I’ve decided to list, not so much my favourite horror movies, as the ones that I’ve found most effective, the ones that have stayed with me. I have no idea why I love being terrified by horror movies. I suppose a psychotherapist might suggest it’s my way of dealing with death anxiety, in which case I’m glad I found a way to deal with death anxiety and have fun at the same time. On an intellectual level, I love the horror genre because it’s where you see cultural anxieties stripped bare, especially the things we like to pretend we’re ok with (but we’re really, really not).
I have put the post behind a cut to save the sensibilities of those of you who don’t like reading about horror films.
Robert Wise dir., The Haunting (1963)
Eleanor Lance travels to Hill House to take part in a paranormal investigation. Hill House, you see, has an evil reputation, it’s a house that was ‘born bad’. But Eleanor wants a lot more than she’s being offered; Eleanor wants a home, somewhere to belong … I first watched The Haunting several years ago, late at night, and it terrified me. This may be partly because the haunting in question seems to be a manifestion of deep horror of female/lesbian sexuality, something that Eleanor is in the process of being forced to confront. I think it’s very much a film about that which haunts patriarchy. Do not watch the atrocious remake with Catherine Zeta Jones.
Jack Clayton dir., The Innocents (1961)
Are the children evil, or is the nanny mad? Are the ghosts real, or is it all in the nanny’s mind? Perhaps it’s the nanny who’s evil. I don’t know if it matters, what I do know is that this film is hellish creepy. The scene in which Deborah Kerr looks across the lake and sees a woman standing there, up to her knees in water, just too far away for her face to be more than an indistinct blur, gives me chills every time. Wonderful performances all round too. I wouldn’t have thought is possible to adapt Henry James’s Turn of the Screw, but Truman Capote did great work here. You probably need a queer writer on the job because The Turn of the Screw is hugely concerned with sexuality.
Juan Antonio Bayona dir., El Orfanato (The Orphanage) (2007)
This Spanish film doesn’t really tread any new ground, but I think it does it better than a lot of the other recent efforts on similar themes. A woman spent her early childhood in an institution before being adopted. When she grows up, she and her husband move into the old orphanage and open a home for disabled children. Then, at the opening event, her son mysteriously disappears. Does it have anything to do with his “imaginary friend”? This is also very creepy, but it undercuts expectations at the end, turning into a story about guilt and social attitudes to disabled children. The ending is oddly beautiful.
Also fond of Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982).
Hideo Nakata dir., Ringu (Ring) (1998)
Not the rubbish American remake, the orginal Japanese version! I went to see this in the cinema with a friend when it came out and I remember feeling the hair on the back of my neck standing up. I think that’s the only time this has happened to me while watching a film. I was so scared. Teenagers start dying mysteriously. A journalist investigates only to find that they had one thing in common: they had all watched a strange video tape. Ring really delves into superstitious fear and the final scene in which we see the complete video and Shizuko emerges from the well and lurches across the lawn towards the television screen and you wonder how it can get any worse and then it does …. It makes my eyes water.
Ji-woon Kim Dir., Janghwa, Hongryeon (Two Sisters) 2003
Another film which doesn’t have a groundbreaking plot, but does its thing so so well. After their mother’s death, two sisters go to live with their father and new stepmother … but is everything as it seems? This Korean horror-cum-psychological-thriller ratchets up the fear only to end in tragedy. It’s beautifully filmed.
Takshi Shimizu dir., Ju-On (The Grudge) (2002)
This also has a bad American remake version. An evil spirit pursues anyone who enters the house in which it resides and that’s it really. This spirit doesn’t need any reasons. I found this film quite disorientating, but that may be because it’s actually the third in a series. Still, very, very scary though.
See also Audition (1999) and Dark Water (2002).
Creepy Prophetic Horror
I’ve made up this category because I didn’t know where to place these movies.
David Croenenburg Dir., The Dead Zone (1983)
My favourite Stephen King novel made into one of my favourite David Cronenburg films. Average guy, Johnny Smith, is put into a coma by a car accident and wakes up 5 years later. This is bad enough, but he’s also developed the power to see into the future. The Dead Zone is a creepy atmospheric film with a strong moral centre. Cronenburg seemed to understand that Stephen King is quite a religious writer and ran with it, making this film all the better.
Mark Pellington Dir., The Mothman Prophecies (2002)
You know, I don’t think this is a very good film really. I mean, it has Richard Gere being scared of his phone, but I’m putting it on this list because I have to be honest and confess that The Mothman Prophecies really got under my skin. Again, it’s something about the atmosphere and use of sound. The ending is silly and predictable, but getting there is the good bit.
See also Nicholas Roeg’s supremely nasty Don’t Look Now (1973).
John Landis Dir., American Werewolf in London (1981)
I love this movie. It’s one of the ones I can always sit down and watch. Two innocent young American backpackers go for a wander across the British moors and ignore the warnings to “stay on the path.” Oops! Although I really don’t see why a freakin’ werewolf would be stopped by staying on a path. Paths are not generally werewolf proof. Ok, so it’s probably a metaphor. This film is very funny as well as scary and the special effects still look groundbreaking. You can feel the horror genre being pushed forward to new heights (or depths, depending on your point of view).
Danny Boyle Dir., 28 Days Later (2002)
Jim wakes up in hospital to find London apparently deserted. I think the bit in which he wanders, bewildered, through the empty city is one of the great scenes in recent horror film. It soon turns out that while he was sleeping, pretty much everyone else caught a disease that turned them into zombies, only these zombies don’t shuffle after you, they run … fast. Jim meets up with a few survivors and they head out in search of others, but when they find them, humanity suddenly starts to look more frightening than the zombies.
John Fawcett Dir., Ginger Snaps (2000)
Brigitte and her sister Ginger are inesparable, until that is, Ginger gets bitten by something and starts to change. This film plays around with fears about menstruation and adolescent female sexuality. The script and performances are great and there’s plenty for the feminist viewer to think about.
Also very fond of Evil Dead I & II (1981 and 1987), Planet Terror (2007) and The Descent (2005)
I’m not very keen on slasher movies. I get rather bored watching tiresome teenagers being offed, but I make an exception for John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978).
Halloween is just a brilliant piece of filmaking – great direction, great performances, great cinematography, great soundtrack and one of the most terrifying psychos ever. As with most slasher films, it’s packed full of anxieties about burgeoning adolescent sexuality, especially female sexuality. Only the virgin can survive this movie! Perhaps we could read Michael Myers as a monstrous avatar of patriarchy. The scene in which Jamie Lee Curtis struggles to get her key into the door of her house while Michael strides coolly up the street behind her still terrifies me, even though I’ve seen the film several times and know what happens.
See also A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Scream (2000)
Science Fiction Horror
Paul W. S Anderson Dir., Event Horizon (1997)
Totally horrifying. This is really a Gothic horror story transferred to space. A ship disappears into a black hole and then returns. A rescue crew is sent to investigate. You will needs a strong stomach for this one.
John Carpenter dir., The Thing (1982)
A bunch of beardy cumudgeonly blokes doing scientific research in the Antarctic accidently let a shape-shifting alien into their facility. It turns out to be a “thing” that can imitate anything it touches. Cue arms being bitten off, decapitated heads sprouting legs and going for walks, and lots and lots of sweaty, shouty paranoia. This is very much a film about masculinity.
See also Alien (1979) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (both the 1956 and 1978 versions are awesome).
David Lynch dir., Mulholland Drive (2001)
I have no idea what’s going on in this movie, but it’s so unsettling. An innocent young actress goes to Hollywood and becomes involved with an amnesiac woman. What’s real? What’s illusion? The final scene is horrifying.
Henri Georges Clouzot Dir., Les Diaboliques (1955)
The wife and mistress of a cruel headmaster conspire to murder him. They drown him in a bathtub and dump the body in a swimming pool, but when the pool is drained, the body has disappeared. Then strange things begin to happen …. The suspense in this movie is almost unbearable.
George Sluizer dir., Spoorloos (The Vanishing) (1988)
Rex and Saskia are a young couple in love. They go on vacation and Saskia suddenly vanishes without a trace. Three years later, Rex starts to receive letters from the abductor. Rex decides to pursue the relationship to find out what happened to Saskia. This is such a chilling film; it builds slowly to a devastating ending.
See also Night of the Hunter (1955) Repulsion (1965) and the Russian film The Return (2003).
Despite (or because of) loving vampire fiction, I am generally disappointed by vampire movies. Here are a few exceptions.
Kathryn Bigelow dir., Near Dark (1987)
I love this film. A midwestern farm boy falls in with a “family” of southern vampires. It’s beautifully directed and performed and the fate of the vampires is strangely moving. Nice vampire/human love story too.
Joel Schumacher Dir., The Lost Boys (1987)
Watch Joss Whedon take notes! This film laid the groundwork for Buffy the Vampire Slayer — a single mom moves to a small Californian town which turns out to be full of vampires (David is basically the model for Spike). It’s a very funny, very good vampire film. And it’s full of fun 1980s actors and makes you wonder what happened to them all.
Also entertaining: The Hunger (1983) Fright Night (1985), Interview with the Vampire (1994) and 30 Days of Night (2007).
This list is by no means exhaustive. It’s what I could come up with at short notice!
p.s. Anyone who leaves a comment along the lines of “I cannot BELIEVE that a feminist is watching horror films!!!!” will not be suffered gladly.