Amidst a sea of half-baked franchises, questionable special effects, and an ill-fated nanny too many, the output of the horror film industry can feel as variable and inconsistent as the ending of an M. Night Shyamalan movie. While it would be easy to lament the state of the genre, queue The Nightmare Before Christmas, and call it a night, I’m in favour of an alternative solution. If you’re itching for an eerie cinematic experience this October but feel you’ve exhausted your options, read on for a selection of classic films guaranteed to leave you thinking and, likely, disturbed long after the 31st (you know, if you’re into that kind of thing).
Through a Glass Darkly and Wild Strawberries
Both films, directed by Ingmar Bergman in 1961 and 1957 respectively, are set against the idyllic backdrop of Swedish summertime. I recognise that this, among other things, makes them an unconventional choice for Halloween entertainment, but in fact, long days and the presence of inescapable sunlight only magnifies the unsettling qualities of Bergman’s directorial work. Playing with the intricacies of shadow and the illumination of faces and figures, recurrent themes of doubling and Freudian uncanniness are mirrored visually. Time, too, is effectively warped and manipulated; the events of Through a Glass Darkly take place over a single 24-hour period of holiday at a family’s island home, following daughter Karin’s (Harriet Andersson) release from the mental hospital. Alongside the depiction of Karin’s deterioration as her schizophrenia progresses, there is a profound investigation of family relationships, art, and sexuality. Wild Strawberries, too, unfolds over a short period of time, centring on a disillusioned professor as he spends the day travelling to a ceremony in his hon- our. Though Bergman wholeheartedly embraces ambiguity regarding the boundaries of truth, sanity, and consciousness, what makes his films so masterfully chilling is that the horrors they contain are purely psycho- logical, its narrative perspective often leaving little distance between the viewer and a character’s inner world.
Stalker Perhaps you’re familiar with Solaris, notorious film-student favourite and instrument of confusion, but I feel that another of Andrei Tarkovsky’s works deserves a mention here. Stalker is a similarly lengthy (two hours, forty-three minutes to be precise) and disorienting experience, worthwhile for its extraordinarily immersive qualities. Initially released in the USSR in 1979, it begins in a barren dystopia at the edge of The Zone, a forbidden and almost mythologically constructed body of land. The Room, supposedly capable of granting the desires of its visitors, is within, and reaching this site is the object of our protagonists: a dissatisfied writer, an ambitious professor, and the ‘Stalker’ (Alexander Kaidanovsky), who serves as their guide. To watch it for the first time is to be cast into an otherworldly space, to surrender oneself to a commingling of the senses, and to accept unknowing and insecurity. As dense as it is with philosophical questioning, I find the film most memorable from a purely visceral point of view, and despite the level of commitment involved, I recommend it for the images that linger.
Rosemary’s Baby Roman Polanski’s rendition, based on the novel by Ira Levin of the same name, may be a more predictable choice for Halloween viewing, but the relevance and appeal of this classic is decidedly unwavering. If you are someone who doesn’t separate the artist from their art, however, you might want to steer clear of anything by Polanski, as he is a convicted sexual offender. If you can though, from its near-perfect aesthetic, a creeping tension which builds deliciously over the course of the film, and the overlapping of psychological terrors and the occult—not to mention Mia Farrow’s iconic and unnerving portrayal of Rosemary, as she navigates the unconscious, paranoia, and something of an unusual pregnancy—Rosemary’s Baby is a true masterwork. Much like Through a Glass Darkly, it is a film which embodies and subsequently subverts tropes surrounding the “madness” of women, a phenomenon often met with disbelief. For those who have thus far been deprived of the 1968 film, I shall steer clear of plot-specific de- tails, but I do wholeheartedly advise witchcraft enthusiasts, the general horror fan, and lovers of a ‘60s mini-dress alike to remedy the situation and organise a screening directly.