On the surface, the horror genre feels like a tightly confined genre. At their purest essence, horror films are designed to elicit an emotional reaction of fear. How that fear is delivered, however, is one of the most malleable narrative concepts around.
Some play on grotesque, larger-than-life personifications of some of the most disturbing creations imaginable. Others toy with your subconscious by doing nothing more outlandish that provoking an innate fear and amplifying it to extreme levels. They might focus on a visceral shot in which the terror is little more than a lightning edit and an explosion of sound, or they might linger on visions of blood, gore and pain.
Here, Clash’s film contributors pick their own personal favourite from the terrifying world of the silver scream. A legion of clowns, zombies, kidnappers and possessed children lurks menacingly below.
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Dawn Of The Dead (1978)
Though the shock value of its pastel-coloured gore may have diminished over the course of the intervening years, George A. Romero’s horror sequel remains as important as ever. The defining statement in a subgenre that he effectively created singlehandedly, Romero’s seamless blend of gory shivers and jovial silliness continues to enthral to this day, bolstered by a mental score from Italian purveyors of synthesised strangeness Goblin and a stark, chilling social commentary that continues to hold weight. If the humble zombie has lost its appeal in recent years, Dawn Of The Dead is the enduring excuse for their continued relevance. Paul Weedon
There are many things to be afraid of: old age, zombie apocalypse and the never-ending Transformers movies. However, nothing personifies evil and induces fear like a clown – especially when given life by master of horror, Stephen King.
In It, seven outcast children fight the supernatural evil that plagues their town, which takes the form of Pennywise the Clown, played to bedwetting-perfection by Tim Curry. What makes It the pinnacle of horror is the emphasis on the power of imagination, as Pennywise takes the form of its victims’ worst fears. The fact that the special effects were limited by early ’90s technology only goes to show the strength of the acting and narrative. Elijah Lawal
Peeping Tom (1960)
Peeping Tom is a purge of cinematic guilt, relentless with red, and we are not innocent in what unfolds. It has an unflinching directness that we cannot hide from. It stares at us and we stare back; we are victim and perpetrator. Every time I watch it I am seduced again, and before I know it I am greeted again by that blank screen, that final frame, that death. It makes me feel scared, enthralled, awed, dirty and complicit. If horror films should be mostly psychological chills this is completely, claustrophobically psychologically chilling. Neil Fox
“There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it…”
Alfred Hitchcock’s approach to horror is never more evident than in his 1960 classic Psycho. Even after several viewings, the moments of anxiety come from unexpected places – the shower scene certainly, but more so the almost silent couple of seconds before, where a shadow starts to appear in the curtain.
The way Psycho gets in your head, however, is Norman/‘Mother’’s final monologue, with our killer smiling madly into the camera. It’s then you realise that, unlike a possessed doll or a telekinetic teen, this could happen anywhere. Norman Bates could exist anywhere, anytime, just around the corner in a scruffy motel.
“And they'll say, ‘Why, she wouldn't even harm a fly…’" James Luxford
The Exorcist (1973)
Watching a pubescent girl stab herself in the nether regions with a crucifix? Shocking in the 1970s, shocking now.
Many of the entries in the horror genre would be more appropriately labelled terror, but The Exorcist was – and still is – a film that has the power to horrify. Hugely influential, what William Friedkin’s adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s demonic possession novel really deals with is psychoanalytical theories, including the notion of absent fathers (without the guidance of a father figure in her life, Linda Blair’s Regan becomes abject), and the subconscious male perception of the female as monstrous. On the cusp of womanhood, Regan literally becomes a monster.
Horror has the ability beyond all other genres to examine the extremes of humanity and plunge to its darkest depths – holding a mirror up to our murkiest thoughts and fears. It is the role of horror to make us look at ourselves, to unsettle and leave us aghast, and The Exorcist delivers. Kim Taylor-Foster
The Innocents (1961)
If the aim of a horror film is to not only scare but inspire deep emotions all too difficult to describe, then The Innocents succeeds in every way. Based on Henry James's The Turn Of The Screw, the gothic splendour of Sussex's Sheffield Park is the perfect setting for a story of timeless depth and striking romanticism. Jack Clayton's visionary tale describes the haunting of a county school governess (Deborah Kerr) as she is enlisted to teach two problematic and distinctly otherworldly children. Featuring a wealth of psychological bumps in the night, this is a film way ahead of its early '60s origins. Robert W. Monk
The Shining (1980)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick, The Shining remains a masterclass in cinema over 30 years after its original release. Paths Of Glory may have informed every subsequent anti-war movie and 2001: A Space Odyssey is still the monolith to which every other sci-fi since has bowed, but it is in horror that his meticulous attention to detail and highfalutin ideas changed the genre forever. Jack Nicholson is astonishing, of course, but the fuel of his performance is accelerated by the wide-eyed Shelley Duvall and trike-propelling, redrum-growling Danny Lloyd. The life-size set was the largest built at Kubrick’s local studio Elstree, the score is unlike any other, while the film’s mind-bending mythology has been memorably explored in Rodney Ascher’s documentary, Room 237. Kingsley Marshall
The Vanishing (1988)
Ghosts and ghouls are staples of the horror genre, but I’m a firm believer that the fewer leaps there are from our conventional existence, the deeper and darker the scares become. The mundane setting of George Sluizer’s 1988 film Spoorloos, aka The Vanishing (forget the 1993 remake): a couple in a petrol station becomes a disappearance and a search. The identity of the equally bland kidnapper isn’t withheld, leaving lingering questions about the kidnapped woman’s fate lying tantalisingly out of reach. Named by Stanley Kubrick as “the most terrifying film I’ve ever seen,” The Vanishing’s horror is intrinsically linked to its realism. Look at someone in the supermarket, on the bus, on the underground. One step into the shadows and it could be them. Or it could be you. Ben Hopkins
Watership Down (1978)
You want me to go out into the countryside, by myself, after seeing this as an impressionable child who just thought, who assumed, that it was a cuddly cartoon based on its bouncy bunny rabbits cast? Are you out of your mind? After all the fighting and the blood and the gore and did I mention the blood and oh god the fields have run red… You want me to go on a solo ramble, over yonder hillock, to fetch you a sack of flour? Piss off. But seriously, my wife loves this film, but I can’t watch it (again) to this day. Scar(r)ed for life. Mike Diver
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