M.R. James, one of the great masters of the ghost story, narrated his supernatural tales to his King’s College audience on Christmas Eve, under the solitary light of a single candle. Explaining the efficacy of such storytelling, James elaborated, “If any of them succeed in causing their readers to feel pleasantly uncomfortable when walking along a solitary road at nightfall, or sitting over a dying fire in the small hours, my purpose in writing them will have been attained.”
Such stories eschew overt depictions of violence and gore and instead rely on the subtle and understated technique of leaving a permanent imprint on your psyche. An effectively told ghost story may not frighten you out of your wits but with the same intricacy as a spider weaving its web for its prey, it defamiliarises the world around you. And suddenly, you can no longer look in the same way at your reflection in the mirror.
Today, horror films are teeming with cheap shocks, grotesque makeup, and gallons of fake blood. In the tradition of the holiday season supernatural fable then, here are five films that will unsettle you enough to second-guess the tree-like shadow on the wall of your bedroom at 2 in the morning.
This film typifies the sense of uneasiness and dread that we’ve been talking about. The film’s core plot is deceptively simple. A woman is drawn to a strange and mysterious carnival after surviving an accident. But it’s Herk Harvey’s deft execution that makes this film a standout. Made on a tight shoe-string budget, the entire film plays out like an extended episode of the Twilight Zone. The budgetary constraint acts in the film’s favour as the grainy photography, along with the eerie organ score and haunting locations, all add to the pervading sense of nightmarish dread.
There are no big-name stars in this film but it doesn’t need any. While the performances may sometimes seem awkward, they mesh in perfectly with the topsy-turvy world created by the film. The film doesn’t have any big shocking moments but the existential dread it inspires will stick with you for a while.
This film from 1971 is about the eponymous Jessica (played to perfection by Zohra Lampert), who’s just been released from a New York City mental institution. To improve her health, her husband decides that they, along with a male friend of theirs, should move to the rural countryside. Needless to say, once they move to the countryside, strange things start to happen. They find a mysterious wayward woman squatting in their farmhouse, Jessica keeps seeing the apparition of a mute woman dressed in white and the locales are often hostile and cold towards the whole lot.
As the film progresses, things only get stranger, reaching a crescendo in the sinister finale. Jessica’s character follows in the long lineage of unreliable narrators as we’re never really sure of her version of the events. But while most heroines in such stories are portrayed as entirely helpless damsels-in-distress, Jessica importantly retains her agency. The film has also drawn a comparison with Sheridan Le Fanu’s 19th Century lesbian vampire tale “Carmilla” — and while the film’s overall plot is a far cry from Le Fanu’s gothic romp, it does carry the same queer, unsettling, and dream-like undertones of the story.
Producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Torneur would go on to work together on three films but perhaps none hold up quite as well as their very first collaboration. “The Cat People” was Lewton’s first project for RKO Pictures, which had hired him to ape the success of Universal’s monster horror films like Dracula and Frankenstein. Instead of relying on monsters, however, Lewton focused on the script, intricately stroking our imagination through the fear of the unknown and in the process, crafting a shadowy double of our world infused with voodoo and ancient legends.
Shot on a tight budget of just $150,000, the film tells the story of Irena, a Serbian fashion designer, and her newly-wed husband Oliver Reed. Fearing an old feline legend from her village, Irena is afraid of giving in to her physical desires and consummating their marriage. While the plot may sound hokey on paper, Lewton and Torneur’s nuanced characterisation and real-world anchoring transform it into a masterpiece of suggestive psychological horror with deeply disturbing implications.
One of Peter Weir’s early films, “Picnic At Hanging Rock” is not – at least on the surface — a horror film in any traditional sense. And yet, every single aspect of the film, from its haunting locales to its understated score, comes together to create one of the most unique and unnerving experiences put to screen. Set in the year 1900, the film sees a group of girls from an Australian boarding school go for a picnic at Hanging Rock where three of the students and a teacher vanish into thin air.
We are left to deal with the aftermath. While the premise on its own is intriguing enough, what sets the film apart from the average potboiler thriller is that it’s not really about the plot but the experience itself. Deftly interwoven through all this are subtle commentaries about Victorian sexual mores and the relationship between settlers and the mysteries of the ancient land they have chosen to make their own.
This arthouse Netflix-original begins with these chilling words: “My name is Lily Saylor. I am a hospice nurse. Three days ago I turned 28 years old. I will never be 29 years old.” Right from the start through to the very end, the film draws you into its vice-like grip of intense atmospheric foreboding and dread with the morbidly beautiful lure of a gothic poem. Lily Saylor, a hospice nurse, is assigned to take care of ageing horror author Iris Blum.
Old Ms Blum has dementia and keeps referring to Lily as Polly. Polly was also a character in Blum’s novel The Lady In The Walls. And who exactly is the “pretty thing” referred to in the film’s title? The film can be read as a ghost-story-within-a-ghost-story, but also a story about memories and perceptions and the intertwining of the past with the present. The narrative rewards multiple rewatches. It’s also sheer gothic poetry in visual form and scary in a way that will stay with you long after.