6 Mystery Movies That You Wouldn't Miss
WARNING: Do Not Watch.
“Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (Philip Kaufman, 1978)
Philip Kaufman’s 1978 spin on “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” abandons the B-movie armature of Don Siegel’s 1956 original (as glorious as that film may too be) to wade in the waters of oozing 1970s paranoia. With a script from W.D. Richter, this one fits snugly alongside the films of Alan J. Pakula like “The Parallax View” and “Klute” as a ‘70s slice of Cold War chilliness. It’s rounded out by a terrific cast including Donald Sutherland as a cooly collected scientist, Jeff Goldblum as his dweeby pal, plus Brooke Adams, Leonard Nimoy, and Veronica Cartwright. The gelatinous set pieces and alien pod bodies that seem to bloom are an icky delight, but the film also evocatively captures the Bay Area, as a rare reminder of how great a 1970s movie set in San Francisco could look. —RL
“Hereditary” (Ari Aster, 2018)
A masterfully crafted meditation on inherited trauma, inescapable legacies (the kind that tend to fester in the attic darkness like heirlooms you’re too afraid to look for let alone throw away), and the guilt that so many parents feel about bringing a child into this sick, sad world, Ari Aster’s “Hereditary” douses an intergenerational drama in unleaded nightmare fuel until a single spark is enough to make an entire family self-immolate. Toni Collette gives a career-best performance as the fraying Annie Graham, a Utah artist whose mother’s death ignites a chain reaction of tragedies that unfold with almost genetic predetermination; her preteen daughter’s decapitation, a transgressive jolt in a film that’s full of unforgettable scares, is just the first sign of an unstoppable curse.
“The Night of the Hunter” (Charles Laughton, 1955)
What if you can’t trust the people who’re supposed to protect you? If you’re a kid, there’s nothing scarier than if the protectors in question are your parents. Young John and Pearl’s father (Peter Graves) is a bank robber and murderer who hid the $10,000 he stole in a location only his kids know. His deranged cellmate, a serial killer (Robert Mitchum) who poses as a preacher to marry women, take their money, and then kill them, learns that these tykes know where the loot is. Upon release, he moves to their town, courts their weak-willed mother (Shelley Winters), and starts menacing his new stepchildren. What follows becomes a chase thriller more than an actual horror movie — in a list of just great films, “Night of the Hunter” might appear at a loftier ranking than just 105 — but it does capture a unique strand of kid horror. You know kid horror. It’s the fear you felt when you saw the Huntsman prepare to plunge a dagger into Snow White’s heart, and then (at least in the Disney version) her expressionistic flight through the woods. It’s the chill that ran down your spine when it dawned on you what happened to Bambi’s mother. Once the chase is under way, director Charles Laughton deploys fairy-tale-like imagery: the kids, on a raft, pass a bullfrog in closeup.
“Eraserhead” (David Lynch, 1977)
David Lynch may never have completely captured the “where are they? are they even on this planet?” dislocating terror of “Eraserhead” until “Part 8” of “Twin Peaks: The Return” 40 years later. “Eraserhead” is pure immersion: in some strange world a lonely schlub (Jack Nance) suddenly finds himself taking care of a weird, phallic, alien baby creature. Baby Yoda this ain’t (thank God). A metaphor for the sheer horror of parenthood follows: this baby just does nothing but lay there and demand constant care and attention without producing any apparent return on investment. Something’s gonna break — maybe the world itself? Nance’s coiffed hero (his follicular achievement is the reason for the title) starts hallucinating more and more terrors: the baby all grown up and in a business suit, that he’s in a strange theater in which a cutesy vaudeville singer performs while giant-sized sperm cells fall around her.
“Safe” (Todd Haynes, 1995)
Set in an arid stretch of California at the height of the AIDS epidemic that it never mentions by name, Todd Haynes’ oblique and beguiling “Safe” continues to resonate through the horrors of our public-health crises. Julianne Moore gives an all-in, body-and-soul performance as Carol White, an unremarkable homemaker trying to go through life without taking up too much space. Her voice is meek and muted, every utterance a struggle not to consume too much oxygen; her small world is at once both airless and toxic. And then she gets sick with an “environmental illness” that eludes diagnosis — in the wake of a violent anaphylactic attack at a dry-cleaning facility, Carol is hospitalized in a new age desert community where people with similar conditions hide out from a supposedly contaminated civilization. For them, isolation is both the answer to their problem and the problem itself. What is the cause of Carol’s illness? Could she be allergic to the 20th century, itself?
“The Mist” (Frank Darabont, 2007)
There are two kinds of Stephen King adaptations: The ones that disgrace their source material, and the ones that elevate the author’s novels and short stories to stunning new heights. Frank Darabont’s “The Mist,” much like Frank Darabont’s “The Shawshank Redemption,” is unmistakably one of the latter. The action is confined to the sterile confines of a Maine supermarket, where local shoppers find themselves trying to make sense of the thick fog that has enveloped their town (and survive the nightmare-ready monsters that live inside the impenetrable haze, some of the most terrifying movie creatures this side of “The Thing”). As the tension grows between Thomas Jane’s decent-hearted painter and Marcia Gay Harden’s lunatic doomsayer, the film curdles into a uniquely harrowing portrait of hope, and — in the unforgettable final scene that King himself sees as an improve on his novella — the horror of losing it.