There is an unfortunate tendency among casual horror viewers to judge a genre entry based on whether or not it is “scary.” This is odd, as it represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the definition of the word “horror” itself. Horror is a fairly broad term, encompassing feelings of fear, shock, or disgust; of those three sensations, only fear is covered by the word “scary.” Since the 1970s, genre criticism has largely focused more the importance of shock and disgust; most noteworthy horror seeks to induce discomfort in the audience with abject and uncanny imagery. When a horror movie settles for just trying to scare, it’s usually because the filmmakers are taking the most intellectually lazy approach to the genre, engaging in a mere technical exercise.
However, there are a few genuinely great horror movies that, in addition to stimulating the audience’s sense of horror, also manage to be legitimately frightening. Here are ten of the movies that managed to work that scary magic on me.
There’s something inherently unsettling about silent cinema in general – the added distance from verisimilitude that comes from the lack of sound, and from the requisite non-naturalistic acting style, immediately plunges the viewer into an environment that is both like and unlike our real experiences. This oneiric atmosphere gives silent horror a quality akin to nightmares. While movies like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) use that surreal quality self-consciously to create an explicitly surrealistic diegesis, F.W. Murnau’s masterpiece of vampire cinema uses more naturalistic settings, from which the hideous Graf Orlok (Max Schreck) seems to emerge absolutely organically. As this hideous monster stalks a world which is simultaneously real and unreal, he invites a sense of not just discomfort, but genuine, nightmare-inducing fear.
The Uninvited (1944)
Ghost movies hold a special power to induce legitimate fear in the viewer, because unlike most supernatural monsters of myth and superstition, they hold a status of borderline plausibility among a huge proportion of modern viewers. Vampires and werewolves are largely written off as relics of old-world folklore, fun today when one engages in a little suspension of disbelief, but wholly separate from our day-to-day existence; demons are regarded as absolute reality by fundamentalists within certain religious sects, but are of little consequence or concern to most people; but ghosts, whether or not one consciously believes in them, often feel very real. They can be used to account for physical and emotional responses in the body for which we see no immediate cause. So a good ghost movie can be scary in a way that most monster movies rarely achieve. The Univited is perhaps the first absolute masterpiece among ghost movies.
The Haunting (1963)
Everything I said about ghost movies for The Uninvited obviously also applies here, but Robert Wise’s adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House (Shirley Jackson, 1959) achieves so much more, still standing as arguably the greatest haunted house movie ever produced. By focusing so heavily on the unseen, and making the dark corners and twisted architecture of the house itself so much the locus of the horror, The Haunting leaves the viewer with a sense of structures having their own life force, their own malevolence. When The Haunting is taken to heart, it’s not only Hill House that becomes scary; it’s all houses.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
In the introduction to this article, I was somewhat dismissive of jump scares. However, it is important to distinguish the cheap, cheesy, mechanical “boo!” effect of something like The Conjuring (2013) from the more profound impact of genuinely jarring editing. In Night of the Living Dead, Romero’s stark, dynamic visual style is matched my stark, dynamic cutting, with unexpected breaks in the rhythm accompanying the appearance of danger or of grotesque and shocking images. Rather than the predictable rhythm of the routine thriller, Romero startles us in ways that feel a little bit off-kilter, a little bit nauseating, and the viewer is left with a lingering sense that the real world has been slightly destabilized.
The Exorcist (1973)
I’ll be honest; I find all the “devil” business in this movie kind of silly, even a little funny. Taken at face value, this movie doesn’t scare me at all. But when I watch it with my metaphor glasses on, the whole thing changes. As a movie about the manifestation of trauma in a victim of molestation, and an examination of the way that childhood trauma and abuse continue to haunt people in their adult lives, The Exorcist manages to address a very, very scary aspect of real life experiences in a manner more honest and more brutal than most straight dramas can muster.
By tapping into the sensibility of a fairy tale – taking particular visual inspiration from Walt Disney’s version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Dario Argento created a space that feels innocent, childlike, and vulnerable. He then populates that space with sickeningly heartless evil, witches who take the altogether familiar form of stern parental stand-ins. A world unlike our own, but at the same time familiar and traditionally safe, becomes a nest of inescapable, indefinable evil, a dream transformed into a waking nightmare. Add to that performances, compositions, lighting and scoring which are all precisely calculated to be just off-kilter, and the result is an unshakable sense of abstract terror; the fact that it cannot quite be defined makes it all the more chilling.
Much of what makes Dan O’Bannon’s script and Ridley Scott’s direction of Alien so effective is the naturalism. For the most part, the movie isn’t really trying to be scary, it’s just allowing its events to play out in naturally uncomfortable spaces, be they claustrophobic like the interior of the Nostromo or cavernous like the interior of the crashed alien vessel. But then comes the sequence in which Dallas goes on the hunt for the eponymous monster, a masterpiece of mounting tension in the darkness culminating in that shocking moment when, almost from nowhere, the alien reaches straight for Dallas – and for the audience – and we then cut away so suddenly that we are left with just that instant of terror ringing in our heads. It may be the single best moment of shocking fear in the history of film.
As masterfully executed as Poltergeist may be on a technical level, the things that make it really scary are more basic than that. Of course, it touches on the nearly universal fear of ghosts mentioned in early entries, but here the focus of those ghosts on endangering the innocent makes awakens a parental protective instinct in the viewer, making it all the more disturbing that the movie implies so much culpability on the part of the parents (Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams) for the danger in which their children are placed. Poltergeist destabilizes not only naturalistic reality with the presence of the supernatural, it also frightens suburban America by showing the fragility of the traditional nuclear family.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
In my entry on Nosferatu, I talked about the horror of blurring the line between dreams and reality. Mostly, when that is approached literally, the effect is more aesthetically pleasing than it is scary. But A Nightmare on Elm Street is a big exception to that, thanks in large part to the unrelenting ugliness of the character of Fred Krueger (only in the sequels does “Freddy” become the character’s primary appellation). Krueger is not just a supernatural threat; he is the lingering memory of a very real threat, a child molester and murderer (and don’t let anybody tell you that the character wasn’t originally a molester; it may not have been stated in the final cut, but it is implied in the way the character is discussed and portrayed). And Krueger is not just interested in killing his victims; their fear, discomfort, and disgust are his paramount interests. Krueger enjoys embodying the abject, to the point that he gleefully engages in self-mutilation (a habit sadly abandoned in the sequels) just to make his victims squirm. For Krueger, it’s all about power; he’s a sad little man who gets off on making other feel weak. In that regard, he is very much true to life, and very much scary.
Hideo Nakata’s adaptation of Koji Suzuki’s 1991 novel absolutely, unequivocally scares me more than any other movie I have ever seen. I will never forget walking out of an afternoon screening at the Egyptian theater in Hollywood, walking the crowded sidewalks with a friend in broad daylight, and being totally unable to shake the sense of pure dread, the feeling that something was lurking just behind us, around us, at the very, very edge of our periphery. The ghostly nature of the horror, the familiarity of degraded images on bootleg VHS tapes (does this imagery have any resonance to today’s youth?), the sense of utter inevitability, and the fixation on the absolute dread of those who have been killed by the curse, it all combines to make something so purely, innately terrifying that it is the one horror movie I almost completely refuse to watch alone (I believe I’ve made an exception twice over the years, and both times lost a significant amount of sleep as a result). In fact, I should have known better than to look up an image for this entry while I was home alone, because even right now, at 3:00 in the afternoon, just seeing still images from this movie has me absolutely terrified and wishing my wife would get home. And as I finished typing that sentence, she did! Yay!
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