For a company known for its arthouse fare, The Criterion Collection is not short on great horror films. From early oddities like Haxan to silent classics like Vampyr to terrifying B-movies like Corridors of Blood to cult classics like House to newer visions like Antichrist to the just-released Rosemary’s Baby, The Criterion Collection can provide a unique encyclopedia of the development of the horror genre across nations and decades.
But while the horror genre specializes in fear, tension, and disturbing visions, it doesn’t have a monopoly on any of these categories. Violent revenge films, psychosexual dramas, depictions of real-life political struggle, documentaries that capture terrible moments in history, and movies that depict the quick dismantling of social structures all employ devices and emotional effects similar to that of the horror film, most notably dread, disturbing imagery, shocking juxtapositions, and perhaps the major defining component of the horror film: the tense anticipation of a horrible event.
Here are ten terrifying non-horror films from The Criterion Collection (Warning: some spoilers ahead).
#197: Night and Fog (1955)
Typically, fear works most effectively when the audience and/or characters are awaiting a future event to occur. Far less often to we see fear of the past utilized as effectively, but that’s exactly what happens in Alain Resnais’ landmark Holocaust documentary. Resnais combines (then-recent) historic black-and-white footage of the camps with immaculate color photography of the abandoned concentration camps. The serene beauty of green grass against human-made concrete in a seemingly abandoned Eastern European countryside juxtaposed with concrete evidence of the unimaginable horrors that took place within these constructs makes for an unnerving, immediate sense that the past may, at any time, come back to haunt us if we’re foolish enough to let it be repeated.
Most terrifying moment: The entire thirty-one-minute running time.
#43: Lord of the Flies (1963)
Like Straw Dogs and The Exterminating Angel, Peter Brook’s beautiful adaptation of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is a case study in the dismantling of social roles and masculine identity. Despite its 1963 release date, Brook’s film pulls no punches in bringing to screen the most horrifying aspects of Golding’s novel, including the iconic death of Piggy. Brook’s kinetic, verite-esque camerawork gives his adaptation an immediacy that strips the film of any potential it had to be for children as much as it is about them. Children are almost uniform icons of hope and optimism in mainstream cinema. In horror, they’re typically demonic harbingers of doom. In Lord of the Flies, children run the entire spectrum of human potential and action, and exist in every gradation between good and evil.
Most terrifying moment: The boys’ taunting of Piggy goes beyond playground bullying, and has an angry tone to it that creates palpable tension and dread.
#459: The Exterminating Angel (1964)
Luis Buñuel’s films are typically known for their acerbic, satirical takes on European class relations, arbitrary social structures, and religious doctrine. With The Exterminating Angel, one of two films Buñuel made in Mexico after his return to Europe, Buñuel extends his class critique to radical new territory that includes savage declarations of violence, animal sacrifice, the nadir of human selfishness, death, and a striking depiction of how quickly elegance can be reduced to odor and soot. Depicting a group of socialites who are physically incapable of leaving the room of their dinner party, all pretensions of civilization and propriety give way to the depths of human depravity. The “comedy,” in this case, is the fictions we tell ourselves that prevent us from destroying one another.
Most terrifying moment: When one of the dinner party’s elderly guests passes away, Buñuel makes it perfectly clear he isn’t fucking around.
#149: Juliet of the Spirits (1965)
Federico Fellini’s 1950s and 1960s films have always included, to varying degrees, a tangible element of darkness. Even the light, seemingly inconsequential depictions of Rome’s nightlife in La Dolce vita or an act as “unimportant” as filmmaking in 8 ½ included moments of sudden violence and foreboding visions. With his first color feature, Fellini certainly retains some of his signature free-spirited whimsy (how could you not with Guilietta Masina at the center of your film?), but he integrates this sensibility more fluidly than ever with a nightmarish psychedelic vision of a Technicolor psyche gone nearly mad. Fellini’s visions are no doubt just as striking as ever here, but Masina’s character’s investigations of the spirit world allow Fellini to manifest demons that he’s never acknowledged before. With even more challenging films like Satyricon on the horizon, Juliet of the Spirits seems to be the moment Fellini abandoned the human world for good.
Most terrifying moment: Some of Fellini’s “spirits” seem to emerge into the frame from nowhere, and they’re rarely unaccompanied by strange tension.
#99: Gimme Shelter (1970)
Renowned verite documentarians Charlotte Zwerin and Albert & David Maysles didn’t set out to capture the end of an era when they got their cameras rolling on the Rolling Stones’ Altamont Free Concert in 1969, but the fact that their cameras were there to capture an event intended to be a coda for Woodstock but morphed into its murderous inverse meant that our culture now had visual evidence of violence winning after a half-decade of conflict between the ideologies of violence and peace. Gimme Shelter is not only “about” the murder and what it represented for the peace-and-love generation, but the quotidian operations (the funny bit depicting The Stones’ manager arranging with Altamont’s local government) and the ever-ready-to-burst tangible tension of the concert itself makes Gimme Shelter easily the most disturbing and foreboding concert film of the verite era.
Most terrifying moment: The Stones watching Zwerin and the Maysles’ footage of the infamous murder.
#182: Straw Dogs (1971)
Arguably Sam Peckinpah’s most celebrated film. Straw Dogs depicts masculinity at its most vulnerable, most vile, and most violent. Dustin Hoffman’s nebbish intellectual comes into conflict with his English country bride (Susan George) as they struggle with cohabitation. Her rape at the hands of a local hired worker (and her former lover) sets off a series of escalatingly violent events, each more gruesome than the last. Hoffman’s protagonist’s rapid descent (?) into id-level masculinity is hardly situated as a triumph of his manhood after its challenge. Instead, the movie offers an ambivalent take on contemporary masculinity and the vulnerability of the constructs it’s housed within.
Most terrifying moment: Rape is a common trope of modern horror cinema (starting in the decade Straw Dogs was made), but Peckinpah’s particularly discomfiting implications of the rape at the center of this film makes it one of the most famously disturbing rape scenes in the history of cinema.
#303: Bad Timing (1980)
British auteur Nicolas Roeg’s 1970s work isn’t short on shock value, from the ugly psychedelic purgatory of Performance to Donald Sutherland’s desperate search for the spirit of his dead daughter in the gothic horror Don’t Look Now to David Bowie’s “coming out” as a bald, cat-eyed alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth. But few films are as unnerving and foreboding as Bad Timing, a film that depicts a relationship for which “dysfunctional” is an understatement of an understatement. Art Garfunkel and Teresa Russell star as a mismatched couple in Berlin. She’s a free spirit, he’s a controlling intellectual, and both rely excessively on the other to fill a hopelessly infinite void in each of their lives. Roeg, per usual, employs an elliptical editing style that previews the couple’s terrible fate involving rape and attempted suicide just as it chronicles their angry free-fall. Like Gimme Shelter, Bad Timing bids disturbingly violent adieu to the peace-and-love generation.
Most terrifying moment: You’ll know it when you see it.
#259: Fat Girl (2001)
Catherine Breillat’s filmography is the textbook definition of “uncompromising.” You need go no further than the Anatomy of Hell for proof of this. But if you want something that’s, er, relatively more approachable compared to the provocations of some of her more recent work, watch the film that put Breillat on the map. Fat Girl has a number of challenging moments, and they’re all threaded through an everyday narrative of the life of a pubescent girl and her more conventionally attractive sister during a visit to the French seaside. The centerpiece scene, of course, is the famous moment where the titular protagonist pretends to be asleep while she hears her virgin sister receive painful anal sex. We only hear the act rather than seeing it, and that makes the scene all the more affecting. Sex – arguably Breillat’s defining preoccupation across her work – can be many things through the eyes of this auteur, and in Fat Girl, sex is horror.
Most terrifying scene: This aforementioned sex scene, and the film’s penultimate scene.
#493: Gomorrah (2008)
Eschewing any pretensions of familial connections and romanticism that characterizes so much mob cinema, Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah tracks a (sometimes vaguely) interconnected syndicate of crime within the Napoli-based Camorra. There is no hope for redemption in a violent landscape that doesn’t posit crime as a way out, but rather the only means of survival. The most striking aspect of Gomorrah is the fact representations of violence are rarely afforded the benefit of clear narrative build-up. Thus, in the Naples of Gomorrah, violence can literally strike anywhere and anytime, which creates an almost overwhelming amount of tension and an enduring sense that anybody, anywhere isn’t safe in this world depicted.
Most terrifying scene: The Camorra’s unceremonious “initiation process,” which involves shooting kids wearing a bullet-proof vest at nearly point-blank range.
#504: Hunger (2008)
Steve McQueen’s stunning feature directorial debut chronicles the extents to which IRA soldiers suffered in English prisons in order to further the cause of independence and claim the rights of political status. Hunger depicts protests manifested through artful uses of urine and shit, includes some of the most harrowing representations of police brutality and institutional torture in recent cinema, and, as the well-known fate of IRA leader Bobby Sands (played here buy Michael Fassbender in what so far remains the most powerful performance of an already-impressive career) makes forebodingly clear, culminates with a man willfully and slowly starving himself to death. As horrific and depressing a film as Hunger is, it’s also surprisingly beautiful. With his first film, McQueen accomplishes what few filmmakers have by finding aesthetic worth in the most decrepit and compromising of circumstances. He literally turns shit into a work of art.
Most terrifying moment: Two prisoners, one seasoned and one newly arrived, hear the prison guards outside and await the promise of pain that instead goes to Sands, who we’re introduced to via a severe beating.
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