VCA Digital Archive: top ten horror films

Still from The Window Seat. 1994. Damian Corby.
Still from The Window Seat. 1994. Damian Corby.

The VCA Digital Archive is a living audiovisual record of student films that date back to 1966. The articles in this series respond thematically to the depth and breadth of the collection. Enjoy!

By Felix Brown

There is nothing quite like a good horror film. The genre is often misconstrued as tactless, mindless and merely exploitative for no good reason.

After watching more than 60 student horror films, these are ten films that I believe are the most effective. From existential dread to psychological terror, traumatic experiences to cosmic justice, dissecting the genre to simple plain fun, these films, presented in alphabetical order, explore fear in original and exciting ways.

Horror is not all just blood and gore – it can be so much more.

The Top Ten List

1) The City Eats its Weak. Sasha Whitehouse. 2005. Horror.

Void of life, full of fear, the inescapable city, a surveillance state: The City Eats Its Weak. It tells the story of Kay, who is trying to make sense of the increasingly unrecognisable city he lives in, where people are vanishing everyday. At the same time, Kay notices a strange protrusion growing on his stomach.

The film’s biggest strength is the way it balances body horror and existential dread, which combine to create an eerie, unsettling film that has apocalyptic undertones, yet feels relevant and real. Vast shots of empty cityscapes dominate: it is an oppressive world constantly watched, yet vacant of life and humanity.

The editing is top notch too, and how the film transitions between scenes is excellent, only adding to the permeating dread. The city as an all-consuming being, eating up any individuality that’s left. Terrifying indeed.

2) Craypot Sonata. Timothy McLaughlan. 1979. Horror.

Two children learn the art of catching crayfish, and become increasingly cold-hearted and malicious when they learn what crayfish really crave is human flesh. There is a dissonant synth soundtrack underscoring the entire film, which provides a creepy atmosphere (it is a “Craypot Sonata”, after all).

The real pleasure (or displeasure) of this film is its use of gore. The way the camera stays fixated as the sister starts hacking up body parts is extremely unpleasant and squirm-inducing, even though it is not particularly realistic. Realism doesn’t matter here; what we see is what we get. It’s uncomfortable, oddly hypnotic and effective.

3) Max. Ryan Paturzo-Polson. 2015. Horror.

From the opening scene, Max gets off on the right foot. A haunting synth soundscape overwhelms as the camera zooms in on a nest full of rotting eggs, infested with maggots. The tension doesn’t let up from there, and the film slowly builds towards an unnerving, horrifying finale.

Max tells the story of Charlie (Baily McMillan Power), a young boy who accidentally pulls a shoe out of the ocean while fishing with his parents (Lee McClenaghan and Guy Greenstone). This brings unknown, sinister forces to reign terror upon his family, in the guise of Charlie’s imaginary friend, Max. A recurring, very creepy song that plays throughout only adds to the building tension.

There’s a great shot early on using the reflection of a car window which is a summation of the film as a whole: clever, subtle and really quite scary.

4) Misfit. Kim Worrall. 2001. Horror.

Misfit works largely due to its original and fun premise: a tattoo that consumes people. Psychedelic and trippy, the dizzying camerawork inside the club is brilliant, and the frenetic editing only adds to the stressful, immersive environment.

Accentuating the creepiness is the soundscape, dominated by wicked laughter, screams and some great rave tracks. Misfit also has a great use of layering shots and the tattoos come to life in the frame in inventive ways. It’s an original, well-made bit of fun.

There’s also a strange clown — it’s really got everything. Don’t take drugs from weird clowns and always listen to your mother!

5) Motown. Alex Wu. 2015. Horror.

Motown is minimalist horror at its finest. “Less is more” is the perfect way to describe this film, and Alex Wu understands how to elicit fear. There isn’t much in the way of narrative here: a young student practices piano in a concert hall at night, where an ominous presence looms.

Once Charlie sits down at the piano, the film really kicks into gear.

Motown is tense, and yet is also a stunning exploration of the power of art — how we can use music to empower us, to help us move forward. Great sound design and cinematography help keep this film fresh, and at its heart is a fantastic original song: Burn Away by Charlie Pass.

6) The Rabbit. Rosalie Alisa Osman. 2006. Horror.

Minimalist animation and silent cinema tend to complement each other perfectly, and The Rabbit is no exception. Black and white (with occasional splashes of red), The Rabbit tells the story of a man who’s taken pleasure in torturing and killing animals his whole life.

At last, the animal kingdom gets its revenge. Clocking in at six minutes (50 seconds of which are credits) this is a richly drawn world; the office environment is particularly well realised.

Rosalie Osman is credited as the writer, director, producer, animator and editor for The Rabbit, and she pulls it all off brilliantly. This is a dryly funny film with a wicked sense of cosmic justice. Hell awaits those who prey on the weak and helpless. Be good.

7) Road Pantry. David Michôd. 1997.

Driving is a lonely activity. David Michôd’s Road Pantry encapsulates that loneliness and embeds it within a framework of dread and unease.

The film begins with a dinner. A young woman (Joelene Crnogorac) is telling a story of a friend’s dead dog: some “roadkill”. The camera begins to slowly turn to Luke (Kick Gurry), who appears uncomfortable, before cutting to earlier that day. The present and the past are intertwined; our memories are a part of us, and as we relive Luke’s drive back to Melbourne, he is haunted by his actions.

This culminates in a moment of psychological terror, a struggle to come to terms with the past and find a way to move forward. It’s easy to see how this film laid the groundwork for David Michôd later works, such as Animal Kingdom (2010), which explore similar themes of moral ambiguity and justice while also being incredibly tense.

8) Turning Corners. Tammy Quah. 1998. Horror.

A cigarette is lit, a corner turned, a Cherry Ripe eaten. This sequence of events triggers a memory in which reality and fiction are blurred.

A traumatic childhood experience is at the centre of Turning Corners, and the slight shift in the colour palette signifies this switch. The world is more colourful in memory, but that doesn’t mean it is brighter.

The way the film uses location and editing to seamlessly move from the present to the past is clever and effective. As the boys descend into the basement, and the otherworldly, devil-like man follows them, it becomes apparent, again through great editing (credited to Tammy Quah, who directed and wrote it too), that this is a monster created in the child’s mind. But imaginary monsters are no less scary; this film makes that abundantly clear.

It is all tied together in its small final moments which are very touching.

9) We Look and See. Kitty Green. 2006. Horror.

We Look and See dissects what it is we love to watch in horror films, and makes for quite uncomfortable viewing. The film consists of a narrator (Robin Cuming) commanding Betty (Miranda Nation) to do increasingly difficult and painful things to herself over and over for our amusement.

The jaunty piano track and old film-camera aesthetics only add to the unease. Why is it we enjoy watching people suffer? At what cost does this kind of entertainment come?

Confidently directed by Kitty Green, this is four tight minutes of film, packing in a lot of questions about the nature of horror films, and why we’re drawn to them. It’s no surprise that Kitty Green has gone on to great things, directing brilliant documentaries Casting Jon Benet (2017) and Ukraine Is Not a Brothel (2013).

10) The Window Seat. Damian Corby. 1994. Horror.

The Window Seat is a great example of a single location film. Set entirely in a bus, the film focuses on a young girl and her mother making their journey home at night.

The Window Seat’s biggest success is in making this bus journey feel like a nightmare – a claustrophobic dream that’s impossible to wake up from. Intimate camerawork full of interrogatory close-ups and a great use of colour work in tandem to construct a moody, almost unbearably tense environment out of such an ordinary place: a public bus.

What’s most impressive about The Window Seat is how little dialogue there is: it is visual storytelling, told through movement, lighting, expressions and sound. There’s a fantastic performance by Desiree Munro at the centre of it all, which ties the film together.

Definitely worth the ride, however uncomfortable it might be.

Felix Brown is completing a Bachelor of Science at The University of Melbourne but really wishes he was studying film instead. Find him at the Melbourne Cinematheque on Wednesdays or frantically running between screenings during MIFF.

The VCA Digital Archive series of articles was commissioned as part of a grant from the University of Melbourne, Student Services Amenities Fee. University of Melbourne staff and students and some industry people dipped into the FTV archive and watched films based on themes. The idea was to use the archive as stimulus to curate and create. Some responses are completely creative, others are reviews, others are word art pieces.

The full collection will be available for research from mid-2019. In the meantime you can find a selection of more than 100 films live on our YouTube page. To find out more, visit the VCA Digital Archive Project Page.