7. Antichrist (2009, Denmark)
Director Lars Von Trier is a provocateur, an anarchist, someone for whom making films is an excuse to be controversial and unease people. Von Trier had tackled such outrageous subjects as adultery with consent (Breaking the Waves), pretending to be mentally handicapped for fun (The Idiots), depression in the face of the end of the world (Melancholia) and nymphomania (Nymphomaniac). A button pusher by nature his most blatant middle finger to conservative film-goers is his assault on religion and male and female sexuality: Antichrist.
After their toddler son falls from a window and dies while they were busy having extremely graphic sex, a husband and wife (played by William Defoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, characters simply named “He” and “She”) move out to a cabin in the woods to recover from the tragedy. Cabin in the woods films generally have a formula, involving some kind of external force attempting to destroy the inhabitants of the cabin.
Antichrist twists this by making He and She antagonistic towards each other, starting with whom the blame is based on gradually moving to the point where the situation comes to blows. Blood-spurting genital concentrated blows. A battle of the sexes with no true winner – in the end chaos reigns.
6. High Tension (2003, France)
Films made for the sake of cheap titillation using even cheaper effects, the Video Nasty film-makers knew full-well that they could make money due to the fact that the mainstream was never going to match their gore-levels. New French Extremity is the natural evolution of the Video Nasty movement, but with a more punk rock-aesthetic – they don’t just want blood, they want to challenge your perceptions of decency, to horrify on a moral level. If you are left un-phased by the opening decapitated fellatio in High Tension, do not worry – there is more sickness to come.
When an unstoppable Michael Myers-esque truck driver massacres a family and kidnaps the daughter, her Sapphic friend attempts to save her. Cue a blood-soaked, high-tension-filled game of hunter and the hunted. The sight of Cecil DeFrance with her blonde pixie cut, blood free-flowing from the side of her head stalking the scene with her make-shift barbed-wire bat is an enduring image and arguably as iconic in modern French cinema as Audrey Tautou’s elfin smile from Amélie. The twist ending is nonsensical but the sole flaw in this early New French Extremity classic.
5. 28 Days Later (2002, UK)
Remember in 2002 when zombies had not been a credible force in horror since 1985’s Day of the Dead? It seems strange now to think of a time where the walking dead were not in vogue. The resurrector of the undead: Trainspotting director Danny Boyle with his amped up, Rage-induced infected and a vision of a very English end of the world, complete with eerily abandoned central London. Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up in a hospital bed to find that every is gone. A tale of survival in the face of apparent apocalypse in which, as the weathered trope dictates, the real monster is humanity itself.
Shot digitally using Canon XL2’s for logistic and speed reasons, the effect is that the cinematography has, not only a brutal harsh picture but, a verité feel – this could be a documentary, this could be your life. Scriptwriter Alex Garland (Sunshine, Dredd, Ex-Machina) makes the characters relatable: Jim’s heartbreaking visit to his parents house, the Pepsi, Lilt or Tango conversation, the carefree shopping trip, all make the audience more invested in the characters’ peril.
Aided by an atmospheric yet ardrenalized soundtrack (‘In the House, In a Heartbeat’), the dutch-angled final escape is nerve-shredding at its best, and a highpoint in a film of stand-out set pieces. Sequel 28 Weeks Later is slightly more braindead but still worth a watch if only for that helicopter scene.
4. The Orphanage (2009, Spain)
One of the several Spanish horror films that has had Pan’s Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro’s seal of approval, The Orphanage is a hugely affecting Spanish ghost story with similarities to del Toro’s own The Devil’s Backbone and an obvious influence on James Wan’s masterful The Conjuring. A mother believes her terminally ill son has been kidnapped, possibly by the remarkably odd social worker that has been lurking around the house. The centre of the story is the mother’s attempts to find and save her son whatever the cost.
The initial treasure hunt is a mixture of child-like wonderment and superb foreshadowing (notice how the viewer would be greatly confused by the ice cream wrapper’s appearance later in the film without this previous set-up).
Apart from the heartfelt sentiment, the reason that The Orphanage is such a notable horror film is the child with the ramshackle scarecrow mask. Kids can be incredibly creepy (see: The Omen, The Shining and Poltergeist), but one in spooky mask will provoke sleepless nights. A collection of jump scares and chilling deaths (the highlight being the mangled bus crash victim) seal the deal. A ghost story that frightens and feels in equal measure.
3. The Descent (2005, UK)
Future Game of Thrones director Neil Marshall prefaces his supernatural frights with some very human ones – darkness and confined spaces. While darkness is used throughout horror to stir an audience’s imaginations, few moments in modern horror are as breath-stealing as the cramped tunnel crawl midway through The Descent. There is an instant relatability in that scene as people as a rule do not want to be in claustrophobic situations.
It is a similar trick to the age-old method directors use by having the antagonist wield a knife or other sharp object; everyone knows how much accidentally cutting themselves hurts, the mind assesses that getting stabbed must be a lot worse and triggers empathetic fear.
Aside from psychological tricks The Descent has much to recommend. Six women decide to go on an extreme sports weekend to reaffirm their friendship, and in the case of Sarah distract her from the recent deaths of both her husband and daughter. When the group go spelunking down some local caves things start to go very wrong. Marshall has a strong commitment to character; where other would use the predominately female cast for titillation, he is much more focused on creating human beings. Human beings that bicker, fall out and fight. Cracks appear in their relationships way before the actual monsters show up.
2. Let The Right One In (2008, Sweden)
Out of all the films on this list, this is the one that you have no doubt seen. Despite the blood, dismemberments and the vampirism elements, Sweden’s Let The Right One In is plot-wise not a straight up horror. It is the coming of age tale of bullied outcast Oskar set in a 1980s Swedish apartment complex. A mysterious new neighbour girl brings the opportunity for a new playmate for Oskar. Little does he know that despite her appearance, Eli may not be all she seems. The perma-snow dusted apartment complex makes the film seem almost dream-like, or at least like the final scenes of similarly doomed love story Edward Scissorhands.
Cutting close to folk-legend as opposed to Hollywood revisionism, the title comes from the rarely acknowledged belief that vampires cannot enter a building without being first invited, which Eli bloodily demonstrates. The film also has components of body horror in the form of the woman who is beginning to “turn” before her abrupt end.
Most 80’s coming of age tales, especially those with a supernatural lean (Weird Science, Teen Wolf), shy away hard truths, but …Right One In is unflinching in its depiction of the brutal justice of school bullies but because of this the eventual retribution feels completely justified. A horror film one can take to heart, to treasure and to explore – a rarity.
1. Martyrs (2008, France)
Starting off seemingly at the end of the story – a girl running, bloody, half shaved and limping from a warehouse. The question remains: What happened? Years later that same girl tracks down her tormentors in search of vengeance and to quell her inner demons. Up until the half-way point a fairly standard, if extremely violent, revenge flick; the second half of Martyrs is the reason for its notoriety. Put simply the last half hour is a test of endurance, and an experience like no other in modern horror cinema. An exercise in taking the Torture Porn sub-genre to its nth degree and questioning its entertainment value.
While that may put some off it is still an enthralling horror film, with moments of glorious claret spray, watch-through-your-fingers intensity and characters to root for. The most recent of the New French Extremity on this list, and arguably the sub-genre’s zenith, but do not watch unless you are ready to be challenged – Martyrs is not for the faint-hearted.
Author Bio: Ashley Robak should really try harder. He has a BSc in Film Production, a film blog which is sometimes updated (http://ashleypurplecamera.wordpress.com) and occasionally contributes to On Record Magazine. When not writing about film, he attempts to make his own with Purple Camera Media (http://vimeo.com/purplecamera).