The goldenrod is in bloom. Virginia creeper vines darken like the face of a strangling, to the color of blood on a mahogany floor. Autumn is sharpening her teeth on the bones of summer. Cold days are ahead, and long dark, gray rains…Unless you live in southern California, or somewhere like that, where the weather is perfect every day, and everyone surfs for a living. For the rest of us, fall is here. Comforters and quilts start living on the couch. Tea accumulates in the cupboards. The sweaters have come out, and the slippers are dug out from under the bed. Horror movie season has arrived.
But all that’s on the streams is Sleepaway Camp III and Thankskilling. Before you go all “Happy Camper” for the fortieth time, I’m here to tell you, Brothers and Sisters in Horror, there is another way. A new stream to paddle. A new stream to drown in.
“Autumn is sharpening her teeth on the bones of summer. Cold days are ahead, and long dark, gray rains […] Horror movie season has arrived.”
Last April, film distribution company Criterion launched its own streaming service, called the Criterion Channel. (At the moment, the streaming service is only available in the U.S. and Canada, but Criterion has hinted that it plans to broaden the net in the future.) The company itself has been a darling of film aficionados since 1984, focusing their attentions on “important classic and contemporary films.” In other words, the crème de la crème of arthouse, foreign, and movie masterpieces in general. They’ve been at least partly responsible for normalizing the “letterbox” format for home video releases, and are often credited with pioneering things like “special editions” and “commentary tracks.” As for their streaming service? It’s chock full of horror movies, and they’re amazing.
So, welcome to “It Came from Criterion!” Each month, I’ll be digging into a different horror film from the Criterion Channel, trying to figure out what earned each their place on the esteemed shelves of the Criterion Collection. Film nerds unite! But before we dive in the deep end, here’s a little taste of what’s to come. A soupçon, if you will, of what the Criterion Channel has to offer this fall. Here are ten must-see movies streaming on the Criterion Channel in September.
10. Diabolique (1955, France)
Anyone who’s ever marveled at the stifling brilliance of Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological thrillers should give Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique a watch. It’s the reason we have Psycho (1960). (No, really. Hitchcock loved this movie.)
The story centers on the wife (Vera Clouzot) and the mistress (Simone Signoret) of an abusive boarding school headmaster (Paul Meurisse), and their plot to murder their reprehensible lover. Beyond that, in the grand tradition of psychological thrillers, it’s hard to talk about the story without spoiling all the good bits. Trust me: things go very wrong, and only get worse.
If you don’t trust me (and I don’t blame you–you just met me), trust Hitchcock. The man had impeccable taste in tension. Unpredictable and sometimes shocking, with an amazing payoff at the end, Diabolique is a gem of the genre.
9. Eyes Without a Face (1960, France/Italy)
For 1960, Eyes Without a Face is surprisingly gruesome. Even more surprising, director Georges Franju approached production with the censors of three countries firmly in mind. There’s almost no blood, no animal torture, and no mad scientists (to appease the French, English, and German censors, respectively). A movie tailor-made to avoid controversy. Nice and inoffensive.
Eyes Without a Face is the story of Christiane Génessier (Édith Scob), whose face is horribly mutilated in a terrible car accident caused by her father (played by Pierre Brasseur), who forces her to wear a hauntingly featureless white mask while he repeatedly abducts young women, cuts their faces off, and attempts to graft those faces onto his daughter. What’s that? Why, no, the good doctor doesn’t kill the women he abducts. (Censors, you see.) No, he keeps them prisoner, bandaged and faceless, to eventually go mad from pain and the horror of having had their heads flayed. But there’s really not that much blood, so…that’s okay, right?
All kidding aside, Eyes Without a Face is a perfect example of what the Criterion Channel has to offer. It’s a masterpiece, undeniably, but what’s most surprising about the movie isn’t the horrifying plot, but the poetry. It’s a startlingly emotional film, full of pathos and melancholy. If that doesn’t sell you, Eyes Without a Face is responsible for Michael Meyers’s mask in Halloween (1978), Face/Off (1997), The Skin I Live In (2011), and the Billy Idol song “Eyes Without a Face.” No, seriously. This movie is that good.
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8. Carnival of Souls (1962, USA)
After a traumatic car accident in which she was the only survivor, a church organist (Candace Hilligoss) starts a new job in a new town in an attempt to put the tragedy behind her. Other than the pale man who walks in silence, the nightmarish visions of a lurid danse macabre that haunt her, and the arabesque carnival that stands abandoned and waiting on the outskirts of town, things go pretty well.
By turns elegiac and hallucinatory, meditative and mad, Carnival of Souls is an eerie masterclass in editing, with a cinematic eye (and ear) for psychological tension. Shot on a $33,000 shoestring, director Herk Harvey’s only feature film stands as a reminder that you don’t need Big Studio Money to craft a masterpiece.
7. Night of the Living Dead (1968, USA)
Things were different, before Night of the Living Dead. Before director George A. Romero’s taut and roaring indie, zombies in the zeitgeist were mostly of the voodoo variety: schlocky, vaguely-racist curiosities used primarily to underscore exotic locations or to act as comic relief. Night of the Living Dead was the low-budget, black-and-white forge in which the next thirty years of independent horror cinema was born. Zombies were no longer fodder for laughter. Now we saw that the zombies were us. Literally. And what that meant was that zombies were a versatile, powerful metaphor for what humans become when their humanity is stripped away.
The shadows on the screen change with each era, the metaphors given flesh by the secret terrors of each successive generation. What’s remarkable is that, more than half a century later, these shadows still have teeth. Worse, these cracked and jagged teeth are our own.
6. Kuroneko (1968, Japan)
Kuroneko is hard to categorize. It’s a horror film. A love story. A bloody revenge flick. A ghost story. A folk tale. It’s the story of two women who are horrifically murdered by soldiers, and the pact they make with the spirit world to exact their revenge on all samurai. But when they encounter a man they each knew and loved in life, a man who has become a samurai since they died, things get…complicated. Lust and blood and animal spirits ensue.
In director Kaneto Shindo’s long career, during which he mostly made lurid, hypersexual Japanese exploitation films, Kuroneko is an odd entry. Poignant and meditative, brutally violent and often quite beautiful, it’s a film that lingers after it’s gone, like a ghost, or a memory of love long lost.
5. The Wicker Man (1973, Great Britain)
If Midsommar (2019) was your atmospheric cup of folk-pagan tea, look no further than The Wicker Man for your next pour. The Christopher Lee one. Not the “Not the bees” one.
But it’s the mystery at the heart of the film that is its strongest virtue. Good cop Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) travels to a remote Scottish island, trying to find a missing child (Gerry Cowper). He thinks she may be in danger. He worries she may be dead. Except…everyone on the island insists that she doesn’t exist. As Howie begins to scratch away the brightly-colored patina of the island’s May Day celebrations, he uncovers thrumming ley lines of surreal paganism and esoteric ritual. Ley lines that seem all to lead to one point, on a rocky cliff, high above the sea.
Director Robin Hardy delivers early-70s spectacle at its finest. The cinematography, costumes, locations…everything is breathtaking, captured in the jaunty, brightly-colored palette of the time. (Which makes the darkness that much darker.) Deceptively festive, brilliantly constructed, and unsettling in the extreme, The Wicker Man is a perfect pick for a sweater weather afternoon. Or, if you’re feeling brave, for the bright ides of May…
4. Sisters (1973, USA)
My sister and I are
as close as can be.
She is she and she
is we. We share
our secrets, our dreams,
We’re good for each other,
and good with a knife.
3. Eraserhead (1977, USA)
The brilliance of David Lynch’s Eraserhead is hard to understate. Shot sporadically over the course of five years, for just $10,000, from a script of less than 25 pages, Lynch’s feature-length student film is undeniably a masterpiece. Never has a director come so close to capturing the hallucinatory timbre and strange logic of bad dreams.
A man named Henry (Jack Nance) gets a girl named Mary (Charlotte Stewart) pregnant. She has a baby. They take care of the baby and try to figure out how to be a couple. I know, I know. But now read the plot again, and know that there’s a tiny woman who lives inside a radiator, and the baby is an inhuman monster (which neither Henry nor Mary acknowledge, caring for it as they would a human child), and there’s a diseased man who lives inside a planet, making giant parasitic worms that may or may not be inter-dimensional. Oh, and David Lynch directed it.
Trust me. The plot is the least important thing going on, here. From the hissing steam and banging pipes of the minimalist score, to the final, surreal horror of Henry and Mary’s sickly “baby” (a special effect Lynch designed, constructed, and operated himself), Eraserhead will wind its way down into the depths of your mind, worming in like…. Man. There are a lot of parasitic worms in this movie.
It’s disturbing. It’s really disturbing, while managing also to be almost entirely devoid of anything graphic or explicit at all. (There is one scene near the end of the film where Lynch pulls out all the stops, and for a few minutes the whole affair goes full Cronenberg in the body horror department for a bit.) What makes it such a cage-rattling experience is how uncomfortably close it comes to showing you your strangest nightmares. That it’s also perfectly executed, seamless from first frame to credits, only gives the effect “another turn of the screw”. What more could you ask of an odd man’s bad dreams?
2. The Brood (1979, Canada)
Cronenberg. The name puts pictures in your head: Jeff Goldblum pulling his fingernails off in The Fly (1986); Louis Del Grande’s head exploding in Scanners (1981); every frame of Videodrome (1983). After a bitter divorce, Frank (Art Hindle) and Nola (Samantha Eggar) battle for custody of their daughter, Candice (Cindy Hines). Frank just wants his daughter. Nola wants to deal with her issues, and goes to a renowned psychotherapist (Oliver Reed) to help her work out her problems. And boy, does she work them all the way out.
Frank begins to suspect Candice is in danger, and as people close to him and his daughter start dying, Frank must confront his ex-wife in order to save her. To save them all. Wading through the goo of his body-horror reputation, it’s easy to lose track of the thing that cements David Cronenberg’s legacy as one of the greats: pathos. In no Cronenberg film (save perhaps The Fly) are those feelings of empathy and pity more on display than in The Brood. The gradual revelation of Nola’s (Samantha Eggar) acrimonious relationship with her father, and the ways she’s carried that trauma into her relationship with-
Sorry. Remembered Nola cleaning her tumor-births. Had to go throw up. Uh. Oliver Reed (The Who’s Tommy) is great. Did I say that already? Deep breaths. Deep breaths.
1. The Lure (2015, Poland)
Aside from the fact that this is Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s first film, that it’s stunningly shot, brilliantly performed, hilariously funny, genuinely frightening, gruesome, gory, features an achingly cool and energetic score, and the fact that it showcases an emergent directorial style somewhere between the hip arthouse jouissance of Jim Jarmusch (Only Lovers Left Alive) and the dark visual-pop slickness of David Leitch (Atomic Blonde), The Lure is, you know, just your run-of-the-mill Polish goth-pop-mermaid-horror-sex-comedy-musical.
Oh. Wait. What I meant was: Holy shit.
And there you have it. 10 reason why you should cut the cable and subscribe to The Criterion Channel. Are you already subscribed? What are some of your favourite horror selections from the premiere streaming platform? Let us know on Twitter, in the Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!