From the Vault: Filmmaker Recommends Off-the-Beaten Path Halloween Horror Flicks

By Tom McLaughlin

With Halloween lurking just around the corner, there are many – roaming anonymously among us – who don’t crave holiday treats, but rather the desire to satisfy their bloodthirst for a great horror flick.

However, for these “die-hard” horror buffs, Friday the 13th Part 64 just isn’t going to “cut” it.

So for those looking to wander off the beaten path and sink their fangs into something new this Halloween, here are some recommended titles from filmmaker and researcher Robert Emmons, associate director of the Digital Studies Center at Rutgers University–Camden.

Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

Though not quite an indie, as it was produced by a Hollywood studio, this psychological horror film flew under the radar, but has gained cult status because of its strong aesthetic qualities and script. The horror in Jacob’s Ladder is less in the quixotic, frightening images that often appear on screen and more in the fear of not knowing or understanding how one’s mind can slowly unravel. When Tim Robbins’ Jake encounters demons all around him and is eventually rolled into a nightmarish operating room and gasps, “I’m not dead. I’m alive,” it still haunts me.

Berberian Sound Studio (2012)

In the best psychological thrillers, the filmmaker rides a very tight edge that keeps the main characters questioning their own sanity. Are they going crazy, or is it the world around them? In that unknown is real horror.

Berberian Sound Studio keeps you guessing what is real and what is a fabrication of one’s own anxiety. With its film-within-a-film device, it is also a great homage to the classic low-budget and violent Italian horror films. As the title suggests, the film also uses sounds as an excellent catalyst for terror.

Session 9 (2001)

This indie sets up a mystery film that boils over into a full-on-descent into madness. Session 9 demonstrates how the aura of a place can possess those that find themselves trapped in it. The fear in Session 9 is that insanity can be contagious, and you don’t realize it until it’s too late. Madness and horror manifest itself within the film’s final haunting line: “I live in the weak and the wounded, Doc.”

Funny Games (U.S. version, 2008)

As far as home-invasion films go, Michael Haneke’s terrifying Funny Games is a masterpiece. This is due to the fact that, like all great home-invasion horror, the terror comes out of nowhere and for no explained reason. The fear created is in the randomness and inexplicability of the invasion.

What’s interesting about Funny Games is Haneke has directed two versions – one for Austrian audiences in 1997 and a U.S. version released in 2008. While I find both films excellent, I find the U.S. shot-for-shot remake the more terrifying, as I can easily imagine the scenario happening in any small town that surrounds me. The film also breaks the fourth wall in a new way that reinforces two things: number one, this could happen to me and, number two, nothing I can do to stop it.

And that’s a haunting thought.

The Strangers (2008)

The Strangers is another home-invasion film that I find utterly frightening. This is a film where all the cards are laid out right away. We know from the start that, just like in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, even if someone does survive, it all ends badly.

Like in Funny Games, what makes The Strangers horrific is that there seems to be no motivation for the invaders terror. They do it because they can. The invaders wear frightening masks throughout the film keeping them anonymous. In the film’s final moments, they reveal themselves to their victims. However, their backs are to the camera, so we, the audience, never see them. This leaves us with the terrifying thought that they could be anyone – your neighbor, my neighbor, the mailman…Who knows…And they’re still out there.

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