There's a reason so many American horror films in the last couple of decades have largely been remakes of foreign language movies – because those films are really, really scary. The fact that the remakes are, by and large, completely awful, has to do with the specificity – there are details in culture and location that, when displaced, shuffled, or wholly removed, greatly impact the narrative and the power of the storytelling. Feudal Japan, with its cultural landscape of spirits intermingling with the living, can't be swapped for suburban Chicago, the home of Abe Froman, the Sausage King. In the age of the internet, it's been easier for keen-eyed genre enthusiasts to diagnose which foreign horror films are worth tracking down (and which, in the decades previous, you might have missed).
In honor of Halloween, we've put together a list of foreign horror films that we truly love, most of which are too outré, too thematically unnerving or graphically violent, to be made in genial America. Each film is worth seeking out for a good scare, specially if you don't mind your goose-bumps with subtitles.
Like most Italian horror films from this period (particularly the work of Dario Argento, who didn't make the list but is haunting it in spirit for sure), it's pretty hard to figure out what, exactly, is going on most of the time in "Torso." While there are some brutal murders (carried out by a killer in black leather gloves of course), a surprisingly involving lesbian subplot, gorgeously staged shots of men running down shadowy alleyways (love those abrupt zooms), lots and lots of boobs, and plenty of texture (particularly fun: the guy who has to explain to the police that he stumbled across a dead body while taking a dump), the actual plot remains obscure. The real reason to watch "Torso," though, is for the finally 20 minutes or so, set in a kind of sexed-up girl's dormitory (nude sunbathing is encouraged), some of which was borrowed for another list entry "High Tension." In fact, this sequence is such a virtuoso suspense set piece that it makes you easily forgive the lapses in logic and occasional confusion that preceded it.
"We Are What We Are" (2010)
A man lumbers towards a passersby in a mall, reaching for help, food, a hand, anything. As he becomes transfixed by the mannequins in fancy clothes, he slowly starts to deteriorate even further, from a drunken mess into a shamble of a man, before keeling over and slowly gurgling into the afterlife. Without missing a beat, a cleaning crew shows up, removing the corpse, giving the floor a quick scrub and continuing to maintain the area for the local customers. So begins our introduction to the world of our characters, a lower class family who is reduced to cannibalism to survive in a harsh capitalist society. Though “We Are What We Are” captures a fascinating underworld, distinctly Mexican in identity, it nonetheless represents nearly universal financial insecurity amongst lower classes, now forced to eat themselves to death, separated from their demise by the taste of flesh and the embrace of each other. “We Are What We Are” also manages to tell a conventionally-compelling story of the dynamics between two brothers, one impulsive and murderous and the other taciturn, as well as their subservient sister and judgmental mother. Before its ninety minutes are up, you’ll start to feel ill within your own skin.
"Eyes Without A Face" (1960)
"Ahead of its time" is an expression often used in critical circles, but in the case of the 1960 French shocker “Eyes Without a Face,” it’s more like a euphemism for "Holy shit, that was violent and downright unsettling." The climactic, bloody machine gun massacre from “Bonnie and Clyde” is typically cited as a key moment when movies crossed a new line of onscreen graphic ultra-violence, but ‘Face’ had it beat by seven years. The film still packs a powerful, creepy punch even today (and still influences the genre; see “The Skin I Live In”), most notably in its centerpiece scene involving a literal face-lifting heterograft surgery, shown in detailed close-up with very few cuts (no pun intended). The surgeon in the scene, Dr. Génessier, is hoping to graft this new mug on to his faceless daughter Christiane, who was badly injured in a car accident. A genuine feeling of unease is hard to avoid when watching this film, from director Georges Franju. Maybe it’s the cold, clinical fashion in which the doctor, along with his assistant Louise, go about their crimes, like they believe what they’re doing is justified, or that we sometimes sympathize with the film’s villains. Either way, this is one beautiful piece of horror cinema – which Criterion thankfully unearthed in its proper version on DVD – with one of the most satisfying and twisted endings since “Freaks.”