I’m not really a fan of horror. In my mind I’ve always seen it as a sort of pornography: a catalogue of exploitative (often cheaply made) movies that, at their worst, seek to operate as simulated snuff movies. There is just something about horror that turns me off. Especially when you bring the so-called torture porn films, such as ‘Saw‘ and ‘Hostel‘, into the equation. I have too much empathy. I don’t want anyone to die, and I can’t get any pleasure from it. But a look at the titles listed in Matt’s “31 Days of Horror” poll is a wake up call.
The poll includes such a diverse array of titles as ‘Jaws‘, ‘The Thing‘, ‘Alien‘, ‘Let the Right One In‘ and ‘The Shining‘. It is hard to imagine anyone who claims to enjoy cinema not at least appreciating all five of those pictures. I certainly enjoy and admire them all greatly, so I started to think; maybe this horror thing isn’t so cut-and-dry?
As Adam Rayner so ably covered in his own “top ten horror movies” list, classifying what is and isn’t horror is a potentially tricky business. Isn’t ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves‘ horror? If you were a youngster in 1937, then the scene where Snow White gets lost in the woods, after narrowly escaping being axed to death (at the order of her evil stepmother), would no doubt have been fairly scary stuff.
You could even see many war movies as horror, in the way that many work by creating tension about who will die next, and how. ‘Apocalypse Now‘ is an example of one such war film that has a horror movie sensibility – especially in its unsettling portrayal of the Brando character. And few would deny that ‘Schindler’s List‘ is truly horrific, with Spielberg even referencing horror conventions: generating suspense in his shooting of one particular shower scene, with one shot of a shower head possibly in homage to Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho‘.
How about superhero movies? For instance, Tim Burton’s original ‘Batman‘ plays on the conventions of the vampire film in its opening scenes.
Once you start thinking about it the lines are fuzzy. Genres are really quite thinly defined and probably owe as much to audience reaction as they do to the filmmaker’s intention, for example the “drama” ‘The Room‘ now does the rounds as a comedy owing to how poorly made it is (the same is true of any Ed Wood movie). Genre definitions are not static. Instead they are shifting with films finding new meaning based on their historical and social context.
Some old, traditional horror films have arguably lost their ability to scare audiences over time. Watching an old Universal monster movie from the 1930′s might be interesting or even entertaining, for those with an interest in film history: but does ‘Bride of Frankenstein‘ retain its ability to genuinely terrify the viewer in a modern context? If not: does it still work as “horror”?
I don’t know whether horror movie purists would accept my definitions or agree with any of these examples, but I guess it doesn’t matter. Rather than trouble myself with that, I’ve decided to form my own short list based, not on rigidly defined genre classifications, but on one simple question: which films have scared or disturbed me? In no particular order, the following are a few of my answers to that simple question.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)
The first film I was taken to see at the cinema. I was only three (so I am relying on anecdotal evidence on this one), but I’m reliably informed that Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) scared the hell out of me. Looking back on the movie now it is easy to see why. Do you remember the scene where Doom slowly sinks that helpless cartoon shoe into “the dip”, erasing him from existence? Has anything more macabre ever happened to a cute cartoon character? And near the film’s climax, Doom’s eyes light up and pop out of his skull in a way which is pretty creepy. ‘Roger Rabbit’ is, incidentally, still my favourite Robert Zemeckis movie (sorry Gareth Bunkham).
Jurassic Park (1993)
As a dinosaur-obsessed eight year old, seeing the (then brand new) CGI velociraptors chasing kids around a kitchen was about as jumpy as it got. Horror movie conventions are exploited with considerable skill throughout ‘Jurassic Park’: for instance, the raptor shadow seen by a terrified Lex, looming behind her younger brother, Tim, combined with the way her spoonful of jelly starts shaking to reflect her fear. Then there’s the optical trick Steven Spielberg employs which sees a carnivore dive for the kids, only to smack into a metal reflective surface (the whole sequence serves as a textbook example of how to generate suspense). When Samuel L. Jackson’s severed arm (complete with a bloodied stump) drops on Laura Dern’s shoulder, it is clear that this creature feature owes just as much to horror conventions as ‘Jaws’.
I’m not making any great claims for the Ron Underwood directed ‘Tremors‘ as an outstanding film. In fact I haven’t seen the B-movie like sci-fi-comedy for many years – and, in truth, remember very little about it. But what I do remember is that it made a big impact on me as a kid after I stumbled upon it on television some time in the mid-90s.
For those that don’t know, ‘Tremors’ is about great big worm monsters that feel the vibrations of people walking on the ground above and strike from below, eating the inhabitants of small Nevada town one-by-one. The setting was a dusty, dessert area which happened to resemble an alley that sat next to the house where I grew up. After seeing the movie, on occasions when I could bring myself to use the alleyway at all, I would run for my life to the other end as quickly as I could. It would be many years before I could leave the safety of tarmac without at least a hint of Tremors-based fear.
Perfect Blue (1997)
This Japanese animation from the late (and sadly missed) Satoshi Kon, is really very dark and disturbing. Described by Roger Corman as being something like the result of collaboration between Alfred Hitchcock and Walt Disney, ‘Perfect Blue‘ follows a young, female J-pop star as she tries to escape a brutal serial killer.
The film satirises the mass media age, generating fear from the emergence of the internet (then a fresh concern) and from the dangerous and disturbing obsession with celebrity of modern popular culture (maybe more relevant now, a decade later). A smart and intense psychological thriller, ‘Perfect Blue’ features scenes of graphic, visceral violence and some genuine shocks, which make it one of the most effective examples of horror I have ever seen.
Dead of Night (1945)
One of the very best films made by the great Ealing studios, this horror – which is made up of several distinct stories shot by the studios top directors – is one of the most enduring and influential films of its kind. The most famous segment is without doubt the ventriloquist’s tale, later remade as a feature in the form of 1978′s ‘Magic’ (which starred Anthony Hopkins). This is certainly the most chilling part of the film: a tale of madness and murder shot with great invention by Alberto Cavalcanti.
‘Dead of Night’ may be the only traditional horror movie on my list, but my favourite moment isn’t scary at all. Instead, the reason I so enjoy the film is down to a charming, comic segment: a ghost story which sees Ealing’s favourite comedy duo, Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, cast as two golf obsessed best friends. Very dry, and quite endearingly mad, the scene is an excellent riff on the notion of haunting.
Lars Von Trier’s perhaps wilfully controversial ‘Antichrist’, lambasted as misogynistic after it played at Cannes (and claimed by its director to be the result of a deep depression), is a solidly disturbing and tense viewing experience. Mostly fuelled by media panic about its content, I watched the film filled with dread and apprehension at what might unfold onscreen. In the end the film is mostly quiet and beautifully shot, if a little pretentious, and actually quite low on shocks and scares.
But two horrifically violent and graphic scenes take place near the end (including a close-up of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character circumcising herself with a rusty pair of scissors), which give the film its reputation. I find it very hard to isolate the conditions of how I first saw it from the actual craft of the film itself, so I have little real idea how effective it is removed from that context, but ‘Antichrist’ stands as a rare case where the angry reactionary journalism surrounding the film actually (in a way) contributed to the art, as opposed to just the box office.