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The 10 Best Horror Films: One Cinephile's Opinion
Many people seem to erroneously and inexorably associate gore and mass murder with the film genre, “horror.” Let me liberate readers from that misconception. Horror films are much more diverse and effective, and are often able to instill great fear (as is their purpose) without any gore. The goal of horror films is to create a very physical, primal response in their audiences: dread, fear, panic, or alarm. To evoke such terror in their viewers, they typically use some element of the unknown, whether supernatural or grossly abnormal.
Classifications of cinematic genres are artificial constructs, merely a matter of semantics. One person may dogmatically insist that to adhere to the stipulations of the horror genre, the terror must be generated by something supernatural. Another may say that significant gore is necessary, so a film that engenders horror with little blood doesn't qualify. These can be nothing more than mere opinions, for no higher authority exists to mandate the stipulations of "horror." Consequently, my definition is deliberately broad and inclusive. I tend to see through an evolutionary lens. When did the desire to terrify enter the cinematic sphere? What devices were used? How have films striving to horrify viewers evolved over the last century of filmmaking? What is most effective? My list is therefore in order of age, starting with the earliest horror film.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari
Dir. Robert Wiene
This was the first film shown as part of the Expressionism series of my German film class in college. To modern viewers accustomed to gimmicks and assaultingly shocking scenes at every corner, the ingenuity of this film may be lost. To any true lover of the film, this is an important experience. Many of the conventions we have come to expect originated with this film. Highly stylized architecture, unnerving visual distortions, and a contrast between dark and light are central motifs in Expressionism, used to represent the imbalanced psychological state of the character(s). In this film more than any other, these elements come together beautifully, making my heart race each time I watch it.
This is the origin of horror: a challenge to one’s perception of reality. It emerged in a country that was undergoing such psychological turmoil that mass genocide soon after ensued, at which point these ingenious directors fled to Hollywood. I cannot imagine what today’s horror genre would look like today without German Expressionism, or if it would exist at all.
Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror
Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens
Dir. FW Murnau
Bram Stoker’s book, Dracula, would have been translated to film eventually with or without this adaptation, but Nosferatu was the first and, in my opinion, most effective version. Anyone acquainted with silent film surely recognizes this film’s director, FW Murnau, a cinematic savant whose technological ingenuity advanced the development of film. His cinematographic techniques, such as accelerated film and double exposures, in addition to the stylized use of shadow characteristic of German Expressionism, give Nosferatu an eerie aesthetic. To viewers that do not appreciate Murnau’s innovations, I urge you to remember that moving pictures had only been around for ten years or so.
I was lucky to have seen this film twice with a projector, once even with a live score. This is a necessarily atmospheric film that requires the right viewing environment: a large screen, dark room, and classic score. The original music was lost, but some used in today’s editions feel closer to what was typical of the time than others.
Side note: This title character would have taken the name Dracula but Stoker’s widow refused to allow it and even insisted that the film, which was a faithful copy of Stoker’s book, be shut down.
Dir. Alfred Hitchcock
The ability of this film to inspire fear shocked me. When I saw Psycho just last year, I thought I knew what to expect. I had already seen Hitchcock’s Spellbound, Notorious, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, Vertigo, North by Northwest, and The Birds; though these were often suspenseful, truly frightening moments were rare. Hitchcock had the unparalleled ability to locate the horrific in a setting familiar to viewers, centering on ordinary, relatable protagonists put in criminal situations. Antagonists in Hitchcock’s films are not monsters, like the vampires, beasts, aliens, or werewolves of 1940s and 1950s horror, but rather, they are ostensibly normal people. By 1960, Hitchcock had nearly perfected the art of manipulation; we relate to Marion Crane and expect her to continue as the heroine throughout the film, until her shocking demise after only about forty minutes. Without our consciously choosing or even realizing it, Norman Bates has usurped the role of the protagonist and we find ourselves concerned about the wellbeing of our hero, building up to a deeply distressing conclusion.
The already well-known director filmed Psycho with the camera crew he used for his television show rather than his usual expensive feature crew. The low-budget, black-and-white filming recalled the visceral feel of German Expressionism-inspired noir films. The famous shower scene proves that artistry of filmmaking and slashing orchestral music, in conjunction with a deliberate absence of gore, are effective in inciting fear in viewers by inspiring imaginations and putting the audience in the experience. We may expect gore in modern horror films but it is clearly unnecessary.
One can perhaps see how Hitchcock may have been inspired by his Expressionist countrymen in the making of Psycho. Using innovative photographic techniques and camera angles, he strove to portray the perspective of the characters, thereby transferring the horror they experienced to the viewers. Darkness and silhouettes are central motifs. The musical score deserves special attention for its crucial role in inciting fear for the audience.
Night of the Living Dead
Dir. George A Romero
The zombie genre has exploded in the last decade, to the embarrassing extent that a TV show depicts paranoid individuals’ crazed preparation for zombie attacks. Perhaps they do not realize that the concept was commercialized in this 1968 cult classic, though it was brought to screen thirty years earlier—zombies, in my opinion, are a merely commercial concept inspired by our inherent fear of cannibalism. Though criticized as a B-movie with no cinematic expertise to speak of and a very low budget, this film’s undercurrents of nihilism and disillusionment with government offer their own merits.
This movie was—and remains to this day—a terrifying gore-fest whose antagonists are not supernatural or alien, but cannibalistic humans and the racist, incompetent members of our own defense agencies. While perhaps mundane to today’s audiences, this was unheard of in 1968 and offers controversial commentary on the Vietnam War. Almost as shocking as its plot was the African American star of the film.
Dir. Roman Polanski
Polanski generously uses uncomfortable, voyeuristic shots that emphasize the distance between characters or between a character and the audience. With Rosemary’s Baby and its predecessor Repulsion, he has thoroughly proven his ability to place his audience inside the troubled minds of his female protagonists, illustrating their mental instability as they unravel. Thanks to his camerawork, the script, and brilliant performances, even the most innocuous interactions inspire in us deep discomfort, suspicion, and dread. Every moment is carefully calculated, every aesthetic element skillfully designed, every emotional effect manipulated—this is a near-perfect horror film. This movie left me with an unnerved feeling for days. Worth consideration, though, is the possibility that female viewers feel more violated watching this than males do.
Inspired by Hitchcock’s propensity for locating the horrific in normal life, and bringing to it the supernatural, Rosemary’s Baby is a seminal work in modern horror that led to a procession of masterpieces of satanic horror, most notably including The Exorcist and The Omen. His visually stunning dream sequences are an ingenious novelty.
I cannot feign to imagine how the original audiences of The Exorcist, who were less desensitized than today's viewers, felt in response to this shocking, utterly horrifying assault. Many children of the '60s site this as the most terrifying film they've ever seen.
Critics cite the film's onslaught of in-your-face horror in lieu of the nuanced, atmospheric terror achieved by arguably more ingenious direction. Indeed, the revolting result led to incidents of nausea and fainting in theaters, as well as banning of the film in several countries. The aggressively terrifying style, which relied heavily on make-up and voice-over effects, instigated a new branch of the horror genre.
The release of this film coincided with a crisis of the Christian faith in the US, predominantly among Protestants. The percentage of Americans identifying as non-Catholic Christians exhibited its sharpest drop ever in the five years preceding the film's release, declining 10% between 1967 and 1972. The protagonist's own doubts of faith reflect a nationwide trend. I have read several reports of viewers who were inspired to reconnect with Christianity after watching the film.
Dir. Ridley Scott
The tension in this film is almost unbearable. Scott’s camerawork recalls Kubrick’s, exhibited in 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange prior to the filming of Alien. Scott is a master of visually breathtaking scenery. Every element of this film’s design was carefully calculated and unorthodox methods were often applied to achieve his desired image: dry ice wreaked havoc on the actors by sucking oxygen out of their spacesuit helmet tubes; “moistness” was applied liberally to cause discomfort for audiences unaccustomed to seeing so much wetness in space. Careful light effects perfected the atmosphere, playing an important role when the environment looked otherwise too much like a set. Perhaps most significant is the beautifully executed alien itself, inspired by a desire to create something both organic and human-like.
Jerry Goldsmith’s score entices us during the title sequence and keeps us on edge until the very end. Some may find the pacing too plodding, but to me, it is critical for building tension and does so with grace and deliberation when combined with a tense, claustrophobic score and meticulous camerawork. I am irritated by audiences’ increasing impatience, which leads directors to cut long scenes in favor of slasher-style horror and constant action. Scott’s cinematography jars the audience visually by juxtaposing clean, aesthetically pleasing Steadicam shots in the beginning and an increasing frequency of manic handheld shots.
Dir. Stanley Kubrick
This is the scariest film I have ever seen. To me, The Shining is one of the greatest cinematic masterpieces in existence and earns Kubrick a permanent position on the list of best directors. Kubrick's famously fastidious direction instills each moment, however benign, with calculated dread. Like Hitchcock, Kubrick meticulously controls every element of production, from the nerve-wracking score to the symmetrical, 1:66:1 ratio camera framing to his choice of rolling, blue titles, which he agonized over.
I first saw The Shining at a Halloween party when I was eleven years old. I had not been at all desensitized by the gore-ridden horror films that I have seen since, and furthermore, I had no expectations about the film. As someone who tends to "live" rather than merely watch films, I was especially affected by Kubrick's brilliantly nuanced direction. Just watching the opening credits now, my heart pulses with fear.
Fans of Steven King's book may dislike Kubrick's adaptation. The novel tells the story of an ostensibly normal family that is thrust into chaos by supernatural phenomena. It's a ghost story. King envisioned Wendy Torrance as a buxom, blonde cheerleader-type, and Jack Torrance as an average-looking guy; he was opposed to the casting of Shelley Duvall and Jack Nicholson in their respective roles. These critics lament Kubrick's selective amendment and omission of plot elements from the book, but they fail to recognize that his vision is different from that of King-- he had no intention of making a faithful adaptation of someone else's concept. Kubrick was more interested in psychological horror than ghosts. His film skillfully depicts the descent into madness of three isolated individuals, deliberately leaving open the possibility that the ghosts are merely constructs of an insane mind.
Dir. John Carpenter
The Thing received mixed reviews from critics and audiences, and has met success predominantly with cult horror aficionados. I understand why: its cinematography was less effective at building tension and less aesthetically pleasing than its extra-terrestrial horror predecessor, Alien, and the story on which it was based had already been adapted to film in 1951. I see Carpenter’s horror classic as altogether different, set apart from its contemporaries by its singularly terrifying, apocalyptic premise. It does not strive to build tension atmospherically in the vein of Alien; it doesn’t need to. The antagonist is not so simple as those in other horror films: flesh-eating zombies, psychotic murderers, enormous aliens, and so on. As with many horror films, this revolves around a small group of isolated friends and colleagues, but unlike the others, they themselves are the enemies. The "thing” takes the form of anything it kills, transforming into each of the men one-by-one. The remaining humans, and the audience, cannot trust anyone. Consequently, every scene, including mere conversations between friends, incite fear.
As the film progresses, it becomes increasingly grim and nihilistic. Viewers leave with a heavy, depressed, hopeless feeling, as is seldom incited by films. I am surprised by negative reviews that rebuke Carpenter for this achievement; he succeeded in exactly what he intended and concluded his masterpiece on a terrifyingly ambiguous but inevitably grim note.
Modern audiences may not be impressed by the make-up effects. At times, they seem more comic than scary, but I appreciate their novelty. One of my favorites scenes is the slow separation of Norris’s head from his body and its subsequent growth of legs and tentacles.
The Silence of the Lambs
Dir. Jonathan Demme
Where The Shining, Alien, Rosemary's Baby, and Psycho thrive on the calculated effect of fastidious direction on their audiences, the success of The Silence of the Lambs owes to strong character development portrayed by great actors. In retrospect, I am astonished that Anthony Hopkins and Jody Foster were cast in their respective roles only with great hesitation.
The hero, Clarice Starling, is vulnerable but must feign strength and indignation to succeed in an oppressive world. Though she may not command our fascination as Hannibal does, she appeals to us and we find ourselves identifying with her, if only because we are led to see through her eyes by a camera that tracks her every move. Our identification with her makes Hannibal's affection for her all-the-more appealing to us.
We love watching Hannibal: he is witty, unusual, brilliant, and compelling. However mercilessly he murders innocent people, we don't want harm to come to him. Is it because we enjoy every moment that he spends on screen? Or because his conversations with Clarice are so engaging? Or is it because we genuinely like him? Like Nosferatu, Caligari's automaton, Frankenstein's monster, and Norman Bates, Hannibal Lecter is condemned for simply behaving according to his nature. We cannot help but sympathize with them. Our relationship with him as viewers is complicated by our disgust at his gruesome actions, which are notably more evil than the havoc caused by his fellow anti-heroes.
Ted Levine deserves mention here as well. His embodiment of the serial killer Gumb seems so complete that I would be afraid to encounter him on the street.
Below are some of my cherished horror-like films that, for whatever reason, don't quite fit the genre in my eyes.
The Bride of Frankenstein (1935; James Whale)
Though highly regarded by critics as an iconic horror film--superior to its predecessor (Whale's Frankenstein in 1931) and the onslaught of monster movies that followed, The Bride of Frankenstein failed to receive mention on my primary list of the greatest horror films simply because it didn't scare me. It is a witty, charming and poignant deviation from Shelley's novel, spearheaded by a director who used free reign over the production to express himself. Wit and humor share the stage with compassion and recognition of human error.
Diabolique (1955; Henri-Georges Clouzot)
This is a classic of suspenseful cinema, revolving around a murder plot on a satanic boarding school headmaster by his wife and mistress. Along the way, twists and turns in the plot build tension in a Hitchcock-like fashion. It's cruel and enticing, with no particularly likable characters to make the ending too unsettling.
Eyes Without a Face (1959; Georges Franju)
I relish the rare opportunity to experience a film without preconceptions. When I saw Eyes Without a Face, I had no expectation of the reactions it would soon ignite: fear and shock. Christiane seems to float with grace, despondency, and creepiness, while her mask eerily hides emotion. Surely I read the premise prior to watching, but I certainly did not expect a movie filmed in 1959 to show the seemingly endless cutting out of a woman's face.
Peeping Tom (1960; Michael Powell)
Powell's final film, after which he was shunned from the screen, offers a lurid look at voyeurism, violence, and the perverseness of male sexuality. His insight is particularly relevant in today's voyeuristic culture, steeped in CCTV monitoring and reality TV. At the time, the film industry was offended by the suggestion that filmmaking could be compared to a morbid or sexual desire to gaze. The tenderness with which the handsome, ostensibly mild-mannered lead portrayed his murderous character further outraged the film's viewers.
Repulsion (1965; Roman Polanski)
Repulsion is a brilliantly unnerving, utterly appalling French film directed by Polanski, which predated his American debut (Rosemary's Baby). Catherine Deneuve's physical attractiveness--quite the ideal of feminine beauty--makes her mental deterioration, laconic demeanor, and violent aversion to the opposite sex all-the-more disturbing. Polanski emphasizes the apartment's oblique angles, and thereby the assault on Carole's psyche from the outside world, with distorted sets and widening lenses. Phallic objects abound, adding weight to her fears of the men trying to court her.
The Wicker Man (1973; Robin Hardy)
The first hour of The Wicker Man tell an interesting story and apprises its audience of all the information that we would need to deduce the events of the final scenes. The climax was already upon me before I realized what I had been suckered into. It is a fascinating film that compensates for the necessary slowness of the first hour with the truly terrifying twenty minutes at the end.
Iconic Horror Films that I Haven't Seen
Due to a diminishing availability of films on Netflix and the apparent annihilation of movie rental stores, there are several horror films that I am eager to see. These are at the top of my list:
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
The Innocents (1961)
The Changeling (1980)
The Haunting (1963)