Is it possible to be a horror fan and not really enjoy most capital-h “Horror” movies?
Well, let me back up for a second. I actually do love the body horror/splatterpunk genres (think the visceral, frenetic, transformational, oozing nastiness of The Fly, Dead Alive, or even Rosemary’s Baby). I long to be shocked and disgusted, but do these films actually frighten me? Not really. In fact, I couldn’t tell you the last ghost or slasher film that even remotely got my blood pumping.
However, repulsion can come in many forms. After all, the definition of horror is the feeling of revulsion that occurs after something frightening has been witnessed. And you don’t need gore to achieve that.
So here are the top 10 films that left a chill in my stomach long after the credits rolled:
10. Fantasia (1940)
Disney movie? Yes. Scary as fuck? YES. Listen, if you asked three-year-old me what the scariest movie all time was, I’m pretty sure this would have been it. (Though, to be fair, I would have also said Ferngully: The Last Rainforest. Ugh, pollution monsters.) Upon first viewing of Fantasia as a preschooler, I promptly chucked this gorgeous, ethereal animated classic in the garbage. Why? First of all, that little scamp/creep Mickey enchants a hell of a lot of household objects and then CANNOT CONTROL THEM. Even as an adult this gives me the willies. But more importantly… have you checked out the Night at Bald Mountain sequence lately? Aside from the ominous Mussorgsky soundtrack, we’ve got floating skeleton souls rising from their graves, a flaming firepit of evil complete with danse macabre, and a giant horned demon god by the name of Chernabog coordinating all this. Whimsical my tuchas!
9. Dogville (2003)
If there’s one thing Lars Von Trier loves, it’s the dark heart of man. The Danish experimentalist is no stranger to traditional horror (see the Riget miniseries or mutilation-heavy Antichrist), but he always seems to succeed better as an artist when the horror comes from his characters’ personal abasement, as opposed to than anything supernatural. Dogville was filmed on a simple stage, with chalk outlines representing a village setting – however, you quickly forget the quasi-theatrical gimmick and are quickly submerged like a boiling frog into the rot of this deceptive small town. Nicole Kidman stars as a desperate woman seeking refuge in a close-knit mountain community who trades physical labor for protection. Slowly, you witness her body commodified until it is stolen completely from her. Much like Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, the rug shifts from underneath you and what appears to be a morality play about the banality of evil actually reveals dark side of empathy.
8. Compliance (2012)
Compliance is the kind of film that can get your heartbeat racing just from a scene of quiet dialogue. Terrifyingly based on a true story, the indomitable Ann Dowd stars as put-upon fast food restaurant manager who, during an already stressful day, receives a phone call from a person identifying himself as a police officer.The man on the other line claims one of her young employees (Dreama Walker) committed a theft and convinces the manager to detain and search the young woman in a backroom for several hours over the course of the day. Thanks to Craig Zobel’s tense direction, what we observe is nothing short of nauseating. From the unknown caller’s disturbing manipulation of the restaurant employees to the mounting degradation and abuse the young woman suffers at the hands of her trusted coworkers, this film will leave you nothing short of breathless.
7. Rats (2016)
I’ll admit, this documentary made me scream. More than once. True to form, shockumentarian Morgan Spurlock sends waves of disbelief down your spine as you take in this highly (though effectively) stylized account of the threat of global rat infestations. From NYC, where the Health Department officials take trainees on field trips to rat-dwelling sidewalk garbage mounds, sewers, and urban burrows, to India, where professional nighttime assassins catch the filthy beasts by hand in order to prevent the spread of disease, you’ll never look at these creatures the same way again. Anchored by stomach-churning confessionals from a grizzled veteran exterminator, this rodent thriller will make you question ever eating at a restaurant again.
6. Kids (1995)
We forget the abject horror of the AIDS epidemic. Although the American outbreak peaked a little over two decades ago, culturally it may as well have been centuries in the past. (An acquaintance of mine who teaches at Stanford recently reported that her undergrads, born in the late 90s, didn’t even know the U.S. had an AIDS-related crisis. Swallow that.) Perhaps this is why Larry Clark’s teen drama Kids, viewed today, comes across as a living nightmare. The realism may be a little too real as we follow a group of NYC adolescents through daily activities including sexual coercion and assault, drug use, stealing, and ferociously beating strangers on the street. Is it a bit of a teenage moral panic akin to how Blackboard Jungle was perceived in the mid-50s? Perhaps. Still, its the kind of movie that will keep your eyes glued to the screen, even when you want to look away. The sickening final scenes may never leave your memory.
5. Raise the Red Lantern (1991)
A young woman comes to live with her new husband on an estate that is not at all what it seems. A little bit Rebecca, a little bit The Turn of the Screw, and a little bit Jane Eyre, Zhang Yimou’s sumptuous drama dispenses with the gothic darkness of these classics, but still manages to carve out a chilling tale of terror and agony. Set in Warlord Era China in the 1920s, Gong Li stars as a young forced into a marriage with an older man and joins his expansive compound as his fourth wife. She is immediately treated to luxuries and attention, but quickly discovers she just another player in a game of power with the other concubines, each with a different motivation. Don’t let the stunningly colorful cinematography fool you – the film is a study in misery, murder, and madness.
4. Apocalypse Now: Redux (2001)
What is more horrifying than war? Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 epic Vietnam film, re-edited and released with 50-extra minutes of footage in the early 2000s, is a stomach-roiling trip down a river and into the center of savagery – not the jungle itself, but the sickening games of those who attempt to control it. An adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Coppola explores the banality of imperialist evil as Martin Sheen’s young captain journeys to assassinate a renegade colonel who is rumored to be ruling his own troops as a demigod in Cambodia . The young man’s riverboat expedition is like a descent through Hades – he encounters hostility, ambivalence, and his own petrifying anticipation as he contemplates meeting Marlon Brando’s Kurtz head-on. And when he finally arrives to complete his mission, you won’t ever forget the scenes of chaos embodying the worst of colonialism. The horror indeed.
3. The Piano Teacher (2001)
Of course Michael Haneke would make it onto this list! The Austrian auteur is a master of exploring social isolation/degradation and I had a number of his bloodcurdling films to choose from – two iterations of home invasion thriller Funny Games, the cold-hearted small-town dread of The White Ribbon, the videotape stalking drama Cache, and the suicide-ideating family of The Seventh Continent all came to mind, each more terrifying than the last. But it’s quietly sinister The Piano Teacher that disturbs me most. Isabelle Huppert (who a friend once described as a glorious European Ice Goblin) stars as an emotionally-inhibited piano professor at a conservatory in Vienna. Although in her 40s, she still lives at home with her authoritarian mother and resorts to solitary sexual perversion as a means of escape. She soon begins an obsessive affair with a 17-year-old student and her life begins in unravel in a waves of sadomasochistic self-mutilation, mother-daughter sexual impropriety, violent sabotage, and ambiguous sexual assault. Imagine Black Swan, but without the all the flash.
2. Eraserhead (1977)
Yeah, we all know David Lynch is the King of Weird. But does he actually horrify? With the surrealist indie Eraserhead, his first feature film, he will most definitely creep you to the core. Jack Nance plays Henry, a young apartment dweller left to care for his shrieking, deformed infant son in a dismal industrial hellscape. The films drifts in and out of Henry’s bizarre experiences, sexual daydreams, and gruesome hallucinations, treating us to a stream of grotesque imagery – floating sperm-like motifs, a roasted chicken that squirts blood, and the infamous child itself: a wet, dead-eyed puppet rumored to be fashioned from a rotting lamb’s skull. Most alarming of all may be Lynch’s anxiety-inducing mechanized growl of a soundtrack, a low-toned industrial buzz that maintains an element of ghoulish tension throughout the film. Although the film is ultimately themed around the fears of parenthood, the technical achievements alone will fill your body with ice.
1. Sunset Boulevard (1950)
A dilapidated mansion. A crazed old agoraphobe. A nearly silent, mysterious manservant. Billy Wilder’s lurid Hollywood-set drama is often billed as noir but has all the trappings of the typical gothic novel, including the narrator telling his tale from the grave. A mid-career screenwriter falls on hard times and by chance ends up at the home of a long-forgotten silent movie star (Gloria Swanson, untouchable) who decides to hire him as a script doctor for her long-planned comeback. One part amanuensis, one-part cicisbeo, the William Holden’s Joe falls deeper and deeper into his mistress’ grandiose mirage. Most fascinating is the film’s subversion of the tropes of these haunted tales – instead of an innocent young woman beguiled into the trap of a beast, it’s a slick young man who is manipulated over and over by an aging actress whose delusions eventually get the best of him. This is horror at its finest.