Happy Halloween, losers! In the spirit of the holiday I wanted to write about three of my favorite sub-genres of horror and my favorite spooky scary movies that fall within each of those genres. They’re gory, trashy, and undeniably the most fun you can have on a Tuesday night.
Best of the Best: Halloween (1978)
Hidden Gem: The Burning (1981)
Guilty Pleasure: Pieces (1982)
Slashers get a bad reputation, which is pretty understandable in that their two distinguishing features are violent misogyny and nauseating amounts of gore. Common knowledge dictates that they’re insubstantial, unsophisticated, and, above all, incredibly formulaic – horny teenagers die because sex = bad while virginal teenagers live because chastity = good.
While those are all valid criticisms even when applied to the best films within the genre, I am a devoted fan of slashers and they are hands-down The Most Fun Horror Sub-Genre, guaranteed. Those same criticisms I just listed – particularly the simplistic and formulaic structure – are, in fact, the greatest assets of the genre; slashers have an unpretentious immediacy of form in that they are designed to be fast-paced, brutal, and have minimal intrusive plotting. While the best films do establish meaningful characters (e.g. Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter and Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors) (that’s not a joke, those are really great movies, swear to god), in a vast majority of slashers part of the appeal is that all the characters are two-dimensional and expendable, making your job as an audience member to eagerly anticipate their gruesome and often very creative deaths that much easier. They’re at once the most excessive and the most minimalistic horror, and the simplicity and predictability that’s inherent to their form is borderline comforting in a turn-off-your-brain-and-watch-poorly-drawn-characters-get-brutally-murdered sort of way.
If you’re looking for a place to start, Black Christmas is the first true slasher film and absolutely stands the test of time as a great, creepy horror movie that avoids the self-aware irony of future iterations of the genre. Halloween is obviously the most famous and arguably the most artful as well – incredible direction, super suspenseful, and filmed entirely in my hometown of South Pasadena! Spooky! The Burning is also an absolute classic, and one that deserves so much more credit; it undeniably copied Friday the 13th in its vengeful-psycho-at-a-summer-camp premise, but it improves upon that film in every way and stars Jason Alexander (aka George Costanza) as a baby-faced teenager. Lastly, if you’re searching for the absolute campiest, goriest, most tasteless slasher, the film Pieces (tagline: “It’s exactly what you think it is”) checks off all the boxes. The dubbing is so bad and the acting so incompetent that it borders on avant-garde.
Best of the Best: The Thing (1982)
Hidden Gem: Society (1989)
Guilty Pleasure: Dead Alive / Braindead (1992)
In the same way that the quality of slashers is dependent on how brutal their kill sequences are, the quality of body horror films is directly correlated to the quality (and excessiveness) of their practical special effects – particularly in regards to how they show the mutilation and degradation of the human body. Body horror is all about decay, and the films that fall under the label are the grossest of the gross: Cronenberg’s The Fly and Videodrome, John Carpenter’s The Thing, David Lynch’s Eraserhead, etc. The grosser and more elaborate the effects, the more successful the film.
While the threat in most horror movies is an external force – masked killers, zombies, ghosts –, body horror tends to present an internal threat: a parasite, a disease, a mutation, something that gets inside you and violently eats away at your body. It takes this innate human fear of death and decay and meticulously exploits it through grotesque, nauseating makeup and special effects.
This emphasis on bodily transformations and degeneration also means that there are a lot of wildly tasteless and all-around pretty shitty body horror movies out there that don’t aspire to be much more than gross. The Human Centipede trilogy embodies the worst that the sub-genre has to offer in many ways; it’s designed to violently repulse the audience with its premise (which, according to director Tom Six who is not a licensed doctor, is 100% medically accurate) but it’s too self-serious and incompetently made to be anything more than a cinematic endurance test. It’s visceral and certainly horrifying in its own way, but there’s no entertainment value.
On the other side of the spectrum, however, are some of the best horror films, period. It’s hard to narrow it down to one definitive best body horror movie, but John Carpenter’s 1982 remake of The Thing definitely makes a strong case. It’s the scariest haunted house movie ever made without a haunted house, an unbearably tense horror film in which everyone stranded in this tiny Antarctic research base could be a monster in disguise.
Less well-known, however, is Brian Yuzna’s bizarre 1989 satire on class relations Society in which an upper-crust teenager gets suspicious that his parents are hiding dark, orgy-related secrets from him. It’s hard to summarize without giving away what is one of my favorite twists of any scary movie, but rest assured the climactic sequence is 30 minutes of the most gnarly and clever special effects imaginable. It’s disgusting, hard to watch, and above all absolutely stunning.
In a similar vein, Peter Jackson’s pre-LOTR career in trashy horror movies reached its peak in his film Dead Alive (known as Braindead outside of the United States), a zombie-comedy that has been called the goriest movie ever made. It lives up to that label and then some (a.k.a. it’s unfathomably trashy in the best way possible) and stands as one of the funniest horror movies around.
Of course, if none of those films float your boat there’s always pretty much every movie David Cronenberg, the undisputed king of cinematic body horror, has ever made; Videodrome is a particularly nasty little movie about famed bigot James Woods watching snuff films and putting VHS tapes in places they don’t belong, and the remake of The Fly is arguably the only movie in which Jeff Goldblum has ever looked less than great – although there’s no doubt in my mind he still looked stellar beneath all that makeup and vomit.
Best of the Best: Suspiria (1977)
Hidden Gem: Inferno (1980)
Guilty Pleasure: Bay of Blood (1971)
“Giallo” is the Italian word for yellow, but in the context of horror cinema it refers to a horror/thriller genre that began with fairly literal adaptations of pulpy Italian murder mysteries and evolved into an eccentric horror/thriller sub-genre filled with buckets of blood, vivid neon colors, and copious amounts of prog-rock.
Not unlike the German experimental rock genre krautrock – important reminder that I am very hip –, there is no consensus on the specific parameters of giallo films. The most common elements are gruesome death sequences, a masked killer who stalks their victims, and very stylized visuals that usually feature first-person camerawork from the murderer’s perspective. Those aren’t constants, however, as many giallo films feature supernatural entities instead of masked killers, and as the genre evolved it gradually abandoned its murder mystery roots almost entirely and became progressively more surreal.
Take for example what is arguably the most unconventional and eccentric giallo of all, Dario Argento’s wildly underrated 1980 film Inferno; there is no murder mystery at all, as the killer is established in the opening narration as a trio of mythological witches, and the film is far removed from the pulpy reality of murder mystery novels, instead using long sequences without dialogue as well as brash red and blue artificial lighting to create a thoroughly stylized fantasy world. Aside from the imaginative camerawork and gory murder scenes, the film has more in common with the nightmarish, elliptical late-career films of David Lynch than more traditional early giallos.
This film is an outlier, however, in that it’s the most experimental film within the genre by far. The best place to start is with the very best giallo out there: Argento’s Suspiria, a film that many people argue is among the best horror films ever made. Argento went off the deep end into trashy direct-to-video horror by the ‘90s, but in 1977 he was at the peak of his spooky neon-lit horror powers and Jesus Christ does it show. Suspiria is a gorgeous, blood-soaked fairy tale about ballet and witchcraft and absolutely gnarly progressive rock music, and it’s essential viewing for any self-respecting horror fan.
That being said, Suspiria is just barely more of a conventional giallo than Inferno; it’s all primary colors and supernatural phenomena without the classic whodunit plot structure. For films that fall more in line with the conventions of the genre, your best bet is Deep Red – Argento’s creepiest murder-mystery style giallo by far and a film that still manages to scare the hell out of me every time I see it.
If Deep Red isn’t weird enough for you, a good middle-ground is other-patron-saint-of-giallo-cinema Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace, about a group of scantily-clad fashion models being stalked and killed off one by one by a masked killer over the course of a particularly dark and spooky night, featuring – surprise – shots drenched in vibrant green, blue, and red lighting. If that sounds familiar at all, it’s because this 1964 film is the template for pretty much every sleazy slasher (and Dario Argento movie) ever made. While the structure is all too well-known to horror viewers today, it’s worth bearing in mind that Bava’s emphasis on the murder sequences and sexuality rather than the mystery aspects of the narrative was incredibly revolutionary at the time, and the film still feels very fresh and fun despite 53 years of lesser knock-offs being released.
Bava’s later giallo film Bay of Blood – also known by literally nine other titles including The Last House on the Left II – further cements his reputation as the founder of slashers, although it’s a far trashier affair in that he disregarded the arty style of Blood and Black Lace to focus on more brutal and creative kills. Nonetheless, it’s widely considered a giallo essential and it’s nothing if not fun (and very, very violent).