The United States doesn’t have a monopoly on horror movies.
In fact, a lot of foreign horror movies are better than the vast majority of what we churn out here. Heck, a lot of these original movies ended up being far better than the godawful Americanized remakes of them.
It’s incredibly interesting to see the kinds of things that other countries around the world find unnerving or terrifying, the differences in directorial styles and storytelling, the quality of special effects. Watching a traditional foreign movie is one thing, but watching a foreign horror movie? I feel like it’s a far better way to understand other cultures than, say, a love story.
So this week, I’ll be listing my top five favorite foreign horror movies — and this list may have been tougher than the other ones. There are simply so many different kinds, and I did my best to spread the love so that no country got more than one in the top five. But there were a few left out that I wanted to put in. And, as a side note, it was pretty difficult to come up with a headline from the taglines of the honorable mention movies this week — apparently, the U.S. just can’t be beat when it comes to zippy one-liners.
Those honorable mention movies? The Descent, for starters, an incredible British movie where six thrill-seeking women go spelunking … and bad things happen. The only Japanese movie I will mention — I don’t find little ghost girls all that creepy — is Battle Royale, the movie that the inferior Hunger Games series owes its existence to. Then there’s Dead Snow, a campy Norwegian movie with Nazi zombies — what more could anyone want? Then there’s Italian classics like Phenomena or Demons by the great Dario Argento (who has a movie in the list), or Zombi and The Beyond by goremaster Lucio Fulci. And finally, there’s the French movie Martyrs, which starts out solid and turns into a boring Saw-esque torture porn movie but has something a message worthy of discussion in the end.
5. Suspiria (1977, Rated R)
It’s easy to call Suspiria famed Italian horror director Dario Argento’s masterpiece.
Like many Italian horror movies, there isn’t a lot that makes sense. The movie is about a young American ballet dancer who is chosen to attend an exclusive academy — but a series of murders, and maybe a little witchcraft, after her arrival has her afraid for her own life.
This isn’t a movie you watch for the plot, though. In fact, much of the storyline is downright confusing — which, really, is kind of a staple of Italian horror. Argento’s use of colors and lighting lends the entire thing a dream-like vibe — everything in the movie looks and feels surreal. This movie is a treat for your eyeballs and earholes. That dream-like quality turns quickly to nightmarish once the killings begin, though. The weird lighting and bright reds everywhere, the vividly-colored sets, everything just adds to the strange atmosphere that makes the viewer uncomfortable. Early in the movie, there’s a scene with someone being hanged and falling glass that is permanently etched into my memory — honestly, to this day, I don’t know where it fits in the story, but man, is it ever chilling to watch.
The movie’s biggest star, though, is the soundtrack. Performed by goth rock band Goblin — an Argento favorite which he uses in many of his films — the music is moody at times, jarring at others, chilling at yet others. It, combined with the colors and visuals, makes you feel the movie more than watch it. It adds an air of mystery, and then it makes you uncomfortable, and then it sends your heart racing. Pro tip: the title theme is a terrific song to listen to in the car while driving home on a dark, foggy, spooky night.
Sadly, it’s getting an American remake next year, and Chloe Grace Moretz was recently cast in it. Both of those things might come up later.
4. [REC] (2007, Rated R)
The only found footage movie you’ll see on my lists — and another one that got a crappy-by-comparison American remake after the fact.
And yes, the good version of this movie will require reading, since [REC] is a Spanish-language movie — subtitled versions are ALWAYS better than dubbed. A reporter, Angela, is recording a piece on a fire station and goes with them on a call to an apartment building. What they find, though, is that the building has been infected with … something … and that infection is passed zombie-style by bites. Everyone is quarantined inside, and Angela must discover the truth and stay alive to tell it.
I didn’t learn about the original in time — I watched the 2008 American version, Quarantine, first. It was mediocre at best. When I watched this, though, I could not understand how we got it so, so wrong. Since the basis of the found footage in the movie is a professional news cameraman, there’s less of the awful shaky-cam that ruins so many other movies like it. The star, Manuela Velasco, portrays a much more likeable character than the star of the American version. And the ending — well, I won’t spoil it, but the American version ruins everything about it. The ending of the Spanish version not only is much scarier story-wise, but it is also filmed better and is genuinely chilling.
As with nearly every horror movie, watch the original. Accept no substitutes.
3. Let the Right One In (2008, Rated R)
I may relate a little too much to this one.
In this Swedish vampire movie, a scrawny, weird-looking blonde kid who is bullied relentlessly — again, over-relating — befriends a strange girl that lives next door. But she isn’t actually a girl at all, and their blossoming relationship may hit some snags as Oskar learns the truth about Eli — and she teaches him how to be more than he ever thought possible.
The original Let the Right One In is a lot more than just a horror movie. Based on a novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist — who also wrote the screenplay for the movie — the film closely examines the relationship between a normal 12-year-old boy and a much older vampire, frozen in time at roughly the same age. Though she knows she’s a monster, she sees that he is being bullied and convinces him to stand up for himself.
All too often, a movie focused on child actors is ruined by their performances — The Babadook is a good recent example — but Lina Leandersson as the vampire Eli and Kare Hedebrant as Oskar are fantastic. They make it easy to connect to the characters, and the atmosphere created by the musical score is outstanding, as well — director Tomas Alfredson specifically wanted the music to be romantic and full of hope, in direct opposition to all of the death and darkness, of which there is plenty. It’s still a horror movie, after all.
The movie got an American remake in 2010 called Let Me In starring Chloe Grace Moretz, and it was … no. Just no. Watch the original Swedish version. With the subtitles. As it was originally meant to be seen. But I would definitely recommend this to anyone, not just horror fans.
2. High Tension (2003, Rated R)
This one is the very definition of a guilty pleasure.
In this French movie, a woman named Marie goes with her friend Alex to visit Alex’s family in the country, but the two women are terrorized by a psychopath and …
… Oh, who am I kidding? The story isn’t important here at all. Even the shocking plot twist isn’t that big of a surprise — at least to someone who’s watched as much horror as I have. But director Alexandre Aja, who also gave us the lackluster The Hills Have Eyes remake, truly knows how to do violence.
This movie exists for the gore. There’s plenty of tension while the killer stalks his victims, sure, but the visuals and special effects are just completely over the top. I never saw it in theaters, but evidently it had its murder scenes trimmed just so it could get down to an R rating — and I can see how. On the unrated DVD, they are incredibly vicious and brutal.
High Tension tries to be disturbing for more reasons than just the violence, but it’s hit and miss in that respect. The violence more than makes up for its other shortcomings, though. I wouldn’t recommend this for the feint of heart. It crosses a lot of lines. But I can’t help but love things that not only push the envelope, but also set it on fire.
1. Dead Alive (1992, Rated R)
Just thinking about Dead Alive makes me smile a gleefully demented smile.
Originally titled Braindead, Dead Alive is a campy splatterfest from New Zealand by this little director named Peter Jackson, who made a few movies about throwing jewelry into a volcano or something. I don’t know if anyone saw those. In Dead Alive, a man named Lionel is trying to escape from his overbearing mother’s grasp, but when she’s bitten by a diseased monkey, it begins a zombie outbreak that poor Lionel does his best to deny and hide from everyone he knows, including the rest of his family and his new girlfriend.
Campy doesn’t even begin to describe this movie. Despite all of the death and ridiculous violence and copious amounts of blood — for years, this movie held the record for most gallons of fake blood used — Dead Alive carries an infectious sense of whimsy throughout, no matter what is actually happening on screen. Everything in the movie being so bright and colorful and the music being so cheery helps that, and the dialogue is just as head-shakingly hilarious.
Seriously, the preacher that knows karate — he has one of the best lines in horror movie history.
A set of disembodied lungs tries to choke a person to death, a zombie baby creates tons of mischief and a man wades into a room full of zombies with a lawnmower strapped to his chest — all of that sounds terrible and horrifying, but as it’s presented here, it’s just … fun. Joyous, even. One of the funniest horror movies ever made.
I probably need psychological help.
Contact Josh Brown at (937) 552-2132, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.