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Horror Month Top Ten - Unusual Horror Films


Sometimes films fall through the cracks, and often there is a very good reason for it. When it comes to horror, I've always found myself attracted to the radically different, and the list below reflects that. You won't find anything about any of these films that isn't a little...off. One of them is a PSA, two are animated efforts, there are even a few classics atypical of their sources. Regardless of the origins of the films below, I hope that my enthusiasm for them inspires you to seek them out. Just keep an open mind.

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01. The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water (1973, Jeff Grant)

One of the most unexpected nightmares I've ever come across is this U.K. public information film, The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water. Over the course of the short film, a cloaked figure simply tells us of the children he's killed. He looks upon the children - the show-off, the unwary one, the fool - and takes great pleasure in their demise. The Spirit's voice is provided by Donald Pleasance, who delivers the lines in a chilling whisper and with a very real sense of sick satisfaction. Quite simply: this is a wonderfully effective film, and one that has reportedly given nightmares to an entire generation of British children. That all of this is delivered in under a minute and a half is nothing short of amazing, and it's not something I'm ever going to forget.

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02. The Nanny (1965, Seth Holt)

I somehow don't think that Kim Carnes was thinking of The Nanny when she recorded "Bette Davis Eyes", but if she had been the song could have been a whole lot darker. The film was produced by Hammer Studios, and due to the decided lack of a marquee monster is not among the studio's most famous films. It's obscurity is undeserved though, because the film is just about as tense as they come, and Bette Davis' performance is absolutely spellbinding. Just as good is the completely unknown William Dix, who never had another major film role. He plays a young boy released from a psychiatric hospital who fears that his nanny - beloved for years by his family - killed his sister. The brilliance of the film lies in the fact that you never really know whether or not the boy is lying, and the tension that this doubt brings is truly spellbinding.

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03. Matango (1963, Ishiro Honda)

Ishiro Honda really made very few straight horror films, but of those few the severely underseen Matango stands as the best. From its Gilligan's Island-ish opening to the fever dream third act, the film is truly bizarre. With seven characters - each conveniently representing one of the Seven Deadly Sins - one by one succumbing to the temptation of the poisonous fungus that grows rampant on the island they've found themselves on, Honda is given the opportunity to showcase some of the strangest visuals of his career. That's really saying something for the father of Godzilla!

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04. The Seventh Victim (1973, Mark Robson)

Producer Val Lewton made a cycle of literate low-budget horror films at RKO in the early part of the 1940s, most famously with directors Jacques Tourneur and Robert Wise. Amidst the all-out masterpieces like Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie was the most fatalistic of all: Mark Robson's The Seventh Victim. The film's themes of Satanism and suicide make it one of the few films of the '40s to tackle such subjects head-on. In many ways, this is the most Tourneurian of the non-Tourneur directed Lewton pictures. Notice the constant references to (and embrace of) death, the way characters manage to talk to each other in elliptical, oblique sentences. The Seventh Victim, in fact, appears to take place in the same cinematic universe as Tourneur's Cat People: the character of Dr. Judd, played by Tom Conway, appears in both films.

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05. Trick r' Treat (2007, Michael Dougherty)

What a shame that one of the absolute finest horror films of the last decade never received a theatrical release and was instead unceremoniously dumped straight to DVD. The two obvious points of reference for Michael Dougherty's brilliant horror anthology are John Carpenter's Halloween and George A. Romero's Creepshow, but horror fans will recognize a slew of others including The Howling, Pet Semetary and many others. Far from simply a series of references, though, the film is incredibly well-written and directed, and features several moments that will linger in your memory for some time. There is a silver lining though: the film has a small but vocal cult following, and seems destined to become a Halloween classic.

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06. Street of Crocodiles (1986, The Quay Brothers)

The Brothers Quay have made a career for themselves in creating disturbing, off-center animated films, and Street of Crocodiles is possibly their masterpiece - and I'd go further in proclaiming it one of the greatest animated films ever made. The 21-minute stop-motion film begins with an old man in a dilapidated theater spitting on some sort of mechanical microscope-ish contraption, and things only get weirder and darker from there. The imagery is the stuff of horrible dreams: rusty screws, nude, faceless dolls, filth. The main character - a twisted humanoid marionette, freed from the shackles of his strings - takes us through the storefronts and alleyways found inside the machine. It's truly a dark, impenetrable, and above all unforgettable film, and one that's inspired countless imitators. Once you see the Quay's film, however, you'll realize that they just don't get it right.

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07. The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1986, Jiri Barta)

Of the numerous accomplishments that Walt Disney is famous for, one that tends to be pushed aside is that the innovator made us forget what absolute nightmares fairy tales have always been. Brilliant Czech animator Jiri Barta, however, did not forget this fact and his 50-minute feature The Pied Piper of Hamelin is a sublime example of animated, atmospheric creepiness. The sinister tone of the film is set in the opening moments, where Barta's woodcut, German Expressionism-inspired town is shown in a slowly-moving establishing shot intercut with cogs and wheels churning along at an almost lifeless pace. The entire film, in fact, is created from stop-motion animated wood carvings, and the unmoving, lifelessness of each of the human characters - along with the jibberish language that they speak - is absolutely unnerving and bizarrely intense. The language and grotesquely distorted anatomies of the figures emphasize their extreme unhuman-ness. At the heart of the film is the source story, which is horrific to the core and is well-suited for Barta's animation style. The film played the Cannes Film Festival in 1986, and it has its fans, but because of its inherent creepiness and generally unsettling qualities, it will never be a film that the mainstream population can truly embrace. For those with a palate for it though, few meals are finer. For another brilliantly terrifying Jiri Barta film, see The Last Theft.

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08. Hour of the Wolf (1968, Ingmar Bergman)

On a purely personal level, madness is a theme that I find truly terrifying, and it's one that is very difficult to film due to its inherent cerebral qualities. In Hour of the Wolf, Ingmar Bergman's masterful (and only) foray in the horror genre, Max von Sydow portrays a man in a slow descent into complete, inescapable madness. What's worse, he can sense that he is slipping, and yet he's helpless to stop it. The lucid moments make the transition all the worse, and the actor gives a truly great performance. Liv Ullman portray's the man's suffering, terrified wife. For all its dark, surreal imagery and moments of deeply unsettling drama, the film's single most horrible moment is a long, silent shot of Bergman's favorite subject: his actors faces.

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09. Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971, Mario Bava)

Among the very first - and most gruesome - slasher pictures, Mario Bava's Twitch of the Death Nerve (also frequently known as Bay of Blood and a dozen or more other names) is also among the most cynical and nihilistic. What's more shocking from a modern standpoint is just how much of this film was lifted wholesale for the original Friday the 13th. Several deaths and scenes are lifted verbatim from the earlier film, but they aren't used to such great effect. Bava's gory masterpiece is ultimately a dark commentary on human greed and general nastiness, something that the Friday the 13th pictures never cared about. While it may have inspired innumerable Dead Teenager films, Twitch of the Death Nerve stands apart due to its moody atmosphere and oddly graceful direction. If Bava's films always had to overcome limitations in budget and script, one must always admit that he never directed a bad-looking film, and ultimately, Twitch of the Death Nerve is among his best.

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10. The Hamiltons (2006, The Butcher Brothers)

Oh, the terror of normality! Arguably the only truly good film to come out of the After Dark Horror Fest, The Hamiltons features a family of vampires (several years before the Twilight craze) who, really, just want to fit in among us. The reason the film works so well is that, for the most part, they succeed. Films with a very low budget and hand-held cameras, the picture has an almost voyeuristic feeling that only adds to the already uncomfortable viewing experience. A surprisingly intelligent and restrained film in a sea of gore-fests, it's only a shame that it didn't find a wider audience.

by Izo


6 Comments

Very solid list and I'll definitely make a point to check out all of the ones on it that I've yet to see.

Trick 'r Treat might be my favorite horror film of the past 15 years.
Pied Piper is the more impressive Barta film, but I just can't think of many films that are as oppressively sinister as The Last Theft.

Both films do an amazing job at advancing the universal language of the silent era. I love the increasingly grotesque faces of the hagglers in Pied Piper as different amounts of money exit their mouths to gibberish.
Great list, I love lists since they almost always lead to new discoveries. Well they do when compiled by someone whose taste you trust, and anyone who would place a creepy 70's British public service infomercial in the top spot is someone with my kind of taste.

I actually have that on DVD since I love those COI films. So I'll 'fess up to the ones I haven't seen - shamefully I haven't seen Twitch of the Death Nerve which I have and really need to just watch. I haven't seen Trick 'r Treat, The Hamiltons, The Seventh Victim or Matango! So thanks to you it looks like I have some more films to track down and try and squeeze in.

Of the ones I have seen I'd say The Nanny cries out for a wider audience. It's an absolute gem in every way, it'd make a great double bill as the second film after The Fallen Idol.
Thanks, Lawrence!

I'm curious, did you happen to see "The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water" on TV when you were a kid?
I'm sure I did, since I remembered it when I saw it again on DVD years later. I'd love to say that it made a huge impression on me, but that would be a fib. It's so strange to think something like that would just pop onto the television during the day.
I watched Trick R Treat as part of the build up to Halloween, and sadly I have to say that I didn't like it. I was surprised how little I enjoyed it. I thought it was a little too slick, and too modern for me. Shame.