Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about horror.
For the next meeting of my screenwriting group I’ve agreed to discuss the horror genre, and show a classic horror film. Since this is for the purposes of writing, I picked a film that would be well-known by everyone, had a script online that everyone could read in advance, and I decided that I’d go with a movie that was not based on previous material (book, comic, short story, etc.). If we’re trying to flex our writing muscles to generate new concepts I figured we might as well look at how an original idea was developed for the screen.
I’ve been watching a lot of horror films as a result. From iconic films such as Frankenstein (1931), and its superior sequel, Bride of Frankenstein (1935), to Tod Browning’s amazing Freaks (1932), and onto more recent fare such as the dreamy fairy-tale The Company of Wolves (1984) (just released on DVD), and Zack Snyder’s stylish remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004). I watch horror films on a regular basis anyway, but at the moment I’m getting them in a concentrated dose. It’s like a mini film festival all of my own.
I’ve assembled a list of ten horror films that I rate highly (in no particular order):
The Wicker Man
The Devil Rides Out
The Thing (1982)
This is a very personal list, and it reflects films that have affected me in memorable ways. I don’t claim that they are the best on offer, but they represent the horror films that I can watch, and enjoy, multiple times.
There are many honourable mentions, such as Bride of Frankenstein, Saw, May, 28 Days Later, A Tale of Two Sisters, Salem’s Lot, Halloween, The Haunting, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Suspiria, Pitch Black, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Lost Highway, Poltergeist, Angel Heart, Evil Dead: Army of Darkness, Stir of Echoes, Hellraiser, and Candyman. Unless I state otherwise, I’m referring to the original, and not the remake.
Surprisingly, I note that I have not listed any vampire movies, which is strange considering how many of them I have liked over the years. Nosferatu (both versions) is a film I like a great deal, but I would need to watch some of the older versions of Dracula again to decide which ones would make my cut. I remember being very taken with the 1979 version of Dracula, because I felt that Frank Langella was both sexy and dangerous – an important mix needed for the Count (which Bela Lugosi never did for me). I need to re-watch Terence Fisher’s 1958 version, with the always-charismatic Christopher Lee, before I could comment accurately on it. Hammer films have a soft place in my heart, despite their cheesiness and their love of velvet curtains. I’ve come to appreciate Coppola’s 1992 release of Dracula more over the years, but mostly from a style and production point of view; there are still far too many problems with the acting and overall cohesion in the film.
Considering the vampiric field I think that Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 Near Dark deserves honourable mention, despite its contrived ending.
I’ve stuck to films that were made with the horror genre in mind, and not films (usually thrillers) that contain horrific elements: such as Silence of the Lambs, Seven, or American Psycho – which are terrific films in their own right.
That brings us down to a definition of horror. The Horror Writers Association has a useful article on the definition of horror that is worth reading.
For instance, slasher films don’t scare me particularly. Buckets of blood and gore are not requirements, as far as I’m concerned, for a horror film. I don’t necessarily want tons of special effects either. Sure, both of those elements can be in a horror film, but they should be tools that are used skilfully to evoke a feeling of fear or dread from the audience.
I like atmospheric horror. I enjoy a slow build, and I definitely think that less is more. When you allow the mind to fill in the blanks it can imagine far worse monsters that the special effects team can put on screen.
Unnecessary use of CGI is one of the worst offences in modern films that purport to be horror. Recent examples of this are Van Helsing and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. They cannot be described as horror films (they are not scary), and in particular they are not good stories. They can be enjoyed as simple action flicks as long as you deaden your critical faculties in advance.
Like all films the absolute requirement for a memorable horror film is a good story. I also think that horror films tend to require strong characters with which the audience can identify. If we are going to take a long scary journey into the dark we want to hold someone’s hand when we do so, and that’s usually the main character in the film.
My goal is that after I finish my current project that I will set about writing a damn scary film. To do so I will have to mine my own personal fears and manifest them in the script. If I don’t scare myself when I write it, then I doubt I will affect anyone else either.
Here’s to horror: may directors continue to make films that scare us, move us, and surprise us.