Today I have quite a few new recommendations to add to the list, based on this past year's viewing. (We accessed all of these via Netflix.) Here they are, in reverse chronological order.
- Mama (2013): This is a Spanish-Canadian treat based on the Argentine Muschietti's Mamá, a 2008 Spanish-language short film of the same name. Young children can be disturbing. Young children abandoned in the woods for several years and raised by a (territorial and possessive) spirit can be doubly so.
- Dark Skies (2013): This wasn't the very best spooky film we saw this past year, but it was far, far better than I'd anticipated, and it scratched that "alien abduction" itch of mine that's been troubling me ever since The X-Files left the small and big screens.
- Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia (2013): This stand-alone story works independently of its prequel. It's not an unproblematic film, but if you have a taste for Southern Gothic, it's worth a look.
- House Hunting, also released as The Wrong House (2013): What a surprise this psychological horror film was! Quite the mind game. Home-shopping families visit an empty farmhouse... and the house keeps them there.
- The Tall Man (2012): I love it when a film goes in a direction I didn't foresee, and this French-Canadian mystery-thriller one did it again and again. In a small, poverty-stricken former mining town, children are disappearing on a regular basis. The abductions are blamed on a local legend called the "Tall Man." One of the standout favorites of the year for me, this one asks some uncomfortable and thought-provoking questions that keep you thinking long after the film is over.
- The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh (2012): This little Canadian film serves up some effective atmosphere. An antiques collector inherits a house from his estranged mother only to discover that she had been living in a shrine devoted to a mysterious cult. Soon he comes to suspect that his mother's oppressive spirit still lingers within her home and is using items in the house to contact him with an urgent message. Vanessa Redgrave's voice-overs as the late mother add depth to the spooky visuals.
- In the Dark Half (2012): This was the first of three micro-budget movies to be made in Bristol, UK under the iFeatures scheme. Despite its humble beginnings, this is an absolutely riveting and deeply soulful work. Young Jessica Barden gives a particularly brilliant performance. Bad things are happening in a run-down working-class town, where a young woman is convinced that something nasty is out to get her. But she's also struggling with conflicting feelings toward her hard-drinking neighbor, whose son mysteriously died while she was babysitting him. One of my favorites from this year.
- Sinister (2012): After moving to a new town, a true-crime writer discovers a cache of videotapes depicting brutal murders that took place in the very house he just bought. As he tries to solve the mystery behind the crimes, a sinister force threatens his own family. I'm sort of breaking my own rules here, as this wasn't an under-the-radar film, but merely hearing the music for this movie creeps me out!
- Paranorman (2012): Okay, this wasn't exactly an off-the-beaten-path film either, but it's so wonderful, I had to list it. A perfect "feel-good" movie for Halloween!
- The Awakening (2011): If I had to recommend one new(ish) film for this season, this would be it. Gorgeously done from start to finish. In post-World War I England, a boarding school haunted by a boy's ghost calls on Florence Cathcart, who disproves hoaxes for a living. But Cathcart senses something truly strange about the school, leading her to question her belief in the rational.
- Whisperer in Darkness (2011): You can't go wrong with the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society's adaptations of Lovecraft's stories. This is a "talkie" instead of a silent film (like the HPLHS's Call of Cthulhu, and it works well.
- Sound of My Voice (2011): Wow. I mean, wow. This is high on my list of favorite viewing from this year. In this psychological thriller, journalists Peter and Lorna undergo an elaborate preparation process in order to infiltrate a cult, leading from a desolate road to an unmarked location, but the mystery only deepens when their blindfolds are removed. This is a smart, chilling film with just the right touch of cerebral science fiction.
- True Nature (2010): This is another film that really surprised me, to my delight. This tells the story of a family reunited when their college-age daughter is found after a year-long disappearance. With no memory of what happened to her, she soon discovers that her very presence threatens to expose the secrets and fragile lies by which her family has lived.
- Womb (2010): This stark, minimalist, quietly haunting film stars Eva Green and Matt ("Eleven") Smith, both of whom turn in subtle performances. A woman's consuming love forces her to bear the clone of her dead beloved. From his infancy to manhood, she faces the unavoidable complexities of her controversial decision. I found this to be wrenching, disturbing, and darkly beautiful. Full disclosure, though: my husband found it to have more style than substance.
- Imprint (2007): Can you hear their cries? Shayla Stonefeather, a Native American attorney prosecuting a Lakota teen in a controversial murder trial, returns to the reservation to say goodbye to her dying father. After the teen is killed, she hears ghostly voices and sees strange visions that cause her to re-examine beliefs she thought she left behind. This is a solid independent film with a gifted Native cast.
- House of Voices, also released as Saint Ange (2004): This French-Romanian film is a sophisticated mind game that kept me utterly fascinated and glued to the screen. A young cleaning woman is dispatched to tend to a crumbling orphanage called Saint Ange that houses only one child. While going about her duties, the new housekeeper begins to witness supernatural occurrences, causing her sole co-worker, a cook, to question her sanity. Whatever you expect this to be, I guarantee it will surprise you.
[Note: I've repeatedly had The Uninvited (1944) suggested to me, but I've been unable to find it. I'm glad to say it will be available on DVD later this month. At last!]
Here are some of the other recent "off the beaten path" films that I find chilling enough for the season, starting with my "top picks" from last year:
- Another Earth (2011): On the night of the discovery of a duplicate planet in the solar system, an ambitious young student and an accomplished composer cross paths in a tragic accident. This is one of my very favorite films of 2012.
- Absentia (2011): A woman and her sister begin to link a mysterious tunnel to a series of disappearances, including that of her own husband. This is my other top favorite of 2012.
- Exit Humanity (2011): A young man struggles to survive in the aftermath of a deadly undead outbreak during the American Civil War. This is a period zombie film with a heart and a brain. There's zombie-related gore, but it serves the purpose of the story.
- Cabin in the Woods (2011): Five friends go for a break at a remote cabin in the woods, where they get more than they bargained for. Together, they must discover the truth behind the cabin in the woods. Joss Whedon wrote this, and that's probably enough said right there. This turns all the classic horror tropes upside down.
- Some Guy Who Kills People (2011): This is a horror-comedy about a small town loser fresh out of an asylum who seeks revenge on those he deems responsible for ruining his life. Unexpectedly poignant and character-driven.
- Hobo with a Shotgun (2011): In this satirical film, a homeless vigilante played by Rutger Hauer blows away "crooked cops, pedophile Santas, and other scumbags" with his trusty pump-action shotgun. Warnings for gore and adult content. This is a dark and wry tongue-halfway-but-only-halfway-in-cheek dystopia.
- The Last Exorcism (2010): A troubled evangelical minister agrees to let his last exorcism be filmed by a documentary crew. I was unexpectedly enthralled with this; it twisted and turned in directions I didn't anticipate, and its ending is straight out of a Lovecraft story. Highly recommended. Note(!!!): The 2013 sequel is a terrible mess. Don't waste your time.
- Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (2010): "Good old boys" Tucker and Dale are on vacation at their dilapidated mountain cabin when they are attacked by a group of preppy college kids. This is ridiculously clever as it plays into and subverts classic horror scenarios. I laughed out loud.
- YellowBrickRoad (2010): In 1940, the entire population of Friar, New Hampshire walked up a winding mountain trail, leaving everything behind. In 2008, the first official expedition into the wilderness attempts to solve the mystery of the lost citizens of Friar. There's gore here, but far more psychological horror. The premise would've made a fine Twilight Zone episode. My husband felt the ending was a disappointing cop-out, but I give it props for originality.
- The Lazarus Project (2008): A former criminal gets a second chance at life and mysteriously ends up working at a psychiatric hospital where nothing is at it seems. Terrific psychological piece. I don't know why this didn't receive more attention and praise.
- Last but not least, Woman in Black (2012): This one isn't "off the beaten path" by any means, but I enjoyed it so much I'm noting it anyway. It's a rare example of a film adaptation that changes the ending of its source text and in fact improves the story.
Here are my other top recommendations from recent years:
- the dark fantasy Black Death (2010). Set during the time of the first outbreak of bubonic plague in England, a young monk is tasked with learning the truth about reports of people who are immune to the sickness in a small village, allegedly made so by "witchcraft." What follows is a dark fable that considers evil and love, loyalty and death, faith and fate. Excellent turns by Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, and a strong supporting cast really bring this to life (pun intended), and I was more than pleasantly surprised by the atmospheric eeriness and thoughtful tragedy of this film. As Alan Jones from Film4's "FrightFest" said about the film, "This intelligent original represents a commendable break from the genre norm and is one of the most powerful films made about God, the godless and what the Devil truly represents."
- the Gothic film Dorian Gray (2009), which I believe was never widely released in theaters in the U.S. I thought it was quite well done, true to the spirit if not the letter of Oscar Wilde's story, admirably restrained with the special effects, and graced by compelling performances by Ben Barnes, Colin Firth, and Rachel Hurd-Wood. It's perfect for the Halloween season, to my way of thinking.
- the brilliant The Burrowers (2008), an independent science fiction/horror Western that was short on cheap gore and long on psychological terror (just the way I like it), and we thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. Highly recommended.
- the brilliant, quirky, lovingly satirical films of Larry Blamire (thanks to marthawells for the recommendation), which are "must see" material, including The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (2004) and its sequel The Lost Skeleton Returns Again (2009), as well as the standalone films Trail of the Screaming Forehead (2007) and Dark and Stormy Night (2009) - I simply can't praise these enough,
- the Finnish historical fantasy/horror/morality play Sauna (2008 - thanks to mr_earbrass for the recommendation),
- the surreal dark fantasy Franklyn (2008),
- the chilling, true crime-inspired Borderland (2007),
- the Spanish science fiction thriller Timecrimes (2007),
- the moody, Lovecraft-inspired Cthulhu (2007),
- the gorgeous, silent Lovecraft adaptation The Call of Cthulhu (2005),
- the U.S. Civil War-era dark fantasy/horror Dead Birds (2004),
- and the dystopian psychological thriller Final (2001).
Your mileage, of course, may vary.
Okay, you're turn: what under-the-radar, off-the-beaten-path, Halloween-friendly films do you recommend?