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Witchfinder General

(Directed by Michael Reeves)

This extraordinary film is also known as “The Conqueror Worm” in the US, to erroneously connect it with the previous Vincent Price-Roger Corman-Edgar Allan Poe collaborations. The movie was made for less than £100,000 and is based on a novel by Ronald Bassett. It weaves a wholly fictitious story of a Roundhead soldier’s obsessive and violent revenge against the real-life figure of Matthew Hopkins (Price), who manipulated the wholesale trials and executions of so-called “Witches” in 17th Century England.

Director Reeves famously clashed with Price, and had wanted Donald Pleasence for the title role before the American distributors pressurised him into casting the genre icon. For all its tribulations, the film is a fine period horror that dwells on human evils rather than supernatural ones. Sadly Reeves died of an accidental alcohol and barbiturate overdose in 1969 at the age of only 25, and this (his final film) is rightly remembered as his greatest achievement. Despite several censored and cut versions floating around, the footage still has an atypically raw and disturbing quality about it for its time, especially at the climactic scene where Ian Ogilvy takes vengeance on Hopkins with an axe. Its success (especially in European territories) arguably started a wave of “Folk Horror”, which would influence the likes of “Mark of the Devil” and “Blood on Satan’s Claw”. Well worth watching, if only for the excellent restrained performance from Price, which he acknowledged retrospectively as being his one of his finest on film.

The Devil Rides Out

(Directed by Terence Fisher)

Sometimes known as “The Devil’s Bride” (so it wasn’t labelled mistakenly as a Western!), this is a seminal Hammer Horror movie, and one that is generally regarded as showcasing the best of the UK genre scene at the time. It’s based on the Dennis Wheatley novel of the same name, and adapted by the distinguished writer Richard Matheson. The story sees Nicholas, Duc de Richleau (Christopher Lee in a rare heroic leading part) attempt to save an unwitting family from the attentions of a devil-worshipping cult, led by the sinister Mocata (a wonderfully oily Charles Gray).

This definitely represents Hammer at their best. Both director Fisher and star Lee are at the top of their game here, with the actor declaring this to be one of his all-time favourite films and roles. Whilst some of the FX sequences have dated (the unmasking of the Angel of Death as a cheap-looking skull), a lot of it still works superbly (the unnerving sight of a giant spider stalking towards a terrified girl) and it remains far more mature and succinct than most of their “monster” films. Hammer actually sat on the script for 4 years before filming, due to concerns over the subject matter. But they made such a good job of it that you wish they had adapted more Wheatley novels, instead of concentrating on their “sexy vampire” outings. As such they were ahead of their time slightly and pre-empted the impact that films like “The Exorcist” would have in later years. A solid satanic hit.

Rosemary's Baby

(Directed by Roman Polanski)

68' certainly proved to be a winning year for satan-based horror movies eh? Ok we know it's an obvious one but we just couldn't overlook Roman Polanski's masterpiece. Boasting a 99% score on Rotten Tomatoes (who was the one jerk that gave it a negative review!?) - it still stands up there with the greatest - and most chilling - of all horror movies. Based on a best selling novel by Ira Levin, the film tells the story of a young couple (John Cassavetes and Mia Farrow) who move into an old apartment building in New York City. Sure, the neighbours are a little kooky and the building itself seems to be a little weird but it's not until Farrow becomes mysteriously pregnant that shit starts to get really weird. Cassavetes may not have liked Polanski's film-making methods (the two did NOT get along) but pretty much everyone else did. The film has a real sense of creeping dread and it's this nightmarish quality that grips the viewer by the neck and refuses to let go for the duration of the films running time. There's a surreal quality to the whole thing - and the sense of paranoia that Rosemary and the viewer have to endure is pretty rough. Yet at the same time, Polanski manages to make the whole thing feel so terribly plausible. The ending is horridly bleak too. There are no big jump scares any real on screen violence. Rosemary's Baby is much more subtle - and skilful than that.

Hour of the Wolf

(Directed by Ingmar Bergman)

There are a lot of good things that have come out of Sweden. IKEA, Skype, flat screen monitors, Britt Ekland. Well you can add Ingmar Bergman's 1968 psychological horror 'Hour of the Wolf' to that list too! An artist (played by Max von Sydow) and his pregnant wife (Liv Ullman) play a young couple staying on a remote Island who run into trouble when the former starts to have an emotional breakdown. During "the hour of the wolf" - between midnight and dawn - he tells his wife about his most painful memories.

This is something of a hidden gem and it's often overlooked by those referencing Bergman's impressive career. Although Hour of the Wolf was Bergman's only genre movie, it's something of a masterstroke and it was ranked one of the 50 greatest films ever made in a 2012 directors' poll by the British Film Institute. The film is a heady mixture of Swedish folklore, Bergman's own personal nightmare and other cultural reference points (including a Mozart Symphony). The movie will definitely not be everyone's cup of tea. Bergman's surrealist approach to storytelling will frustrate some. But those looking for something that's both visually striking and psychologically affecting will find a lot to take away.

The Black Cat

(Directed by Kaneto Shindo)

Long before the vengeful ghosts of Sadako and Kayako made their on-screen debuts in the 90's, there was Yone and Shige. Never heard of them? That's probably because Kaneto Shindo's supernatural horror has never really made its way to our shores, despite it being universally appreciated by film critics far and wide. And for good reason.

Set during the civil war era, Yone and her daughter-in-law are raped and killed by a group of soldiers, who then burn their house down for good measure. However, when a black cat appears and gives the dead bodies a little lick, they magically return as ghosts. Pissed off ghosts, to be exact. They find enemy soldiers and bring them to an illusory mansion in the bamboo grove where the burnt-out house was. They seduce and then kill the samurai like cats, tearing their throats with teeth. A newly returned war veteran, Gintoki (Kichiemon Nakamura), is enlisted by the authorities to investigate the murders. But things get decidedly awkward when he realises that the vengenful spirits are those of his mother and wife...

Like 'Hour of the Wolf', 'The Black Cat' plays with our sense of reality but the results are a little different. The effect isn't chaotic or paranoia inducing, it just adds another layer to what is an eerily haunting and tragic love story. If you like lashings of tragedy with your ghost stories, you'll dig this for sure.

*We realise that Night of the Living Dead on here – but thought it would be too obvious to include that AND Rosemary's Baby!

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