Halloween is less than a week away so now is as good a time as any for me to admit that I haven’t seen very many scary movies. Gaps in my viewing history include The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, most of The Exorcist, Carrie, and parts of Nightmare on Elm Street. As funny as Eli Roth is on Twitter, I’ve never seen any of the super-violent horror he directs, and I probably never will. Of the relatively few blood-curdlers I have seen, however, I generally find those from the last 10-15 years, notably Scream and The Ring, to be more frightening than most classic-era horror. Effects have come a long way since the Golden Age of Hollywood, and those of the older films often seem phony and not very scary. But these five films, some in their ninth decade, have really retained their power to disturb me to this day.
Das Kabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920 – Robert Wiene)
This very influential German Expressionist classic tells the weird story of Cesare (Conrad Veidt), a sleepwalker introduced to a village as a circus attraction by impresario Caligari (Werner Krauss). Supposedly Cesare can predict the future. Soon there is a murder and Cesare is implicated. The film’s skewed sets, high-contrast makeup, and crazy costumes are best described as bizarre. Some aspects were the result of the post-WWI economic depression in Germany. Instead of lighting the sets, for example, which would have required rationed electricity, the filmmakers painted shadows onto the floor and the “furniture” — usually plywood cutouts. The film is credited with the first “twist ending” in cinema, but in its original form, the story was written as an allegory for German society of the time. The producers were uncomfortable with the message and created a framing story to turn the plot on its head. Let’s just say, the chills in this movie are realistic, not supernatural, and it remains frightening because of it.
Nosferatu (1922 – F.W. Murnau)
In the fictionalized “documentary” about the making of Nosferatu, Shadow of the Vampire, the actor playing the vampire, Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe) actually is a vampire. The film’s director, F.W. Murnau (John Malkovich) motivates his easily-distracted star with escalating promises of blood. I for one found this conceit very believable — the real Schreck was completely terrifying in Nosferatu. He’s so grotesque that his face and his weird, creepy movements have stayed with me over the years, rendering all the following versions of Dracula less frightening. Except for…
Dracula (aka The Horror of Dracula-1958 – Terence Fisher)
This scared the heck out of me when I was little. It was just on TCM and it’s still scary to me. Christopher Lee is the only Dracula to remotely approach the horrifying heights (depths?) of Schreck’s Nosferatu. He’s so smooth and polite that it’s a shock when he transforms before our eyes into a ferocious animal with blood dripping down his chin as he rips into his victims. This version of Bram Stoker’s novel doesn’t really follow Bram Stoker’s novel; it combines characters and situations but the most important elements are there.
The Shining (1980 – Stanley Kubrick)
Jack Nicholson will scare the daylights out of you as the ever more psychotic Jack Torrance. Torrance was only looking for a quiet place to get some writing done. He thought taking a job at the Overlook Hotel as the winter caretaker would be the way to accomplish this while making a little dough. But by the time he picks up an axe and chops through a door to get at his terrified wife (Shelley Duvall), you might just wish you’d never heard of any it. Kubrick is a master at creating tension and one of the major ways he does it in this picture is by showing images for a split-second. It’s really unsettling. Recommended for daytime viewing only.
Alien (1979 – Ridley Scott)
The first and only Alien movie I’ve seen. I can’t stand to be in the same room with this disgustingly gory sci-fi/horror hybrid, so I’ve invited my husband Tim, a connoisseur of both the sci-fi and horror genres, to help me out. He writes:
On its way back to Earth, the spaceship Nostromo picks up a signal from a small planet. The crew, following procedures, lands to investigate. And that’s when things start to go badly. The Nostromo is damaged while landing, and one of the crew members ends up with an alien attached to his face. Things begin to look up for the crew; the ship is repaired and the alien attached to the man’s face dies. But then when the crew is having a meal…watch out. Things look bad, and then slowly get worse. Alien is one of the scariest movies of all time in part because of the careful tension that Scott slowly builds.
Alien does have its gory moments, but the fear and dread the movie evokes in the viewer is not created with the gore. Its chills are based on telling and showing the viewer very little right up to and including the ending. And for true horror, what is unknown is far scarier than what is known. Alien has not been topped by the bloodier movies made since.
There’s one more film that I think qualifies as a future horror classic:
The Woman In Black (2012 – James Watkins)
Although it won’t be released until February of 2012, the trailer alone is enough to scare me silly. Based on a novel by Susan Hill and scripted by Jane Goldman (Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class), this promises to be a really disturbing Gothic ghost story.
So, am I missing out by skipping most of the major horror films? How do the above five stack up to your favorite horror movies, classic or contemporary?