Something Sinister: 5 Horror Film Classics
Horror films are cool. Well, sometimes. For some, drinking battery acid sounds much more pleasant than sitting down to a horror movie. Others can't get enough of these shows, constantly needing the latest straight-to-DVD exploitative gut fest to ease the addiction. My feelings are more that I like good horror, and hate bad horror. Sounds simple and dumb, but I find that too many of us spend more time with bad horror than good horror.
It's true that horror movies can be uncomfortable and (surprise) horrific. It's also true that the majority of horror films out there are rubbish and exist only as exploitation films that do much harm and little good. I'm not going to try solving the mystery of what makes a good horror film, or try telling you what criteria you should follow when choosing a scary movie. I don't really have the answers to those questions, for my own reasons and rules shift as I think, study, and learn more about life, cinema, and everything else. But I'd like to spotlight five classic horror films that I've found particularly good, though that does not mean these five are for everyone; 'good' or 'old' aren't descriptors that equal 'clean', though these are dreams compared to most any modern horror film. These five I've found to be important enough that anyone interested in looking at the horror genre a bit closer should check them out.
Night of the Hunter : Now here's a horror film about children that children can watch. Charles Laughton's only directorial credit is one incredible first and only film. Like many horror films, this one deals strongly with religious journeys and inquiries, as well as redemption & mercy, justice & punishment, and sexual obsession; all revolving around kids. And Robert Mitchum is awesome. Terrible, but awesome. It's correct to say the film is critical of religious hypocrisy, but that isn't all it is. Pay attention to Lillian Gish's character, Rachel Cooper. You'll notice how her own faith differs from that of Mitchum's Harry Powell, whose own faith lies more in the belief in one's self and one's divine right to judge, condemn and punish. In contrast, Cooper's faith is a fuller, more sincere Christian faith, rooted in Christ and Christian ideals of charity, love, and forgiveness.
The Unknown : Tod Browning's film of body horror and obsession is one of my favorites of the silent era. A traveling carnival troupe is always good for a horror film, though you run the danger of exploiting lifestyles and deformities that don't deserve such treatment. Browning worked in carnival shows for a while and knows something about the way people with physical handicaps and deformities were treated by the 'normal' public. In The Unknown, you can see Browning beginning to address some of these issues that he would more fully address in the offensive and brilliant Freaks . Also, Lon Cheney and Joan Crawford's performances are so good that they're reason enough to watch this film.
Repulsion : If you were ever starting to think that objectifying someone was cool, stop. And watch Repulsion. Catherine Deneuve is tragically great as the beautiful, psychologically scarred Carole. Thanks to this film I swore off straight razors for life. And rotting rabbit meat - gross. One of my favorite horror films. It's cold, dark and troubling, with a dash of tenderness and a whole lot of sincerity in the film making. Shows Roman Polanski's fascination/obsession with psychological trauma, and while his treatment of that subject might seem overly simple by today's standards, in 1965 it was a fairly new way of thinking about sexual trauma.
Peeping Tom : Michael Powell wins big points for making a film about serial killer Mark Lewis, who films the horrified expressions on women's faces as he murders them, and then later watches the footage. Collectively panned and banned when released, Peeping Tom has now become hailed as one brilliant piece of work, but initially it destroyed Michael Powell's career. Many thought Powell has just made a snuff film and were disgusted. Well, he didn't make a snuff film, but we should still be disgusted and disturbed by this film, because the subject matter demands it. But that doesn't mean it isn't a great film, because it is. My suspicion (okay, it's not just mine, many people say it now) is that Peeping Tom has more to do with film audiences, and our fascination with and consumption of violent and sexual images, than it does with serial killers.
Eyes Without a Face : Holy crap, they cut that woman's face off! Holy crap, that mask gives me the serene shivers. Mad scientist films can be cool and this one is very close to my heart. Plenty of fairy tale and myth in this one, along with a potent dose of identity anxiety, obsession, guilt, and complicated accountability. Georges Franju's disturbing film about a doctor's obsession and the consequences it has on family and neighbor alike is really beautiful to look at and has one unsettling, poetic, and gorgeous finale.