Witchcraft and worship are essential when it comes to a great tale of horror. We certainly couldn't have Poltergeist without a spiritual guide, just like no paranormal investigation tale is complete without the threat of demonic possession and the eventual exorcism. However, something worth noting are the films that go the next step, turning themselves into a ritual all their own. Some may call these films cursed, containing a propulsive and borderline haunting energy that draws in viewers, not unlike being sucked into another dimension. Viewer beware.
Kill List begins with a strange symbol etched onscreen for a mere moment, just enough to mystify the audience, only to fade to black. It’s so subtle, some might not even notice. An out-of-work soldier turned hitman is desperate for work when his friend and fellow soldier, Gal, shows up to visit with his new girlfriend Fiona. Gal claims that he has found a lead on a new contract; the kill list has three names. Kill them all and they’ll get a solid payday. Of course, this isn’t your every day contract killing, much less a film made to be pure action and gore. Inking the deal, they must sign the contract in blood. From that point on, paranoia and rage begin to swell as they get closer to the completion of the contract.
Throughout the film, other characters thank our increasingly enraged protagonist before he kills and/or tortures them. By the film's conclusion, the main character is led to a secluded spot and a ritual commences where characters praise his murders as a key component of their faith. Director Ben Wheatley has wisely created a foreboding atmosphere so palpable, it’s as though the film itself watching you.
Man Bites Dog
Some films are made to take—rather than offer—an experience. The 1992 Belgian mockumentary Man Bites Dog (which is titled “It Happened Near Your Home” in French) is one of those films.
In its minimal, black and white budget production, the film might just look like another production made to provoke—but therein lies the seductive nature of its nefarious intent. Man Bites Dog follows a serial killer in the act, the small crew that follows him recording every step of the hunt and the kill. Most of these murders happen in public, during the day, the killer so open and free in his depiction and explanation of each kill. As the film progresses, the crew switches roles from shocked bystanders to full-on accomplices. By the time the viewer reaches the end of the film, you begin to wonder if what you just watched was testimony, not entertainment.
The Last Horror Movie
Like the previous film on this list (and the one that follows), The Last Horror Movie breaks the fourth wall and uses the very act of filming as a dimensional-shifting, role-shattering act. Feeling every bit like a home video gone awry, Max Parry is a wedding cameraman who gets the idea to film murders as they occur—by his own hand.
The idea is to fully grasp and glimpse what it means to take someone’s life, and it isn’t for the sake of academic purposes. Parry gets a thrill out of it, and he seems to get off on the fact that viewers continue to watch. He could be good friends with Man Bites Dog’s charismatic killer. In fact, these films could very well be in communication, aiming to ritualize and seduce viewers into the underbelly of human menace. Such films are unassuming until they get under your skin. By then, it’s too late.
And then there's Funny Games, Michael Haneke's sociological commentary on horror involving a family and two young teenagers who play "funny games” which increasingly border on cruel while they ask the audience what should happen. It's for the very reason that we keep watching that the horror continues. It forces us to ask why we watch.
The film holds up today as a haywire act of subtly and outright cruelty. Viewers leave the experience aloof, more than just unsettled. Haneke unlocked a window into human depravity, and not merely in the act of bloodlust or the underworld; he pointed the camera at the viewers without actually having to. In doing so, he ritualized the home invasion and gave viewers a co-starring role.
Noroi: The Curse
I swear this film wasn’t included just because it has “curse” in its subtitle. The 2005 Japanese film occupies the same mockumentary subgenre founded by films like The Poughkeepsie Tapes and The Blair Witch Project. In Noroi: The Curse, a paranormal researcher named Masafumi Kobayashi goes missing while investigating and filming a documentary called The Curse, his own house burning down with his wife found dead among the ruins. Akin to found footage tropes, the film you watch is the unfinished documentary left behind by Kobayashi.
Noroi: The Curse might have been just another horror mockumentary if it wasn’t for the quiet, looming atmosphere built into the two hour feature film. It creeps up slowly, using the same patience that can cause viewers to lose interest or fall asleep, only to masterfully drop hints that the very footage being viewed contains the menace itself. Everything you see is watching you too, and as you peel back minute after minute, you learn as much about Kobayashi’s whereabouts as you do about the world just beyond ours desiring a look at you too.
Gaspar Noe is no stranger to the eclectic and the profane. Enter the Void almost made this list for obvious hallucinogenic reasons, but perhaps even more “cursed” is his 2018 production, Climax. Infamously known for being even more unusual than normal for Noe, the film feels like one long take set in an abandoned school that may or may not be haunted. A French dance troupe holes up in the school for a serious, multiple-day rehearsal. Viewers are quickly enchanted by the dancing and incredible soundtrack, only to slowly but surely blur and buckle against more sinister machinations as the troupe begins to drink sangria spiked with LSD.
The abandoned school preys upon their increasingly psychotic trips; the film itself starts to feel grimy and tenuous, like a bout of nausea. Already seduced by impressive dance routines and EDM early in the film, Noe’s smart choice to feature almost exclusively dance choreography, viewers slip into that psychosis along with the troupe.
When it comes to 90s Japanese cyberpunk, if you go searching for something darker and more intense, you’ll end up unearthing something like 964 Pinnochio. I hadn’t known about the film until a recent Agitator episode, hosted by authors J David Osborne and Kelby Losack, so of course I needed to go find it.
To put it simply, the film makes Tetsuo: The Iron Man look like child’s play. The eponymously named 964 Pinocchio is a sex slave cyborg which is discarded by its owner due to failing to perform. Unable to communicate and seemingly broken in more ways than one, he is found by a homeless cyborg named Himiko, who helps him recover his memory and the ability to speak. It sounds like the film follows a plot but it’s almost exclusively one hellish psychotic thrill ride of increasingly jarring noise and alarming visual stimuli; it’s so effective in entrenching viewers through this overbearing audio/visual barrage, you can’t help but feel like it broke you too, like you are 964 Pinnochio. You feel carved out, the last couple hours missing.
Holy Motors takes the very act of watching a film to heart. The “holy” motor hinted in its title is the camera itself, which is capable of recording and preserving all kinds of acts—hereby validating the narratives of whoever ends up having theirs committed to film.
Director Leos Carax explores the concept of a film that is more a window than a mere piece of footage, much like all the other films included in this list; however, Holy Motors goes one step further, with its leading role, Mr. Oscar going around acting in all kinds of roles, the viewer witness to his wardrobe changes. All cameras are absent and yet there is still the one roaming and following him. Mr. Oscar and Holy Motors play their expected roles and makes it clear that viewers should play theirs too. The act of watching isn’t passive, and the interaction with what’s onscreen is a ritual itself.