When aren’t vacations a horror show? Remember that time the car a/c broke and your dad wouldn’t let you roll the windows down because the wind made his hearing aids whistle? God, that sucked. But our research had led us to believe that there are worse miseries than driving cross country with Mark Madden. Hundreds, actually – traveling abroad, camping, boating, island adventures. Here are a handful that will make you want to just stay home.
5. Wolf Creek (2005)
Using only digital cameras to enhance an ultra-naturalistic style, writer/director Greg McLean’s happy backpackers find themselves immobile outside Wolf Creek National Park when their car stops running. As luck would have it, friendly bushman Mick Taylor (John Jarratt) drives up offering a tow back to his camp, where he promises to fix the vehicle.
If this sounds predictable and obvious to you, rest assured that McLean has plans to burst every cliché in the genre, and he succeeds on almost every level.
His first triumph is in the acting. Jarratt’s killer is an amiable sadist who is so real it’s jarring. You find yourself hoping he’s an actor. His performance singlehandedly shames the great Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven, whose backwoods horror films relied so completely on caricatures for villains.
A horror film this realistic is not only hard to watch, but a bit hard to justify. What makes an audience interested in observing human suffering so meticulously recreated? This is where, like a true artist, McLean finally succeeds. What is as unsettling as the film itself is that its content is somehow satisfying.
4. Eden Lake (2008)
The always outstanding Michael Fassbender takes his girl Jenny (Kelly Reilly) to his childhood stomping grounds – a flooded quarry and soon-to-be centerpiece for a grand housing development. He intends to propose, but he’s routinely disrupted, eventually in quite a bloody manner, by a roving band of teenaged thugs.
The film expertly mixes liberal guilt with a genuine terror of the lower classes. The acting, particularly from the youngsters, is outstanding. Most impressive, Jack O’Connell’s performance as the young psychopath is chilling.
There’s the slow boil of the cowardly self-righteous. Then there’s this bit with a dog chain. Plus a railroad spike scene that may cause some squeamishness. Well, it’s a grisly mess, but a powerful and provocative one. Excellent performances are deftly handled by the director who would go on to helm The Woman in Black.
Don’t expect spectral terror in this one, though. Instead you’ll find a bunch of neighborhood kids pissed off at their lot in life and taking it out on someone alarmingly like you.
3. The Descent (2005)
A bunch of buddies get together for a spelunking adventure. One is still grieving a loss – actually, maybe more than one – but everybody’s ready for one of their outdoorsy group trip.
Writer/director Neil Marshall begins his film with an emotionally jolting shock, quickly followed by some awfully unsettling cave crawling and squeezing and generally hyperventilating, before turning dizzyingly panicky before snapping a bone right in two.
And then we find out there are monsters.
Long before the first drop of blood is drawn by the monsters – which are surprisingly well conceived and tremendously creepy – the audience has already been wrung out emotionally.
The grislier the film gets, the more primal the tone becomes, eventually taking on a tenor as much like a war movie as a horror film. This is not surprising from the director that unleashed Dog Soldiers – a gory, fun werewolf adventure. But Marshall’s second attempt is far scarier.
For full-on horror, this is one hell of a monster movie.
2. Deliverance (1972)
Nine notes on a banjo have never sounded so creepy.
Deliverance follows four buddies staving off mid-life crises with a canoeing adventure in southern Georgia, where a man’s not afraid to admire another man’s mouth.
James Dickey streamlined his own novel to its atmospheric best, and director John Boorman plays on urbanite fears like few have done since. Dickey and Boorman mean to tell you that progress has created a soft bellied breed of man unable to survive without the comforts of a modern age.
The film, while steeped in testosterone, also mocks modern man’s desire to conquer nature. It does so by viewing the manly weekend through the eyes of four different types of men: Burt Reynolds’s alpha male, Ronny Cox’s open-hearted optimist, Jon Voight’s introspective intellectual, and poor, doomed Ned Beatty’s smug businessman.
Solid performances, particularly from Voight and Reynolds (this is the guy you want on your zombiepocalypse team), and startlingly effective photography fold perfectly into Boorman’s harrowing tale. This raw, unsettling authenticity helps Deliverance sidestep a hixploitation label, but you’re not likely to look at rural Southerners the same way again.
1. Funny Games (’97, ’07)
A family pulls into their vacation lake home. They are quickly bothered by two young men in white gloves. Things, to put it mildly, deteriorate.
Writer/director/genius Michael Haneke begins this nerve wracking exercise by treading tensions created through etiquette, toying with subtle social mores and yet building dread so deftly, so authentically, that you begin to clench your teeth long before the first act of true violence.
The teen thugs’ calm, bemused sadism leaves you both indignant and terrified as they put the family through a series of horrifying games. And several times, they (and Haneke) remind us that we are participating in this ugliness, too, as we’ve tuned in to see the family suffer. Sure, we root for the innocent to prevail, but we came into this with the specific intention of seeing harm come to them. So, the villains rather insist that we play, too.
His English language remake is a shot for shot repeat of the German language original. In both films, it is the villains who sell the premise. Whether the German actors Arno Frisch and Frank Giering or the Americans Brady Corbet and Michael Pitt, the bored sadism that wafts from these kids is seriously unsettling, as, in turn, is each film.