With Halloween on the way, it’s a great time to take another look at animation’s horrifying side! I’ve talked previously about the difficulty filmmakers— and audiences— have in bridging the cultural gap in our preconceptions of animation’s expected delightful whimsy as opposed to horror’s anticipated graphic maturity. Yet, that disconnect builds an additional layer of respect for the studios and filmmakers who persist, confident and uncompromised in their visions— elated to disregard what we think animation and horror are, instead exhibiting what animation and horror could and ought to be. Today, I want to discuss three films that accomplish this goal with flying colors and cobwebs! Essentially, I hope this catalog of recommendations focuses on films that I feel lay off the beaten path for most viewers; however, I would be remiss not to mention movies like Perfect Blue, Coraline, ParaNorman, Nightmare Before Christmas, the Scary Godmother movies, Monster House, The Corpse Bride, and any other Halloween mainstays (left in the comments) that, even if just for nostalgia’s sake, stand as icons of the season. Nevertheless, I hope to show you three films that have entered such a rotation for me.
Opal (2020, dir. Jack Stauber)
Released on Halloween of 2020, Opal follows a curious little girl as she leaves home to explore the eerie house across the street— its supernatural force beckoning to her. A part of Adult Swim’s anthology series of short films, Smalls, Opal comes courtesy of pop singer-songwriter, animator, and multimedia artist Jack Stauber. Stauber’s work toes the line between nostalgic bedroom-pop sensibilities and a teeth-bearing, off-kilter eccentricity, often employing a grainy VHS aesthetic that perfectly encapsulates this duality. The distortion of the image acts equal parts as a nostalgic signifier for a generation raised on tapes of cartoons increasingly warped from their use, as well as invoking a vaguely sinister presence that disallows you from fully trusting whether there’s something you shouldn’t see lingering somewhere in the haze of the static. He utilizes this unique brand of clay sentimentality and digital unease to notable effect in his “micropop” short films that he has self-released onto YouTube over the years, including (as a snapshot of some select favorites) Cooking with Abigail, video man, and Two Time. In many ways, Opal optimizes his filmmaking ethos; Stauber’s most ambitious film to date, the short combines claymation, live-action, collage, cut-out animation, ms-paint animation, and CGI animation in an obtuse and densely layered drama that mixes in elements of comedy— and also it’s a musical. So many of its ingredients should sour the others, but somehow in utter anomaly, Stauber glides through this tightrope walk to portray a viscerally intense narrative about abuse in a manner that is macabre, dreamlike, and even playful— few other films hold such earnestness and maturity while still containing a score that sounds straight off a Devo record.
Regarding the film’s soundtrack: it’s a similarly fascinating blend of baroque and indie pop, and it’s all bangers; which is to be expected from Stauber, his two most recent solo albums, Pop Food and HiLo, both containing exuberantly innovative and earworm-y bedroom/art-pop, but I would say that Opal especially shows Stauber’s skills as a composer. Tracks like “Virtuous Cycle” and “Crying” allow him to create these haunting and explosive soundscapes, whereas tracks like “Dancing” and “Mirror Man” show Jack more in his perky element. Moreover, “Easy to Breathe,” end of sentence— this track is so good. I’m pretty sure I had made a bootleg to listen to on my phone before WaterTower Music released the official soundtrack— I’m still going back to it constantly. Indeed, Opal holistically has burrowed space in my head since I first watched it on Adult Swim; in a way that challenges both how I approach animated filmmaking and how I foundationally conceive of it; inspired by its complete willingness to do everything in service of acutely expressing something tender.
The Wolf House (2018, dir. Cristobal León & Joaquín Cociña)
Directed and primarily animated by Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña, The Wolf House is a stop-motion animated film following Maria, a fictional escapee from the real Nazi-affiliated Chilaian cult of Colonia Dignidad, as she takes refuge in an abandoned house in the woods. The film’s unorthodox visual style stands as its most immediately striking aspect. The film employs sculpture, paint-on-glass animation, timelapse photography, and even sequences of characters animated through painting on the walls of the house (overtop of whatever coats or shelves laid along the wall) in a visual dialect that Animation Obsessive described as “a seething world, where everything comes undone and tries to fix itself.” The unpredictability of the film’s visuals becomes its only visual consistency— the eeriness of watching our main character nakedly constructed piece by piece, punctuated further by the raw, breathy, almost ASMR-like sound design that descends the film further into its hypnotic unrest. In essence, that sense of hypnosis acts as the film’s most chilling aspect— the film is framed as a cautionary fairytale to follow orders, bestowed on you by the cult Maria sought to escape. Admittedly, I was aware of the historical context tackled before first viewing the film; primarily, I sought out the feature due to its outsider-art-esque approach to animation. However, once I read more about the real-world hell the filmmakers were critiquing, The Wolf House and its images of destruction became something I couldn’t get out of my head. Although fiction based on, with no actual affiliation to, the cult, the film succeeds in resonating with the viewer by portraying propaganda in a way that feels haunted by the people it destroyed.
The Tell-Tale Heart (1953, dir. Ted Parmelee)
Uh-oh— surprise UPA retrospective moment! That’s right— you can only distract me with my love of funny skeletons for so long before I go back to talking about John Hubley and the Funky Bunch. In this adaptation of the Edgar Allan Poe short story of the same name, The Tell-Tale Heart follows the thoughts of a madman after having committed a murder, and his ensuing increasingly intense paranoia— one of the first examples of an animated horror film. UPA’s minimalist and understatedly sophisticated animation style serve not just to punctuate the monologue of our main character but also to entirely entrench the audience in the narrative’s lurid atmosphere. The film sparsely utilizes character animation, often opting to hypnotically pan and fade through the abstract, jagged, and harshly lit background art, creating the sensation that you’re witnessing the man’s corrupt testimony from his perspective— figuratively and literally. This point of view underscores UPA’s fixation on symbolism and iconography in a fascinating way. UPA typically abstracted their figures until they minimalistically expressed the character of their subject; however, their subjects were typical, themselves, characters. As a result, The Tell-Tale Heart shifts the impetus of this abstraction— the sharp, geometrized environment recontextualized as the mental rationalization of our protagonist. As well— the film must also be seen in the proper context— animated films with a crooked lead, a spine-chilling tone, and prominent use of murder did not exist at the time of The Tell-Tale Heart’s release; as a comparison, UPA’s other acclaimed films from 1953 included Gerald McBoing-Boing’s Symphony and Christopher Crumpet, which, believe it or not, both lack murder. Horror, particularly horror intended to scare its audience, had rarely (if at all) been attempted to this scale in animation prior, and it’s that willingness to experiment with the foundational notions of what the medium of animation could accomplish that I always admired in UPA’s filmography. The Tell-Tale Heart acts as a testament to UPA’s infectiously ambitious experimentation and their expert level of craftsmanship in their films— and, as a touchstone in animation’s place in horror.