Of all the cinematic genres, horror is one of the least pretentious. Scary movies don’t seek out critical acclaim. They don’t aspire to inspire. Horror films know what they’re about – frightening the ever-loving pants off you. No more, no less.
Yet slasher flicks, gorefests and other types of terror serve an important emotional purpose. In “The Birth of Tragedy,” Friedrich Nietzsche posited that the ancient Greeks used violent tragedy in their theatre as a way to confront the nihilism and pessimism lurking in their souls. Nietzsche believed that by viewing dramatic interpretations of human misery and nightmares, the Greeks were able to achieve a catharsis that affirmed the meaning of their own existence.
Watching a horror movie in the company of others can enable you to witness firsthand a very visceral, cathartic experience. People lose themselves in a macabre form of Dionysian revelry. They yell at the screen. They cower. They jump. Some of the more sensitive souls even run out of the auditorium, race all the way home and flip on every light. If Nietzsche were alive today, his favorite director might be Wes Craven.
Halloween is right around the corner. People who regularly shy away from even the tamest of splatter films will probably be tempted to get into the spirit of the season and watch something scary. But beware! For every good scary movie, there are one hundred bombs. You’re not going to achieve catharsis by watching some B-movie on the Syfy channel. That’s why we’ve provided you with a guide to some of horror’s best and bloodiest.
Halloween (Wes Craven, 1978) While not the first official slasher movie, this initial installment in the Michael Meyers saga is the quintessential example of the hallowed “Teenage Girl vs. Psycho Killer” formula. Atmospheric, gory and featuring a very inappropriate use of a knitting needle, “Halloween” should be at the top of every horror fan’s list.
Dawn of the Dead (Zack Snyder, 2004) No purveyor of terror warrants more respect than George Romero, the genius who invented the zombie movie. But 2004’s “Dawn of the Dead” is a rare beast, a remake that is actually better than Romero’s 1978 original. The film combines tense human drama with aggressive zombie violence and it features more grisly action in the first ten minutes than Romero’s version did in its entirety. Even the opening credits are the stuff of nightmares.
The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980) You probably already know that “The Shining” is one of the greatest frights ever committed to celluloid, even if you haven’t seen it. Kubrick’s taut camera work plus Jack Nicholson’s naturally psychotic demeanor equal pure cinematic terror. This masterpiece about a husband and father in the throes of homicidal madness deals more in suspense than blood. Many times, the tension that builds while you’re waiting for something to happen is more excruciating than the expected scare. Still, there is plenty of the red stuff; specifically, a whole elevator’s worth and then some. Watch this movie and discover what family is all about.
Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (F.W. Murnau, 1922) Silent movie? Sure. Almost a century old? Yes. Creepy as all get out? Definitely. Even without the benefit of shrieks, creaking doors or any of the other sounds we’ve come to associate with horror films, Max Schreck’s performance as Count Orlock is utterly disquieting. German Expressionist techniques make for sparse light and exaggerated emotions. You’ll probably stay as silent as the actors while during this movie; “Nosferatu” doesn’t generate a lot of screams. But watch this one with the lights on and you’ll realize that its mood is indisputably eerie.
The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005) Horror cinema has long been criticized for its portrayal of women as helpless buxom scream queens too inept to contribute anything productive in the face of certain doom. “The Descent” not only features an all-female cast, but none of these women could be described as helpless. These women are valkyries, not vixens, which is what makes the film’s ending all the more ruthless. Set in the depths of a cave, this film is beautifully shot with minimal light in a very claustrophobic style, emphasizing the suspenseful and the sanguine. No one comes out clean in this one, especially you.
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