It’s very rare that I will encounter a horror film that will actually scare me. Some of them are well made and present interesting ideas about fear. Some are thrilling and keep me on the edge of my seat. And some are just fun to watch in the same way that indulging a bag full of fun size Milky Ways is fun. But it’s rare for them to scare me. It could be because I’m too familiar with the tropes to be shocked. Or maybe it’s because most horror films really don’t want to horrify people because that would be too “off putting.” That’s why most of what passes as modern horror is derivative of the Paranormal Activity films. Those are not scary – they depend on the fact that we are as a species are easily startled by loud noises. But they’re not deep and they don’t expose anything about what makes people truly afraid. If you find those films scary, then I suggest you never look at pictures of fluffy kittens lest you find your pants soaked with urine.
These films below actually did fill me with dread and terror when I saw them. There is a running theme in them that I will examine in each case. But if you want to truly be terrified, I would suggest that you seek these films out this Halloween.
The Birds–I saw this film when I was rather young, when AMC aired it as part of a Hitchcock celebration. That should give you some idea how long ago this was…AMC doesn’t even acknowledge Hitchcock’s existence anymore. Anyway, what’s incredible about the film is how it does not need to create monsters, but only has to look at where humanity came from. The film is actually a searing reveal about how, in a state of nature, humans stand no chance of survival. The Birds also shows it is very easy for us to get back there – our cities and our technology are just security blankets. That’s a very scary thought in any medium. That shot of the man with his eyes pecked out and the scene in which Tippi Hedren has real birds tossed at her certainly help.
The Fly (David Cronenberg Remake)–This is the only film on my list that has some fantastic elements. As presented in the film, the fly/human hybrid is far fetched at best. But it becomes more poignant as we grow to depend on computers. The whole point of this film is how our technology can betray us in the worst ways possible. It works because I was convinced I was actually watching a man turning into a monster. It’s also one of the best horror film examples of hubris, something that all the great works try to examine.
Hostel–Yes, this film, of all films, actually scared me. Like a few of the films below, that’s because of what it addresses rather than the extreme gore. First, the film is one that simultaneously addresses the unknown while mocking American attitudes and the lack of knowledge many possess about the world around them. The film is also strangely convincing about its premise. Director Eli Roth said he got the idea after discovering a website offering such murder vacations as depicted in the movie. I believe him – if the hostel existed, I can imagine people would pay to do it. But the film never explains how the operation ones or who runs it. That is the scariest part – it lets us fill in the blanks. Hostel 2 destroyed most of the mystique and is therefore nowhere near as scary (or as good).
Night of the Living Dead-Zombies are not scary. That is not the point of them. The point is how people react to their presence. Some of them go absolutely psychotic, as can be seen in the sequels. But this one is scary for how quickly people collapse and are unable to get along. The zombies exist only to eat and multiply – but they are able to accomplish their goals more than the people in this film. By the end, I felt hopeless. In the event of the apocalypse, it’s likely that none of us are going to make it out. What’s scarier than that?
Watch the entire thing below if you like:
Salo- It’s a movie based on a book written by the Marquis de Sade. While he was in jail. I haven’t read the book, but the movie is plenty terrifying. It is meant to be an indictment against fascism and how those governments turned people into commodities. What’s worse is how the victims in this film, who are subjected all kinds of sick sexual tortures, do not try to rise up or fight back. Instead, they try to curry favor by snitching on their fellow captives. It’s like watching video of the Milgram experiment. It’s revelations on how cruel humans can be to their fellows in species is still difficult to watch after almost forty years.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre- I’m talking about the original Tobe Hooper version rather than the endless stream of sequels and remakes. That film was actually shot like a documentary and did everything it could to convince people that a “Texas chainsaw massacre” actually happened. It didn’t (the story is mostly based on Ed Gein, who did not murder his victims with a chainsaw) but good luck telling that to people. The fact it is so convincing is what makes it so frightening. Even the low rent effects (like Leatherface’s mask) work because they look like something that back woods cannibals would make. It’s an incredible horror film, one that is scary because of how hopeless it is in the face of evil.