Here’s a quick little exercise. Without thinking about it too much, write down the first fifteen colors you can think of. Quickly. Don’t overthink it. Just fifteen colors, the first that pop into your head that will stick with you.
C’mon. This text isn’t going anywhere.
Just do the damn exercise.
… Alright, hurry it up, I haven’t got all day.
By this point I’ll assume that you’re either skipping over this crap to see where I’m going with this, or you’ve gotten to the point of this exercise: most likely you’re finished (or close enough) and starting to second-guess your choices. Maybe your list is lacking those primary colors you use in everyday life. Maybe your list doesn’t have all those cool niche colors, shades and tones that pop up in your interior decor, desktop wallpaper, and so on.
(Protip: You are me if your list of colors would be equally fitting on classic muscle cars as for Space Marine chapterhouses, and includes the complete absence of color.)
The point of this long and tortured metaphor is that there are only around either 64 or 96 main colors to choose from (unless you were one of the cool kids with parents who could spring for a 120-color Crayola box). If you include b-movies, and who doesn’t, I could easily come up with over a hundred horror movies, which means that choosing fifteen “best” horror movies is damn hard.
Obviously, I was bound to leave something out, so here are the top films I forgot, left off, or otherwise am second-guessing with.
Army of Darkness: Is it bad of me to consider Shaun of the Dead a horror film and this one the humor film? Ah well. One of the greatest and most quotable nerd movies not made by Monty Python.
The Others: I’d honestly forgotten about this gem until I saw it in the new arrivals on Netflix. A great ghost story in the fine British ghost story tradition, with a number of sharp twists, some amazing characters, and a few solid scares. I can see why it doesn’t rate as high, though: it’s one of those movies where knowing the twists and tricks makes any subsequent viewings less entertaining. That or because watching it streamed to my TV is nothing like seeing it in a huge darkened theater.
The Blair Witch Project: Again, maybe this is nostalgia talking, but I thought this was a pretty slick film for a low-budget horror entry. I saw it late in its run, sometime after the actors were appearing on late night talk shows, which deflated all the wonderful hype: the Sci-Fi and History channel fake documentaries, the promotional blitz, the “found footage” angle… I soaked all the crap up. It had some seriously tense moments, even if the overall experience was something of a letdown.
The People Under the Stairs: This was about the 16th film that popped up every time, even though I’m not sure calling it horror is accurate. It’s Wes Craven, yes, but it’s his attempt to combine his horror expertise with an urban fantasy fairy-tale angle which tries to straddle that line between Magic Negro cliche and prostitute older sister gritty and inbred mutant offspring weird. It’s not a bad movie, not a good movie, and I think I’ve seen it far more than any sane person should.
Signs: I love this film for its suspense and tension. Plenty of eerie occurances drove me to the edge of my seat; what brought it all home was the scene of Joaquin Phoenix watching the South American Birthday Party alien footage. Unlike The Sixth Sense, this one was actually scary, though I liked the first one more. But you do have to turn your brain off, because the plot is ludicrous aliens too retarded to rrealize this planet is made up of stuff what kills them is about as inane as aliens invading just to harvest our gold. It’s around the point M. Night Shyamalan stopped being Hitchcock 2.0 and jumped the shark—yes, I liked Unbreakable too, sue me—but at least the tension was well done.
The Crazies (remake): One of the few instances where the remake is better than the original. Combine the post-9/11 mindset with anti-Gubbment, flouride-in-the-water, chemtrails-level paranoia. Far from a perfect movie, though it’s got a lot going for it, and does all the basic horror tricks right.
The Walking Dead: It’s not a movie, otherwise it’d be up there. Not just because of its graphic novel roots, but because it does the zombie genre right: looking at the survivors, an introspection of humanity, rather than taking the cheap scares and obligatory zombie film cliches.
Grindhouse: This was the previous horror movie I saw in theaters before Cloverfield; Deathproof was a Tarantino-style snorefest—seeing it at three in the morning after a hard day of finals and moving my boss in didn’t help the long, dull conversations from people we’d just met, and had less invested in than the people what died—but Planet Terror was a spectacular exercise in zombie-action theatrics. Oh, and the trailers were pretty badass.
This list is also incomplete; I’m still catching up on the films I missed while I was in college. Somebody tell Netflix to get off their ass and put The Descent and 28 Days Later on streaming.
The full list (and meme) are as follows:
The rules: Don’t take too long to think about it. Fifteen HORROR films you’ve seen that will always stick with you. List the first fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes.
- The Thing (1982)
- The Birds (1964)
- Alien (1979)
- Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)
- Shaun of the Dead (2004)
- Pitch Black (2000)
- Night of the Living Dead (1968)
- Them! (1954)
- Se7en (1995)
- Jaws (1975)
- In the Mouth of Madness (1995)
- Halloween (1978)
- Silence of the Lambs (1991)
- Tremors (1990)
- Cloverfield (2008)
Yep, I’m finally at the last day, with the fifteenth and final horror movie on my list. Keep in mind that the basis for this was a Facebook meme where you list the first fifteen horror movies that pop into your head, and since then, I’ve been second-guessing myself and remembering all sorts of fantastic horror films.
I think Cloverfield was the last horror movie I saw in theaters, so that’s probably the reason I picked it as number 15. (What, I don’t watch a lot of films in the theater.) It also caters to my childhood love of kaiju movies and disaster flicks. Giant monster attacks a major city (New York), causes havoc; the military has futile attempts to kill it (this time sans Toho’s giant rockets and mecha); a small batch of protagonists attempt to escape the area.
It’s another capable entry in the “found footage”/shakycam genre started by the Blair Witch Project, which would have most certainly been on this list if I hadn’t paid so much attention to the hype then found out the actors were still alive before going out to see it. Even then, I think Cloverfield was much more effective and believable in its shakycam roots. I’d want to snag as much visual data as possible if there was a giant monster running around; I’d probably save my batteries if I was one of three morons stuck out in the woods. Blair Witch is spooky because of the weird occurrences; we know damn well there’s a giant monster running amok in New York, and that tangible threat was more convincing to me.
I think the kaiju angle needs to be properly emphasized. Cloverfield is to post-9/11 New York as Gojira was to postwar Japan. The strange culture of fear is paralleled, if a bit exaggerated, in the monster’s attack. The average citizen is helpless; the armed forces cannot defend them; there was little to no prior warning before the Statue of Liberty’s head rolled down the street. (It’s sad when that CGI head is the fake-looking part in a series of shots bloated with CGI: the graphics in this film are almost always top-notch.)
Why is it scary?
There’s a scene in the film where the characters are walking around in the abandoned subway tunnels, and one of the characters (the cameraman) announces, “Remember how there was some guy down in here years ago setting fire to bums?” (Sadly Rich had just left for the restroom, since that defines about half of his RPG characters.) That scene was priceless; a few moments later, the characters are attacked by the poisonous water-fleas the big giant monster has accumulated, which cause horrific and fatal death to anyone they bite.
Aside from the subway scenes scaring the crap out of me, I think Cloverfield uses its found footage setup quite effectively in conveying terror. We don’t see the monster, but we see a lot of devastation; we feel for these characters who we already know something about, and want them to escape before the inevitable nukes come out.
Again, this is not a particularly scary movie. It doesn’t have the same psychological horror as Mouth of Madness, or the paranoia of The Thing, or the jump-out-and-scream thrills of a good slasher film.
I do have some complaints about it, too; I haven’t seen it in a while but I don’t remember the shakycam footage annoying me as much as the fact we get a damn good view of the monster right before the end. Giant monsters work fine in one of two ways: show it to us from the beginning (more or less), ala King Kong or Gojira, or keep it hidden for as long as possible and don’t allow us to watch it just stand there and stare at us. It’s like J.J. Abrams wanted us to know exactly what the monster looked like… and it looked like some overgrown mutant bat. I liked the random concept art where it was Whalethulhu better, and giving away all the monster’s detail was a bad move.
Let’s see. I’ve done an alien movie, a pair of b-movie, a couple of horror-comedies, some monster movies, and a bunch of thrillers which mostly have serial killers. But I haven’t listed the slasher movie, because there’s always at least one.
I’ve seen dozens of these stupid things, mainly because of their habitual long-running franchises: Texas Chainsaw Massacres, Nightmares on Elm Street, Friday the Thirteenths, Halloweens, all three Child’s Plays (yes, all three, because those were bad enough), Final Destinations, I Know What You Did Last Summers, and Screams.
There are a lot of great slasher movies out there, and I think they’re worth noting. Nightmare on Elm Street is a fantastic entry, a fine Wes Craven film that launched a series. Unlike most other slashers, it’s got a lot going on under the hood: the amazing dream/reality setup, the underlying sexual tension and loss of innocence themes… heck, the movie can be read as an analogue for adolescent trauma. Friday the 13th was one of the first slashers, and it did well to define the genre, though it wasn’t until Friday the 13th Part III that all the pieces showed up: the hockey mask, the stereotypical victims (the jokester, the person who thinks the killer is the practical jokester, drugs and sex leading to quick deaths), the killer popping up for one final strike after their apparent death. But I have to go with Halloween here. (I’m really not a John Carpenter fanboy, I swear.)
Best moment: when the dad pulls Micheal’s mask off and you see he’s just a child. Raise your hand if that blew your mind, either for the trailer or watching the film.
I consider Halloween the best slasher for a number of reasons. Most of those are reasons why it’s scary: the pacing, the atmosphere, the sense of dread that it builds. Halloween fell on the dividing line, being in part a homage to the Hitchcockian psychological horror and proto-slasher serial killer scares of Psycho, and partly the influence for the entire slasher genre. The parts that the genre took were just the basics—more were lifted from Friday the 13th—meaning it existed outside of the formulas and tropes that have since defined the genre.
Why is it scary?
Most slashers follow a rigid formula of cliches and stereotypes, relying on jump scares, loud noises, and plenty of slasher victim stereotypes to lounge around smoking pot and screwing. Halloween, though, exists outside the tropes and formulas, instead relying on tension and suspense. There are a number of deaths, and creepy occurrences, and some “stuff happens when you don’t expect it” jump scares, but what I love about it is the pacing and atmosphere (plus, again, Carpenter’s score). With a serial killer on the loose, the expectation of impending death is more frightening than the actual killer.
Speaking of said killer, he started a trend in slasher films of hiding the slasher’s face behind a mask. The mask Michael Myers wears is frightening because of how much a blank slate it makes him: emotionless and unknown. We don’t know what’s under there, and it makes him scary; without Myers’ mask, or Jason’s hockey mask, it’d just be some dude, which could have been laughable if the actor wasn’t perfectly chosen. We can assign things to a person’s face: we can create a backstory or guess at his character by how somebody looks and acts, their facial expressions and mannerisms. Masks, by their nature, are impersonal, and shrouds the slasher with the unknown.
Also, I think the “killer PoV” camera shots were pretty slick. It’s something that I’ve seen occur more in earlier films than subsequent ones, and I think it’s a shame: it’s a unique twist that is really cool when it’s done right.
You could say the ambient darkness was just reflecting Carpenter’s nonexistent budget and indie filmmaker style, but I think it adds a lot of atmosphere to the film. Seeing glimpses of … something, and a masked something at that, from the ambient moonlight just adds to the creepy factor.
All that said, I think Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th have the better franchises. In an ironic twist, I don’t think the first film in those series’ was necessarily the best compared with later entries, though with Halloween, each subsequent film was half as good as its predecessor (at best). Good Halloween films follow the rule of good Highlander films: there can be only one.
I think most of the horror movies I’ve seen were a part of those long, televised movie marathons Sci-Fi and USA and TNT used to air on major holidays. I know it was on USA, and I’m pretty sure it was Labor Day, when I first saw this fine film.
Tremors shows what happens when two fed-up handymen, Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward, decide to leave the isolated Nevada town of Perfection one day too late. They become trapped in the desert valley by huge subterranean worms that have snake-tentacles in their mouths. These two heroes, along with a college-student seismologist and a cast of oddball city residents—the annoying kid, the single mother, the survivalist gun-nut couple, the Mexican dude, the Asian grocery store owner—have to figure out first how to survive, then how to escape.
The only way I can think to categorize Tremors is as a b-movie creature feature. It has all the parts—monsters, survivors, the heroes, the girl, escape plans, climactic “kill the evil thing” ending. It’s something of a homage to the monster movies of yore, one that manages to keep a straight face while keeping its tongue firmly planted in cheek. Its heroes are handymen; the girl is introduced as pretty homely; the monsters (like all proper b-movie monsters) are both terrifying and somewhat inane; that’s not even including Michael Gross’ survivalist gun-nut character.
This is an enjoyable movie, for its camp, its humor, its slick effects and tight pacing.When a film names its monsters “graboids…” you know it’s not meant to be taken seriously. The fact that it takes itself somewhat seriously—but not too seriously—just adds to the charm. It’s a modern day b-movie, only it rises above the genre to be a solid film.
Why is it scary?
Again, the humor cuts the scariness down a few notches, the film does follow all the basics of a creature feature:
- Isolated location: it’s a tiny town, blocked off from the rest of the world by mountains. There’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and no contact with the outside world.
- Finding the monster’s aftermath: we don’t see the creature for most of the film, just the bloody ruin in the wake of the graboids, including a dessicated corpse in a telephone pole, a decapitated farmer, piles of dead sheep, and a submerged station wagon. We’re shown these things are dangerous before we get a first glimpse of them.
- Don’t Show the Monster: Even when we do see the monster, it’s just one of the snake-like tentacle heads, which is rather small and harmless compared to the real thing. Living under the ground helps: we see the attacks, but not the monster.
- A menace you can’t get to: the graboids are under the ground. Not only are they hard to kill, rarely surfacing to be shot at, but they’re also impossible to see. They strike without warning, grab something, and drag it down under the ground. It’s like Jaws in the desert.
- A smart monster: the graboids get pretty damn smart, proving they can learn later on, which makes the escape attempts come to a screeching halt with the need to devise a new plan.
- Death by other means: there are several instances where the characters are stuck somewhere, in the desert heat, without food or water or shade. They’re put in situations where, if they don’t act, either they’ll die of thirst, or the monsters will get them.
Not the scariest movie out there, but it has plenty of tricks it uses to its advantage.
The entire thriller genre is something of a bastard child of horror, having adopted its ability to handle suspense, tension, and excitement to play on the viewers’ emotions. Many thrillers have more than a token amount of horror. And that’s not just my justification for another horror-thriller, one that also caters to my love of crime and neo-noir.
Se7en does contain a serial killer, which is the driving force of its plot: said killer has set out to murder seven people, each corresponding to the seven deadly sins. Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman are the two detectives assigned to the case; Pitt’s the hot-headed new blood in the department, with a expectant young wife (Gwyneth Paltrow), while Freeman is playing the “older black cop closing on retirement” role that paid Danny Glover’s bills in the ’80s.
There’s a theme with serial killers to put eloquent actors in the role, to make the villain all the more surreal. It worked damn well for Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs, and it works even better for Kevin Spacey here: he’s just not the kind of guy you’d expect to see as a raving psycho. And, like Hopkins, his performance is one blending twisted perversions with high intellect. Not that Pitt or Freeman did a bad job, either; this is a film where the star power was correctly chosen and utilized to its full potential. Plenty of character development and a lot of added depth.
Also, this film has one of the best endings in the history of thriller films. I don’t want to spoil anything, because it is just that damn good.
Why is it scary?
The urban blight of this unidentified neo-noir city works in the thriller’s best interest: the grime and decay adds another degree to the suspense. This setting oozes tension; now, add in Freeman and Pitt investigating grisly murders in it. Add in a few more tense scenes as the investigation expands into Serialkillerville with its mysterious serial killer, and round it off with a shocking climax, and you have a fantastic movie. It wouldn’t be a proper thriller if it didn’t chill you to your bones.
Let’s move back towards pure horror movies, shall we? (Props to Tenandys for showing this one to everyone he bumps into.)
John Carpenter is recognized as a master of horror, but he has so many widely unappreciated great films. The Thing is one of them, though I’m glad it’s attained a cult status amongst horror movie buffs. In the Mouth of Madness is another, but I can see why it’s relegated to “cult classic” status. For horror, it’s very subdued and cerebral, with less of the visceral horror that drives The Thing or Halloween. Instead, it’s the best non-Lovecraft Lovecraftian movie ever made.
“Do you read Sutter Cane?”
It’s a fairly simple plot: Sam Neill plays John Trent, freelance insurance investigator who’s hired by a book publisher (Charlton Heston) to investigate the disappearance of best-selling author Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow). Along for the ride is Cane’s editor, Linda Styles (Julie Carmen); they head out to Cane’s New England hometown of Hobb’s End, which may or may not exist.
But things are never that simple; this is a horror movie, after all. It starts getting weird pretty quickly, and is laden with psychological horror and weird goings-ons. As the film progresses, we begin to explore Trent’s sanity: events that he remembers occurring that nobody else does, strange visions, and a great meeting between Trent and Cane which reveals the film’s horror: Sutter Cane’s phenomenal output makes him more read than the Bible, and he’s now bending the world to his rules. The ending is amazing, and is what sold me on the film.
I can see why the film’s not a huge hit or popular horror choice; to say it’s subdued is an understatement. Not a whole lot happens, and if you’re not up for a slower film that isn’t terrifying until you stop and think about it, look somewhere else. But the gravity of the situation—a crazed horror writer turned God bending reality to fill his horror-trope wishes—damn, that’s a great setup. Even if you don’t like the movie, you have to admit that’s a fantastic idea.
Mouth of Madness is a fascinating look at madness, reality, belief, and above all, the power of the written word. One of the most unique horror films I’ve ever seen.
Why is it scary?
This film doesn’t have much visceral horror—no stalking killers, no jump scenes, not a lot of gore. What it does have is subdued but tangible psychological/cerebral horror. Is the protagonist the last sane man in the world, or is he going crazy as Sutter Cane rewrites reality into a descent into hell? I wasn’t kidding when I said it was the best Lovecraftian movie ever made. This is a film where the horror is all in your mind, a surreal trip down madness lane.
That said, there are a few really creepy scenes. There’s a few night shots of a creepy bicyclist, and the weird old lady with something in her basement, and the odd painting that keeps changing whenever somebody looks at it. Oh, and John Carpenter is aces at writing his own eerie soundtracks. He’s also the master of atmosphere for a reason, and this film showcases this: in this film reality just feels off, giving out a strong sense of wrong, from the earliest scenes.
As I mentioned earlier, I think it’s telling when half of the first fifteen horror movies I can think of aren’t pure horror movies. That said, I think a lot of them do the horror genre good, and most of them have the same tropes and techniques that makes the horror genre what it is.
Like this one, Pitch Black. I watched it again a few weeks ago, and it blew me away. Not because of its special effects, which aren’t bad but look dated. (Then again, I also watched The Fellowship of the Rings, and the “amazing” intro CGI battle at the foot of Mount Doom that blew everyone away years ago was just painful compared to Avatar or Cloverfield.) No, it reminded me of just how good a horror-thriller this film is.
Another basic horror movie setup, only merged with stock science fiction: after being pulverized by meteorites, a cargo ship crash lands on a desert planet baked by three suns. As the survivors begin to patch up and try to figure out how to get rescued, they start being picked off one by one… and it’s not because of Vin Diesel’s Riddick, the bloodthirsty serial killer being transported by a questionable cop.
It’s when the lights go out that things really start heating up: pursued by unstoppable monsters, previously dormant under the surface, relying on the questionable cop and the even more questionable serial killer. Diesel’s performance as the brutal anti-hero is top-notch, and launched the actor into stardom. The actual horror-thriller elements create a fine atmosphere of tension and desperation, as the survivors languish (and die) over a mere two-mile trek.
Why is it scary?
Again, the basics of horror: a group of people, without proper equipment, isolated from civilization, in desperate need of help. Also, it’s the middle of a permanent eclipse, so throw in humanity’s primal fear of the dark. And there are killer monsters out there, that we don’t see until after they’ve killed a handful of people. Also, the only person the survivors can trust is a psychotic killer who’s had cats-eye implants in prison.
It’s a hellish situation for the characters, and I think that translates to the viewers. This film is full of tension and great twists, and has the masterstroke of having Riddick as red herring and threat rolled into a single package. It’s a perfect hybrid of genres, and I think it works very well (obviously, otherwise I wouldn’t have thought of it). One very underrated film.
Its sequel, The Chronicles of Riddick, dropped the horror-thriller angles to focus on being an action-movie/unauthorized Warhammer 40k fanfic, and wasn’t as successful. I didn’t think it was as terrible as everyone else in the world, but it wasn’t half as effective at being an action movie as Pitch Black was at being horror.
I think it says a lot about me when the first fifteen horror movies I can come up with include a lot of hybrids—a couple of thriller crime/horror hybrids, a bunch of SF/horror hybrids, and a pair of comedy/horror hybrids. Like this one.
“You’ve got red on you.”
Shaun of the Dead isn’t a true horror movie; it’s a romantic comedy, but one that stays within the constraints of a zombie movie. Simon Pegg is an office zombie, going through his day to day life, hanging out with his slacker friend (Nick Frost) and trying to win back his girlfriend (Kate Ashfield), which just so happens to occur during a zombie apocalypse. That’s where a lot of the humor comes from: Pegg’s Shaun doesn’t even notice the zombies at first, too caught up in his thoughts.
The fact that it’s also a checklist for zombie film components is also a plus: escape scenes, gruesome walking dead, the slow and eventual deaths of the less-important group members, one group member getting bit, the climactic hold-0ut scene… it’s all there. Only neatly subverted into comedy: instead of holding out in an office building or mall, they hold out in a pub; the person who’s infected by the zombies is Shaun’s girlfriend’s mother; the escape scene involves the survivors zombie-walking through a group of undead.
Why is it scary?
It’s not; not in the slightest bit. It is, however, pretty funny, and the zombie special effects are terrific. As a horror rom-com hybrid, I think it does what it set out to do damn well: be a comedy movie set within the boundaries of a zombie film. All the classic zombie film bits are there, making it an authentic zombie film, which it uses to its advantage: the movie takes a serious-but-comedic approach to panning the genre.
I think it holds up a lot better than the other serious zombie comedy (zom-com?), Zombieland, which had a lot going for it but was too short and too shallow and was largely powered by hype. Shaun came out of left field—being British helped, nobody in the States pays any attention to foreign films being developed, which is a shame—and I think being a pleasant surprise, with its distinctly British wry humor, made the film stick out in my mind.
At the end of the day, it may not be a real horror film, but it is one of the best zombie movies ever made.
Spielberg’s first blockbuster was also his scariest movie. And it was just a summer popcorn flick with a giant monster shark that ate people off the coast of a small New York tourist town.
Okay, okay, it’s a lot more than that, otherwise it wouldn’t be showing up here. Jaws features some great (for its time) special effects and gore, a powerful musical theme, a big scary shark, impressive performances from Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss, and great cinematography.
Unlike a lot of its followers, like Deep Blue Sea, Jaws works due to a lot of simple horror, keeping things simple yet solid. There’s no big reveal about the shark’s background, it’s just there, eating people. There’s no special team to get rid of them, just a couple of fragile guys in a boat. Heck, the local government doesn’t even think the shark’s enough of a threat to close the beaches. How do you get rid of a killer that the officials don’t recognize? Particularly one that’s aquatic, meaning you have to go into it’s turf to even try?
Some of these basics were lost upon the rest of the franchise, culminating in the atrocious Jaws the Revenge (wait, it slowly becomes not only an eternal killing machine, but it gains a death wish for the Brody family and anyone associated with them?).
Why is it scary?
A couple of good reasons:
- Don’t show the monster! The big rule of any monster movie or creature feature, spend time building the tension and suspense before letting the viewers see what the hell it is they’re afraid of. Coming up with an emotion to something before seeing it means that it’ll still be scary… even when it’s a mechanical shark that had the bad habit of sinking.
- Shark PoV! Because the shark had the bad habit of… sinking, Spielberg had to come up with a way to include it without showing it. Thus, the inclusion of the shots from the shark’s point of view, which work amazing because it plays into the above: we see what the shark sees, not the shark.
- Paranoia! In this case, it’s not just the shark that’s out to get people, it’s the greed of the town government not wanting to scare away tourists with the “possible” shark threat.
- My old friend, isolation! Our climax for today takes place with three would-be shark hunters, on a fragile old boat which sinks real easy, in the middle of the ocean. Their adversary is a shark who lives in the endless blue sea surrounding them. Good luck!
For these reasons—amongst others, including the solid pacing, gruesome shark attacks, and John Williams’ menacing score—this is the film that scared kids enough to stay off the beach.
I ended up skipping yesterday; I’ll catch up this weekend.
At this point I think Hitchcock’s crime thrillers are his best work—North by Northwest, To Catch a Thief, Rear Window—but there’s no way to overstate his impact on both cinematography and the horror genre. Hitchcock had a long and distinguished career, producing dozens of movies in the ’20s and ’30s which are classic thrillers in their own right, such as The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, and Jamaica Inn. And he kept making suspenseful films up until his death.
I knew I’d end up with a Hitchcock on the list, but the one that came to mind first wasn’t Psycho; while that one had a major impact, particularly influencing the slasher genre, and shocked the world with the shower scene and ending, I think it’s a little overrated as a horror movie. (Heresy, I know.)
No, the one that came to mind was The Birds.
There’s a reason for that. See, mom would talk about going to the drive-in growing up, and her parents would go see the “adult” stuff after they thought she’d fallen asleep. Only, she usually hadn’t, and in one such case had the crap scared out of her by The Birds. In an irony of cyclical events, I saw it when I was really young and it scared the crap out of me. (Trust me, if you see this movie at a young age, it will get your overactive imagination working in overdrive for a few days.)
Compared to modern films, this one is antiquated: there’s no sexuality (unlike Psycho), very little blood, and only one fast shot of gore (the dead old man with his eyes pecked out that scared the shit out of mom). The stuffed birds and proto-blue screen technology are so fake it’s painful. Yet Hitchcock had a reputation for a reason, and it’s his directing that makes the film a horror classic.
Why is it scary?
Hitchcock was a master of thrills and suspense long before the thriller genre was coined, and this movie is a showcase of his tension-building. The pacing is spot-on, with plenty of memorable scenes: Tippi Hedron waiting outside the schoolhouse while birds slowly line up on the telephone wires and playground equipment. Trapped in a phone booth, and then diner, during a catastrophic bird attack. The final scenes, escaping through fields covered in squawking birds. And the final fight scene, reminiscent of Night of the Living Dead: normal people holed up in a house, fighting for survival.
What I think makes the film “scary” is its idea: the attack by unexpectedness. Birds are everyday, normal objects; without warning, they suddenly become violent, perturbed, hostile. Nobody expected harmless birds to become dangerous, so there’s no safety measures in place, no expectations for them to be hostile. Would you ever assume that a bird is dangerous? It’s one of the best horror movies taking average, non-threatening things and making them into killers. (Though, when that list covers the spectrum of deadly threats as killer slow-motion rabbits, to killer beds, to killer elevator shafts killing people in the same ways normal elevator shafts do, birds have a leg up: they’re already twice as scary as half that shit. They’re smart, have huge beaks, and can crap on your head.)