Fright night
// Jonty Davies

How scary were the 84th Academy Awards? With the exception of Jonah Hill almost winning an Oscar, not very scary; and that’s often the case. Oscar has long since treated horror films with a considerable degree of reticence.

Silence of the Lambs was very successful at the 64th Awards in 1992, but though it deals with serial killers (scary stuff) it’s hard to pointedly define Silence as a horror movie, as it’s something of a police procedural, and an intellectual thriller. Though horror is one of the most enduringly popular genres of film, it’s often misconstrued as having a niche appeal or an emotional constitution that’s inferior to drama or sometimes even fart-joking, buddy cop flicks – especially in formal environments like the Academy Awards.

To fully appreciate the genre, it’s important to acknowledge the powerful effect well-crafted horror can have. It’s safe to say that fear is one of the most affecting sensations, and extreme feelings beget each other – i.e. real pessimism allows for the existence of real optimism, and real fear creates a reality that allows you feel real comfort. As it is, I’m a big fan and, here are my top genre-defining horror movies:


The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974): This is one of the ultimate cult movies and over the years it’s become pretty legendary. It’s also been sequeled and remade to death. But don’t be fooled by the cumbersome title, the dreadful sequels, and the skewed modern perspectives on it: this movie is the real deal, and it’s scary as shit. Though Tarantino is credited with opening the doors to indie cinema in the ‘90s, this movie is perhaps even more inspiring to the aspiring young auteur. It was made on a shoestring budget and all it took was a little originality and a few skin masks to walk it into the echelons of movie history. In many ways it outlined and influenced the shape of horror to come.

Crappy alternative: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation. It stars (dead serious) Renee Zellweger and Mathew McConaughey in some of their earliest roles.


The Exorcist (1973): Regularly topping lists of best or scariest horror movies, merely relegating The Exorcist to horror lists is doing the film a disservice. More than a genre film, it was the best movie of its year and one of the best of the ‘70s, a decade which was a standing-room-only-Marquee-Club of fantastic cinema. It’s smart, deals with religion in an even and sophisticated way, and is pretty all-around chilling. The set was also famously cursed, which is always cool to hear about. Injuries were sustained on set, production staff later participated in murder/suicides and they even had a priest come and bless the set. I don’t think it worked, though.

Crappy alternative: Basically any other possession/exorcism movie; but let’s go with Amityville II: The Possession. With a whopping seven per cent on Rotten Tomatoes I’d say avoiding it is a safe bet.


Alien (1979)/The Thing (1982): They’re both about an unknown malevolent alien entity systematically killing isolated and screwed humans. They’re both masterpieces of tension and atmosphere, and they’re both fantastic. Alien and its follow-ups are notable for featuring what could be the most innovative and original movie monster ever created, as well as being one of the most notable spotlights of an ass-kicking female protagonist.

The Thing may not have a single woman in it, but Kurt Russell tries his best. It also features a pretty wicked alien life form (or A.L.F. if you remember the ‘80s). It’s a creature that’s unique in that doesn’t seem to have one true form – it’s a shape-shifting parasite that mimics DNA and imitates appearances (usually in grotesque and unusual transformations).

Crappy alternative: Signs. The aliens are vulnerable to and defeated by water. As a cracked. com writer pointed out, it would be the equivalent of humans traveling to a planet covered in lava, where the air is mostly lava and the beings are basically walking sacks of lava, then getting out and trying to fistfight them naked.

Another crappy alternative: Jason X. Jason Voorhees, the hockey-mask-wearing teenager-killer of Friday the 13th fame does his thing in space. Why did they give the teenagers the keys to the space ship? Why did they bring a machete-wielding psychopath? Who will make it out alive? Just one more question for you: Who gives a shit?


Audition (1999): Directed by the terrific Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike, Audition is a slow-burning character study that changes gears in a very dramatic way towards the end. A deeply psychological film, it tracks the relationship between a middle-aged widower and the girl he meets through a fake audition process set-up by his friend to help him get back into dating. His prospect is at first very promising, but in time we learn that the whole audition thing was a bad idea. Most of the film is paced and looming and then out of nowhere, BOOM, most terrifying torture scene ever. You will never get acupuncture again.

Crappy alternative: The Grudge. It’s staid and clichéd to the point that I will forever hold a grudge against the makers of this shitty movie.


The Shining (1980): So good, so scary, and often so hilarious. Jack Nicholson is at his most manic here. The Shining is based on a book by Stephen King, a man who owns a near-monopoly on literary horror greatness, and is directed by Stanley Kubrick, one of the most perfect filmmakers ever. And I don’t use the term “perfect” loosely. Kubrick was famous for obsessive perfectionism, shooting and re-shooting simple – one could even say insignificant (though Stanley wouldn’t) – scenes hundreds of times. That perfectionism is at its most obvious in The Shining. The film is full of masterful shot composition and vibrant performances. It also inspired what’s probably the best Simpsons Halloween special.

Crappy alternative: 1408. I remember a friend of mine used to work at Super Video in Lynn Valley and he told me that it was the top rental at one time. It made us both pretty sad.


28 Days Later (2002): Can you imagine how awful it would be if you woke up after a coma to find the world had gone to shit and, by the looks of it, zombies are running the show now? Yes, everyone you know is dead and there’s a startling probability that pretty soon you will be too. Such is the sentiment of 28 Days Later. Though not officially a zombie movie (the zombies are actually virus-infected humans, not reanimated corpses) it’s safely within the pantheon. With visceral direction from Danny Boyle and some real human touches, it’s a stark and effective film. Its sequel – 28 Weeks Later – was all right overall, but featured a terrific, pulse-pounding opening scene that unfolds exactly as you imagine it would it the zombie apocalypse.

Crappy alternative: House of the Dead; an awesome arcade game that comes across as a ghastly, unwatchable film. Parts of the actual video game are inserted into this movie. It’s insane.

It’s a bit of a shame that the formal institutions don’t widely acknowledge horror’s contributions. However, the fact remains that it’s a hugely popular genre that is responsible for lots of the energy and progress in modern cinema. It may take some very special crossover appeal (as with Silence of the Lambs) to see the Academy recognize horror in the future, but as long as people are watching, people will be making. A world without horror? Nothing scarier than that.

Jonty Davies, like most, is a pretty big fan of movies. His favorite genre according to Netflix is “visually striking dark dramas" but he loves a good "visually striking dark comedy" too. When not writing about films, he likes to make dark little ones of his own.

//Jonty Davies, columnist

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