The common claim of the horror film is that it allows us to vicariously play with our fear of death. Inarguable, really, but that’s also too easy, as one doesn’t have to look too far into a genre often preoccupied with offering simulations of death to conclude that the genre in question is about death. That’s akin to saying that all an apple ever really symbolizes is an apple, and that symbols and subtexts essentially don’t exist. A more interesting question: Why do we flock to films that revel in what is, in all likelihood, our greatest fear? And why is death our greatest fear?
A startling commonality emerges if you look over the following films in short succession that’s revelatory of the entire horror genre: These works aren’t about the fear of dying, but the fear of dying alone, a subtlety that cuts to the bone of our fear of death anyway—of a life unlived. There’s an explicit current of self-loathing running through this amazing collection of films. What are Norman Bates and Jack Torrance besides eerily all-too-human monsters? Failures. Success also ultimately eludes Leatherface, as well as the socially stunted lost souls of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse. What is the imposing creature of Nosferatu? He makes for quite the presence, but his hungers ultimately lead him to oblivion.
So many films, particularly American, tell us that we can be whatever we want to be, and that people who don’t achieve their desired self-actualization are freaks. The horror film says: Wait Jack, it ain’t that easy. This genre resents platitude (you can count the happy endings among these films on one hand), but the good horror film usually isn’t cynical, as it insists on the humanity that’s inextinguishable even by severe atrocity. Which is to say there’s hope, and catharsis, offered by the horror film. It tells us bruised romantics that we’re all in this together, thus offering evidence that we may not be as alone as we may think. Chuck Bowen
Editor’s Note: Click here for a list of the films that came in #’s 101—200.
Filmmakers Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury announce their disregard for all notions of restraint with their opening image of a severe car accident as seen and experienced by an unborn child. One moment the child is soothed by his mother’s loving, if alarming, words, the next he’s throttled, blood rising and floating from the inside. The film is driven by this accident, and what follows is the most potent exploitation of unyielding, inexplicable violation outside of Takashi Miike’s Audition. The violence is ghastly and apt thematically: Tides of blood flow and spurt, hauntingly confirming a terrified young woman’s most forbidden nightmares. Bowen
Severed fingers play a piano. A decapitated head bites the ass of a screaming teenage girl. The gears of a clock are greased with blood. These are just a few of the insane moments in Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s wonderfully batshit ghost story about a crop of giggly friends who fall prey to the titular domicile. Aside from the pastel-hued vignettes and drug-fueled animation sequences, House also provides a violently frank sermon on the terrifying consequences of not fulfilling one’s promises. “Maybe it was an illusion,” one character says. There’s no such thing in this collection of acid-wash nightmares. Glenn Heath Jr.
Masque of the Red Death (1964)
Exhibit A in the panel proving that Roger Corman wasn’t only a legendarily thrifty producer with an extraordinary eye for talent, but a gifted director in his own right (in case you’re wondering, Exhibit B is X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes). This gorgeous, moody Technicolor debauch is one of the more tonally accurate of all Edgar Allan Poe adaptations as well as the closest an American director ever came to achieving the dreamy, painterly logic of Italian horror maestro Mario Bava. Bonus: This tale of a greedy ruler eating his just desserts allows you to celebrate Halloween and symbolically flip off our country’s privileged floundering government officials in one pleasurably fell gesture. Bowen
Alice, Sweet Alice (1976)
A crucifix is wielded like a dagger in the opening credits of Alfred Sole’s Alice, Sweet Alice, and the rest of this astonishing low-budget shocker unfolds accordingly as an uncomfortable tussle between religious transgression and hormonal anxiety. As a schoolgirl-hellion who makes Patty McCormack’s Bad Seed look like Shirley Temple, the inimitable Paula E. Sheppard terrorizes a pubescent Brooke Shields, taunts the morbidly obese pedophile next door, and more than holds her own with the expressively lurid gothic camera distortions around her. Peopling its evocative New Jersey locations with a striking gallery of human gargoyles, this is a darkly beguiling look at agonized souls tangled in fervid horror tropes. Fernando F. Croce
Sleepaway Camp (1983)
A true sleeper cell among Friday the 13th clones, Sleepaway Camp gets more attention for its unintentional humor than its capacity to scare audiences. Admittedly, the mockery isn’t misplaced (a certain cop’s prop moustache is frequently ridiculed yet so unabashedly adored by horror hounds that it might as well have its own Twitter account), but amid the hokey dialogue and wooden performances—save, of course, for Desiree Gould’s deliciously over-the-top turn as Angela Baker’s manic Aunt Martha—lies an unnerving depiction of teenage sexual anxiety. The unspoken tension and unusually sadistic acts of violence culminate in a most disturbing final shot, an image forever burned on the retinas of those who’ve seen it and a moment that obliterates the film’s pseudocomic tone. Drew Hunt
The Phantom Carriage (1921)
Not unlike Fritz Lang in Destiny, Scandinavian cinema pioneer Victor Sjöström in The Phantom Carriage sees Death as a sorrowful figure, gathering wretched souls with the eponymous spectral chariot in a limbo of despair. “His is a hard task,” says a brooding tramp (Sjöström) amid the tombstones, moments before meeting his end and being handed the Reaper’s cloak and scythe. Chronicling a lout’s humbling awakening, the film weaves a thorny, haunting web of spiritual anguish, using double-exposure photography astonishingly as an incantation of overlapping realms and the connection between body and spirit, physical action and emotional effect, fright and epiphany. Croce
The Howling (1981)
Invaluable for proving that werewolves, with their pronouncedly rotating interior/exterior lifestyles, are ideal candidates for adopting the yuppie-outdoorsman pretension usually favored by more conventional weekend warriors who aren’t burdened with sprouting hair and teeth and claws upon the rise of the full moon. One of the most purely enjoyable of all horror films, The Howling is also one of the more free-spirited and tonally elastic movies of director Joe Dante’s career, which is saying something. Playful, erotic, scary, and even ultimately quite mournful, this film reminds us that postmodernism needn’t always be a haughty dirty word. Bowen
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Each iteration of Invasion of the Body Snatchers speaks to its contemporary zeitgeist. In Don Siegel’s film, the corrosion of conformity represented by the affectless pod people cuts both ways: a free-floating metaphor readable either as an indictment of communist groupthink or as a condemnation of HUAC’s anti-communist witch hunts. Any way you cut it, Siegel infuses the material with a shadowy noir sensibility, doubling down on canted angles and low-key lighting as the film unfolds, and shoehorning his two leads into increasingly close quarters, culminating in the unforgettable reaction shot where the sheen of sweat on Kevin McCarthy’s face cascades over the upturned lens like a cataract. Budd Wilkins
The Addiction (1995)
Throughout this alternately jejune, funny, and frightening film, Abel Ferrara seemingly extends a great line from Smashing Pumpkins’ “Bullet with Butterfly Wings,” released that very same year: “The world is a vampire, sent to drain.” And like the song’s title, The Addiction does so by combining poetry and violence. A political song, a political movie, a quivering nexus of AIDS allegory, identity crisis, historical unease, and socio-economic panic. It’s a small world after all, but Ferrara’s is becoming the smallest of all, and Lili Taylor, infected with political and personal awareness, builds an army in order to preserve the integrity of a Big Apple that seemed to have more personality when it was a little more rotten. Ed Gonzalez
The Fog (1980)
In the first shot of John Carpenter’s underrated follow-up to Halloween, a crusty campfire-side storyteller snaps a pocket watch shut with a start, a gesture that announces Carpenter’s intentions to unfurl his pirate ghost story on his own anachronistic timetable. Tinged with pioneer American folklore even as it delivers the wormy goods (reportedly at the studio’s behest), The Fog is at its best when it strips away the mechanics and focuses on atmospheric locations, uncannily imbalanced compositions, and syncopated scare rhythms, proving just how much unnerving mileage a director can get from simple, old-fashioned craft. Henderson