Kairo (Pulse) – (2001) – Dir: Kiyoshi Kurosawa – Language: Japanese (Japan).
Of the many, many Asian films I love (horror and otherwise), Kairo is quite possibly the most effective I've yet seen. It has all the elements that have become almost standard in these films (almost clichéd, one might say) – ghostly females with long, unkempt black hair; ancient/traditional curses manifesting themselves through modern technology; evil or the supernatural almost as a viral epidemic – but what Kairo manages to do that most others don't is tap into that chaotic, unnameable atmosphere that goes beyond the plight of the individual and is about society as a whole descending into the fearful unknown. To be honest, I have little to no idea what the hell is going on in this film. I know that the supernatural are manifesting themselves through technology (specifically, the internet); that there is some urban legend concerning a 'red-taped door'; that people are disappearing, or killing themselves. To be honest, I think the confusion (and I might have just been ultra-thick whilst watching) adds to the terror. Both scenes which feature images of spectres advancing at the camera and show virtually nothing at all, can send shivers up and down the spine. It's a wonderful slow burn of a film and really creeps inside the mind.
The Last Exorcism – (2010) – Dir: Daniel Stamm – Language: English (US).
One more 'found-footage' film (I do have a thing for these) and the set-up for this is that it is footage of a documentary following a preacher who has lost his faith but still carries out exorcisms. His rationale is that if the people believe they are possessed, then belief in the ritual of exorcisms will 'cure' them. To this end, he employs various props such as a cross that emits smoke, hidden wires hooked up to the 'possessed' person's bed and so on. The film details his attempts to 'cure' a young girl whose family believes she may be possessed. Again, a film that slides in the narrow gully between is it psychological or is it paranormal? This is a really well crafted film. The performances are very well delivered and the pace is excellent. Character development at the start, slow build up with scenes that are atmospheric rather than reliant on 'jump scares'. There's one particularly effective scene which had me nearly crawling backwards out of my seat. The young 'possessed' girl simply stares at the camera and all is still...you're waiting for that moment, dreading what might come. They drag it out to nerve shredding length, then... Well, I'm not going to tell. You'll have to watch. I was particularly impressed with the ending, as they took it off into a direction I didn't think they would. Much like the aforementioned The Borderlands, in fact... Bravo, once more.
A Tale Of Two Sisters – (2003) – Dir: Kim Jee-woon – Language: Korean (S. Korea).
Second Asian horror on my list (oh, there are so many to choose from), this one from South Korea. Two sisters return home after a sojourn in a mental hospital, to live with Father and Step-Mum. It soon unfolds that not all is right, both with the sisters and with the parents. The house too, exhibits strange noises and events. Like Kairo, there are nods to now-classic Asian horror tropes, including the almost obligatory creepy female with dark hair. But this film is more like a Hitchcock thriller than an outright horror. It still retains that dread-inducing atmosphere but it's layered, under and over, with a sense of mystery. Again, you're never quite sure whether what is unfolding is real or no and as the mystery begins to reveal itself, it turns the whole film on its head. It also stands up to repeated viewings, as I can attest. It must be pointed out that it's also heartbreakingly, beautifully filmed and the performances of all involved, especially the two sisters, are exceptional. I love this film, the melancholic through-line, the aching, fragile beauty, the dread and tension, even the fractured structure of it. Definitely one of the best as far as I'm concerned.
Kill List – (2011) – Dir: Ben Wheatley – Language: English (UK).
Now for something a teeny bit different. Ben Wheatley, whose first film, Down Terrace, was a study of British gangster life as seen in domestic situations, was a fantastic and stylish début. Kill List starts off in similar territory, with a ex-military man who, it transpires, was involved in the assassination game along with his former soldier friend. Although the first part of the film deals primarily with their contracts (and often in shockingly brutal fashion), there are very subtle hints that there's something else going on behind the seemingly standard urban crime drama. Little signs carved into walls, strange figures in the background, odd parties utilising the services of the pair. Added to this is the tone of the film. It's unsettling, stylish and completely suits the events of the film. Without giving anything away, the film takes a turn just over halfway through without offering any real explanation. It's this challenge by the movie on the viewer to accept it on its own terms that marks it out as something different. It confounds your expectations and scoffs at your attempts to predict it. Yet it works and works well, at least for me. Again, it's not a film for the casual viewer and many will be put off by the nihilism on display, but since we're all here for the same or similar reasons (by that I mean, horror fans who will be reading this), I expect that most will give it a chance. Do so. Wheatley is one of the brightest directors working today. Watch this and then stick on his wonderful follow up, Sightseers, for a dose of extreme black comedy.
The Orphanage (El Orfanto) – (2007) – Dir: J. A. Bayona – Language: Spanish (Spain).
Looking back over my choices, I realise there isn't much in the way of traditional ghost stories. I'll address that by listing one of my favourites (and there are a lot to choose from – The Others, The Awakening, The Woman In Black, KM31, even relatively 'shallow' stuff like The Conjuring or Paranormal Activity 3 (I didn't like the other all that much...)), which I've watched a few times now and loved more and more with each viewing. It should be a relatively well known film by now – woman moves back into her childhood orphanage with husband and adopted son; weird things start to happen, ghostly sightings and noises; little boy disappears, the reason possibly connected to the past – so I won't go into detail with the plot. What I will talk about is just how perfect I find the film. From the script which is pitch perfect and completely logical within its own world, to the acting which is wonderful and restrained (the little bot especially, is utterly natural). From the music which is by turns melancholic and creeping, to the ghostly goings on themselves. Most of these scenes revolve around things you cannot see. It's all about that dreaded anticipation again. Sounds, dialogue, music; all conspire to create a total sense of terror, the highlight of which, for me, was the scene in which a medium walks through the nearly deserted orphanage, monitored by night-vision cameras and audio. As she moves and describes what she can see and hear, we begin to hear it too, until all culminates in crescendo of fear and horror. There's also a great deal of emotion in this film and the ending is one of the best I have ever witnessed in a film. It completes it so much. All in all, a great film that deserves to be seen far and wide.
Thus concludes my personal favourite horror films. By no means definitive, or complete (there are dozens upon dozens of films I could have mentioned – Rec, Dawn Of The Dead, Tenebrae, Banshee Chapter, The Last Broadcast, Wolf Creek, The Innkeepers, Absentia, Nightmare On Elm Street, Evil Dead 2 and so on and so on), it is simply a list of those films that have stayed in my mind long after watching. If you haven't seen some of them, or any, please do check them out. You might agree with all my choices, but I'm sure there's at least one there you'll get a kick out of.
Thanks for reading what turned into a longer post than I had thought and remember – they're only films, they're only films, they're only films...
Paul M. Feeney.
Paul M. Feeney
Paul M. Feeney has been watching horror films since he was a young, impressionable boy and before the lunatic hysteria reached his parent's censorship. This transferred to the written word when he was sixteen and read his first Stephen King book. He hasn't looked back since (except to check over his shoulder that there aren't any monsters following...).
The past few years have seen him turn his hand to the writing of his own fiction, in the arena of horror and the supernatural. He expects to be published soon, wit fame and riches following soon after...