It’s not easy to be smart and pretty in a genre that deals with death and blood and guts and monsters and such; for this reason, those films that accomplish it really stand out.
The filmmakers listed below have all produced films which combine beauty, brains and fear (though not always in equal parts). Some of them also include unexpected moments of humor. These works stand as necessary counters to the genre swill that revels in human misery and delights in shocking audiences with graphic imagery.
Benson and Moorhead co-directed the unexpectedly compelling Resolution as well as the recent festival favorite Spring (Benson wrote both films). Both films share a focus on human weakness, with highly flawed but sympathetic protagonists, and they feel thematically as well as aesthetically similar. Resolution is about a man who plans to help his drug-addled friend sober up, which he accomplishes by handcuffing him to a radiator in the filthy shack where the junky is squatting. Unbeknownst to either, a supernatural presence is watching their struggles and expects them to put on a good show. In Spring (you can read my HorrorTalk.com review of which here) the protagonist lashes out against a stranger in a bar in a moment of anger and is forced to flee the country to avoid the police. Winding up in Italy, he meets a woman who is smart and beautiful and kind, and also a monster. In both cases the supernatural element is almost incidental to the human dramas unfolding around it, but it ultimately asserts itself in pretty satisfying ways. Neither film is scary, but both feature rock-solid acting and writing and extremely likeable characters.
If you haven’t seen Chad Crawford Kinkle’s ode to Lovecraftian hillbilly horror, Jug Face, you really should. A weirdly beautiful take on the rural horror subgenre, Jug Face does what most horror attempts but seldom accomplishes: it subtly weaves broader social issues into its narrative without letting them eclipse the central fact that there is a freaking demon killing people. It’s Kinkle’s first, and so far only, feature-length turn in the director’s chair (he wrote it, too). (Read my review here.) Hopefully we’ll see more from him in this vein.
Domestic abuse and bad cops are two themes that are central in Yam Laranas’ work–or at least in the three films of his I’ve seen so far, which as of this writing are Sigaw, its English-language remake The Echo, and The Road. Laranas does wonderfully old-fashioned ghost stories, relying far more on creeping dread than on jump-scares (though there are some of those too). He’s also a cinematographer, and his films–The Road in particular–are visually striking, reflecting his concern with image composition and color balance and other fancy photography terms that I’ll pretend I understand. I’m excited for Laranas’ upcoming film Abomination, which looks to be a departure from his usual ghostly fare. (Read my reviews of The Road and The Echo.)
Kolsh and Widmyer wrote and directed Starry Eyes, the story of a wannabe actor who unwittingly pledges herself to a demonic cult in exchange for stardom. I waffled on seeing it, worried it was hyper-gory (it’s not), but finally watched it, and needless to say I’m glad I did. A Netflix review I read commented that Starry Eyes is like Twin Peaks, and that’s an apt comparison: everything’s exaggerated, everyone is a caricature of themselves, and somehow it works. There is violence in the final act, but the film is smart, and implies–somewhat tongue-in-cheekly, no doubt–that many, even all, of the greatest actors in Hollywood history have made similar deals with the devil.
Writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour’s first feature length film is the excellent A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, a darkly comic fairy tale about a lone vampire prowling the streets of a run-down Iranian city. (Read my HorrorTalk.com review here.) I normally dislike self-conscious “art” films because they strike me as pretentious and sacrifice narrative for pedantic social commentary. While A Girl does offer some powerful social commentary, it works this commentary very organically into a story that is concerned, first and foremost, with its characters. Feminism, economic disparity, drug abuse: these issues are present, even central, but they aren’t forced on the viewer. The cinematography is beautiful and at times ridiculous (which I mean as praise), and I’d very much like to see other nominally “horror” films produced in this style.