Amy H. Sturgis (eldritchhobbit) wrote,
Amy H. Sturgis

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Halloween Countdown, Day 23

It's film time! Every year about this time I think about good Halloween films (not necessarily horror movies, and definitely not lame slasher pictures, but suspenseful, atmospheric films that put a chill up the spine) that are "off the beaten path" -- that is, films that are independent, foreign, direct to DVD or VOD, or somehow under promoted, and thus might easily slip under the proverbial radar. Not the classics. Not the usual suspects.

Today I have 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.

  • Stonehearst Asylum (2014) Based on a tale by Edgar Allan Poe and starring Ben Kingsley, Michael Caine, and Kate Beckinsale... need I say more? In the words of Film Journal International, "While the film lacks the macabre humor of the original story, it does an excellent job of conveying the creeping horror of Victorian medicine." Delicious.

  • As Above, So Below (2014) I know I'm in the minority here, but I really loved this film. A trip by urban explorers into the Parisian catacombs becomes a journey of alchemical transformation. Okay, this had me at "Parisian catacombs," but I was delightfully surprised by characters actually being smart in a crisis, having meaningful backstories, and seeking redemption along the way.

  • Housebound (2014) This New Zealand horror comedy about a woman under house arrest in what may be a haunted house was a morbidly pleasant trip, alternately wacky and spooky.

  • Cut Bank (2014) This small-town murder thriller may err on the predictable side, but outstanding performances by the likes of Bruce Dern, John Malkovich, Billy Bob Thornton, and Liam Hemsworth make it memorable.

  • The House at the End of Time (2013) This Venezuelan horror-suspense film is a must see. I don't want to spoil it in any way. This may be my favorite pick this year. You want to see this. You do.

  • After (2012) When two bus crash survivors awake to discover that they are the only people left in their town, they work together to unravel the truth behind the strange events. A bit saccharine, but worth seeing.

  • Citadel (2012) I'm still not sure what I think about this Irish psychological horror film, but months later I'm still thinking about it, so that's noteworthy in itself. I'm now horrified of high rises for an all new reason.

  • The Brøken (2008) This understated doppleganger film plays out much like a modern-day Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Quiet and disturbing, and I mean that in a good way.

  • Wicked Little Things (2006) This is a film about the Appalachian children who died in a mine coming back to haunt the mine-owner's descendants. It's exactly what it says on the tin, no real surprises. What sets this apart is beautifully atmospheric shots of the woods and a spectacular sense of place. Visually memorable.

  • Breaking Dawn (2004) No, this is not that Breaking Dawn. This is cerebral little film that rewards careful watching. Dawn is a young medical student is charged with uncovering the murder of a mental patient's mother. Or is she? Well crafted and satisfying. And spooky.

    Here are some of the other recent "off the beaten path" films that I find to be fittingly chilling for the season:

    • Oculus (2014): We watched this for Longmire's Katee Sackhoff and Doctor Who's Karen Gillan. We ended up agreeing it was one of our favorite movies of the year. A young woman is convinced that an antique mirror is responsible for the death and misfortune her family has suffered. This is beautifully crafted horror.

    • Alien Abduction (2014): This is the film I mentioned in my post about the Brown Mountain Lights. It's a found-footage film done right, with scenes that reminded us of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Signs, The Blair Witch Project, and The X-Files. Its restraint in showing very little of the aliens is a strength. Be sure to watch through the credits!

    • Europa Report (2013): For my money, this is the best science fiction film of the last year. Gravity can't begin to compare. This recounts the fictional story of the first crewed mission to Europa, one of Jupiter's moons. Despite a disastrous technical failure that loses all communications with Earth mission control and a series of dangerous crises, the international crew continues their mission to Europa and encounters a baffling mystery. All SF fans must see this.

    • The Happy House (2013): It's the bed and breakfast you always dreaded - and that's on a good day. This is not a good day. This quirky, clever serial-killer comedy works unexpectedly well thanks to its dark, restrained script and compelling characters.

    • Haunter (2013): This Canadian film is about teenager stuck in a time loop that is not quite the same with each revolution. She must uncover the truth, but her actions have consequences for herself and others. This one really surprised us (in a good way). Shiver inducing and well worth watching.

    • How I Live Now (2013): Ably adapted from the award-winning novel by Meg Rosoff (which I really liked), this dreamlike film follows fifteen-year-old American Daisy, who is sent to stay with cousins on a remote farm in the United Kingdom just before the outbreak of a fictional third world war. I don't know why this haunting apocalyptic work didn't receive more attention, because it deserved it.

    • Jug Face (2013): This wins the original premise award. There's no way to describe the film that doesn't sound bizarre, but it's unexpectedly compelling. A teen girl who is pregnant with her brother's child tries to escape from a backwoods community, only to discover that her people have determined that she must sacrifice herself to a creature in a pit. (Be warned about the subject of miscarriage.)

    • The Numbers Station (2013): This is a British-American action thriller about a burned-out CIA black ops agent (John Cusack) assigned to protect the code operator at a secret American numbers station somewhere in the British countryside. I suspect the poor reception this received is because it's more quiet, melancholy, and introspective than the run-of-the-mill action-mystery. Of course, that's why we liked it.

    • 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.

    • Extracted (2012): This thought-provoking indie SF film considers a scientist whose consciousness becomes trapped in the mind of a convict who volunteered to be a part of an experimental procedure. This is another cerebral tale well worth seeing.

    • Last Kind Words (2012): Brad Dourif movies are always a part of Halloween, or at least they should be. Seventeen-year-old Eli has just moved with his family deep into the backwoods of Kentucky to work on the isolated farm of a local recluse. Inexplicably drawn into the strange forest that lies beyond the farm, Eli encounters the beautiful, sweet, and mysterious Amanda, seemingly the perfect girl. But with the discovery of decaying bodies hanging from the trees, he realizes that the forest - and Amanda - are harboring some very dark secrets. If a horror film can be called lovely, it's this one.

    • The Wall (2012): This elegant Austrian-German film haunted me for a good long while. A woman visits with friends at their hunting lodge in the Austrian Alps. Left alone while her friends walk to a nearby village, the woman soon discovers she is cut off from all human contact by a mysterious invisible wall. With her friends' loyal dog Lynx as her companion, she lives the next three years in isolation looking after her animals. Understated and affecting.

    • 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.

    • Ghost from the Machine (2010): After his parents die, Cody, an inventor, becomes obsessed with finding a way to contact them once again. Tom, a local scientist who lost his wife, becomes interested in the project and helps Cody. Together, they discover that Cody's invention can cause ghosts momentarily to reappear as flesh and blood. What follows is a dark and moving study of human nature.

    • 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.

    Here are my other top recommendations from recent years:

    • 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.

    • 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.

    • 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.

    • 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.

    • 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 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."

    • Dorian Gray (2009) I don't believe this was ever 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 Burrowers (2008): This is a brilliant 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.

    • You can't miss 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 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.

    • Another well worth watching is the Finnish historical fantasy/horror/morality play Sauna (2008 - thanks to mr_earbrass for the recommendation).

    • We also quite liked the surreal dark fantasy Franklyn (2008), as well as

    • 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),

    • Below (2002), a World War II-era horror film makes great use of the claustrophobia of submarines to create a chilling mood, very atmospheric. If you like Star Trek's Bruce Greenwood (and who doesn't?), you'll want to see this,

    • 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?
  • Tags: film, halloween

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