Great Horror Movies
Created | Updated Apr 17, 2018
Since the dawn of cinema, audiences have flocked to theatres for the opportunity to be scared witless, whether it be by dodging death from a speeding bullet or train, or by witnessing a cruel and heartless murder at the hands of a German vampire or East End ripper.
As the horror genre has matured, we can see certain trends coming and going. The America of the 1950s was, if the movies are to be believed, the target of Communist invasions from beyond the stars and a whole yearbook of teenage monsters of all shapes and sizes. In Britain, meanwhile, we stuck to adapting and readapting the literary works of Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley until it became embarrassing for all concerned. The 1970s was not the time to become a priest if The Exorcist, The Omen and any number of copycats are to be believed, while the 1980s saw the rise of the serial slashers like Freddie Krueger, Jason Vorhees and Michael Myers.
With over 100 years of cinematic beastliness to pick from, this entry could never hope to chart every single horror film of note. Instead, it serves merely as an introduction to the Conversations at the bottom of the page, which will continue as an ever-growing addition to the entry itself. Additionally, many of the greats have already been written up as entries in their own right, so there's no use in repeating ourselves here. This then is a general look at what makes a great horror movie, with examples provided by you, the h2g2 Community...
A Brief History of Horror
In the 1930s, young upstart studio Universal wanted a quick buck and went after the horror market with a vengeance. They virtually cornered the market between 1933 and 1945 with a series of films that have since become synonymous with the Universal House style, among them the brilliant Frankenstein, which gave the world one of the most powerful images of horror ever in Boris Karloff's square-headed monster, by James Whale, and Karl Fruend's The Mummy (also starring Karloff), which was perhaps the pinnacle of the marriage of commercial and artistic success for the Expressionists.
Another whole style of film-making was given to us by a Frenchman, director Jacques Tourneur and an Englishman, producer Val Lewton who produced a series of wonderful films in the '40s and '50s. They kicked off with the startlingly feminist Cat People (far superior to Paul Schrader's awful blood-and-sex remake), the childlike fantasy of Return of the Cat People, the simply stunning I Walked with a Zombie and culminating with The Night of the Demon, a strong example of what can be achieved with tight direction, excellent scripts and little budget.
Meanwhile, in the States, the Cold War was on and the invaders took strange shapes indeed. Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Thing taught us to 'Look to the Skies' for our enemies, and both set new standards for clammy-palmed paranoia about the identity of our neighbours (of which, more later). Jack Arnold went to South America and unearthed The Creature From the Black Lagoon, a film which was hugely influential on the young Steven Spielberg (in particular, Arnold's use of water-level cameras was to imprint itself on Spielberg and re-emerge in Jaws).
By then, young English company Hammer had identified a market in horror, and set about exploiting it with a vengeance. With a cast of great British character actors and Freddie Francis' lurid colour photography, Hammer effectively worked their way through the same literary sources that had kept Universal at the top for 30 years.
Simultaneously, Roger Corman had been ploughing his own route back in the US, learning how to make movies without losing a cent, and what wonderful films they were - The Fall of the House of Usher, Tomb of Lygeia (somewhat spoiled by Vincent Price's ridiculous blonde wig), and best of all, The Masque of the Red Death.
As the sixties drew to a close, George Romero took horror by the collar and gave it a shake it would never forget. His cheapie Night of the Living Dead marked the beginning of a new, politically-charged horror cinema - the first movie dealt with racism, the second, Dawn of the Dead, with consumerism, the third, Day of the Dead, with the relationship between science and the military. The horror in Romero's films was the realisation that we, the survivors might be worse monsters than the zombies themselves.
And then there's Dario Argento, whose warped imagination brought us Suspiria, Inferno and Tenebrae, films that dripped menace and conspiracy, where things whispered in the shadows and spoke of things beyond our knowledge. David Cronenberg taught us to fear our own bodies, which are, in his films, ready to rebel and betray us at any time. Wes Craven gave us Nightmares that could kill us and horror with a dream logic. Sam Raimi told us that the only way to deal with horrors is with excessive force and hysterical laughter. The Blair Witch Project taught us again what we had always known - that there are wild places on the earth where we are not meant to be, and where we cannot control things. The Ring gave us rebellious technology and scientific programmes that backfire...
Each of these helped to shape our understanding, not only of filmmaking but also of ourselves - what makes us tick, what makes us sick. So, let's now enter the catacombs and take a look at some of the above in more detail.
All horror movies prey upon our deepest, darkest fears. In the early days of cinema, the sheer thought of seeing moving images on a blank wall was scary enough for some. The first horror film was almost certainly the Lumiere Brothers' L'Arrivée d'un train à la Ciôtat (1896), the infamous shot of a train zooming toward a camera that so terrified early cinema-goers, for whom the train was still a relatively modern invention and had suffered a few PR problems with some well-publicised fatal accidents. From the very beginning therefore, movies played on the ultimate primal fear - death.
As storytelling overtook mere spectacle, the horror film changed its focus to our fear of the dark. Who better to terrify willing audiences than the 'children of the night' - vampires...
I saw it when I was a kid and it scared the cookies out of me. The fact that it was silent made it even creepier. Max Schreck's vampire looked less human than the vampires in modern movies: he had bat-like ears and his fangs were in the middle of his mouth, rather than on the sides as is common now.
The German expressionists - with their weirdly-tilted rooftops and long, stretched out shadows - virtually defined horror for a two decade period between 1920 and 1940, and produced some of the most staggeringly beautiful films ever made - Robert Weine's The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and perhaps most extraordinarily, the hallucinogenic, claustrophobic Vampyre from Denmark's Karl Dryer. But the most influential and widely-seen of the lot was FW Murnau's haunting Nosferatu.
A loose (and unauthorised) adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, Nosferatu was one of the first recognised 'classics' of cinema. Its influence is still seen in movies made today; Francis Ford Coppola kept in several key elements for his supposedly-faithful remake of Dracula, and indeed it inspired the film Shadow of the Vampire, a fictionalised account of the making of Nosferatu that alleged that its star Max Schreck was indeed a real-life vampire. Creepy!
The Premature Burial
Claustrophobia is another primal fear that's played on in a number of films. How many episodes of Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers in the 25th Century ended with walls closing in on our breathless heroes, for example? One of the best examples of this can be found in Roger Corman's 1962 horror classic The Premature Burial, starring Ray Milland. Just think of it - you're locked in a wooden box, and as you start tearing at the lid from the inside, ripping away the satin lining to encounter hard, polished wood, you hear the dull, heavy clump of earth being slowly spaded on top of your coffin. The air's running out and your mind is swimming with fear.
Your heart racing yet?
I didn't have a good night's sleep for months and to this day I occasionally have a nightmare. Now and then I still see the signal rope fall to the floor when pulled and the goblet of poison replaced with one of worms!
Literary critics and psychologists have identified that an essential element of making a movie scary is identifying something as not 'normal'. It might be truly evil, like a monster, it might be something we identify as good but in an environment that is totally alien to ourselves, or it might simply be disturbing because it's not quite the same as ourselves. They identify this element simply as 'other'. 'Other' is a handy short-cut for 'different' - not necessarily bad, just ... different.
An early example of this is Freaks, a 1932 film made by Todd Browning, who'd already given the world an interpretation of Dracula that would be considered definitive for nearly thirty years. Thought to be too unsettling for 'decent folk', it was banned in Britain for decades and remains a rarely shown classic, even in its severely cut-down version. Freaks was made at a time when it was normal for travelling carnivals and circuses to include a 'freak show' ranging from bearded ladies and dog-faced boys to microcephalics (pinheads), hermaphrodites and Siamese twins. The movie therefore is unique in that the villains of the story are the supposedly 'normal' people of this world.
Briefly, the plot revolves around a beautiful trapeze artist from the circus who cons a midget from the 'freak show' into marriage when she discovers he has a substantial amount of money. When she and her lover (the circus 'strongman') plan to kill him after the wedding, the other 'freaks' defend their friend and take a terrible revenge on the so-called normals.
Freaks is not a violent horror movie but it is deeply disturbing and unforgettable. It serves to illustrate how horror works on its most basic level. The reason so many movie heroes and heroines are so square and righteous is that it helps to first identify in the story what we aspire to in society before they introduce the very thing that puts our society at risk, whether that be a manic mad scientist separating his Jekyll from his Hyde, an anatomy student trying to usurp god by making his own, grotesque version of man or... actually any scientist. You'd be forgiven for thinking that the filmmakers are trying to tell us that science itself is bad.
In the paranoid 1950s and '60s, obsessions with Communists, teenage rebellion and nuclear energy manifested themselves in films that identified 'other' as monstrous. Whether it be body-snatching aliens from outer-space, subversive vegetable beings in the Antarctic or just huge mutant variations on ants, spiders and crabs, it was all down to 'radiation' - that magic all-purpose substance that raises the dead and turns innocent teenage boys into Lycra-clad superheroes with sticky palms. Invariably, it all boiled down to being Russia's fault anyway - Russian radiation being much scarier than nice, clean American radiation.
The fear of 'the bomb' didn't disperse after the 1960s though. Futuristic visions of the 1970s were just as bleak (anyone who is non-white must surely find the Caucasian-only vision presented in Logan's Run more than a little worrying). And the 1980s produced a spate of Armageddon-fuelled panic that almost matched the peaks of the McCarthy-led 1950s. As a race, we humans suddenly became very aware of our own mortality at the hands of the all-too-real situation of old men with their fingers sweating over planet-destroying buttons...
Surely the trick to making a particularly scary movie is to make it plausible? Back in the '80s there was a spate of films set during the aftermath of a nuclear war. These were produced during a political climate where it seemed as though this was an inevitability. Being under ten at the time, and possibly slightly naïve, these films seemed to depict what the future of the world was going to be like. This sense of doom and gloom still pervades many films such as The Terminator and the Matrix (and just about any book by Stephen Baxter) though this time it's computers and robots rather than a nuclear holocaust.
Considering the destruction of the World Trade Center, it's probably only a matter of time before there are more films following this avenue of fear. After all a number of films in the '50s and creations such as Quatermass, the Daleks and the Cybermen were developed following the threat of the Nazis and the perceived threat of the Soviets.
The movie industry has never been one to come up with a new idea when a perfectly good one is sitting on a shelf somewhere. The horror novel is a rich topic for discussion which, sadly, will have to wait for another entry entirely. But just a look at some of the literary greats - Lovecraft, Poe, Stoker and Shelley to name but a few - instantly lead to the realisation that the roots of many of the greatest works of cinematic horror can be found in the pages of a book.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Victor Hugo's Gothic classic has been filmed many times, as a silent movie with Lon Chaney, as a live-action tragic romance and even as a Disney film (which spawned a sequel, a concept that should cause anyone who knows how the story ends to shout 'how?!'). But it was the 1939 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (starring Charles Laughton) which was enough for one Researcher to be removed from the cinema in terror with his eyes closed tight. Was it the make-up that unsettled him so, or the scenes of cruelty? The fact that the titular Hunchback could not talk, except to mutter 'The Bells, The Bells, The Bells have made me deaf', the fact he was deaf or just that he was different? In truth, it was probably down to all of these and more. But arguably, it's mainly down to a heart-breaking performance from Laughton which remains the most fondly-remembered of all cinematic Quasimodos.
Possibly the most prolific of book-to-screen authors is the most famous resident of Maine, new England, Stephen King. Responsible for Carrie, Christine, Misery, Salem's Lot, It and Cujo, to name merely a small sample, his skill in tapping into primal fears while also creating characters that could be your next-door neighbour is unparalleled.
One film that regularly tops the horror polls is The Shining. It's debateable whether or not it's fair to call this a 'Stephen King film' as its director, the legendary Stanley Kubrick, made such major changes to the story that King felt compelled to produce his own adaptation (in the form of a TV mini-series) some years later. Still, what remains of the novel contributes to a film many find unsettling yet compelling on a number of levels.
The film is a study of a writer descending into madness at an isolated hotel while his wife and son grow increasingly terrified of him. It takes the standard horror trope - something nasty chases someone nice around a dark and scary place - and inverts it. The nastiness seems to come both from within and without the psychology of the family man and the setting is not dark and gloomy, but for the most part disturbingly bright and empty. The atmosphere of the uncanny, that intangible force that is present throughout the film, is overwhelming, demonstrating that fear resides largely in the unanswered questions of the psyche, and it can be watched again and again, always revealing something new.
The hotel setting of the film provided Kubrick with a maze of corridors to play with (which in turn foreshadows the real maze at the film's climax). But it's not just the claustrophobic atmosphere of the hotel - it's the decor!
Their weird and obsessive patterns reflect the psychology of the main character for one thing. And Kubrick's use of the steadycam following the child on his tricycle around the corridors of the hotel brings us very close to the child's point of view - and the carpets figure pretty heavily there too..
It takes a great horror film to portray scary carpet. The first carpet horror movie, perhaps?
Unique among the horror genre in having a top notch director (Kubrick), a great cast (Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall in full scenery-chewing mode) and a bit of cash spent on the script development and overall production, the net result is a film that (largely) succeeds in its aim of scaring the pants off of everyone.
I thought The Shining was comedic, ridiculous and not at all frightening. Perhaps because I was, and am, a big fan of the book which is nail-bitingly intense, it was particularly hard to stomach this rendering. The movie was so badly cast and took such enormous liberties with the book that it was barely recognisable to me. There was no subtlety - and so many wonderfully frightening scenes from the book were either missed out completely or twisted out of all recognition; it was a crying shame. Of course I don't expect movies to follow the plotline of books exactly, but this went way beyond artistic license and out the other end.
I love Jack Nicholson, but he was the completely wrong actor for this part. He overwhelmed the part totally. Instead of being a generally likeable family man who had some deep problems, and who therefore became the weak link in the chain which the hotel was able to exploit, he instead became this caricature of a psychotic loony, someone I felt no compassion for; he was just weird, annoying and scary in a very banal way. Scary in the sense that being punched in the mouth is scary, but not in the sense that listening to the creaking noises in a dark, unknown house is scary. I prefer my horror a lot more subtle than this.
The wife (Shelley Duvall) was impossible to take seriously - she constantly made me think she was playing it for laughs, her goggle eyed attempts at fear were ludicrous, and she was downright annoying at times. No compassion there either.
As for the boy, well he was a good enough actor, given what he had to work with. Instead of the ominous presence of Tony - the boy's alter ego, who attempts to warn Danny about the Overlook - we have, what? Oh yes, he talks to his finger in a funny voice. If it wasn't so hilarious, it would be pitiful. Saying that, I did not enjoy the limp TV mini-series made by Stephen King either. He wimped out totally on the ending, and the whole atmosphere was bland, and it was basically not very frightening. At least he improved on the casting though, the characters were a lot more true to their original conception.
Such are the dangers of adapting from a critically-acclaimed novel - people will always prefer the original.
Speaking of which...
Sequels and Remakes
Something of a cult-within-a-cult, Japanese cinema is responsible for some of the most beautiful individual frames ever committed to celluloid; awe-inspiring vistas and a sense of history, honour and wonderment that is often sadly missing from Western movies.
However, they can also be pretty disturbing.
One recent example that has certainly captured the imagination of millions worldwide is Ringu ('The Ring'). A reworking of an earlier TV movie (Ringu: Kanzen-ban), the basic story concerns an urban myth surrounding a videotape of seemingly random images. So the legend goes, anyone who sees the tape dies in mysterious circumstances seven days later. Investigating the death of her cousin, a journalist slowly uncovers a ring of terror that leads back to a very strange little girl called Sadako. Sounds pretty tame, but could this really be the scariest film of all time? Our Researchers certainly had trouble sleeping afterwards:
I'm a big fan of films like The Thing, Alien, Eraserhead and so on, but no film had ever really scared me... until I saw the original version of Ring and Ring 2, that is... Every time I hear a screeching noise I think Sadako is around. The scene in Ring 2 where the male journalist is in the video editing suite trying to erase the interview tape is particularly spooky. Maybe it was all the ambient background noise (Evil Dead also has the same atmosphere - the sense that the very air itself is evil), or maybe because the sea generally makes me feel morbid.
It all goes to show that blood and guts aren't required for a great horror film.
Ringu was unsurprisingly, such a success in its home territory that it spawned two sequels - Ringu 2 (1999) and Ringu 0: Baasudei (2000). For those that can't stand to watch subtitled or dubbed films though, there's a handy English-language version courtesy of our friendly neighbourhood Americans. Though it suffers a little from the usual problems with remakes (the biggest of which seems to be people telling you it's not as good as the original), it was still a success in its own right. No doubt a sequel to the remake of the film version is in production at this very moment:
I haven't seen the original Japanese one, but I did go see the American one, and it scared the hell out me! It's probably the scariest movie I have seen in the last ten years. I thought the plot was very interesting and cleverly made. Even after watching it a second time in the cinema, I still had my eyes closed at some of the most frightening scenes.
... I thought at the beginning it would be another ones those stupid teen horror flicks, but I was pleasantly surprised by a more in-depth and unpredictable story. I must say it was one of the scariest movies I ever seen, although no movie so far has ever scared me much. It had elements of The Sixth Sense and The Blair Witch Project, however was ten times better. It left me with a lot of questions which the sequels may answer, like where did the girl come from? How did she use the video tape as a means of spreading her spell? Who made the video tape? I felt that their were two different stories in a way, one about the video tape killing people when they watch it, the other about a strange girl who was murdered...
As with any good horror movie, part of the appeal is the 'collective consciousness' aspect to it - in layman's terms, we all share an empathy which then adds to the atmosphere by being scared as a group. If this sounds like a load of mumbo jumbo, just ask yourself what was going on in this particular group dynamic to make them all share the same experience days after seeing The Ring for the first time:
I loved the American version, if 'loved' is the right word for practically jumping out of my seat in terror - the ushers needed a spatula to scrape us off the ceiling when the lights went up. I went with two friends (we are all women in our 30s) and we were literally screaming the place down. Luckily we were the only ones in the theatre that afternoon or I think we would have been asked to shut the hell up. I just don't do that when watching a horror movie - scream like a kid and try to climb into my friend's chair - on a regular basis, nor do my friends, usually. I also took great delight in the fact that they would cover their faces and then say 'can I look yet?' and I would say yes, just as something particularly horrible came on the screen.
What was really unusual was the way it kept coming back to the three of us at various times; we were still getting an adrenaline rush days later just talking about it. That first night, whenever I closed my eyes, all I could see was the arm coming out of the well. Ugh. And that video sequence at the start of the movie, very disturbing...
An American Werewolf in LondonEver since Universal Studios took a bite at the legend of man-becomes-wolf, the werewolf has been right up there with opera-caped vampires and spare-part Frankenstein monsters at the very top of the horror hierarchy. In 1981, John Landis, perhaps more well-known for his comedy films, gave audiences what many consider the definitive werewolf interpretation in the sublime An American Werewolf in London. Aside from some superb performances, which, aside from Railway Child Jenny Agutter, consided of actors largely unknown outside of trendy New York or West End theatre groups, the thing that really grabs your attention here is the mind-boggling effects sequence that depicts the agony of lycanthropy in full for the first time on screen (no diving behind a handy sofa and popping up hirsute for this wolfman!).
I'm a firm believer that computer graphics don't work on stuff that isn't in space (see An American Werewolf in Paris if you don't believe me1.), but computer graphics wouldn't be able to do this so well. It's a truly horrifying bit of film, as the main character stretches and has his spine change shape and, well, ick...
Incidentally, the Piccadilly Circus location of the porn cinema where the hero meets the ghost of his best friend is currently home for one of a number of Gap stores in central London. Anyone wishing to make any ironic connections between the uses of this location can leave by the nearest illuminated exit...
American Werewolf led to a renaissance for the wolfman. The Howling might have taken sequel-itis to extremes, but the first manages to contain a fair few shocks and screams as well as a surprising departure from the norm for former Avenger Patrick Macnee. The film also contained a nice trail of post-modernism with a number of characters named after famous names from horror history and a few well-chosen clips from the granddaddy of them all, The Wolfman, which starred Lon Chaney Junior (himself, a sequel of sorts, being the son of the man who gave us the first Phantom of the Opera and Hunchback of Notre Dame adaptations).
Whether it's Rosemary's Baby, The Omen or some bloke getting an unexpected blast of pea soup, religion and horror sit hand in hand in movies (why else would Martin Scorsese cast the author of Peeping Tom as the voice of the devil in his version of The Last Temptation of Christ?). One recent film has conned a lot of science fiction fans into thinking they might have prior claim on its fanbase. M Night Shyamalan's film, released in 2002, was on the face of it a small-scale modern interpretation of the science fiction standard - the alien invasion. But on another level it serves as a testament of faith for those who believe in a natural order. And what could be more terrifying for a Christian like Mel Gibson than losing faith in God?
Does it count as a horror film? I certainly found it incredibly unsettling. Shyalaman seems to understand the little things that can scare people - a dog suddenly barking at nothing, a creepy silhouette on the roof, an arm suddenly reaching out from the crops in a field at night, walkie-talkies picking up unearthly sounds. And as for that figure walking by the alleyway in that home-video footage...Telling the story of alien invasions through the eyes of a farming family still struggling to cope with the seemingly random death of the mother, Signs slowly unravels to present an argument that could reassure anyone who's ever argued that 'everything happens for a reason'. Putting their TV in the closet, wearing tin-foil hats to protect against mind-reading technology and finally being glued to TV news coverage of worldwide events as they begin to take place in their own back yard, the film tries to make horror human, to show how almost anyone could react to such a situation.
For me, the suggestion has always been scarier than the monster right in your face. It is the unseen and the barely heard that gets the imagination racing to plant horrors in your mind. A monster leaping out at you is a shock. Shocks are quickly laughed off. The creepy feeling created by not knowing what could be coming for you is one that lasts well beyond the experience of viewing the movie.
Despite a number of effective shock moments - Mel Gibson grabbing a knife from the kitchen to see under a locked door and the appearance of an alien in the family living room being clear high-points - the film does attract a number of critics who find the levels of coincidence not just unbelievable but downright nonsensical.
... if you thought about it at all, people in other parts of the world were fighting the aliens with advanced weaponry (and apparently losing), but we're expected to believe you could kill the aliens just by throwing water at them? What were the aliens going to do when it started raining?!
And if the aliens really wanted to immobilise the world, why didn't they knock out television transmission? There are holes in this story big enough to drive a truck through!
But as another Researcher put it, maybe there's a deep psychological reason why we have this desire to be frightened. Maybe it's just catharsis for latent xenophobia, or just a mistrust of other life forms that might have intelligence that could threaten our position at the top of the food chain. Perhaps green scaly things that want to take our children's body parts and transplant them into themselves is just genuinely nasty.
Or perhaps, as fans of a genre that has always been thought of as second-rate and 'cheap', we're just afraid of accepting films that seem as open to nitpicking as some of the less high-profile films we adore.
Some films put aside sophisticated metaphors and political messages and deliver horror at its most basic. The 'splatter movie' is a sub-genre favoured by film students as all it really requires is a hysterical woman and an account at a local abattoir. Filmmakers such as Roger Corman, Francis Ford Coppola and Peter Jackson might have started their careers in horror, but it takes a skilled technician and a strong stomach to work in that particular type of film for a lifetime. George Romero pioneered many of the staple ingredients of splatter in his Living Dead trilogy, but for the real gut-wrenching blood-fests, you might need to dig a little deeper into the low-budget bargain bin at your local video store. What really marks these out above the rest is their general reliance on black comedy to make an impression almost as indelible as the blood and guts. Here are a few honorable mentions...
Re-Animator, Basket Case and Brain Dead
Re-animator (Stuart Gordon, 1985) is widely-regarded as one of the funniest horror movie ever. The plot is an update of a story by HP Lovecraft that involves the misadventures of young medical student, Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs), who arrives at Miskatonic University after some unpleasantness at a Swiss laboratory involving an exploding head. West is obsessed with the development of a serum which will revive the dead (the serum is fluorescent green, naturally - or unnaturally, really). His experiments soon draw in fellow student Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott). Starting with a dead cat and working their way up to (stolen) human cadavers, the pair soon discover that an injection of the glowing fluid does in fact revive the deceased, with the unfortunate side-effect that the re-animated corpse (feline or human) becomes a homicidal maniac that has to be killed again, usually in an inventively gruesome way. However, West's dedication to medical science will not let him abandon the experiments, and things start to go horribly wrong...
Extremely gory and not for those who like their horror movies 'de-caf', it is, however, extremely funny throughout (as long as you have a deep black sense of humour). It features some deliberately cheesy dialogue and performances best described as 'controlled OTT' - that is, overacted but not to the point of being irritating. The plot builds up pace from the beginning and the final third is a manic, blood-soaked farce featuring classic scenes such as a decapitated zombie with his own head in hand threatening West. Our hero's response: 'Who's going to believe a talking head? Get a job in a sideshow!'
If you like this kind of approach, you might also appreciate Basket Case (Frank Henenlotter, 1982) - mutant conjoined-twin fun for all the family. The gore-count in the œuvre of Frank Hennenlotter takes some beating. In Brain Damage, a turd-like slug parasite injects hallucinogenic drugs into the brain of a teenage boy and then rips the brains out of everyone the boy knows. The best titled film of Frank's though is Frankenhooker. It just tells you exactly what it's all about in the title...
Meanwhile, fans of Lord of the Rings might want to avoid Braindead2 (Peter Jackson, 1992). Featuring a Kung-fu priest spiking zombies off the ground and the greatest lawn mower scene ever, this movie is by far the goriest bloodfest ever made. If you found Jackson's visualisation of Tolkien's mind hard going, you might not be able to stomach what goes on in this one...
Bad Taste was the first place I saw a film getting a standing ovation (when the head and spinal column was drop kicked out of the window). Low (really, really low) budget, good lines, and Mr Jackson himself in an acting role. Braindead was in a similar vein but with more money [in the budget] and zombie sex.
Of course, no horror compendium would be complete without mention of Sam Raimi's Evil Dead trilogy. Of the three, the one that seems to work best for audiences is the second, with its uneasy combination of gore and giggles in equal measure. Containing everything a good schlock-horror should have, it also boasts portals, ancient tomes, zombies, protagonists being killed off and much, much more.
It stars Bruce Campbell as Ash, a man who seems to fit equally well into heroic and comedic situations who represents the 'everyman' in the sequence of increasingly outlandish events that start with a creepy old house and end with time travel back to the Middle Ages courtesy of a spooky book, juggling chainsaws and sawn off shotguns, more blood than you could shake a stick at and of course the whole 'possessed hand' issue along the way.
Under the bracket of 'serious' horror, The Thing, an update of the 1950s Thing from Another World, is a masterpiece from John Carpenter that must be in the running for best picture. Claustrophobic, tense, chilling, paranoid and futile, with some truly iconic moments. From the start with a sled dog being hunted from a helicopter to the shambles left at the end this is a film that will put you through the wringer.
And a Few More to Keep You Up at Night
Dead of NightOne of the best British chillers has to be Dead Of Night (1945) starring Mervyn Johns and Michael Redgrave. It was one of the first 'portmanteau' horror films, and featured several stories, (one of which was written by HG Wells) all linked by a group of people in a remote cottage recalling tales of ghosts, strange coincidences, evil mirrors, malevolent puppets and golf. The stories themselves vary from light comedy to out and out bone chillers, especially the last story, about a ventriloquist's dummy tormenting his owner, Michael Redgrave. It's still available on VHS, and if you look closely, you can see a young Peter Jones (voice of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) playing a bartender.
The most effective kind of horror movie for some is not the in-your-face shocker, but the kind that plants a time bomb in your subconscious. Undoubtedly, the prime example of this type of film has to be David Lynch's Eraserhead. The main character, a disturbed young man played by Jack Nance stumbles his way through a derelict urban landscape and through life in general, but is brought up short when his girlfriend gives birth to a hideously deformed baby (a giant sperm). She leaves him 'holding the gamete'; he takes up residence in a claustrophobic hotel room where he looks after the monster child and begins to go mad.
The atmosphere in this film is consistently oppressive, leavened only by the odd moment of gut-wrenching revulsion (the scene with the baby getting measles, for example), and it seems that after about an hour of watching it, the viewer is faced with a stark choice: turn off the video or go insane along with Nance. I chose the former option and went to bed (with the light on): I have never been able to sit through to the end of this film so if anybody wants to tell me what happens, I'll happily come and visit them at their psychiatric institution.
The Blair Witch Project
The stark simplicity and reality of The Blair Witch Project was its greatest success. Lost in the woods, hearing noises, things moving and with just a camcorder for company, the trio of students who became our guides were cast to be as 'realistic' as possible to the extent where, even after seeing the film, many remained unsure of whether or not the story was in any way 'true'. Filmed as a documentary, the footage contained no music whatsoever which made it very strange, and very convincing.
The very fact that you never knew whether the creature/monster/whatever was 'real' in the kids' reality is what did it for me, especially at the end when you realise the imprtance of everything that was said at the beginning in the interviews about people who had died. But then I'm a big intellectualist when it comes to fear - what I create in my mind is always worse than what's on screen. With gore I go 'ewww' and freaky guys running around in capes I just kinda laugh.
Blair Witch Project scared me. In my personal opinion, the horror movies that work solely on the basis of psychological terror are much more powerful, at least with me. The blood and gore, while not funny, is just not that scary in my opinion.
Alien, Aliens and Alienses Galore...
You're in a place you can't get out of - an air-tight spaceship - with something you can't beat or get away from - an acid-drooling, chest-ripping monster that wants to eat you alive - and the closest help is several light years away. If this is your worst nightmare, just remember - in space, no-one can hear you scream... or cry... or throw up...
The atmosphere created by the designs of Swiss biomechanical artist HR Giger are perfect for the film, as is the rather cheesy and run-down Nostromo. Sure, the crew quarters are everything we've come to expect from sci-fi spaceships - white, clean, clinical - but outside of that it's just another tramp steamer. Then there's the politics of the company, the internal politics of the crew, and the politics of the military who want this creature for a weapon.
Subverting the horror cliché by having the last survivor a woman who refuses to be a screaming damsel in distress, Alien became one of the most influential sci-fi/horror movies of the late-20th Century, spawning a franchise of sequels, comic books and model kits unseen since the 'Golden Era' of Universal creature-features.
Not Even the End...
... which brings this entry to a close. But, as ever, the discussion is not over. Feel free to add your own suggestions and comments in the Conversations below, and remember - don't have nightmares!
(But remember to check under the bed before you go to sleep...)
As already mentioned, h2g2 already boasts a number of entries that might whet your appetite for the unnerving, unsettling or just plain scary. Why not print off some of the following for some visceral late-night reading?
- 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show' - the Experience
- 'Peeping Tom' and 'Psycho': Reinventing The Horror Film
- 'Dracula' - the Hammer Horror Film
- B-Movies - a Guide to Some of the Best, the Worst and the Strange
- Freddy Krueger - the Film Character
- Paul Wegener's Golem Films
- 'Night of the Living Dead' - the Film
- 'The Exorcist' - The Film
- The 'Planet of the Apes' Phenomenon - the Original Films