The Hollywood of the 21st century is focused almost entirely on tent-pole blockbusters. And more often than not, these behemoths are nothing more than overheated CGI affairs packed with silly superheroics and the other nerd-culture maladies, the kind of crap that our PG-13-oriented, post-9/11 video-game culture can’t seem to get enough of.
Due to the enormous amounts of money these films cost and the sea of synergistic movie tie-ins that must be orchestrated like the D-Day invasion of Normandy prior to each release, Tinsel Town doesn’t have the time nor the energy to devote their resources to other fare. Comedies are few and far between these days, while adult thrillers have more or less gone the way of CinemaScope. Even dramas are relegated to one time of the year — Oscar season.
The horror genre, however, seems to have entered a renaissance of sorts, especially once you get past the paltry offerings the major studies begin to crank out around the start of the school year. All you have to do is visit either Netflix or Amazon Prime and see what the indie horror world is offering. These flicks are built on big ideas in addition to ample amounts of gore, and more often than not they’re free. (Of the films listed here, only one isn’t, Martyrs.) So if you’re into some cerebral scares this Halloween, then give any one of these films a shot.
Starring Rhys Wakefield, Logan Miller, and Ashley Hinshaw
Directed by Dennis Iliadis
The indie film +1 came out a year before the much-ballyhooed American indie Coherence, but the two films traffic in the same ideas, namely what would you do if there was another you. In the case of Coherence, a group of 30-something dinner partiers blab on and on about things that affluent 30-somethings do, until a passing comet somehow causes a rift in the multiverse, awaking them to a reality where the same gathering is being held up the street. It’s a largely sloppy and overly talky affair about a rather unlikable minivan of white suburbanites as they face an increasingly confusing and dire situation. Dennis Iliadis’s +1 is a far slicker film in which a group of college-age party-goers travel several minutes back into the past and observe themselves in action. Eventually, the crew decides to change the outcome of events, which leads to both humorous and later horrifying ends. As they travel back in time, again and again, the differences separating the two time periods inch closer and closer together. Both flicks are certainly worth your while — Coherence is more philosophical in nature — but in the end +1 is the far more riveting movie thanks to its brutally dark comedic ending.
Starring Morjana Alaoui, Mylène Jampanoï, and Catherine Bégin
Directed by Pascal Laugier
At the offset, the French-language Martyrs seems to be a pretty standard stalked-by-a-demon-that-no-one-else-sees flick. You’ll be forgiven if you feel passing moments of been-there, done-that. However, this tale of two orphans — one a girl who is being pursued by a sinister creature, the other her devoted and kindly friend — takes several shocking twists and turns before this horror movie abruptly transforms into another kind of fright flick. There is no reason to spoil the twist, but needless to say, this may be the single most brutal and unrelenting film ever made, even for those sick bastards who made it through A Serbian Film. And like that film, you will never want to see Martyrs ever again. And, yes, you should take that as a recommendation.
Starring Neil Maskell, MyAnna Buring, and Michael Smiley
Directed by Ben Wheatley
Speaking of A Serbian Film, the ending to Ben Wheatley’s Kill List bares more than a passing resemblence to the twist at the end of that WTFer. But Kill List is also a family-drama that morphs into a gangster flick that very slowly transforms into something else entirely. Wheatley’s often feverish film follows two hit men — financially strapped family man Jay and the other his partner Gal — who have been contracted to assassinate a series of individuals, starting with a priest. That the victims seem to know more about Jay than the hitman does himself is your first indication that all is not as it seems. At times brutally violent and at other times downright hallucinogenic, Kill List is a Wicker Man for the modern era.
A Field in England
Starring Michael Smiley, Julian Barratt, Peter Ferdinando, and Richard Glover
Directed by Ben Wheatley
This 2013 film is also directed by Ben Wheatley, and like Kill List, A Field in England is feverish and frantic and just plain weird. Set during the era of the English Civil War, four men join together after apparently fleeing a fierce battle and go in search of a bar. Needless to say, they end up eating magic mushrooms and pulling an evil wizard out of another dimension. The wizard forces them to find a buried treasure of sorts, and, well, it only gets odder from there. A diseased penis, check. A strange musical interlude, check. A trip scene unraveled in all of cinema, check. And a super-powered telekinetic battle right out of Akira, check to the fucking check. This black-and-white film — yes, I said black and white — actually comes with a warning that it can cause seizures. When you’re done with this one, hit up the Google and find out exactly what Wheatley’s psychedelic period piece is all about.
Starring Michael Parks, Melissa Leo, and John Goodman
Directed by Kevin Smith
With Kevin Smith movies, you know what you’re going to get: lots of sophomoric humor, a little bit of heart, some machine-gun dialogue, and plenty of mugging from Jay and Silent Bob. You either like Smith or you don’t. There’s really no inbetween. All of which is why his 2011 horror offering Red State is such a revelation. It is unlike everything the New Jersey indie writer-director has done before. For starters, it’s well shot. Two, there are few laughs in it. And three, this is one movie where — and this is the God’s honest truth — no one will be able to predict what happens next. Needless to say, the film centers around three horny teens who get more than they bargain for when they head out in to the boonies to score some trailer-trash tail and end up in the hands of a homophobic fire-and-brimstone preacher.
Starring Peter Cilella, Vinny Curran, and Zahn McClarnon
Directed by Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead
Drugs are bad OK. Very bad. If you do enough of them, you just might end up squatting in an empty trailer on a Native American reservation chained to a pole by your best friend who’s forcing you to detox, while somebody, somewhere is filming you. It could be angry drug dealers or Satanists or the long-lost souls of two dead people? You’ll find all of that in Resolution, plus a heaping dose of mumblecore bromance — which gives this creeper a fair amount of heart.
Starring Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle, and Georgina Reilly
Directed by Bruce McDonald
Over 30 minutes pass in Bruce McDonald’s 2008 film Pontypool before viewers finally learn what kind of movie they’re watching. Up until that point, they’ve been led to believe they’re watching a carefully crafted workplace drama about an alcoholic Don Imus-esque DJ named Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie), his producer, and the studio engineer. Mazzy drinks. He cusses. He has to suffer through a performance from a local community theater group singing selections from a musical adaptation of Lawrence of Arabia. And all of this happens before the first [redacted] gets its first taste of [redacted] [redacted]. Yes, things get off on a weird note for Mazzy when his car is approached by a startled woman, mouthing words he can’t hear before wandering off into the dark and an ensuing blizzard. But little would indicate that what you’re about to watch is easily one of the best [redacted] movies ever. Smartly written, fiercely acted, and often very, very funny, Pontypool has loads to say about the dangerous nature of right-wing talk radio and even more to say about the power of words themselves. And watch all the way through to the credits for an extra dose of “what the hell?”