind the brutality but without a background knowledge of Serbian politics that is not always clear. The film itself looks amazing, gliding camerawork and disconnected Lynchian locations make the slaughter all the more disturbing. Possibly the most extreme film on this list due to the sheer amount of aberrant sexualized violence; you have been warned.