When I was but a wee leveret growing up in the wilds of Baltimore City, I really wasn’t able to watch many horror movies. We were a religious household, so anything seen as ‘celebrating’ the Devil or the occult were strictly off-limits. As is often the case with kids who grow up in oppressively spiritual households, there’s been a bit of a rubber-band effect. I now LOVE horror movies, and appreciate anything that scare the pants off of me. I didn’t really get a chance to indulge that love until I met Ryan, who has been kind enough to open me up to a wide variety of frightening films.
I now know the distinct flavors of horror films from each decade. The 70s are really impressive with their love of atmosphere, isolated places, insanity and gore. The 80s movies ratchet up the gore and really entrenched a lot of the tropes in horror we love to play around with; the slasher franchises mostly started here. In the 90s we became wry and self-aware with our horror movies, and our victims got younger — high school and college students are really common. We left the supernatural behind in favor of, well, crazy, demented and murderous people. The 2000s saw torture feature prominently, and our aesthetic grew dingier, grungier than ever before.
Since Halloween is only ten days away and a lot of our cable channels are doing their customary horror marathon thing, I thought it’d be fun to think about my favorite horror movies and exactly what it is I love about them. Horror movies are a great avenue into the fears we hold deep down in our lizard brains and exploring how and why they manifest the way they do. Here’s a few of the things I find especially scary. Probably not surprisingly, I have a preoccupation with the breakdown of society.
5. When A Stranger Calls. A year after Halloween blazed the trail of bringing insanely scary horrors right to your doorstep, this movie takes it to the next level. The first twenty minutes is an amazingly taut short film on its own; it’s earned its place on this list on the strength of that alone. “Have you checked the children?” and “The call is coming from inside the house!” are taken from this movie. After the first act, the movie becomes a detective story leading to another wonderfully twisty horror set-piece at the end. It’s a complete surprise — the creeping dread, paranoia, and obsession of the psychotic murderer and the private eye chasing him down is palpable. Wonderful stuff.
4. 28 Days Later/Dawn of the Dead (remake). I’ve included these two movies as a package deal because they occupy the same spot in my brain — they were what made me get zombies as a horror concept. 28 Days Later is celebrated for its “man wanders alone in deserted London” sequence, which is incredibly eerie, but the final act — which sees the survivors visiting a horror worse than the zombies they’re sheltered from — is even better. The sequel, 28 Weeks Later, is really solid as well; the scares have a lot more to do with the zombies in that one. Dawn of the Dead, remade by Zack Snyder from the George Romero original, opens with a sequence that brings the horror of zombies home in a very literal sense. I won’t spoil it here, but going to bed one night with everything normal and then waking up to find that the world has effectively ended has never been done better than it has been here. The lives the characters make for themselves hold up in an abandoned mall is fascinating, and the choices they make once they have to rebuild a society for themselves reveals a lot about our survivors. Both of these movies are the standard (to me) against which all zombie movies will be held.
3. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This is one intense movie. Even before the gang gets to the creepy house in the middle of the Texas wilderness, they get this weird harbinger of what they’ll be facing. They pick up a hitchhiker who pulls a knife, injures one of the passengers, and is summarily kicked out. It’s all downhill from there. What follows is a movie that’s shocking not only for its gore, but for how unabashedly, completely crazy its villains are. Just when you think you have a handle on how insane things can get, something comes along to top it. The dinner scene is just one of the most terrifying things ever. It’s one of the few movies I’ve ever seen that just makes me want to take a shower after watching it. So gnarly. I love it.
2. The Blair Witch Project. When The Blair Witch Project hit in 1999, it wasn’t so much a movie as it was an experience. It was one of the first films to use viral alternate-reality marketing really effectively, to the point that some audiences actually thought they were watching a snuff film on the big screen. Creating a totally believable legend from whole-cloth made the found-footage premise that much more terrifying, and the little bits that existed outside of the movie made the film itself that much scarier. Knowing the story of Rustin Parr makes the final image — already chilling — absolutely nightmarish. To this day, the woods at night are one of the scariest things on God’s green earth, and it’s all thanks to this one movie. It kickstarted my love of horror in a big way.
1. Threads. This is kind of a cop-out, especially since it’s not really horror and there are a lot of really GREAT horror movies out there. But this is the scariest movie I’ve ever seen, and not enough people have watched it. I need to be the evangelist for it! Set (and made) during the Cold War of the 1980s, Threads follows a woman named Ruth as she prepares to marry her high school sweetheart Jimmy. Then World War III breaks out. Told in a hybrid of drama and documentary styles, Threads is intensely graphic in its depiction of the run-up to nuclear war and the effects of us destroying ourselves. It’s insane to me to think that we could have come so close to doing something we’d never be able to recover from, especially when that decision rests in the hands of just a few people we’ve elected to keep us safe from just such a thing. What makes Threads so scary is not that it depicts the end of civilization in such an unblinking fashion; it shows us what our quality of life would be afterwards — practically non-existent.
What about you guys? What’s your personal favorite horror movie?