Frightful Five No. 1. “The Descent” (Neil Marshall, 2005) [Spoiler Warning]
In the summer of 2005, I went to see the second film by British director, Neil Marshall. I had enjoyed Dog Soldiers immensely but reviews had warned me that this was very different, and they were not kidding. Within the first five minutes of the film I had jumped out of my seat and been thrust into a thoroughly bleak and uncaring filmic world. Then things got nasty.
The Descent is, quite simply, the most harrowing experience I have ever had in a cinema, and subsequent viewings on DVD have not dimmed my appreciation/trauma. The films included in this list all feature threatening environments, and no environment could be more threatening than a cave, many hundreds of metres below ground, surrounded by solid rock and no possibility of rescue (at sea, there is a chance you might be spotted). I am not claustrophobic, but I felt utterly trapped as I watched the plight of the six characters; it also put me off caving for the foreseeable future. I think much of the film’s claustrophobia was brought on by the simple technique of having the actors light themselves. This restricts our view to what they can see, and therefore draws us closer to them, increasing our empathy for their dire situation. The cruelty I have mentioned previously is not only in the cinematography, which is less distant than the other films in this list, but also in the mise-en-scene: hard, unyielding rock without any give or semblance of mercy. The sea of Jaws is uncaring, but the caves of The Descent are utterly brutal, serving as both enclosure and obstacle as our heroines struggle and battle to escape.
Battling is also key to the drama and the horror of The Descent. The eponymous downward motion refers not only to the physical journey, but the psychological disintegration of the group. When panic sets in, they all start to lose their grip, shouting at each other and casting blame. Not that the assignment of blame is without reason – Juno (Natalie Mendoza) is responsible for them being in an unknown cave and in grave danger, but casting blame will not get them out and Juno proves the most capable, maintaining authority as they need to focus on escape if they are to survive. Yet the panic continues to grow, such as when Holly (Nora-Jane Noone) glimpses what she believes is daylight and runs recklessly towards it. Holly is an experienced caver and should know better, but her descent into panic and recklessness has progressed to the state where she runs straight into a fall that breaks her leg. Marshall does not skimp on the grisly details, as Holly’s agonising injury is presented in graphic detail, as are other injuries that the characters later sustain.
Most of this terror occurs in the first hour of the film, before anything nasty has appeared. The fear is generated entirely from the environment and the situation, and by this stage, there have been at least two major jumps, terrible events and an increasingly desperate situation. One hour in I was already terrified, and had the film continued in that vein, it would have been frightening enough because of the steadily increasing suspense. When all hell really breaks loose with the appearance of the crawlers, the film could have descended (sorry) into a wild, gory free-for-all, which might not have been scary. Remarkably, the film maintains tension for its second half, including some truly nerve-shredding sequences. There are further moments of (literally) bone-crunching violence, and also scenes of sheer helplessness. Empathy and suspense reinforce each other at these moments, such as when three of the women make an agonisingly painful climb across a deep chasm. Their helplessness in the face of overwhelming odds mean the viewer is not only afraid for what might happen, but desperately sad when something does.
As if all that wasn’t enough, the crawlers are thoroughly scary. Their initial appearances are as shadowy glimpses, and the moment I first saw one in all its horrific glory, I actually screamed in the cinema, which is a very rare occurrence. On subsequent viewings, even though I know it’s coming, I still jump and give a little yelp. Nor do the crawlers simply look horrible, as they are among the most vicious monsters ever to grace a screen. Their assaults upon our heroines are a debasement, turning human beings into meat that will be torn apart with no regard. The attack of the crawlers therefore is another descent, both of the characters into prey, and the descent of humans into predatory animals, as the crawlers are themselves at least anatomically human.
The descent of humanity is also expressed in the central character, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald). From the beginning of the film she is steadily stripped of the features of civilisation, culminating in her virtual transformation into a primitive beast. Improvising weapons out of rocks, antlers and fire, stained with the blood of her enemies, she becomes nearly as frightening as the crawlers. Yet her transformation provides at best only a brief victory, as her later confrontation with Juno is as vicious as anything yet encountered. Tragically, Juno tells Sam (MyAnna Buring) and Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) that she must save Sarah, and their time spent fighting shoulder-to-shoulder is all too brief. Sarah is the Final Girl, but the film’s final twist (at least in the British cut) confirms just how cruel The Descent truly is.
I have mentioned in previous posts the cruelty and indifference expressed by the camera of horror cinema. Crucial to The Descent’s place as my Number One Frightful Film is its unrelenting cruelty: the suffering experienced by Sarah; the awful situation the women find themselves in; the claustrophobic mise-en-scene; the hideousness and the viciousness of the crawlers; the descent into conflict and eventual savagery; the devastating finale which ranks alongside Se7en and The Mist for a vicious kick in the teeth that leaves one feeling a sense of abject horror. Abjection is perhaps the lowest state to which anyone can sink – the knowledge that no matter what you do, your life has been ruined, you have been ruined and you are going to die horribly. Some films offer this state, but few combine it with unrelenting tension, severe emotional discomfort, major shocks and a profound sense of loss and pain. The Descent manages all of this and more, making it my Number One Frightful Film, and a really, really good one as well.
Frightful Five No. 2. “The Silence of the Lambs” (Jonathan Demme, 1991) [SPOILER WARNING]
I rate this as one of my favourite films ever, although it is not quite the scariest. I have also seen it many times and performed some detailed analysis of the narrative, mise-en-scene, cinematography and editing. This much analysis could lessen its impact, but The Silence of the Lambs never fails to draw me in, particularly in its most chilling moments. Both Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) and Jame Gumb/Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) are terrifying creations that could so easily have been crass and lurid, but director Jonathan Demme uses a strikingly sparse approach, both narratively and stylistically. This sparseness has the effect of focusing the viewer’s attention on the events unfolding, and the focus exacerbates the fear.
Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) provides a viewer’s surrogate. For much of the film we are aligned with her, learning more about Buffalo Bill through her conversations with Dr. Lecter as well as autopsies and other parts of her investigation. Jodie Foster has been rightly praised as giving one of the great screen performances, and on my first viewing I was struck by the film being very much about her. Not only do we experience her intellectual investigation, but her compassion, discomfort and eventual fear are all beautifully expressed, both by Foster’s performance and Demme’s direction. A particular technique used is subjective camera angles, with conversations shot face-on rather than a more typical over-the-shoulder shot. When Starling and Dr. Lecter converse, the shot/reverse-shot pattern fills the frame with their faces, which is especially unnerving when Dr. Lecter is staring out at you. Anthony Hopkins uses a simple technique of not blinking, making his stare all the more unsettling.
Hopkins is sometimes criticised for being something of a ham, and in Hannibal (Ridley Scott, 2001) and (to a lesser extent) Red Dragon (Brett Ratner, 2002) there are grounds for that. But in The Silence of the Lambs he is perfectly restrained, as part of Demme’s sparse approach. Impressions often misrepresent the famous “FFFFFF” over the census taker’s liver, hamming it up beyond what Hopkins does. Like the film as a whole, his performance is tightly wound and precisely focused.
The film’s precision and sparseness make the moments of violence all the more shocking and frightening. Dr. Lecter’s escape from his elaborate cage is ghastly in its unrestrained savagery, and the baroque display he leaves behind expresses the monstrous intelligence behind such brutality. But his most frightening moments are psychological, his psyche boring into Starling’s to expose her vulnerabilities and leave her open to a disturbingly invasive interrogation.
Invasion is a key theme throughout The Silence of the Lambs. Gumb’s attempt to transform into a female is an invasion of his own identity and, more disturbingly, that of his victims. The women slain and skinned by Gumb not only have their bodies invaded, but their minds as well with the psychological torture inflicted in his well, demonstrated through the suffering of Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith). Furthermore, Gumb invades their very identity by appropriating them for his own purposes. In her meetings with Dr. Lecter, Starling’s mind is invaded as he identifies her concerns and forces her to confront her central fear, manifested by the screaming of the lambs. In conversations, I have heard criticisms of Starling’s central fear, questioning the credibility of such an event being so traumatic. To me, it does not matter whether I or anyone else would find a particular event upsetting or traumatising – this is Starling’s fear and it matters to her, and I have always found her sufficiently engaging to accept her position. The point is not what her trauma is, but that she has one, which Dr. Lecter identifies and forces her to confront. Call it fear therapy.
The invasions work on a wider scale as well, as the genre of The Silence of the Lambs is a source for debate. Narratively, it is a detective thriller, but a detective story invaded by tropes and elements of horror. Horror moments abound: the storage unit Starling explores; the Gothic-esque halls of the Smithsonian where she meets the etymologists; the death’s head moth itself. The climactic sequence in Gumb’s cellar is both an invasion of his space by Starling, and an invasion into her security as she is viewed through Gumb’s night vision goggles. Starling’s final victory over Gumb breaks the window of his cellar, allowing sunlight to invade this dark recess, but the bright, sunlit places are themselves invaded, as the final scene features Dr. Lecter at an island resort, watching Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald) whom, he indicates, will shortly be on the menu. Buffalo Bill is disposed of, but there are still monsters out there, stalking.
A key component of horror cinema is cruelty, the continued depiction of people being hurt or persecuted. Action cinema focuses on the hero fighting back and demonstrating their ability to take control of their situation. Horror continues the subjugation, cruelly prolonging the plight of its characters. Even when Starling should have Gumb cornered, the film’s cruelty continues as we watch her plight in POV shots from Gumb’s perspective. Horror cinema compels us to watch the disturbing and horrific events through long takes, static camera and subjective shots. If we are to maintain our engagement in the film, we must continue to endure this cruelty. The end credits of The Silence of the Lambs perpetuates the film’s cruelty by not fading to black as a long take continues over the street, people walking about their daily lives, with Dr. Lecter having disappeared into the distance. We want him to reappear, perhaps even to be caught, but the film tantalises us with this possibility, perhaps inducing us to check the front door is locked.
I first saw The Silence of the Lambs on a very small TV, with a single speaker, in black and white. Despite the basic viewing conditions, I was utterly hooked and thoroughly petrified. I have subsequently seen it many times, on DVD and in colour, on a much larger TV, and it still grips and chills me in equal measure. Other Thomas Harris adaptations have varied in quality – Hannibal is operatic but rather silly; Red Dragon is taught but fairly ordinary (I am yet to see or read Hannibal Rising [Peter Webber, 2007]). Before all of these came Manhunter (Michael Mann, 1986), which I have a close relationship with. Manhunter is a fascinating film, operating on a number of stylistic, narratological, psychological and philosophical levels. It is striking, compelling and at times disturbing, but I would not call it frightening. The Silence of the Lambs, however, remains both shocking and disturbing in equal measure, and one of the scariest films I have seen. Not quite the scariest though.
Frightful Five No. 3. “The Mist” (Frank Darabont, 2007) [SPOILER WARNING]
A very recent addition, which I only saw earlier in 2012 on DVD. After watching The Mist, I curled into a foetal position and whimpered for about ten minutes. It is, quite simply, one of the most harrowing experiences I’ve ever had, and I dread to think how I might have reacted had I seen it at the cinema (probably would have had to be carried out on a stretcher). The Mist is oppressive and disturbing, gruesome and horrifying, and delivers not one but two devastating blows at its finale. Frank Darabont has directed some life-affirming cinema in the form of The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. With The Mist, you might just question the value of continuing to live.
This may not sound like a ringing endorsement, but The Mist is immensely powerful and committed to its bleak portrayal of people and their world falling apart. The point at which The Mist declares itself as punishing and unforgiving is the first revelation of something nasty, and sets up the central conceit of horror both inside and outside. Our hero, David Drayton (Thomas Jane), is in the storage section of the supermarket which has become a makeshift shelter. He is there with some others, when tentacles appear out of the mist and ensnare the pleasant young man Norm (Chris Owen). David rushes to his assistance, but Jim (William Salder) and the other men do not. In similar siege movies, such as Night of the Living Dead (or any number of zombie films), a key element is disparate people banding together, conveying a sense of unity and people rallying against a common threat. This does not occur in The Mist, and it is the first indication that the film will not only feature horrible beasties, but fairly ghastly people.
This is the film’s central conceit: when placed under pressure, people become selfish, cruel and stupid. David remains the type of hero we want and that we would like to believe we would be, and there are some other positive figures in the besieged store such as Amanda Dunfrey (Laurie Holden) and Ollie Weeks (Toby Jones). But the majority of the people turn the store not into a sanctuary, but a kangaroo court governed by mistrust, judgement and eventual “expiation!” It is genuinely ambiguous whether the monsters outside are more horrific than the people inside, the eventual mob intent on casting blame, guilt and punishment upon scapegoats in the most merciless and pointless way. The mob is engulfed by the preaching of Mrs Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden), proclaiming all as damned within her view of the world. The Mist can be read as a condemnation of Christianity, but the large biker (Brian Libby) who volunteers to go outside offers an alternative view: “Hey, crazy lady, I believe in God, too. I just don’t think he’s the bloodthirsty asshole you make him out to be.” Christianity is not to blame for what occurs in The Mist, any more than the military despite their meddling in forces beyond their control. The spilling of what could best be described as Hell into our world is not the focus – it is humanity’s inhumanity that provides the central horror. This is what makes the film so terrifying – it is entirely believable that in a horrific situation, people would not react the way they normally do in movies, banding together to preserve humanity in the face of adversity. Instead fear would take over, and frightened people are very dangerous. That is really frightening. Even the few who escape from the store end up giving in to fear. Their final solution proves misguided, as the film demonstrates that the only thing worse than the end of the world is surviving it. The Mist is a film about fear: its generation, its impact and its all-consuming power.
Frightful Five No 4. “Jaws” (Steven Spielberg, 1975)
I avoided seeing this for the longest time, not out of fear, but because of the damaging representation of sharks. Then I remembered that Jaws is a film, I know it is a fiction and I will not be turned against sharks by it. Furthermore, me not seeing it makes no difference to anyone else’s opinion, so I did. It was a very specific occasion – 30th December 2000, alone in my university room. I ordered pizza, drank Smirnoff Ice (I think) and enjoyed Spielberg’s mastery of suspense and the cinematic medium.
Spielberg is, for my money, the most accomplished director working in Hollywood, if not the world, today. Several of his films are regarded as masterpieces, such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Schindler’s List and, of course, Jaws. Specifically, Jaws is a masterpiece of suspense (also used to great effect in Jurassic Park and War of the Worlds), and despite having watched it multiple times, I always find my pulse quickening practically at the same tempo as John Williams’ score. Certain scenes are especially tense: the two fishermen who get yanked into the sea and are “chased” by a large piece of driftwood; the opening attack on the swimming girl; the attack on a small boy. Best of all is the night dive, when Hooper inspects a ruined boat underwater and finds a large tooth. As he inspects the tooth, the music playing, the viewer expects the shark to attack, but instead a decapitated head appears out of the hole in the boat. I screamed the first time I saw that, and I still scream (perhaps deliberately) in subsequent viewings, even though I know it’s coming.
The fact that my pulse accelerates and I jump and scream, even when I know what is coming, is testament to Jaws’ power. Once again, the threatening environment is as important in generating fear as the threatening presence. But whereas in Paranormal Activity the environment is mundane, in Jaws it is an alien and menacing world that can easily kill us. Most will agree that the shark itself look pretty fake and hardly menacing, but it pales in comparison to the vast, hungry, uncaring sea. Martin Brody’s (Roy Scheider) fear of drowning makes him our substitute, and the knowledge that, regardless of anything else, it is never completely safe to go into the water. The film epitomises an intractable adversary through the figure of the shark, presented not so much as an animal as a manifestation of the engulfing sea. This is a common use of animals as enemies in films – from the lions in The Ghost and the Darkness to the wolves in The Grey, animals do not express their real-world counterparts, but our fear of the wild, the unknown world beyond our own. The sea is perhaps the best example of this great unknown – an indifferent and all-consuming expanse. Jaws expresses this fear through its use of suspense and by playing upon our expectations, making it a consistently and repeatedly nerve-wracking experience.
Frightful Five No 5. “Paranormal Activity” (Oren Pell, 2007) [Spoiler Warning!]
For the first of my Frightful Five, counting down between now and Halloween, I offer this found footage nightmare. Like many a horror film, this anomaly led to a franchise, and like many horror franchises, Paranormal Activity has now become a laughing stock. I remember the initial hype being quite striking, as TV spots included footage of cinema audiences, filmed with infra-red cameras, who jumped out of their seats. I saw the original Paranormal Activity in 2009, with a fairly rowdy cinema audience, but nonetheless I was suitably terrified – I came to understand the meaning of having the sh*t scared out of you as I thought my bowels were going to void (they didn’t). I was quite literally petrified and, upon getting home, looked carefully into all the shadowy corners.
Paranormal Activity’s premise is fiendishly simply – two people, in a house with something malevolent, and the self-filmed approach traps the viewer in the house with them. Curiously, some responses I have come across miss certain aspects, such as asking why the central characters had no jobs: Katie (Katie Featherstone) is a student and Micah (Micah Sloat) is a stock trader, who works from home and earns plenty of money. Another question is why they don’t simply leave – they are advised that it is not the house that is haunted, but Katie herself. Here is a crucial element of the film’s tension – they cannot escape, there is no running away from whatever it is, the danger is inextricable.
The film’s rudimentary approach facilitates the inescapability of the characters’ situation. The wide angles of the camera capture the ordinary environment and the extraordinary events within it. Long stationary takes increase the tension, as we spend what feels like ages waiting for something to happen, and when it does it emerges from the background, invading the mundane setting. The best instances of this come during the night, when the camera sits recording the couple sleeping. At one moment, footprints appear on the floor and the blanket is pulled back and Katie dragged out of bed by something invisible. In the film’s final, terrifying sequence, something happens just off-screen that culminates in Micah being hurled into the camera, before Katie appears again. Her shuffling gait demarks her as changed, and her final assault at the camera reveals something inhuman and horrifying, but not long enough for it to be understood. The banality of the events before us emphasises the horrific events – as Katie is dragged away screaming and something assaults both of them, the camera remains immobile, indifferently recording all that appears before it. There is no hope and no salvation, merely the passing of lives into the uncanny without so much as an explanation. Leave the lights on, for all the good it will do you.
Halloween and the Frightful Five
In keeping with the trend at Halloween, the next five days shall feature a series of posts detailing my top five scariest movies, why, how I understand horror and fear in films in general, and what makes these films scary for me. I am sure many will read these and say “That’s not scary!” and “What about film X or Y?” Please tell me how wrong I am, I love debate.
Horror is one of the hardest “genres” to classify, and I doubt I will offer anything definitive here. I think the reason it is so hard to define is that what frightens us varies hugely. The Exorcist is often described as the scariest movie of all time (Entertainment Weekly, Movies.com), and by at least one reknowned critic, the greatest film of all time; it could also been described as over the top and rather silly. A friend of mine is a huge horror fan and a respected horror expert, and he jumped repeatedly at The Cabin in the Woods; I laughed (that is not a criticism). I am very specifically discussing what films scare me the most, in terms of what I consider to be horror tropes and features (so such “real world” scares as Children of Men, United 93 or The Dark Knight will not be discussed here).
I was a very sensitive child so avoided horror like the plague until I was nearly twenty – reading the Penguin version of Dracula freaked me out for weeks, and when the Grand High Witch appeared in the film adaptation of The Witches I left the room. As a child of the 80s, I was the demographic the Daily Mail was “concerned” about being vulnerable to Video Nasties such as The Evil Dead and Driller Killer, but I was too much of a coward to even consider watching such things. I knew kids at school who jabbered about Freddy Krueger being much scarier than Dracula because he had knives for fingers (obviously), and I thought they were too young to see such things. Later on, I learned that there is a certain kind of pleasure in being frightened, in the safe way that horror movies provide. I think many would agree that the appeal of a horror movie is that we can be scared, but not actually hurt or placed in danger. There are of course exceptions – heart attacks at screenings of Jaws, vomiting at Alien and running out of The Exorcist and into a church.
Over the years, I’ve had scary experiences in cinemas and also from TV and video/DVD, and this fear has been due to various elements. I am susceptible to the quiet, quiet, quiet, BANG! approach to scares, provided sufficient suspense has been built up. Unlike some, I found the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street quite effective, because it built up the suspense before cutting (literally) to the chase. I find tension and suspense crucial to engaging me in dramatic scenes, be it horror, thriller, action or even melodrama. It sounds trite, but suspense needs to be built up in order for there to be interest in what happens next. I mentioned in a previous post that the criticism “I don’t care about the characters” is not one I tend to use, because what hooks me is the desire to know what the subsequent event will be or how the current event will play out. For this engagement, suspense is essential.
The limitation to the suspense-followed-by-jump approach in horror is that these shocks are very transitory, as the immediate reaction after the jump is often a laugh of relief or a quasi-angry “DON’T do that to me!” The result of this reaction is that the fear is quickly released and is followed by relief. Truly terrifying movies, like those I list here, operate on a far deeper level and the fear remains long after. In a word, the scariest movies, for me, combine suspense, shocks and are disturbing. Psychological horror, what you don’t see is far more frightening that what you do, striking deep chords, all these terms come down to something that is disturbing, and a truly terrifying movie for me is one that stays with me and leaves me feeling uncomfortable for a long time.
To wit, I shall offer my five top films that, in a series of ways, scared the bee-jesus out of me. Some honourable mentions go to those that give me the creeps, but did not quite make the Fearful Five. In no particular order, they are:
Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)
Having seen parodies and read pieces about Halloween, it is perhaps not surprising that when I saw it the overall scare factor had been diluted. Nonetheless, it is still an affective chiller, mainly by virtue of Carpenter’s maintenance of suspense (there’s that word again), especially as Michael tends to watch his victims before attacking.
The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
Another obvious one, and one that did not scare me until I saw it on the big screen at a university showing. The scale, particularly with the sound booming around me, drew me in more than a TV viewing had, and while Jack Nicholson crowing and swinging an axe is certainly aggressive, what troubled me more was the sense of being drawn into a world that is not to be trusted. Perhaps like the character of Jack himself.
Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)
In space, no one can hear you scream. In the cinema, everyone can. Alien, perhaps ironically, creates a thoroughly creepy atmosphere, with the effect that it’s almost a surprise the Nostromo needed to pick up a monstrous passenger. Shouldn’t it have been there all the time? Thoroughly unsettling.
The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez, 1999)
When it first came out, this was a surprise to many people, myself included. Oddly, it isn’t until the final frames that the true fear actually gripped me, but on reflection I realised that it had been creeping up on me the whole time. I’ve only seen this film once, over ten years ago, but I still remember the absolutely chilling final image of one a character standing in the corner, waiting to die. Haunting.
The Ring (Gore Verbinski, 2002)
Yes, I know, sacrilege to rate the remake over the original! I don’t care, Verbinski’s film creeped me out and had me curling into my armchair. The slow-burn approach is very effective as, again, it builds up the suspense and left me waiting for something horrible to happen. And it wasn’t disappointing when it did.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974)
Remarkably bloodless, considering its title, but the sheer random brutality of this film makes it both frightening and bewildering. The moments of Leatherface running around and waving that chainsaw are comparable to a wounded animal, but the worst moment comes earlier, when he grabs one of the girls and carries her into his lair. Her screams are heartrending and make me both want to go and help her, and run away as fast as possible. Empathy can be an effective tool in horror – if someone’s fear is well expressed then it can be shared.
Wolf Creek (Gregg Mclean, 2005)
This Australian shudder-fest is a very recent addition, which I saw for the first time earlier this year. The tale of three young people and the lunatic they meet in the Outback could have been lurid and gruesome, and it is, but it is also disturbing and thoroughly creepy. There are various points when it appears to be following conventions of the slasher genre, but then takes an unexpected turn. Wolf Creek features as menacing a screen psychopath as you are ever likely to have the misfortune of running into, and the merciless sun throws the plight of the young victims into sharp contrast against the baked Australian wilderness. For it to be based on a true story is even more chilling, and I genuinely had trouble sleeping after seeing this one. No road trips across Australia for me!