With everyone lining up their lists for Halloween, I thought about what makes a good horror film. Over the decades, tastes have changed a great deal, and what might have been scary once, is now considered to be almost comedy. Genres blur too. What might have once been seen as science fiction films are often marketed as horror these days. The plots are all but exhausted as well, making ‘psychological’ horror more important to attract a new audience.
Types of horror film are fairly easy to categorise. There are ‘Haunted House’ films, ‘Possession’ films, ‘Monster’ films, and ‘Slasher’ films. Modern variations include those involving artificial intelligence, body horror, stalking, and telepathy. In the mix are the old standbys of Vampires, Mummies, Werewolves, Fantasy beasts, and imprisonment and torture. The human appetite for being scared, repulsed, or downright terrified seems to know no bounds.
It is hard for me to comprehend now how I could ever have been scared by Christopher Lee biting the neck of a young woman, in one of his many portrayals of ‘Dracula’. In the same way, the giant ants of the sci-fi horror ‘Them’ from 1954 are now simply real ants, enlarged for effect. So not remotely scary. Phobias and natural repulsion play a large part of course. If you are afraid of spiders, then ‘Arachnophobia’ (1990) will be horrifying. But if you have no fear of those creatures, then you might wonder what all the fuss is about.
Psychological horror may be the most effective, as we can often imagine ourselves in the situations depicted on screen. It becomes a ‘what would I do?’ scenario, rather than an implausible fantasy. But with that sub-genre, as with all others, we face the danger of ‘overload’. Once a particular film becomes popular, (as with ‘Nightmare On Elm Street’ (1984)) the producers and directors hear the cash registers ringing, and decide to churn out more of the same, with the sequels becoming less and less scary, and more and more lazy.
If I am going to watch a horror film, then I expect a few things from it.
1) It has to genuinely scare me, at least once.
2) The cast should always believe the terror, and get that across to the audience.
3) It should not just rely on special effects to frighten us.
4) It helps if it is an original idea, or a ‘fresh’ reworking of an old one.
5) It should stand alone, and not just be ‘engineered’ for later sequels.
6) It should never be a poor scene by scene remake of a much better original.
After all that, I should make some recommendations of what I consider to be good horror films, so here are some. I will avoid science fiction, because of the old argument about what constitutes a horror film. So, if you want to watch something different for your Halloween fear-fest, try these.
Nosferatu The Vampyr. (1922)
This is the whole film. The silent original, in a restored print.
When A Stranger Calls. (1979) Make sure you watch this, and not the remake.
Ringu. The 1998 Japanese original only please.
The Blair Witch Project. (1999)
It Follows. (2015)
And saving the best until last.
Martyrs. (2008) Ignore the 2016 remake completely.