Quest For A Classic Horror Movie

I love scary movies. Probably more than any other type of film. There's nothing better than when pictures on a screen get your adrenaline pumping and genuinely scare the bejesus out of you.

Problem is, it's quite difficult for horror movies to actually get it right. I have no qualms about watching countless amounts of movies which are undeniably awful and were never going to be anything more. In my mind, there's something nice about watching a crappy horror movie, and as any casual movie fan knows these are in no short supply. But finding a genuinely scary and well made scary movie is becoming increasingly difficult. There are many acknowledged classics which actually do the trick, but at this stage I've seen most of them. So an unseen classic is therefore a rare commodity.

Being the stubborn bugger that I am, I refuse to resign myself to a future of hoping that this week's new horror movie will live up to the standards of, say, The Shining. So with that in mind I've begun a quest. There must be at least a handful of unseen classics out there, just waiting to scare us senseless, and I'm determined to find them.

A few ground rules:

  • Gore is not scary. While it can be used in a scary fashion, it takes more than an unthinkable act of violence to make a good horror movie. This rules out a lot of the genre (and you, Eli Roth).
  • Neither is torture-porn scary. It may be harrowing and unpleasant, but it's not scary. This rules out a lot of modern horror flicks, and even a lot of so-called 'classics' (Is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre merely torture-porn? Discuss.).
  • A story is always necessary. No one cares if randomers get killed. And no, 'unsuspecting couple go to secluded place for romantic getaway only to be tortured and killed by mysterious strangers' is not a story. It's a premise. Laziness will not be tolerated.
  • While 'loud noise' style shocks and jumpy moments are acceptable, they should preferably be used in conjunction with other methods of scaring the viewer. We could devise a points system- 1 for tension, 2 for a jumpy scare, 3 for slow realising terror- but that's unnecessarily complicated. You get the idea. Let's try not to be cheap with the scares.
  • Artistic merit is again preferable, but not absolutely necessary.

I realise I'm setting the bar quite high, but let's not forget we're looking for classics here. It's good to have standards. So we know the kind of thing we're looking for, here's a few examples of what I would consider a classic scary movie:

The Shining

Possibly the greatest horror movie of all time. Artistically amazing, as Kubrick always was. Some jumps, general feeling of unease, gradual creeping terror, leaves food for thought.

Don't Look Now
Undeniably great film, regardless of horror status. Again quite thought provoking, suspenseful, shocking conclusion.

The Haunting (original)
Smart, great story, creates it's own mythology, tension galore, smart scares, fantastic atmosphere.

Plays on classic urban-legend style mythology, creates uneasy tension throughout, one of the most spine-chilling reveals in movie history (typically botched in the hollywood remake).

There are several others I'd consider top notch, including a few modern offerings which I reckon have good claim to being classics (or at least modern classics). For example: The Others (plays expertly to genre conventions), Scream (completely fucks with genre conventions) and most recently The Orphanage, which contains one or two scenes that embody exactly what the classic horror movie should be all about.

Ok, so that's the general idea. My plan is to work my way through as many 'classics' as I can and hopefully find at least a few that genuinely deserve that title. If anyone can recommend anything that they reckon deserves to be watched please let me know. Hopefully at the end of this quest we'll be able to crown a few more legends of the genre.

To start, I've made a list of flicks I haven't seen which are reputed to be classics. They'll be watched and judged with the results being reported here. It seems that every list of 'greatest scary movies ever' online comprises the same handful of movies: Psycho, Alien, The Exorcist, The Omen... etc. So it may be hard to track down what we're looking for- classics that remain generally 'unseen' (I realise there may be some on the following list which I really should have seen already, but you'll have to bear with me on that).

Anyway, here's a list of preliminary research targets:

Hour of the Wolf
I've never seen anything be Ingmar Bergman, but he's reputed to be one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, so a horror movie by him must be good...

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari
1920's silent film regarded as one of the first horror movies.

Picnic at Hanging Rock
Not quite a horror, but apparently quite creepy.

Early Roman Polanski.

Village of the Damned
Never seen this. Creepy kids are generally effective. The main kid is Martin Stephens of The Innocents fame- that should probably be on the list of established classics...

Jacob's Ladder
Saw this years ago based on it's reputation as a classic scary movie, but was probably too young to appreciate it.

Night of the Demon
As above

Session 9
Modern flick which I would have assumed to be a straight-to-video crapfest, but has a lot of support online as something that's genuinely good.

As I said, there's probably many others out there which I'm not aware of, so do help.

What movie scared the crap out of you most? There's bound to be one...

To get us all in the mood here's an Irish short film which was recommended to me as a smart little taste of suspense and what to do with it. Remember that scary movies should always be viewed late at night and, of course, in the dark.

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September 25, 2008 at 4:35 PM Rol said...

I agree with pretty much all your criteria for what makes an effective scary movie. The most recent film I've seen that ticked many of those boxes was The Strangers. Very effective use of bangs and jumps a la the original Haunting (not the dire remake), virtually no gore, and a great use of masks & the fear of the unknown / unseen.

September 25, 2008 at 4:53 PM Clockwork Rob said...

True, it's to be commended for the lack of gore & good mask use (there's something inherrantly creepy about masks).

I thought it fell down on story though- there wasn't really much to it, and wheras that can sometimes be a good thing there were just one too many clich├ęs in it for my liking. ie: 'The Stupid Victim' (let's spilt up!) and the ol' classic 'I've fallen down and hurt my leg, now I must move infuriatingly slow for the rest of the movie'. Shame, cause there were a lot of plusses to it.

Head and shoulders above a lot of other modern fare, but I don't know if it quite earns the title 'classic'.

Keep em coming!

September 25, 2008 at 11:01 PM thecynicalgamer said...

Hour of the Wolf is great, although wasn't quite as wowed by it as his other stuff. And it is more creepy/eerie than full on scary, with surreal and unusual imagery and so on. Not the best Bergman to start off with though.

I have been singing the praises of Rec to anyone who cares to listen. It is so unspeakably tense that it should leave you upset for a while afterwards. I am not a huge fan of horror (the Descent is the only other recent horror to truly have me on edge) but Rec is all kinds of brilliant. And it makes good use out of handheld cam where others have failed miserably (e.g. Cloverfield or the embarrassing Diary of the Dead).

Also: Night of the Living Dead. Still fantastic.

You've seen Suspiria? That is another one which is pretty freaky. But you are watching it mainly for the visuals, which are just out of this world.

And now I am off to watch Freaks, which is supposedly still one weird and terrifying slice of madness.

September 26, 2008 at 2:33 PM Clockwork Rob said...

Watched Hour of the Wolf- great stuff- as you say, more creepy and eerie than scary. The imagery was fantastic, and the acting really added to the mood.

I'd class that as one of the stronger candidates i've come accross so far. It's been a busy two days- watched four so far: Caligari, Hour of the Wolf, Session 9 & The Changeling.

Might deliver the full reports in a seperate post...

Rec is being added to the list. Looks good!

September 27, 2008 at 2:14 AM thecynicalgamer said...

Glad you enjoyed Hour, now you have all the other Bergman stuff left to blow your mind ;)

Watched Freaks, add that to your list. Weird, weird film. Disturbing and yet oddly touching...

Just dl'ed Caligari (woo public domain) so will give that a watch in the next day or two as well.

Good to hear the search is going on the good.

September 28, 2008 at 9:58 AM Anonymous said...

i got freaked out by "The Descent"

that one deserves to be added to the list

September 28, 2008 at 11:38 AM Evil Bob said...

I'd add Haneke's original Funny Games onto that list. Had me on the edge of my seat when I first saw it.

September 30, 2008 at 12:51 AM Anonymous said...

The Strangers was fucking awful- Exactly as you describe in your post about bad cliched horror films.

Suspiria is colourful, stylish, but not a great film. Tenebrae IS great- watch it. What about Zombie Flesh Eaters; fun and how can you beat that kickass soundtrack?

How about some Lynch...Eraserhead? one of my favourite films. It was Kubricks too. Re-Animator, one of the few horror comedies that works, alongside Evil Dead series.

Coscarelli's Phantasm, sort of crap due to ropey acting but visually good and atmospheric. Have a few drinks first.

Hellraiser, truely chilling. Clive Barker rocks. The Ordeal (french) black comedy...very very black. Priest socks black. Unexpectedly good.

Wicker Man, creepy. What an ending.

Return of The Living Dead....quality midnight watch.
and Demons- those crazy Italians!