A guide to cinema – horror
|February 3, 2012||Posted by Sep Gohardani under guide to cinema|
The horror genre, like the western, is prone to such systematic following of convention that a large majority of them can be called bland and, most importantly, not scary. In modern times, ‘horror’ films have largely become associated with relentless blood and gore, most of which just serve to sicken the viewer rather than provide the frights that most viewers are looking for (I refer you to The Human Centipede as an example. Such clever storytelling). Sifting is once more required, and as the vast expanse of sludge disappears into the metaphorical sink, a nugget or two of gold remains. I’ve done my best to find a few, and here they are.
5. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
(Dir. Tobe Hooper, Starring: Marilyn Burns; Allen Danziger; Gunnar Hansen; Peri McMinn; Paul A. Partain; William Vail, Certificate 18)
Based on the exploits of serial killer Ed Gein and marketed as a true story to garner interest, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a film that inspired many remakes and is still scary some 38 years after its release date. An independent film, director Tobe Hooper had a budget of only $300,000 dollars to work with and as a result had a set amount of time in which he could film it and put it together. Casting a vast majority of unknown, Texas-based actors, Hooper manages to create a pseudo-documentary that despite its inherent lack of CGI and the realist effects that grace the horror films of today emanates a chilling and tense environment. Together with a typical jarring score and some brilliant cinematography by Daniel Pearl (who tries to emulate his success in the 2003 remake and drops somewhat short of the mark) it possibly isn’t quite as terrifying as it will have been for the 1970s audience but it’s still deeply unnerving. A haunting performance from Gunnar Hansen as Leatherface plays a large role in this – his take on the character largely influences many masked villains after the film, and the mentally challenged nature of his character almost makes his actions all the more chilling.
Somewhat comically, Hooper hoped to convince the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to award the film a PG rating since he had omitted the gore from many of the scenes, but the organisation took quite another view with respect to the large amounts of violence, first rating it X and then R after cuts were made. The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) was even more damning, with the original being banned until 1998. Hooper might have just missed out on his target for the rating, but the film has been a massive success in most other aspects and remains a bastion of the genre.
4. [REC] (2007)
(Dirs. Jaume Balagueró; Paco Plaza, Starring: Manuela Velasco; Ferrán Terraza; Pablo Rosso; Maria Lanau; David Vert, Certificate 18)
Spanish horror is certainly not a well-known take on the genre, and in this sense Jaume Balagueró’s [REC] is something new to most and as a result infinitely more interesting. Balagueró and Plaza utilise shaky-cam, a setting that modern horror can’t seem to turn off as though their lives depend on it, but the realism that this provides actually works extremely well here and adds to the uncertainty that is already apparent in massive volumes. At only 78 minutes the film follows the agenda set by films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (above) in that the faux-documentary style means the need for powerful, quick shots is heightened and an abrupt ending become fashionable due to the dramatic possibilities this method affords. Despite a somewhat generic plot, it is the direction and indeed some very convincing acting from the likes of lead Manuela Velasco, whose normal profession is that of a TV presenter, and the majority of the supporting cast. The innovative idea to allow actor Pablo Rosso to film events also provides a nice twist, and the terrified nature of the camera work easily transfers to the viewer.
The film on the whole moves at a rip-roaring pace and the atmosphere is unmistakeably chilling. It is slowed down by a middle-period dominated by interviews regarding the situation, but this does provide continuity and builds a back-story that allows you to come to your own conclusions about events. This provides foreboding that the film then exploits, building up a sort of unbearable tension before a typically frantic and shocking ending. [REC] certainly provides a huge amount of scares, and the sublime cinematic skill coupled with the straightforward combination that normally makes for a cliché actually becomes an example of how a horror film of this style should be done. The franchise has since had a REC 2 added to it, and we are expecting a third and fourth instalment. I must say, the second instalment builds on the first fantastically, but I am apprehensive of the continuation of the series as what was began with something unique and terrifying could run the risk of becoming extremely bland if the formula is repeated, M. Night Shymalan style. This film, however, is a classic that definitely deserves a watch.
3. Ringu (1998)
(Dir. Hideo Nakata, Starring: Nanako Matsushima; Hiroyuki Sanada; Rie Inō; Yūko Takeuchi; Rikiya Ōtaka; Yoichi Numata, Certificate 15)
In terms of pure scares, Ringu is one of the most terrifying films out there. Director Hideo Nakata’s masterpiece is a kaleidoscope of chilling imagery, foreboding and an unnerving sense of the inevitable. Wonderfully crafted, Nakata plays on many people’s fears of the rising digital age brilliantly here, creating a simply mortifying spectacle that is well and truly disturbing. He makes excellent use of the dark, and the cinematography by Jun’ichirō Hayashi leaves you uncertain and unwillingly expectant until the last moment. The outcome brings out the same reaction in you as it does every time: a compulsion to charge into bed and never look at the television ever again. Even fourteen years on from its release, it hasn’t lost any of its initial sting and comes up with an ending so disturbing and mesmerising that it does not need to worry about tiring out its premise.
Complete with an atmosphere that is one of the most terrifying you can think of, the film showcases the prowess of Japanese horror and their conception of a terrifying supernatural being while building in original factors and working with a simple idea that manifests into something horrible. The American remake of this film fails to capture the same sense of foreboding or indeed the constantly chilling aura that Nakata creates here. This film is definitely not one to watch alone and is probably not one to watch late at night either. Nightmarish.
2. The Shining (1980)
(Dir. Stanley Kubrick, Starring: Jack Nicholson; Shelley Duvall; Danny Lloyd; Scatman Crothers; Barry Nelson; Philip Stone, Certificate 15)
Stanley Kubrick was a masterful director and with The Shining, an adaptation based on the bestselling book by Stephen King, he was at the helm of yet another cinematic masterpiece that would go on to become one of the most iconic films in the genre. Kubrick’s intense attention to detail turns this film into possibly the creepiest out there, putting emphasis on the strained movements of the characters and linking this in with Jack Torrance’s ‘epiphany’ of sorts and the compulsive madness that it creates. Indeed, Kubrick made Scatman Crothers repeat a scene a massive 160 times, something that shows the level of perfection he had to reach before the icon was satisfied. The result is a film that both chills you to the core and shakes you psychologically with particular scenes being so rattling that they are on the verge of unbearable. Beautifully crafted.
Jack Nicholson pulls off what is one of the best acting performances of all time as his character’s descent into a mad stupor is superbly portrayed. Nicholson’s mannerisms along with his ability to deliver a line in the most effective way possible turns Torrance’s mad ramblings from something that could even have been funny to something decidedly sinister. It’s his performance that produces some of the best scenes in cinematic history, and his ability to adapt to his character here is simply amazing (the famous “Here’s Jonny!” line, for example, was improvised by Nicholson and almost cut by Kubrick). This is the role that suited the man the most throughout his illustrious career and he needed a man like Kubrick to bring the powerful, wonderful best out of him. Shelley Duvall deserves an honourable performance for her also brilliant performance as Wendy Torrance, capturing her own horror and complete confusion at all the events with skill. Duvall, in my opinion, also benefited from Kubrick’s stringent regulations, but she has said that working with Kubrick was “unbearable.” I can see why, but the man certainly does bring the best out of his actors.
When it was released, this film differed so largely from conventional horror films that it was regularly attacked for being laborious and pretentious, but over time The Shining garnered deserved acclaim as a film that emphasises the psychological aspect of horror and doesn’t just provide cheap thrills but a well thought out and seriously twisted work of brilliance.
1. The Exorcist (1977)
(Dir. William Friedkin, Starring: Linda Blair; Ellen Burstyn; Max Von Sydow; Jason Miller; Lee J. Cobb; Mercedes McCambridge, Certificate 18)
When this film was released it caused such a huge uproar in both America and Britain that many film boards moved to ban it so as to avert the risk of some sort of campaign against it. The hugely religious themes prevalent in the film were unprecedented and the grotesque and indeed terrifying nature of a lot of the film made it so full-frontal that it was in many cases simply incompatible with the social structure at the time. Visually, Friedkin attacks the audience with concepts and images that achieve their purpose of disconcerting the viewer but, despite its Academy Award nominations, the film was heavily cut to ensure that the viewers were not too heavily offended.
Nowadays it’s the iconic horror film and is seen as the bastion of truly haunting cinema. Complete with some of the most famous scenes in cinematic history, Friedkin creates an atmosphere that enraptures and chills at the same time, with the sinister Tubular Bells soundtrack becoming synonymous with both these themes.
Linda Blair’s performance is fantastic, and Mercedes McCambridge’s demon voice is both disturbing and incredibly frightening, this jarring juxtaposition making it even more shocking every time the sweet Regan is taken over by the demon and also exacerbating the effect of its interactions with the priest and the others in the room. It is the grotesque that drives the film, and some of these grotesque actions are probably the most terrifying ever to have graced the screen. The sense that we know, like Ellen Burstyn’s mother character, that something much more sinister is going on only serves to increase both the tension and the sense of terror at the events that unfold.
Ultimately, what William Friedkin creates here is a film that challenges societal norms, affects cinema as a whole and revolutionises the horror genre. It’s more intense than any other horror film, and Friedkin makes sure we are clear on this fact using the urgency of both of the Fathers, whose religious beliefs are tested almost to breaking point attempting to prize the demon from the girl, and a sense of the sinister hidden under a quiet, unassuming night sky which is massively effective.
What Friedkin has created here is undoubtedly a masterpiece. A pained, disturbing, cold masterpiece.
Other horror films worth a mention:
Wolf Creek (2005) – Brutal to the point of being sickening, Wolf Creek is a perfect example of a fantastically shot horror film that ultimately ends up being a bit of a farce.
Ju-on: The Grudge (2003) – Another Japanese horror film that doesn’t quite reach the levels of Ringu but is still extremely scary. As well directed as any J-Horror.
Saw (2004) – Interesting premise, interesting traps, but ultimately a tired plot that is only carried by the previous two things. The rest of the franchise is useless.
So, do you agree with my evaluations? If you don’t or indeed if you do, please leave comments below.