Introduction to the Horror Movie Face-Off:
The horror genre is certainly, from a visceral point of view, the most powerful movie genre of them all. A well-made horror film doesn’t just have the ability to raise the hairs on your neck, increase your heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration, magnify emotions, give you cold chills, make you squirm in your seat, or make you jump. It has the ability to crawl inside your head, resonate with dark reaches of your psyche, and stay with you for days, even weeks after you’ve seen it so that its images and concepts manifest in every dim corner and every sound in the night.
Despite its frequent pigeon holing as nothing more than a popcorn genre, the horror movie can be more sophisticated in craft and art than most. The best make-up and visual effects artists will gladly ply their trade in the horror industry, professions that require high levels of skill and creativity. Though a different set of skills are required by the writers and directors, they need to be equally, if not more creative because moviegoers habituate to scare techniques. New scare tactics, mythologies, and novel concepts are, therefore, a prerequisite for the continued effectiveness of the genre and it’s on the shoulders of the writers and directors this responsibility largely rests. Moreover, whether it’s the sound mixer, composer, effects crew, writer, or even the actors, practically everyone on the set of a horror movie needs to execute their skills with a nuanced understanding of human psychology to achieve maximum impact in the scares department. On top of all that, the horror movie is also perhaps the most unforgiving genre movie. Relying so heavily on atmosphere, it’s a cumulative and delicately balanced process that must maintain an even keel throughout. Even one slip up such as a piece of bad acting or clunky dialogue can disturb that balance, damage the mystique, and remind the viewer that it’s all just a movie.
The different effects that horror films have on us are found in different types of horror techniques. Some films like the Saw series predominantly rely on the gore factor to disturb their audience and, while requiring a large amount of talent in the visual effects field, they typically don’t require as much directorial craft as the establishment of an unsettling atmosphere. Of course, other films like John Carpenter’s The Thing strike a near perfect balance between the two and demonstrate how the latter can raise the impact of the former considerably. Then there are horror movies that work primarily on a psychological level – films like Jaws and even The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (remember – no blood!) that insert an idea into our minds and let it germinate so that we are left to imagine the terrifying force more so than being shown it. This of course, is the most potent tool of the horror movie, the implicit power of the human imagination where a few choice words or the stirring of waters or bushes can conjure the outline of an image or notion that becomes, in our minds, more frightening than anything the film-makers can create. Films like Jaws accidentally stumbled upon such a device when their mechanical shark “Bruce” continued to break down in the early stages of the shoot (though given that Spielberg did the same thing in his previous feature Duel, it’s likely he would’ve gone that route anyway) while films like Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (perhaps the most underrated horror film of all time!) mastered it to a fine point to create an implicit force of fear that dominated the entire film from the first scene to the last (and therein begging the question – “why ever show the evil?”). The most overused horror staple is of course the shock tactic where, for example, a character opening a closet is a precursor to the inevitable attack. In the year 2013, many a horror fan will quickly tire of a simple straight-laced use of that device. However, when used cleverly, like when the director throws in a few feints before the ultimate attack or turns the convention on its head, it can still ramp up the audiences’ internal pressure thereby compounding the shock release when it does arrive.
Although technique plays a critical role in generating scares and thrills, one cannot overlook the importance of those narratives and themes which tap the hidden reaches of our psyche, primal fears pertaining to those ideals we hold most scared, our mortality, our identity, our humanity, our soul, and indeed our primacy amongst all the world’s creatures. It’s no coincidence that the most popular horror sub-genres centre on myths that prey on those very insecurities: vampires who suck the life and soul from their victims leaving a cold but conscious shell in its place; zombies (the vampire of the scientific age) who attack our biological ability to self-determine by either devouring the very organ responsible for it or by infecting it and leaving the body in a state of automation/living death; werewolves who devour their victims leaving the victim, once rejuvenated, to exist in a torturous duality; the crazed killer whose complete lack of compassion sends waves of cold chills down the spine with the realisation that he is not to be bargained with; the monster who reflects the cruelty of nature (where it is a natural phenomenon) or of man (where it is the result of man’s interference with nature); the ghost who more than any other fiction reflects our deep psychological fear of the greatest unknown not to mention being an echo of a protagonist’s misdeeds (usually a fairly angry echo!).
It is with these types of stories and others like them that horror masters gain a head start on the audience because the latter walk into the theatres with those fears and insecurities already in place. The great directors and writers then simply proceed to subtly play on them with a carefully selected array of the techniques described earlier. Of course, all of this means that there is no simple answer to the question “what makes for the perfect horror?”. Depending on your audience, the landscape of their psyches, and their unique preferences for more or less, the question becomes one of personal taste. But what the above breakdown of the genre does afford us is a means to determining what belongs in a list of the greatest ever horror genre movies and what does not. For example, for years, reviewers have performed all sorts of concept acrobatics in an effort to label Jaws as anything but a “horror movie”. Whether this has been down to either a reluctance to attribute one of the greatest films ever made to a genre that has been (wrongly) viewed as “low brow” or whether it’s down to a flawed understanding of what a horror movie is isn’t clear but what is clear is that Jaws is the archetypal horror movie! From technique and structure to the subject matter which plumbs all sorts of deep and primal anxieties, there’s never been a better example of horror on film. In fact, considering that no other movie has had such an overt act on the extracurricular behaviour of its audience (and continuing to do so for generations after its release), there’s probably never been a better horror movie either.
Once again, I need to explain how and why certain films feature or don’t feature in the Top 25 Face-Off of greatest ever horror movies. In previous genre face-offs, I was excluding movies outside of mainstream cinema because I felt not enough people would have seen them to make a comparison viable. However, the horror genre is slightly different. Given the unique resonance that such movies have on us, great horror movies tend to develop a cult following more easily than movies from other genres and as such there is often little difference in popularity between mainstream box-office smashes like The Sixth Sense and cult sensations such as Black Christmas. However, there are of course some movies that belong on such a list that have not transcended beyond the hardcore horror faithful such as Tod Browning’s Dracula and Freaks, James Whale’s Frankenstein and Bride or Frankenstein, Polanski’s Repulsion, Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, and perhaps the best of all ghost stories, The Innocents. Due to their lack of broad popularity, they and others like them have been omitted from this list and face-off. Also, given that these face-off’s are attempting to discern the most enjoyable horror films, movies like Tremors and An American Werewolf in London are valued as much as the more out and out terrifying films because they manage to do justice to the themes and especially the tropes of the horror genre in both clever and ridiculously entertaining fashion. Lastly, since the beginning of the face-offs, I’ve attempted to restrict films to just one genre face-off and so even though John Carpenter’s The Thing and Alien would seem to walk both sides of the sci-fi/horror fence very evenly, I have restricted them to the sci-fi face-off alone.
The Exorcist vs John Carpenter’s Halloween
The Sixth Sense vs Suspiria
John Carpenter’s The Fog vs Poltergeist
An American Werewolf in London vs The Wicker Man
Carrie vs Suspiria
The Bride of Frankenstein vs Rosemary’s Baby
Evil Dead II vs The Sixth Sense
Carrie (1976) vs The Evil Dead (1981)
Tremors vs Poltergeist
The Howling vs The Omen
The Birds vs Suspiria
The Exorcist vs Jaws
An American Werewolf in London vs The Shining
The Bride of Frankenstein vs Evil Dead II
Rosemary’s Baby vs The Sixth Sense
The Evil Dead vs The Exorcist
The Omen vs Poltergeist
An American Werewolf in London vs The Birds
The Shining vs Suspiria
Genre Set (Horror)
An American Werewolf in London
The Bride of Frankenstein
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
The Evil Dead (1981)
Evil Dead II
Fright Night (1985)
The Sixth Sense
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
The Wicker Man (1973)