Over the last few years, I have spent the month of October catching up on various horror movies I ought to have seen. I intended to do that again this year, but October proved to be a quite a busy month for many reasons, which limited the amount of films I could tackle for this edition of ‘What I’ve Been Watching’. However, I nailed down the list of films that could be labelled “horror” that I was keen to check out to three features, all of which differ in their approach to the genre but are successful in disturbing viewers. Without further ado, here are my thoughts on a handful of horror films I would highly recommend watching on Halloween night:
- Diabolique (1955)
I cannot recall ever seeing a film containing a final frame which is comprised of a piece of text imploring viewers not to reveal its ending to people who have not watched it yet, but Henri-Georges Clouzot’s psychological horror earns this coda, serving as an eerie, suspenseful and highly entertaining piece.
Given the plea in its final moments, I will not reveal too many plot details, but the basic premise centres on three characters: Michael (Paul Meurisse), the headmaster at a boarding school in France, his wife Christina (Vera Clouzot), and his former mistress Nicole (Simone Signoret). Michael’s heated relationship with both women has reached boiling point, and the two of them conspire to take him out of the picture. Of course, things go awry.
The pacing of Diabolique is one of the main ingredients to its success. Viewers have to develop the resentment towards Michael that reflects Christina and Nicole’s, but the film also cannot rest on its laurels for too long until they become fatigued by this love triangle. Thankfully, Clouzot allows the first thirty minutes to sufficiently flesh out the main trio, sowing the seeds of discontent from which the women’s scheme is built. However, although their plot unravels, it is more like witnessing someone taking one piece of a Jenga set out at a time rather than watching a house of cards collapse. The audience is allowed the breathing room to come to terms with one major development and the effect it has on the characters before throwing in another curveball. This maintains a high level of suspense, even if the cathartic moment is withheld until the final minutes.
The terror elicited by Diabolique comes from the psychological torment that Christina in particular has endured from Michael and how, despite seemingly being liberated from him, their interactions, along with the unravelling of her and Nicole’s scheme, have made her feel increasingly more paranoid. Her submissiveness to Michael in the opening stages fails to wane in spite of his absence, apparent in her willingness to offer a confession to the police about her and Nicole’s plan once it begins to collapse. Christina’s turmoil demonstrates how the subgenres of domestic drama and psychological horror intertwine so well, adding a solid emotional underpinning to a series of intriguing events.
2. Dawn of the Dead (1978)
It would be remiss of me not to highlight a work by George A. Romero in a piece revolved around horror movies, given that the late American Canadian director was one of the leading voices in the genre. While Night of the Living Dead (1968) is arguably the picture he is most renowned for, I have chosen to draw attention to his follow-up to that seminal work since I had never seen it prior to this month and was taken aback by how well it holds up, especially when a solid 2004 remake by Zack Snyder is the version modern audiences would be more familiar with.
Dawn of the Dead builds upon the terror elicited by its predecessor, which took place mostly in a rural farmhouse, and demonstrates how a zombie apocalypse affects society on a wider scale, yet the bulk of the action still takes place primarily in one location – a shopping mall in Pittsburgh – and concentrates on a small group of characters. Romero manages to maintain the sense of claustrophobia that Night of the Living Dead created, but he uses the mall setting to reflect humans’ preoccupation with materialism, adding a layer of nuance to proceedings. The location provides the four leads with many useful resources in their struggle to fight off the horde of zombies, but their indulgence in the more superfluous items contained in the abandoned shopping centre allows them to reshape it into a new home. For a while, it restores some semblance of normality, and we can empathise with the urge of certain figures to recapture what they assumed had been lost with the emergence of zombies, but their dependence on the mall’s supplies eventually begins to threaten their chances of survival.
Romero’s social commentary is not just limited to the hedonistic lifestyle enjoyed by the principal characters; his depiction of violence in the film is alarming in how arguably the most gruesome acts displayed are perpetrated by human figures. A set-piece that takes place in a housing project features a trooper brutally dispatching both zombies and civilians, failing to distinguish between the two entities. It reflects an ignorance and an instinct for barbarism that should characterise the zombies, but sadly reflects upon humanity too, echoing the harrowing conclusion of Night of the Living Dead but illuminating this concern in a far more gnarly fashion.
Darkly comedic at points, consistently thrilling and quite provocative, Dawn of the Dead exemplifies Romero’s skill at infusing a subgenre of horror with an element of moral complexity regarding subjects like human autonomy, violence, and consumerism.
3. The Vanishing (1988)
It may be considered a stretch to dub George Sluizer’s piece of work a “horror film” given that it appears to lean more heavily into the thriller genre, but the manner in which Dutch director captures the frightening nature of its premise leaves a chilling effect on the audience that matches some of the very best horror movies produced. The Vanishing follows a couple, Rex (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) and Saskia (Johanna ter Steege), on holiday in France which takes a turn for the worse when the latter enters a petrol station in a rest area and does not return. One would assume that the rest of the film would explore Rex’s attempts to discover her whereabouts, but one of the major appeals of Sluizer’s feature is how it avoids adhering to the traditional narrative structure of a mystery thriller to delve deeper into what motivates a person to commit an act of horror.
Saskia’s disappearance is not tied to a supernatural event or linked to an unknown entity. Sadly, it feels all too realistic, which ultimately exacerbates the terror. I find that horror ranks alongside comedy as the genre in which the subjective nature of film really illuminates: some viewers consider a feature to be “terrifying” if it boasts multiple well-executed jump scares, while others are more perturbed by stories that eerily draw upon real human concerns to generate trepidation. The Vanishing’s approach to its subject matter should not elicit as much dread as it does, especially given that it resolves mysteries much earlier than viewers would expect. However, the notion that Rex as well as the audience have the answers to lingering questions and are still unable to do anything about the situation is arguably more horrifying than not having any answers whatsoever. The candidness with which this feeling of helplessness manifests on screen increases the apprehension; there is no need for flashy cinematography or a dramatic musical score, the simplicity of its story is enough to render it a genuinely disquieting experience.