European horror is hardly lacking in exposure these days, what with the spotlight being shone brightly in the wake of Pan’s Labyrinth and the more extreme French offerings recently. Even going back to the 60’s and 70’s, there’s huge interest in the gothic horror and gialli from the period, giving the feeling that nearly every stone has been turned at this point to deliver for genre fans. There has never been a better time to get interested in European horror, as most of the big hits are available on DVD and Blu Ray. However, even with this level of exposure, some films have still been somewhat overlooked, and don’t quite get the recognition they deserve. So here’s a selection, in order of release. Is there anything that you think deserved a spot here? Be sure to let us know!
1 – In a Glass Cage (1986)
In Spain, a former Nazi doctor, Klaus, tries to kill himself by jumping from a roof. Succeeding in only paralysing himself, he is kept alive in the confines of an iron lung – his ‘glass cage’. In searching for a new nurse, his wife is introduced to the young, handsome Angelo, seems to know an awful lot about Klaus’ past. It’s soon revealed that Angelo is looking to recreate some of the worst aspects of the evil doctors deeds, and Klaus’ family might be the final victims in his legacy of horror.
In a Glass Cage is shocking stuff, even by today’s standards. Coming across as a much darker, nastier take on the same subject that Stephen King covered in ‘Apt Pupil’, but this film is willing to go to places that even King’s publishers would run a mile from. Dealing explicitly with child murder and pedophilia, In a Glass Cage is one of the darkest horror shockers to come out of the 80’s, but it’s also incredibly directed and acted.
2 – The Spider Labyrinth (1988)
An Italian researcher for a university gets called to Budapest to find the work that was being carried out by one of his colleagues who seems to have gone missing. When Alan arrives there, he discovers that the professor isn’t missing, just gone slightly mad. You see, they’ve been researching an ancient European cult, and it looks like they might have dug too deeply…
The Spider Labyrinth was made at the tail end of the horror boom in Italy, and sadly suffered distribution issues as a result. While it might be a tad slow to get going, and the lead actor is a bit flat, it more than makes up for it in atmosphere and shrieking horror. If you felt that Argento‘s ‘Mothers trilogy’ didn’t get the ending it deserved, then this feels almost like a spiritual climax to Suspiria and Inferno. With plenty of horrific witches, bloody violence and a bonkers climax, hopefully some day the film get’s a good-looking DVD or Blu Ray release.
3 – Los Sin Nombre (The Nameless) (1999)
When her daughter disappears, Claudia is thrown into a state of depression and anguish. They soon discover a body that seems to match up to that of the missing six-year-old. Five years later, and Claudia still hasn’t recovered. One day, she gets a phone call from someone claiming to be her daughter, insisting that if she doesn’t come find her, she will be killed. Could she really be alive after all this time?
Directed by Jaume Balaguero (known to horror fans as one half of the directing team that brought us the REC films), The Nameless is a dark, disturbing film about grief and human nature. Based on a novel by Ramsey Campbell, it often feels like a more full-on horror version of the likes of The Silence of the Lambs, even if the ending doesn’t quite live up to what went before. Still, it’s a film packed with great, emotional performances and has a wonderfully dark vibe throughout. Well worth checking out.
4 – Sleepless (2001)
A retired detective (Max Von Sydow) is dragged back into a case he was involved with decades ago, when fresh bodies start to show up with the same MO. Involving a nursery rhyme and an alleged killer dwarf, will Moretti be able to finally put all the pieces together before the murderer finally comes after him?
I know it seems like a cheat to put a Dario Argento film on this list, as most horror fans would be familiar with his work, but I really think this is an underrated film. It’s a well-known fact that once regarded ‘Master of Horror’ went off the boil in the 80’s (I don’t even like Trauma or The Stendhal Syndrome, which some dire-hard fans do), but this feels like his last truly great film; a throwback to the elements that made the likes of Deep Red and Tenebrae so endlessly re-watchable. Filled with plenty of great camera work, dark atmosphere a live score by Claudio Simonetti, and some really bloody murder sequences, it feels like the film Italian horror fans were waiting for, but somehow overlooked it. Bonkers for sure, but it fits in easily with others such as Terror at the Opera and Phenomena.
5 – Malefique (2002)
Four men occupy a prison cell in France; the newcomer, Carrere, embezzled money from his company and now his wife won’t let him see their child. The other men are a bizzare bunch: a transgender, a simpleton cannibal and an intellectual wife-killer. One night, Carrere discovers a journal buried in the wall of the cell, and seems to be written by a convict named Danvers who escaped through the use of magic. The journal outlines magical rites and passages, and may offer the men a means of escape, if it doesn’t kill them first…
Coming several years before Haute Tension (Switchblade Romance) and therefore not given as much distribution as it deserved, Malefique combines elements of H.P. Lovecraft with the likes of Hellraiser and somehow comes out with something quite fresh and original. Filled with interesting characters, dark French humour and some dense atmosphere, it also delivers on some gruesome goods too, and the ending fits perfectly. Check it out if you can.
6 – The Uninvited Guest (2004)
Architect Felix has just split up with his fiance, and occupies their huge house alone. Late one night the doorbell rings; a man is at the door, looking to use the phone. Felix lets him in, leaving him to the call. After a while, felix notices the silence, and discovers that the man has vanished. Where did he go? Is he somehow still in the house, now living there at the same time as Felix?
The Uninvited Guest starts out as a slow-boil home invasion horror, but begins to meld into something else completely. With genuine tension and scares in the first half, the film moves somewhat into more ‘David Lynch‘ territory, but that certainly isn’t a bad thing. This Spanish film is popping with originality, and a fresh look at voyeurism and loneliness.
7 – Vinyan (2008)
In the heart of Thailand, Paul (Rufess Sewell) and Jeanne (Emanuelle Beart) search desperately for their son, Joshua, who disappeared during a tsunami six months earlier. Convinced that he might have been abducted and brought to a remote village, they begin a descent into hell to find their missing boy.
Directed by Fabrice Du Welz, who brought us the equally enigmatic Calvaire, Vinyan feels like he somehow blended Conrad‘s Heart of Darkness with Don’t Look Now and a sprinkling of Cronenberg‘s The Brood, and came out with an unsettling, visually stunning horror all of his own. It features some great central performances, especially Beart, and shows a film maker unwilling to make concessions to the mainstream in the slightest.
8 – Sauna (aka Evil Rising) (2008)
Set in 16th century Europe and at the end of a 25 year war between Russia and Sweden, two brothers who are among a party of men sent to outline and map the new border are haunted by the spectre of a girl who died due to mistreatment on their behalf on the journey. They come across a remote village located at the centre of a swamp in which no children have been born in years, nor elderly died. Just outside the village is a sauna, which seems to hold the key to the terrors that have been hounding the men…
Sauna is not only a beautiful film to look at in terms of style, but it has a ton of creeping dread and horrific images to boot. Like several films on this list, it might not be to everyone’s taste, but if the horror equivalent of an Andrei Tarkovsky film sounds like your cup of tea, dive on in.
9 – Hierro (2009)
Returning to an island on which her son disappeared months ago, Maria (Elena Anaya) is there to identify a body that might be that of her child’s. She soon discovers that her boy isn’t the only one missing; there seems to quite an issue of children going missing here. Determined to get to the bottom of it, Maria goes on a frantic search for information that she hopes will bring her the closure she needs.
Another Spanish entry on the list here. The film is hinged on an excellent performance from Anaya, and deals with loss and paranoia in a way that is seldom seen in a horror film. Best avoided if you are looking for full-on horror and gore, but this one is heartily recommended for fans of the likes of The Orphanage.
10 – The Pack (La Meute) (2010)
While driving through the French countryside, Charlotte picks up a hitch hiker, and they both stop off in a filthy roadside diner. Soon she is abducted by the owners and kept prisoner in a cage. It seems she is to be fed to these strange creatures that emerge from the land at night, the spirits of dead miners who were killed in accidents decades ago. Will she escape from the clawing horrors of the pack?
This was a film that had considerable hype behind it during production, but apparently ran into problems during the shoot, and was dumped to DVD with little fanfare. Which is a pity, as what was originally pitched as a French ‘Evil Dead’ became a blackly comic satire instead, though whether you can get fully behind it depends on your taste, of course. Filled with odd characters and bizarre performances, The Pack is quite funny and also disturbing at the same time. Despite the lesser emphasis on all-out gore, it does have plenty of the red stuff, and the creature designs are excellent. With a dark, brooding, drone-ish score, The Pack is nearly best suited for midnight screenings, when you brain is feeling a bit screwy and you’re more susceptible to such strange material.