One of the most annoying things about America's scariest contemporary films is that they're often just remakes of much better foreign originals. Many mainstream moviegoers have figured that out, renting Ringu instead of The Ring, or Ju-on instead of its remake, The Grudge. Not that the remakes aren't scary. But you can credit Japanese filmmakers for some of the creepiest styles in horror cinema, including demon children who shuffle around with hair covering their faces and white-faced, black-eyed ghosts who crabwalk down the stairs.
Japanese horror has definitely caught America's eye, but they're not the only ones who know how to tell a terrifying tale. For this Halloween season, we offer four foreign films from the last decade that combine the art of storytelling with truly horrifying, hands-over-your-eyes moments of terror.
The Eye (Gin Gwai) (2002)
The idea that the dead can haunt their previous body parts isn't new. But Chinese filmmakers Danny Pang and Oxide Pang Chun prove in their film about a blind classical violinist who gets an eye transplant that, once again, such scientific miracles don't come without a price. Unlike B-movie or slasher films, The Eye doesn't depend on blood, guts and Frankenstein-like ploys. It's a ghost story, filmed in dim lights. As the violinist, Mun, goes through the transplant process, the viewer shares her disoriented view of the world. Long hospital hallways flicker in poor lighting. The camera lens sometimes starts a scene out of focus, as Mun awakes and tries to make out shadows that plague her room. The inability to see and, also, the fear of what you will see is exactly what holds the film's tension. The unraveling of a mystery—why is Mun seeing terrifying things?—propels the story forward in a compelling, realistic way to its absolutely fable-like ending.
The Descent (2005)
I'm usually more frightened by ghosts than by monsters. But in the European film The Descent, the underground mole creatures terrify. Perhaps most scary about this film is that it gets almost halfway through before you meet the monsters. And the anticipation is almost unbearable.
This film includes an all-female cast and, might I add, not your stereotypical screaming females. These women joke with searing wit over bottles of Budweiser and use their free time to go caving. Their descent into some American southwest caves goes wrong for a number of reasons, not just creatures. One woman is dealing with the grief of a loved one's death, which, underground, fuels paranoia and anxiety. Another has secrets—always a way to stir up trouble.
Two things make this story believable, and all the more frightening. One: It's not unbelievable that these women would descend into caves, unlike some of us who would do anything to stay above ground. Two: Unlike most horrors where the characters are inside a house with easy exits, a cave is much more limited, especially if you lose your spot of entry. Revenge plots and tributes to Alien make The Descent all the more enjoyable.
Do you ever wonder why ghosts have to be so scary when, it seems, they're just trying to pass along information? Couldn't they just wait for you to come home from work and let you know what's up in a normal fashion? Not that it wouldn't still be creepy to find a ghost on your couch. But all that creeping around in cupboards and under beds isn't really suitable to conversation.
Still, some ghosts have good reason for trying to scare the hell out of people to make a point. This Thai film by directors Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom tells the story of a photographer and his girlfriend haunted by a sad woman who shows up in the man's photos. But this isn't a soft ghost story. I will never watch it again after seeing the part when the photographer notices the woman at the foot of his bed, in the dark, her grisly eyes peering at him as she pulls his covers off.
The Orphanage (El Orfanato) (2007)
If you go by the horror movie book of rules, orphan children are always demonic. Just watch this year's The Orphan, in which a Russian orphan with creepily perfect mannerisms begins to terrorize her adopted family. It's good, mostly for it's ending, but I suggest The Orphanage instead. In this Spanish film produced by Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth, The Devil's Backbone), a woman returns to the abandoned orphanage she grew up in to live there with her husband and child and to start up a seaside retreat for children with disabilities. But her son begins to communicate with an invisible friend, and from there it's all downhill. Creepiest parts: when a violent child in a burlap mask keeps appearing at the orphanage. And ghost orphans appear to play a sinister version of Red Light, Green Light with the main character. Like most del Toro projects the cinematography is enchanting and the story uses magical realism. It also ties up loose ends in a very apt manner, more horrifying than you might anticipate.