A true cinephile isn’t supposed to have blind spots that encompass an entire genre, but the truth is I was late to horror. There’s no great reason for my reluctance to embrace a good frightfest. I just didn’t like being scared, and I figured it was okay to be unfamiliar with a genre, especially one that, as a child of the 1980s, I still thought of as a venue for silly stuff like killers who wear hockey masks or have knives for fingernails.
But somewhere in the middle of the last decade, horror got serious, and I couldn’t ignore it any longer. Films like “Get Out,” “Hereditary,” and “It Follows” were held up by critics not only as having great scares but as great films. And so I ventured forth into the dark hallway of horror, and you’ll never guess what I discovered: Horror is among the most cinematic of genres. If a filmmaker can make you jump out of your skin using only the tools of cinema – a sharp edit, a sudden music cue, or simply the creeping dread of a well-paced story – then they are masters of their craft. If you love film, you need to love horror.
So here’s a list for my fellow cowards looking to partake in the Halloween spirit. These films are disturbing, unnerving, maybe even upsetting. But they’re not terrifying in the ways you’re afraid they will be.
The scariest thing about this late-period Hitchcock about a coordinated bird attack on a small Northern California town? We never find out the cause of it, nor do we know if it ever stopped. It’s an influence on “Jaws,” as well as faceless slashers like Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers, but it’s also a masterpiece in its own right. Hitchcock draws out the tension and his themes with a genius sense of pacing, and, just when you need it, lets the avian mayhem rip.
It’s one of the wildest premises ever committed to film: What if a man could kill you just by screaming? What’s incredible is that “The Shout” actually lives up to its promise.. Simultaneously a terrifying English folktale and a meta-text on sound design in film, “The Shout” is a forgotten masterpiece.
Bride of Frankenstein
Perhaps even more heartbreaking than “Frankenstein,” this 1935 sequel by Universal horror maestro James Whale picks up directly where the original left off and follows twin paths: The monster, who is miraculously alive after being seemingly sacrificed by townspeople, continues to explore the world and its various pleasures and dangers – finally, Frankenstein drinks booze! – while the doctor is lured by his former mentor into making a female companion for the creature. She arrives late in the film, but leaves an impression that has lasted nearly 90 years, with a tragic fate worthy of Shakespeare.
Many of the films of Joel and Ethan Coen contain elements of horror – certainly, Anton Chiguhr of “No Country for Old Men” qualifies as terrifying – but the brothers actually got their first film made by convincing a small horror studio to pay for it. They took the money and then went off and made a sturdy little crime drama. Nevertheless, with its creeping dread and shocking bursts of violence, “Blood Simple” feels close enough to horror that I’m sure the financers didn’t mind.
A horror movie set entirely during the day, Ari Aster’s “Midsommar” follows a group of college students who play tourist at a Swedish commune famous for its summer solstice celebration, and end up getting more of an immersive experience than they planned. When critics talk about “elevated horror,” they mean movies like this one. No jump scares, no piercing strings on the soundtrack. Just an exceedingly imaginative film that busts the conventions of horror but still scares the crap out of you.
Under The Skin
Before Scarlett Johansson let Black Widow take over her career, she made this otherworldly sci-fi/horror gem. Directed by the great Jonathan Glazer (“Birth,” “Sexy Beast”), “Under the Skin” chronicles the cold-blooded adventures of an alien who comes to our planet, and adopts the form of a beautiful young woman to seduce and kill young men. Glazer imagines a horrific symbiosis of mutual domination between humans and aliens, juxtaposing a series of first-time actors against Johansson’s riveting performance to create an otherworldly horror that feels all too real.
Eyes Without a Face
Based on a controversial novel, this 1960s French horror classic revolves around a mad scientist who works doggedly to perfect the world’s first face transplant on his daughter, who was deformed in a car accident. Director George Franju, who became well-known for his short documentary about Parisian slaughterhouses, crafts these horrors into a resonant tale of imprisonment and liberation, in which the scientist’s obsession with saving his daughter doubles for shocking abuse.
One of the underseen gems of 2020, “Relic” captures the existential terrors of caring for an elderly parent: the fear, confusion, anger, and ultimate acceptance of these feelings, which may be the most terrifying thing of all. Emily Mortimer stars as a woman who returns with her teenage daughter to her childhood home to find her mother, who has gone missing. The film follows an honest emotional throughline with a palpable sense of unease. From its quiet beginnings to its shockingly beautiful climax, “Relic” understands the pain and the joy of familial love, slipping into its terrors with the gentle strength of a warm hug.
Night of the Living Dead
George Romero’s 1968 micro-budget classic didn’t invent the zombie movie, but it certainly modernized it. It benefits from its simplicity. A group of strangers defends a farmhouse from a sudden zombie invasion. Shot in stark black-and-white, the film explores racial tensions within the group as they fight off the undead, who emerge from the shadows and make their way closer to the house. It’s a riveting film with a kicker over the closing credits that recontextualizes the whole thing and makes it seem even more brilliant.
Arsenic and Old Lace
This one is barely horror. In fact, it’s suitable for grannies.The 1944 film by Frank Capra stars Cary Grant in a role originally intended for Bob Hope as the nephew of two lethal old spinsters who see offing lonely old men as a public service. Part screwball comedy and part macabre nightmare, “Arsenic and Old Lace” might scare the kiddies – and could inspire the grannies – but it’s just goofy fun for the rest of us.