Scary movie: I got chills and they're multiplying
Halloween is almost upon us, and the Irish Film Institute's annual Horrorthon is in full swing. Every year the IFI's festival of creepiness showcases some of the best and most innovative horror films from around the world, and this year is no exception. The event opened on Thursday with a very fine Korean horror film called Train to Busan in which a father's trip south with his daughter coincides with the outbreak of a zombie plague. It's a lot of fun, and is also getting a cinematic release.
Other highlights over the next three days include: The Chamber, Ben Parker's claustrophobic thriller about the crew of a submersible that get trapped underwater; The Autopsy of Jane Doe, a brooding horror from André Ovredal starring Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch as father and son coroners who get more than they bargained for when they take charge of a beautiful young 'Jane Doe'; Egomaniac, Kate Shenton's witty comic chiller charting a histrionic film-maker's attempts to finish a zombie film; and Headshot, a well-regarded Indonesian gore-fest.
The psychological need for horror films and scary stories runs deep, and there's something very satisfying, even cathartic, about being scared witless in the comparative safety of a cinema. But horror tends to divide audiences as no other genre does, and can mean very different things to different people. There are those, for instance, who love gore and can even find blood-letting humorous: then there are others, myself included I'm afraid, who are on the squeamish side.
All of which must inform my choice of the best horror films ever, and some will no doubt be disappointed that such genuine classics as Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Sam Raimi's Evil Dead are not included in my list. But the horror films I like are the ones that use visual style and brooding atmosphere to create a tension worse than anything that actually happens. These are my personal favourites, and while some of them are very old, all are fine examples of the way in which great horror films can use sight and sound to tap into our deepest fears.
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)
This stylised study in madness made a virtue of its small budget and used theatrical sets and outlandish acting to create a grandly sinister tone. The town of Holstenwall is plagued by a series of grisly murders, and a young man called Francis becomes obsessed with finding out who's behind them.
He meets the fairground performer Dr Caligari, who works with a somnambulist by the name of Cesare who can tell the future and predict the exact moment of your death. When his best friend is murdered, Francis begins to suspect Caligari and his stooge, but there are plenty of surprises at the end of Robert Wiene's boldly original film.
There's something mesmerising about the dreamlike images that permeate Carl Theodor Dreyer's Weimar-era classic. The Danish director originally intended Vampyr to be silent, and only added dialogue during production, but his film is all about a succession of haunting images that accumulate into an extended gothic nightmare.
Dreyer partly based his film on the stories of Dublin writer Sheridan Le Fanu, and used a cast largely composed of non-professionals to tell his dark tale of a European village preyed on by a malevolent vampire. It's an extraordinarily vivid film, full of deeply disturbing scenes, from a character's dream of being buried alive to the famous shot of an old man ringing a bell with a scythe on his shoulder.
Les Diaboliques (1955)
Henri-Georges Clouzot's grim masterpiece is said to have inspired Hitchcock's Psycho, and is one of the most intelligent horror films you'll ever see. The director's wife, Véra Clouzot, plays Christina, the abused spouse of a sadistic headmaster who's also having an affair with one of his teachers (Simone Signoret).
The two women get together and decide to rid themselves of their tormentor, drowning him in a bathtub and dumping the body in a swimming pool. But when the body subsequently disappears and the women hear reports that Michel has been sighted alive, they begin to panic. Definitely worth a look if you've never seen it.
The film that launched the slasher-genre craze is so much better than anything it inspired. Alfred Hitchcock was forced to use his own money to make Psycho after Paramount refused to finance it, and shot in black and white to keep his budget down and make his famous shower scene look aesthetic rather than grotesque (imagine all that gushing blood in Technicolor).
Janet Leigh plays a young woman on the run who pulls into the wrong motel, and Anthony Perkins is Norman Bates, the mother-obsessed psychopath based on real-life serial killer Ed Gein. Considered shocking in its day, Psycho is still not the kind of film you'd watch on your own last thing at night.
Peeping Tom (1960)
Michael Powell's innovative and fearless horror film was so badly reviewed when originally released in 1960 that it effectively ended his directorial career. It told the chilling story of Mark (Carl Boehm), a studio technician who spends his spare time working on a film he calls his "documentary".
It's actually a record of all the women he kills with a spike concealed in his camera, and Mark lovingly savours the fear in his victims' faces as he watches it back. Powell intended the film as a critique of voyeurism, but critics couldn't take this kind of horror from the maker of the Red Shoes. It's now considered a groundbreaking classic.
The Innocents (1961)
By far the best of the films inspired by Henry James's ghost story The Turn of the Screw, Jack Clayton's 1961 chiller is an elegant and near flawless classic. Deborah Kerr plays Miss Giddens, a prim governess who takes a job looking after the orphaned niece and nephew of a wealthy bachelor, played by Michael Redgrave.
It seems like an ideal appointment until Miss Giddens begins to notice the children behaving oddly. The boy is expelled from school, and he and the little girl whisper together and seem to be communing with invisible forces. There are no flashy effects or cheap thrills in The Innocents, which uses atmosphere and clever camera work to explore controversial themes.
Rosemary's Baby (1968)
A young Mia Farrow endures the original pregnancy from hell in Roman Polanski's magnificently unsettling 1960s chiller. She is Rosemary Woodhouse, a naïve young bride who's delighted when she moves into a plush apartment in uptown New York with her husband Guy, a struggling actor.
But the neighbours are on the sinister side, and when Rosemary gets pregnant, she realises she's carrying the spawn of Satan. It's a weird, woozy and brilliantly directed masterpiece, and John Cassavetes is excellent as the devious Guy, who, it turns out, sold his wife to the devil for a part in a Broadway show. That's actors for you.
Don't Look Now (1973)
There are a small number of what one might call adult horror films that, if watched in the wee small hours, will give you the creeps no matter what age you are. Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now is one such, a gothic thriller based on a story by Daphne du Maurier.
Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie play a couple who move to Venice for a change of scene after their child is killed in a terrible accident. Initially, the change seems to do them good, but when the wife meets a strange pair of elderly sisters and starts thinking she's seeing her dead child walking in dark side streets, things get good and weird.
The Exorcist (1973)
William Friedkin's Exorcist caused mass hysteria among audiences back in 1973, and rumours abounded of an on-set curse. Friedkin claimed he asked a priest to bless the set after a mysterious fire, but whatever about that, the great director used all his skill to build and sustain a powerful atmosphere of dread that makes this one of the most frightening films ever made.
Ellen Burstyn is a busy actress who becomes worried about her teenage daughter's increasing erratic behaviour. When the girl begins having spasms and speaking in tongues, the priests are called, and a long and painful exorcism begins. It's chilling stuff, charged with tension and full of ghastly twists and turns.
The best horror ever?
Stanley Kubrick's 1980 chiller The Shining is the Citizen Kane of horror films, if you ask me, but not everyone would agree. The great New Yorker critic Pauline Kael described Jack Nicholson's windy performance as "tiresome, a mixture of Richard III and the Big Bad Wolf", and Stephen King wasn't too happy either. He hated Kubrick's adaptation of his 1977 novel, and resented the film-maker's high-handed approach to his text. But old Stanley knew exactly what he was doing, and used imagination and technical innovation to turn King's story into an unforgettable horror epic.
Nicholson plays Jack Torrance, an aspiring writer who takes a job as winter caretaker of a remote hotel in the Rockies with his wife, Wendy and young son, Danny. During a long winter he develops a severe case of cabin fever, and ghosts from the hotel's past emerge to make things even more unpleasant for all. Kubrick broke with convention by shooting his ghost story in blinding neon brightness, making it harder to dismiss the horrors you saw as illusions. And he used Steadicam to create some truly mesmerising sequences, like the one where young Danny rides his bike around the empty hotel corridors and runs into those creepy twins. Scary.