It’s the penultimate Spook Series 2013 category! Please, stop weeping. You’re embarrassing yourself. After alllll of those other categories (which I won’t bother to name, but you can find them all here), it’s time to address some foreign fare. I’ll admit, I’m not nearly as well-versed in foreign films as I feel I should be. In fact, watching these films for Spook Series more than doubled the number of foreign films that I had seen. But you know what? It’s been awesome to get out of my little English-speaking bubble because there’s some phenomenal stuff out there—especially in terms of horror. So without further ado, allow me to introduce you to 8 Fearsome Foreign Films.
#8: Ringu (1998)
Synopsis: “A mysterious video kills whoever views it, unless that viewer can solve its mystery.” –www.imdb.com
Why It’s Fantastically Fearsome: Before I saw this Japanese horror film, I saw its American remake, The Ring, which has long been an eerie staple of scary movie binges for me. I feel like being somewhat attached to the remake makes it harder for me to judge this film, but I’m going to try my best. A fascinating mix of urban legend and Japanese ghost story with a pinch of ESP thrown in, Ringu is a truly unique film. It all begins with a discussion about a strange videotape that kills viewers exactly one week after they watch it. Television journalist Reiko (Nanako Matsushima) steps in to investigate, and the mystery behind the tape gradually begins to unravel. All of the major plot points of Ringu and The Ring are the same—just a few minor differences here and there. However, Ringu often feels more like a mystery than a horror. Sure, there are bursts of scary stuff (particularly the last 10-15 minutes), and overall there is a delightfully creepy vibe, but I feel like The Ring gives us more scares. Plus, and maybe this is a cultural thing, but Ringu can sometimes seem…a little out there. Toward the middle/end of the film, characters suddenly have mind-reading powers. Don’t get me wrong—that’s cool. But these random, unexplained powers completely come out of left field. They just seem like a convenient way to explain things. Though even then, the explanation is confusing and bizarre. This film is enjoyable and undoubtedly unique, but in a showdown between Ringu and The Ring, I’m gonna have to go with The Ring.
My Grade: B
#7: [Rec] (2007)
Synopsis: “A television reporter and cameraman follow emergency workers into a dark apartment building and are quickly locked inside with something terrifying.” –www.imdb.com
Why It’s Fantastically Fearsome: Does the synopsis sound familiar? For anyone who’s seen Quarantine, it should. [Rec] is described as the inspiration for Quarantine, but it basically is Quarantine—just in Spanish instead of English. Both films begin with a television reporter and her cameraman filming the goings-on in a fire station. A routine 911 call takes them to the apartment complex of an elderly woman who was heard screaming. It all goes downhill from there. The plot lines are pretty much the same. The creators of Quarantine simply add some unnecessary stuff to bump the time up to the standard hour-and-a-half of most scary movies, change the city to Los Angeles instead of Barcelona, change the title, and tweak little things here and there. But it’s just not as good. Alas, the remakes rarely are. I do appreciate the fact that Quarantine uses its extra minutes to develop the characters a little more, but what [Rec] does with its concise 78 minutes is more impressive. The scares are scarier, there’s more of a trapped, paranoid feeling, there’s a more intriguing explanation of the phenomenon, and there’s a creature that will really, really give you the willies. Like, just the way it looked and the way it moved…I hadn’t seen anything that creepy in a while. In terms of mockumentaries and horror movies in general, [Rec] may not be anything particularly groundbreaking, but for the last ten minutes alone, it’s certainly worth a view.
My Grade: B+
#6: The Host (2006)
Synopsis: “A monster emerges from Seoul’s Han River and focuses its attention on attacking people. One victim’s loving family does what it can to rescue her from its clutches.” –www.imdb.com
Why It’s Fantastically Fearsome: The Host (known to its original Korean audience as Gwoemul) was a pleasant surprise whenever I watched it. I wasn’t sure what to expect going in, but what I got was a funny, clever, and surprisingly tender-hearted monster flick that took me on quite a little adventure. And it all starts with one mutated tadpole. Never dump chemicals into rivers, people! You might just end up with a big ol’ scaly monster. Slow-witted Gang-du (Kang-ho Song) and his father, Hee-bong (Byun Hee-bong), are minding their own business, running their small snack shop along the Han River in Seoul when chaos erupts: a hungry monster has emerged from the river. The creature sprints across the riverside, grabbing and gobbling victims. Gang-du and Hee-bong manage to avoid its grasp, but Gang-du is horrified when his daughter, Hyun-seo (Ko A-sung), is snatched up. Gang-du assumes the worst and mourns his loss with his father and siblings, but he later gets a phone call from the abducted Hyun-seo, who only can tell him that she is stuck in a sewer. Desperate to find their beloved Hyun-seo, the family scours the riverside in search of the lost girl and the monster that took her. Though this is, of course, a creature feature with lots of weird and nifty monster moments, it’s also very much about a dysfunctional family pulling together to save the best of them, and it’s great. Each member of the family is packed with personality, and they all give delightful performances. The Host has lots of humor, a few emotional moments, and even some sharp political jabs thrown in. If you’re in search of a film that’s a step above your usual monster fare, I highly recommend it.
My Grade: B+
#5: Cronos (1993)
Synopsis: “A mysterious device designed to provide its owner with eternal life resurfaces after four hundred years, leaving a trail of destruction in its path.” –www.imdb.com
Why It’s Fantastically Fearsome: This is the first of a few Guillermo del Toro films I have on here, and for good reason—in English or in Spanish, old or new, I have yet to see a bad film directed by del Toro. Some are better than others, sure, but none of the ones I’ve seen are bad. Cronos is actually del Toro’s feature-length directorial debut. And what an intriguing debut it is. Ominous and strange as well as lighthearted and charming, Cronos is about one man accidentally stumbling upon the secret to immortality. Spanish antique dealer Jesus (Federico Luppi) finds a stranger closely inspecting an old angel statue in his shop one day. Curious, Jesus and his granddaughter, Aurora (Tamara Shanath), take it upon themselves to further inspect the statue when the stranger leaves. Inside the statue they find a strange golden device that latches on to Jesus’ hand when he touches it, drawing a lot of blood. Though it hurts, Jesus finds himself craving the device’s grip later that night, getting a strange high from it. But when dying millionaire Dieter de la Guardia (Claudio Brook) and his tough nephew, Angel (Ron Perlman), come looking for the device, Jesus learns its secret: it grants its owner eternal life. Jesus is desperate to hang on to the precious device, but at what cost? A unique twist on a familiar vampire tale with plenty of eerie moments, liberal splashes of humor (mostly provided by the hilarious Perlman), classic del Toro hallmarks, and even a little English thrown in to break up the subtitles, Cronos is a solid, memorable start to a wonderful director’s career.
My Grade: B+
#4: The Orphanage (2007)
Synopsis: “A woman brings her family back to her childhood home, which used to be an orphanage for handicapped children. Before long, her son starts to communicate with an invisible new friend.” –www.imdb.com
Why It’s Fantastically Fearsome: The Orphanage (El orfanato) is one of those rare horror movies that really hits you in the gut when you finish it. As an old-school tale of ghosts going bump in the night, it’s deliciously creepy, but what sets it apart from so many other horrors is that it’s very emotionally driven, featuring remarkable performances from all of the main characters. It begins with leading lady Laura (Belén Rueda), her husband, Carlos (Fernando Cayo), and their adorable son, Simón (Roger Príncep), moving into Laura’s old stomping grounds—a creaky old place that used to be an orphanage. They intend to fix the home up and begin adopting special needs children, but things get…complicated. Slowly, Laura begins to figure out that dark things happened after she left all those years ago. It’s a compelling mystery, a chilling ghost story, and a satisfying drama all rolled into one, yet it’s also refreshingly simple and subtle; there aren’t a lot of special effects, and the plot isn’t complicated. And the end! Bittersweet, yes, but perfect in so many ways. Plus, if all that wasn’t enough for you, let’s not forget that this film has a) very creepy children and b) one of the scariest masks you’ve ever laid eyes on. This film is just too good to miss. If you haven’t seen it already—heck, even if you have—put this high up on your Halloween watch list. It’s been one of my favorite horrors for some time.
My Grade: A
#3: The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
Synopsis: “After Carlos, a 12-year-old whose father has died in the Spanish Civil War, arrives at an ominous boy’s orphanage he discovers the school is haunted and has many dark secrets that he must uncover.” –www.imdb.com
Why It’s Fantastically Fearsome: When Guillermo del Toro is at the helm of a horror film, you can almost always expect a creepy, atmospheric tale with an intricate plot and a certain element of mystery. The Devil’s Backbone (El espinazo del diablo) is no exception. Set in 1930s Spain during the Spanish Civil War, the film automatically has a grim tone to it. Many people have died, leaving behind thousands of broken families. Young Carlos (Fernando Tielve) is from such a family; he has been left alone following the death of his father. Dropped off at an orphanage for boys, Carlos finds himself in the midst of a lot of hostility. Bully Jaime (Íñigo Garcés) makes a point to pick on him, mysterious and grumpy groundskeeper Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega) doesn’t hesitate to hurt the boys if he finds them up to mischief, and then, of course, there’s the ghost. Eerily referred to as “the one who whispers,” the ghost is allegedly the spirit of a boy named Santi (Junio Valverde) who was killed the night a dud bomb dropped in the orphanage’s courtyard. Though diffused, the bomb remains planted firmly in the ground not only as stark reminder of the war, but as a reminder Santi’s death. While Carlos explores the mystery of Santi’s ghost, Jacinto lurks around the grounds constantly searching and scheming. Like The Orphanage, this film is a triple threat—equal parts horror, mystery, and drama. All of these elements come together to make a really fantastic story with interesting characters and solid performances. It’s a chilling tale, and you’ll never forget the forlorn, unsettling face of the deceased Santi. Well worth the subtitles, I’d say.
My Grade: A
#2: Let the Right One In (2008)
Synopsis: “Oskar, an overlooked and bullied boy, finds love and revenge through Eli, a beautiful but peculiar girl who turns out to be a vampire.” –www.imdb.com
Why It’s Fantastically Fearsome: Bleak, gruesome, and deeply moving, Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in) is a vampire film like you’ve never seen before. That is, unless you’ve seen the American remake, Let Me In, which is basically the same film with subtle differences. Both films are great, but in a showdown between the two, I have to go with the original Swedish version. In a weird way, it’s kind of a coming-of-age story. Young Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) learns about friendship, love, and sticking up for himself from his eccentric new neighbor, Eli (Lina Leandersson). The problem is, Eli is a murderous, blood-sucking monster. But Oskar has to take what he can get. Lacking any close friends and bullied by a sadistic trio of boys, Oskar is a bit of a lone wolf. But when he meets Eli in the courtyard of his apartment complex one night, he gradually begins to think he’s found a true friend. Much like Oskar, she’s a little odd and lonely, so it’s only natural that they become friends. But it doesn’t take Oskar long to realize Eli is more than a little odd. She wears short sleeves and no shoes, not noticing the bitter cold. She doesn’t seem to eat. She’s never out in the daylight. Oh, plus she has a habit of sucking blood. Yep—she’s a vampire. Though she’s revealed herself to be a violent killer, she’s also a loving and loyal friend. Oskar has to decide which is more important to him. Both of these actors give excellent performances, enriching a fantastic and intriguing story with lots of young talent. A superb horror-drama, Let the Right One In is a beautifully crafted, unsettling film that will stick with you.
My Grade: A
#1: Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Synopsis: “In the fascist Spain of 1944, the bookish young stepdaughter of a sadistic army officer escapes into an eerie but captivating fantasy world.” –www.imdb.com
Why It’s Fantastically Fearsome: There aren’t many movies that make me want to cry, but this freaking movie…this gets me there. Even just thinking about it is depressing. But when it affects you that much, you know it’s doing something very right. Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno) is yet another wonderful del Toro film. Most fans would say this is the director’s undisputed masterpiece. Perhaps it’s primarily fantasy and drama, but I believe its spooky atmosphere and numerous creepy and/or gruesome moments justify it as a solid horror film as well. It’s a beautiful and brutal grown-up fairy tale, and it’s an absolutely moving story. Del Toro, ever a fan of wartime dramas, sets this film in 1944, right at the tail end of WWII. Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a bookworm who loves fantasy stories, and her mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), move into the home of Captain Vidal (Sergi López), a sadistic military man who just so happens to be Carmen’s new husband and soon-to-be baby daddy. Vidal and his men are still dealing with the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, trying to enforce the new Fascist regime by quelling a nearby guerilla uprising. While Vidal is handling that and Carmen lies sick in bed, Ofelia is left to her own devices. That’s how she wanders into Pan’s labyrinth. Pan (Doug Jones), an ancient, mythical faun, tells Ofelia that she is a lost princess, and in order to return to her underground kingdom, she must complete three dangerous tasks to prove her worth. That’s the bare bones of the premise, but there are so many more things going on to add to the already rich plot. An imaginative, emotional, and haunting story with rich performances, Pan’s Labyrinth is a fearsome foreign film you MUST see. I’m not giving you a choice.
My Grade: A+
So that’s it for foreign flicks! I have to say, this might have been my favorite batch of films yet. But there’s still one more category to go before Spook Series 2013 is done and I can watch Disney movies for a month to recover. Closing Out Spook Series: 10 Eerie Extras. I will be bringing those your way ASAP! I’ll list my foreign film picks all together below. Are any of these foreign horrors among your favorites? Any that you’d like to recommend? I’d like to bulk up my awareness great foreign films, so all suggestions—horror or not—are welcome!
#1: Pan’s Labyrinth (A+)
#2: Let the Right One In (A)
#3: The Devil’s Backbone (A)
#4: The Orphanage (A)
#5: Cronos (B+)
#6: The Host (B+)
#7: [Rec] (B+)
#8: Ringu (B)