There are almost as many sub-genres of the horror movie as there are ways to die, but make sure you don’t miss these essentials at the heart and guts of horror – you can sleep when you’re dead.
Big knives slicing and dicing are scary, claws are too, but chainsaws are just plain terrifying even when used under strict occupational health and safety regulations. Put one in the hands of a madman who still lives at home with his family of grave-robbing cannibals and you have a classic, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. There have been sequels, remakes, imitators, but nothing cuts quite like it does the first time.
It’s not just about the chainsaw – as demented backwoods hicks go, Leatherface and the family are truly disturbing. There’s a scene in which Sally sits awkwardly at the dinner table (“…Have dinner with us … my brother makes good head cheese!”) on a chair upholstered with human skin and the whole family just laugh at her as she squirms. It’s just as unsettling as the splatterfest that inevitably follows.
See also: Halloween and its bastard child, Friday the 13th. Scream is also great for its postmodern deconstruction of the whole slasher category.
Reanimating corpses, disfigurement – this type of horror has been a constant since the original Frankenstein (1931), but it was taken to a new extreme with The Human Centipede. Young, pretty and dumb American travelers are cannon fodder for horror movies, and this is no exception. Lindsay and Jenny get lost in a German forest while trying to find a nightclub that’s probably in France. They come to a remote house where they find a nutjob surgeon who used to separate conjoined twins but is now obsessed with stitching things together.
Dr Josef Heiter is already holding his first captive, a Japanese stereotype who will head up his human centipede project, stitching three humans together mouth to anus (didn’t he ever see Clerks 2? “You never go ass to mouth!”). When one of the girls makes an unsuccessful bid to escape from Heiter, the doctor’s decision on who gets the middle slot becomes easy.
Billed as “100% medically accurate”, this is a concept movie that shocks more by keeping victims alive than ten other films do by killing them.
See also: Frankenstein (1931) and Freaks, a 1932 film that used real ‘circus freaks’ in a story where a pretty but conniving gold-digger seduces and marries a sideshow midget for his inheritance. When she poisons her rich husband, the circus freaks get nasty and creative in making her “one of us”.
The tag line “based on a true story” has been used since horror movies began, but in the age of internet and reality TV, there was a new twist on this theme – “is it a documentary/home video or isn’t it?” The shock was never quite the same after Blair Witch Project – that is, until the Spanish movie [REC] came along.
In Barcelona, Angela is a TV reporter who chases after night shift fire crews with her cameraman, Pablo. When a local fire station receives a call from an old lady trapped in an apartment building, it’s a ticket to a claustrophobic den of handcuffed zombies, buckets of blood, ghouls, sicko dogs, suspect children and firemen being picked off one by one.
It was hard to believe or understand why those idiots in Blair Witch Project would keep filming everything. Watching fifteen years later, after an avalanche of reality TV and two generations of zombie-like forms looking at life through the lens of the camera on their phones, [REC] (which spawned the Hollywood remake, Quarantine) captures the right blend of realism and unnatural terror with very old-school use of audio to immerse us in a disturbing story told in real time.
See also: Paranormal Activity
Agents of horror
In thousands of horror movies, the evil-doers are a little predictable – psycho killers, mad geniuses, ghosts, agents of Satan, monsters or freaks, but occasionally the horror comes from unexpected sources.
The brilliance of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds is that the source of the terror is a very everyday and relatively harmless animal – these are not eagles attacking people, they’re seagulls, crows, lovebirds, even chickens. Watch this movie and you’ll find yourself being suspicious of any gathering of two or more cats, rats, even snails.
Paranoia is a key feature of the film, and Hitchcock turns the horror film on its head with the suspicion that our young and pretty protagonist (Tippi Hedren, Melanie Griffiths’ mother) is actually the cause of the deadly birds.
Sure, the bird pecking eyes out is gory, but the classic scene for me when the supposedly dumb animals time an attack at a gas station so that a customer spills gas everywhere just as another customer is lighting his cigar.
Actor Rod Taylor claimed that the seagulls in the film were fed a mixture of meat and whiskey so they would stand around looking crazy. You have been warned.
See also: Black Sheep, a New Zealand film about killer sheep
Tales of torture
Hundreds of terrible horror films are torture just to watch, but others are so good because they do torture so disturbingly well. This category had its major revival with Saw, which also marked the best use of a tricycle in any movie since The Shining, but the movie that tops the list is Paulo Passolini’s Salὸ.
I saw Salὸ when it was first released in my country after being banned for 17 years. By the time the lights came out there were less than a fifth of the paying customers were left in the cinema – the rest had walked out.
Salὸ is based roughly on Marquis de Sade’s 100 Days of Sodom, removed to Italy in the final days of World War II. A group of the fascist elite kidnap 18 “perfect specimens”, nine young men and nine young women, and imprison them in a palace. They subject them to appalling acts of degradation, made more shocking by the snobbish glee and amusement their captors derive from them.
“It is when I see others degraded that I rejoice knowing it is better to be me than the scum of ‘the people’,” one of them says.
So what are we talking about? Victims who are starved, then after several days, they are thrown bread that is full of glass shards. They are forced to hold onto their bowels for days, then feast on the eventual release. You don’t even want to know what happens to the ones who couldn’t keep it in.
This was a movie that truly shocked the world. Just months after completing Salὸ, Pasolini was found dead, apparently killed by a male prostitute… so the story goes.
See also: Saw and Turistas, the scarier and sexier version of Hostel.
Evil in weird places
Haunted houses, eerie woods, college dorms, psycho killer’s lairs, caves and caverns – these are your go-to settings for horror movies, but just occasionally evil lurks in some very strange places.
T is for Toilet is one of 26 shorts that make up The ABCs of Death, an anthology horror comedy film which features 26 different directors spanning 15 countries. T is for Toilet is the standout, as it is without doubt the greatest stop motion clay animation horror film ever made about bloodthirsty bathroom fittings out to claim your first-born.
See also: Amityville Horror (1979), the worst real estate investment in 1970s New York. I know it was Long Island, but when there’s black ooze coming out of the toilet, the landline phone blisters your hands and even the house tells you “GET OUT!”, then it might be time to look at something in Queens.
Kids for Satan!
Small children are supposedly the epitome of innocence until they “accidentally” wipe your hard drive or become possessed by Satan. While the former hasn’t been made into a horror movie (yet – contact me to see a treatment), the latter has been done many times, but never better than in The Exorcist.
Let’s get this into perspective: famously there were (and to a large extent, still are) seven words that could never be said on American TV. In The Exorcist, a 12 year-old Regan MacNeil says them all to a Catholic priest and tells him what his mother’s sucking in hell – and she’s just warming up. When she starts stabbing her girlie bits while yelling “Fuck me”, it makes her 360-degree pea soup upchuck look cute by comparison.
Incredible special effects for the time were mixed with equally disturbing real effects – the room in which the exorcism was attempted was refrigerated and Mercedes McCambridge insisted on swallowing raw eggs, chain smoking and drinking whiskey to get her voice right and her mind just the right level of crazy to provide the voice of the demon.
See also: The Omen, Rosemary’s Baby.
In revenge horror the victim is the one who ends up committing the most sickening acts, yet we still root for them. It’s hard to set up, but I Spit on Your Grave goes to unforgettable extremes to pull it off. Rednecks approach Jennifer, a mousey writer, and tear up her novel. Whoah! Pre-computer disks, that would have been enough for me to go all Old Testament, but then they rape her five times over two rounds – at 25 minutes and 19 seconds, it was the longest rape scene in cinema history (until the 2010 remake).
If the second part of the movie was compulsory viewing for rapists, they would never attempt sexual contact ever again. Jennifer provides her own twist on the term “well hung”, gives the worst handy in history and proves that genitals and outboard motors should never mix.
See also: Carrie and the French movie Martyrs, an immensely uncomfortable bloodbath of torture, although the revenge is not exactly a total success.
The Asian original
Hollywood couldn’t resist remaking Japanese horror classics such as The Ring (Ringu) and The Grudge (Ju-On), but to get a real insight into the Eeriness of the East you have to read subtitles.
While The Grudge and The Ring shock with their take on the supernatural, The Audition is creepy because it brings us scenes much closer to home. A couple of men decide to conduct a fake audition to find one of them a wife. He is drawn to a psycho-bitch (we’ve all been there) with a history of torturing and mutilating men who abuse her trust. There’s a valuable lesson here – when you first date a woman, always go back to her apartment. If it’s nearly empty apart from a phone and a guy tied up in a sack with both feet hacked off, then she’s probably not a keeper.
The story is that Eihi Shiina, is a method actor who insisted on using her own vomit when a scene called for the evil Asami to feed her prisoner a bowl of her barf. It’s a truly disturbing performance, and it probably left a bitter taste in her co-star’s mouth.
See also: The Eye (Gin gwai), a Taiwanese movie about a blind girl who gets a cornea transplant and begins seeing ghosts and the history of the eyes’ previous dead owner.
The deranged everyman
Ever wondered how many steps you are away from madness? (Just me? Oh…)
At the start of this movie, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is an innocent, a perfectly rational man with a wife and a young son with a minor affliction that his doctors say is nothing (he sees dead people). By the end of the film Jack has turned into one of the horror genres most memorable characters – not a monster, a ghost, a zombie or even an agent of Satan, just a guy who has totally lost his grip on reality and turns all his pent up frustrations into crazed attacks on his own family.
The purposefully bewildering tracking shots through the labyrinthine hotel reflect the descent into madness and disorientate us as much as the flashes of previous homicides at the hotel. This is a masterpiece rich with black humor and disturbing silences that makes the isolation as unsettling as the ghosts.
See also: Psycho and Mad Cowgirl, in which an attractive, recently-divorced meat inspector descends into a madness where she begins acting out her many deranged sexual and kung-fu fantasies. This is quite possibly the first time anyone has masturbated to Star Trek’s Chekov on film.