When it comes to horror films, there are options to satisfy just about any viewer’s tastes, from campy to deadly serious to gory special effects laden blockbusters. Personally I’ve always been a fan of indie horror and I’ve come to love a number of foreign titles. They seem to do a better job of drawing me in as a viewer than mainstream horror does.
In many cases, my love of indie and foreign horror comes from the writing. When a film is carried by its actual story rather than a huge special effects budget, I find the writing more enjoyable. But not all of these films take themselves too seriously. Occasionally these lower-budget creations are appealing precisely because of their low budgets — they end up being downright silly (making them great fun for viewing parties) or I have a greater appreciation for them being able to do so much with so little.
I’d like to share some recommendations for indie and foreign horror films with you. Some of these are personal favorites, and others simply offer something unique or groundbreaking in the genre that shouldn’t be missed.
10 Independent and Foreign Horror Films You Should See
Here are ten independent or foreign horror films that should make everyone’s must-see list. These films are listed in alphabetical order. These are suggestions. They are not meant to be a “top” or “best” list in any way. You can find some additional indie and foreign horror films I recommend near the end of the article.
The Blair Witch Project
The Blair Witch Project is a “found footage” film, released in 1999. It tells the story of students filming a documentary about a local legend about the Blair Witch. They shoot their film in the woods of Maryland, getting themselves lost in the process. The movie itself is supposed to be the footage from their documentary, recovered by police after the students go missing.
Why you should see it: I’d be lying if I told you I loved this film. I don’t. But it’s one I don’t regret seeing, and it’s a film any fan of the horror genre should watch at least once. The Blair Witch Project shines through its simplicity. It’s not some big budget, effects-filled Hollywood feature. It’s something you could imagine shooting with your friends. Lost in the woods. Hearing bumps in the night. And in film, like in life, sometimes the little things can scare you the most.
Cube is a Canadian film released in 1997. The story introduces us to a group of strangers trapped inside a strange cube-shaped room. Each wall (plus the floor and ceiling) have a hatch leading to an adjacent cube. But some of the cubes have deadly traps. The group has to navigate these rooms using their skills in careers like law enforcement and mathematics if they want to earn their freedom.
Why you should see it: This is another film that benefits from simplicity. It revolves largely around the fear of the unknown (what’s in the next cube and is it going to kill you?), but it also takes a sometimes enlightening, and sometimes terrifying, look at human nature. The high points of this film don’t come from the actors. It’s impressive instead for the fact that the film keeps the viewer feeling trapped for the entire show, right alongside the characters, never knowing what’s next. That’s not too shabby for shooting the whole film in a single cube.
The Devil’s Backbone
This ghost story, released in 2001, is set in the late 1930s during the Spanish Civil War. It is centered around a little boy who arrives at an orphanage only to be haunted by one of its previous residents. But the ghost isn’t the source of the horror in this picture. It’s the living you really have to worry about — that and witnessing war time through a child’s eyes.
Why you should see it: In my eyes, nearly everything that Guillermo del Toro has a hand in is cinematic gold. The Devil’s Backbone is no exception. Children. Murder. Ghosts. War. Revenge. This film weaves them all with haunting beauty. Between that and its ability to make you truly care about the characters, it surpasses all genre stereotypes to exist as simply a great film.
The Evil Dead
Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead, released in 1981, follows five students to a cabin in the woods. They soon find themselves stranded with the evil spirits they unwittingly unleash. Demonic possession and murderous exploits among friends ensue.
Why you should see it: This film franchise has a cult following for a reason. It’s simply fun to watch. It brings the right mix of scary and silly (okay, more like downright absurd). If you’re into campy films and you like a good laugh with your scares, this one is a must-see.
Eyes Without a Face
This French-Italian film (“Les yeux sans visage”) tells the story of a doctor whose daughter was in a car accident which left her with a disfigured face. He’s determined to “help” his daughter by performing the first successful face transplant. And he’s willing to kidnap and kill for the perfect specimen. In the meantime his daughter, whose death he faked, lives locked away from the world behind a cold lifeless mask until she’s finally had enough.
Why you should see it: If you enjoy older horror films, this is a good one. It’s dark, but it’s also sad and thought-provoking. After all, what wouldn’t a father want to do for his daughter? While the doctor’s actions are reprehensible, on some level they’re almost understandable. What I love about this film is that simple effects have a great impact that we wouldn’t see again until much later. For example, the very plain mask evokes an uncomfortable feeling as we watch the lead actress. We don’t see something quite this simple happen again until Michael Myers in Halloween (although the discomfort there is of a completely different type of course). Eyes Without a Face also influenced later movies such as Face Off, with Nicholas Cage and John Travolta, which involves similar face transplants.
Halloween is a classic horror film, released in 1978. As one of the earlier slasher films, it has had its fair share of influence in the genre. The story focuses on a psychotic killer who escapes a psychiatric hospital and stalks a teenage girl. Made on a budget of less than $325k, this was one of the most successful independent horror films, grossing around $70 million worldwide at the time.
Why you should see it: When it comes to Halloween the real question is “why shouldn’t you see it?” This classic brings enough of a scare factor to keep you on edge without relying on gratuitous gore that will later seem to become a staple in slasher flicks. Rather than using excessive gore, it’s the general sense of uneasiness and fear of the unknown that will stay with you between the simplistic but tension-building soundtrack and the famously faceless madman. There’s a reason so many imitators have followed.
Let the Right One In
Let the Right One In is a Swedish vampire film, released in 2008 but set in the 1980s. It tells the story of a bullied 12 year old boy who befriends a girl who happens to be a vampire. The film won numerous awards including awards for best international / foreign language film, best horror film, best film, and more, with Roger Ebert calling it “the best modern vampire movie.”
Why you should see it: I have a soft spot for horror films that feature brilliant child actors, and there might be no better example of this than Let the Right One In. Rather than focusing on vampire lore (and gore) as is so common in these kinds of movies, this film instead puts the emphasis on the relationship of the two young characters. This more serious approach adds emotional depth we don’t always expect when it comes to the horror genre.
Night of the Living Dead
This 1968 horror film directed by George A. Romero was the first in a franchise and long line of zombie flick imitators (although the term “zombie” is never used). Made on a budget of just $114k, it went on to gross $18 million internationally. The film tells the story of five people trapped in a house by the living dead, and it was extremely controversial during its time. Unlike previous films in the genre, Night of the Living Dead treated its story matter seriously. Between that and its lack of a traditional “happy ending” for the hero, it left theater-goers and critics alike unnerved. This film was released before the ratings system we use today was developed, so it attracted an audience of not only adults, but also children, leading to calls for censorship.
Why you should see it: This film is a must-see for any fan of zombie movies or horror films in general. It made waves at the time of its release for its ability to affect viewers. And while we might be more desensitized today and less in-tune with the social commentary of the time, it’s always enlightening to see what started the trends we’ve come to know and love today.
A Tale of Two Sisters
This is one of my favorite foreign horror films — from South Korea and released in 2003. It tells the story of two sisters, the death of their mother, and their disdain for their stepmother (not surprising given its origin comes from a folk tale / fairy tale). Ultimately this film tells us a ghost story that comes down to one character’s immense guilt and regret. A Tale of Two Sisters was not only the highest-grossing Korean horror film, but it was also the first Korean horror film to be screened in American theaters.
Why you should see it: The original version of this film far surpasses the American re-make (The Uninvited) which was released in 2009. It’s a fantastic example of psychological horror, and has some interesting twists that you probably won’t see coming.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
This 1974 film’s antagonist, Leatherface, is generally credited as kicking off the masked killer trend in slasher flicks (like Halloween’s Michael Myers and Friday the 13th’s Jason Voorhees). It’s another example of a classic horror film with little gore (surprising given the title alone). Despite this, the film was heavily criticized for its violence, and when it was released it was banned in several countries. While the filmmakers hoped for a PG rating, it was initially rated X and even more had to be cut to earn its eventual R rating. It still attracted large audiences, in part due to its fake “true story” marketing strategy (similar to the way The Blair Witch Project was marketed more recently).
Why you should see it: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is one of those films that kicked off a major trend in the horror genre, and for that alone it should be on any horror fan’s list of must-watch movies. Another reason to watch is to experience the effective sound design; the horror of the film comes less from that visual gore we’re so accustomed to in today’s slasher movies and instead relies largely on what the audience hears.
While all ten of the films mentioned above are fantastic in their own ways, they’re far from the only worthy indie and foreign horror films you should consider. Let them serve as a starting point. Then check out some of these additional titles — all also independent or foreign horror films, and again in alphabetical order.
- Dawn of the Dead
- End of the Line
- Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer
- The Host
- I Saw the Devil
- Ju-on: The Grudge
- Nightwatch / Nattevagten
- Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht
- The Orphanage (my personal favorite horror film)
- Paranormal Activity
- Shaun of the Dead
Leave a comment and tell us about your favorite foreign or independent horror films and why you love them. Do you tend to prefer these films or are you a bigger fan of Hollywood blockbusters in the horror genre? Or do you enjoy a good mix of both?
image credit: wolfgangfoto (via Flickr)