A good horror film is perhaps the most difficult type of film to make. For every truly exceptional horror movie, there are mountains of B-grade trash. Finding the wheat amidst the chaff is not easy. In a well-done film, the director is seeking to elicit a specific emotional response from the audience, and will use every scene to enhance and lead towards that emotion. Far too often, though, a mediocre director will take the easy way out, and overwhelm the viewer with gore and violence. But this is the mark of an amateur, not a master. And the masters do know the difference.
Edgar Allan Poe, who on top of all his other achievements in American letters, was a great literary critic and essayist. He touched on the question of how to craft a good horror tale in his masterful 1846 essay The Philosophy of Composition. A good tale of terror, Poe held, should be tightly constructed so that every sentence leads up a decisive, shattering finale. Emotion is more important than logic. Long books or long poems are incapable of being good vehicles for terror, because they drag on and are unable to sustain the required emotional momentum needed. Poe knew what he was talking about: his tales of terror are among the best short stories in English language, bar none. Re-read The Tell-Tale Heart, if you need any proof of this. As a short-story, it is nearly perfect.
H.P. Lovecraft, another great practicioner of the classic horror tale, had his own innovative ideas of how to evoke feelings of dread. Supernatural Horror in Literature, his 1927 treatise on the subject, describes specifically how terror as an emotion should be nurtured and brought to a crescendo.
According to Lovecraft, the competent horror writer should: cultivate the audience’s fear of the unknown, as this is the oldest and strongest kind of fear; don’t develop character, as it takes too long; use long sentences, weird ancient gods, and archaic words and spellings to play with the reader and heighten his distress; and try overturn the reader’s sense of what is natural and normal. Both Poe and Lovecraft made it clear that there was no short-cut to terror: terror was an emotion that had to be nurtured and kindled, much like a fire coaxed from the smoking embers of a glowing coal. Film directors would be well advised to take note of Poe’s and Lovecraft’s opinions.
With these considerations in mind, I want to suggest six films that are recent overlooked classics of the genre. All of them employ Poe’s and Lovecraft’s principles to great effect. Some of these movies could be considered suspense, rather than horror films. But the boundaries between film categories can be blurred, and I think we can agree that all are in the neighborhood of horror. I hope you will add them to your Netflix queue.
Our hapless protagonist enters a nightmare world of violence and crime in 13 Tzameti.
13 Tzameti (2005)
A wayward laborer finds a set of instructions meant for someone else and, on a lark, decides to follow them. This act plunges him into a demented world of chaos, insanity, and death. Georgian director Gela Babluani won an award at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival for this, his debut film, and deservedly so. Its gritty black-and-white patina provides the perfect backdrop to a universe of nihilistic violence and random cruelty. Often seen as a neo-noir thriller, it can equally be viewed as a horror film. If horror can be described as everyman being caught in the grip of nightmarish forces beyond his control, this movie without doubt falls within the genre and succeeds brilliantly within it.
The masterful hospital ward scene from the 1990 classic Exorcist III.
Exorcist III (1990)
Due to inept marketing, this one sadly received little notice when it was first released. Don’t let the derivative-sounding title fool you. This is not a sequel to the first two Exorcist movies, but a rendering of the horror novel Legion by writer/director William Peter Blatty. Blatty, with little experience behind a camera, was somehow able to carry off this project far better than anyone could have predicted. It has nothing in common with the other Exorcist films (except the name), and only added an “exorcism” scene at the end in final editing to appease the studio bosses. Featuring the always-watchable George C. Scott in one of his last roles, it manages to evoke a feeling of suffocating dread that it sustains until the very last shot. It also contains several scenes of heart-stopping terror that have no equal in any other film.
The English countryside conceals ancient and evil secrets in Kill List.
Kill List (2011)
Recommending this great British film is a true pleasure. Two out-of-work hit men with money issues (Jay and Gal) accept a vague final job to “terminate” several marks. The fact that they have to sign the contract in their own blood should have alerted them that this will not be an ordinary job. Their employers are withdrawn and reticent, and refuse to let them out of the job once accepted. Things progress slowly but surely, with dialogue that is mumbling to the point of inaudibility, and the viewer gets the sense that some sort of web is spinning around the two protagonists. And boy, are they right…Director Ben Wheatly explores the darkness of the human psyche through the vehicle of occult horror, and the results here are nothing less than spectacular. The ending is about as demented and unexpected as can be imagined.
Left Bank (2008)
This skillful Dutch-language film by Pieter Van Hees is another great entry into the world of occult horror lurking just underneath the surface of modern European life. A young female athlete (Eline Kuppens) meets a new boyfriend (Mattias Schoenaerts) and decides to move into his new apartment in the “Left Bank” part of city. But things are not what they seem, and she begins to notice her body and soul begin to gradually fall apart. As the web around her tightens, it becomes clear that she has been deliberately selected for a sinister and terrifying purpose. Great performances by all concerned, with some truly startling visuals at the end.
Sicko John Bunting calls the shots for his minions in The Snowtown Murders.
The Snowtown Murders (2011)
This is a dramatic recreation of the career of Australia’s worst serial killer, John Bunting, and of his clique of fellow-conspirators he recruited. If you want to see an unflinching portrait of the face of pure evil, this is the movie. It is so effective, in fact, that you will feel yourself wanting to take a shower at the end of it just to get these characters off you: it’s that good. Director Justin Kurzel shows us step-by-step how Bunting sought out and recruited weak or defective people in his lust to commit serial murder. The result is a horror film and a crime drama of unrelenting intensity. One of the most effective techniques (of many) used by the director is the playback of recordings of the victims’ last words, as commanded by the killers. Hauntingly scored and acted, this great Australian film is not for the faint of heart.
Accepting a job at an abandoned insane asylum is not a good idea in Session 9.
Session 9 (2001)
A depressed building contractor accepts a job to remove asbestos from a decaying psychiatric hospital. His co-workers discover a series of disturbing audio recordings in the dilapidated basement. And things just get worse and worse from there. This is an examination of a disintegrating psyche under the influence of past trauma, and remains one of the most effective portrayals of insanity put on film (an equally effective film on the same subject is Lodge Kerrigan’s 1993 masterpiece Clean, Shaven). What makes this movie so effective is that random events happen to the characters that we cannot be sure are real or imagined. There is a sense that arrows are flying in every direction, but mostly at you, the viewer; and the atmosphere of a rotting insane asylum is just about as oppressive as you can get. The suspends builds slowly but unceasingly, until the final 15 minutes when all hell breaks loose.
One of the greatest pleasures of movie-watching is coming across unexpected gems. Enthusiasts of the genre (or of good movies in general) will find any of these films worth a watch…or a re-watch. Horror takes real skill to portray effectively, as Poe and Lovecraft believed, and when a film uses these principles effectively, the results should be applauded.
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