More Than Shock and Gore
Horror movies abound that rely solely on jump scares or gore to shock viewers, which is why relatively few films in the genre rise above mediocre. As enjoyable as some of the movies are, significant flaws mar their emotional potential. Carrie has some wonderful scenes, but shifts in tone ruin the overall mood as if the film can’t make up its mind what kind of movie to be. Hellraiser has its share of frightening scenes, but the overabundance of gore makes it difficult to watch. And movies like Portergeist suffer from being too absurd, concocting elaborate explanations for the supernatural.
The Blair Witch Project appeared in my original Halloween list. While I still appreciate how this modest, low-budget film proved that you don’t need flashy special effects to successfully create a mood of terror, subsequent viewings have grated on me. The shaky, found footage camera work can be nauseating. The constant whining and arguing of the three companions annoys me. We’ve had some better horror films since then that knock this movie out of the top. So, in alphabetical order, here they are.
The Top 13 Horror Movies
1. Carnival of Souls — 1962, dir. Herk Harvey. While on her way to take a job as a church organist, a woman is haunted by a bizarre apparition. It compels her to an abandoned lakeside pavilion, beginning an eerie chain of events. Harvey’s macabre, low-budget masterpiece, with its appropriately eerie organ score, has become a cult classic.
2. Donnie Darko — 2001, dir. Richard Kelly. Time travel, an improbably terrifying man in a rabbit costume, and a protagonist who may or may not be slipping into mental illness form the mystery here. This cult film straddles sci-fi and horror, yet is much more than either genre. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Donnie Darko, a troubled teenager in suburban Virginia who tries to make sense of seemingly disconnected, baffling threads and hallucinations. Everything finally comes together on the night before Halloween, when Donnie is forced to confront a decision that will change his future, and his past.
3. The Exorcist — 1973, dir. William Friedkin. Even putting aside the hype, this remains one of the all-time best horror films. Ellen Burstyn plays a mother who becomes distraught over the increasingly bizarre behavior of her daughter (played by Linda Blair). Not wanting to admit the possibility that her daughter has become possessed by the devil, she nevertheless agrees to bring in an exorcist. The minimalist music from Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield, which builds slowly and inevitably like the movie, was not originally composed with horror in mind. But just a few bars of the theme can raise the hairs on the back of your neck.
4. Get Out — 2017, dir. Jordan Peele. This film achieves that rare objective: a horror movie with direct, biting social commentary that inverts our expectations. Daniel Kaluuya portrays Chris, a young African American who joins his girlfriend for a weekend getaway to meet her white, liberal family. The family’s ostensible support slowly turns creepy as they fetishize Chris’ black heritage. Turns out that they and their neighbors have something nefarious planned.
5. The Haunting (original version) — 1963, dir. Robert Wise. The movie retells Shirley Jackson’s novel about a paranormal investigator and his three companions who gather in an old house known for its terrible past. Claire Bloom plays the psychologically fragile Nell who slowly falls under the maleficent spell of the house. Despite a few campy moments that don’t date well, the movie still manages to retain its power. Wise understood that terror often lies in what is not revealed.
6. Midsommar — 2019, dir. Ari Aster. Thanks to amazing cinematography, acting, and score, this film achieves an emotionally shocking punch. Who knew that daylight could be so terrifying? Following the traumatic death of her family, a young woman (Florence Pugh) in a dysfunctional relationship accompanies her boyfriend (Jack Reynor) and his classmates on a trip to Sweden. They arrive at a commune to observe a pagan midsummer festival, only to find themselves becoming part of the gruesome ritual. The movie unmasks the horror at the heart of human nature. (Read my post on Bobby Krlic’s amazing score.)
7. Onibaba — 1964, dir. Kaneto Shindo. This black-and-white Japanese horror movie takes place during the 14th century civil wars that rocked the country and resulted in mass starvation. A woman and her daughter-in-law survive by selling the armor of wayward warriors that the two women lure to their death. While the supernatural element remains subtle, the minimalist use of repeated images (such as wind-blown pampas grass beneath a dark sky or the Noh demon mask) creates a terrifying mood.
8. The Others — 2001, dir. Alejandro Amenabar. Nicole Kidman plays a nervous woman who escapes to the English countryside with her two photophobic children during World War II, waiting for her husband to return from the front. This twist on the classic haunted house theme is done with just the right touch of pathos and supernatural dread.
9. Pan’s Labyrinth — 2006, dir. Guillermo del Toro. Del Toro crosses genres in his work, which this Spanish-language film exemplifies. More of a fantasy than a horror movie per se, the plot involves a young girl whose widowed mother marries a cruel captain during Spain’s Civil War. The girl escapes from her bleak surroundings into a world of fairies, fauns, and mythic quests. These parallel worlds, each filled with different kinds of horrors and tests, eventually collide. I debated whether to list instead del Toro’s Crimson Peak, a perfect Gothic mixture of romance, old house, ghosts, and dark secrets. But Pan’s Labyrinth is even more deeply imaginative.
10. Pitch Black — 2000, dir. David Twohy. It may have the facade of a sci-fi movie, but the story actually confronts one of our primal fears: the dark. A merchant ship crashes on a desolate planet where two suns keep the planet in seemingly perpetual daylight. The survivors discover a mysteriously abandoned outpost and slowly come to realize that something horrific waits to be released when the planet is subject to the darkness of a total eclipse. Vin Diesel plays the convict with special vision who they must learn to trust in order to survive the night. This movie scared the pants off me.
11. Psycho — 1960, dir. Alfred Hitchcock. The famous shower scene, heightened by the strident violins in Bernard Hermann’s powerful score. By now most everyone knows about this movie inspired by real-life serial killer Ed Gein. Janet Leigh portrays an embezzler with a guilty conscience. Her change of heart can’t help her when she stops overnight at the Bates Motel, run by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and his mother. Despite the dated pseudo-psychological analysis at the film’s end, the rest of the movie still holds up as a masterpiece.
12. Shutter (original Thai version) — 2004, dir. Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom. A photographer and his girlfriend accidentally run over a young woman who appears out of nowhere on a dark highway, then guiltily flee the scene. The dead woman begins to intrude into their lives, appearing first in photographs and gradually taking on a more corporeal presence. The final scene offers a disturbing image that will haunt you long after the movie ends. Be sure to watch the original Thai version, not the American remake.
13. The Silence of the Lambs — 1991, dir. Jonathan Demme. Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins star in this thriller about an FBI agent who seeks the help of a convicted homicidal psychiatrist to track down a serial killer. Rather than the supernatural, it’s reality that makes this film so frightening, eliciting our fear of the real-life monsters in our midst.
The original silent film version of The Phantom of the Opera, directed by Rupert Julian, appeared in 1925. Lon Chaney starred in the title role about a masked, disfigured musician who haunts the Paris Opera House and falls in love with one of the Opera’s singers. It became famous for Chaney’s intentionally horrific, self-applied make-up. Later remakes, including the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, prove rather lame in comparison to the power and horror of the original.
In Alien (1979, dir. Ridley Scott), the haunted house has been replaced by a spaceship. Sigourney Weaver plays the powerful heroine who battles a relentless alien with her less fortunate crewmates. With an iconic monster designed by H.R. Giger, Alien gave us a creature to haunt our imagination for ages.
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