It's one of life's paradoxes: a lot of my favorite movies are generally classified as Horror, but Horror as a genre usually bores me. It's kind of the same way with me and Heavy Metal. See, the problem when you get to my age is that you've heard and seen it all before. And usually heard and seen it done a lot better.
And nothing sucks quite as hard as bad Horror or bad Metal.
When I was a kid, the local grindhouse (The Strand in Quincy Center) used to run double features of all the usual slasher and gore pictures. For a buck or two you had the privilege of sitting in a cold, grimy shitbox with greasy floors to watch kids slightly older than you get hacked to bits. I'm here to tell you that it all got old pretty quickly.
Hellraiser came along in the late 80s and kicked off the torture porn subgenre, but that never grabbed me on account of me not being a sociopathic sex-pest. Then Scream came along in the 90s and kicked off the meta-Horror craze, but I was too old to care at that point.
Of course, The X-Files dipped into the Horror wellspring on a bimonthly basis, and its sister show Millennium was essentially a spin on Se7en, with a healthy portion of Red Dragon. And both were heavily influenced by Silence of the Lambs, which is just highbrow Horror with pretensions to art. The boundaries between Horror, thrillers, and science fiction tend to get awful squishy.
But even if 99% of the genre has nothing for me, the economics and culture of Horror allows a certain amount of freedom for filmmakers to get really weird, as well as delve into the questions that preoccupy me. Namely, what do people put their faith in, how did those beliefs come about and how do those beliefs influence their behavior.
It's why the two subgenres of Horror that interest me most are Folk Horror and Occult Horror. Both center on belief, and how belief can drive otherwise conventional people to do things they may otherwise not. Occult Horror tends to focus on devil-worship and black magic and Folk Horror usually centers on remnant or revanchist fertility cults, but again, the lines of demarcation are not always fixed.
So here's a sampling of some of my very favorite Horror movies. Some bleed into sci-fi, others into the thriller bin, and some aren't really all that scary, but all have a lot of meat on the bone when it comes to themes, concepts and subtext. They're movies that make you think, which is all any artist can ask of his audience.
The Mephisto Waltz (1971) This is one of a flood of occult-themed potboilers to arise in the wake of Rosemary's Baby and boasts a pre-MASH Alan Alda and an off-the-charts gorgeous Jacqueline Bisset. It was made by TV superproducer Quinn Martin, which is why it has the feel (and cast) of an early 70s TV movie. Only with boobies.
That said, this is a well-researched occult thriller worthy of classic Dennis Wheatley. Alda plays a reporter assigned to interview a legendary pianist played by Curt Jurgens and soon finds himself lured into the older man's creepy, culty world. The film also takes an interesting sharp left turn: the first act focuses on the Alda character and the rest of the film on the Bisset character.
As with all good Horror, there's a distinct subtext of class politics at work here. Alda and Bisset are the working class strivers who the Jurgens character and his circle regard only as objects, resources to be exploited. This is integral to their philosophy of evil; the inability to honor the lower classes as truly human. Gives the ending an extra kick.
God Told Me to (1976) Oh, man. Oh, man.
This is one of the most insane spectacles ever put to film. Larry Cohen basically collects every fringe idea circulating during the grim, grimy mid-70s, throws 'em into a pot and comes up with a movie unlike anything else before and probably after. Interested in elite cults, mind control, alien abduction, hermaphroditic hippie messiahs, urban blight, Catholic guilt? Well, you're in luck, because it's all here and it's all crazy.
Robert Forster was originally cast in the starring role but Tony LoBianco owns it. This is a Big Apple story, set and filmed in a city that seemed to be on the verge of total collapse. You can't even begin to imagine anyone but the earnest, sad-eyed LoBianco driving it.
God Told Me To premiered shortly after the first Son of Sam shootings and seems to metaphysically converge with them, on so many Maury Terry-worthy levels. I don't remember if Terry mentioned this film in The Ultimate Evil, but if not, he should have.
Keep your eyes peeled for Andy Kaufman in a small but pivotal role.
The Visitor (1979) God Told Me To is insane, but generally coherent. This bathsalt-absinthe bender-delirium tremen of a movie is insane too, then also generally more insane. This is Jodorowsky-level celluloid insanity, only without the hippie-mystic self-consciousness.
It's even more insane, because with its standard-issue Hollywood cast - John Huston, Glenn Ford, Shelly Winters, Mel Ferrer, Lance Henriksen - you get the sense Guilio Paradisi thought he was making a mainstream cineplex fodder but was too batshit/bugnuts to fully grasp how utterly incoherent and hallucinogenic it all is. You may feel like you've dropped a heroic dose halfway through it. If in fact you did drop a heroic dose, it will probably sober you up.
The plot? Does it matter?
The Box (2009) This Richard Kelly picture got all kinds of hate when it came out which just absolutely baffles me. I can only guess everyone was still feeling cheated over Southland Tales. Or maybe everyone just wanted another Donnie Darko. Or maybe it was Cameron Diaz's very flimsy Southern accent.
Kelly set out to make a 1970s kind of drive-in movie and I think he succeeded. For my money it also succeeds on a philosophical level, exploring the seductive power of Evil and its consequences.
I did a review on The Box back in the day that you can read here.
Dagon (2001) I'm beginning to think the only way you can adapt Lovecraft is to basically not adapt Lovecraft. What I mean is that you need to kind of take his concepts as suggestions and then construct your own story out of them, the way Alex Garland did with Annihilation. Stuart Gordon did that a lot, but this kind-of sort-of adaption of "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" is the most effective example of it.
Gordon got his financing from Spanish investors so he sets the film in rainy Galicia. That was a canny move because the Cape Ann of Lovecraft's time is long gone: his original model for Innsmouth looks like Paramus with seagulls now. And unlike Lovecraft, Gordon was interested in women so he gives them major roles in the story.
A lot of people hate this movie - nearly everyone I recommended it to got mad at me, mostly on account of the extreme gore - but I think it's an unheralded classic of Occult Horror.
Phantasm (1979) Yeah, 1979 was one of those years. Kind of a precursor to 1983. In fact I see them as Twins in some strange way.
It's hard to say why when it comes to Horror, because most of the movies released in the genre in 1979 suck. But then there's Alien, The Visitor, The Brood, The Quatermass Conclusion and this no-budget movie, which seemed to come out of absolutely nowhere and blow everyone's mind.
Like the others I mention, Phantasm not only fucks with genre, it does the same to reality. Phantasm is essentially a Lynch-worthy meditation on the power of nightmare and hallucination, so much so that those inner turmoils start to overwrite reality.
Weirdly enough, I didn't see Phantasm until it came out on VHS a few years later, but I felt like I had. I generally don't have a good memory for stories and plots but I felt like this movie was exactly as I remembered my mental image of it being, and that's even the scenes beyond the ones they showed in the trailer. I almost felt like I'd lived it. Or more disturbingly, dreamed it.
Jacob's Ladder (1990) Longtime readers know all about me and this film. If you're new to The Secret Sun and need a sense what I'm all about, all you need to know is that I've watched Jacob's Ladder a least a hundred times and probably a lot more than that. In other words, there's something seriously wrong with me.
This is yet another movie that got quite a lot of hate back in the day but has since become a cult classic. But it's one of the few Hollywood movies to deal with MKULTRA in a serious way at the same time it's also a longform meditation on the Catholic concept of Purgatory. Adrian Lyne also single-handedly created a visual template for demonology that heavy metal video directors have been exploiting ever since.
Jacob's Ladder anticipates the dream-reality magic of Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire, at the same time it pays visual tribute to The Exorcist and grungy urban realist movies of the early 70s like The French Connection.
You can read more of my unhealthy fixation on it here. If you dare.
Quatermass and the Pit (1967) I have a secret to share: Quatermass films and serials may present themselves as science fiction, but they're really straight-up Occult Horror.
Quatermass isn't really a scientist, he's a demonologist and an exorcist. The aliens are no different than the demons of a hundred-thousand penny dreadfuls and pulps that came before, at least half of which Nigel Kneale surely read. The sci-fi trappings are just that: window-dressing for the quasi-rationalist mindset of the time.
Quatermasss and the Pit is simply an old-school "curse of the forbidden tomb" narrative, no different than Blood from the Mummy's Tomb or Raiders of the Lost Ark or any number of Lovecraft stories. Quatermass even consults with old Christian texts locked away in a monastery.
I haven't confirmed it yet but my guess is that Kneale got the original idea from the excavation of a Mithraic temple a few years before. The same temple now housed in Bloomberg's London headquarters.
You can watch the film or the late 50's serial it's based on, they're both floating around out there. Both make for high-quality Halloween viewing.
Mandy (2018) Do I really need to say anything more about Mandy? I don't think so.
Click here if you need to hear my thoughts on it.
Simon, King of the Witches (1971) I don't know what this film is classified as, but it's a horror story as far as I'm concerned. It's a real-life horror story about how the Occult can lure very intelligent and capable people into its sticky web with the elusive promise of apotheosis. And how that pursuit usually leads these people into lives that that are the absolute antithesis of godhood, or even healthy human conditions.
It's a horror story of what happens when Hubris meets Nemesis.
I strongly get the feeling this film influenced Alan Moore's creation of John Constantine and I'd bet Grant Morrison gave it a spin or two. It's also incredibly well-rendered and realized, and Andrew Prine absolutely owns every single inch of the scenery he gnaws on.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) When I first saw this as a wee wane I thought it was the most terrifying movie ever made. As a matter of fact, I think the same today. Why?
Because it isn't just a scary movie, it's a dead-on prophecy of the Woke podpeople plague that in large part unleashed their earthly infestation in the same city (San Francisco) the film is set in. Today's podpeople even have a near-total stranglehold on vital communication systems, the same way as depicted in the film.
I suppose that's all old news for a lot of extremely online people these days, but that doesn't make it any less true. If you haven't seen this movie, watch it now. If you have seen this movie, watch it again now.
The Mothman Prophecies (2002) What I said about Lovecraft holds especially true for Keel. Though maybe it doesn't, seeing that Keel didn't write fiction (even if a lot of people think he did).
The Mothman Prophecies book is one of the most confusing and unsatisfying things I've ever read, though I'd probably have thought differently back in the day. Happily, Richard Hatem and Mark Pellington took Keel's blizzard of batshit rumors and anecdotes and built a coherent narrative out of it.
It helps that they're backed up by a solid cast. Gere is suitably morose and bewildered, Laura Linney is immensely sympathetic and appealing, Wil Patton does the whole Wil Patton thing and Alan Bates tears into his John Keel-analog role with a gusto unseen apart from any Al Pacino performance of the past 30 years.
However, this film is especially valuable in that the Bates-Keel character gives the viewer a very useful primer on the malicious nature of ultraterrestrials. Pay special attention and rewind as needed.
The Droving (2020) This entry in the New Folk Horror sweepstakes might be a bit slow for some but I see it as a parable on fighting dragons too long, as it were. As former SAS man Martin, Daniel Oldroyd utterly inhabits the role of an ostensible everyman searching for his beloved sister, who has gone missing in the Lake District and is presumed dead.
But we soon discover that Martin isn't quite the everyman we first thought, and by the film's end we realize he's every bit a monster as the monsters he's hunting. Even more so, really. The transformation is gradual but total, and offers up very effective commentary on the dehumanizing effects of wars of choice.
Don't wet your pants with fright, but do offer up your selections in the Den of Intrigue.
Want to take deeper dives into these kinds of movies and more? Come enroll at the Secret Sun Institute of Advanced Synchromysticism.
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