Horror writers on horror films, from Focus Features

A few days ago, I got a nice email from FilminFocus.com, the film culture website of film company Focus Features (A Serious Man, Brokeback Mountain, Coraline).  For Halloween, they asked five horror writers to each list their five favorite horror movies.  Some of the names I’m familiar with — Kim Newman, Joe R. Lansdale, Tananarive Due — and others are new to me, but their choices are all interesting, even though there are some that I wouldn’t necessarily agree with (Carnival of Souls?  Really?).

You can read the list here.

Though I’m not a professional horror author (yet), I thought I’d chime in with my own set of movies that disturb me!   This list is by no means complete — after all, it’s only five — but it is indicative of what unsettles me…

For me, real horror is summarized nicely by Lovecraft’s opening sentence of Supernatural Horror in Literature:

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.

The scariest horror films and stories to me are those that suggest more than they show, and that develop a true feeling of dread throughout.

  • The Haunting (1963).  I feel confident in saying that Robert Wise is one of the most awesome directors ever!  Not only did he direct one of the greatest movie musicals ever (West Side Story) and one of the greatest science fiction films ever (The Day the Earth Stood Still), he directed what I consider to be the most frightening film ever made — The Haunting.

Based on the classic novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, the story concerns a group of volunteers, headed by one Dr. Markway, who agree to spend a few days at Hill House to help investigate its supposed hauntings.  The house, however, begins to exploit the psychological vulnerabilities of the investigators — and some are weaker than others.

This film blindsided me the first time I saw it.  The introduction is a relatively cheesy introduction to the history of Hill House that gives no warning of the fear to come.  Unlike the abysmal 1999 remake, the film doesn’t rely on crappy CGI special effects to terrify — the dread of what might lie behind the door is far more effective than any visible monster.

As an added bonus, recent DVD editions of the original film include cast and crew reminisces, which are hilarious because of the smug jabs they take at the remake.

  • Mulholland Drive (2001).  This was my first introduction to the films of David Lynch, and it blew me away.  And this isn’t even supposed to be his most disturbing film!  (I’m literally too afraid to watch Eraserhead.)

The movie opens with an attempted murder on the titular drive, which only fails due to an automobile accident.  The would-be victim, Rita, wanders away from the scene and turns up at the home of Betty, an aspiring Hollywood actress.  Upon finding Rita suffering from amnesia, Betty agrees to help her — and from that point onward, the film wanders around between scenes like an extended nightmare.  Lynch is a master at establishing dread, and there’s one scene in the film — only about five minutes long — that I consider one of the most frightening of any I’ve ever seen.

  • The Mothman Prophecies (2002).  This underappreciated film was directed by Mark Pellington and based on “true” sightings of a mysterious, inhuman mothman around Point Pleasant, WV in the mid-1960s.

Reporter John Klein (played by Richard Gere) has a life which seems to have nowhere to go but up.  Then his wife dies of a rare cancer, after seeing a mysterious apparition while driving home one night.  Klein, on a trip to D.C. for an interview, ends up instead in Point Pleasant, without any recollection.  Talking to the town sheriff, he learns that the town is being tormented by a mysterious creature referred to as a “mothman”, and that the mothman has been sharing predictions of future disasters with the local residents.  Klein finds himself being drawn deeper into the story, and eventually communicating with the creature, all with the promise of understanding what actually happened to his wife.  But there are hints that something horrible will happen in Point Pleasant very soon, and that Klein was brought there to be a part of it…

The film takes wonderful aim at concepts of free will and the nature of the universe.  Could it be that there are beings — gods, even — watching over us who at best don’t care about us, and at worst use us as toys?

  • Halloween (1978).  Need I say much about this one?  John Carpenter’s most famous creation, about an unstoppable madman named Michael Myers, is a timeless classic.

This film almost single-handedly spawned the genre of slasher films, but in reality it has hardly any explicit gore in it!   The real charm in it for me is the slow build up: the long shots of Michael, standing far enough away that you can’t really make out any of his features.  Also, it has the wonderful Donald Pleasance as Dr. Loomis, explaining how Michael is hardly even a human being.

  • The Wicker Man (1973).  Don’t watch the atrocious remake!  The original is a wonderful piece of work, simultaneously humorous and unsettling.

When devout police sergeant Howie receives an anonymous tip that a girl has gone missing on the isolated island Summerisle, he is completely unprepared for the openly pagan — and sexual — practices of its inhabitants.  He is ridiculed and blocked at every turn, especially by the smug and self-satisfied Lord Summerisle, played by the awesome Christopher Lee.  In spite of the opposition, Howie realizes that something is planned on the island — and it is building up to something truly horrible.

This build-up is the reason that I like the film.  The viewer watches various scenes alternately amused, shocked, and disturbed, often with a seamless transition.  It is clear throughout that the film is building to something, and the nightmarish climax is awesome and completely unexpected.


So, those are some of the films that disturb me — what scares the rest of you?

P.S.  Via The Daily Beast, also noted on FilmInFocus editor’s blog, here’s Martin Scorsese’s list of 11 scariest films.  Scorsese is a man who knows scary films.

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3 Responses to Horror writers on horror films, from Focus Features

  1. Mary says:

    On Halloween, we watched “The Amityville Horror” (the original) and it was confirmed that this is the only horror movie I’ve seen that actually scares me. I can’t put my finger on why, though, which I tried really hard to do since I recently read Stephen King’s book about the genre, “Danse Macabre,” and he apparently hates that movie. (And, incidently, worships the book “The Haunting of Hill House”…)

    King says the scariest thing about Amityville is the financial toll all of the scenes take on the young family. He seems to think it is otherwise shallow and formulaic.

    The first time I watched it, though, I got real chills, and even watching it again, having gotten an education in horror classics in the intervening five years from my husband, I found myself actually grabbing his hand a little tighter at times.

    It can’t be just the religious themes chiming with my Catholic school education, because I didn’t find the Exorcist nearly as scary.

    It can’t be just the minimal use of special effects and the slow build-up, because I don’t find “Halloween” nearly as scary.

    I think in large part its the likability and believability of the characters as compared to the usual obnoxious teenage slasher victims — pig-tail and legwarmer wearing mom Margot Kidder does her best to protect and comfort her children and stay cheerful and brave… While James Brolin, whose friend tells him he should never have taken on a broad with three kids, after his business can’t make payroll, is slowly being transformed from the hero of the movie into the monster.

    I guess that’s probably what gets me. I’m also a sucker for “The Incredible Hulk” TV show and “Flowers for Algernon.” Losing your identity, not being able to stop yourself from hurting the people you love… Scary.

    And yet the remake sucked.

    • Mary wrote: “On Halloween, we watched “The Amityville Horror” (the original) and it was confirmed that this is the only horror movie I’ve seen that actually scares me. I can’t put my finger on why, though, which I tried really hard to do since I recently read Stephen King’s book about the genre, “Danse Macabre,” and he apparently hates that movie. (And, incidently, worships the book “The Haunting of Hill House”…)”

      For me, that just goes to show that a horror author is not necessarily the final authority on what makes a scary film — or book. I think King is spot on about “The Haunting of Hill House”, which is an awesome book in large part for the same reason you like Amityville: the characters are very likable and believable. I’ve always believed that character is the most important part of a good horror story. On the other hand, King apparently approved of the awful tacked-on ending to the movie version of The Mist, which I thought was one of the silliest, dumbest ending to a film that I’ve ever seen.

      “It can’t be just the minimal use of special effects and the slow build-up, because I don’t find “Halloween” nearly as scary.”

      From what I remember of the original “Amityville”, it is quite a disturbing film. I think, beyond the slow build-up, there’s also a sense of subtlety in the way that the topics are presented. Modern remakes of horror films tend to throw crap in your face, in essence saying “LOOK AT IT! LOOK AT IT! THAT’S SCARY!” The best horror films, however, like to suggest what’s wrong more than actually show you.

      Personal taste also plays a role. These days I’m totally desensitized to serial killer type films, because that’s old hat both in film and in reality. (Halloween being the exception for me.) Well-done supernatural films unsettle me because they suggest that the world is not as well-behaved and structured as my scientific training indicates it is.

  2. Mary says:

    I haven’t read “The Mist” and I didn’t know whether the film ended the same way as the book, but I have to give whoever wrote that ending credit for completely violating narrative convention and pulling no punches. If every now and then someone just goes with “The most terrible thing possible happens” as an ending, then it makes other movies more interesting, because you think “Well, I suppose the most terrible thing possible *could* happen.* Little more suspense, you know? Like when TV shows kill off a character just to prove they will, to make their threats to other characters more credible.

    Anyway, I think I agree with you that my scientific training might possibly make plausibly done supernatural horror just that much more spine tingling, because it seems that much more *wrong*.

    For sheer fun, on the other hand, nothing beats a zombie apocalypse.

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