Do you cringe when someone wants to watch a “horror film”? I get it. I used to think I would never be able to sit through an entire horror movie without closing my eyes and hating every moment. Then I took a class on horror films and found myself not only watching but really enjoying some of the films–there’s something really amazing that happens when a film causes me to step away from the comfort and security of my normal, real life and experience fear, uncertainty, and curiosity. Eventually I realized that when you ask someone why they don’t like horror, it often turns out they just dislike one aspect of horror (say, close-up shots of bleeding eyeballs or jump-cuts to old female skeletons in nightgowns leaping out of creaky wardrobes) or one particular movie. And there is so much more to the genre of horror than that one freaky/gross scene we both had nightmares about. So, if you’ve never been a fan of horror or can’t imagine why people like horror, here is my personal list of films to introduce you to the fun that is scaring yourself (without scarring yourself).
Pan’s Labyrinth: A beautifully written, shot, and directed film about a young girl named Ofelia and her mother, who live with her new stepfather on a rural military outpost. The film is a mix of reality and fairy tale that doesn’t shy away from the harshness and cruelty that exists in both the fantasy and the real world. It’s a tough movie to watch at times, but the frightening and monstrous things that happen are always secondary to the heart of the film, which is its powerful and touching message about innocence, sacrifice, and love.
The Thing from Another World: A team of scientists, investigating a magnetic disturbance near the North Pole, discover a disc-shaped object and some sort of man-like creature frozen beneath the ice. I’ve watched this movie maybe five times and it’s still one of my favorite classic go-to horror films. It gets into some ethical and humanistic debates about military vs. science and how far we can or should go to obtain knowledge, etc. But it’s also just old-fashioned scary tension that has exactly the right amount of pay-off.
Trollhunter: When a group of Norwegian film students attempt to track down a mysterious bear hunter, they learn that he is actually hunting trolls. I love this film! It feels like it could actually happen, and if it did happen, I would want to be hanging out with that bear hunter dude for sure. It doesn’t feel like a horror movie (more like a comical road trip meets gorgeous scenery meets documentary trying to prove whether or not fairy tales are real), but still has some scary moments. Definitely one to see with your squeamish friends.
Night of the Hunter: Two children are stalked by a murdering psychopathic preacher who wants their father’s stolen fortune. This is seriously a hard-core scary film, but not gory, jumpy, or skin-creepy-crawly. It is a masterpiece of storytelling, acting, and writing, and wonderfully highlights the fear that someone who seems one way on the surface is actually a completely different person on the inside. My advice is to watch it with someone you trust COMPLETELY.
Night of the Living Dead: After being forced into an abandoned house by zombies, a group of strangers must find a way to survive the night as the zombies continue to attack. This is another ye olde classic of horror that every film student must see. It is THE zombie film, and is likely not even close to being as gory or scary as most zombie trailers/TV shows/movies you’ve come across in your life. But it’s still awesome and you’ll be surprised at how effective the old horror cliches are when used just right, as they are here.
The Haunting: Dr. Markway, doing research to prove the existence of ghosts, investigates Hill House, a large, eerie mansion with a lurid history of violent death and insanity. With him are the skeptical young Luke, who stands to inherit the house, the mysterious and clairvoyant Theodora and the insecure Eleanor, whose psychic abilities make her feel somehow attuned to whatever spirits inhabit the old mansion. As time goes by it becomes obvious that they have gotten more than they bargained for as the ghostly presence in the house manifests itself in horrific and deadly ways. I love both this movie and the book it’s based on by Shirley Jackson. It relies so much on the inner psychology of its characters and the atmosphere of the house to tell the story. It’s surprising just how little it takes to create an unsettling, scary situation in your mind. Great haunted house movie that is far from your typical “bloody ghosts waiting to leap out and kill you in the bathroom” haunted house movie.
Gravity: A brilliant medical engineer, Dr. Ryan Stone, is on her first shuttle mission, with veteran astronaut and acting space commander Matt Kowalski. Then disaster strikes the shuttle, leaving Stone and Kowalski completely out of touch with Earth. With little oxygen and energy left, how will they survive? This film may not seem like a horror film, but it totally is. The emptiness and apathy of space combined with the helplessness and limitations of humanity creates a ton of potential for scary, threatening situations that will leave your heart pounding and your hands sweating.
The Host: This is a Korean film about a monster who comes out of a polluted river and starts attacking people. I’m totally serious. It’s a pretty great film that is way more interested in the dynamics of a particular family and how they respond to this crisis than in creeping you out with monsterish gore and violence (although there is a little bit of that). It’s also quite funny.
The Others: A devoutly religious mother of two ailing children has moved with her family to a mansion on the English coast. Her two children both suffer from a rare photosensitivity disease that renders them extremely vulnerable to sunlight, prompting the rule of having only one door open in the house at a time. When one of the children claims to see ghosts, Grace at first believes her newly arrived family of eccentric servants to be responsible, but chilling events and visions soon lead her to believe that something supernatural is indeed going on. The Others has all the ingredients for a classic horror scarefest, but it decides to go in an unexpected direction, to its credit! It gives you a lot to think about and still has lots of scary anticipation-building fun.
Targets: In seemingly unrelated events, an aging horror film star announces his retirement, and an apparently average young man accumulates an arsenal of rifles and handguns. This is a fantastic film, particularly if you’ve seen Frankenstein or Arsenic and Old Lace (two other films which would also do nicely on this list, by the way). It’s been years since I’ve seen it and I still remember the feeling of it having such a satisfying ending and a delightful, interesting, unique story about horror movies, real life horror, and what happens when the two collide. Definitely, definitely, definitely see this one.