In preparation for the conclusion of the iconic Halloween film series this month with Halloween Ends, The Mancunion film team have handpicked their favourite scary flicks from the archives (warning: sofa to hide behind not included).
1960s – Isabel Billington
Psycho (1960), directed by Alfred Hitchcock, is iconic, constantly referenced, and fully embedded in our cultural consciousness.
I can’t help but think what it must’ve been like for the audiences who went to see Psycho in 1960 without ever hearing the name Norman Bates.
The film is so expert in misdirecting its audience that at first, you may have assumed you had walked into the wrong screening. You would not be blamed for believing that the sweet face of Anthony Perkins could never be a sight of terror, even as the stuffed birds of prey leer over his shoulder.
You, an audience member in 1960, could not be blamed for the horror you might’ve felt at the reveal of Norman in his wig and his mother’s nightgown. Had you ever seen anything of the like before? The horror of someone transgressing such a norm, of becoming something other than the self. And that something has a knife.
Now, I know that Norman is not trans. The film intends to make that clear. But the implication is enough. His ‘split personality disorder’ leaves him on the borders of what is acceptable gendered behaviour and in his final terrifying speech, when he smiles that knowing smile and proclaims he would “never hurt a fly,” we feel we are being lied to. It is his own delusion of self that scares us. He has accepted the other fully, entirely, and he stares us in the eyes, and he lies to us.
It is no longer 1960 and yet in 2022 often we still see the traversing of gender binaries portrayed as an act of delusion and lies, of horror and danger, be it in films, books, or on the news. Psycho was not the first to present this fear to us and it was not the last.
So next time you sit down to watch this ‘granddaddy of horror’, or any of its grandchildren, think about what horror it is you are feeling, who is shown holding the knife, and who is holding the camera.
1970s/ 80s – Emilio Nelson
As a big fan of 80s horror, I can say that Poltergeist (1982) definitely has a place in the genre’s hall of fame. With a plot that slowly builds into a highly rewarding finale, some of the best horror practical effects of its time, and a surprisingly heart-warming narrative, Poltergeist is a solid watch and an iconic entry in the 80s horror canon.
Although directed by Tobe Hooper, (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974), there is much more of writer and producer Stephen Spielberg’s DNA in this film. Spielberg was initially meant to direct and has been rumoured to have had heavy creative control. Poltergeist feels almost like a horror parallel to E.T, which would come out exactly one week later in the U.S., and initially prevented Spielberg from directing Poltergeist.
Spielberg’s influences fill the movie with a focus on childhood and family seen in his many hits. The brutal violence of some of Hooper’s previous movies doesn’t have a place here. It makes for a pretty unique tone in comparison to other horror films of the decade.
Many horror films may be too greedy with opportunities to spook a viewer. I love films like Alien (1979) and Poltergeist because they know how to build up to their scary moments and engage a wider audience with an accessible film without compromising on the fear factor.
As much as I would love to recommend something like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to absolutely everybody, I have to face the fact that they might need to watch something more approachable first, which is why Poltergeist and quality horror like it, give me hope.
1990s – Majeda Bano-Few
Made memorable by scenes of gore, farcical jokes, and most importantly the cleverly explicit cross-references – Scream has rightfully achieved its status of an exemplary meta-horror movie. Of its sequels, the original film remains a firm favourite for many, as perhaps the most iconic of the Scream franchise.
The film begins with the reputable opening scene: Drew Barrymore as Casey Becker receives a mysterious call obliging her to answer a series of questions about horror movies, and in turn, is condemned to a grisly murder through the chilling line “wrong answer”. Then, the central plot develops its self-referential satire; as the Ghostface killer torments the ‘final girl’- Sidney Prescott, portrayed by Neve Campbell, and continues the slasher spree.
Intentionally playing on tropes and clichés, Scream sets out a fairly predictable storyline with fairly guessable killers – however – it is made individually in its profuse references to others within the genre, such as the renowned slasher franchise Friday the 13th or Halloween. One highlight of the film is the anti-curfew house party, where the rules to survive a scary movie (within a scary movie) are set out while characters simultaneously break said rules, and therefore meet their macabre ends.
Although it might at times feel like an inside joke for horror movie fanatics, Scream is equally self-satirical as well as nostalgic for anyone who appreciates the charm of a 90s cult classic. It is essentially a very clever film. The more times you watch it, the more hidden references you’ll spot. It certainly has memorable scenes and iconic quotes that make it a great film and a Halloween favourite.
2000s – Evie Knight
A zombie film like no other, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) forces audiences to ask questions about themselves they may find too unsettling to answer.
Exactly 28 days after a group of animal rights activists unleash a mass of chimpanzees infected with “rage”, Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes from a coma, only to find the streets of London empty. The use of a digital camera (which many viewers have found grainy and infuriating), alongside the seemingly shut down London streets – filmed in the early hours of the morning – creates an eerily defamiliarised first scene.
Of course, the red-eyed zombies are terrifying. The film utilises them for several jump scares, particularly in the tunnel scene, where a visceral mass of rats warn the survivors before the hauntingly fast-moving infected can be seen.
However, it is the humans who are the most terrifying.
This film seeks to answer the question: who is the real monster and what happens to us when survival instinct kicks in? Writer Alex Garland (Ex-Machina, 2014) uses the zombies to create a scenario where we can see what true human nature is when put under severe stress.
This analysis of human nature begins early in the film, where Selena (Naomie Harris) doesn’t even flinch when it comes to killing her soon-to-be-infected partner on the road. However, the most terrifying of all is the military men, thought to be the survivors’ last hope, turned sour. Their lustrous desire to carry on the human heritage takes a sinister tone, where their power over Selena and Hannah (Megan Burns) becomes all too chilling.
Nevertheless, the monster changes once more, where Jim, in his intent on saving them, is turned savage, shirtless, leaping around like an animal, silently causing the death of each soldier. His final killing, most disturbing of all, involves the grotesque gouging of eyes – something that I will never be able to forget.
I believe 28 Days Later is under-appreciated, particularly as a complex form of horror, that leaves us to question our innate human nature.
2010s – Josef Weidner
The first half of the 2010s proved a troubling era for fans of the horror genre; lousy jump-scares had slowly become a synonym for ‘scary’, while the occasionally adequate yet generally mediocre flicks of James Wan came to dominate our screens. However, long before A24 began their undisputed reign over the genre, it was Jennifer Kent who reminded us how to be terrified with her 2014 directorial-debut The Babadook.
The film follows single mother Amelia (played by Essie Davis), as she juggles the burdens of motherhood with her traumatic past, all the while the arrival of a mysterious book begins to haunt the minds of her and her son. Despite a rather uninspiring premise, The Babadook has asserted itself as one of the most intricately crafted examples of nightmare fuel that the past decade has to offer.
Essie Davis’s stellar performance shines through as she portrays a woman overwhelmed with anxiety and depression, blurring the lines between sanity and insanity while we’re forced into a relentless state of unease. The characters are real, they’re relatable, and they share our insecurities, so their terror feels more authentic. Jennifer Kent flips the Blumhouse formula on its head by replacing the cheap jump scare with a constant sense of dread; the film’s villain hides in the cracks of everyday life making its presence and absence equally terrifying.
The Babadook taught audiences what it really feels like to be shaken to the core, undoubtedly inspiring what was to come from the genre with films like Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2016) and Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018) sharing its unique tone. It might never get the credit it deserves, but in a world without The Babadook we would probably be waiting for Insidious: Chapter 5 by now.