Let’s face it, most horror films are funny and not remotely scary. They tend to be formulaic to the nth degree in their tales of monsters, haunted houses, now-you-see-him-now-you-don’t slasher serial killers or whichever of the common stories they employ (and heaven knows, how many devils, demons, vampires, werewolves etc. have we seen?) They use scary music to warn you, and camera techniques designed to make you jump, stuff you’ve seen a thousand times before. They are endlessly predictable, even when they employ rivers of gore, grotesque special effects and total dismemberment of the human body (see my previous blog on the subject.)
The difference with this selection is that the directors and script writers take you out of your comfort zone. They introduce innovative ways to make you seriously uneasy, which is why they are cult movies – most people see a horror flick specifically because they enjoy the laughter and ridicule element, where these movies have the capability of scaring the living daylights out of you. Just as a great love song might make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end, so will an authentically scary movie.
From my perspective, the scariest moments are usually about the disintegration of the human mind, precisely because they are more real and closer to us, though that may be just coincidence!
- Repulsion – Roman Polanski reaches the parts of the mind other directors simply never get close to reaching, along with David Lynch (see below), and chills the blood in the process better than any director I know. This psychological horror film, about Catherine Deneuve’s Carol Ledoux gradually losing her mind, is credible to the point that her hallucinations with sexual overtones seem very real.
- Eraserhead – when I first saw Eraserhead in Nottingham, I had absolutely no idea what it was about, nor had I heard of Lynch. This is a classic exercise in weirdness that is so surrealistic you really have little idea what is going on – but that shock tactic is why I remembered it so vividly.
- Blue Velvet – not a horror film as such, but Dennis Hopper‘s performance is utterly terrifying and the whole concept is Lynch’s attempt to subvert the American idyll on its head and examine its seedy underbelly, film noir style. Not a movie you can forget easily.
- Carrie – most of the movie adaptation of Stephen King’s novel you can forget from the horror perspective, but the ending (not in the book) is what people remember. It’s one of those rare moments that make you jump off your seat, if you haven’t already seen it (and I’m not going to spoil it if you haven’t!)
- The Tenant – another claustrophobic movie directed by, and also starring Polanski, gets beneath the skin. The tenant of the title, Trelkovsky, is a quiet and unassuming man living in an apartment block where the residents and landlord share a pathological desire for silence. He is haunted by this, and by the previous resident, Simone Choule, to the point where he loses his mind. Deeply uncomfortable viewing, not least because everyone has been in a similar situation.
- Psycho – because it changed the whole genre (my review linked.)
- The Shining – there are two ways of looking at the Shining: one is that Jack Nicholson (and also Shelley Duvall) go so far over the top you can’t possibly take them or it seriously; the other is that this is another example of a man driven out of his mind to shocking effect. It’s the mind tricks that do it, far more than the flowing ocean of gore.
- The Vanishing – the original Dutch version of Sluizer’s hair-raising thriller, of course, not the wimp-out Hollywood remake. The tension is palpable and the denouement shocking to this day, even if it’s been turned into a cliché by the studios.
- Ring – ditto, the original Japanese version, and for many of the same reasons.
- Rosemary’s Baby – had to include my third and final Polanski simply because the first time I saw it it scared me witless, even though I was no older than about 12 or 13 at the time!