26 October 2019
Happy Halloween season, let’s watch weird movies. I put together a list of my favorite possibly overlooked horror-ish films currently streaming. If you watch all of these, I promise you that your algorithmically-generated recommendations will be interesting for some time to come.
- Carnival of Souls (Amazon Prime, Criterion Channel) Let’s begin with probably the most well-known “hidden gem” in strange cinema, Carnival of Souls. Director Herk Harvey’s only feature film is a low-budget product of the independent 60s filmmaking scene that found a second life a couple decades later when released on VHS, and it’s now established itself as a cult classic. The film traces the path of a woman who escapes a car accident and moves to a new town to take a job as a church organist, only to be inexplicably drawn to an empty dance hall at the edge of town and haunted by mysterious figures. It’s full of bizarre dread and unsettling imagery, and while there’s a plot revelation at the end that illuminates the entire film’s arc, there’s also a stealthy mental illness subtext that is accurately, compassionately represented, even if only in metaphor. Carnival of Souls is streaming on Amazon Prime, but I think you can get a better quality version if you go to Criterion Channel—plus, in the case of the latter, you can also watch Christian Petzold’s loose take on Carnival of Souls, Yella, although the lurking evil there is … eerie voice the specter of capitalism in an unified Germany).
- Gothic (Amazon Prime) In the mid-80s, Ken Russell took on the legendary tale of a storm-riddled night in 1816 when Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and the woman who would become Mary Shelley told ghost stories; Mary, of course, would later expand her story into Frankenstein. This retelling is from Ken Russell, so it’s hyper-sexual, vaguely unhinged and pretty weird. Woven through the psychedelia are the threads of exploration into the nature of fear as well as the dangerous responsibility of creation (thematically on point). It also questions what artists who have been steeped in horror tales can possibly produce but more horror. It’s streaming on Amazon Prime. If you have the Criterion Channel, you can follow it up with Ken Russell’s ecstatically profane masterpiece, The Devils.
- Spider Baby (Amazon Prime) Hey, are you in the mood for a 1960s dark comedy about a family of murderous misfits suffering from a (fictional) medical syndrome that regresses their human natures to primitive instincts? How about if it includes a young woman who plays “Spider” by restraining and then stabbing people with garden shears? And Sid Haig? Well then, I recommend you watch Spider Baby, which is just plain strange and then some, but in a delightful way. I saw someone compare it to the middle ground between The Addams Family and Texas Chainsaw Massacre and that pretty much sums it up. I love it. It’s streaming on Amazon Prime.
- Daughters of Darkness (Amazon Prime) Who isn’t up for a stylish tale about a lesbian vampire countess who dresses like Marlene Dietrich and frequents European resorts in winter to find lovely new companions? Not me, that’s for sure. Delphine Seyrig (Last Year at Marienbad) is brilliant, depicting her countess as a creature who, under the vicious sparkle, genuinely does want to be loved and approved of, but also wants to get what she wants (which is mostly blood, death and beautiful young women, for the record). This is for those who like slow, atmospheric arthouse vampire movies. It’s streaming on Amazon Prime.
- The Witch Who Came From the Sea (Amazon Prime) A woman who survived sexual assault in her childhood has grown into a deeply disturbed adult who is obsessed with television and destructively promiscuous. Soon, her trauma triggers her into a killing spree. This one comes with a strong content warning, not necessarily for the bits of very bloody violence (although that too), but for the depiction of incest, sexual assault and trauma that lasts after it. Oh, and the brutal, unrelenting nihilism. This is a difficult movie. But if you are into psychological horror, this film plumbs the depths of what that term really means. It also ties in the sexual politics of the 70s and the blurred reality of mass media. It suggests that stories can save us, but only if we’re willing to engage with the truth that underlies them—if we use stories to cover up and distract, they’ll destroy us from the inside out. The Witch Who Came from the Sea is streaming on Amazon Prime.
- Lake Mungo (Amazon Prime) Even if your tolerance for found-footage/documentary-style horror movies is low, you should give Lake Mungo a try, although only if you’re willing to expand your notions of “horror.” An Australian faux-documentary about the drowning death of a teenage girl and the secrets that surface after she’s gone—including the fact that she might not exactly be gone. There’s a Twin Peaks homage vibe here (the central family is even named Palmer), but then the film takes a turn from true crime mystery into ghost story, and then another turn into something sadder and more profound. It gives a real sense of what it would be like for a family to process a daughter’s/sister’s complicated life and death. But also make sure to stay for all the credits. On Amazon Prime.
- We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Netflix) As a certified Shirley Jackson stan, I was excited for this recent adaptation of her novel of the same name. After seeing it, I feel there was something undefinable missing. It might be the sisters’ relationship doesn’t ring as true as I would have liked. It may be that it’s just difficult to pull off an unreliable narrator in film, much more difficult than it is in a novel (the film adaptation of The Little Stranger handled this better, I think). In any case, the film is still worth watching, with a slithery sort of apprehension that comes not from any supernatural force but the common evil humans that do and how it pushes other humans to react. Currently streaming on Netflix.
- The City of the Dead (Amazon Prime) Another low-budget entry, and the streaming version is unfortunately not of high quality. But there’s a lot I like about this witch-infused mystery story: for example, ghost hitchhikers, Satanic cults and young Christopher Lee. It also has an unusual plot structure, which in many ways (spoiler alert?) mirrors that of Psycho. Streaming on Amazon Prime.
- Messiah of Evil (Amazon Prime) Speaking of low-budget, Messiah of Evil looks a bit like it was produced on a dime and a 70s whim. It’s a somewhat incoherent tale of a woman named Arletty who has come to a seaside town to see her estranged father. However, he has disappeared, leaving behind a diary describing a “darkness” overtaking the town. As she searches for him, she encounters both visitors to the town, just as oblivious as she is to what is going on, as well as warnings about a mysterious cult awaiting the return of a dark stranger. The group of visitors begin to be picked off, one by one, by a vampiric crowd until at last they reach Arletty. The film doesn’t quite come together as a whole, but individual sequences are sometimes stunning and make the experience of watching it worthwhile. This has recently become a favorite of mine. Streaming on Amazon Prime.
- The Lodgers (Netflix) Lush Gothic horror, particularly when focused on a girl’s coming of age, will always find a place on my viewing list. And The Lodgers is this. It’s a little uneven in spots, but beautiful and creepy in equal measure, plus a softly optimistic ending. Hardcore horror fans might be underwhelmed, but if you are more metaphorically minded, you might appreciate it. Streaming on Netflix.
- Night Tide (Amazon Prime) This is one of my long-beloved films, in part because I saw it randomly at an impressionable age, but also because it ties up many of my pet obsessions—carnival sideshows, mermaids, dangerous women—in one offbeat package. Directed by Curtis Harrington (a member of the mid-century avant garde Hollywood crew that included Kenneth Anger), Night Tide feels like it’s expanding on territory staked out originally by Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People, in that a woman’s possible inhumanity expresses a destructive sexuality. It also features a very young and very earnest Dennis Hopper as a sailor fascinated by, and potentially in peril from, his siren crush. It’s not the most accomplished film, but its impulses are sincere and its sensibility suits me perfectly. Sidenote: Curtis Harrington also directed my favorite bad movie ever, Ruby, which I also highly recommend, although in a slightly different spirit. Night Tide is streaming on Amazon Prime (or come over to my place and I’ll treat you to a screening of my lovely Blu-ray edition).