Horror movies suck. If you were to take a sample of any twenty films labeling themselves as horror, chances are most of them would be awful, a handful would have some “ok” parts, and maybe one would creep you out for a moment or two.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of horror, but I firmly disagree with the current notion in popular cinema that movies need only copious amounts of gore and cheap loud-noises in the soundtrack to be frightening. Sure, these can be fun to watch (I honestly enjoyed The Hills Have Eyes remake), but scary? No. For that, they need atmosphere; they need to suck you into the reality of the film- via character, situation, use of imagery, or just sheer distress on your senses. This, is rare.
So in honor of Halloween, I’d like to share a list of what I feel are five great films that do just that- suck you in, and have their way with your senses. Don’t get me wrong, these aren’t “classics” (we’ve all seen those)- more like films you may have missed or overlooked that, in my opinion, deliver the sort of experience worthy of the season. From bottom to top:
- Signs. I remember seeing this in a theater the first time- some run-down thing in downtown Kalispell. But from the opening music until the last scene, I was completely taken in by it. Granted, I’m somewhat of a sucker for aliens and the “spiritual” overtones were lost on me at the time (I find them mildly irritating now), but in terms of making you feel the fear of isolation with something unknown all around you, Shymalan did it brilliantly. The way the wind moves the fields when you know something is out there, the focus on hearing “them” rather than seeing anything… And in addition to that, unique characters and a fairly compelling plot. If only he could still make movies like this.
- The Descent. Cave divers run into “something” while spelunking in an unmarked cave. I wouldn’t blame anybody for skipping over this, and honestly I would’ve done the same if I hadn’t seen Dog Soldiers (Neil Marshall’s first, and fucking brilliant, B-horror film). So glad I didn’t- it eschews all horror character cliches right from the get-go (all female cast, varying ages, mostly British) and drips with atmosphere as soon as they hit the surrounding woods (if you’ve ever found yourself in the middle of a dark forest on an overcast day, this is spot-on). There’s also none of that “caves are all wide open spaces” horseshit either- this place is claustrophobic, and only gets worse the further it goes. Sadly, there’s some obligatory “loud-noise” fake-out moments, but I can forgive that. And after the way they introduce the creatures, you probably will too.
- The Strangers. Like The Descent, The Strangers seems to have been dismissed by the general public, probably on the same grounds that the basic plot isn’t terribly clever (and it’s about as “true” as Fargo). But again, it’s extremely well done. Tension built through noise and subtle imagery (sans the few moments of gore, which was fairly used), antagonists that are surprisingly creepy due to lack of identity, and one of my favorite shots ever in a horror film (spoiled on the poster, but oh well). It’s a pretty simple concept- couple terrorized by some unknown psychotics wearing masks outside their remote cabin- but again, it’s all in the way it was executed (quite well).
- Mothman Prophecies. The first time I watched this I had trouble falling asleep afterwards. I was at least 15. All horror aside (this is probably better listed as a thriller), this is still the creepiest film I’ve ever seen. The imagery is outright eerie, the ambience equally so, and combined it produces this rather (wonderfully) unnerving atmosphere. What’s really well played, however, is the Mothman itself. Sitting somewhere between a physical entity and a purely psychological issue, it never manifests in full-form at any point during the film, leaving it largely up to your imagination. If this film doesn’t get under your skin even just a little bit, we clearly don’t understand each other.
- The Blair Witch Project. This is one of the most brilliant horror films ever made, and I don’t throw statements like that around for just anything. Yes, it’s shakey; yes, the characters swear more than they use real words; and yes, it just ends. But this film asks you to suspend your disbelief in a wholly different way than normal cinema: You’re not viewing a stylized story through a wall, you watching a recording intended to be real life. If you can’t accept that, you’ll be sorely disappointed. If you can, it’s an incredibly engrossing experience. By using no-name actors and largely unscripted dialogue, there’s a sense of fluidness to the characters that feels quite real; I don’t know how many of you have ever been stuck with other people in a panic, but in my experience it’s not a time when there’s a lot of intelligent conversation. It sucks you in. And the sound… If you have headphones or surround, crank up the volume. In no other film has sound so convinced me of the images on screen- crashes in the distance, the way voices echo through trees, even just the ambience is simply spot-on to real life. And finally, there’s no shitty latex monster, no cliched figure seen at any point- everything is implied. And for those of us with vivid imaginations, that’s the greatest gift a horror feature can bestow upon us.
These are, of course, opinions- normally I wouldn’t bother pointing that out (especially here, of all places), but horror is so ridiculously polarizing and subjective that I refuse to have the tired “oh that’s not scary” discussion with anyone. You may love these, you may hate them. But at the very least, they’re worth giving a look.