Friday, 29 October 2010

Halloween special! Thirteen unsettling films

I've been inspired to write this by Rol's Top Twenty Horror Films (parts 1 and 2). I know that I'm not going to be able to say anything about some of these films that hasn't been said before (Mark has more to say on this) but one or two of my chart choices may surprise you, hopefully, and maybe you'll enjoy reading about those at least. And they're not all classified as horror films per sé; I'm going to talk about films that are unsettling or disturbing (alright then, scary too).

I tried to keep my list to a top ten, but couldn't. To save running up a top twenty, I managed to limit myself to a nice triskaidekaphobic top thirteen... but it could have been more. Those just bubbling under included such classics as The Innocents, Don't Look Now and The Haunting. Cronenberg's Goldblum-powered remake of The Fly almost made the cut, as did Mark Kermode's favourite, The Exorcist. Hey, I've even got a soft spot for The Sixth Sense. And 28 Days Later is excellent. You can see which films would have topped me up to the twenty, but no - there can only be thirteen. Ask me tomorrow and the list will have changed but for now, these are they.

Norman? Yes Mother. Etc.13. Psycho
Groundbreaking when launched (and not just for killing off the lead actress less than half way through), Hitchcock's exercise in horror has become a benchmark against which others may measure suspense. It's got a pretty girl being knifed in the shower. It's got a nutter keeping his dead mother in the attic. It's got creepy taxidermy. And it's got a spyhole in a motel bedroom wall... is it just me that worries about this when checking into hotels now? I've even updated the paranoia by wondering about CCTV cameras hidden in smoke alarms... and it's all Hitchcock's fault. Oh, and besides being a horror masterpiece, it was revolutionary too - not just in killing off Janet Leigh's character so early, but in the way it handled plot threads (look, I know the preferred name for these is "arcs" but that sounds so American...) - for example, consider how the film sidesteps from the bank theft opening storyline into the psycho-killer story. And as if that wasn't enough, such is the film's significance that cultural references from it have entered into everyday parlance (witness the overuse almost to parody of shrieking violins ever since). It's a film my scaredycat sister still won't watch.

That's not a dog keeping you company in the frozen wasteland...12. The Thing
It was a toss-up for me whether to include this or another of John Carpenter's efforts from that era, The Fog. Whilst I love some of the visuals in the latter, The Thing gets the nod here - it's simply better. What makes it so scary? Well, like Alien (of which more later), The Thing takes the isolated haunted house concept and updates it to increase the sense of isolation and remoteness, in this case by locating the action in an Antarctic research station. Is it just me or does the all-male cast add to the claustrophobia? Also like Alien, The Thing demonstrates that extra-terrestrials can be every bit as scary as ghosts and demons. But Alien charts higher, and I'll explain why when we get there...

If you go down to the woods today, you're in for a big surprise11. The Blair Witch Project
Yes, yes, yes, I know the whole Blair Witch franchise has its knockers (insert your own Carry On-/Benny Hill-style joke here) but forget the sequels, prequels, spin-offs and knock-offs and stick with the original. Made on a comparative shoestring, it's proof that you don't need a big budget to deliver big fear. Yes, it's just a bunch of American teens getting lost in the woods. But I have a theory, and it's this - if you went camping as a child, and laid awake at night listening to noises outside your tent that you couldn't identify or explain, then you're going to find this film scarier than if you were spoiled with the luxury of holidaying in hotels. Camping out can be scary. Unexplained noises are scary. Getting lost in the woods is scary. And finding your friend with his hands to the wall, standing in the corner of the basement of a spooky old house and surrounded by other hand prints... well, that's scary too, no matter when you grew up or how you holidayed.

There's more to this than Ripley offering the alien a couple of places to hang his coat at the end10. Alien
Alright then, so why does Ridley Scott's intelligent sci-fi shocker chart higher than Carpenter's Thing? Well, mostly because it came first and as a result, I would argue, paved the way for Carpenter's effort. No Alien, no Thing, simple as that. And certainly no Event Horizon (of which more later). Again, Alien updates (and extrapolates) the theme of an isolated haunted house by setting the action on a space ship, the Nostromo (a closed system if ever there was one). And it ratchets the fear up with excellent (and then innovative) visuals. I remember the first time I saw Alien, thinking I'd never seen anything like it. When Tom Skerritt is down in the tunnel, hunting, and his crewmates are telling him he must see the alien, it's right on top of him, and what little light there is is flickering rapidly, dark, light, dark, light, dark, alien! Awesome. And don't pretend you were as cool as a cucumber the first time you saw John Hurt's stomach go pop (like bits of Psycho, another scene that has entered our cultural lexicon).

Christ! Christ?09. The Wicker Man (1973)
I haven't seen the Noughties remake with Nicholas Cage and, frankly, why would I want to when the original is so good? Like many of the films on this list, The Wicker Man trades in isolation, both physical (a remote, Scottish island) and emotional (the chaste, religious policeman surrounded by far from chaste heathens). The real strength of this film though is in its sense of the uncanny, of the familiar being unfamiliar: there's a pub, a shop, a school... all familiar things, but all twisted out of the policeman's grasp by strange goings on and the whole island's denial of what happened to poor Rowan. The film's so good, we can even forgive the fact that a body double was used for Britt Ekland's nude dance (she was pregnant at the time, after all)... oh, and her dubbed accent too, whilst we're at it. Basically though, there's something undeniably eerie about adults in animal masks when it's obviously not being done for a joke, don't you think? And as for our hero's increasingly desperate and doubtful exhortations of "Christ!" at the end...

Enough with that crawling-out-of-the-TV-screen shit...08. The Ring (US)
I know, I'm going to upset some people here. I'm not choosing the Japanese original but the Hollywood remake. What a heathen, right? Well, maybe if I'd watched the original first I might have chosen that, but I didn't, sorry. So it's the American version that affected me and, perhaps, subsequently diluted the effect that its Japanese predecessor had on me. But watching Naomi Watts puzzle things out, late at night on my mate Cinders' big-screen TV, made a lasting impression on me. Not so much for the scary bits (and there are plenty) but for the unsettling sequences - actually watching the cursed video is chair-squirmingly unpleasant, as is the moment when the girl crawls out through the television screen. And as for the bit down in the well, it's all too easy to imagine putting your hand through the darkened waters and feeling the hair... sorry. Giving myself the heebie-jeebies. Time to move on.

In which 'the grade' acquires significance...07. Duel
Not an out and out horror film, this one, more of a suspenseful thriller. But then how do you define a horror movie anyway? There's plenty here to scare you: being relentlessly pursued, for starters; an unseen villain; motiveless attacks; isolation (again) in driving through deserted landscapes between dead-end towns; our reliance on the machinery of everyday life and how exposed we are when that fails us (in this case, with a leaky radiator hose); and I could go on. Denis Weaver gives a bravura performance as "man talking to himself", and Spielberg's direction has a tautness that points towards Duel's TV movie roots. In fact, I made myself choose between Jaws and Duel for inclusion in this list and, much as I love the former, I stuck with the latter - it's that good. And all the better for not offering an explanation at the end.

Do you see? [Offers eyeballs] Do you?06. Event Horizon
I'm guessing this may be one of the surprises on the list? Okay, so it owes a lot to Alien, but that can be said about plenty of films. Oh, and the original Solaris too, come to think of it. And unusually for this list, there are some quite gory scenes (though not gratuitously so, not even when Sam Neill offers up his eyeballs). But despite being a bit derivative, and splashing the red stuff around a bit (which I don't find scary - Saw et al do nothing for me), it is a genuinely unsettling film. First up, there are the themes of isolation and enclosure (both recurrent in this list - wonder what that says about me?) that being in space engenders. Then there's a fear of a contagion - in this case, madness. Worst of all though are the unsettling apparitions that the crew members see, especially when one (Kathleen Quinlan's character, I think) starts seeing her dead son running around in the bowels of the ship. The review on Amazon thinks this is a bit of a B-movie but for me it's genuinely unsettling, and that's why it ranks so highly on this list. Amazon-schmamazon.

It's all for you, Damien05. The Omen
The devil - pretty scary dude, right? And those whispery chants of antichristus, antichristus aren't helping matters much either, are they? Plus proof that explicitly foreshadowing characters' deaths needn't diminish the power or scariness of those deaths (I'm talking about the photographs predicting the nanny hanging herself, Patrick Troughton's priest getting speared with a lightning conductor, and the decapitation with a sheet of glass). Plus this was the film that made Rottweilers scary, wasn't it? Above and beyond all this, though, is the power of circumstance; for me, the circumstance in which I first watched this is what gets it so high on this list. I was alone in the student house I shared with two friends. We hadn't lived there long, so it still felt a strange place to be. It was late on a wet and windy Autumn night, as I recall. I had been reading something by Stephen King during the evening (I think it was The Tommyknockers), then had sat up late in flickering lamplight to watch The Omen. Just as it was getting towards the end, I heard a terrific smashing and crashing of glass from the back of the house. My heart leapt out of my chest - someone (or something) was breaking in! I ran to my bedroom, turning on every light in the house as I went, and grabbed the thick half of my snooker cue to use as a club, then went (very) tentatively exploring. Amazing what a frenzied state the combination of being alone on a dark, wet, windy night, having read King and watched The Omen, could put me in. As to what caused the crash of breaking glass, so near it made me jump out of my skin... well, that's another story...

There's more to this than Jenny Agutter in the shower, hard though that is to believe04. An American Werewolf In London
Guess what? Films can be unsettling and funny too. American Werewolf In London is a great film, regardless of genre qualifications. Much has been written about the groundbreaking special effects. Much has been written about Jenny Agutter in the shower. And much has been written about the central London bloodbath dénouement, with bouncing decapitated heads, and such like. Not enough has been said about the humour though, the verbal sparring between David Naughton and Griffin Dunne. Oh, and the dream sequence with its false ending is superbly done, providing a brilliant "jump" moment which I won't elaborate more on for fear of spoiling it for those that haven't seen it. Oh, and I haven't even mentioned the Slaughtered Lamb yet, with Brian Glover and a young Rik Mayall. "You made me miss." Say no more. And tell me, doesn't being down in a tube station at midnight feel just a little bit scarier after watching this?

Insomnia has seldom been more appealing03. Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1978)
No, not the McCarthy-undertoned Fifties original, or this remake from 1993 and especially not this Kidman/Craig one from 2007. Donald Sutherland is excellent in the Seventies version, and Brooke Adams makes a fine heroine. Look out for a very young Jeff Goldblum too, and a very unsettling character portrayed by Leonard Nimoy in full "I am not Spock" mode. The whole film is underscored with little touches that build a sense of the uncanny; not just the oblique and unusual camera angles, or the perfect score, but little visual cues too. The way more and more people literally seem to be falling into line. The implied but unspoken communication that goes on. The dog with a man's face. The inhuman shriek that an invader gives out when spotting a human, especially at the end. Poor old Veronica Cartwright - she gets it in Alien too. Unsettling. I'm unsettled now, just thinking about everyone becoming different and unnatural... and then chasing me down the street... and not being able to sleep... shudder...

Keep those curtains closed!02. The Others
Like The Omen, The Others had such an effect on me because of the circumstances in which I watched it. Dispatched to the Big Smoke for a week to do a training course, my evenings in a soulless corporate hotel were boring beyond words. What better way to while away the evening than watching a movie on the old pay-per-view? After all, the company Amex was paying, right? Down went the lights and on went The Others... so it's late, it's dark, and I'm away from home, all alone, in unfamiliar surroundings. At one point, I had to get up and make a cup of tea to break the tension (you know the scene, it's when you think it's the little girl all dressed up under that veil). I had to put all the lights back on for the end, I was that unnerved. I know, almost as big a scaredycat as my sister. But not, because this film is unsettling in the extreme. What could be worse than laying awake in your darkened bedroom, only for unseen feet to thump across the floorboards and unseen hands to fling back the curtains? And Christ, how would it feel to realise all your hired help are dead? Not great, I'm guessing. Oh, and there's that scene where our heroine tries to escape into town only to be stopped by (quite brilliantly added digital) fog, and then she bumps into her long-absent husband... only he's not quite right, is he? And with good cause. I've tried to get my partner to watch this on a number of occasions, and she just won't. Tells you all need to know about the goosebump-inducing, dream-disrupting, lights-back-on-please qualities of this excellent chiller.

Come and play with us. Forever.01. The Shining
Regular readers of this blog (all three of you) will know that I am a huge fan of both Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick, so there was only ever going to be one film at the top of this list, even if King doesn't like what Kubrick did with his story. The film's minimal principal cast all provide sterling performances - Jack is unhinged, whilst Shelley Duvall gets so annoying that you'd want to bash her brains in too. Danny pulls all the right faces, whilst Scatman Crothers provides a nice turn as the false-dawn-rescuer (a neat plot trick that King reprised in Misery). Again, like so many of the films here, isolation and loneliness are key themes, caretaking the Overlook Hotel through a long, snowbound Winter - no Internet or email back then, and when the phone lines go down... well, poor Jack is left alone with his writer's block (another recurrent King theme) and his annoying wife. In a hotel that is soaked in the blood of past unpleasantness. A recipe for disaster, you'd think, and you'd be right. The film is very different from the book, and personally I prefer the celluloid ending to the paper one. What really gets me with this film though is the atmosphere, the mounting tension (which starts to spiral right from the outset and doesn't stop ascending once). The tingling score is used to great effect, as are Kubrick's trademark clinical sets and clean lighting, and of course the then-innovative use of steadicam for many of the roaming shots. Throw in the scene in room 237, the twins, the elevator, the maze, Lloyd the bartender and, why not, a man being fellated by someone in a bear costume... this is an unhinged, unsettling, un-everything film. I'll leave you with a scene from the movie in which Jack and his missus discuss baseball, and just to end this post on a lighter note, a scene from the best of all The Simpsons' Treehouse Of Horrors spoofs, The Shinning ("You mean Shining." "Shhh! You wanna get sued?"). Enjoy.

So those are my favourites (for now). How about yours?


  1. Interesting list. Not sure about some of the choices (I would have picked The Descent over Event Horizon, personally), but glad to see Bodysnatchers '78 get a mention. That final shot of Donald Sutherland shouldn't work, but it does...

  2. Oh, and I forgot to add that there's a typo in the link to Rol's blog.

    1. Ah, well, I haven't seen The Descent - that sounds like a recommendation... and Bodysnatchers '78 is a quality film, is it not? Cheers also for spotting the typo, now corrected.

  3. I'd forgotten Event Horizon. You're right, it's a very disturbing film, it just all goes a bit Grand Guignol at the end for me.

    I never really got The Omen, perhaps because I saw one of the sequels first and it soured me to the concept.

    Bodysnatchers 78 vs. the original is a tough call. The infamous scream in the Sutherland one certainly stands out, but going by your "which came first" rule (or which did I see first) I might have to go with the original. Might see if I ever do a list of favourite sci-fi films.

    The Others is wonderfully atmospheric, yet like The Sixth Sense I guessed the twist far too soon.

    1. For me, the "which did I see first" rule is always going to be a big factor, because it colours anything that I watch subsequently. And I'm more than a little embarrassed to say I didn't see the twist coming in The Others... an omission I put down to the freaked-out circumstances in which I watched it!