Film

Oh! The Horror

Charlie Fox’s top ten scary movies

Jack Clayton, The Innocents, 1961, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 100 minutes. Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr).

In the spirit of the Halloween season, we invited Charlie Fox—writer and devotee of all things spooky—to recommend his top ten favorite scary movies. His list, dare we say it, is positively bewitching.

THE INNOCENTS (1961) Jack Clayton (Prime Video)

An extremely sinister adaptation of The Turn of the Screw (and inspiration for Kate Bush’s eldritch serenade “The Infant Kiss”) in which psychosexual anxieties galore flow from repressed governess Deborah Kerr onto her eerie little charges Miles and Flora amid the shadows and cobwebs of a haunted gothic estate. Inaugurated with the archetypal creepy-child-sing-song “O Willow Waly,” and enigmatic to its last gasp, The Innocents lures you into a maze where nothing is stable and everything seethes with malevolence. Something is afoot, but what? Why is that bug in the cherub’s mouth? What if it’s all in your head? But I thought Mr. Quint was dead. . .

Francis Ford Coppola, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, 1992, 35 mm, color, sound, 136 minutes. Dracula (Gary Oldman).

BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992) Francis Ford Coppola (Apple TV)

A bloody masterpiece because it doesn’t run screaming from the insane phantasmagorical maximalism and horniness that the Gothic demands but instead submits to it, jugular gleefully exposed, and dressed in a trippy ball gown designed by Eiko Ishioka. Coppola, like the Count himself, is all about deranged flair, style as an intoxicant, dark magic. Take that beautiful monster’s outstretched claw and fall in love. I mean, “too much” is what everybody wants in the end, isn’t it?

Robinson Devor, Zoo, 2007, 35 mm, color, sound, 80 minutes.

ZOO (2007) Robinson Devor (YouTube)

A weirdly soothing documentary about the infamous case of Mr. Hands, who was killed by repeated sexual intercourse with a horse. It features woozy photography of lonesome Pacific Northwest landscapes, strung-out voice-overs from fellow zoophiles, and a drone-gaze score akin to Wave Field by Rafael Toral. If Tarkovsky died making a movie during an acid trip, it’d look like ZOO.

Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, 2004, still from a TV show on Channel 4. Dr. Rick Dagless (Matthew Holness).

JAM and GARTH MARENGHI’S DARKPLACE (2000/2004) Chris Morris and Richard Ayoade (YouTube and Prime Video)

Two British comedy classics from the late night TV schedules of yore. Jam could be drawn from the same moodscape as ZOO, except this sketch show is even more bizarre: a dreamlike alternate dimension of deadpan perversity and ambient lullabies where doctors diagnose their patients with a “symptomless coma” and then drug them to death, and parents don’t care that their children are missing, and porn stars are locked into an ejaculation that doesn’t stop even if they “de-stimulate [them] with a dog carcass.” Meanwhile, Darkplace is a perfect spoof of 80’s horror, the accidentally hilarious brainchild of a ludicrous Stephen King doppelganger. Or as he says: “I prefer the term ‘dreamweaver.’” Both are ideally watched late at night, or early in the morning while you’re rubbing nightmares from your eyes.

Production still from Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves, 1984.

THE COMPANY OF WOLVES (1984) Neil Jordan (Apple TV)

This dark and enchanted retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood” waits for you on the threshold of the spooky, wild woods between innocence and experience, drooling and hungry and covered in fur. I wish Angela Carter could come back from the dead.

Lesley Manning, Ghostwatch, 1992, video, color, sound, 91 minutes. Mike Smith, Sarah Greene, Michael Parkinson.

GHOSTWATCH (1992) Lesley Manning (archive.org)

A notorious mockumentary claiming to record the activities in a suburban house haunted by an undead malevolence known as “Pipes.” So intensely disturbed was the British public after the film’s Halloween night broadcast that the BBC promised never to show the program again, and left its posthumous reputation to playground folklore. Ghostwatch is indeed unhinged, turning inside out, transforming a cheery “live” broadcast into a horrifying possession of television itself.

Julia Ducournau, Titane, 2021, DCP, color, sound, 108 minutes. Alexia (Agathe Rousselle).

TITANE (2021) Julia Ducournau (Prime Video)

Before she broke hearts with her eerie, Edward Scissorhands–like embodiment of Kurt Cobain in Matt Copson and Oliver Leith’s operatic adaptation of Gus Van Sant’s Last Days, Agathe Rousselle was A Fucking Star of this magical realist banger. She plays a hot sociopathic killer-on-the-run who gets pregnant by having sex with a car, then finds an unlikely father figure in an alcoholic fireman. Hers is probably the best horror performance since Nosferatu, so ferocious and sensitive that she seems more like a traumatized cheetah than a person.

Park Chan-work, Thirst, 2009, 35 mm, color, sound, 133 minutes.

THIRST (2009) Park Chan-wook (Criterion Channel)

A typically lush and labyrinthine vampire romance from the master. Like a lot of stuff on this list, it may not be “horror” at all, but a warped love story about what happens when you fall for something bad. Scariness is a big deal with this stuff, but what’s really exciting is how horror explores strange new sensualities, previously secret regions of the self that can only be reached via mischief or torment and taste so great it hurts, e.g. the sex scene where cute deviant Tae-Ju (Kim Ok-bin) is resuscitated by feverishly slurping blood from her lover’s veins.

Atlanta, 2017, still from a TV show on Hulu. Teddy Perkins (Donald Glover).

“TEDDY PERKINS” EPISODE FROM ATLANTA, Hiro Murai (2017) (Disney+ and Hulu)

Atlanta deals with the nightmare of being Black in America right now, its vibe permanently set at a post-traumatic WTF, the unease oozing like the yolk from the gross ostrich egg cracked during one scene in this very special episode. There are lots of scary and/or incomprehensible people in Atlanta, but Teddy, the Michael Jackson–style freak, is the most frightening: a zombie embodiment of stardom and the demons that rise in its wakeor refuse to be scared away by its rewards.  No recent show is as haunted as Atlanta, except maybe Twin Peaks: The Return (2017).

Todd Solondz, Welcome to the Dollhouse, 1995, 35 mm, color, sound, 88 minutes. Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo).

WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE (1995) Todd Solondz (Paramount Plus)

The best movie about the body horror we all go through known as puberty. This film is like Todd Haynes’s Safe (also 1995), but with wicked jokes, a gnarly Gen X story of a female misfit dealing with whatever’s going on inside of her while surrounded by tormentors in the shiny hellscape of suburbia. The scene in which gawky little oddball heroine Dawn (Heather Matarazzo) stares into the mirror after an awful family dinner is the perfect encapsulation of the teenage experience of suddenly realizing your childhood is over, and you’re a hideous monster, and life will probably suck until you die.

Charlie Fox is a writer based in London. His book of essays, This Young Monster (2017), is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

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