Okay, today being the day it is (and if you don't know, who are you and why are you browsing a horror website??), I'm going to take a quick run through the films that I, personally, consider to be the scariest, the most effective and the downright creepiest that I have ever seen (of course, this obviously excludes those films I haven't seen). This will be my personal interpretation. I'm not making claims for these films as being the 'best', or even particularly well scripted/financed/acted (although I think these things also play a part). I'm simply going to run through a number of films I found particularly effective in making my skin crawl; films that have stayed with me long after I've slotted the DVD/Blu-ray back on the shelf (feel free to disagree with my choices, but there is no wrong and right in this – only opinion).
Horror is, like many other things, a highly subjective area – what works for one may well not work for another (and, in fact, I have experienced this first hand and on both sides). Ultimately, it all depends on the watcher's (or reader's) experience, outlook, tastes, temperament and a myriad of other factors. Having said that, I'm coming to the realisation that much of what makes horror work (and forgive me if this is widely known, I'm a mere novice) is where it breaks down the control, or the illusion of control that we, as a society or individual, hold. It's contact not only with the unknown, but the 'un-knowable'; the chaotic; the unfathomable. It's the breakdown of those polite and fragile rules and conventions we adhere to, that give our lives meaning and structure. It's when someone or something, some event, tears through the thin fabric of rationality and takes away any sense of self-determination we have.
That's my view, anyway. It's why Alien is a horror film; why pretty much any serial killer film, including The Silence of The Lambs, is; why the extermination of the Jewish people in Nazi Germany is utter, abject horror (this is the most horrific thing to me; I can't watch a documentary about the concentration camps without crying). It's events we find difficult, if not impossible, to fathom and which have laid waste to our conceptions of polite (or even impolite) society. It's also why I think the work of H. P. Lovecraft endures, despite criticisms (most justified) of his personal politics and writing style. He tapped into that sense of the unknown better than most, that notion that behind the frail curtain of 'reality' lies nothing but chaos and madness. Anyway...
Without further ado and in no particular order, here are my films...
Martyrs – (2008) – Dir: Pascal Laugier – Language: French (France).
Possibly one of the most controversial on my list (it's certainly a divisive film), Martyrs is also the one that I feel achieves what it sets out to do in the most complete fashion. I'm not going to give a rundown of the plot because I feel the best way to approach this film is knowing nothing about it, beyond the fact that it is brutal, hard to watch in places and very, very bleak. And yet, it's not bleak without purpose. Having watched interviews with the Director, Laugier, I truly believe he has made one of the greatest horror films ever. It strikes such a chord of emotion and resonance with me, that its impact hasn't lessened over three (so far) viewings. It's powerful and the Director describes it as the “anti-Hostel”. I would describe it as the antidote to most generic, throwaway horror films. There are many who hate it and I suspect in a lot of cases, that's because they aren't processing their response to the film properly. You're supposed to feel like shit at the end. Without spoiling, it clearly puts the emphasis and empathy back onto the victim. It forces you to care and be abhorred at what's unfolding before you... But enough, I've said too much. Go watch it. Unless you're particularly fragile and don't know how to analyse your emotional responses.
Lovely Molly – (2011) – Dir: Eduardo Sanchez – Language: English (US).
Lovely Molly is a film of both subtleties and ambiguities (and terror – lots and lots of terror). It very successfully straddles the line between psychological horror and the supernatural and keeps you guessing even after the film has ended. It's also partially a 'found footage' film, with some of the most terrifying segments filmed by the eponymous Molly. This film is a master-class in the realm of 'it's not what you see, but what you dread appearing' style of horror. This film, along with Berberian Sound Studio, made me realise just how effective audio was/is in creating tension, dread and fear. As Molly begins to see and hear strange noises in her new marital home (which also just happens to be the isolated farmhouse she and her sister grew up in), we are never quite sure if what's happening is a result of her degrading mental state, the spectre of past drug abuse or something altogether more sinister and paranormal. We hear what she hears, but we never see and it's this that grants the film its ambiguity and also its power. I've watched it twice and both times, the skin has tried to crawl off my flesh. A good one for a lonely dark night...
Atrocious – (2010) – Dir: Fernando Barreda Luna – Language: Spanish (Spain).
Now for a full on 'found-footage' film. It's become a bit fashionable to criticise this style in recent years. Personally, I think it doesn't matter how you film your...film, just that it's done well. If you blanket avoid all 'found-footage' films (or all zombie films, or all...you get the picture), you're potentially missing out on some great experiences. But, back to the film in question. A Spanish family move to the Catalonian countryside, to an old run-down house in the middle of nowhere (aren't they always?). The teenage brother and sister fancy themselves as paranormal investigators and there's an old local legend that says if you get lost in the woods, the ghost of a young girl will come and show you the way... So, they decide to film everything with camcorders. It's a very slow build up initially, simply shots that set up the locations that'll be used later. There's a really creepy harden labyrinth, some odd noises at night and strange, half-seen figures in the woods. When it all does finally kick off, it does so in magnificent fashion. The genius lies in the build-up. The first half of the film is spent with misdirection and your mind creating images that might or might not be there. The second half amplifies this, adding in the sheer terror of the kids and a very effective night-vision sequence. The story might be nothing really original, but I was full of tension throughout and I'd highly recommend it.
Under The Skin – (2013) – Dir: Jonathan Glazer – Language: English (UK).
At first, you might think this is a strange choice. An art-house styled SF film, based on the excellent novel by Michel Faber and starring Scarlett Johansson... And yet, this film, more than any other, had me feeling tense for the entire of its duration. Another one that's difficult to detail but not because I don't want to give anything away (I don't), but because it's almost impossible to tell you what the fuck is going on. I had some frame of reference because I had read the book, but even at that, the movie seems less concerned with telling you what it's about, than with engendering a very specific mood. Even the notion of Johansson's character development is buried under the tone and atmosphere. It's a film that forces you to interpret purely through the visuals and the music/sound effects. Dialogue is rendered meaningless in those few exchanges that occur. Interspersed with the 'guerilla tactics' filming (it looks like much of the footage filmed from the van in Glasgow was done surreptitiously, without the full knowledge of those she stops and speaks to), are snippets of abstract, stylised images that may or may not be related to the 'plot'. Again, it's a film that works based on your anticipation of what might happen, as opposed to what is happening. There's one particular piece of music that had me tensing up in a 'Pavlov's dogs' reaction, each time I heard it. Ultimately, it's not a film for everyone and not all will like it, but I loved it. It's stayed with me far longer than it should have as my brain keeps turning pieces of it over and over, trying to find meaning and sense there...
The Borderlands – (2013) – Dir: Elliot Goldner – Language: English (UK).
Another in the 'found-footage'...genre? Trope? Style? This cracker of a low budget British film concerns a small three-person team sent by the Vatican to investigate claims of miraculous occurrences in a small church in the dour English countryside. This gives the perfect platform to use multiple cameras, both static and personal. This one works, I feel, by creating believable personalities who do almost what anybody in this situation would do. They are sarcastic, sceptical, yet also open to possibilities. The dynamic created between the three main players drives what might have been a flat, 'seen-it-all-before' film and draws you fully in. But, there are also some genuinely scary moments – the static cameras filming at night in the empty church; the POV shots as one of the team walks up to the church in the pitch black; and the absolutely dread inducing chaotic run through the catacombs towards the end. I loved it. I also loved the quite bonkers ending (if you've seen the film, you know what I mean), which took the film to a whole new level for me. I applaud it. Bravo.
Paul M. Feeney
Paul M. Feeney has been watching horror films since he was a young, impressionable boy and before the lunatic hysteria reached his parent's censorship. This transferred to the written word when he was sixteen and read his first Stephen King book. He hasn't looked back since (except to check over his shoulder that there aren't any monsters following...).
The past few years have seen him turn his hand to the writing of his own fiction, in the arena of horror and the supernatural. He expects to be published soon, wit fame and riches following soon after...