Writer-director Keith Thomas is among the new filmmakers to watch in the horror genre. His acclaimed 2019 feature debut, The Vigil, is a supernatural horror film about a young Orthodox man who faces his own demons during one traumatic night spent watching over a recently deceased Holocaust survivor.
Now, Thomas returns with Firestarter, an adaptation of Stephen King's bestselling novel about a young girl whose pyrotechnic abilities make her a prime target for a covert government organization. His version stars Ryan Kiera Armstrong (stepping into a role previously played by Drew Barrymore in the 1984 film version) and Zac Efron, as her protective father.
A.frame caught up with the horror film aficionado to get his thoughts on five horror films that have left a lasting impression on him.
Directed by: Luchino Robert Harmon Screenplay by: Eric Red
If I were to make a true list of my favorite horror films, there would probably be 103 of them. But I feel like, for this list, I wanted to go with the ones that were most influential to me recently. The Hitcher, I think, is a criminally underrated film. Not only is it very scary, but it's incredibly well shot and atmospheric. It just has this sense of purpose and this drive that’s so simple. It's two people in a car for most of it, but it's just relentless. I love that about it. With some of the most brutal visuals, you're not actually seeing all that much. It’s the sound design or just the thought of it, particularly with the truck rope sequence.
Written and directed by: Jan Švankmajer
I've always loved Švankmajer’s work and found it incredibly disturbing. I think it's just the tangibility, the stop-motion nature of what he's doing, the fact that he works with meat and that he's using these rusty nails in whatever it is that he's doing. It has this fairy tale quality, and it's comedic to a certain extent. But, to me, there is something so horrific about that stump and the way that it feeds, what it's doing, and the way that it moves. It's very nightmarish.
I don't know if Jan would consider it a horror film, but, to me, when I have nightmares, that's what they look like. That's the kind of stuff that's going on. The fact that he's able to capture that as singularly as he does, no films look like his films. That one in particular feels to me a little more accessible. I was going to put a movie like Lunacy – which is another of his – and more like an Edgar Allan Poe adaptation. It's more horror. But Little Otik feels like a good gateway for people to get into Jan Švankmajer.
Written and directed by: Na Hong-jin
I love Korean cinema, particularly Korean revenge thrillers, and the director of The Wailing has made a couple of them. This one just really surprised me the first time I saw it – and I've seen it many, many times since. A lot of these films have these interesting tonal shifts. What he’s able to balance, which is really fascinating, is scenes that begin in almost comic fashion. Here there's this kind of zombie sequence that’s weird — like slapstick-y to a certain point — but when it shifts into disturbing and unnerving, it does it so subtly that you're caught off guard by it.
I feel like the whole movie does that. It sets up these expectations of what you think you're going to see, and then, it doesn't show you them. It shows you something else that you didn't think of. I think the exorcism scene in it is remarkable, not only because we're so used to Western-style exorcisms that seeing this Korean, shaman-based exorcism is just really special.
Directed by: Jan Švankmajer Screenplay by: Kim Henkel and Tobe Hooper
I had to put Texas on there. I remember growing up and loving horror films, and Texas Chain Saw was always considered the dirty one. I'd go to the video store with my dad and he'd be like, "You can rent whatever you want." And then, I'd pick it. "Not that one, right?" Because it's just the title alone. I think people just feel like it's a scuzzy, exploitation kind of thing, but it's truly artistic, and it's remarkable. Every time I watch it, I find something new from the set design, the set dressing, and just the bones, the camerawork, the sound design. I know everyone says this, but everyone thinks it's incredibly gory — and it isn't. It's just not.
Sure, there's some blood. It's just so heightened and so intense, particularly the scene with Grandpa at the end. I know Tobe Hooper thought of it as funny, and I suppose you could see that it's very, very dark humor. But Texas Chain Saw Massacre feels like a film that birthed itself, like it just came out of nowhere. And it still stands alone in that way. I'm sure everyone was complaining and fainting and having the worst time of their lives making it. The smell alone on that set the whole time they were shooting it, everyone was absolutely miserable, 'never going to do this again.' Then, when they look at what they created and think, 'that was amazing,' all of a sudden, all the pain goes away.
Directed by: Mario Bava Screenplay by: Marcello Fondato
I love Mario Bava's work, the Technicolor craziness of it. For me, it's the sequence [‘The Drop of Water’] with the old woman. First, the way he's lit that house is just insane. It still stands out to this day as something I think a lot of people have tried to replicate, but you can't pull it off because he was a master at these effects and this lighting. The reveal of the old woman's face, the grin, still gets me.
There's a fairy tale quality as well with that movie, a very surreal and dreamlike feeling with that heavy, heavy atmosphere that I love about Italian horror cinema. I love Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento, all that stuff, but, for whatever reason, Black Sabbath, Black Sunday, the Bava horror films, to me, have a certain purity that’s just like The Wailing and Texas Chain Saw. They feel singular, like somebody's doing something for the first time.