Despite the same orange leaves and chilly weather, autumn just hasn’t felt right. With everything that’s gone on this year, celebrating Halloween isn’t the most exciting prospect. The coronavirus will make parties and trick-or-treating frightening in a totally different way than normal. Even the most popular of Halloween films don’t feel right; who watches Hocus Pocus without their closest friends and family? Instead, I recommend a solo screening of a film you haven’t seen on the night of the 31st. Some new perspective is always welcome, especially when things have felt so topsy-turvey. Watching a horror film from another country could show you a side of the genre you never knew existed, connecting us all a bit more despite our mandatory social distancing.
Under the Shadow
Available on Netflix
This British-Qatari-Jordanian co-production by first-time Iranian director Babak Anvari combines the Iran-Iraq war with traditional folklore. While Shideh (Narges Rashidi) navigates her relationship with her daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), darker forces begin to seep into their Tehran apartment. Rashidi and Manshadi give nearly perfect performances; an important element given the mostly invisible forces at play. The panic that slowly overtakes them as they realize they’re being haunted by dark Djinn spirits is chilling. What really makes Under the Shadow stand out, however, are its elements of social criticism, such as the prejudice Shideh faces as a progressive woman and the bombs being dropped among the city, that provide a very real dimension to the horror of the war-torn setting.
Available on Shudder
Have you ever wondered what it would look like to combine Eraserhead and Euphoria? No? Well, The Nightmare has done it for us. German teen Tina (Carolyn Genzkow) has a bad trip at a party that just keeps getting worse. When she starts seeing a little monster baby running around her kitchen, no one seems to believe her. Despite the easy references, the love-hate relationship that ensues between Tina and her creature is entirely unique. One of the best things about this film is its open-ended nature: Is the creature a metaphor for queerness? For pregnancy? Who knows, but it sure works as an aesthetically compelling ride through the world of teenaged pain.
Blue My Mind
Available on Amazon Prime Video
Speaking of teenaged pain, let’s look at the horrors of puberty. Mia (Luna Wedler) in Blue My Mind gets her first period, but things don’t go quite as expected as she slowly turns into a mermaid. As Mia’s body changes into something monstrous, she struggles to relate to anyone in her Swiss seaside town, hides her body, and acts out in any way she can. For anyone who had a hard time grappling with growing up, this narrative provides a powerful coming-of-age metaphor that many of us can relate to. Instead of relying on body horror as a gross-out tactic, it is here used to convey the disgust Mia has toward her own body. Often heartbreaking, this film treats its protagonist with more empathy than is typical in the horror genre. No matter how dark things get, it’s impossible not to hope for the best for Mia. It might even help you look back on your younger self with more kindness than before.
Available to rent on YouTube
Not for the weak of stomach, Raw is a particularly brutal take on the cannibal genre. Justine’s (Garance Marillier) first term at a veterinary school in rural France takes a turn for the worse as she develops a taste for blood. Ripe with symbolism and dark eroticism, Raw exudes an uncomfortable realism despite a premise that could’ve easily turned into a campy college romp. That isn’t to say there’s no humor to be found (eating a finger like a chicken wing will always be funny), but the family intrigue, collegiate hazing, and primal urges at the center of the film will stick with you long after the final scene.
A Tale of Two Sisters
Available on Shudder
At this point, A Tale of Two Sisters is one of the most important South Korean horror films in their national canon. To simply call it a ghost story would be to disregard all of the moving pieces within the twisting, maze-like narrative. Instead, A Tale of Two Sisters is more aptly described as a family portrait of grief and anger. More frightening than the ghosts is the destabilized reality in which Su-mi (Im Soo-jung) and her family live. By the end, you yourself may be questioning what was real and what was imagined. Be prepared to view this one a few times over to catch every little piece of the puzzle.
The Devil’s Backbone
Available on Shudder
An under-appreciated gem in Guillermo del Toro’s filmography, The Devil’s Backbone is a precursor to the world explored in Pan’s Labyrinth. Taking place during the Spanish Civil War, it explores the effects of war on the children of a small orphanage. The young Carlos (Fernando Tielve) is able to see the ghost of another boy, leading him down a rabbit hole of mystery and murder. His unlikely friendship with Jaime (Íñigo Garcés) is the highlight of the film; their boyhood innocence keeps things feeling like a fairy tale despite the sinister truth lurking beneath the surface. More sad than scary, del Toro is a master at showing the darkest sides of humanity, even as we dare to hope for a brighter future.
If any of these sound interesting to you, make sure to add them to your list this year. All of them are guaranteed to thrill you and make you think. Personally, I can’t think of a better time to contemplate the many sides of horror than in 2020.