The horror film has been a permanent fixture as a genre since the 1930s. While the popularity of other genres has ebbed and flowed with the times, our appetite for filmic terror has never gone away. Yet it has continued to be one the most critically reviled and misunderstood areas of cinema, with plenty of critics, reviewers and audiences – sometimes fairly, sometimes not – questioning the purpose of experiencing and, most importantly, enjoying fear.
In his pioneering 1967 study Horror Movies: An Illustrated Survey, Carlos Clarens described the genre as a kind of historical imperative, an aesthetic necessity and a reflection of our “yearning for the fantastic, for the darkly mysterious, for the choked terror of the dark”.
Reasons for our attraction to horror cinema are manifold: from their psychoanalytic resonance to their philosophical thrust – the existential reminder that we spend our lives moving towards the big sleep of death. Or it can be purely their aesthetic lure, encapsulated perfectly in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem ‘On the Medusa by Leonardo da Vinci’ as “the tempestuous loveliness of terror”.
On Halloween night, scary movies become all the rage. The big guns are unleashed – The Exorcist (1973), The Shining (1980), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). However there are plenty of equally rich alternatives: from long-ago silent pictures, to works by acclaimed auteurs, and hidden gems waiting for discovery.
Director F.W. Murnau
Almost a hundred years on, F.W. Murnau’s independently produced and unauthorised adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula – subtitled ‘A Symphony of Horror’ – has seen its cultural value rise as both an audience and critics’ favourite. Whether viewed at home or at the movies, its eldritch magic captivates.
Max Schreck’s rat-like Count Orlok gives Bela Lugosi’s Count Dracula a run for his money as the most iconic screen vampire of all time. His visually repulsive yet strangely graceful portrayal of encroaching, almost unstoppable death also captures melancholy behind the fanged menace. The film’s expressionist techniques, especially use of giant shadows, would prove hugely influential on future generations of directors. Orlok ascending a set of stairs with ghostlike stealth – hunched body and claw-like hands casting a freaky shape against the wall – is an exquisite moment of unparalleled dread.
Director Carl Theodor Dreyer
Vampyr takes place not in a kingdom of tenebrous environs but in hazy daylight, a place where even shadows border on the pallid. For characters reading by candlelight or walking around with candelabras, in rooms brimming with light, is not just deeply strange, it’s contrary to the idea horror works best in the dark. Vampyr is an odd film by any measure, as if Dreyer sought to disrupt and undermine all the genre’s principles and tropes before they’ve been properly established by Hollywood.
Cinematographer Rudolph Maté deserves major credit for achieving Vampyr’s oneiric look. Tracking shots seem at odds with the action, while deliberate visual discontinuity and calculated disorientation are achieved through the editing. Add to this somnambulist performances, muttered dialogue, peculiar interactions, unforgettable phantasmal imagery and in-camera trickery, and Vampyr goes beyond an attempt to replicate the air of dreams and the terror of nightmares: it is uniquely cinematic.
Director Dario Argento
If Suspiria (1977) is horror’s equivalent to the Hope Diamond, any follow-up is bound to seem the lesser film in comparison. Still, Dario Argento gave it his best shot and the sequel, Inferno, developed further the Three Mothers mythology (inspired by the writings of opium-eater Thomas De Quincey), but wisely avoided its predecessor’s singular qualities.
Swapping lush primary colours for cooler electric blues and neon pinks, Inferno dazzles and scares the audience in a different manner. Goblin’s cacophonous experimental rock score is replaced with Keith Emerson’s baroque and distinctly operatic compositions and the plot is more in the vein of an Edgar Allan Poe mystery than a Grimm fairytale. Likewise, the former’s heavily geometric patterns and lighting are abandoned in favour of blocks of Rothko-like abstract colours.
Director Saxon Logan
Saxon Logan’s Sleepwalker is a stylish mix of socio-political satire, ‘old dark house’ scenarios and the 1980s trend for slasher movies. Bill Douglas (The Bill Douglas Trilogy, Comrades) leads the cast as Alex Britain, a lily-livered leftie in a quasi-incestuous relationship with his younger sister (Heather Page), who is stuck for the evening with a materialistic, homophobic Thatcherite (played with slimy relish by Nickolas Grace).
Set on a dark and stormy night in a country cottage up north, pointedly named Albion, Logan’s featurette resonates loudly in 2016 Brexit Britain, as it presents a biting discourse on the Tory right and Labour left in a battle for the nation’s future. “You’re the meat-eater who can’t stand the sight of blood,” Richard Paradise (Grace) snaps at Alex, over an intense and uncomfortable dinner. Today as then, it’s Richard’s me-me-me ambition and aspirational fervour which chimes with the times.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)
Director David Lynch
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me rids itself of every popular aspect of the show: the goofy charm, deadpan humour and warm eccentricity. Lynch wasn’t so much walking with fire as playing with it. This thematically dark and resolutely sordid drama is dominated by Sheryl Lee’s beguiling performance as Laura Palmer, which proves the actor had more in her locker than playing an enigmatic ghost in the red room, a frozen face wrapped in plastic or Laura’s kindly cousin, Maddy Ferguson.
Laura’s brutal murder presents horror unbound. Pitched as a Sturm und Drang vision of insensible violence and lust accompanied by a choir of voices, Wagner-esque dissonance, flashing light and achieving a heightened level of sorrow and terror via Mary Sweeney’s editing – close-ups of screaming or bloodied faces interrupted by fade-to-black transitions – it’s among the best sequences Lynch ever devised.
Director Fabrice Du Welz
Fabrice Du Welz’s second feature film is like Don’t Look Now (1973) in a jungle setting. In it, a troubled western couple, Paul and Jeanne (Rufus Sewell and Emmanuelle Béart), pay underworld figures to transport them by boat from Thailand into Burma. As they search for their missing son, who disappeared in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, their journey becomes increasingly fraught with peril and hallucinatory, as primal forces and the raw power of grief slowly turn Paul and Jeanne against each other.
From the sleazy districts of Bangkok luridly photographed by Benoît Debie in sickly greens and fiery reds to wet, murky jungle ruins, Vinyan has much in common with Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009). Both films end with nightmarish codas brimming with male anxiety and doom, though von Trier’s comes off like a surreal take on Benny Hill or the Monty Python sketch where Graham Chapman is hounded by a horde of naked women. Du Welz ends his on a far more riveting, almost Cronenbergian note.
Director Park Chan-wook
The sun is coming up. Two vampires sit in a car on the edge of a cliff. In the back is an old woman taken along for the ride, for reasons which soon become clear. The male vampire has tricked the female vampire and she’s cottoned on to his suicidal intentions. She hides first in the boot. He rips it off. At a loss, she then hides under the car; grooving out a makeshift coffin in the dirt. But he moves the car. It’s a sequence – predominantly wordless – recalling the physical humour of Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967).
The jury prize winner at Cannes in 2009, Park Chan-wook’s gloriously off-the-wall comedy is based on Emile Zola’s 1867 novel Thérèse Raquin, a pioneering work about a folie à deux and its tragic repercussions which would have a major impact on crime fiction and later film noir. Park’s idea to turn Zola’s novel into a vampire movie is inspired.
A Horrible Way to Die (2010)
Director Adam Wingard
‘Mumblegore’ was an unexpected yet influential genre offshoot from US indie ‘mumblecore’ features. Joe Swanberg, crown prince of the latter, also had a hand in the former, thanks to his associations and friendships with such directors as Ti West and Adam Wingard. Beginning with the Greta Gerwig-starring caper Baghead (2008), by the Duplass brothers, it reached its apotheosis with Wingard’s serial killer drama A Horrible Way to Die (2010), starring Amy Seimetz, Swanberg and A.J. Bowen.
Written by Simon Barrett (V/H/S), the film takes the aesthetic principles of mumblecore (naturalistic acting, dialogue-heavy scenes, a focus on relationship dynamics) but shapes them around a proper plot, in which an escaped killer (Bowen) drives across country to take vengeance on the girlfriend (Seimetz) – now an emotionally struggling alcoholic – who shopped him to the cops. At least that’s the path it leads us down before a cruel third-act volte-face. This is a film whose reputation will continue to grow.
The Lords of Salem (2012)
Director Rob Zombie
Rock-star-turned-director Rob Zombie honed his craft directing music videos for White Zombie throughout the 1990s. Perhaps that’s why his movies have been so dominated by flashy grotesquery and are more interested in an overall aesthetic effect than the rigours of storytelling. His films are ghost train rides as audio-visual art experiences. They are as influenced by Ken Russell movies as 1930s Universal horror films and Tod Browning. Like the British iconoclast, Zombie’s work is giddy with outré set-pieces and revel in the type of gauche silliness which gets up the noses of critics. Both directors found a home making confrontational art.
The Lords of Salem, a tale of Salem witches returning from beyond the grave to exact revenge against the town, is the one in which Russell’s influence is most to the fore, topping Ken’s own Gothic (1986) and The Liar of the White Worm (1988) for barmy shocks.
Director Francis Ford Coppola
Francis Ford Coppola’s Twixt returned New Hollywood’s great maverick to his roots working for AIP and Roger Corman (Dementia 13, The Terror). Given that its denouement features a man breaking down at the memory of his child’s death in a boating accident, the film explicitly references Coppola’s own personal history, making this without doubt his most personal project.
Coppola planned to take Twixt on the road, as part of an experiment in audience participation; audiences would be encouraged to re-edit the film from hours and hours of footage shot, creating a live cinema experience unlike anything before conceptualised. Coppola’s roadshow idea never took off, but his own cut of Twixt is itself a spirited and emotionally potent examination of artistic procrastination and tragedy. It looks incredible too, with the small-town gothic atmosphere amped up by Poe-referencing dream-within-a-dream sequences presented in a silvery iridescent hue causing colours – reds and rosy pinks dominate – to glisten with spectral beauty.