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In Defence of Horror

When it comes to the world of respected cinema, horror movies tend to be the poor cousins. They are rarely showered with the awards and plaudits that rain down upon more ‘worthy’ genres, and remain firmly entrenched in their cult status. I can think of no horror movies that won the best picture Oscar, and few that were even nominated. The Exorcist was nominated in 1973, Jaws in 1975, and The Sixth Sense in 1999. That’s it, friends and neighbours, since the Academy Awards began in the Twenties. It’s a pretty pathetic haul for a genre that has been around as long as cinema and, in fact, as long as storytelling itself. People often hold up The Silence of the Lambs, which won the award in 1991, as an example to the contrary, but there is a case to be made that The Silence of the Lambs isn’t really a horror movie at all. It’s horrific, to be sure, but that doesn’t make it a horror movie. Anyway, don’t get me started because the topic of what makes a horror movie is a whole other blog.

I grew up with a love of all things horror. I was an avid reader of ghost stories (both fictional and factual), a keen researcher of paranormal phenomena, and of course, lover of horror movies. Little Richard Lamb was never happier than when he was scaring the bejesus out of himself with some true account of a spectral visitation, or a spine-chilling tale of the supernatural. Tales of the macabre fired my imagination like nothing else, because it was here where the most imagination, the most creativity, was to be mined. I’ve always found the horror genre itself to be a rich depository of ideas and inspiration, and it’s for this reason that I find the genre’s lowly standing in the eyes of many serious cineastes so perplexing.

There certainly seems to be a strange kind of snobbery toward horror movies. At best, they are treated as disposable, childish, and often unworthy of serious consideration. At worst, they are treated as disgraceful, dangerous triggers for all the violent crimes of the world. And yet, if you look a little closer at some of the best the genre has to offer, you will find as much pathos, drama, humour, emotional resonance, and intellectual stimulation as can be found in any number of cinema’s more acclaimed pictures. You will also find the same level of accomplished performances, technical artistry, and engaging writing.

Of course, this is not to say that every horror movie can boast these attributes. Far from it. Unfortunately, around 70% of the horror movies released these days are total shit. But this is not a problem with the genre, just a problem with current trends, and the quick buck philosophy that permeates the industry. After all, it’s much safer to finance yet another dreadful, but sure-fire, Saw sequel than it is to channel that money into a new and untested idea. Hollywood is a pretty gutless provider of entertainment, and you often have to look beyond the US to find the best horror movies. Hollywood often looks beyond its borders too, ironically, churning out an endless parade of inferior remakes for the subtitle shy.

Tales of the macabre have formed the backbone of storytelling since man could communicate beyond grunts. People gather round campfires to tell each other ghost stories, testing their mettle against mankind’s inherent fear of the dark. We tell our children fairy tales and fables which are riddled with horrific imagery; the old woman in the candy house who eats children, the ogre living under the bridge, the wolf who dresses as Grandma so he can eat Red Riding Hood.

So, look fondly on the horror movie. Recognise the genre for what it is; a valuable, vicarious, vent for all our fears and darkness. It’s okay to look through your fingers, it’s okay to peer above the cushion, and it’s okay to look over your shoulder from time to time. That’s all part of the fun. I guarantee you that early man, thousands of years ago, was doing the same thing after a night round the fire. Okay, maybe without the cushions, but you get the idea.

Now that I’ve (hopefully) got you in the mood for a good horror movie, here’s a selection of some of my favourites from around the world. Horror movies are like comedies; what gets to some just won’t get to others, but give these a go. They all scared me, and I’ve seen so many that this doesn’t happen very often. Watch them with the lights out and a cushion to hand.

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The Evil Dead

US – 1981

A group of vacationers go to stay in a run-down cabin. In the cellar they find an old tape recording, the research of a professor who was investigating supposed demons in the woods surrounding the cabin. The demons are inadvertently awoken and begin to possess the group, one by one.

The movie that put the fun back into horror, and introduced the world to the one and only Bruce Campbell. Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead is one of those examples of micro-budget filmmaking at its best. Armed with only five friends, a barrel of fake blood, and a 16mm camera, Raimi somehow produced a surprisingly innovative masterpiece. Often overlooked in favour of Evil Dead II, which was essentially the same film with money thrown at it, the original is still, for me, the superior of the two. The difference is simple; both movies are tongue-in-cheek affairs, but whereas Evil Dead II is a little too heavy on the slapstick, The Evil Dead is just plain scary. Sure, it’s over the top, ridiculously gory, and with appalling acting throughout, but it’s just so much damn fun, you can’t help but be pulled along for the ride.

Watch out for: The ever changing haircuts.

May make you afraid of: Cellars.

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The Eye (Gin Gwai)

Hong Kong – 2002

Young violinist Wong Kar Mun has been blind since birth and is admitted for a cornea transplant. Following the procedure, she begins to experience bizarre visions and sees ghosts wherever she goes, some friendly and some otherwise. Together with her doctor, she determines to find out the identity of her eye donor.

Written and directed by two brothers, Danny and Oxide Pang, The Eye starts off as an effectively spooky ghost story, but deepens into something more heartbreaking as the mystery behind Wong Kar Mun’s new eyes is uncovered. The ghostly encounters make the hair stand up on the back of the neck, particularly a great scene in an elevator, and you’ll never look at the hanging food in Chinatown the same way again.  The film does suffer from a pretty cheesy soundtrack, but that’s really just a minor gripe. Angelica Lee is entirely sympathetic as the protagonist, finally finding her sight only to wish she were blind again, and just when you think the story is resolved, The Eye throws in a surprise ending.

Remade in the US as The Eye.

Watch out for: The reflection in the train window.

May make you afraid of: Elevators.

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Let the Right One In (Låt den Rätte Komma In)

Sweden – 2008

12-year-old Oskar lives with his mother in a run down estate in Stockholm. He’s a lonely figure, bullied at school and harbouring violent dreams of revenge. When a 12-year-old girl called Eli moves in next door, living with an ageing man, Oskar strikes up a tentative friendship with her. At the same time, a series of grisly murders begin befalling the residents of the estate. As Oskar’s feelings for Eli deepen, he learns the truth about who she really is and is faced with the question of how much you can forgive for love.

Let The Right One In, adapted by John Ajvide Lindqvist from his own novel and directed by Tomas Alfredson, eschews the recent trend for making vampires glamorous, placing the story in a setting that is cold, bleak and grey. Snowbound Stockholm is not glamorous and Eli is far from cool. Instead she is a lonely, sometimes heartbreaking figure. She’s not evil or good. She just is what she is; as trapped in herself as we all are. So, too, is Oskar. But together they form the dark, beating heart of this movie. Alfredson lets the story move along at a relaxed pace, but there are startling moments of violence, all the more effective for punctuating such a subtle mood. However, building throughout the picture is as touching a romance as you’re likely to see, blossoming and captivating in such dark surroundings.

Remade in the US as Let Me In.

Watch out for: Eli’s other face.

May make you afraid of: 12-year-olds.

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The Mist

US – 2007

A group of people become trapped in a supermarket when a strange mist descends on their small town. As it becomes clear that there are bizarre and deadly creatures lurking within the mist, the group slowly fragment into different ideological factions, and begin to turn on each other. Meanwhile, the monsters are trying to get in.

Frank Darabont’s third Stephen King adaptation (after The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile) is also his least known. The film performed poorly in the cinemas, which is a terrible shame because this is one of the most intelligent horror movies to be released in recent years. As the besieged group of characters begin to cave in to their fear, it becomes clear that the threat from inside the supermarket is just as great as the threat from outside. Both are given equal attention, so in addition to the timely depiction of human stupidity in the face of an unknown enemy, there are also a handful of very effective scenes involving the nightmarish creatures outside. The best of these scenes features a handful of survivors venturing out into the mist to retrieve medicines from the Pharmacy next door, only to find something gruesome waiting for them.

Then, on top of all this, there is that ending. Darabont accepted a significant reduction in budget to keep the ending he had written, and boy does it pay off. I’m a firm believer that horror movies should not have upbeat endings, but The Mist left even my jaw on the floor. Brilliant.

Watch out for: The homage to Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.

May make you afraid of: Spiders.

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Rec

Spain – 2007

Spanish late night TV presenter, Angela Vidal, and her cameraman, Pablo, are recording an episode of their show, While You Sleep, following a group of Barcelona firemen through a typical night’s work. When they are called out to an apartment building to rescue a trapped woman, Angela and Pablo go with them, camera running. On arrival, however, it becomes clear that something is infecting the tenants, turning them into crazed zombies. Finding themselves locked inside by the authorities outside, the group must try to survive as, one by one, they succumb to the disease.

This little gem from Spain was not the first horror movie to adopt the faux documentary style, but no other movie has utilised the format to such exhilarating, gut wrenching, and plain terrifying effect. From the second the hapless crew step into the apartment building, the pace hardly lets up. That it remains so believable is thanks largely to performances which are totally convincing, and a series of inspired little camera tricks and clever editing. There are some genuinely chilling moments, and shocks that you just do not see coming. And then, as the two remaining survivors reach the room at the top of the building, Rec changes gears completely, and delivers a closing scene that stays in your mind for days.

Remade in the US as Quarantine.

Watch out for: Falling Firemen.

May make you afraid of: Old ladies.

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Ring (Ringu)

Japan – 1998

Journalist Reiko Asakawa’s niece dies of a heart attack, one week after viewing a mysterious video tape with her friends. On discovering that the friends all died at exactly the same time, Reiko views the tape herself and is warned, by way of a phone call, that she now has only one week to live. After catching her son watching the tape, Reiko and her ex-husband, Ryuji, race against the clock to discover the secret behind the cursed video.

A hugely influential movie, which spawned many imitators, Ring is heavy on atmosphere from the outset. The grainy look of the movie lends it an unsettling mood, and its languid pacing gives it an almost dreamlike quality. Rather than subject the viewer to a series of shocks (although there are one or two) Ring slowly builds itself up to a single, extremely scary, moment. The cursed video itself is remarkably disturbing, especially in hindsight, and the DVD offers you the chance to watch it independently of the movie. You may not want to, however. Ring is that effective.

Ring spawned a series of sequels, of varying quality. Ring 2 was much less effective as a horror movie, but Ring 0 is much more interesting as a heartbreaking thriller in the mould of Carrie.

Remade in the US as The Ring.

Watch out for: Sadako!

May make you afraid of: The television.

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The Woman in Black

UK – 1989

A young solicitor, Arthur Kidd, is sent to the English coastal town of Crythin Gifford, to settle the estate of a recently deceased widow, Alice Drablow. Arthur discovers that Drablow was a recluse, living alone in the remote Eel Marsh House, and the locals are reluctant to discuss both her and the mysterious woman in black who appears in the town from time to time. Arthur decides to go alone to the house, in an attempt to unravel the truth behind the town’s fear. However, he has already attracted the attention of something malevolent and vengeful.

This little known, English television production is based on the Susan Hill novel of the same name, and is without a doubt one of the scariest things I have ever seen. I’ve always found ghost stories far more chilling than anything else, and The Woman in Black is the perfect ghost story. The atmosphere is potent from the outset, and the director uses everything available to generate this atmosphere, particularly the use of sound. The ghost herself is seen only a few times, and yet she is a constant presence, especially on the first viewing, as you sit wondering when she will appear next. When she does appear, particularly in a scene toward the end (which made my blood run cold), she is terrifying. If you enjoy an old fashioned, chilling ghost story, you won’t find anything better than this on film.

Unfortunately, The Woman in Black is a little hard to come by these days. No longer on release on DVD, the rights were bought up by Universal, who inexplicably announced that they have no plans to release it. Also, Hammer is planning a new version for release in 2012. In 3D, for fuck’s sake. I would urge you to seek out the original by any means necessary. You won’t regret it.

Watch out for: The stage version. Also worth a visit.

May make you afraid of: Your bed.

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Zombie Flesh Eaters (Gli Ultimi Zombie/Zombi 2)

Italy – 1979

A boat sails into New York harbour, apparently adrift. When the harbour patrol guards board and are attacked by a zombie, the daughter of the boat’s owner returns to the tropical island it came from to find her father. Joined by a reporter, and two others, she discovers the island is being overrun with zombies, and a reclusive doctor is desperately trying to find a cure to the disease.

This is definitely not a movie for the weak of stomach, and as with most of director Lucio Fulci’s work, hardly a subtle addition to the genre. Zombie Flesh Eaters is gruesome, gory and violent. Banned for a long time in the UK, then released with cuts, it wasn’t until 2005 that the full version became available. Fulci’s movies certainly aren’t to everyone’s taste, but beyond the buckets of fake blood and eye gouging, there is a fantastic atmosphere to his movies. Along with City of the Living Dead and The Beyond, Zombie Flesh Eaters manages to create an almost apocalyptic tone. You get the sense throughout that the world around the events onscreen is changing. The wind blows differently, the life goes out of the world, and the air feels heavy. It is quite an achievement. Plus, unlike the bulk of American zombie movies, Fulci’s zombies actually look like the walking dead. They are dirty, decomposed and revolting, and that’s pretty much what a walking corpse should be, wouldn’t you say? Just don’t watch it after dinner. Or before, come to think of it.

Watch out for: Zombie v shark!

May make you afraid of: Tropical islands.