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.)
Is it really a horror movie? Not exactly; categorizing it as a thriller is more accurate. But Silence of the Lambs does blend elements of horror with elements of a crime film, and introduced one of the creepiest protagonists to ever grace the silver screen. If it didn’t creep you out… you probably watched it in the middle of a sunny day with a ton of friends or something.
Jodie Foster’s FBI agent is on the hunt for a crazed killer—Buffalo Bill being his going name. And a sick, demented psycho he is: he abducts women, throws them in a pit, starves and tortures them, then shoots and skins them. What’s worse is Foster’s character has to reach out to an even creepier, more demented psycho, the cannibal Hannibal Lecter.
It isn’t just Lecter’s predilections for long pork that make the character creepy: it’s Anthony Hopkin’s fine acting. This is a very smart, well educated man, who just so happens to be a raving lunatic. He hides it well. And he’d better, because the film tricks you into believing he’s the least dangerous person in it, safely locked behind bars, cooperating with the authorities.
Why is it scary?
Again, more suspenseful/tense than scary, being a thriller, but the overlap with horror is notable. Silence is a battle of creepy, deranged personalities: Ted Levine’s Buffalo Bill and Hopkins’ Hannibal the Cannibal. The tension that builds whenever one of them is impressive. Hopkins controls his conversations (and situations), and underneath that polished veneer is a cunning, bloodthirsty mind analyzing his options. Levine’s Bill is the other kind of disturbing: he thinks he’s a woman, but the only way he can think to become one is to tailor his own woman suit.
Again, not the old-fashioned horror movie horror, but plenty of tension and disturbing characters doing disturbing things.
“They’re coming to get you, Barbra!”
George Romero’s vision of the walking dead has done more to influence the zombie film genre than anything else. His undead are grotesque shambling corpses, which you may recognize from most—over half, by any account—of the following zombie flicks. If you look at the history of the zombie film sub-genre, there weren’t that many zombie films before Night of the Living Dead, which picked up in the ’70s and ’80s and exploded in the early 2000s.
The film’s plot is also something that has had a major impact on the genre: a group of random, innocent people trying to survive as hordes of the dead rise up, seeking to feast on flesh. Many modern films/games/novels attempt to justify or explain its zombie background—for example, viruses in 28 Days Later, The Walking Dead and I Am Legend, the latter having more influence on the zombie genre than it had zombies itself.
I think it works better in Romero’s version: we don’t know why they’re up, why they eat people, or anything else. Instead of coming across as campy, it’s damn creepy: those original zombies are complete unknowns, but visible, tangible threats.
It also started a groundswell of independent horror films, with Evil Dead taking the concept and making it into the How-To guide for shooting a budget horror flick. And it managed to add some interesting commentary to the civil rights movement happening around it—the lead male role is that of a black man, a very controversial move for the ’60s. Even if, as Romero claims, Duane Jones was cast only because of his performance, it ended up making an impact on critics and viewers.
Why is it scary?
Two reasons. First, the setting and characters. They’re pretty average, not particularly trained for a zombiepocalypse, nor do they have much group cohesion. They’re isolated, not sure what the hell’s going on, it’s dark out—which is stunning in a black-and-white movie, where Romero uses a lot of great shading techniques—and they’re not well armed. They hold out the best they can, and that’s where the horror comes from: it’d be like if you and some random people were holding out the best you could.
Second, this is the film that launched the zombie genre, and as such isn’t tied down by modern-day formulaic contrivances. Now, when you make a zombie movie, most often it’s a parody/comedy or an intentionally schlocky low-budget flick. Much like with anime and comic books, I think the formula of the genre—the audience’s expectations, and the film’s (or game’s, or novel’s) attempts to meet those expectations—do the genre a disservice, not taking itself seriously as anything but another example in the genre niche. And the zombie over-exposure, like with vampires and werewolves, means they aren’t scary any more on their own.
The b-movie people who hate b-movies love. A trashy horror movie with a philosophical axe to grind. And it’s got Bruce Campbell to boot.
Bruce Campbell is Sebastian Haff, Elvis impersonator in an old folks’ home. Unless he really is Elvis, like he thinks he is. He’s largely bed-bound, left alone with his reflections of past glories and introspection on age and life. His lone friend is Jack, an elderly black gent in a wheelchair who claims he is JFK (dyed black after the assassination attempt, then left to rot). These two must face off against an ancient Egyptian mummy who walks the halls of the retirement villa, slaying old people.
It’s a surprisingly deep movie, all things considered, though its humor is derived from the ludicrousness of the situation. Is this really Elvis? That pill is easier to take than accepting the old black dude is really JFK, but most of all, this is a movie with a mummy that regenerates by sucking the souls of old people out of their assholes. Not something to take seriously, despite its serious introspection from Elvis/not-Elvis on the topics of age and life. This is a complex film, with some great scenes, and an unforgettable performance on behalf of Bruce Campbell.
Why is it scary?
Well… it isn’t? The horror parts are something of a derail to the meditation on old age (and/or sanity), and are somewhat predictable. But that’s part of the fun: in a way, it’s a b-movie parodying b-movies. A lot of the humor comes from the protagonists, yes, but also in the weirdness of the situation: an ancient mummy? Which sucks souls out of somebody’s ass? In an old folks’ home? And these are the only two people who stop it are
Though, it is worth noting that there’s some viable terror here: it’s pitched as a drama in many circles because the horror parallels, and in many cases augments, the film’s philosophical messages: the helplessness and isolation of old age. Horror often uses isolation and helplessness to its advantages; here, the characters start off weak and old to boot. People don’t believe that they’re really Elvis and JFK to begin with, so it’s up to them to prove that they’re not just old and worthless.
You got your science fiction in my horror! You got your horror in my science fiction! Truly a classic, and the iconic horror-SF hybrid. I actually like Aliens a lot more, but that’s not a horror movie, just a military SF movie inspired by a horror movie: this horror movie. And as a horror movie, it’s solid.
You all know the story. A spaceship sets down on an isolated planet to answer a rescue beacon. Crew investigates; finds alien spacecraft piloted by dead giant elephant people. Crew member is attacked by strange egg (rather, contents thereof) and ship beats it the hell out of there. And that’s when the alien spawn bursts its way out of said red shirt’s chest, running amok, killing people, and fouling all attempts to contain it. As a cargo ship, there’s no means to kill the thing; on top of which, a traitorous cyborg is under orders to bring it back to earth at all costs.
At the very least, that H.R. Giger alien design is creepy as all get out. It’s a good example of the change in perspective about aliens: in the B-movie age, they were always humanoid, or “changed form” or abducted or did whatever to become humans, matching the ethnicity of whoever was making the B-movie. Alien was different: it’s an actual alien. And a damn scary one at that. Acid blood, a second mouth, and the design follows Giger’s weird fascination with streamlined form and sexuality.
It’s also worth noting its female protagonist/hero, something that hasn’t been replicated effectively since. Sure, there are a lot of female heroes, and a lot of female protagonists, but few blend those roles simultaneously to become capable badasses like Ellen Ripley. Science fiction has a long, bad habit of placing its female characters in subaltern roles: the chick who gets dragged off by Ming the Merciless, or who harries our hero with her stupidity/romantic subplots/comic hijinks/whatever. (I mean, at least crime novels get femme fatales who can handle guns and wrap men around their fingers.) Alien made some waves by having its protagonist be a capable action hero to stand out from the crowd; the plan worked, and helped launch the careers of the Alien franchise and Sigourney Weaver’s career.
Why is it scary?
The alien is unstoppable and nigh unkillable. The setting is a tight, compacted spaceship laden with ducts and tunnels, floating in the void of space, light years away from help. The corporation views the crew only as meat bags to store their potential new weapon in.
Yeah, there’s a lot of horror in here. Maybe it’s just me, but space should have this psychological horror to it to begin with, even if it’s the subdued loneliness of Moon and not void-induced paranoia of Pandorum. Space is a lot like being underwater: the last place I’d want to be stuck with a killer [insert noun here], because one crack and the walls cave in to crush you. Especially one that bleeds acid, which can melt holes in your ship. And you have no means of defending yourself, no where to go, and nobody to call for help.
The first true horror movie I ever saw, and the only ’50s B-movie that scared me at all. (What can I say, I would have been… seven? Eight? Another one of those Sci-Fi channel movie marathons celebrating Labor Day or Columbus Day or something.) I liked it enough that I taped a later showing, and watched it until the tape burned out. It may not have much actual horror, but it does have good atmosphere for the first third, and some great action scenes for the last acts. Great fun, at least.
Pretty basic plot. Ants were mutated by atomic bomb testing in the White Sands area of New Mexico. They’re now giant, killer, and lurking the countryside in waves. The local authorities find out because some locals are being killed off; now they’re on the hunt to stop the ants from spreading… which they eventually do, leading to a showdown in the Los Angeles sewer system.
At the end of the day, it’s a giant bugs movie, but it’s the granddaddy of all giant bugs movies. I can’t think of a ’50s B-movie that handled its inane giant bugs plot with more seriousness or atmosphere. It has the benefit of lots of post-War military surplus on-hand, it’s filmed on location, its cast is pretty good, and they have some impressive (for 1954) special effects. It’s corny, but it’s also the best example within its genre.
Come to think of it, there is a close second, but it’s more of a Kaiju film. Rodan has always impressed me for the same style of horror: watch the first parts again, with mine workers and military policemen dicking around in a flooded mineshaft, getting picked off one by one. What makes that even better is that they’re dying not from the titular kaiju, but some Cloverfield-esque parasites; when the rodan show up, shit gets real, but most of the movie is over by the time the miniature buildings get wrecked. Much like Them!, if you turned it on without knowing what it’s about, the lurking horror mystery would be really well done. Alas, when there’s a giant rubber animal on the poster, you already know what you’re getting into.
Why is it scary?
To a greater or lesser extent, it isn’t; we all know it’s giant bugs, and there’s only so much horror you can do with giant ants. That said, the movie has a excellent pacing for the first half hour: we don’t see the bugs, just the devastation of their passing. It’s a solid trick to any horror movie: don’t show the monster until it’s too late. Them! does this with style: little girl with a broken doll, busted-out trailer, ruined store and dead shopkeep. If you weren’t paying attention, the mystery of it all would be stunning. Instead, since we know it’s giant bugs, it’s not so much mysterious as deeply atmospheric.
It’s also set in the most isolated setting ever: the desert. There’s nobody around except for the cops, the bumbling scientist, and his daughter. Those two cops were perfectly isolated for the first act; you could chalk that up to “B-movies had no budget” except the film has dozens and dozens of extras running around L.A. for the final fight scenes. It’s a gradual growth in characters as the magnitude of the threat increases, which I think adds to the film’s charm: strange happenings in the New Mexico desert to army dudes driving jeeps around the L.A. sewers.