To pinpoint one single horror film as the “best” of the genre is nearly impossible. For decades fear has acted as a magnet to young and old. Perhaps it is the adrenaline that rushes through the body in that moment of absolute terror. Perhaps it’s the fact that horror films often venture in directions that we as humans believe cannot be possible. Perhaps it’s the fact that some disturbing images never leave the memory bank. For me, I enjoy the sensation of fear, plain and simple. Realistic, or not.
When executed properly, horror can be pretty damn exhilarating.
Long before my time, legendary monsters such as Dracula (and his early incarnation Nosferatu) and Dr. Frankenstein’s hideous creature crawled from the literary world onto the silver screen and terrified viewers young and old. The Mummy, the Wolf Man, and Mr. Hyde (amongst others) followed suit, casting fear into patrons throughout the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s. While Dracula and the others may not hold the stature they once enjoyed within the gruesome realm of modern horror, their influences live on strong to this day, and variations of countless classics are still rehashed in the quest for the mighty dollar, and the pleasure of true diehard fans. With longevity like that, it’s impossible to deny the greatness of some of the horror genre’s earliest and most iconic characters.
As the aforementioned villains began to decline in popularity, filmmakers sought out other means to scare the pants off of rebel kids sneaking out to catch the new fright flick at the local theatres. If Dracula’s finely polished incisors weren’t cutting it any longer, it was time to find new methods of invoking terror. So, the natural maneuver was to upsize. Bigger monsters like Godzilla, Mothra, The Tarantula and The Blob began to surface, and sure enough, the directional shift in the horror genre was happily embraced and thus launched a slew of similar features. In fact, major monster movies are still made today (check out Cloverfield for an excellent example), the majority of which contain subtle nods to the classics that helped continue paving the path of horror.
In 1975 director Bob Clark proved that sometimes what we don’t see can be more terrifying than what we do see. Black Christmas was one of the earlier teen slasher flicks to surface. To this day, I still consider it one of the absolute best. In 1975 there were no “rules” to abide by in order to survive a teenage slaughter fest. The approach to the subgenre was new, and the scares were new as well. Clark capitalized on a fresh-faced cast (including Margot Kidder), comfortable sets and the power of imagination. Gore was nearly nonexistent, and our bad guy enjoys virtually no on screen time, and that approach to Black Christmas was exactly what made it such an unnerving film. Clark managed to pull solid performances and great camera work from a shoestring budget. The scares unfold at a consistent rate, the mystery is intense and the film’s finale will surely leave viewers a bit disheartened. The best part of all? It helped to launch the extremely popular slasher subgenre.
John Carpenter openly voiced his fondness for the film and admitted that Black Christmas (to an extent) served as inspiration for the classic Halloween, starring Jamie Lee Curtis. It’s reasonable to assume that Sean Cunningham’s Friday The 13th borrowed a few elements from Halloween, while it’s also probably safe to say that A Nightmare on Elm Street may have taken a few notes from Clark, Carpenter and Cunningham’s prior success. Regardless, we’re talking about a couple of iconic villains who have now entertained audiences for more than three decades. Not to mention influencing the creation of countless copycat offerings, a few of which were even quality pictures.
But slashers can’t keep our appetites satiated forever…
For an honest scare, psychological thrillers (and Anthony Hopkins in particular) are sure bets. Hopkins’ portrayal of Dr. Hannibal Lecter in the 1991 smash hit Silence of the Lambs is a disturbingly effective performance. Hopkins is able to milk the Lecter character for everything he’s worth and much more. What makes Hannibal such a frightening on screen villain is his ability to lure viewers into doubting the ferocity of his true nature. Lecter is a highly intelligent man, eloquent in his speech and acutely perceptive. He is a character who is, in fact, easily likable. Hopkins was able to take the character and create an incredibly believable false sense of security that lulled viewers into a comfort zone that Hannibal would eventually shatter as he transformed (perfectly) into the savage monster the final reel would disclose. Silence of the Lambs was followed by a few sequels (plus a prequel that many have missed titled Manhunter), but even the highly regarded second installment, Hannibal (while flashy and packing a seriously disturbing climax), fell short of the tension its predecessor managed to conjure.
Still, Silence spawned an assortment of psychological thrillers that are often more satisfying than the blood and guts frequently associated with the genre. Brad Anderson’s The Machinist starring Christian Bale is an absolutely haunting picture, as is the wonderful sleeper The Jacket, starring Adrien Brody. Of course there were plenty of psychological terrors that shook the cinematic structures long before The Silence of the Lambs, The Machinist and The Jacket. A few titles that may stand out: The Exorcist, The Omen and a personal favorite of mine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (as well as the extremely creepy Rear Window). Based on the success the psychological approach has sustained throughout the decades, I think it’s safe to assume we’ll continue to see incredible mind benders emerge from time to time.
Modern horror seems to miss the mark more often than not these days. Directors have chosen computer-generated special effects over pure creativity and originality. No tangible evil… only technologically created “scares.” Long gone is the tension created by simple lighting techniques, camera angles and impressive storylines; now we leave a large part of the fright factor up to the computers.
Fortunately for horror fans, there are still some creative filmmakers out there.
Neil Marshall (who made the oft underrated Dog Soldiers) decided to break the mold with The Descent (which was released in 2006), a low budget horror flick with little star power and damn near nil in terms of digitally created effects. This well-kept secret boasts a load of scares. The sets are amazing, the performances are believable and the panic is absolutely overwhelming. Marshall combines fear of the unknown with the savagery that invades the human heart to create a modern masterpiece. It’s unfortunate Marshall’s follow-up venture into horror, Doomsday, couldn’t pretend to match the quality of The Descent.
Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson and Guillermo Del Toro are also filmmakers who possess the proper combination of creativity and courage to enable the making of such modern day masterpieces as Drag Me to Hell, The Frighteners and Pan’s Labyrinth. So, there is creativity out there…
One of the most interesting observations I’ve made over the last decade is the extremely creative work the foreign market has been offering. Some of the absolute best horror films I’ve seen in the last few years are arriving from just about everywhere other than America. The Japanese have been releasing quite a few chilling features, as have the French, Norwegians, Swedes and Spaniards. With films like Audition, Ring, Dead Snow, Let the Right One In and A Christmas Tale, I say keep the foreign flicks rollin’ in!
While horror has proven to be one of the less consistent genres, diamonds will always emerge from the rough. For every Covenant, there’s a Lost Boys. For every Curse, there’s a Howling. For every Grudge, well… there’s a Japanese original. When it comes to the world of terror, there will be success, there will be failure. Fans of the genre have hung on through the good and the bad and will continue to do so, wading through the garbage, constantly searching for that buried treasure. The one thing to remember is that truly frightening films contain a perfect mixture of comfort, anxiety, stress, panic and fear. Those films wriggle their way into our brain, and they live there for extended periods of time, tickling our memory banks as we lie alone, in the darkness. Even if it is often times a bastard of a challenge to find those true treasures.
I guess if it takes a little garbage wading to locate that truly uncanny film experience… I’m up for it.