In the horror genre, there are settings so effectively creepy that they are used again and again. Like a ghost to its favorite haunt, horror films regularly visit the dust-covered gothic mansion that is undoubtedly haunted, the massive forest that is all but impossible not to get lost in, the fog shrouded cemetery, the mental asylum, and the backroad short cut that always ends in carnage. And then, there are the outliers that take us to places we never thought a horror story would lead. Let’s take a walk down that less trodden path, shall we? Let’s lose our bearings, and evict ourselves from the familiarity of deranged hospitals and dark basements: the following seven films have such unusual sites to show us.
The Neon Demon
In The Neon Demon, you will find glitter, glamour…and cannibalism. Admittedly, I avoided this movie for years after hearing that it’s about a novice model in the cutthroat culture of Los Angeles. But, then quarantine hit and I ran out of horror movies. I caved and gave The Neon Demon a chance, and ended up being blown away. I can’t remember the last time I watched a film that I couldn’t stop thinking about afterwards—but trying to get The Neon Demon out of my head was like trying to scrub sharpie off my skin. Not that I wanted to stop thinking about it—the film’s ending is brilliantly gruesome, and there’s a meanness to the whole thing that makes for a wickedly enjoyable experience. The cast, led by Elle Fanning and joined by Jena Malone and Keanu Reeves, fabulously portrays the cruelty of the world their characters inhabit. Don’t let the glitz of the setting scare you away from this story, which is so twistedly crafted by director Nicolas Winding Refn. It’s a truly nasty piece of work—and I mean that in the best way possible.
Possibly my favorite independent film ever, The Shrine (directed by Jon Knautz) holds true to some of horror’s most coveted tropes. It serves up a storyline revolving around demonic possession and a ritualistic cult—and it does so beautifully. Those that favor practical effects over CGI will be especially impressed with the possession scenes, which are gloriously heavy-handed. We’re all familiar with tales of demonic possession, but probably can’t think of many that are set in Poland, as The Shrine is. The film follows two American reporters and a photographer who fly to Poland in search of a missing backpacker. Their hunt for a juicy story brings them to an isolated Polish town that feels unnervingly like a remnant of past times. It’s amusing to see the clash of cultures that ensues as the Polish villagers greet the Americans with open hostility. The film is also pretty nerve wracking because the Americans are obviously in over their heads from the moment they arrive. Whether their lack of caution is due to naivety or ego, the Americans hurl themselves head first into their investigation, oblivious to the horrors that await them. While The Shrine is certainly not the first film to tackle a tale of nasty things happening to Americans who venture abroad (Hostel and The Omen come to mind), its take on an obscure village with almost violently unfriendly Polish locals feels distinctly unique.
Darren Aronofsky’s disturbing study of perfectionism takes us into the world of professional ballet. Natalie Portman won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Nina, an ambitious but obsessive dancer who is named the new prima ballerina of her company. Her dream quickly deteriorates into a nightmare as the pressures of her new role begin to unravel her sanity. Admittedly, a ballet company isn’t the expected setting for a psychological horror film portraying a descent into madness—and maybe that’s why it works so brilliantly. The dim rehearsal rooms and barely lit auditoriums that the characters frequent construct a setting that becomes increasingly creepier as the film progresses. Black Swan delivers a nasty jolt to the senses by placing disturbing imagery in a place that traditionally only holds beauty: It lures us into depths far darker than we ever thought a film about ballet could take us.
30 Days of Night
For me, 30 Days of Night injects the horror back into a trope that haD gone stale; the vampire. There is nothing romantic or cheap about director David Slade’s vampire vision: The film is an admirably brutal bloodbath with some genuine scares. The setting doesn’t disappoint, either, as the flick is quite cleverly set in an Alaskan town about to endure an entire month without seeing the sun. This uninterrupted stretch of darkness makes the locale a perfect target for a clan of vicious vampires. The monsters descend to feed on the townspeople, unhindered by the one thing that will certainly kill them—the sun. The cast is led by Melissa George and Josh Hartnett, with Danny Huston playing one of the most unsettling vampires I’ve seen to date.
One of the places you wouldn’t expect horror to live in is Grandma and Grandpa’s house. This film takes us there, and is definitely one of M. Night Shyamalan’s creepier efforts. The plot follows two children who go to stay with the grandparents (whom they’ve never met) in rural Pennsylvania. Not much time passes before the young protagonists realize there is something very wrong with their elderly relatives. The plain weirdness of the grandparents escalates from unsettling to horrifying over the span of the movie. The Visit successfully brings fear into a setting where we’d look for safety and comfort—not bizarre nighttime rituals and strange slaughterhouse happenings.
Netflix’s horror comedy, Velvet Buzzsaw is heavy on the satire and boasts a cast that includes Jake Gyllenhaal, Toni Collette and John Malkovich. While hardcore horror fans may find this film to be a bit tame, it’s an amusing flick set in the world of fine art. Setting wise, we’re taken to Miami’s Art Basel before being swept over to the elitist art scene of Los Angeles. We fall in with a painfully pretentious and self centered crowd, and it’s all art shows and VIP parties—until an apartment full of cursed paintings is found. Some pretty entertaining scenes follow where characters are literally murdered by artwork. There’s chaos, blood, and even a few disturbing images you might have a hard time dispelling.
Starry Eyes is set in another industry that isn’t frequented by horror films. Directed by Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer, this picture occurs within the Hollywood machine. The flick follows Sarah, an aspiring actress stuck waiting tables. While the film deals with supernatural forces, the most disturbing aspect of it may be Sarah’s psychological relationship with her environment. Because the world she inhabits—one of constant acting classes and grueling auditions—proves to be a devastatingly damaging one. Watching what striving for stardom does to Sarah’s sanity is just as unnerving as the evil force that shows up to prey on her.