“But is it a horror film?” That’s the question asked again and again by critics and audiences alike, usually regarding films with all the hallmarks of a horror, but with something loftier behind its design which highbrow viewers can get behind. It’s a question that lead to such utterly pointless and snobbish phrases as ‘elevated horror’, as if the only way to watch horror films without guilt is to class them as something other than horror. The question, 56 years on, is frustratingly applied to Kaneto Shindo’s masterpiece Onibaba). But make no mistake: Onibaba is a horror film, and an utterly haunting one at that.
Set in 14th-century Japan, the film follows two women (Noboku Otowa and Yitsuko Yoshimura) who live in the shadows of towering reeds; a desperate and suffocating landscape in which they’re forced to steal and kill to afford food. From there spins a tale of jealousy, obsession, curses, and liberation, with a sober intensity that gives weight to its more dreamlike (or should that be nightmarish?) imagery. Onibaba is rightfully held up as one of the finest examples of expressionistic horror, and its visual eccentricities and immaculate costume design are breathtaking. But it’s not style over substance. At its core, it’s a deeply psychological story of poverty and desperation (Shindo was a socialist, who made it a priority in his art to tell sympathetic stories of the proletariat). Onibaba is modern filmmaking with a haunted spirit that feels utterly ancient, a film populated and perhaps made by the ghosts of the past.
The Cleansing Hour (2019)
Horror is always updating to assault our comfort zones and in today’s climate, even pre-COVID-19, streaming brings an ease to finding comfort with each other across the world. So it’s ironic that Shudder’s been at the forefront in scarifying online horror fans; Host brings to classic séance-gone-wrong story to Zoom, Joe Bob presents an even more socially distanced movie marathon with his Halloween Hideaway, and Damien LaVeck delivers shocks and laughs in the entertaining exorcism broadcast The Cleansing Hour.
The show-within-the-movie features Father Max (Ryan Guzman), the womanising Tony Stark of priests, who promises real possessions defeated by the power of Christ by his hand all streamed online. After initial hiccups, the show commences with engineer and best-friend Drew (Kyle Gallner) replacing the absent co-star with his fiancée Lane (Alix Angelis), and the three begin what should be a standard act in fooling the audience. Of course, the inevitable happens and the two fraudsters face off against a real demon inside Lane and their Exorcist re-enactments are tested before a growing online audience.
While it never quite delivers genuine terror the way William Friedkin managed, there are plenty of wince-inducing moments as Max is tested physically and mentally along, with a good deal of levity as all their usual tricks fail with a real creature from Hell. The already dissolving bond between best friends is what’s truly tortured here as Guzman and Gallner have fun as two dicks at each other’s throats in a sinking ship while Angelus does a commendable Regan MacNeil impersonation. The Cleansing Hour is a rollercoaster that never becomes totally horrifying or hilarious, but it’s nevertheless a perfectly fun ride for Halloween.
The Mortuary Collection (2019)
Horror anthologies are a good bet for Halloween, but most are letdown by a few weaker stories. Ryan Spindell’s The Mortuary Collection is a rare example where this isn’t true, as there are no outright stinkers and the worst segment is only a few minutes long (and intentionally poor). The framing device involves a young woman called Sam (Caitlin Custer) undergoing a job interview at Raven’s End Mortuary sometimes in the 1980s. Her interviewer is the brittle and baritone mortician Montgomery Dark (Clancy Brown), who is goaded into telling four spooky tales.
One involves a gender-twist on safe sex for a frat boy called Jake (Jacob Elordi) after a memorable one-night stand, leading to some hilariously gross practical make-up SFX; another concerns a depressed man called Wendell Owens (Barak Hardley) who snaps under the pressure of caring for his comatose wife; and the lamest concerns a terrifying bathroom medicine cabinet discovered by a pickpocket. Sam also gets to spin a yarn, which subverts Halloween-style slasher tropes. The framing device itself is revealed to be its own story, happening right before our eyes.
Exclusive to Shudder, it’s easy to recommend The Mortuary Collection purely because of its high hit-rate and enjoyably gloopy SFX sequences. Plus you have Clancy Brown (Highlander) in old man make-up with an English accent, having evident fun with the macabre Tales From the Crypt-ness of it all.
The Hole in the Ground (2019)
A mum fleeing unhappiness to start a new life in the country… a house in the woods… odd behaviour from the locals… a child who seems aware of something his mother can’t understand… The Hole in the Ground fits snugly into the haunted house genre (well, haunted hole genre), but this 90-minute Irish horror film adds enough imaginative touches to keep it watchable to the end.
The tropes are never overdone in writer-director Lee Cronin’s feature debut, which wrings maximum suspense from mundane situations. Seána Kerslake excels as the mother and James Quinn Markey as her boy. Sam Raimi liked it so much he’s picked Cronin to direct the next Evil Dead film, and if that’s not a stamp of approval for horror… what is?
Hell House LLC (2015)
Found footage horror can be disastrous. After Paranormal Activity (2010) dominated the box office, the copycat cash-ins quickly wore out their welcome. The shaky-cam aesthetic has been used to tell every kind of ghost story imaginable—taking place in creaky apartments, strange woodlands, and even outer space. It’s surprising it took so long for someone to set their film in a haunted house attraction but, thankfully, director Stephen Cognetti took the plunge.
Hell House LLC is presented as a faux-documentary, exploring an unexplained tragedy that befell a haunted house tour on its opening night in October 2009. As the documentary team piece together footage left behind by the crew of Hell House and tour-goers, a sinister picture of paranormal events begins to form. Stephen Cognetti creates an eerie atmosphere through his straight-forward direction, wasting no time in establishing a believable group of characters and increasing the tension until the cracks begin to show. The abandoned Abaddon Hotel itself is as much a character as the crew and makes for an unnerving setting. Hell House LLC may not reinvent the wheel but it executes its simple scares effectively, and has no shame using the found footage format to its full potential—urging audiences to keep a wary eye on every creepy prop and darkly lit corner of the frame. This underrated chiller is best watched with the lights off for Halloween.