Category Archives: The Hitchhiker’s Guide

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Horror Films: GRAB BAG OF WEIRD CRAP

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The problem with these listicle-type things is that sometime’s there’s stuff you want to talk about that doesn’t easily fit into your average “10 ways to X more” or “top 5 Ys” posts. But it’s my blog and I do what I want, so here are some films that are weird, wonderful, and pretty. They might not fit anywhere, but I think you should watch them:

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Delicatessen

Jean-Pierre Jeunet & Marc Caro, 1991

The story: In a post-apocalyptic France in which food is scarce, butcher and landlord Clapet uses employment ads in a local newspaper to lure unsuspecting victims to his building, killing them and serving them up as cheap meat for his tenants. Clapet’s newest hire is an unemployed circus clown named Louison who might throw more than one wrench into the butcher’s careful plans.

Why you should watch it: Delicatessen is strange, hyperstylized and, despite the subject matter, full of whimsy. I mean, vegetarians are forced to become sewer-dwelling guerrilla rebels, so. To liken it to Jeunet’s most famous work, this film is like Amélie, if Amélie were a cannibal. Dominique Pinon is delightful as Louison, and the film’s use of colour scheme, sound editing, and comedic timing is masterful.

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Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein

Andy Warhol, 1974

The story: Baron von Frankenstein is obsessed with creating the perfect Serbian race, putting together a pair of humans out of pieces of different corpses. While dealing with his own severely repressed sexuality and need for domination, Frankenstein’s plans are stymied by the male creation’s lack of sexual response. In the hopes of solving the problem, Frankenstein decides that attaching instead the head of Nicholas, his neglected wife/sister’s new lover, will give the creation the necessary added libido.

Why you should watch it: A good introduction to the cinematic contributions of Warhol, his version of Frankenstein is—though by no means a tight, streamlined film—a campy, unsettling look at ethnic elitism, masculine control, and sexual perversion. The gory make-up effects come from the same special effects artist who would later go on to work on E.T. and Alien, and the film also subverts a heteronormative male gaze in favour of objectifying gay icon Joe Dallesandro (in the role of Nicholas) in really interesting ways.

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Spellbound

Alfred Hitchcock, 1945

The story: Dr. Constance Petersen is a psychoanalyst who soon realizes that her new coworker Dr. Anthony Edwardes is an impostor. Edwardes believes that he has amnesia, and both he and Petersen go away together to track down his past. A bit of sleuthing and dream analysis reveals that there is much more to the situation than either Petersen or Edwardes could have anticipated.

Why you should watch it: While not one of Hitchcock’s more famous films, Spellbound remains one of my favourites for its brilliant meditation on guilt and memory, and its use of a star-studded cast that does justice to those themes. Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck crackle together, and the dream sequence designed by Salvador Dalí (not to mention a fun, theremin-heavy soundtrack) adds a—forgive me—spellbinding sense of uncertainty and surrealism to the story.

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Pan’s Labyrinth/Crimson Peak

Guillermo del Toro, 2006/2015

The story: In Pan’s Labyrinth, a young girl moves between a dangerous post-Civil War Spain and a mysterious underworld that is, if possible, even more threatening to her safety. If she can complete all three tasks set by the labyrinth’s faun, she may prove herself to be the reincarnated Moanna, princess of the underworld. Crimson Peak tells the story of Edith, an American girl who has been haunted by ghosts since childhood. She meets Sir Thomas Sharpe, an English baronet trying to raise capital for his red clay mine, and quickly marries him. Whisked off to his remote estate, Edith finds that Thomas, and his sister Lucille, have not been entirely truthful with her.

Why you should watch it: Del Toro double feature, since I couldn’t decide which to pick! Pan’s Labyrinth is more legitimately a horror film, but Crimson Peak is, I think, the culmination of the director’s focus on aesthetics and cinematography. The films are beautiful, dark, and treacherous, and there is a running theme of trust, violence, and suspicion in them both. Choose Pan’s Labyrinth as an excellent entry point into Spanish horror cinema, and Crimson Peak if you’re in the mood for a gothic romance with a hard edge.

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Spirits of the Dead

Roger Vadim, Louis Malle & Federico Fellini, 1968

The story: In “Metzengerstein,” a young baroness lives a debauched life until she learns of a long-lost cousin, a meeting that precipitates obsession and catastrophe. A young army officer, the titular “William Wilson,” relays a story of doubled identity, depravity, and guilt to a priest, convinced he has murdered his doppelgänger. In “Toby Dammit” a English actor is losing himself to alcoholism. Agreeing to film a movie in Italy, he is plagued by visions of a girl playing with a white ball as he spirals wildly out of control.

Why you should watch it: An anthology film that (loosely) takes the stories of Edgar Allan Poe as inspiration, Spirits of the Dead offers up three radically different, though all unsettling, directorial visions. My favourite is likely Fellini’s contribution, not only because I made the mistake of watching it alone, in the dark, right before bed. While Fellini’s short film is the most explicitly surreal, all three films take the twists and dark corners of the source material in stride, creating self-contained stories that deal with excess, depravity, and mortality in intriguing ways.

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Horror Films: Make love not war

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It’s often through horror that we are allowed to process and reclaim taboo or traumatic subjects, and it’s precisely for that reason that war, genocide, and violent oppression seem tailor made for the horror film treatment. If you’re interested in how institutionalized (and often racialized) violence plays out in genre films, you’ve come to the right place:

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Jacob’s Ladder

Adrian Lyne, 1990

The story: During the Vietnam war, Jacob’s unit is attacked, and the soldiers not killed start exhibiting abnormal behaviour. Four years later, Jacob is estranged from his wife and children, working a dead-end job, and dealing with terrifying hallucinations. He is contacted by an old comrade who is experiencing the same visions, and Jacob learns they’re not the only ones still haunted. Information is being kept from them, and now they must fight to survive long enough to uncover the truth.

Why you should watch it: If medical abuse is particularly terrifying to you, I would suggest staying away from this one (or watching it immediately, as the case may be). Jacob’s Ladder is a compelling treatment of PTSD and the difficulty of reintegrating yourself into regular life after military experience. If you’re into the total disintegration of pat wartime narratives of good and bad guys, with some body horror thrown in for good measure, this is a pretty solid choice.

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Night of the Living Dead

George A. Romero, 1968

The story: All along the eastern US, the recently dead have become reanimated, and are terrorizing the living. In rural Pennsylvania a group of scared survivors all find shelter in a farmhouse. Among them is Ben, the sole black man among a group that is in turns hostile or in shock. As the night progresses Ben seems to be the only one with tangible plans for survival. Come morning, impromptu militias scour the country side looking for survivors, but this isn’t the end of the danger.

Why you should watch it: An immediate, though controversial, success upon release, Night of the Living Dead was hugely influential for zombie movies, and horror more generally. It’s thought to be commentary on the loss of lives—in particular those of black men—during the Vietnam war, and Duane Jones’s Ben shine as the one the voice of reason among the panic. The injustice of Ben’s fate after having struggled to survive remains shockingly relevant to this day; despite its status as a classic, the film still feels entirely subversive.

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Rhymes for Young Ghouls

Jeff Barnaby, 2013

The story: Aila, a teenager living in a fictional Mi’gmaq reserve in 1976, inherits her father’s drug dealing business, using the profits to pay off Popper, the local Indian agent, and keep herself out of the residential school system. Her father’s reappearance upsets Aila’s business arrangements, and she must use all of her resourcefulness to escape the residential school, keep herself safe, and exact revenge on the abusive Popper.

Why you should watch it: Rhymes for Young Ghouls won a bunch of Canadian film awards when it came out three years ago, and for good reason. It’s a tightly woven, immediately intense story that uses supernatural horror imagery to augment the very real horrors of abuse, neglect, and cultural genocide. Rather than act as the central focus, the film’s magic realism serves a larger conversation on the lasting impacts of the residential school system, a conversation we’re only beginning to have as a country.

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Horror Films: LADIES BE CRAZY (Take II)

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There is such a rich history of horror films and thrillers dissecting female neurosis that it was impossible for me to only write one blog post about it. Women who lie, who kill, whose sexual desire manifests in culturally unacceptable ways are perfect fodder for a genre that revels in the taboo and the forbidden. For audiences who watch these films, not to mention the male directors putting them together, women who behave outside of what is respectable are a source of cultural anxiety that can easily be turned into uncomfortable, unpleasant, and even horrifying films.

These four movies all deal, in their own way, with women’s sexualities, and the deep-seated apprehension that arises when that aspect of women’s lives, usually so controlled and restricted, becomes ungovernable.

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Mulholland Drive

David Lynch, 2001

The story: A mysterious dark haired woman survives an attempt on her life and, confused, wanders into an empty home. Shortly after, peppy aspiring actress Betty Elms arrives and finds the woman asleep in the bed. The woman doesn’t remember who she is, and she and Betty become close. At the same time, a man in a diner tells his friend about a nightmare he had, only to collapse when the figure from that dream shows up behind the restaurant. A movie director is told to cast a specific actress in the lead role of his film by the mob, and is also kicked out of his house when he finds out his wife is cheating on him.

Why you should watch it: In typical Lynchian fashion, the film twists and turns, focusing on characters that seem to have nothing in common, and never staying in chronological order for long. To this day I’m not entirely sure what’s going on. In fact, the first time I watched it I paused for a nap halfway through, and when I started it back up again was convinced I was watching a different movie. But it’s all rather purposeful as part of a meditation on love, obsession, jealousy, and revenge, and the heady cocktail these emotions create in the mind of the decidedly less than perfect Betty.

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The Haunting

Robert Wise, 1963

The story: Dr. John Markway wishes to study the paranormal activity reported at Hill House, and brings together a psychic, Theodora, and Eleanor, who dealt with a poltergeist as a child. The two women grow closer as they almost immediately begin to experience supernatural phenomena, and Eleanor’s mental stability rapidly declines as her mysterious affinity for the house increases.

Why you should watch it: Mulholland Drive taught us that queer desire will *~*mess with your mind*~* and the same can definitely be said for The Haunting. Though Theodora is one of the few non-predatory early lesbian characters in film, it can definitely be argued that her effect on the already timid and guilt-filled Eleanor leads to the latter’s susceptibility to the house’s evil. Based on Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, the film’s off-kilter, distorted shots make every scene feel threatening and claustrophobic, and at no point does Hill House feel safe, especially for Eleanor.

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The Devils

Ken Russell, 1971

The story: In 17th century France, the Cardinal Richelieu has convinced the king that decreasing the independence of the country’s cities by tearing down their fortifications will stop the rise of Protestantism. The city of Loudun is governed by the priest Urbain Grandier, who is both very popular and very promiscuous. Sister Jeanne des Anges, the abbess of the local convent, has become sexually fixated on him, to the point of harassing a young woman whom she finds out Grandier has married. As revenge, when the authorities come to tear down Loudun’s wall but are stopped by Grandier, Sister Jeanne reveals his affairs, and accuses him of witchcraft, leading to horrific interrogations, mock trials, and misery for all.

Why you should watch it: The Devils was extremely controversial when it came out, and remains an uncomfortable film to watch to this day (think orgies, enemas, masturbation, torture, that sort of thing). But there are some gorgeous visuals to be found, and the themes of desire and religious hypocrisy are endlessly fascinating to me. Vanessa Redgrave manages to pull off Sister Jeanne’s repressed, obsessive lust perfectly, terrifyingly.

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The Exorcist

William Friedkin, 1973

The story: Actress Chris MacNeil is living in Washington DC with her twelve year old daughter Reagan who, after playing with a Ouija board, begins behaving strangely. She swears, complains that her bed shakes, and is abnormally strong. After consultation with many doctors, who all come to the conclusion that there’s nothing physically wrong with Reagan, Chris decides that her daughter is possessed and that an exorcism must be performed. She calls on two Catholic priests, including an archeologist who may have encountered this particular demon before.

Why you should watch it: Having accidentally watched the much longer—and frustratingly slower-paced—director’s cut, I’m recommending The Exorcist almost exclusively for its extremely influential place in horror film history. It was groundbreaking in many ways, including its use of special effects, and many critics have read Reagan’s possession as a metaphor for her growing sexuality. When thought of this way, the endless scenes of Reagan surrounded by male doctors and priests trying to figure out what’s wrong with her, how to render her docile, take on a whole new meaning.

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Horror Films: FAMILY WILL KILL YOU

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Alright, so we’ve already seen how people who are supposed to be benevolent, pure, and unthreatening—like women and children—are the fertile ground from which springs some of the best horror, or at least the horror that messes with our preconceptions and taboos in the most interesting ways. But what about family? How does the genre deal with a social space that is, at least in theory, supposed to offer comfort, safety, and unqualified love? Let’s look at a few examples of what happens when the people who know us best, and are meant to protect us, are the source of the horror, when ostensibly unshakeable biological bonds get twisted, perverted, and subverted.

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A Tale of Two Sisters

Kim Jee-woon, 2003

The story: Su-mi is institutionalized and being treated for shock, but quickly returns to her father’s home with her sister Su-yeon. The house is secluded, and tensions run high between Su-mi and her stepmother. In the meantime Su-yeon has visions, and develops bruises on her arms. Strange things keep happening, and the father blames Su-mi’s return. But nothing is at it seems, and the mystery surrounding the girls’ deceased mother might play a part in the strange occurrences that haunt the family.

Why you should watch it: If you like mind-benders that stay mysterious right up until the end, you’ll love this (it is actually very hard to write a summary without giving everything away). You’re never sure exactly what’s happening, who’s at fault, or where the threatening sense of foreboding is coming from. There’s a touch of body horror and teenaged sexuality is briefly used to make everything that much creepier. The film is lush and full of rich, saturated colours, and there’s a lot of fun visual symbolism to explore.

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Santa Sangre

Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1990

The story: Fenix is a young boy growing up in a circus. His father runs it and performs as a knife thrower, while his mother Concha uses the flying trapeze when she’s not running her new religion, the Santa Sangre Church (devotees of which worship a girl whose arms were cut off by her rapists). When Concha finds out that her husband is cheating on her with the circus’s tattooed woman, a violent altercation ensues that scars Fenix so badly he has to be institutionalized. Years later, he escapes.

Why you should watch it: If you’re at all familiar with cult-favourite Jodorowsky, you know what you’re getting yourself into. This crazy, fascinating mess of stunted emotions, fear of sexuality, trauma, murder, and mommy and daddy issues is complex, uncomfortable, and very, very compelling. The circus setting lends some really interesting visuals to the movie, and like A Tale of Two Sisters, mixing parents, death, and abuse all together is a sure-fire way of creating a sinister as shit story.

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Ginger Snaps

John Fawcett, 2000

The story: Sisters Ginger and Brigitte are social outcasts who look down on everyone at school, have only each other as friends, and spend their time putting together morbid photo shoots, with themselves as the grisly murder victims. They’re incredibly close until one night when Ginger gets bitten by a strange animal in the woods. Soon after, her moods and body begin changing. The adults are dismissive, believing that Ginger is just becoming an adult, but Brigitte knows better.

Why you should watch it: There’s no way in hell I’m not going to recommend a movie that uses lycanthropy as a metaphor for female puberty, and you know this by now. Ginger Snaps is campy, and low-budget, and so much fun. The interplay between the sisters is super compelling, regardless of whether they’re loyal best friends or pitted against each other. This film, for all its silliness, is an amazing portrayal of the risks of growing up into a woman and dealing with the fraught topics of desire, adulthood, sex, and abandonment.

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Coraline

Henry Selick, 2009

The story: Only child Coraline moves with her parents to the Pink Palace Apartments, an old house divided into three dwellings. With her parents occupied with the move and working to make ends meet, Coraline begins to feel neglected. While exploring, she finds a small door that leads into the Other World, where she finds her Other Mother and Other Father. They present her with an idealized version of her life and she begins to like it more than her own reality. Things take a dark turn, however, when she refuses to stay there forever.

Why you should watch it: Hey look, it’s our first kid movie! Don’t let that put you off, though, Coraline is plenty unsettling. You see, the reason Coraline doesn’t want to stay in Other World is that she has to agree to have buttons sewn into her eyes. Yeah, you read that right, this is based on a Neil Gaiman book after all. The film is made using beautiful stop motion, and the character design, colours, and subtle differences between reality and Other World are all great.

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Horror Films: VAMPIRES!

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Vampire movies. There are a lot of them in the world. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes bad. Sometimes they’re scary, sometimes sparkly. There’s a vampire out there to suit pretty much any taste, but all of them have a certain magnetism, a charm that pulls in bystanders and binds them to these creatures of the night. Heads up: there will likely be more than one post on vampires, since there is a large pool to draw from. But to get us started, here are four films that, while not very frightening, put a fresh, interesting spin on an age-old mythological figure. (Not to mention a sympathetic one too.)

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A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Ana Lily Armirpour, 2014

The story: Arash works hard to take care of his heroin-addicted father, but can’t stop a drug dealing pimp from taking his beloved car when his father fails to make a payment. In his attempt to get the car back, Arash meets a mysterious girl who, after she deals with the pimp with her own brand of justice, befriends him. Bonding through music, Arash finds he doesn’t care about the terrible things she’s done, and they leave together in the night.

Why you should watch it: A subtle, meandering story with high-contrast, gorgeous visuals, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is absolutely the film you should head for if you’re interested in a total departure from the endless stream of Dracula rehashes. Exploring an imaginary Iranian underworld (filmed in southern California, strangely enough) with her skateboard and striped shirt, the Girl is the true star. Endearing without ending up quirkily saccharine, her angel of death vibes are very intriguing. You’ll like her.

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Daughters of Darkness

Harry Kümel, 1971

The story: Recently married Stefan and Valérie are on their honeymoon, and arrive at a grand hotel in Ostend, Belgium on their way across the channel. They’re supposed to catch a ferry to meet Stefan’s family in England, but he seems strangely reticent to make that introduction. The only other guest at the off-season hotel is the Hungarian countess Elizabeth Báthory, who becomes obsessed with the newlyweds, particularly Valérie. Between the countess’s advances, Stefan’s secrets, and a spate of murdered young women in nearby Bruges, it’s clear not everyone will be leaving this hotel alive.

Why you should watch it: This is a film that punishes domestic violence with death by vampires. So already it’s got that going for it. Glamorously homoerotic and gorgeous in an almost giallo film type way, Daughters of Darkness takes the legendary (but very real) serial killer Countess Báthory and turns her into a monster you both can’t look away from, and want to avoid at all costs.

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Let the Right One In

Tomas Alfredson, 2008

The story: Bullied twelve year-old Oskar lives in Blackeberg with his mother in the 1980s. He quickly befriends Eli, a small girl who moves in next door with Håkan, an older man, despite both of them warning him against it. Eli and Oskar grow closer while Håkan begins killing people to harvest their blood, and it becomes clear that Eli isn’t the girl she seems to be.

Why you should watch it: Titled Låt den rätte komma in in Swedish (unlike the 2010 American version), the film plays with the idea of childhood, innocence, predation, and violence in fascinating ways. The wintry setting of suburban Stockholm only serves to highlight the Oskar’s isolation before meeting Eli, and the two together protect each other from a world that is hostile in more ways than one.

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Only Lovers Left Alive

Jim Jarmusch, 2013

The story: Half a world apart, Adam and Eve, ancient vampires who have been married for centuries, wake as the sun sets. They both go in search of blood, Adam to a blood bank, and Eve to a supplier introduced by her friend Christopher Marlowe (yes, that Christopher Marlowe). A withdrawn and suicidal Adam has procured a revolver and wooden bullet and, sensing that something is wrong, Eve travels from Tangier to meet him. They spend time together in Detroit until increased interest in their activities forces them to travel back to Morocco, where bad news awaits them.

Why you should watch it: If you’ve ever thought to yourself “man, if I lived forever I would amass so much amazing crap,” this movie is for you. Between Eve’s books and Adam’s musical instruments, not to mention Tangier’s warmth, Detroit’s industrial starkness, and the wonderful soundtrack that brings it all together, there’s a delicious opulence to this film. It’s all existential meditations on depression, immortality, and love, saved from pretentiousness by a script that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and the collective acting chops of Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, John Hurt, and Mia Wasikowska.

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Horror Films: TERRIFYING CHILDREN

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Just as many horror films have explored the nuances of women behaving badly and becoming ungovernable, so is there a robust collection of titles that focus on children and the many ways they can be eye-poppingly scary. Both women and children are expected to be innocent, pure, and protected, and any deviation from that assumption is ripe for the horror movie treatment.

Children in particular interact with horror in two distinct ways: They can either be too uncorrupted to be touched by evil, or painfully vulnerable to it, unable to recognize it for the threat it is. The examples on this list are, to different extents, in the second category, and in some cases the children themselves are the root of the evil. As we shall see, that’s where things get real creepy.

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The Innocents

Jack Clayton, 1961

The story: Miss Giddens gets a job as the governess of two orphans in the country, but only on the condition that she accept full responsibility for the children and never contact the rich man who hired her. Unsure of herself and never having worked before, Giddens accepts, and is whisked off to Bly, the estate where she slowly begins to realize that something is off, either with the house and its sounds and shadows, the children, or the former employees: governess Miss Jessens and valet Peter Quint.

Why you should watch it: Gothic horror! If you’re more a fan of eerie, brooding anxiety than jump scares, this is the film for you. It’s tense, upsetting, and deals with child abuse in a surprisingly upfront way for the time period. (Particularly since it’s based on Henry James’s 1898 The Turn of the Screw.) The sets, costumes, and scenery are all achingly beautiful. Which is kind of the point, isn’t it. That children, innocents, can be victimized even in the most idyllic settings.

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The Babadook

Jennifer Kent, 2014

The story: Six years ago, Amelia’s husband died in a car crash while driving her to the hospital to give birth to their son, Samuel. Now Amelia is alone and raising a child who, convinced that monsters are real and need to be fought, is exhibiting behavioural problems and has been kicked out of school. Strained, Amelia reads him a mysterious book titled Mister Babadook, and soon after supernatural attacks begin. Who is out to kill her child? Who is the under the Babadook’s control? Is it Sam? The house itself? Is it her?

Why you should watch it: See that intensely uncomfortable drawing at the top of this post? Yeah, that’s from The Babadook. Though the film loses some momentum once the monster is introduced, it is visually stunning, has a wonderful, creeping build up, and is an important addition to the recent spat of horror films examining a darker, more traumatic side of motherhood.

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Battle Royale 

Kinji Fukusaku, 2000

The story: Set in a world where youthful rebellion and truancy have run rampant, Kitano is the teacher of middle school class 3B. He resigns after being attacked by one of his students, only to reappear a year later as the director of Battle Royal. Class 3B has been selected for this year’s battle, a government-sanctioned gladiatorial combat, and must fight, survive, and maybe find a way to trust each other.

Why you should watch it: Pitting children against one another at the behest of a totalitarian regime before The Hunger Games made it cool, Battle Royale is one of Japan’s most famous films internationally, and for good reason. Though the concept might not seem so original now, at the time no one had seen anything like it, and it remains both violent(ly entertaining) and a thoughtful exploration of the many reactions possible to this extreme return to animal instincts.

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The Omen

Richard Donner, 1976

The story: American diplomat Robert Thorn is in Italy when his wife Katherine gives birth to a child who dies minutes after being born. The hospital chaplain convinces Robert to adopt a child whose mother has died, and Robert does so without telling his wife of the swap. Now in the UK, tragedy and unexplained phenomena plague the Thorns, focused on Owen, the child: large dogs follow them wherever they go, Owen refuses to enter churches, and his nanny kills herself publicly, and under mysterious circumstances.

Why you should watch it: There’s something about explicitly religiously-themed horror that gets me every time. Add a child who could either be an innocent, passive bystander or the sum total of all evil on earth, and now you’re really talking. Gregory Peck does a great job portraying the beleaguered diplomat who loves his son but can’t ignore the strange occurrences, and Owen himself is as chilling as you would expect an anti-Christ to be.

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Horror Films: BODY HORROR

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I’ll be the first to say that body horror, or horror that relies on the graphic destruction or modification of the body, isn’t my favourite subgenre. I prefer to think of it as a natural preference for more cerebral fare, but most likely I’m just squeamish. Fans of gore and guts and other gross things have, however, over the years been well catered to, and here are a few titles that take up the body horror mantle with creativity and skill.

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Eraserhead

David Lynch, 1977

The Story: Henry Spencer lives in a bleak urban landscape, and we meet him as he is returning home with some groceries. That night, he goes to his girlfriend Mary X’s house to have dinner with her and her parents. He is informed that Mary has had their child, and that he must now care for the two of them. The child, a swaddled being with a skinless, inhuman face, cries incessantly and, when Mary abandons them, it’s up to Spencer to care for the creature that becomes more and more of a burden as time goes on.

Why you should watch it: Though it bears little resemblance to Lynch’s more famous work, Eraserhead, his first feature film, gives rise to the surrealism and densely woven layers of meaning the director is known for. The film is visually stunning (because of, and in addition to, the mystery surrounding how the child’s effects were created) and delves into the themes of sex and fatherhood in fascinating ways.

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Horrors of Malformed Men

Teruo Ishii, 1969

The Story: Hirosuke Hitomi is a young amnesiac doctor imprisoned in an insane asylum. He escapes and meets a mysterious girl who sings a lullaby that reminds him of his past. Hirosuke heads to the coast where the song originated and finds that he bears a striking resemblance to a recently deceased man. Assuming his identity, he goes in search of the man’s father, who lives on a secluded island where gruesome experiments on kidnapped victims are performed.

Why you should watch it: It’s difficult to describe this film, as plot takes a decided backseat to aesthetics and exploitation-levels of sex and violence. Mashing together several Edogawa Ranpo mystery stories with The Island of Dr. Moreau and a post-Hiroshima fixation on deformity, Horrors of Malformed Men is a heady, psychedelic plunge into the grotesque. It’s a go-to if you’re looking for something pinky violent (60s and 70s Japanese action films with eroticized bad girls) or ero-guro (an artistic movement that focuses on erotic corruption and decadence). The film also stars Hijikata Tatsumi, one of the founders of butoh—a dance and performance form engaged with the bizarre and the taboo. It’s his particular movement style that makes the film truly unique.

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Dead Alive (Braindead in New Zealand)

Peter Jackson, 1993

The Story: A dangerous Sumatran rat-monkey is captured by a team of explorers and shipped off to the Wellington Zoo, but not before the “natives” (yikes) demand its return, afraid of the creature’s power. Years later, shopgirl Paquita falls in love with Lionel Cosgrove, who’s domineering mother Vera attempts to sabotage the match while the happy couple is out at the zoo. She is bitten by the rat-monkey and promptly becomes a zombie, which triggers an unfortunate series of events culminating in a gore-filled final bloodbath.

Why you should watch it: It’s beyond me how anyone watched this and thought “yep, this dude should definitely direct a multi-million dollar Lord of the Rings franchise.” This movie is everything LOTR is not. It’s campy, unserious, low-budget, and non-sensical. It’s also funny, entertaining, and very, very gross. If you’re in the mood for a film where the gallons of fake blood outnumber the cast 100:1, this is your best bet. Just don’t expect to be hungry afterward.

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Naked Lunch

David Cronenberg, 1991

The Story: William Lee is an exterminator whose wife Joan is stealing his insecticide to use as a drug. When he is arrested, he begins to hallucinate from exposure to the bug powder and believes himself to be a secret agent. His two “handlers” are an insectoid typewriter and an alien “mugwump” who tell him he must assassinate Joan. He accidentally kills her before fleeing to the Interzone, where he writes up reports to his handlers. The reports become the basis for a novel, and things only get stranger and more mind-bending from there.

Why you should watch it: It takes some serious chops to adapt a William S. Burroughs novel, and somehow Naked Lunch manages to take the surrealist, meandering source material and make it work just as well on the screen. The end product is the (highly fictionalized) story of how Burroughs came to write the novel, and though it’s maybe not as graphic as the other films on this list, Naked Lunch is no slouch when it comes to the eerie mugwumps and a uncomfortably squirming sex creature.

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Teeth

Mitchell Lichtenstein, 2008

The Story: Dawn O’Keefe is a teenaged spokesperson for a Christian abstinence group when she is introduced to Tobey, a boy who shares her values. The two quickly develop a mutual attraction and meet at a local swimming hole. There they begin to kiss, but when Dawn grows uncomfortable and wishes to stop, Tobey becomes violent, causing her to hit her head and lose consciousness. Tobey takes the opportunity to rape her, but soon realizes that something is very wrong: Dawn’s vagina has teeth, and doesn’t take kindly to intruders. Dawn slowly begins to investigate what is happening to her, and may be able to use her condition to her advantage.

Why you should watch it: If severed penises aren’t enough body horror for you I think you’re on a whole other level than I am. The rape revenge fantasy is a well-trodden theme in horror films, and by playing on vagina dentata folktales, Teeth manages to do it in a new way that avoids getting too dark. The film does deal with sexual assault (and, heads up, shows it happening), but never fails to be centred on Dawn’s experience, her trauma, and her growing control over her power. There are also comedic moments, if you can believe it.

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Horror Films: LADIES BE CRAZY

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And we’re back with more recommendations for beautiful, haunting horror films! This time, I’ll be looking at movies in which women’s sanity and mental health are key themes.

Female psychosis is nothing new in this genre. It’s as if women losing control of themselves, becoming unruly, is particularly horrifying to us. And why wouldn’t it be? Women are expected, socially, to take up less space, to be flexible and self-effacing, to fade into the background when no longer of use. A women shattering those expectations, doing the unexpected and the uncivilized, is a threat, and horror films have a long and complicated history exploring this spaceusually from a very male point of view. (In fact, these lists are making me very aware of the all-male roster of directors, something I want to try rectifying going forward.)

Despite the objectification and exploitation of woman’s madness that is often very evident, there’s value to these films. There’s value in showing flawed women, women with problems and regrets and the ability to harm. Horror is one genre where a damsel has no place, where perfect mothers and wives don’t exist. (It’s also worth noting that many of these damaged girl films are also ripe for queer readings and, perhaps with the exception of Misery, the ones on this list absolutely have been analyzed in that way.)

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Ingmar Bergman, 1966

The Story: Actress Elizabet Vogler is hospitalized, and has gone inexplicably mute. Nurse Alma is tasked with caring for her at a seaside cottage. The two women begin to relax around each other, Alma carrying on a one-sided conversation and Elizabet remaining silent. But the paradise cannot last: tensions rise, and the lines between Alma and Elizabet being to blur.

Why you should watch it: In my mind Ingmar Bergman looked back on his career and thought “there, that’ll keep the film studies nerds busy for a few decades.” There’s a lot going on here, and you’re guaranteed to be thinking the film over long after you’ve stopped watching. Whether it’s the subtle moments between Alma and Elizabeth, or the surrealist supercut of images that kickstart the film, it’s a beautiful storm of identity, gender, motherhood, performance, abortion, and lust.

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Carnival of Souls

Herk Harvey, 1962

The Story: Mary and her two friends are driving in a car when they decide to drag race some men. The race ends tragically, with the women’s car driving off a bridge and killing everyone but Mary. She can’t remember how she survived, and shortly after leaves for a town in Utah, where she’s been hired as church organist. Mary becomes increasingly unsettled, first seeing a ghostly, ghoulish man, then becoming invisible and inaudible to the people around her, and feeling a strange pull from the desolate pavilion on the banks of the Great Salt Lake.   

Why you should watch it: If the HORROR ORGAN isn’t doing it for you, there’s a big reveal at the end that I very much enjoyed. Carnival of Souls is very properly creepy, with an amazing soundtrack and beautiful, beautiful sets. The pavilion in particular is used to fantastic effect, as is the cold, lonely lake it borders.

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Misery

Rob Reiner, 1990

The Story: Paul Sheldon is a novelist best known for a series of Regency romance novels centred on a character named Misery Chastain. Wishing to focus on more serious work, he kills off Misery and writes a new unrelated manuscript. Soon after, he gets caught and injured in a Colorado snowstorm, and wakes up in the rural home of Annie Wilkes, a superfan who has taken it on herself to nurse him back to health. She tells him that she’s contacted the authorities, and buys the newest Misery book. Though Annie was always unsettling, it’s when she realizes that Misery dies that she truly becomes menacing, telling Paul that no one knows where he is and locking him in his room.

Why you should watch it: Kathy Bates is a goddess, and no one will ever be able to convince me otherwise. There’s a reason she won both the Oscar and Golden Globe for best actress, and her performancewhich pings wildly from bashful, naive country girl to abusive psychopathis, along with a delightful late 80s aesthetic, what makes the film.

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Repulsion

Roman Polanski, 1965

The Story: Belgian manicurist Carol is living in London with her older sister and seems disconnected and awkward from the outset. She is uninterested in her job, doesn’t want to interact with men, bites her nails constantly, and finds her sister Helen’s sexuality unsettling. But when Helen goes on vacation, leaving Carol alone in the apartment, the younger sister begins hallucinating, living in a dreamlike horror landscape that hints at past traumas.

Why you should watch it: Catherine Deneuve gives a powerhouse performance that even manages to outshine Polanski’s tremendously pervy gaze. This is an intense film about childhood sexual abuse, and it goes all out in using surreal suspense-building to show the extreme and lasting effects on Carol’s psyche. It’s gut-wrenching. (Also, I don’t want anyone financially supporting Roman Polanski. You have my absolute blessing to download this one illegally.)

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Horror Films: SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES

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I love scary films, and have loved them for most of my life. You probably won’t see me lining up for Hostel 31 (or whatever number they’ve worked their way up to by now) but what I have found is that if you take time to properly explore the genre, there’s a treasure trove of beautiful, complex films to be found.

(Plus, I’ve mentioned before that I spent two years in a weekly horror film club, and I’ll be damned if I let that experience go to waste.)

In any case, ever had intense, wake-up-sweating nightmares in which something was chasing you? Congratulations, you’ve had a perfectly ubiquitous human experience. The feeling of being hunted, of needing to get away, is primal, and for our first week of horror film recommendations, the selections all play on the theme of evil hunters stalking hapless victims. Enjoy.

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It Follows

David Robert Mitchell, 2014

The Story: After sleeping with her date, college student Jay finds out that a mysterious, supernatural entity that only she can see is after her. It follows her, slowly but never stopping, and she’s left with only two options: run forever, or have sex with someone else, passing the curse on to them.

Why you should see it: This is a beautiful film, with an amazing Disasterpeace-composed soundtrack. It’s like candy for the senses (candy that makes you curl up in your movie theatre chair because you’re convinced something’s going to grab your ankles, but still). Detroit works perfectly as a cold, uncaring backdrop, and it also bears mentioning that despite its central conceit, this film has a refreshingly casual approach to sex.

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Wait Until Dark

Terence Young, 1967

The Story: Recently blinded by a car accident, Susy is at the mercy of two thugs hell-bent on retrieving a drug-filled doll they believe is in her fiancé’s possession. Manipulated, threatened, and fearful for her life, Susy will have to rely on her instincts to outwit her pursuers.

Why you should see it: You never thought Audrey Hepburn would make a good horror protagonist did you? But she did, and she is. Based on the 1966 play by Frederick Knott, almost the entire film takes place in a static room, and it’s that claustrophobic environment that makes this movie feel so intense and, frankly, stressful.

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Night of the Hunter

Charles Laughton, 1955

The Story: Reverend Henry Powell, a misogynistic, switchblade-loving preacher-turned-serial killer, gets arrested for car theft in a small West Virginia town. He shares his cell with a man who accidentally killed two people in a bank robbery and, upon his release (and the other man’s execution), tries to figure out where the stolen money was hidden, first by seducing the man’s widow, then manipulating his two children.

Why you should see it: Man is Robert Mitchum good at the seething, barely under control creepiness. His sermons alone are enough to make this a good choice, but it’s the slow burn of this movie that seals the deal. Slow chases can be all the more terrifying (as It Follows above deftly shows), and watching two children escape on a rowboat down the languid Ohio river is more emotionally resonant than any high action, fast or furious movie could ever be. Plus, it’s beautiful, with the use of a soundstage, forced perspective, and chiaroscuro making this a gem of a film.

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Ringu

Hideo Nakata, 1998

The Story: A mysterious video tape is circulated by teenagers, the curse attached killing everyone who watches it seven days later. A reporter and her ex-husband both watch the tape and, spurred on by the fact that their young son has also seen it, must race against time to uncover the tape’s origin and break the curse’s power.

Why you should see it: Few horror movie monsters make it into mainstream awareness, and there’s a reason Ringu‘s Sadako has joined the ranks of the Freddies and Godzillas of the world. The mix of (sort of) modern technology with folklore—the film is based on the ghost story of Bancho Sarayashiki—is fascinating and very, very scary. It’s a classic, and for good reason. Also, Japanese horror films operate on vastly different tropes compared to their North American counterparts, so if you’re not familiar with them, you’ll find them far less predictable than your typical American slasher.

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The hitchhiker’s guide to webcomics: Animals! Sidekicks! Animal sidekicks!

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If you’ve been following my webcomic recommendations, it shouldn’t be a surprise that I love me a good sidekick. Whether they’re shapeshifting sasspots or unicorns with a sweet tooth, storytelling can only benefit from the inclusion of a fun, wisecracking partner in crime. And so today I spotlight the characters without whom the hero would never succeed, and the readers would definitely not laugh so much.

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Copper, Kazu Kibuishi

There’s something timeless about child and dog duos, and nowhere is it more charming than in Copper. Kibuishi is no stranger to beautiful, surreal children’s stories (he’s the creator of Scholastic’s Amulet series), and Copper, with Fred the dog in tow, takes on everything from toadstool hopscotch to space exploration. It’s philosophical without ever sounding trite, in a very Bill Watterson-type way.

Status: Finished, 2002-2009.

Read if you like: Calvin and Hobbes meets Little Nemo in Slumberland, no-nonsense dogs, and dancing robots.

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The Abominable Charles Christopher, Karl Kerschl

Charles Christopher might not know who or what he is, but he knows what he needs to do. The giant must protect the forest from those who’d exploit it, and ensure the wellbeing of its animal dwellers. Drawn in beautiful watercolours, the comic pings between Charles Christopher’s ongoing adventures and the great little moments of the wildlife community, occasionally teaching us something new about animal behaviour.

Status: Ongoing, updates Wednesdays.

Read if you like: Talking animals whose problems are all too human, accidental biology lessons.

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Gronk: A Monster’s Story, Katie Cook

Gronk is a little monster who doesn’t want any part of the monster lifestyle. She doesn’t want to scare things or eat gross monster food, and so packs up her belongings and leaves the forest. Gronk quickly moves in with human Dale and what the reader ends up getting is very sweet slice-of-life moments. Imagine the kind of hijinks a dog, cat, and baby monster can get up to. Go on, I’ll wait. Yeah, the possibilities are endless.

Status: Ongoing, updates Fridays.

Read if you like: Imagining what it would be like to have a baby monster living with you, sacrificial marshmallows, and curious mooses.

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Demon Street, Aliza Layne

If one day an entire street in your town disappeared, along with everyone on it, what would you do? Would you ignore it like everyone else? Pretend it never happened? Or would you jump through to another world and try to solve the mystery? That’s certainly what Septimus decides, though it’s only by teaming up with Raina that he has any hope of surviving this new world just crawling with monsters. The pair are basically each other’s sidekicks, and the interplay between them never gets old.

Status: Ongoing, updates Mondays and Thursdays.

Read if you like: Pocket witches, weapon-hiding charm bracelets, and quests to find lost parents.

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