A Guide to
International Horror Films
Take a stroll around the globe to see best that the wide world has to offer.
Although I will try to avoid too many specific details, be advised that I may spoil the impact of these movies if you haven't seen them yet. Fortunately, these movies are becoming easier to find, as western remakes of Japanese horror films became the norm in the early 2000's.
For additional foreign titles, please visit the Disturbing Film List section of Spookyland, where international horror seems to hold sway.
The land down under likes its horror brutal and unflinching. They may be descended from criminals, but don't call them 'Bruce.'
Wolf Creek (2005)
Relentless torture highlights this film about Australian backpacking gone wrong. Based (in part) on the notorious backpack murders, this film features one of the most believable psychos in quite a while. Effective characters drive the story, including an antagonist that is likeable, if not lovable for much of the film. Full of grisly, grimy scenes viewed through an unflinching eye.
Lake Mungo (2008)
Even though, with a name like Lake Mungo, you might expect the Aussies to serve up a giant crocodile film, this is a more sublime horror film dealing with loss, grief, and ghosts. Crikey.
Resonating with an austerity similar to their neighbors in Germany, Austria seems to revel in tension caused by the uncanny.
Olumcul oyunlar (1997)
This film, remade as the unsettling Funny Games (2007) is a solid entry from a nation not often associated with filmmaking. Tension abounds, and don't expect happy endings as a family loses control to a pair of unusual oddballs.
Wow, first huge waffles, now corpses for breakfast. What won't the Belgian's eat?
Lucker the Necrophagous (1986)
Johan Vandewoestijne's infamous film of necrophelia and necrophagia was so suppressed that it only existed in whispers of legends for almost 20 years. Some grainy, incomplete bootlegs were rumored at horror conventions, but nobody had actually seen one. Finally, a restored DVD release lets people in on the first film to deal directly with these gooey subjects. Slow meandering pacing sets up for the actual 'unspeakable acts' themselves. Maybe this film just needed some chicken and waffles.
In a few deft strokes, Coffin Joe put Brazillian horror on the map.
At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul (1964)
Top hat, cape, long fingernails and an epic monobrow - I honestly can't believe that Coffin Joe isn't more popular or well known. Aspiring film maker José Mojica Marins (better known as Coffin Joe) pieced together scraps of unused fim and borrowed heavily from his parents to create the idiosyncratic À Meia-Noite Levarei Sua Alma. As writer/director/actor, he he plays the feared undertaker Zé do Caixão, an unashamed hedonist who believes that his continued bloodline is the key to his mastery of the weak world. Wonderfully stylish, the film works despite the untrained cast (including friends and family members). All the night scenes were studio shot in a tight space, but it creates a rich world for Zé to babble his manifesto to all those he oppresses. Fun and unique.
This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse (1967)
Never one to mince a good title, Coffin Joe returns as Zé do Caixão in Esta Noite Encarnarei no Teu Cadáver with a bigger budget, more bloodline obsessive rants, and a surreal depiction of hell that has become legendary. Listen closely for soundbytes appropriated into songs by Rob Zombie. Fingernails are longer, monobrow is thicker, and the tophat is... toppier. A fine film, and much stronger than the disappointing anti-drug political rant that completes the Coffin Joe trilogy, Awakening of the Beast (Ritual dos Sádicos, O) (1970).
Coffin Joe is not finished yet - he returned in 2008 as eternal gravedigging hedonist Zé do Caixão in Embodiment of Evil. Thank goodness.
Although films made in Canada became the norm in the 1990s when American studios were looking for ways to contain production costs, films made by Canadians are harder to pick out, but often worth the hunt.
Cube is an interesting movie. It feels more like a science fiction short story, but plays out like a horror film. It has a constrained budget (one set was built, and they changed the lights to create the illusion of many cells in the vast titular cube), but it displays no constraint. It is character driven and has fun violent effects, but the plot is dominated by the environment of the cube. In short, it is an effective, indie-feeling horror exercise. The acting and effects sell the plot, which seems like a deep metaphor worth unravelling. The film spawned several sequels, and some of them work well for different reasons (like the external viewpoint of Cube Zero (2004), for instance.) It's nice to see something original for a change.
China and Hong Kong
Chinese horror films tend to be genre-crossers, often blending elements of horror, fantasy, comedy and action with uncharacteristic ease. Often sumptuously visual, they tend to be period pieces, romanticizing China's past and incorporating themes from legend and folklore. Earlier films like Mister Vampire are considered classics, putting the hopping undead on the map.
A Chinese Ghost Story (1987)
Mixing the best of horror, humor, magic and martial arts, this 1987 film is one of the most artistically rendered films I have ever seen. Pretty ghosts, spooky zombies and lots of kung fu have made this a classic, and fairly easy to find these days. Because of it's eclectic nature, it has much of the charm of the Evil Dead movies, mixing horror with humor. Some stop-motion animation that might otherwise come across as clumsy melds well with the kitchy charm and humor of this film. Western audiences are becoming more aware of Chinese aesthetics which makes this film even more approachable. It must have been popular overseas, as it spawned at least two sequels.
The Danes are apparently great at horror.
Room 205 (2007)
Scheduled for remake treatment in 2012 as The Dorm, so it must be worth watching. Starting out as a typical 'haunted dormitory' story, it quickly shifts into a 'why did you release that murderous ghost' tale. And who you gonna call in Denmark?
Hammer Studios set the bar high in the 1950s, followed by horror-anthology filmmaker Amicus throughout the 1960s and '70s. More recently, indie-feeling features like The Descent and Dog Soldiers provide a welcome alternative to big budget Hollywood tripe.
Horror of Dracula (1958)
A solid encapsulation of the successful Hammmer formula, this film uses mood, elaborate sets, lively acting and (at the time) explicit horrors to retell Bram Stoker's vampire story. It established the Hammer stable of stars, featuring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, who would create tense chemistry in many films to follow. It has the typically English sensibility and a sense of seriousness of tone that results in an earnest film. Jolly good spooky fun.
Horror movies without striped shirts, berets, and accordion music. Who would have thunk it?
Haute tension (2003)
Abounding with violence, victims and tension, this film delivers shock in a solid tale of victim empowerment. Like so many effective foreign films, it was remade for western audiences as High Tension (2003) with uncanny, often shot-for-shot deference to the original. The antagonist is truly despicable, and the film tracks the heroine's effective transformation from apparent victim to empowered individual. More satisfying than most films of similar theme.
Relentless and ultimately profound, this unusual film won't allow you to look away. Almost two films in one, it begins rolling along at a fast pace, only to re-rail into an entirely differnt experience, full of anxiety and despair. Cruelty is heaped upon cruelty until a profundity is revealed, ultimately redeeming the entire experience of watching this stark, brutal film.
La Horde (2009)
An interesting mashup of modern gangsters and speedy French zombies results in uneasy alliances while trying to escape a derelict building. While the characters often lack depth, there are several very inventive scenes. However, it feels as much like a video game as a movie.
High expressionism from the silent era to morbid arthouse with a pastiche of caberet. Cool.
I know, I keep yammering on about this movie. Murnau's Nosferatu established nearly everything, exploiting the power of silent, black-and-white movies into a nightmarish (and unauthorized) treatment of Dracula with all of the shadow-play found in German expressionism. Location shots and sets anchored the film, which distinguishes it from the stagey artiness of Metropolis and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which makes the sense of dread more accessible. Fine casting overcomes the limitations of early filmmaking.
Compare to Herzog's 1979 sombre remake starring Klaus Kinsky.
A bawdy ready-for-anything attitude brings style to the slasher genre.
If you want to throw a good party, invite a nice, dead Irish clown. Casting Irish comedian Ross Noble as the titular clown was a smart move - it adds a grim humor to a solid slasher film, avoiding the pitfalls of this over-done genre. Inventive kills, solid gore effects, and nice acting fill out the rest of the package. Decisions to add uncommon elements (like the ancient clown rituals) add unexpected depth.
Italian horror generally falls into two categories. The artistic, suspenseful Giallo films (characterized by the works of Dario Argento) are akin to murder mysteries turned inside-out, and are frequently compared to the works of Hitchcock. On the other hand, the full-on cannibal gorefests of Fulci and DeOdato embody the in-your-face approach to Italian horror that became predominant in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Zombi 2 (1979)
Lucio Fulci's 1979 response to George Romero's Living Dead series features some really cool zombie effects. Any movie that mixes wooden splinters with eyeballs can't be all bad. This was Fulchi's self-styled sequel to Dawn of the Dead, which was released overseas as Zombi - hence the title. It tries to be very American, but has a style that only an Italian could bring.
Cemetary Man (1994)
Originally released as Della Morte, Della Amor, this stylish mishmash includes a novel plot and well drawn characters. Most interesting, is that the film does not really posture itself as a horror movie, although the plot centers around the watchman of a cemetery where the interred return after 3 days. Lots of action, gore, humor, and it's also a love story. A friend recently told me that this entire film has an alternative interpretation based on the previous misdeeds of the protagonist, which recasts this film as a symbolic immersion into one man's purgatory. I must re-watch this film.
Japanese horror takes two distinctive paths. Firstly are the stylish, haunting folkloric films like Ringu and Ju On that have been so popularly remade for western audiencs. Often dealing with inexplicable and relentless hauntings, they incorporate legends familiar to Japanese audiences, such as the hybrid boy-cat spirit of Ju On. On the other hand, a body of violent, abberant torture films suggests that the island is a powderkeg of cultural repression waiting to pop.
If you have only seen the western remake of this film, please watch the original. Less enigmatic than The Ring (2002), it tells the same story while revealing more information. We learn backstories and motivations that ultimately make both films more interesting. The gripping visuals established by this original have been often imitated and parodied.
Despite their troublesome neighbors to the north, South Korea manages to produce horror films.
Although I know next to nothing about this film, it is scheduled for a western remake in 2011 as The Host. Both deal with humongous tentacles in a polluted river, so don't expect any introspective drama here.
Apparently the Phillipines have a film industry in addition to their tropical jungles.
Well, somebody is watching the Phillipine film industry, because this film was remade in 2008 as The Echo. Dealing with a loner in a secluded apartement building, abuse and jealousy, this film moves from character drama to supernatural thriller before its end.
The Russian mind is still little understood in the west. So are their movies. And I know it's not Russia any more, but this is what I am calling it here.
Visions of Suffering (2006)
Heavily flavored with folkloric visual motifs, this drab, hulking (about 2.5 hours) film is a series of nightmares, linked together by sequences that make early David Lynch films seem peppy. Often beautiful, full of dusty, organic forms, it feels at times like something dragged in from a Russian farmer's fields. I don't know if this is representative of Russian horror films, but it is representative of something.
Serbia, whether invaded by the Turks or re-partitioned into Yugoslavia, is a nation of conflict. I am not sure how broad the Serbian film industry runs, but these themes are bound to be seen in any important film they produce.
A Serbian Film (2010)
The Serbians in my life tell me that their families are just like this. Well, actually, not. Reportedly a metaphor of the repression and control experienced by generations of Serbs, this film deals with a character forced to yield control, only to be put in increasingly terrible situations that I won't describe here. Finally, after being drugged, he must confront the full horrors of his actions. This film is tough to watch, and you should feel badly after doing so. However, this profoundly disturbing film should be seen. You may want to watch Hostel afterwards as a palate-cleanser.
Who doesn't like blind dusty zombies? Or the wacky monsters of Paul Naschy? And what about Jess Franco, who put smut horror on the map? More recently was Anguish (1987), but I have yet to see it.
Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971)
Jump starting an entire film franchise based on slow action and re-using the good clips over and over, La Noche del terror ciego kicked off the saga of the blind, vengeful, dusty-robed and pissed-off zombies of murdered Templar Knights. Slow moving with a deliberate force, but clearly blind - they are zombies, but at the same time utterly alien. If you are very quiet, you just might survive, but that hardly ever seems to happen. The sequels continued to 1975, and despite re-using some of the most effective shots, are still interesting and fun. They include zombie horses and a cool zombie ship - all appropriately dusty, of course.
Tremendously effective tale, constricted in a small space, this reality genre film features a slightly different ending than it's big budget remake Quarrantine (2008). Working through the isolation of a quarrantined apartment building, the terror and mystery increase as the remaining characters work their way to the odd apartment where the troubles seem to have started. Good tension and a few memorable shocks.
Stylish and moody, the Swedes have left their mark on vampire films in one deft stroke.
Let the Right One In (2008)
Offering something more sublime in the face of all those moody teen-angst vampire soap operas. Thank you, Sweden. Someday I promise to see this film.
Great food, hopefully a great movie.
Need to seriously check this out. Apparently, eastern ghosts love having their pictures taken. Someone should tell Zak Bagins.