Happy almost-Halloween! I know I’m not alone in my efforts to stock-pile scary movies around this time of year, but if I’m honest, horror isn’t a genre favorite of mine. Or rather, films that play on genre cliches or think gore is synonymous with horror. Not to say that ‘good horror’ doesn’t exist! But with my lack of expertise and an inflation of blockbusters with cheap scare tactics, I do find it hard to come by. What I look for are those heart-pounding moments of fear and uncertainty. A stage set with suspenseful mysteries, made all the more chilling when close-examining the psyche. It’s the combo of horror and mystery, or simply the rising mental stress, that spook me with their lasting impressions. My list is a small one, but here are some of my favorite small-screen hits you may have not seen:
1. White Christmas (2011)
At eight episodes, this psychological thriller is a sure hook that you’ll want to binge straight through. Isolated in the mountains of Gangwon is the prestigious private school Soo-Sin. Attended by the top 1% of students, Soo-Sin’s high-rankings are products of constant work. Students—pressured and under strict rule—do little else, only pausing to return home during their one break of the year: Christmas. When honor student Park Mu-Yeol receives a mysterious suicide note, he stays behind along with six others and teacher Yoon Jong-Il. Not long after psychologist Kim Yo-Han joins the group, one of them is found dead…
Haunting, visually stunning, and cleverly written, White Christmas begs the (inherently flawed) question: are monsters born, or are they made? Viewers get their answer in the end, but because the build-up of each episode is so captivating, some may feel disappointed by technicality flaws. It’s easy to gripe about, but with an otherwise satisfying end to a smart show, it’s difficult to say mad.
A number of the cast is composed of green actors, but many K-drama fans will recognize Lee Soo-Hyuk (High School King of Savvy), Kim Young-Kwang (Plus Nine Boys), Sung Joon (Discovery of Romance), and
my love Kim Woo-Bin (most recently in The Heirs).
Note: It’s of bad fortune that I report White Christmas cannot be found anywhere—whether that be Netflix, DramaFever, Viki, or SoompiTV. Even DVD sets are rarities. It can be found on typical non-legal streaming sites, however, but in grainy quality.
2. Another (2012)
In 1972, class 3-3’s Misaki of Yomiyama Middle school died, but to say she lived on in spirit brings new meaning. The class, devastated, pretended as though she were still alive. What manifested after became a terror for anyone unlucky enough to end up in class 3-3. Based on Yukito Ayatsuji’s novel, Another follows transfer student Kouichi Sakakibara as he becomes entangled in a terrifying mystery: students of class 3-3, and those in close relation to these students, meet gruesome, freak-accident deaths. Together with the cryptic Mei Misaki, the duo attempt to solve the puzzle before they wind up as victims themselves.
Superb animation aside, what makes this show watch-worthy (and addicting) is the plot itself. It exemplifies squirming-in-your-seat suspense as the unfolding mystery reels viewers through every episode. Unlike so many of its genre, Another is not easily predictable nor does it pull cheap tricks for shock value. In hindsight, you might even feel like facepalming in light of the conclusion for not seeing it sooner.
3. The Backwater Gospel (2011)
An animated short that won’t take more than ten minutes of your time, The Backwater Gospel shows that those controlled by fears should often be feared. This strange yet brilliant piece embodies a rather gritty atmosphere. Within a strong current of dread lies a weighty undertone of corrosive darkness—one that prickles your skin as tensions escalate into brutal violence, and we see just how corrupt the heart can become.
As long as anyone can remember, the coming of The Undertaker has meant the coming of death. Until one day the grim promise fails and tension builds as the God fearing townsfolk of Backwater wait for someone to die.
4. Thriller (1960 – 1962)
Shows like The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents make a big, endearing fan out of me, but nothing among the bunch has a feel quite like Thriller. Hosted by Boris Karloff, Thriller ran for a short two seasons that depict various accounts of crime and mystery. While not fear-inducing, what places this show above most is how its set-up doesn’t rely on cheap scares to draw reaction. It doesn’t need to; the writing is too good. I won’t promise that all episodes bear equal amounts of engaging interest, but the show lives up to its name. Viewing order is unimportant, but you can start from the beginning or watch whichever episodes captivate you most. (I recommend the one episode that worked as my lure: “A Late Date.”)
5. The Walking Dead (2010 – ongoing)
Based on Robert Kirkman & Tony Moore’s comic book series, The Walking Dead immerses viewers in its zombified post-apocalyptic world. The show’s support comes from a wide and massive following, and its popularity is my reason for excluding it from my list. There isn’t one person who hasn’t tried watching it, or at least heard of it—and if you haven’t, you need to get out from under that rock and give this show a try.
6. Alma (2009)
Alma, meaning “soul” in Spanish, is a whimsical fantasy short by former Pixar animator Rodrigo Blass. Five minutes and thirty seconds long, we see Alma happily skipping through Barcelonan streets when a strange doll catches her attention… Despite its playful tone, something dark lurks beneath, and it’s this stark contrast that gives Alma an unnerving touch. It’s neither suspenseful nor thrilling, but even with its predictable end, it’s a story that could come straight out of The Twilight Zone. It may not be outright scary, but it’s frightening enough that—as a child—it would have changed my opinion about dolls.
Have a suggestion? Comment below!