The title is misleading; as all fans of the horror genre know, it’s never really about the monsters. Whether it’s George Romero’s living dead thronging the malls in a display of vapid consumerism, Gordon Douglas’ giant ants incarnating Cold War America’s fear of the Red Threat, Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula arising as a living specter of British xenophobia, or Mary Shelley’s proto-feminist allegory of the hubristic Dr. Frankenstein, good horror (and most bad horror, if only by imitation) always engages on two levels. While we don’t deny the visceral thrill of severed arteries, grotesque creatures and well-timed shocks, we’re always trying to peer through the seams of Frankenstein’s creation and figure out what’s really driving things.
That said, the superficial layer–the drawn-out scenes of stabbings and devourings–can wear thin after a while, repetitive as they are. When most of the genre skews ever more heavily toward these skin-deep chills, it’s always refreshing to find a horror film that puts a greater emphasis on the matter beneath the surface. If you’re looking for Halloween fare that packs more substance than you might expect but still sits squarely within the horror genre, here are a few options.
Let the Right One In
Adapted from John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel of the same name (and almost immediately re-filmed in America as Let Me In), this melancholy Swedish film is not a vampire movie, although one of its protagonists, Eli, is indeed a 300-year-old vampire in the body of a 12-year-old girl. Except for one scene that is all the more shocking for its rarity, shots of Eli feeding on her victims are conspicuous in their absence; instead, the film focuses on her relationship with Oskar, a bullied 12-year-old boy.
The Devil’s Backbone
In what some might view as a warm-up to his dark fantasy masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth, writer-director Guillermo del Toro crafted this not-a-ghost-story in 2001. Set, like his later film, near the end of the Spanish Civil War, the film is set in a small orphanage haunted by an unexploded bomb. Although it includes a few creative scares involving a spectral child, the real monster, as in Pan’s Labyrinth, is entirely human. For something that strays even farther from the traditional horror genre and with a pair of young actors that put even Eli and Oskar to shame, check out Victor Erice’s 1973 The Spirit of the Beehive.
Co-morbid sisters Brigitte and Ginger have never really fit in, but things go from bad to worse when Ginger’s first menstruation attracts a prowling werewolf. In what is most certainly not a werewolf movie, Ginger and her sister struggle to come to terms with her newly acquired curse and the physical changes it brings. Mood swings and unexpected hair are only the beginning.
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon
This faux-documentary offers a behind-the-scenes look at wannabe masked killer Leslie Vernon, but that doesn’t make it a slasher movie. Like the later Cabin in the Woods, Leslie Vernon dissects the themes and tropes of the horror genre, making a compelling argument for its continued existence, but its real strength is the charismatic slasher himself, who almost convinces you that killing people is okay.
The Reflecting Skin
Yes, The Reflecting Skin is also not a vampire movie, but I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving it off this list. This allegory from writer-director Philip Ridley (The Passion of Darkly Noon, Heartless), like many others on this list, takes place from the eyes of a child and shows that supernatural horror is often preferable to the mundane terrors of everyday life. Co-starring Viggo Mortensen’s naked ass.