In the music business, they are noted as artists only capable of a single significant Billboard blip. Yet in filmmaking, no matter the genre, they are barely even recognized. For some strange reason, the motion picture industry doesn’t typically categorize a moviemaker based on only one noteworthy hit or miss. Certainly there is an atmosphere of appreciation based solely on a writer or director’s last box office receipts, but that has more to do with finance and business than it does with quality or overall excellence. Many distinguished auteurs have had their fair share of commercial disappointments and yet consistently retain their timeless status when real critical deliberation is given to their efforts.
But when it comes to horror, all bets are off. So iconic in its facets that it more or less supercedes all other categorical considerations, the movie macabre is actually a very specialized motion picture form. Many have tried it, and very few have truly succeeded. This is especially true for those craftsmen who view their talent as transcending all manner of product pigeonholing. There is also a senseless, snobbish quality involved, with many directors feeling that, as an art form, the fright film is beneath them. While it could be a case of understanding their own limits, the truth is that terror has always been an unappreciated style of cinema, and this high class, haughty notion has penetrated even the most mediocre moviemaker’s mindset.
Still, some of the biggest names in the business have tried. A few have even met with massive success. But when you look more closely at the classics, the horror films that consistently make the Top 10 lists, you see that a few represent the one and only ‘hit’ that these paranormal pretenders to the throne ever created. Duplicating the criteria used when musicians are involved, SE&L has decided to celebrate those craftsmen who found a way to make their sole scary movie attempt effective. Naturally, there are some caveats. A director listed may have indeed made more than one horror film – William Friedkin also attempted the bad babysitter/tree demon debacle entitled The Guardian, while Clive Barker has made the nauseating Nightbreed and limp Lords of Illusion – and, as a matter of fact, can even claim a second, almost as substantive effort and still avoid elimination. The only other element worth pondering is the movie’s viability as a creepshow archetype. Many may argue over the titles chosen, but it’s clear that when viewed in light of the two prerequisites mentioned, these five films stand out as perfect examples of horror’s ‘one hit wonders’:
William Friedkin – The Exorcist (1973)
Without question, one of the art form’s most gratifying masterpieces as well as one of the greatest movies ever made. As much about the universal battle between good and evil as it is an unique allegory centering on the early ’70s generation gap between parents and children, this flawless fright film would end up being Friedkin’s one and only genre success (the goofy Guardian just doesn’t count). The directorial decision to keep everything as realistic as possible, along with the idea of maintaining the theological struggle at the center of William Peter Blatty’s bestselling novel gave the Exorcist its horrific heft and its philosophical depth. But it was the high level of skill and invention from all involved in the production that also turned what could have been a slapdash Satanic farce into a truly terrifying experience. Nearly as effective today as it was 34 years ago, Friedkin could skip the scary movie category from now on and still be considered one of its true masters. The Exorcist is just that good.
Clive Barker – Hellraiser (1981)
Similar to Friedkin’s masterpiece in its use of a standard dramatic device – in this case, the concept of adultery – as a foundation for supernatural fear, Clive Barker’s first feature film as a director is also unquestionably his best. Thanks to a clever combination of recognizable types (the unhappy wife, the clueless, cuckolded husband, the desperate daughter caught in the middle) and the creation of ’80s cinema’s most menacing fear icons, the Cenobites, Barker pushed the limits of both the emotional and the eerie with this remarkably insightful movie. Many fail to see the sinister subtext involved – a near incestual coupling between a dead brother-in-law and a cheating spouse who will do anything, even KILL, to keep her corpse-like lover alive. With enough gore to satisfy the needs of even the most brazen blood hound, and an intellectualized approach to pain and suffering that few fright films can claim, Hellraiser deserves its place as a minor masterpiece. Too bad Barker never did better. His terrific potential shines through in every grue-covered frame.
Danny Boyle – 28 Days Later (2002)
Zombies. To borrow a line from The Simpsons, the undead are the Washington Generals of the genre film. Whenever a filmmaker, young or old, can’t figure out how to make with the monsters, they fall back on these flesh-eaters and hope for the horrifying best. While the fast-movie maniacs at the center of this story are not true cannibal corpses, Boyle borrows liberally from the overdone filmic formula to radically reinvent the seemingly stagnant social commentary. Viewing Britain as a bastion of brainless reactionaries lashing out at anything that dares disturb their self-satisfying ‘sleep’, Boyle twists the conventions of terror to show just how bleak the human spirit can become when wrapped in a blanket of pure power and/or biologically altered rage. Thanks to his inventive camerawork – this is cutting edge digital moviemaking at its very best – and a script that doesn’t shy away from the scares, what at first seemed like your standard Romero riff actually signaled a rebirth of the entire living dead ideal.
Tim Burton – Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Though he’s constantly considered a major part of the fear arena, Goth god Tim Burton has actually only made one full blown horror movie in his 20 year career, and it’s this amazing homage to the high style Hammer films of the ’60s and ’70s. Using the Washington Irving classic as a jumping off point, and a sensational cast loaded with British and American iconoclasts – including Christopher Walken, Johnny Depp, and Michael Gambon – Burton braved the scorn of the purists by making his narrative more about the birth of criminal investigation than a faithful adaptation of the folklore favorite. Tossing in references to many of the sinister visuals from motion pictures past, as well as his own unique brand of Edward Gorey-inspired imagery, Burton gave fright fans everything they could possible want, including lots of bloody decapitations. While this eccentric director’s oeuvre has always contained nods to elements both supernatural and paranormal, this inventive and evocative effort stands as one of Burton’s best.
Stanley Kubrick – The Shining (1980)
In 1968, this legendary filmmaker delivered what he considered to be the first ‘serious’ science fiction film that the otherwise slipshod genre had ever seen. Not only did the resulting epic, 2001: A Space Odyssey, transform the entire cinematic category but it quickly became one of the art form’s greatest triumphs. Obviously hoping to do the same for the fright flick, Kubrick took Stephen King’s beloved third novel, stripped it of all its narrative nuances, and streamlined the story into a fright fable about fate and family. Instead of a classic, it became one of the auteur’s most argued over efforts. Some find it an excellent example of technical terror – atmosphere matched with storytelling and characterization to suggest that evil has an eternal, lasting legacy. Others just found it a slow, somber fright flick. Even with it’s elegant, eerie Steadi-cam work, the occasional bursts of over the top acting histrionics from lead Jack Nicholson, and a single definitive scare sequence involving something malevolent hiding out in Room 237, a clear consensus couldn’t be reached. While the verdict is still out for most die-hard fright fans, The Shining still stands as Kubrick’s only attempt at a classic creature feature.