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The first movie to really viscerally upset me was "Space Jam," the chilling 1996 story of a retired athlete kidnapped by animals and forced to compete against extra-terrestrial mutants. The aliens in the film sucked the life force out of Patrick Ewing and Charles Barkley — American heroes — transforming themselves in the process into hulking, slobbering gargoyles. I didn't sleep for days. A few months later it was Halloween, and my dad was insisting we all watch "The Shining," one of the most wrenchingly realistic films ever made about writing and how boring it can be. My relationship with my dad has never recovered, to say nothing of my relationship to writing.
How strange is it that there's a major genre of popular culture that exists primarily to make us feel horrible? It would seem to violate all the rules of capitalism and rational choice theory — that we would line up and pay money to be repulsed and offended. But we do, repeatedly, particularly at this time of year. If the horror canon has gotten musty and predictable — and I'd argue that it has — that's only a testament to our eagerness for disgust. For those of you looking to branch out this Halloween season, here are our recommendations for further research:
1. "I Walked With a Zombie" (1943)
While "Cat People" is probably the most famous film made by the legendary horror unit at RKO Studios, "I Walked With a Zombie" is the best and the strangest — a loose adaptation of "Jane Eyre" set on a Caribbean sugar plantation. The RKO team was supervised by producer Val Lewton, who was given total artistic freedom as long as he kept the budgets low and used the lurid titles (e.g. "I Walked With a Zombie") generated by the studio's market research unit. Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur took advantage of this bureaucratic neglect and pioneered a new kind of horror movie, drenched in shadows and atmosphere and existential despair. This one especially: It's quiet and odd and hard to forget.
2. "At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul" (1964)
Usually credited as the first Brazilian horror film, this is the first in a trilogy directed by José Mojica Marins, who also starred in the films as the villainous undertaker Coffin Joe. The character was so infamous and popular in Brazil that Marins would appear in public in full Coffin Joe regalia (black cape, top hat, long fingernails), and went on to star in car commercials, music videos and comic books. The film dovetails with all sorts of other fascinating Brazilian cultural trends of the 1960s — Tropicália music, poetic depictions of vampirism, etc. I also recommend the follow-up, "This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse."
3. "The Shiver of the Vampires" (1971)
My favorite of a series of low-budget vampire thrillers directed by the French filmmaker Jean Rollin. A just-married couple on their honeymoon visit a pair of cousins who, we soon learn, have recently died. The bride is quickly seduced by a mysterious vampire, who in turn is seduced by the two cousins, recently risen from the dead — the sexual politics of the thing get pretty complicated. At its best, the film has a kind of manic, punk energy, where stylized sloppiness allows for an infinite range of absurd possibilities. This is one of those rare movies that can credibly be called completely unpredictable. Drenched in garish primary colors and soundtracked by French psych-rock group Acanthus, it veers from laughable to disturbing at a dizzying rate.
4. "Eaten Alive" (1977)
Also known as "Horror Hotel," this is the first film Tobe Hooper directed after the enormous success of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." It was not a success, though I can't understand why. It has everything: sexual frustration, scythe attacks, pet crocodiles. Best of all is Hooper's command of odd color palettes; as in "Chainsaw Massacre," it's completely gorgeous in a way that complements rather than subverts its gruesome subject matter. It's an impressionistic, Deep South nightmare about loneliness and the horrors of the swamp.
5. "House" (1977)
A Japanese horror classic about a young student who takes her friends along to visit her father and new stepmother, only to see them all bizarrely picked off one by one by supernatural forces. Directed by the experimental filmmaker Nobuhiko Obayashi, it's full of the most vivid and dreamlike psychedelic imagery — killer pianos and floating heads and skeletons and haunted cats.
6. "Altered States" (1980)
There should probably be more great horror films about psychoactive drugs, but "Altered States" should do until the next one comes along. Directed by Ken Russell, the British visionary responsible for The Who's rock opera "Tommy," "Altered States" is about a professor of abnormal psychology (William Hurt) who begins to experiment with sensory deprivation tanks and ayahuasca. It goes really badly, in ways I couldn't explain if I tried.
7. "Videodrome" (1983)
Shattering and cosmic and genuinely gross, "Videodrome" is one of the smartest films ever made about screens and our relationship to the televisual. A conspiracy thriller that becomes something else — something darker and more mysterious — it's a body-horror classic, and one of David Cronenberg's best. It's also one of the only mainstream movies ever to fully engage with how frightening and disgusting our total submission to technology can be. As the original trailer put it, "Television can change your mind, 'Videodrome' will change your body."
8. "Pulgasari" (1985)
A North Korean monster epic by the South Korean filmmaker Shin Sang-ok, who directed it at gunpoint — he'd been kidnapped for that purpose by Kim Jong-il, a huge movie buff. What could be scarier than a horror movie made under those conditions? It's essentially a take-off on "Godzilla," though the Japanese team behind that franchise later claimed they much preferred "Pulgasari" to Roland Emmerich's 1998 remake with Matthew Broderick.