It’s October and, though we don’t live in America and have no innate connection to the celebration of All Saints’ Day, thanks to the power of pop culture we probably will find ourselves dressed up as fantasy and horror characters and looking for our annual dose of chilling on-screen thrills. These three off-kilter, mess-with-your-head horrors often imply far more terror than they actually show but still manage to scare and maybe even scar.
ART HOUSE ESSENTIAL
Berberian Sound Studio — Mubi.com
British director Peter Strickland’s fascination with the creepy finds satisfying realisation in this tribute to the classic Italian giallo films.
Set in Rome in the 1970s it’s the uncomfortable and unnerving tale of a naive British sound engineer, played by Toby Jones, who arrives in Italy to work on the post-sound for a giallo. As he becomes increasingly obsessed with getting the right sounds to record for the film, he crosses into unthinkable territory, blurring the line between the world of the film and the increasingly dark reality he faces.
A tribute to the grotesque pleasures of giallo and the wizardry of the bygone era of analogue sound effects, the film is playfully aware of the absurdist and eerie atmosphere of the genre it celebrates.
Thanks to Jones’s nervy intensity, a smart exploration of the role of sound in the creepy business and Strickland’s taut direction, the film succeeds as a provocative piece of horror-psychological thriller.
STONE COLD CLASSIC:
Eraserhead — Mubi.com
Sound is also a fundamental part of the claustrophobic and darkly twisted world of David Lynch. His 1977 debut, a cult “midnight movie” classic that was slowly but assuredly assembled over the course of five years, is a surreal nightmare that uses the existential dread of social expectations to full and singular advantage.
The titular character, played by the late Jack Nance — a Lynch favourite — is a man whose seemingly normal life is the stuff of nightmares that twist his reality into horrific visions endured against the backdrop of throbbing industrial noises exploding like hellish farts from the bowels of the strange urban wasteland he inhabits.
All of the darkest psychological horrors of the central character’s fear of conformity, fatherhood and desires are realised in a distinctive mix of visualisation and implication that announced Lynch as the foremost explorer of the terrors lurking behind seemingly perfect suburban bliss.
Hard to describe but impossible to forget, Eraserhead is one of cinema’s true originals that offers new rewards with each viewing. Its dark humour lies in the surreal attacks on social expectations and performative rituals. It also has plenty of satisfying callbacks to the great expressionist horrors of early classics such as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Metropolis and, of course, the memorably macabre surrealist image poetry of Un Chien Andalou — even though Lynch has repeatedly scorned such influences. What’s undeniable is that while Eraserhead may have spawned many imitators, it remains unmatched for its mix of the strange, the mundane and the absurd — and the itching terror its imagery continues to generate four decades since its release.
DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH:
Swallow — Mubi.com
Social expectations and the fear of parenthood are also essential to the creeping strangeness and unbearably implied horrors of Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ 2019 dissection of domestic anomie.
Starring Haley Bennett as a young housewife who is living the suburban dream and enjoying an improbably perfect marriage until she learns she’s pregnant. As the expectations of her in-laws and her husband begin to mount she finds herself developing a strange condition, called pica, that compels her to ingest inedible objects with a horrifying and self-destructive appetite and with terrifying consequences all involved.
Chilling and deeply uncanny it’s a modern psycho-horror fable about women’s bodily autonomy, the pressures of social expectation and the damaging scars of a patriarchal society that’s too often indifferent or unwilling to examine the realities of accepted norms on the bodies and minds of those tasked with enduring them.
Filled with portent, discomfit, and simmering rage it’s held together by subtle direction and Bennett’s coiled intensity.