Gone but not forgotten: Dark thrillers

There are hundreds of movies released each year. Some make a huge splash, some are quickly dismissed – and some stay with you forever, helping to shape you and your future tastes. At Pod Syndicate, we love a dark thriller, but for every one Silence of the Lambs, there’s a Cold Prey or The Reflecting Skin which just aren’t as talked about any more. Here are a three great dark thrillers that we feel need more discussion…

Man Bites Dog (1992) – Stefan, What’s on Tap podcast

I remember the first time I saw Man Bites Dog. It was released on VHS and the horror underground was abuzz around a Belgian mockumentary featuring a serial killer. I couldn’t wait to see it. It changed my life. Before Cannibal Holocaust was rediscovered and before Blair Witch Project launched handheld horror, there was Man Bites Dog. At the time nothing else looked or felt like it (it would be 8 years until Blair Witch Project). It shocked, disturbed and stunned me like no movie had before. It changed my views on what a horror film could be. This film left me shaken, disturbed and it never left me. I’ve only watched it a few times over past couple of decades but each time I’m always shocked by how intense and effective it is.

Man Bites Dog is about a film crew that is following a serial killer around. Over the course of an hour and half, you follow Ben as he goes through his daily routines. You meet his mother and his grandparents. You hear about his life philosophy as he kills people. Eventually he starts to involve the film crew making them more and more complicit in crimes he commits. This has the added bonus of making the viewer also complicit in the crimes as they effectively become ‘another person in the room’ as events happen. It’s outstanding filmmaking. Criterion put out a DVD of it a few years later and I grabbed it as soon as it hit the shelves, but today you can either pick up a copy of the UK release on Amazon or rent it on Amazon Prime for next to nothing. 

Lost Highway (1997) – Mike, Chin Stroker VS Punter podcast

Let’s be clear, none of David Lynch’s films are horror films. But having said that, none of David Lynch’s films can be categorised by any standard genre metric. However, it is easy to make the case that a few (more so than any other film maker) have effectively presented the intangible tangibility of nightmares. Many have pointed to the terrifying figure of Bob from Twin Peaks, the curious motives of the ashen Woodsmen from the 2017 sequel series, or the primal force of the horrifying, formless creature-like woman of Mulholland Drive as powerful horror moments, but what rarely gets a mention is the vertically-haired auteur of out-there’s overlooked 1997 nightmare Lost Highway.

Lost Highway fell during a curious time for Lynch. The backlash that begun with Fire Walk with Me (1992) was in full force by the time Lost Highway came along, ensuring it would struggle to even secure a release. When it did, many accused it of being ‘Lynch by numbers’ or ‘weird for weird’s sake’, but for me, the comparatively well regarded Mulholland Drive that came four years later, was a faded photostat of Lost Highway. I guess people were ready to let Lynch back in by 2001 with a creatively less interesting film crafted from a repurposed pilot for a show that failed to go to series.

Mulholland Drive had an admittedly beautiful and surreal third act (added on to secure a cinema release), but to me it’s always felt like a replay/reversal of Lynch’s first foray into LA story telling in Lost Highway. Both films feature characters shifting identities to deal with a reality too awful for them to comprehend. In the case of Lost Highway, we start with the reality and then follow the lead character into his fugue state of denial and identity crisis as he cannot deal with murdering his wife in a fit of sexual inadequacy and jealousy. He literally wills himself into being another person, Mulholland Drive reverses this, presenting us with the fantasy followed by the scabby, rejected despair of reality.

Lost Highway doesn’t have the visceral horror of its successor, but what it does have is a sense of dread that drips over the piece like syrup on cherry pie. The creeping, dreadful realisation as Robert Blake’s mystery man tells Bill Pullman’s Fred he’s in in house as they are speaking. The slushy grotesquery of Fred’s transformation. The pornographic nightmare of Mr Eddie’s world of violence and Marilyn Manson. Robert Loggia channeling Dennis Hopper assaulting a hapless tailgating motorist. The haunted visualisation of the unknowingness of love and marriage in Fred and Renee’s house – and of course, the threateningly voyeuristic video tapes they receive as signs and portents of the psychogenic fugue to come. If Blue Velvet’s Lumberton was a test run for the artificial suburban bliss of Lynch’s Twin Peaks, then you only need to travel the nightmarish Lost Highway to see how he reached Mulholland Drive.

Slayground (1983) – Noel, Beyond the Neon

Back in the early 2010s when I first started researching and writing Adventures in VHS, the list of films I might have had to add to this article would have been many. It may only have a few years ago, but so many of the tapes I was watching either for the podcast, the book or just for the hell of it, simply weren’t available on any other format but VHS back then. Thanks to distributors like Arrow, Shout Factory and Vinegar Syndrome, a large number of them have now crept out into the world in both physical and digital formats, but one that still seems massively underseen is 1983’s Slayground. A bit of digging has turned up a DVD put out by Network in 2014 and a Blu-ray from KL Studio Classics released this year, but with only 174 recorded views on Letterboxd, Slayground has to count as one of the most criminally forgotten genre pieces of the 1980s.

The film follows Peter Coyote’s Stone after a heist he was due to be part of goes horribly wrong and a young girl is killed. When it transpires that the girl was actually the daughter of a powerful mob boss, Stone finds himself on the run from a merciless and mildly psychotic hitman employed by the gangster to execute everyone involved in the botched job. After the hitman takes down all of Stone’s would be colleagues in brutal ways, he realises his best chance is to leave the country and head to the UK, where he picks up with an old friend named Terry (Mel Smith), who owns a down-on-its-luck seaside fairground. Terry tries to help Stone cover his tracks, but it’s not long before the hitman tracks him down. All of which leads to a climactic showdown between Stone and the hitman across the disused attractions of the fairground.

One part American crime drama, one part British gangster flick, with a dash of heist-gone-wrong, stalk-and-slash horror and revenge thriller thrown in for good measure, it’s the bizarre mix of flavours that make Slayground a truly potent cocktail. It probably leans a lot heavier into the crime drama side of things, but the shadowy hitman who brutally takes down his victims and sends word of his successes back to his employer in bizarre ways (not to mention the strange and hallucinogenic climax at the fairground) is pure slasher horror. Based on a 1971 book by Richard Stark, the film is not without its detractors, and of the few reviews out there I could totally see why people might not be bowled over by it. But with some great cinematography, performances, music, action scenes and a plot that picks up halfway through and travels across the Atlantic – almost becomes a different story when it does – Slayground is just one of those movies I truly wish more people had seen. So what are you waiting for?