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!