I saw the devil

Highly Organized Evil: Exam (2009) and I Saw the Devil (2010)

Exam is probably the least “horror” film on this list of horror films, but it’s an intense and exhausting experience that dabbles in several genres to create an imperfect but fascinating melting pot of ideas. The sci-fi-tinged setup is reminiscent of Cube: eight strangers from various backgrounds share one room, aware that they’re being tested for a life-changing job at a mysterious corporation but unaware of what the actual test is. Tensions run high and soon everyone turns on one another. As more is revealed about the world outside the room, the characters’ desire for this kind of opportunity becomes more clear and their actions more desperate. Exam fails to stick its landing (the final 15 minutes are borderline disastrous), but everything leading up to that is a chilling and intriguing dissection of the complicated feelings that come with competing for any job.

What happens when you take a cat-and-mouse story and replace the mouse with another cat? You get something like Kim Jee-woon‘s I Saw the Devil, a macabre masterpiece and genuine horror epic. I don’t use that word lightly – at 141 minutes, this tale of serial killers and revenge and torture and manipulation is an hour longer than most of its genre brethren and it’s more than a little exhausting. By the time the credits roll, you feel like you’ve just sat through six movies’ worth of story. I Saw the Devil‘s first act is almost an entire movie: a trained spy goes on the hunt for the brutal serial killer who murdered his fiancee… and finds him in record time. But rather than kill him, he lets him go… and starts following him wherever he goes, making his life a living hell. There is real thematic heft here, as the film explores how violence begets violence and how sweet revenge tastes like ash in the mouth. And yet this is a fun movie, full of wicked dark comedy and twisted plotting that takes the viewer on a grand tour of South Korea’s underbelly, which is apparently a fantastical place populated by professional murderers, cannibals, and talented sociopaths.


Nonfiction Nightmares: Cropsey (2009) and Lost Soul (2014)

Not many documentaries also function as effective horror movies, but Cropsey is an exception. Directors Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio delve into two tales that find thematic links: the urban legend of “Cropsey,” a New York City boogeyman of murky origins, and the case of Andre Rand, who was convicted of kidnapping and killing five children in Staten Island. The film explores fact and fiction, myth and reality, asking how our legends inform our daily lives and create the fears we face on a daily basis. Cropsey is one part court room procedural and one part urban horror film. It excels as both.

After the grim Cropsey, Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau should bring the mood in the room up just a tad. As the lengthy title implies, this documentary tells the story of filmmaker Richard Stanley, whose ambitious attempt to adapt H.G. Well’s The Island of Dr. Moreau into a feature film led to total disaster. After biting off more than he could chew, Stanley was fired off the project… and then things got really weird. Come for the hilarious and fascinating inside look at how one of the strangest cinematic disasters of the ’90s came into being, but stay for the jaw-dropping stories about cast member Marlon Brando – they’ll blow your brain our the back of your skull with their WTF-ery.

tourist trap

In the Middle of Nowhere: Tourist Trap (1979) and Jug Face (2013)

Every horror fan will eventually cross paths with Tourist Trap, an under-appreciated gem that has an oddball mood that is all its own. The setup is simple: a group of young people find themselves stranded in the middle of nowhere when their car breaks down. However, this particular middle of nowhere is home to a gas station with an attached “tourist trap,” a small museum showcasing wax figures and crudely animated mannequins. As you could guess, the subjects of the museum have a bizarre origin and soon the cast is being picked off one by one. But Tourist Trap is no simple slasher movie. It’s a mysterious and downright eccentric film that zigs when it should zag, revealing strange supernatural overtones that leave you questioning what the hell you just watched. Over 30 years later, this is still one of the freshest, strangest horror movies ever made, a film of unsettling quirkiness that feels like a direct response to tired ’80s slashers that weren’t even made yet.

Jug Face bites off more than it can chew. There are moments where this micro-budgeted film pushes against its budget in ways that remove you from the story, that make you question why certain creative decisions were made. And I lead with this because these elements are the only things keeping me from completely raving about Chad Crawford Kinkle‘s first (and so far, only) feature. Playing like a Deep South, backwoods cousin to the work of H.P. Lovecraft, Jug Face takes place in an isolated community in thrall to a mysterious supernatural pit, which promises prosperity — as long as the locals sacrifice someone every now and then. Kinkle’s clever screenplay builds a fascinating mythology from scratch and never slows down to dump exposition on us. Instead, the film demands that we keep up, and putting everything together is half of the fun. The film plays like an adaptation of a legend you’ve never heard, like a great campfire story. It’s the kind of debut that leaves you very excited for what the director does next.

kill list

The Slowest Burn: Kill List (2011) and Penumbra (2011)

I previously wrote about Ben Wheatley‘s Kill List when I declared it one of my top 15 films of all time and I stand by that. This genre-shifting tale of two contract killers who bite off way more than they can chew when they take the wrong job is one of the most nerve-wracking and downright terrifying movies of the millennium thus far. Showcasing shades of the original The Wicker Man, Edgar Allen Poe, and a fistful of hallucinogens, Kill List is best experienced knowing as little as possible and best consumed in a single sitting in a darkened room. It takes its sweet time to get going, but that’s intentional – you don’t notice its hands around your throat until it’s too late.

Speaking of films that take their sweet time only to climax with a bang, here’s Penumbra, a movie that appears to be entirely about an excruciatingly dull apartment rental… until it’s not. Directors Adrián García Bogliano and Ramiro García Bogliano have done something equally brave and foolish. They have crafted a slow burn that is so slow that you can only truly appreciate it after the credits have rolled. In the moment, it’s a frustrating watch. For much of its running time, the story is little more than a realtor showing off an apartment to an eccentric renter. Things do get weird, but they get weird at an intentionally glacial pace. The results are actually startling – like the lead character, you don’t realize things are wrong until there’s no time for escape. There’s a strong chance you will hate Penumbra, but I find it fascinating and cannot help but recommend it. It really is one of a kind.

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