It could be that the horror genre has never been in worse shape it is now. It seems that horror cinema, in the mainstream at least, has become a home for shoddy remakes and reboots, with the occasional breakout hit so often the victim of franchising that myriad diminishing sequels fog the sight of what vague originality there once was. Regurgitated fast-food horrors take up the screen space, while the great and good indies generally find themselves restricted to festivals and art house theaters. There’s a solution: Fans craving a decent “new” horror fix need only look to cinema’s past, and to some of the underseen and underrated shockers lying in wait.
10. Portrait of Hell (1969)
Stiflingly confined entirely to soundstages, Shiro Toyoda’s Portrait of Hell paints a colorful picture of classical-era Japan as an inescapable underworld. Korean painter Yoshihide (Tatsuya Nakadai) lives and makes art under the rule of Horikawa (Kinnosuke Nakamura), a tyrannical lord who executes anyone who tries to leave the territory and takes any woman he desires as his own. When he decrees Yoshihide’s daughter his latest concubine, Yoshihide composes a series of paintings depicting spirits of those killed under Horikawa’s rule, in a hope they’ll drive the corrupt daimyo to insanity.
It’s not the otherworldly that provides the worst of the horror in Portrait of Hell, despite intermittent appearances from those awful, placid ghouls come to haunt Horikawa. Rather, what disturbs is the suffering that Yoshihide and Horikawa are prepared to inflict on those around them in their struggle, with each man stubbornly toying with the other as innocents are tortured and loved ones are burned alive. As they persist, their individual selfishness leads not to victory on either side, but to their collective existential doom.
9. Viy (1967)
Based on a sinister Nikolai Gogol fable, Viy is made into something altogether more fun by directors Konstantin Yershov and Georgi Kropachyov. They present Gogol’s story as a high-concept chiller, in which oafish, vodka-swilling priest Khoma (Leonid Kuravlev) spends three nights of escalating terror inside a rural church praying for the soul of a young witch. Naïve Khoma is to find that, in this pleasant land (the directing duo make a splendid picture of 19th-century Russia), witchcraft still holds power over the Christianity that comforts him.
Fully aware they’re marshalling Soviet Russia’s first horror film, Yershov and Kropachyov throw all known special effects into the mix for Viy. Ugly, dust-coated phantoms climb en masse out of the chapel woodwork for the climax, before the clumsy title creature anticlimactically reveals itself. Flaws and all, Viy is a movie made with the joie de vivre of two debutante filmmakers revelling in cinema’s magic. It’s the first Russian film to have gotten access to the horror toolshed after decades of Soviet social realism. In that final scene, the shed doors come flying open.
8. Long Weekend (1978)
Peter (John Hargreaves) is a smug narcissist with a penchant for gunning wild animals; Marcia (Briony Behets) is his quick-tempered wife, repulsed by the Australian wilderness her husband’s dragged her to for a weekend camping trip. Together, they’re a city-slicker couple so obnoxious you’ll be willing the elements to win in man vs. nature parable Long Weekend. Made with a Malthusian contempt for humanity’s negative impact upon Earth, the film takes an Adam and Eve spoiled by civilization, and places them back in a Garden of Eden now hostile to their selfishness.
To a soundtrack of distorted animal cries, Long Weekend’s unhappily holidaying pair pollute and hack at the New South Wales forest, merely as if to stamp their authority on the environment; in response, the native wildlife attacks—reacting, as director Colin Eggleston put it—like an immune system would to cancer cells. There’s a hint of the supernatural about the aggressive collusion of Long Weekend’s flora and fauna, but everything, up to and including the shock climax, can be explained away as modern man foolishly overestimating his hold over nature.
7. Who Can Kill a Child? (1976)
As if seeking to deny its schlocky nature from the off, Narciso Ibanez Serrador’s tale of children turning deadly against the adults on a sunny Spanish isle displays higher-brow aspirations in the opening credits. The protracted mondo montage that kick-starts the film relays horrors of the 20th century—the Holocaust, the Nigerian Civil War—and suggests that the madness of adults has finally warranted retribution from the children who so often become victims of such atrocities.
By boat onto the sun-scorched island of Almanzora comes a young English couple (Lewis Fiander and Prunella Ransome), who neglect the mainland in search of “the real Spain.” When they find knife-wielding children playing piñata with human corpses there, it becomes apparent the pair are unwittingly at war with a generation that’s either instinctively decided enough is enough or adopted lessons in cruelty from the very “responsible” adults who were supposed to show them the way. The title question is answered, but in a way that’s more chilling than its pulpiness would suggest; prepare yourself for the scene in which the pregnant wife’s baby starts to kick.
6. 10 Rillington Place (1971)
10 Rillington Place is at its surface a grisly true crime drama, a macabre biopic of a more disturbed kind of celebrity subject. But closer inspection reveals a horror movie twisted, with the bogeyman our protagonist, the haunted house our home and the slasher’s kills laid out for us in exacting close-up. Part three of director Richard Fleischer’s unofficial Capital Punishment Trilogy, 10 Rillington Place is a step beyond the riveting procedural studies of Compulsion and The Boston Strangler into sickeningly naturalistic horror.
Perhaps most distressingly of all, 10 Rillington Place transforms the avuncular Richard Attenborough into ghoulish serial murderer John Christie, who tricks John Hurt’s slow-witted Timothy into the hangman’s noose after he’s falsely convicted of Christie’s crimes. The crime and punishment element aside, the film’s a slow montage of murder sketches, with Attenborough’s softly spoken Yorkshireman luring young women into his home just so he can watch them die. The late reveal of what Christie’s been hiding in the walls of 10 Rillington Place makes for one of cinema’s most unsparingly chilling shots.