As we wrap up Halloween Horror Week, our contributing writers were asked to answer some questions pertaining to the horror genre and some of the best films and villains to be found. Listen to our latest podcast episode, where Nate and Michael discuss further Halloween and its influence on films.
What is Your Favourite Horror Movie?
Nate: The genre of horror is such a broad category that I had trouble selecting a single movie. But I think that if the baseline of any horror film is to incite fear in the audience then my (somewhat unconventional) answer is Jaws. This Steven Spielberg classic was one of the first summer blockbusters and was instrumental in shaping the image of the shark as a feared creature of the sea (leading to things like Discovery’s annual Shark Week).
Unconventional as a pick it may be for this category, I think Spielberg expertly manufactures tension in such a way that the presence of the titular shark looms over the film even though we do not actually see it for the majority of the film’s run. In doing so, there is a layer of psychological fear attached to the film that is arguably more powerful than any gruesome killing you could show on screen. Lost beneath the many other masterpieces in his filmography, Spielberg’s Jaws is still undoubtedly one of the greatest films all time.
Michael: For me, there are favorites in the various subsections of the horror genre, but if I had to pick one film as my favorite to represent the horror category it would be The Silence of The Lambs.
It’s a tense, thrilling, and disturbing experience and one that leaves you with a great feeling of unease. The extraordinary performance from Anthony Hopkins as the quietly sadistic Hannibal Lecter remains one of the greatest on-screen performances of all time, while Jodie Foster’s tough and vulnerable Agent Clarice Starling allows the audience to feel the swirl of emotions presented in the narrative. These two won the Oscars and the movie itself won Best Picture (the first and only in the horror/thriller genre to do so). This a masterwork of great cinematic storytelling and its horrifying and brilliantly executed characters and story make it a true film and horror masterpiece.
Ethan: My favorite horror film of all time would likely be The Exorcist. While it may not be quite as scary as it was when it was released, the film still creates an unsettling supernatural atmosphere, and its influence can be seen in many modern horror films. With great performances from both Ellen Burstyn and Jason Miller, The Exorcist is also a horror film with great depth, with its binary oppositions of good vs. evil, science vs. religion etc.
Ken: To me, you cannot have a more perfect blend of elements all adding up to a creepy and very fun horror film than Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999), shot in a love-letter style of classic Hammer Films (one of many of Burton’s inspirations). With a narrative very loosely inspired by Washington Irving’s classic tale, the film effectively blends together an entertaining if perhaps unconventional horror story/murder-mystery; showcasing gore and violence with tongue-in-cheek dark humor and an over-the-top presentation, but also allowing itself to breathe in it’s quieter and awe-inspiring moments as well. On top of this, the film is led by a great ensemble cast including Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci and supported by some of Britain’s best film/theatre talents, excellent production design filling the screen with a dark and foreboding atmosphere. It’s shared beautifully with Danny Elfman’s haunting score, and boasting special effects ranging from groundbreaking, disturbing and ridiculously (though intentionally) cheesy all at once. And while not a “true” adaptation of the story, the film still manages to capture a style of filmmaking not often attempted since the time of the films of its clear inspiration, and of Burton’s later films, it stands out as one of his very best.
What is Your Favourite Horror Movie Villain / Monster?
Ethan: My favorite horror film killer is antagonist Norman Bates, from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Initially, Anthony Perkins’ motel owner seems friendly and welcoming, before it soon becomes clear that something sinister is at play. Creating the most iconic murder scene in cinematic history, Bates’s ability to deceive is what makes him such a chilling figure.
Ken: The Xenomorph from the Alien franchise is perhaps one of the most unique monster designs of its type, both complex and yet also simple in its look inspired by the nightmarish designs of the late great artist H.R. Giger. Though the creature is a departure from the usual cinematic aliens, it still has basic predatory animal instincts and biological attributes that make even their very conception and deaths a danger to all around them. While the franchise has become known for its ups and downs, the Xenomorph still maintains the same level of recognition and praise it has from its first appearance in the claustrophobic halls of the Nostromo in 1979.
Michael: So many to choose from and so many brilliantly original creations, but there’s always been only one at the top for me: Freddy Krueger. The melding of fantasy horror and sadistic comedy make the undead and burned Freddy truly one of the most creative and iconic horror characters. A product of the genius of Wes Craven, Freddy Krueger is more than just a silent stalker (Michael Myres, Jason Voorhees, Leatherface etc) but a complex and fully developed menace. Add in a star-making performance from Robert Englund and you have a villain unlike any seen before. From his ominous rhymes to his maniacal one-liners, Freddy Krueger is just a horrifying pleasure to watch. Don’t go to sleep!
Nate: While certainly not the most intimidating of the bunch, my pick goes to Chucky from the Child’s Play franchise. Like many of the other choices we have selected here, Chucky has a personality that makes him a complete character rather than just an empty vessel killing machine. Chucky has personality in spades and in the years that have followed, he has inspired many lesser copycats (most notably Annabelle) which is a notch towards his lasting legacy in pop culture.
Most Underrated Horror flick or horror film you think people haven't seen but they should
Nate: As I often do, I am going to highlight some foreign features that frankly not enough people have seen:
Let The Right One In (Sweden): Regarded as a modern horror classic, still not enough people have this film. Beyond some genuinely scary scenes, this film also features a surprising amount of depth. A must watch for anyone interested in horror.
The Wailing (Korea): In recent years, South Korea has flown under the radar despite giving us some of the best films and brightest directors. Part of the reason their films succeed is that they go against the traditional grain both in its unique filmmaking style and storytelling methods. The Wailing is a supernatural thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat throughout.
Pulse (Japan): Directed by the other Kurosawa (Kiyoshi), Pulse continues the trend of excellent Japanese movie exports. The easiest (and perhaps laziest) comparison to make is to compare this film to a David Fincher feature in the way that it manages to mix thriller elements with a keen inward eye to the flaws of humanity and in many ways capturing that is just as scary as anything.
Ethan: One of this year’s best British films is horror-comedy Prevenge, by debutant director Alice Lowe. Having starred in Ben Wheatley’s excellent black comedy Sightseers, she directs and stars in this tonally-similar flick about a pregnant woman who is instructed to kill by her unborn baby. Heavily influenced by Rosemary’s Baby, Lowe wrote and filmed the feature while heavily pregnant herself; an incredible feat considering the stress that must be involved when directing for the first time.
Michael: Matthew McConaughey’s rise to critical acclaim didn’t just come with Dallas Buyers Club but with a string of films each great vehicles for his acting and memorable in their own right. Among them is 2011’s Killer Joe from director William Friedkin ( The Exorcist), a violent, graphic and just plain squirm-inducing movie. Based on the stage play of the same by Tracy Letts, Killer Joe tells the story of a hitman (McConaughey) and the romantic interest he takes in the little sister of the man who hired his services. When the man can’t repay Joe, he takes the girl as collateral until payment is ready.
This is a wonderful performance from McConaughey who showed exactly why he was on the ladder up to that Oscar, and this very dark movie is both fascinating and repulsive. While it may not be known by larger audiences, Killer Joe is a great horror/crime thriller with considerable talent on both sides of the camera. For Matthew McConaughey especially it is an unforgettable role and after watching it viewers are sure to never look at a piece of fried chicken the same way again.
Ken: While it seems that remakes of horror film classics are commonplace today, it was not uncommon to see them make their way to cinemas decades earlier; and such was the case of Chuck Russell’s The Blob (1988), an updated reimagining of the 1950s film of the same name. While perhaps not as highly regarded as its predecessor, the remake still manages to maintain the same absurd B-movie charm as the original while also intensifying the action with a level of gruesomeness, giving audiences a good look at what a creature depicted as a combination of a giant living Jello mold/flesh-eating bacteria is actually capable of. Boasting incredible practical special-effects, clever writing (both paying tribute to but also subverting the genre tropes), and with a good ensemble of lesser-knowns and strong talent, The Blob (1988) is an absolutely solid 80s creature feature and definitely one of the better remakes of its kind.
Other underrated films worth checking out: Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs (1991), Dan O’Bannon’s The Return of the Living Dead (1985), Toshiharu Ikeda’s Evil Dead Trap (1988) (and it’s excellent score by Tomohiko Kira), and (for heavy metal fans) Jason Lei Howden’s Deathgasm (2015).
Most Overrated Horror Film and why?
Ethan: Many modern horror films could be chosen here due to their formulaic nature and reliance on cheap jump-scares. Any of the Paranormal Activity sequels along with the likes of Insidious and Sinister are candidates, but my selection will be The Conjuring. Although not as bad as the film’s mentioned previously, people really seem to like this one and think it has more credit than I am giving it, but my experience of it was the same as the aforementioned. Unoriginal and lacking a compelling story, The Conjuring fails to scare, and there are far better popcorn horror films to watch.
Michael: The Saw franchise is an example of a series that just gets less and less original the more entries it produces. While certainly big on graphic images and blood, I never found Saw to be particularly scary. Sure the scenarios are certainly uncomfortable, but the execution of the story is ultimately based on gore. Gore on its own isn’t necessarily scary; it fact true horror or suspense doesn’t even need violence per se. Of the many horror series Saw seems to be the one with the most instalments but not particularly the greatest scares, and one I think is overrated.
Ken: Eli Roth’s approach to cinema is not without a certain level of admiration; he clearly shows passion for (grindhouse genre films) and recreating them, while updating them with his own modern touches. In the case of his films Hostel (2005) and Hostel: Part II (2006), Roth only seems capable of delivering horror through only shock value of torture, violence, and gore and populating his films with some of the least intelligent and most unlikeable characters put to screen. In horror films, much like any other, characters are a crucial component and the more you can identify with them in such a film, the more impact the horror can leave you with as you wonder how they will survive. And while it’s easy to say that franchises such as the Saw films are just as guilty in delivering the same sort of pay-offs in gore and violence, they at least have the benefit of character development. With the Hostel films, the short amount of time you spend with any of these “characters”, you’re almost wishing for them to be killed off quickly so you don’t have to spend any more time with them than necessary, taking any fear for them away with it.
Nate: I have never understood the appeal of the Paranormal Activity franchise. Yes, there is an eeriness to every film as the mystery of the creature haunting the dwelling is uncovered but I am often left feeling empty at the conclusion of the movie. Maybe it’s because of the paper-thin backstory or the fact that this franchise thrives on cheap jump scares rather than creating genuine fear but whatever it is, I can’t help but think: A) nothing of substance ever happens in these movies and B) The Blair Witch Project did this concept so much better.
Scariest Scene in a horror film in your opinion?
Michael: Alfred Hitchcock was called the “Master of Suspense” for a reason, and to this day his brilliant film-making techniques remain as powerful as ever. The 1960 Psycho is another prime example of Hitchcock’s genius and the famous “Shower Scene” is undoubtedly one of the scariest sequences in cinematic history, without an actual view of any stabbing or violence. Though to modern audiences the shock and fear factor has decreased in this widely parodied scene, its buildup and execution continue to be a quintessential instance of movie magic.
The camera angles, Bernard Hermann’s screeching score, the vulnerability of the naked woman, and an unknown menace of Norman Bates, make this scene deservedly legendary. Without showing any actual penetration of the knife, Hitchcock still makes everything vividly clear. The Master understood that sometimes it’s not the violence itself that scares (The Saw series for instance) but the imagination. Imagining the horror facing Marion Crane in that horrific moment is in itself truly terrifying. While parodied and widely known, the “Shower Scene” can’t be beaten for pure movie and horror brilliance.
Ethan: My pick may be cheating a little as Mulholland Drive isn’t technically a horror film, but David Lynch has frequently dabbled in conventions of the genre, and this scene is drenched in dread and unease. As two unfamiliar men sit in a diner talking about a recurring nightmare, Lynch subverts our expectations by essentially warning us of a monster hiding behind the building, a move that in most films would reduce the scene’s impact. But as we know that this is David Lynch, we are unsure what to think, half expecting him to be bluffing while still holding a premonition that something terrifying is about to happen.
Nate: My original pick was the shower scene from Psycho but since Michael already covered that one, I’ll go with the famous “television scene” from Ringu (The original Japanese version of The Ring).
I’ll admit that as this scene has aged and been endlessly parodied, part of its effect has lost its luster but still any scene that will have you progressively repeat: What the fuck….what the fuck….WHAT THE FUCK?! Is a winner in my book.
Ken: Sometimes the most effective scares come from the audience’s own personal experiences and how the film plays around with them. In my case, growing up, I dealt with a strong dislike of bugs…and especially that of spiders. And while today my attitudes towards them are no longer along the lines of crippling fear, there comes along a film like Arachnophobia (1990), that still manages to remind me of why spiders can always instill unease in people. However, this should not be considered a turn-off as the the film does have its many positive points; with a somewhat playful execution of the style of classic “nature attacks” films balancing with a wild sense of humour, featuring great performances from an ensemble cast (including a great character performance from the ever-great John Goodman), and a suitably silly but legitimately creepy and intense climax. But in some of the more raw and slow-building scenes, such as hapless photojournalist Jerry Manley becoming the film’s first victim, or the infamously shocking bathroom scene, if you were already uncomfortable with spiders before, this film as a whole is certainly nothing short of an effective endurance test.