Thursday Ten: Horror Films

As I’ve wrapped up my festival viewings and with Halloween fast-approaching, I thought it time to look at some of my favorite horror films. Mind you, the whole concept of what constitutes a “horror” film tends to be defined by the individual person; like a comedy, what’s funny or scary to one person is not necessarily the case for another.

But there’s a certain compulsion we all have as cinephiles to look at the horror genre fondly; as children, it’s almost a rite of passage to watch that film that keeps us up for the night. As our definitions of horror broadens, there’s still that nostalgic appreciation we have for films that rather than plucking at our heart strings, outright go for the stab.

Today’s Thursday Ten focuses on the horror films that don’t necessarily fit comfortably within the traditional definition of horror, but rather cross boundaries that strike a more personal chord. Not a single film here has a vampire, werewolf, or zombie; sometimes fear is best realized in something that’s closer to home.

10.  We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, 2011)

It’s a fear that I can only assume is a mother’s worst nightmare: what if their child commits an unthinkable crime? Anchored in a reality that is all too authentic, Lynne Ramsay’s brilliant adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel explores the daily routine of a grief-stricken mother as she contends with the fact that her oldest son had committed a school shooting, serving to dismantle her household and make her the community’s social pariah. The film strikes an absolutely nerve-wracking tone with its sound-editing; the sound of school children screaming for their lives haunts Tilda Swinton’s character at every turn, and effectively instills an on-going sense of anxiety that Ramsay maintains from scene to scene.

9.  The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)

Fear and insanity stemming from isolation; it’s a theme that recurs in several of Kubrick’s films and is most overt in this adaptation of Stephen King’s novel. The implications of Jack Torrance’s (Jack Nicholson) insanity stem beyond gory hallucinations and a violent rampage; there’s the disintegration of the family unit and even more frightening – the idea that there is a larger omnipotent force motivating him. Marked with Kubrick’s own obsessive attention to detail, The Shining is a landmark piece of filmmaking that is relentless in maintaining an uneasy atmosphere. As the film unites two converging narrative arcs, there’s a petrifying sense that we’re delving deeper into the hedge maze of insanity.

8.   The Hitcher (Robert Harmon, 1986)

What, in the end, do we have if not our own identity? The Hitcher questions how we arrive at defining ourselves, as well as how the landscape we identify with can turn its back on us. The Hitcher is as much a parable on a boy’s ascent into adulthood as it is an analysis on violent shift in times. A boy (C. Thomas Howell) is accused of a massive crime spree; he becomes the victim of both a real chase by the police and an existential chase by his demon (represented chillingly by Rutger Hauer). The Hitcher is smartly positioned as the sort of horror/thriller that never attempts to explain the why of it all; the world is not always kind enough to give us an explanation.

7.  Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968)

Unlike the aforementioned We Need to Talk About Kevin, I don’t assume that this is a mother’s worst nightmare; I know it has to be. It’s the deliberate pacing that makes Rosemary’s Baby so effective; Roman Polanski allows his film to linger as we get accustomed to our central couple in Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes. And only then are we introduced to their mysterious neighbors. He lingers on their eerie behavior before we become aware of what Rosemary’s pregnancy means to her husband and those neighbors. It’s not just that Rosemary births the spawn of Satan; it’s that it was an orchestration led by the one she trusted the most. The echoing chant of Hail Satan leaves its mark.

6.  Candyman (Bernard Rose, 1992)

A relic of my childhood, Candyman was the type of film that I wanted to brave through, but ultimately, its imagery and closeness to home often sent me out of the living room within its opening ten minutes. Even as an adult, the film gives me an uneasy feeling. It could be the accented voice of Tony Todd as the title character. Or perhaps it’s the gruesomeness of how he slaughters his victims. Or perhaps it’s how Candyman is beckoned – say his name five times in the mirror. Or maybe it’s because I recognize the various Chicago locations throughout the film and living only a few miles away gives me chills. It’s probably a little bit of it all.

5.  Repulsion (Roman Polanski, 1965)

Days removed from Repulsion made walking down a dark narrow corridor a test of will. The film is an exercise in paranoia and the extent in which one can be overwhelmed by the confines of a closed-off living space. As part of Roman Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy, Repulsion is a perpetual example of how eeriness and fear can be induced through the everyday. A precursor to a film like Black Swan, Repulsion unravels as the sort of psychological horror that focuses on the fear of isolation; confined to an apartment, your mind turns against you. The biting of fingernails, the cracks on the ground, , razor blades, and hands protruding through the walls will likely worm their way into your nightmares for weeks.

4.  The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1986)

While the aforementioned Repulsion dwells on psychological horror, The Fly dwells on the physical manifestation of it. The virtues and conflicts of the film are deeply rooted in reality; themes of unrequited love, success, greed, and fears are realized with such grace. The happenstance that the film implements science-fiction elements through the physical transformation of its main character (Jeff Goldblum, in his best role) serves to amplify the horror considerably. As Goldblum decays in front of our eyes, the lingering sense that all he had worked for, the love that he attempts to realize, is slipping away; it is the greatest horror of all. Few films have been able to so effectively contemplate our mortality all while implementing such a gruesome science-fiction element.

3.  2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)

2001: A Space Odyssey stands as my most atypical example of what constitutes a horror film. But it’s a film that instills a great deal of fear and dread into me every time I watch it. This fear typically stems from the overwhelming isolation I derive from it; as the narrative unfolds, the fear of man against machine and the fight against being left behind in the vastness of space is profoundly moving and quite simply, terrifying. Much like The Shining, the setting serves as an immense undercurrent to maintain this sense of isolation. One can even look as the computerized HAL and Jack Torrance as two characters of the same lineage; their descent into insanity can be interpreted as being a product of their environments.

2.  Seconds (John Frankenheimer, 1966)

The recurring theme throughout most of this list is that I tend to respond to horror films that touch upon themes of mortality, conflict in identity, the circumstances of insanity, isolation, and anxiety toward one’s ascent to adulthood. Seconds touches upon all of these themes in one way or another, and does so within a finely scripted and incredibly directed effort from John Frankenheimer. With a nuanced performance from Rock Hudson, Frankenheimer redefines the question of what it means to be human, what it means to walk in someone else’s shoes, and the devastating loneliness and extreme anxiety that stems from it all. The film bares some of the most impressive direction and editing I’ve ever seen in any film, which only serves accentuate the surreal terror on display.

1.  Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)

I wrote a great deal about my appreciation for David Fincher’s masterful Zodiac. What makes it stand out from all of my favorite “horror” films is the simplicity in which it achieves its horror elements. Given the procedural nature of the film, there’s this immediate connection you have with every character, wherein you understand where they stand, their traits, and what motivates them. So when you place them in a reality where an unknown assailant is murdering people, you are immediately thrust into their world and feel what they feel. The investigation, the mystery, and the prevailing sense that there is someone out there planning to kill is persistent throughout Zodiac.

Obsession is the prevailing theme throughout Zodiac and it comes from all sides. It comes from the filmmaking, which is so exact and attuned to the details and setting. It also comes from Robert Graysmith’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) obsession with finding out who the Zodiac killer is eventually puts him and his family at risk.  And that scene, where Robert Graysmith thinks he may have cracked the case, finding himself alone in a basement with his prime suspect, is the scariest thing I’ve ever seen in film.

The Essential Series: Zodiac (2007)

The Essential Series

The Essential Series is merely a way for me to account and write about films that hold a special place in my heart. They are films that I believe display an acute sense of filmmaking that provoke an emotional connection. They are also films that I have seen more than once, thereby giving me a chance to reflect on elements that I may have missed in my initial viewing.

Zodiac (2007)

Directed by David Fincher Screenplay by James Vanderbilt Based on Robert Graysmith’s Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked


Revisiting Zodiac is rarely an occurrence I plan ahead of time. It’s not a particularly uplifting film, but it’s one that grips me every time I watch it – few movies have such an effect on repeated viewings. There’s always something new to take out of it, making for one of the more rewarding experiences in my collection, and thereby prompting me to give it another viewing.

The notion of a serial killer and the terror he inflicts upon a select few is probably the least interesting way to view the film. This is largely because Fincher and company encapsulate a variety of different perspectives that make for an extremely layered and dense experience. Part police procedural, part thriller, part media study, part character study, Zodiac allows the audience to embrace the controlled chaos. It’s extremely smart in its narrative presentation, as the film’s large cast in introduced and fleshed out in compelling and thought-provoking ways. Take the introduction of Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), an important character to the whole of the narrative; he is not introduced until 30 minutes into the film. With him, he brings the police procedural aspect of the story to the forefront, despite the newspaper media characters (Robert Graysmith and Paul Avery) steering the film’s direction for the past half-hour. The two sides, media and law, meet in such an organic way, serving to highlight the precision of the screenwriting.

Vanderbilt, along with Fincher, illustrates an excellent method of lapsing time, wherein technique and writing flourish to create rich characters. In a restaurant, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is late for his date with Melanie (Chloe Sevigny). A bit absent minded, while still maintaining that straight-man gullibility, Graysmith notes that his friend Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) received an ominous tip that will lead him on the outskirts of San Francisco. As Robert discusses the situation with Melanie, they begin to realize the danger that Paul may be in. Melanie is cautiously fascinated by Robert’s conviction, and decides to take their meal to go as they wait for Paul’s call at Robert’s place. The scene wraps with Paul calling Robert and Melanie, early in the morning, with Melanie admitting that their date was one of the most interesting she has had.

Fast-forward, years into the timeline. Robert is now obsessed with uncovering the mystery of the Zodiac. Like Avery, one can trace a similar downtrodden trajectory for Robert. And again, like Avery, Robert’s sense of time and space is disjointed. He has a meeting set with handwriting expert Sherwood Morrill (Philip Baker Hall), and is unaware of the distance between the two. Melanie, now his wife, makes him aware of that fact. As their relationship deteriorates under Robert’s growing obsession, Melanie recalls that first date – it was the date that never ended.

All this, of course, serves to highlight how the film is not focused on the murders themselves. Fincher instead uses Gyllenhaal in his most effective role. He’s obsessive, yes, but also grounded by emotions that are relatable to anyone. The sense of being close to something, to uncovering the truth about something mythical, is the sort of emotional pull that Fincher and Gyllenhaal effectively convey.

Harry Savides’ gorgeous cinematography is not merely icing on the cake, but an absolutely necessary component to creating the film’s incredibly foreboding atmosphere. Savides has displayed a keen knack for shooting California in interesting and eclectic ways – from the hazy Los Angeles in the recent Greenberg to the dimly-lit San Francisco in Zodiac. Interestingly enough, my favorite example of Savides’ technical prowess in Zodiac is in a scene that takes place indoors. Graysmith, believing to be on the cusp of retrieving proof regarding the Zodiac’s identity, meets with Bob Vaughn (Charles Fleischer) – a confidant of the suspected. Here, the writing, visuals, and direction blend into the wickedly suspenseful. Graysmith follows Vaughn into his basement to retrieve posters that may have the Zodiac’s writing on it. Earlier in the film, we discover that the Zodiac has a basement – basements being a rarity in the California region during the time period. The suspense simmers. The basement is dimly lit, with a storm going on outside that makes every sound reverberate. Vaughn is positioned under one of the few lights in the basement. Graysmith distances himself, realizing that the situation could be more than he bargained for. The storm creates the illusion of foot-steps, Vaughn’s face is barely viewable in the dim lighting, and the fear escalates. So much going on in one scene, all brought together by writing and technique.

The attention to detail, the precision in filmmaking, and the fascinating approach to its already compelling subject matter is enough to make Zodiac a film worthy of praise. The film did not get the attention it ought to have received (it was a minor box office success, making barely enough to cover its budget), nor did it receive acclaim for larger awards bodies. But as I look back on it, rewatching the film every once in a while, I get wrapped up in what it provides – a compelling story with fleshed out characters and the technical prowess to complete the package.