The Darkness Within: 13 Films That Burrow into Our Psyches
These 13 films help us understand horror as an important mode of cultural expression, as a means to explore the dark inner recesses of ourselves and our society.
I love Halloween. I'm not much for the holidays in general, but this old pagan holiday gets me. Part of that love, mind, is this opportunity to explore the darker facets of our being – both individually and socially – through art and interaction. Horror literature and yes, film, are windows into things we otherwise tend not to speak about. That journey, that self-exploration in spite of the risk of finding things we might not want, that is key, as are allegories in horror which show us something about ourselves and our society. Though horror often gets a rep for cheap production, exploitation, and cheesy acting (such films generally present an easy profit for studios), horror is an important expression in cinema.
Horror as a genre has a long and storied film history which began well before what modern audiences might traditionally identify as 'a horror film', whether in the form of existential horror (tell me there aren't horrific elements in Akira Kurosawa's 1952 masterpiece, Ikiru), psychological horror (which some early noir romances such as Charles Vidor's 1946 Gilda arguably had their hand in), various kinds of experimental film making (Luis Banuel and Salvador Dali's surrealist 1929 Un Chien Andalou), indie projects which – while not exactly art house – had a tremendous influence on cinema and pop culture as a whole (George Romero's 1968 Night of the Living Dead), or even films ostensibly for children which ultimately contributed tremendously to the evolution of cinematic horror (Walt Disney's 1937 animated classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, itself an adaptation of a disturbing Grimms' fairy tale).
In celebration of 'All Hallows' and recognition of the horror genre's importance as a mode of deep-seated cultural expression, PopMatters presents this list of 13 films which stirred, inspired, and yes, terrified our staff. These 13 films – some well-known, some less so – all found ways to either cement themselves in film history, develop horror as a genre, tell us something important about ourselves, or simply (and thrillingly) scare us silly in ways which mattered more than we first realized. -- Alex Lindstrom
From which aspect of the psyche do tales of horror manifest? The horror tale's prevalence across cultures and eras evinces the servicing of a deep-seated (if unidentified) human need. It is therefore no surprise that horror became integral to the commercial film industry not long after it began in the 1890s, with more than a few vampire films among those early releases.
F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922), an unauthorized silent film adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897), was not the first vampire movie (that goes to Robert G. Vignola's 1913's The Vampire), though it is surely the earliest one to leave such an enduring mark on popular culture. Max Shreck's brilliant performance in the title role exudes an aura of pure malignancy, but the more culturally dominant post-Nosferatu versions of Dracula have tended to be suave, sophisticated, and graceful (though still nefarious); Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee come to mind. It's from these more charming on-screen depictions that the ultra-hip, seductive creatures of Anne Rice and her imitators are ultimately derived.
Despite this, Nosferatu has maintained a cultural presence of its own. Stephen King's Salem's Lot (Doubleday, 1975; TV miniseries in 1979 and 2004) pays homage to Nosferatu, as does E. Elias Merhige's Shadow of the Vampire (2000), a metafictional depiction of the making of Nosferatu in which Max Shreck (portrayed by Willem Dafoe) happens to be an actual vampire who preys upon fellow cast members.
With no patina of attractiveness for its title character, 1922's Nosferatu emphasizes the vampire's nature as not just predator, but parasite. The vampire is grotesque, deformed, and unmistakably evil. There's no mitigating factor, no charming narcissism a la Anne Rice's Lestat, no doubt here as to where that line between good and evil lies. In today's cinematic world of ambiguous anti-heroes and quasi-villains, this nearly century-old classic provides a refreshing 'change' – and striking viewing experience – to this day.
-- Arthur O'Keefe
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Margaret Hamilton as The Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz (© 1939 Warner Home Video. All rights reserved. / source: IMDB)
One of the most influential horror films for several generations of Americans was broadcast annually on US television from 1959 to 1991 as a highly promoted 'special' which was targeted at children as a family-fun movie. Some children, however, may have found it more terrifying than delightful. The story of an orphan being raised by her neglectful aunt and uncle as she longs for a better life, Victor Fleming's 1939 The Wizard of Oz dumps Dorothy and her dog into a fantasy land of friendship, hot air balloons, magic… and horror.
The Wicked Witch of the West, portrayed with a curdled voice by Margaret Hamilton, is a terrifying villain and, in every sense, a classic horror figure, driven by a murderous vengeance for the death of her sister. Like so many other horror figures, she seemingly appears here and there around 'random' corners of the film. Kids anticipate the worst: Dorothy will have to kill the Wicked Witch or be killed in turn.
For so many of us, there was one scene that provoked feelings of gut-wrenching horror on each showing: the witch captures Dorothy and Toto via a flock of winged monkeys. "Fly, my pretties, fly!" she screeches. They carry off the Kansas duo while dismantling the film's most affable character, the Scarecrow.
Those monkeys, bat-like and fluttering down from above, evoke all the emotions that horror can trigger: irrational fear, relentlessness, and inevitability, that sense that you cannot escape. Though they carry no obvious human element, they also suggest some pathos—they are slaves to the witch, not quite rational actors but semi-intelligent tools of death and dread. In a 2016 Rolling Stone interview, Robert Eggers, director of 2016's The Witch, traced the inspiration for his film to recurring dreams of witches and dark woods he had during a childhood imbued with Oz's horrific imagery.
Dorothy's defeat of the Wicked Witch leads to a seemingly happy ending, yet her triumphant return 'home' is to but a group of adults who doubt her; the unease of that return, for me, was always amplified by the knowledge that those flying monkeys were still out there in the sky somewhere, ready to thrust down and grab me.
-- William Layman
The Innocents (1961)
Peter Wyngarde as Peter Quint and Martin Stephens as Miles in The Innocents (source: IMDB)
Evil has never been quite so exquisite as in Jack Clayton's gothic dream of a film The Innocents (1961). This unsettling adaptation of Henry James' Turn of the Screw (1898) is a breathless exercise of economy, brevity, and ambiguity which is perhaps the most perfect model of psychological horror ever put to film.
To call this a 'ghost story' is almost insulting. There are no gimmicks, no blood, no monsters. Everything is, in fact, quite beautiful. From the idealistic governess (Deborah Kerr) to her two new charges (Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin) to the gentle fields of their remote corner of Victorian England, the screen shimmers fairly with hushed eloquence.
There are, however, demons. Of a personal nature.
It doesn't take long for Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) to realize something's rotten in the county of Essex. The increasingly unsettling behavior of the children, coupled with paranormal voices and apparitions in the house, lead her to believe the children are being possessed.
Truman Capote's adaptation of James' novella (as cowriter) is seductive and subtle. He refuses to pander to the viewer and forces us to participate on a startlingly intimate level. Seeds of doubt sewn cleverly early on keep us on an emotional pendulum. Is the governess of sound mind? Are the children possessed? Are they 'innocents'? Indeed, is she an innocent?
As the questions swirl, Clayton simmers the suspense to a boil. He commandeers this ghostly vessel of a film with skillful restraint, giving Kerr a blank canvas on which to paint the most complex, captivating performance of her career.
In Sir Christopher Frayling's exploration of The Innocents (titled same, BFI Film Classics, 2013), he describes an exchange between Deborah Kerr and director Jack Clayton: said Kerr, "I remember saying to Jack 'do you think she really sees these spooks or is it all in her mind?'"
"You make up your mind," replied Clayton.
-- Carley Hildebrand
The Shining (1980)
Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in The Shining (Warner Bros. Inc. / source: IMDB)
I have seen StanleyKubrick's The Shining1980) three times.
The first was with friends, without our parents' permission, when I was about nine. Danny, the young boy possessing the strange power dubbed 'the shining', seemed roughly our own age; when he talked with his hand and called his pointer finger Tony, it was absolutely terrifying. But that was nothing compared with the supernatural horror of the twin ghost girls and the woman-turned-ghoul in the tub. I was scared to go anywhere near a bathroom for years.
The second was about a decade later, to see what all the fuss in my head had been about. This time, the movie was clearly a black comedy about writer's block and isolation, less about Danny and bathrooms than Jack Nicholson's madcap persona and the ridiculous haunted house conventions. A hotel built on an Indian burial ground? I laughed at the film, at Jack, and at my childhood self for being scared of a joke.
The third was when I watched it again recently. Now married with three kids of my own, it was even scarier than when I was nine. I found little supernatural, and nothing funny, unlike my smug college self. Instead, it was a harrowing psychodrama about heinous domestic abuse, the not-at-all-funny ways in which women and children are most threatened by – and indeed most likely to be murdered by – their husbands and fathers, their supposed protectors. Without society or support, Jack has nothing to rein in the impulses of a rabid id.
Certainly, not all men try to murder their families with an axe, but that would rather miss the point here. Like a wizened philosopher, horror knows who we are – but like an axe murderer, it also knows where we are hiding.
-- Jesse Kavadlo
Lisa and the Devil (1974)
Casual horror film fans usually identify Italian horror cinema with films directed by luminaries such as Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci. However, it's safe to say that these two directors were heavily influenced by the macabre aesthetics of Mario Bava, the first and foremost master of 'spaghetti horror'. Even though Bava is better known for Black Sunday (1960) and Planet of the Vampires (1965), Lisa and the Devil (1974) may well be his most inspired film in a directorial career that spanned 33 years and 37 movies.
However, because of its dream-like structure, nightmarish plot, surrealist atmosphere, and lyrical staging, Lisa and the Devil may not provide a fulfilling viewing experience to those unfamiliar with Bava's artistry. On a personal side, I was utterly bored and sorely disappointed the first time I watched this flick, but a few years later Lisa and the Devil would become my favorite Bava film. Arguably, it takes considerable proclivity for the genre and a kind of 'calm' to fully appreciate the many intricacies of this criminally underrated horror film's morbid elegance.
As the legend goes, after failing to secure a distribution deal, producer Alfredo Leone decided to re-shoot and re-edit Lisa and the Devil to make it look like a film in the vein of William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973). Hoping to cash in on the popularity of Friedkin's groundbreaking film, Leone completely reconstructed Lisa and the Devil to feature the story of Lisa's possession and the efforts of a priest to perform an exorcism. The resulting travesty was aptly renamed The House of ExorcismHouse of Exorcism (1973) and was an unfathomable commercial and critical disaster upon its American release in 1975.
By showcasing dream-like imagery and a lyrical story line, Lisa and the Devil may not be an easy film to watch. It's a gorgeously shot film which takes place in a metaphysical hell where logic breaks down in nightmarish ways, but then again, its ambiguous story line leaves the viewer pondering long after it's over. Mysterious, creepy, and beautiful, Lisa and the Devil is required viewing for the serious horror fan.
-- Marco Lanzagorta
Laurel Near as 'Lady in the Radiator' in Eraserhead (source: IMDB)
Before slithering into cinema legend via the midnight-movie circuit of the late '70s, David Lynch's 1977 classic Eraserhead began as a student project on a shoestring budget. When not scavenging donations to fund his film, Lynch survived by delivering the Wall Street Journal by day while sleeping at nightfall in the unused stables on the film's set (illegally).
After its five-year existential struggle, Lynch's resilient project came to rattle audiences with its cryptic montages and woozy sound design. For lovers of black comedy, Eraserhead features a surreal encounter between the iconic wild-haired lead Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) and his reanimated chicken dinner, oozing blood between its twitching legs.
In Lynchian fashion, Eraserhead's plot comes second to the atmosphere, to total immersion in his narcotic fever dreams. Spencer and his troubled ex-fling Mary X (Charlotte Stewart) struggle to take care of their sickly mutant baby – a rubbery, beady-eyed anomaly resembling a cross between E.T. and a limbless Gremlin. When not tending to their ever-wailing child, Spencer searches for peace, weathering the seductions and eruptions of a maddening world.
Contrasting the vulnerability of youth with the menacing forces of nature has become a trope of the horror genre (*cough, cough* Stranger Things) (Netflix, 2016 -). Instead of externalizing opposing forces, Eraserhead envisions innocence and power as facets entwined within oneself. In light of contemporary social justice movements addressing abuses of privilege (think #MeToo) – not to mention the global rise of nationalism (think Brexit) – the world we share now is facing the terror we have raised, the terror we have made for ourselves.
Lynch's child horror perfectly expresses both the sources and consequences of our humanity; there is no escape. The swaddled monster's creation is itself a mystery; Lynch bound his crew to confidentiality on the matter. Whether mechanical or animal, its exact makeup will remain unknown. Lynch loves the riddle of the unexplained. Fortunately, his fans continue questioning the darkness.
-- Todd B. Gruel
Donald Pleasence as Loomis in Halloween (© 1978 Compass International Pictures / source: IMDB)
The unstoppable and vaguely supernatural killer. The knife and the teenage babysitter in danger. The 'final girl' who fights the 'monster' to the death… but then we learn the monster isn't actually dead.
All these elements, or tropes, are familiar to movie audiences and have been for almost 40 years, but they wouldn't be if not for John Carpenter's Halloween (1978), the independent film that started the golden age of the slasher.
Carpenter had already made the dark tale Precinct 13, a cult film that melded the western with George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. Shot on a limited budget but with the production capital of actor Donald Pleasence (as Loomis), Carpenter's Halloween gave horror fans a story of babysitters in danger and quiet suburbs under threat. Framing the events with America's favorite pagan holiday, Michael Myers (referred to as "The Shape" in the script and closing credits for his fully adult incarnation) transformed American horror movies. Otherworldly evil… stalking the streets of your own neighborhood.
Halloween likely found the audience it did because of a number of cultural anxieties – or rather, obsessions – of the late '60s into the '70s… media sensationalism convinced many that 31 October was returning to presumably dangerous centuries-old roots, a time when tricks were much more common than treats.
The late '70s also proved ground zero for the birth of modern urban legends, many of them issuing directly from broader social concerns about the dramatic and indeed revolutionary changes of the '60s. Worries about the 'younger generation' took the form of stories which told of Halloween treats turned into deadly weapons. Razors appearing in apples. Powdered sugar which was actually lye. The very culture had become fertile ground for exactly the kind of horror story Carpenter wanted to tell, and as those sensationalized anxieties surrounding trick o' treating continued well into the '90s, you can be sure Carpenter's Halloween had a hand in it.
-- W. Scott Poole
The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) was savaged upon release. Writes the New York Times' Vincent Canby in their original 1982 review, "The Thing is a foolish, depressing, overproduced movie that mixes horror with science fiction to make something that is fun as neither one thing or the other. Sometimes it looks as if it aspired to be the quintessential moron movie of the 80's -- a virtually storyless feature composed of lots of laboratory concocted special effects, with the actors used merely as props to be hacked, slashed, disemboweled and decapitated..." Canby was far from the only one to find Carpenter's work distasteful, perhaps particularly as it was a remake of Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks' thoroughly classic 1951 original but with gore effects dialed up way past eleven (though not without thematic cause).
Just how deeply confusing, infuriating, and even embarrassing Canby's review sounds today is a testament to the staying power of Carpenter's masterpiece, a work which has been eagerly hailed as one of the best horror films ever made, bar none, with increasing regularity for at least the last two decades. The story of a remote Antarctic research team which 'finds something in the ice' was not only ultimately more faithful to John W. Campbell's Who Goes There (1938), but remains astoundingly influential to this day. In a 2016 Telegraph interview Quentin Tarantino of the film, "It was the way I felt watching The Thing the first time I saw it in a movie theatre… I just really connected to it. This crazy suspense leads to terror to a place suspense rarely ever gets to… The paranoia amongst the characters was so strong, trapped in that enclosure for so long, that it just bounced off all the walls until it had nowhere to go but out into the audience. That is what I was trying to achieve with The Hateful Eight ." Tarantino similarly notes within the interview how this claustrophobic film experience influenced Reservoir Dogs (1992).
It's hard not to gush about Carpenter himself when talking about his films. Carpenter's indie-cred remains despite his legendary status, a thoroughly 'working-class' director who held his chin high among many industry disappointments, put-downs, and challenges. Today, I suspect, he enjoys watching his work grow in the recognition it so richly deserves as an integral part of American film history.
-- Alex Lindstrom
The Witches (1990)
Anjelica Huston as Miss Ernst/Grand High Witch in The Witches (source: IMDB)
Ostensibly a children's film, Nicolas Roeg's The Witches casts a harsh light on the world that I never expected when I first saw it as a four-year-old. In the film, a young boy named Luke (Jasen Fisher) is put through the emotional ringer. After his parents die in a car accident, he must abandon his life in Norway to live in England with his grandmother Helga (Mai Zetterling), a diabetic chain-smoker with deteriorating health.
If it wasn't enough that he might lose every family member he has, Luke learns that witches exist, these evil beings that hate children and want nothing more than to see them wiped out. Helga tells Luke about how witches operate, depicting them less as spellcasters and more like child predators murdering kids and damning their souls for eternity. All of this happens in just the first act of the film, saying nothing of the witches' plot to kill all the kids in the world by turning them into mice.
The Witches scared the hell out of me at a young age, yet it also comforted me, strangely. The movie didn't coddle me, didn't play nice with its younger audience. I felt that it treated me like a person who would one day grow up and face a lot of ugly, scary elements in life. As I became an adult, I kept coming back to horror because time and again the genre confronted topics many mainstream movies couldn't or wouldn't face, casting that light on many a terrifying idea in ways both provocative and entertaining. Can you imagine mainstream dramas with the same heavy, existential themes as Hereditary (Ari Aster, 2018) or Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017) finding the audiences they did were they not able to dress themselves in the genre trappings of horror? As movies become increasingly homogenized and 'safe', horror still has bite, and Roeg's The Witches is a premier gateway drug for younger audiences to discover it.
-- Charlie Riccardelli
Cape Fear (1991)
Robert De Niro as Max Cady in Cape Fear (source: IMDB)
Some horror films are about pure chance, often characters who find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. The most chilling horror films, however, are about characters who are punished for the choices they make, who put themselves and their loved ones in terrible situations they can't get out of.
Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear (1991) is about defense attorney Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) who buries evidence that would acquit his client Max Cady (Robert De Niro) because he becomes so utterly appalled by his client's sex crime. When Max is released from prison years later, he makes it his sole mission to harass and ultimately harm the attorney and his family.
A remake of director J. Lee Thompson's 1962 film starring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum, Scorsese's version is ultimately more successful because he's not afraid of all the ambiguities. There's complexity here. Max is at once menacing and charming, thoroughly terrifying as he seduces Sam's wife and teenage daughter. Sam isn't the type of victim we are used to seeing in horror films either. He's often selfish and cruel, making him often rather unlikable and difficult to root for. It's a delicate balancing act and Scorsese pulls it off brilliantly, towing a line Thompson likely couldn't have pulled off in 1962.
Sooner or later, the choices we make catch up to us. Scorsese's Cape Fear is a brutal reminder of just that. It's a reminder we may need today more now than ever.
-- Jon Lisi
Drew Barrymore as Casey Becker in Scream (source: IMDB)
An alternative title for Wes Craven's 1995 Scream could perhaps be Rules for Reviving a Genre. After a string of disappointing sequels and direct-to-video releases in the '80s and early '90s left many fans and critics to believe that the slasher film was as dead as its many victims, Craven's Scream single-handedly revitalized the sub-genre.
For the first time in a generation, a slasher film was finding new ways to be scary. The fictional characters inhabited the same social and cultural space as the viewers (as it were), having seen all the same slasher films real-life viewers had. This was when a new era of pop culture savvy teens were arising, the early days of the internet and of 'been there, seen that'. Scream's genre-adept protagonists cued in with that audience, uniting them in sheer terror, creating a meta-narrative which facilitated the all-important empathetic link between viewers and those imperiled soon-to-be victims.
This kind of self-awareness was key to the film's success. Craven blurs the line between fiction and reality, the characters' world and the world of his intended audience, teenage moviegoers eager for a thrill. Audiences leave the theater imagining the film's events unfold in their own lives.
No matter what else you might say of Scream, this connection is an effective place for a horror film to leave you. Not being able to swim in the ocean after Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975) isn't quite as debilitating as not being able to trust your boyfriend after Scream. Who's to say that a Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) isn't lurking beneath those dashing brown eyes? Scream, like the best slasher films, is effective because it erodes our confidence in those around us, if not civilized society itself.
At a time when women are often being asked to rethink their perception of the seemingly good men in their lives, Scream's Billy Loomis may even find ways to be more effective today than he was in the '90s. At a time when psychopaths terrorize schools on a regular basis, the depiction of Woodsboro High doesn't seem so far-fetched.
Make no mistake: 'Ghostface' still lingers in the shadows, terrorizing us until we lose all trust. Everyone's a suspect, and the best we can do – like Scream's terrorized victims – is learn the rules of the game before someone else comes along to rewrite them.
-- Jon Lisi
Black Swan (2010)
Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers / The Swan Queen in Black Swan (source: IMDB)
Mention Darren Aronofsky and horror in the same sentence and people are likely to expect a discourse on Black Swan (2010). It's a great film and contains enough giallo elements to qualify for anyone's horror list, but Aronofsky's taste for including horror in his films is evident from his very first feature, Pi (1998). The central character in Pi, Max Cohen (Sean Gullette), is a brilliant but socially isolated mathematician who believes that numbers hold the secret to everything in the world. Like Victor Frankenstein, Max, with far too much belief in his own cleverness, ventures well-off the beaten paths in search of hidden knowledge and pays dearly for his hubris (in Max's case, there's a power drill involved). While a whiff of symbolism softens the horror elements in Pi, no such escape is provided in Requiem for a Dream (2000). Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn) plunges into a nightmare of drug addiction after being prescribed amphetamines for weight loss.
Not recognizing how the drugs take over her life, Sara eventually finds herself hospitalized and undergoing electroshock therapy; every stage of her descent into this manmade hell is portrayed in excruciating detail. Even Aronofsky's crowd-pleaser The Wrestler (2008) draws on the cinematic language of horror in the story of aging wrestler Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke). While Randy engages in some horror fakery while performing in the ring – hiding a razor blade to cut his forehead at an opportune moment – the real-life horror of professional wrestling is evident in the ruined bodies of Randy and his peers, which Aronofsky's camera observes dispassionately when they assemble for an autograph show.
As in the best horror movies, there's no escaping your fate, a lesson Randy learns only when he has no other choice.
-- Sarah Boslaugh
Gone Girl (2014)
Rosamund Pike as Amy Dunne in Gone Girl (source: IMDB)
Leave it to David Fincher to turn a dissection of marriage and the media into lurid, provocative horror. Gillian Flynn successfully adapts her best-selling novel into a screenplay for Fincher's Gone Girl (2014), and Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck are pitch-perfect as Amy and Nick Dunne, a married couple with a few secrets, to say the least.
Fincher doesn't rely on gore to shock or scare the audience. Instead, he focuses on the story he's telling, and all the sinister stuff it implies about one of the world's most revered institutions, marriage. Gone Girl is downright blasphemous with its bleak depiction of the 'holy' institution.
When Amy disappears mysteriously, Nick, the seemingly untrustworthy husband, becomes the main suspect. The twist: Amy has been alive all along, and she escaped her marriage and framed Nick to make a point about the lack of freedom her marriage afforded her.
What makes Gone Girl truly horrifying, then, is Amy's calculated manipulation, the way in which she capitalizes on legitimate feminist ideas to become a kind of monster. In the age of #MeToo, the impact is disturbing, dangerous even. Amy turns herself into a domestic abuse victim and then let's Nick and the other men in her life carry the blame. It's unclear why she does this. Perhaps she's honest when she says that she's tired of being the 'cool girl'. Perhaps she's just a psychopath.
Whatever the reasons, the impact of her choices linger long after the credits roll. We are left to wonder if there might be some Amys among us, plotting ways to turn the world against their loved ones. Do we ever really know someone?
-- Jon Lisi
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