This piece first appeared at The Displaced Nation, October 2012.
As if moving or traveling abroad isn’t scary enough, there is a whole host of films that would put the kibosh on even the most adventurous of people. For today’s guest post for The Displaced Nation, I’m breaking down these tales of terror into three groups:
- The expat.
- The world traveler.
- The otherwise displaced.
What follows is a rundown of some of the best horror films that will make you never want to leave home again.
1. Expat Horror: Caveat expat, or expat beware (or in some cases, beware of the expat!).
1) Ils (Them) (2006), dir. David Moreau and Xavier Palud.
In this terrifying French film, two expat partners, a teacher and a writer, living outside Bucharest in Romania are terrorized and psychologically tortured by an unknown group for days before their murder. Based on a true story, the villains — who were apprehended in real life — turn out to be even more shocking than the events they perpetrated.
My big question: Why on earth do you choose to live out in the middle of nowhere in Romania? Tragic story indeed, but really, they should have known better. Now you do.
2) Suspiria (1977), dir. Dario Argento.
Considered one of the classic horror films and what many now consider to be the father of the arthouse horror genre, Argento’s dark and twisted tale features a ballet school in Rome full of young girls from all around the world who live and study within walls haunted by a chilling presence that picks off the girls one by one. The score by Goblin is enough to give you nightmares and make you reconsider sending your children away to school. Ever.
3) & 4) Red Dragon (2002), dir. Bret Rattner; & The Silence of the Lambs (1991), dir. Jonathan Demme.
In Red Dragon Dr. Hannibal Lector is just a British expat living and practicing psychiatry in the United States. In fact, he’s helping the police with a brutal series of murders in which specific body parts had been taken as trophies. Detective Will Graham eventually discovers that not only is psychiatrist-to-the-stars Dr. Lector responsible for these grisly killings, he’s also eating the missing pieces.
The next time we meet Hannibal the Cannibal is in The Silence of the Lambs, where he is safely tucked away in a maximum security prison until the FBI needs his profiling assistance in uncovering the identity of a man who is kidnapping and skinning women.
Maybe Dr. Lector is a reason why locals are so wary of expats around the world?
5) The Omen (1976), dir. Richard Donner.
It’s hard enough being the wife of the American ambassador to the UK, but when Lee Remick discovers that there is something very wrong, very evil with her son, Damien, matters only get worse.
In many ways this is the kind of expat horror to which we can most relate: being in a foreign country, going through a difficult time, and not having the kind of support one might have at home. Even though the Thorns are wealthy and have a full staff at their beck and call, Mrs. Thorn cannot confide in them her misgivings that her son is the Antichrist — nor can she with anyone else since she’s the ambassador’s wife. In the end she goes mad from fear and frustration.
As expats, we’ve all been there. Luckily, though, we didn’t have the incarnation of Satan as our son. At least I hope not.
6) Freaks (1932), dir. Tod Browning.
This magnificent film follows a group of sideshow circus performers in Dust Bowl America — the majority of whom are European expats from all over the continent. As foreigners as well as displaying physical deformities of all kinds, this group is the marginalized of the most marginalized in America not just at that time, but even today.
The gorgeous German and “normal” trapeze artist Cleopatra finds out that Hans, the midget, is fabulously wealthy and sets out to steal him away from his same-sized girlfriend Frieda — with disastrous consequences as the group of freaks tries to bring the wicked Cleopatra into their embrace. Cleo finds out well and good that one does not mess with members of the sideshow.
The message here? Respect your local customs, even if you think them freakish. It could be what stands between your body as it is or being turned into a human-chicken hybrid.
2. Traveler Horror: “Let your suitcases gather dust!”, cry these films.
1) Hostel (2005), dir. Eli Roth.
A group of backpackers passing through the Slovakian capital city, Bratislava — it has no semblance to the real place whatsoever — gets kidnapped by an organization that sells young people to the highest bidders so that they can be tortured and murdered in the Slovakian outback with impunity. While the film is rife with cultural and geographical blunders, it nonetheless preys on a legitimate fear of kidnapping and/or human trafficking while traveling, especially for young women as we see in the two follow-up films in this gory franchise.
Kids, don’t fall for the local pretty girl/handsome boy who picks you up in a bar. You have no idea whom they could be working for.
2) American Werewolf in London (1981), dir. John Landis.
Two American backpackers (uh-oh) in the Scottish highlands stray from the road and are attacked by a wild beast. One dies, the other is in a coma for three days with horrible gashes across his chest. When the doctor informs him he was attacked by a madman he’s confused, claiming it was a wolf that had killed his friend and wounded him. Come full moon, young David Kessler finds out it was neither man nor wolf, and he’s becoming one.
There’s nothing like a story about a horrific accident taking place while traveling, especially when said accident turns you into a monster. Always remember, STAY AWAY FROM THE MOORS/MUIRS!
3) The Descent (2005), dir. Neil Marshall.
After the tragic death of Sarah’s husband and daughter in a wicked car accident, her fellow British extreme-sporting friends decide to take a trip across the pond to Appalachia for a spelunking expedition. Why anyone would think that crawling around in caves would be a good idea I haven’t a clue — let alone choose to take an already-traumatized woman into that scenario. But hey, they do. And not only do they find themselves in an unmapped cave system that has no way back to the surface, there are others down there in the dark who’d like to ensure the girls never leave.
Dear People Traveling to America: For Pete’s sake, avoid the US’s back country! Monsters are above and below.
4) Wolf Creek (2005), dir. Greg Mclean.
Two British tourists in Australia pair up with a local to check out a supposed alien-landing site in the middle of nowhere. All is fine until their car battery dies. Stranded in the badlands of Oz, grateful are they when a mechanic rolls up and tows them to his place to fix their vehicle. But oh, he’s not a mechanic at all. He’s a serial murderer who waits for tourists to come out to the Wolf Creek Crater, and takes his good time torturing them before their slow death.
The film is based on a true story — one of the British girls actually survived and made it to the authorities. It turned out the man had killed hundreds of people over decades, and nobody even suspected a thing. Shiver…
5) Primeval (2007), dir. Michael Katleman.
During the Rwanda-Burundi conflict, bodies were dumped into the Ruzizi River at such alarming rates that the crocs began eating human flesh. One of these crocs, nicknamed Gustave by the locals, gets a taste for human flesh and begins hunting humans inland. An American team of journalists are sent to capture and bring back the beast amidst an ongoing civil conflict between warlords and villagers.
The best thing about this movie is that there really is a 70-year-old, 22-feet-long croc named Gustave who swims the Ruzizi. He was last sighted in 2008, but I know he’s still out there. I can feel him.
3. Displaced Horror: “Think twice about moving or taking a sojourn outside the ‘hood” is the moral here.
1) The Amityville Horror (1979), dir. Stuart Rosenberg.
As if moving doesn’t suck enough, can you imagine moving into a house that not only was the site of a brutal family murder but is also haunted? I don’t even know how many whammies that makes the scene. Also based on the true story of the Lutz family, who were terrorized by their house to the point where they fled without any of their belongings and never went back to collect them.
Word to the wise: Always check about the house’s history before you move in, and always remember to burn sage throughout, even in cabinets and drawers, before you move anything in anything at all. Trust me on this one.
2) Se7en (1995), dir. David Fincher.
Heralding a promotion to detective, Brad Pitt gets transferred to an anonymous city with a reputation of being among the worst in America. *Cough* Detroit *Cough*. His wife is miserable as she wants to have a family, but cannot imagine raising children in that town. The first case he lands is a serial killer murdering people based on the Seven Deadly Sins — one that quickly sucks both him and his wife into a horrific spiral of torture and murder.
Women, don’t let your husband drag you to a horrible city. Just don’t. Your life very well may depend on it.
3) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), dir. Marcus Nispel.
A group of friends on a road trip through Texas and — oh crap! — their car breaks down. It’s just their luck that the person who finds them is the patriarch of the psychotic and inbred Hewett family, known for killing and cooking their victims. There are no happy endings here, people.
If you’re going on a road trip, stick to the main roads, for God’s sake! I mean, jeez, everybody knows that. And while you’re at it, stay the bloody hell out of Texas!
4) El laberinto del fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth) (2006), dir. Guillermo del Toro.
Set in 1944 fascist Spain, the film tells the story of Ofelia, a young girl who accompanies her mother to live with her new stepfather, a barbarous Spanish general. Amidst the horror, Ofelia discovers a fairy world underneath the very grounds of their home, a place to which she escapes when the torture around her becomes too much to bear. But even fairy worlds have their horrors, as she soon finds out.
Moms, jeez, don’t marry jerks and then don’t agree to live in their military camp. Seems like logic to me, but I guess it needs to be said.
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So, are you ready to burn your passport and throw away all your travel gear yet?
And do you have any other films you’d add to my best-of abroad horror list?