10 Exploitation Horror Films That Ended Up Defining Their Subgenre, Part Two
5: Pan’s Labyrinth - 2006
‘Dark Fantasy’ in its horror form, has been around for centuries, in many different formats. Looking at its history in films, there are many that come to mind. From ‘Hellraiser to Highlander’ there are so many different styles of ‘Dark Fantasy’, but it never had a flagship film that people could all come together and say, ‘well watch this, then you’ll understand what it is
‘Hang on a sec, laddie’, I hear you cry, what about ‘Coppola’s ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’? While loved by many, it’s also described as dull as ditch water by an equally large amount of people. The same can be said about other films in the subgenre, for every person who loved, ‘The Others’, ‘Interview with the Vampire’, ‘Troll Hunter’ and ‘Gremlins’, there are, again, equal amounts of people who can’t stand them or hadn’t heard of them.
That was until in 2006, a cult filmmaker from Mexico, brought us a truly beautiful, haunting and moving ‘Dark Fantasy Horror’ called ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’. Even if people don’t like the film, few would call it bad, just ‘not their thing’. Heck, even people who haven’t seen it, know what it is and the visual storytelling, it is known for. It quickly became the definition of the subgenre for all audiences across the world.
Costing an estimated €13.5 million, it went on to gross $87 million worldwide and brought the name, Guillermo del Toro, to millions of horror lovers everywhere. With a back catalogue that includes such films as ‘The Devil’s Backbone’(2001), ‘Blade II’(2002) and ‘Hellboy’(2004), it was about bloody time!
4: The Mist - 2007
This is going to be a wee bit controversial, so please stick with me. ‘Cosmic Horror’, sometimes known as ‘Lovecraftian Horror’ after the author, Howard Phillips Lovecraft, has many standout films. Hell, even the author, Stephen King, has many made after his books that are as famous, if not more so, than Lovecraft’s work.
There is, 1990’s ‘IT’, 1999’s ‘The Green Mile’, 2003’s ‘Dreamcatcher’, even the 2018/2019 remake of ‘IT’, I really could go on for hours. So, what makes 2007’s ‘The Mist’ stand out above all those incredible films as ‘the one’ that defines ‘Cosmic Horror’ films?
Well, this Frank Darabont (Screenplay and Directed) film, had everything; deep character development, haunting otherworldly visuals, stunning sound editing, a believable and rich story, a realistic setting, but most of all that powerful, gut retching, sudden shock inducing ending, that even people who have never seen the film, know about. He took a famously hard to transcribe (to film) subgenre and ended up defining it, for all to understand and learn from.
This list, is after all, about the films at define their subgenre, just a mention of this film and people know instantly, the hopeless, unforgiving, haunting terror that is ‘Cosmic Horror’. If you are wondering how it did financially, then on a low estimated budget of $18 million, it gained $57 million worldwide.
3: Rosemary’s Baby - 1968
Back to the 60’s we go again, this time for a little-known director of B-Movie horror, Roman Polanski, and the film that made him a household name. The ‘Psychological Horror’ subgenre was drowning is shit back then, with so many poorly made films it’s just crazy looking back.
Granted you had some amazing films as well, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ (1960), but such films can be said to fit in a number of different subgenres and, in doing so, can’t be called ‘pure’ in a single subgenre, therefore don’t relate to this list.
Anyhow, moving back to ‘Rosemary’s Baby’; this was the fifth screenplay to be written and directed by Polanski. This time he not only managed to define the ‘Psychological Horror’ subgenre but, as others on this list, brought it into the mainstream.
Taking a young relatable couple and putting them into an odd, slightly off, yet familiar setting, then throwing in a pregnancy for extra psychological unease, he had the bait to bring the audience into the film’s world. Then by putting Rosemary, through trails, twists and sheer horror, we, the viewer, are hooked into experiencing this ride with her, a ride that never lets up. To sum it up, it really does mess with your mind, making you think one way before turning it on its head and leading you elsewhere, basically it’s a psychological horror trip
The film spawned so many great horrors, that took the ingredients as laid out by Polanski, and made something equally as horrifying. In modern times we have films such as, 2016’s ‘Split’, 2015’s ‘The Witch’, 2017’s ‘Get Out’ and 1990’s ‘Jacob’s Ladder’, to name but a few.
Something else ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ did, you’ve guessed it, it made a ton of money from what should have been nothing more than another exploitation B-Movie. On an estimated budget of $2.3 million dollars it pulled in, worldwide, $33.3 million dollars, not a bad investment.
2: When a Stranger Calls - 1979
It can safely be said that this ‘Home Invasion’ subgenre horror film, scared the living shit out of a lot of people, so much so, even years after seeing, it remains in their minds. Co-written but solo directed by, Fred Walton, what was meant to be nothing more than a cheap TV film, defined one of the darker subgenres of horror.
The film doesn’t wait long to send shivers down your spine either; focusing on a young babysitter, Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) alone in the home of Dr. Mandrakis (Carmen Argenziano), looking after his kids, when, out of the blue the phone rings. She answers it and a stranger’s voice asked ‘Have you checked the children’, it’s simple, to the point and bone chilling.
There are other great phone calls as well, the one where Jill, asks ‘What do you want’, the voice answers ‘Your blood all over me’. It is terrifying, all the way through, it plays off your primal fears and never let’s you catch your breath. If you haven’t seen this film, go watch it after you have finished reading this, but make sure it’s the 1979 one, not the weak 2006 remake that lacked any of the tension of the original.
Moving back to the fact this was meant to just be a TV film, it defined the ‘House Invasion’ horror subgenre and made it a real contender to mainstream horror. Inspiring so many edge of the seat, down right horrifying films, ‘When a Stranger Calls’, as many of the others on this list, cleaned up at the box office too. On an estimated $1.5 million budget, it raked in, $21.4 million.
1: Alien - 1979
Okay, what was once considered the cheesiest subgenre of horror, ‘Spaceploitation’, seriously it’s a real thing, was changed forever by an Englishman from South Shields, Tyne and Wear. Before this film we had such greats as, ‘Planet of the Vampires’ (1965), ‘IT! The Terror from Beyond Space’ (1958) and ‘Forbidden Planet’ (1958). All joking aside, these films are well worth a watch and can be picked up for a couple of quid, but my point is, it wasn’t a serious subgenre.
Then along came Ridley Scott, known for an advert for ‘Hovis’ bread and a historical drama film called, ‘The Duellists’ (1977) and turned the subgenre into one of the greatest settings for horror, ever, on the silver screen.
You could write your thesis on what this film did for not only horror, but Sci-Fi as well, and why it was so very good at its job. As we don’t have time for that, basically, Scott, took a believable setting, with a relatable group of people, in this case the crew of the ‘Nostromo’ and put them in isolation with an unknown horror hunting them, one by one.
As with most of these films, it’s the primordial horror that get us more than anything else. Built into our very genes, we have a set of rules, one of them is, ‘run like hell’, which triggers when a massive killing machine with acid for blood comes after you. Yet, how are you meant to run if you happen to be in a tin can, surrounded by the cold hard vacuum of space? It’s such a simple setting, as all of these films are at their core; take a realistic event and make the audience think, ‘what if it was me’.
As John Carpenter did before him and something that is common in Scott films, we have a heroine not a hero. The straight talking, by the book, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), goes against the Hollywood norm of screaming, arms flailing, haplessly helpless Women stereotypes, she fights throughout the film for her very survival. Showing yet again, that the paying public wants this type of character. Another huge step forward for Women’s role in Hollywood, sadly one that would take years to eventually start to change, thank god for B-Movies then!
One of the more expensive films on the list with an estimated budget of $11 million, it went on to gross worldwide a massive $203.6 million. It also saw the coming of age of a beloved horror subgenre that has gone on, to spawn films such as: Event Horizon (1997), Sunshine (2007) and Pitch Black (2000) to name but a few. Aliens (1986)? Well that fits into the action horror subgenre, but that’s for another list!