Capturing the Friedmans (2003)

Capturing the Friedmans is a harrowing documentary, not only for its subject matter, but also for its revelation of how fragile and elusive truth can be in a legal context. The film chronicles the arrests and subsequent trial of Arnold and his son Jesse Friedman in the 1980s. Arnold, a computer expert from Great Neck, New York, was initially detained after police intercepted child pornography that he’d purchased from the Netherlands. Subsequently, several local children who had attended a computer club in his basement accused both him and Jesse of molestation. However, the case is far from clear-cut, as it occurred during the “Satanic panic” era; a period of moral hysteria in the US during which many baseless accusations of child abuse were made.

What makes the film so extraordinary is that it’s largely pieced together from home videos made by one of Arnold’s other sons. He filmed the family extensively as they lived their lives in tense anticipation of the case’s outcome. Arnold’s wife is convinced of Jesse’s innocence, as are many others. The case illustrates how witnesses, especially children, can be led astray by problematic questioning. It is not even certain that Arnold committed any abuse of the children in the computer club, although his pedophilia seems beyond doubt.

Despite hours of edited home video footage, Capturing the Friedmans leaves you less sure of the truth than when you started. While many documentaries about child abuse are merely squalid and depressing, this one is genuinely scary, not for its subject matter so much as for its themes: we can’t always know a person, and the legal system doesn’t always clarify what happened.

Boogie Nights (1997)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic of the Golden Age of Porn in late-1970s/1980s America is a pop culture masterpiece; a moving and funny drama about a point in time when sex work was changing, and scrappy auteurs who dreamed of being recognised for their craft came up against the almighty party-pooper that was VHS. But this dramedy also contains a surprising amount of truly frightening sequences. 

Buck Swope (Don Cheadle) in a San Fernando donut shop at night when a robbery occurs is violent and shocking, as well as a great illustration of why the “good guy with a gun” argument used by the NRA can in fact make things worse. The descent of Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) into street encounters and its brutal result. And, of course, the last night of “Little Bill” Thompson (William H. Macy), the cuckold who’d had enough.

Boogie Nights is arguably structured like a horror film. It opens on fresh and hopeful faces, then at a certain point explodes into terror as the characters’ ordered world falls apart.

Deliver Us From Evil (2006)

Before Spotlight (2015) and She Said (2022) tackled the issues of sex abuse in journalism and Hollywood, respectively, Amy J. Berg’s harrowing documentary Deliver Us From Evil exposed the Catholic Church’s systematic cover-up of child sexual abuse. The film focuses on Oliver O’Grady, a priest who abused children for decades in California. The Church’s response was to shuffle him to another diocese and not inform the police.

Watching this film, which includes filmmaker interviews with a terrifyingly calm O’Grady (who when speaking of his urges is so detached in tone that he might as well be describing mild kleptomania or drunkenness), I was reminded of a line by the late Christopher Hitchens in response to the Pope’s statement that victims of paedophile priests should receive “pastoral care”: “Well I’m sorry, but they’ve already had that.” 

Apart from its exposure of corruption in the Catholic church, however, and its unfathomably monstrous failure of care to those it professes to nurture (really, the next time someone says that Drag Queen Storytime is dangerous to children, point them to this documentary), Deliver Us From Evil is also just a haunting portrait of a criminal sociopath. What’s perhaps most frightening about O’Grady is that he seems fully self-aware about his true nature, and at ease with it. That he was allowed to travel so far as Portugal in 2019 is insane.

Return to Oz (1985)

Despite its critical and commercial failure, this sequel to the Judy Garland classic (which is sometimes ranked as the Greatest Movie Ever Made) is an oddly moving Halloween treat. A more faithful adaptation of the Frank L. Baum novels, the film explores themes of horror and darkness that are often absent from children’s films. While critics and parents taking their kids may have been displeased by the headless women and mental asylums, those in the right mood for its brand of ’80s weirdness will find a surprisingly moving and thought-provoking experience.

Detour (1945)

Detour, a strange, almost accidental work of art, is a B-picture produced on Hollywood’s skid row during the final year of World War II. Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, it tells the deceptively simple story of a down-on-his-luck piano player (Tom Neal) who meets a femme fatale (Ann Savage) while traveling cross-country. She bullies him into helping her dupe an old man for his money.

The film is a time capsule of editing tricks and cost-cutting measures from a different time, but a strange subtextual narrative about guilt and selective memory emerges from the cheapness. Neal’s character is our narrator, but listen closely as he tells his story and ask yourself how much you believe him. He’s a classic unreliable narrator, a hard thing to pull off in the medium of film, which tends to be extremely literal. This psychological subtext gives the film a haunting quality that’s hard to forget.

Angel Face (1953)

Another black-and-white noir exploring the age-old theme of duplicitous white women with pretty faces and icy hearts, Otto Preminger’s film stars Robert Mitchum as an ambulance driver seduced by Diane Tremayne (Jean Simmons), an heiress who may have orchestrated the car accident that killed her father and stepmother.

I cherish a childhood memory of watching this film on the small TV in my grandmother’s conservatory and being stunned by the twist ending. After hinting at ambiguity, the film pulls the rug out from under the viewer so completely that it is as shocking as any twist in a horror film.

Eastern Promises (2007)

David Cronenberg’s crime story of Russian gangsters in London is a “whydunit” rather than a “whodunit.” The sordid details of who and how are obvious almost right away. The film opens on two inciting incidents: a gangland assassination in a barber’s chair and a pregnant teenage girl with track marks on her arms begging for help in Russian at a chemist. The girl’s diary ends up in the hands of her midwife, Naomi Watts, who cares for her before she dies during childbirth. Watts decides to translate the diary to trace the newborn’s family and finds herself drawn into the world of restauranteur Semyon and his driver, Viggo Mortensen,

Cronenberg’s body horror techniques, which he honed in his early horror films, are on full display in Eastern Promises, particularly in two murders involving slashed throats. But the film’s true nightmare is the fear we feel for its heroine, a good and ordinary woman driven by human decency to explore a world that could leave her floating facedown in the Thames. Semyon, in particular, is one of the most terrifying movie gangsters ever created. He never raises his voice and the actor was in his seventies during filming, but he carries with him an aura of incendiary violence that left me almost anxious on first watch.

Mortensen, however, plays the most enigmatic character in the film, whose motivations and true allegiances are the truly mysterious things. What has he done, and what is he capable of doing?

Watership Down (1978)

Thinking of this adaptation of Richard Adams’ 1972 source novel, I recall the dead rabbits clogging the warrens like grotesque sculptures, their eyes wide with terror, their bodies testament to the cruel indifference of mankind. It is a haunting, punishing image that defines why Watership Down is rated PG.

The Secret of NIMH (1982)

Don Bluth has a mixed record as a filmmaker, with both hits and misses. (His filmography includes the critically acclaimed The Secret of NIMH and the notoriously bad A Troll in Central Park.) But at his best, he is among the best animators ever.

The Secret of NIMH is arguably his masterpiece, a genuinely atmospheric and haunting tale of a field mouse named Mrs Brisby (voiced by Elizabeth Hartman) who must venture into a rosebush to discover the secret behind NIMH, a mysterious institution. It’s an animated treat for viewers of all ages.

Don’t F**k with Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer (2019)

I once heard it said that while Canada doesn’t have as many serial killers or gun crime as the US, when someone does go nuts, they go really nuts. Case in point: Luka Magnotta, a sex worker who first came to the internet’s attention for anonymous videos of him killing cats. An internet group formed to try to catch him, but his crimes escalated to the murder of Chinese emigrant and university student Jun Lin.

Magnotta is a bizarre and terrifying figure who squats at the heart of this powerful, incisive documentary. It interviews members of the vigilante group, as well as law enforcement and even Magnotta’s mother.

This is the type of true crime case that justifies the often exploitative genre because it does involve a lot of intersecting social issues ripe for sensitive treatment. The victim was a gay man who couldn’t tell his parents about his sexuality and was therefore arguably driven to anonymised sex that left him vulnerable. The perpetrator, meanwhile, was a fame-obsessed narcissist with no discernible talent who indulged his sadistic streak partly just for attention. Video might have killed the radio star, but how many skeletons does the internet have in its digital closets?

The Dark Crystal (1982)

Between Muppet movies, Jim Henson dabbled in terrifying children with dark fantasy tales, including this New Age-inspired fairy tale about two heroes on a quest to repair a broken crystal and restore peace to their world. It features prominently on many millennials’ “childhood trauma” lists, thanks to its surprisingly dour and menacing tone and downright horrifying imagery, despite sounding like a Baby’s First Lord of the Rings on paper.

Caché (2005)

Imagine this: You start receiving random videotapes of yourself going about your daily life, filmed from impossible angles and with a sinister undertone. The tapes are wrapped in crude drawings of bloodied chickens, and you have no idea who is sending them or why.

This is the dilemma facing a bookish upper-middle-class French family in Michael Haneke’s thriller Caché / Hidden. Juliet Binoche plays the wife, and Daniel Auteuil her husband, who appears to be the target of this strange campaign.

The solution to the mystery is heartbreaking and complex, and the film goes beyond a simple thriller to become an intelligent political fable about collective responsibility and social privilege. But even once the truth is known, some questions remain unanswered, leaving the viewer with a profound sense of unease.

Mulholland Drive (2001)

Mulholland Drive is a surrealist neo-noir mystery that defies rational explanation. At its core, it may be the story of two women who meet in Los Angeles and try to find out who tried to kill one of them, but the film’s increasingly labyrinthine and symbolic plot invites multiple interpretations.

One popular interpretation is that the film is a story of two halves: one a dream and one the waking world. I prefer the interpretation that sees the entire film as a dream, a fragmented mass of loose ends in the dreamer’s subconscious, formed from memories, reflections, and anxieties.

Mulholland Drive is a gorgeously lush and fascinating drama, whose fear factor comes from its sheer inexplicability. The film creates in receptive viewers the anxiety of dreams, giving you the feeling that it all makes sense, if only you could piece it together. It’s arguably David Lynch’s greatest film and Naomi Watts’ most memorable role.