I watch a lot of dark films, some of which cross into the horror genre. Here’s a selection of lesser-known favorites from the last ten years. Most are quiet, abstract, and tense, and low on gore, jump scares, and explanations.
(A longer list is here.)
Berberian Sound Studio (2012, dir. Peter Strickland)
A British sound designer (played by the wonderful Toby Jones) is flown to Italy to work on an Italian horror movie soundtrack. As expected (?), the merely awkward situations become mystifying and threatening. Strickland is somehow able to sustain a sense of unease with mostly the gorgeous sound design, and not very much happening. But you don’t have to be a sound geek to enjoy the slow-burn, with all its visual references to Italian horror movies. (“Berberian” is a reference to the divine Cathy Berberian, avant-garde vocalist active mostly in the 60s/70s.)
The Duke of Burgundy (2014, dir. Peter Strickland)
“Starting with a surprising, sensual and semi-retro opening credits sequence, Strickland had created a voluptuous exploration of power dynamics in what may be a relationship’s waning days.
“Visually, it recalls a Greenaway, but less smothering and with heat and warmth. Triple exposures, layered reflections, some manic sequences of just moths – it’s almost a bombardment.” Frank Danay, https://letterboxd.com/bebravemorvern/film/the-duke-of-burgundy/
The Endless (2017, dir. Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson)
I’m a big fan of the Moorhead/Benson team; this is not unflawed, but maintains an uncanny tension. It predates Midsommar, and the story has similarities (I’m not a big Ari Aster fan, sorry). Two brothers, who escaped from a doomsday cult years ago, receive a VHS tape inviting them to visit. The awkward social situations quickly take a darker turn.
Resolution (2012, dir. Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson)
The Moorhead/Benson team’s first feature opens like a claustrophobic but possibly conventional thriller: the protagonist travels to his friend’s isolated cabin to help with drug rehab, taking a pretty extreme approach. Then the weird surveillance videos and space/time anomalies kick in.
The same team’s Spring (2014) is very engaging and charming (and dark), but quite different from this and The Endless. Their newest, Synchronic (2019), hasn’t seen much US distribution, AFAIK.
Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010, dir. Panos Cosmatos)
If you loved Videodrome, but hanker for a more abstract approach with minimal narrative machinery, this is for you. Beyond… does wear its influences on its sleeve, with the cold wave synthesizer soundtrack, static-y analog TV, and “Benway” pills. The main character (played by Michael Rodgers) even looks kind of like James Woods in Videodrome! But there’s a lot of gorgeous visual design (see trailer), with some beautiful set pieces (reminiscent of Jodorowsky?), and lovingly detailed sound design.
The Blue Hour/Onthakan (2015, dir. Anucha Boonyawatana)
Two Thai boys hang out in an abandoned swimming pool, and encounter a possibly supernatural presence. It’s dark, elegiac, abstract, and sexy: my kind of horror movie. For some reason this has not enjoyed wider distribution.
A Dark Song (2016, dir. Liam Gavin)
A smarmy occultist and a woman dealing with loss are trapped together for a few days to perform a magic ritual. This is claustrophobic, intense, draining and messy, the way I think real magic might be.
The Man with the Magic Box (2017, dir. Bodo Kox)
A bleak time travel tale without the hardware, reminding me of a less abstract Primer. The wealth of visual details is noteworthy: the uncomfortable, washed-out blue and green tinted scenes, some truly sinister characters, the main female character’s Bridget Riley dress, the recycling center that’s too close to today’s ugly truths. The main actors turn in nice performances as they wander through the cryptic, sometimes discontinuous little scenes in their ultimately charming and sympathetic fashion.
The Strange Color of your Body’s Tears (2013, dir. Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani)
I believe this is familiar to some DLs. The “plot” is really not important, kind of like a Robbe-Grillet novel. But it’s a visual feast with its saturated colors, and nods to Argento and Italian horror movies.
Depraved (2019, dir. Larry Fessenden)
The latest from the indie horror mainstay is a smart updating of Frankenstein, set in modern day Brooklyn. It’s thoughtful and beautifully executed, with some sly bromance moments.
Fessenden’s earlier movies, such as Habit, are well worth checking out.
The Deeper You Dig (2019, dir. Toby Poser and John Adams)
My favorite from Another Hole in the Head 2019. It’s a standard death and revenge story arc, but there are clever, surprising ideas, and some vicious black humor (see annoying radio, and the hilarious toilet sequence, for instance). It’s largely a family production; the directors’ daughter plays the teenage daughter, and does an excellent job both living and dead. Some beautiful cinematography of snow scenes, and a lovely crazed seance sequence.
The Invitation (2015, dir. Karyn Kusama)
The protagonist and his girlfriend are invited to a party thrown by old friends and ex’s. The opening section does a beautiful job of evoking being trapped in an excruciatingly uncomfortable social situation. Things of course go downhill from there. Excellent menacing performance from John Carroll Lynch; check out also Nick Antosca’s Syfy series Channel Zero. (I almost excluded this movie because of the bloodbath ending, but everything before that is well worth seeing.)
Coherence (2013, dir. James Ward Byrkit)
Another dark science fiction-ish movie without the hardware, this is centered on space/time anomalies, one of my favorite tropes. A nice sense of unease and the uncanny throughout.
The Incident (2014, dir. Isaac Ezban)
Yes, more space/time anomalies, without hardware. This is gritty and obsessive and painful, like they should be.
The Untamed (2017, dir. Amat Escalante)
Dysfunctional interpersonal relationships, some beautiful visuals, and that thing in the cabin in the woods.
Jamie Marks is Dead (2014, dir. Carter Smith)
Finally, a relatively straightforward atmospheric ghost story, but there are some beautiful visuals, the interactions between the living and dead boys are nicely done, and most questions are left unanswered. Adapted from Christopher Barzak’s novel One for Sorrow, which is more queer than the movie.
p.s. Hey. Mighty Bill Hsu uses this weekend to give us a thrilling-looking set of filmic suggestions for things to immerse your eyes within and thusly make your homebound lives a heck of a lot less uneventful. Please join me in finding and watching stuff herein. And enjoy. And give feedback to Bill in some way or other if you don’t mind. And thank you. And thank you, Bill! ** David Ehrenstein, Yep, practicing panic phobia is a capitol (capital?) suggestion. I went out for the first time yesterday and, whoa, it is spooky and scary out there. End of the world-like. Like a movie backlot version of Paris between productions. Very, very few people anywhere, almost all of them wearing masks, glancing fearfully at each other like potential murderers. So quiet you can practically hear people’s footsteps a block away. It was the first time since this started that I had to fight off a bit of panic. Man oh man. ** Tosh Berman, Hi, Tosh. I don’t know about LA, but it’s impossible not to feel very isolated here what with the necessity of proving the essentiality of your every step outdoors and police asking to see your papers and stuff. I can’t imagine the US would ever stand for this kind of complete government control, but I sure hope it doesn’t come to that for you guys. It’s intense. You can’t daydream your way away from the cold reality of it over here. ** Bill, Hi, B. Thank you, thank you so much for this rich and salvation-like post! Seriously hoping your soft lockdown works like a charm. You don’t want to go through what we’re going through, seriously. I certainly would be thrilled to bits to get a Tsai Ming-liang post from you if your downtime leads you to have fun, etc. doing that, you bet! Big project, ooh! I like the sound of that. We got the grant! We were very surprised because the committee seemed quite suspicious of our very non-conventional intentions, but apparently Zac and I managed to charm them during our cyber meeting/grilling, so big yay! ** Quinn R, Hi, Quinn. No, thank you. Your piece on Lonely’s book was great and by far the best thing out there. Yes, it’s a wonderful book. He’s such a good writer. I’m okay. As explained above, it’s pretty intense and ominous and stuff here. But I’m remaining myself for the most part, working, maxing out what my apartment has on offer. The lockdown doesn’t really effect the film since we’re just applying for grants right now and can do that from home. I’ll go find that Anne Boyer piece. I like her work. I’m not a Zizek fan, so his take’s paucity is not a surprise to me. Great about the forthcoming LARB piece, and on Madonna no less. Please give my very best back to Edmund when you interact with him next. Also great about the job offer. Honestly, I think there’s a real chance that Europe is going to still be a locked down dead zone in May, at least to some degree. It feels that way. So waiting a bit to come might be the best solution anyway. Warm regards from France to you, sir! ** Corey Heiferman, Hey! Interesting. I love American English vowel sounds, or, well, the vowel/syllable combo. But I guess if I didn’t, I’d be in trouble. Netanyahu does seem to be giving Putin a real run for his money. So sorry. And so sorry to hear about the worrisome situations with your family members Stateside. Obviously hoping they all end up on the sunny side. As I told Bill, we got the grant! So I guess it went really well. It didn’t feel like it was going all that well, but maybe the other director applicants were boring. ** alex rose, Mr. Rose! I’m still about, oh, 90% sane as far as I can tell. I unfortunately don’t do spaced very well. My brain is a bee hive. No, I haven’t/hadn’t seen that. The video. Your beloved beater. I’ll dig into him shortly. Looks sweet. You stay sane and spaced if you do spaced well too. It’s really nice to get to talk to you anytime and under these conditions even more joyfully. Love, me. ** Misanthrope, Hi, G. Very happy you liked the poems and the books that enclose them. Under normal circumstances, I check in on International CNN, BBC, CNBC every couple of days, but I’m staying far away and speed scrolling through the maniacal news sharers on FB and using the pick-and-choose Google News site exclusively. Oh, going to the park with friends … sigh. I remember when I could do that. Yep, use your sequestering to get that novel right. ** Jeff J, Hi, Jeff. They’re all goodies, those books. Joyelle’s might not be entirely out, I’m not sure. I got an early look. Johannes Goransson’s new book is a top priority read for me. It’s in the post. Yes, I think, now that I’ve remembered it, that people I know were very ho-hum to much worse about the Kathy doc. I still need to see it though. Hey, talk to you in a while! ** Steve Erickson, Hi. Dude, wait to talk to your doctor and get tested or whatever before you self-diagnose. You do have a tendency to assume the ultra-worst, you know. I hope you get clarity and very good news ASAP. ** Barkley, Hi, B. Your little avatar is always such a nice perk up. You played that goose game? Ooh. I’ll definitely get it then. I’m pissed because the truly awful, unreliable French mail service didn’t bring my Switch yesterday, but they had better deliver it today or else. The ‘Zelda’ is my number one want-to-play. I’ve loved every Zelda game to bits. And of course the new Mario too, ditto. I played the first ‘Animal Crossing’ and its addictiveness was too much for me, as much I loved it, so I avoid ‘AC’ games ever since like I’m sober and it’s whiskey. Yes, ‘Bresson on Bresson’ is a completely fantastic book that I pick up and reread in parts regularly. You sound pretty wonderfully squared away. I’m as good as one can be given the world I have to work with. Take care! ** Armando, Hey. Thank you! We got the grant, so it went very well. A Switch is the current Nintendo game console. I don’t use standard metrics when writing poems, I try to invent my own. Thank you for the poem. As always, writing the p.s isn’t a situation where I have the concentration to read anything literary with any care, so I will take it offline. ** Okay. Bill has got you all covered until Monday. Follow his leads, please. You won’t be sorry you did, I’m pretty damned sure. Survive and more your weekends, and I’ll see you on Monday.