In my last post, I made the case that Roman Polanksi’s Repulsion (1965) merited consideration as one of the greatest horror movies of all time. What other films should be on that list?
How about the film that inspired Repulsion, along with dozens of other movies in the early 1960s? Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) was a box office smash and a cultural milestone. It didn’t invent the psycho killer movie (that might have been Hitchcock’s own film The Lodger) but it cemented it as a distinct genre and laid down some of the rules. (Killer driven by childhood trauma, hidden identity, shower scenes, etc…) It’s fair to say that, without Psycho, there would have been no Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980), or Repulsion.
What makes Psycho such a great horror film? I think that it is the collision of the seamy, everyday small evils of flawed humans with murderous, inhumanly insane evil. It’s not that Marion Crane deserves her awful fate but that her own very human weaknesses and desires lands her in a place where real evil awaits. Psycho gets us to identify with Marion, feel ashamed for sharing voyeuristicthrills with her killer, experience horror at the final revelation, all at the same time. Brilliant.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991) is also a psycho killer film, but one turned inside out. While following the pursuit of one killer we meet one that is ten times worse, but safely incarcerated. Instead of a familiar, linear string of spectacular murders, we are drawn in to the interplay between the insecure young FBI agent and the deadly, brilliant Hannibal Lecter. In fact, only three people die during the course of the movie, one of them the killer Jamie Gumb at the hands of Agent Starling.
What makes The Silence of the Lambs a great horror movie? For me, it is the slow buildup of the character of Hannibal Lecter. We hear all kinds of anecdotes about how terrible and dangerous he is, but his scenes with Agent Starling render him almost likable. Then he escapes and in the course of doing so, confirms every fear that he is not only dangerous but utterly inhuman and evil. He is the bogeyman, and the lamer, lesser bogeyman is brought to justice but he escapes.
My final runner-up for greatest horror movie is Freaks (1932). Directed by Tod Browning, Freaks remains the most unexpected mainstream film release ever. In the successful horror movie cycle that began a year early with Browning’s Dracula, Freaks was greenlit without much apprehension. Imagine the shock that studio executives experienced when Browning delivered a film where physically repellent mutants were the sympathetic figures and “normal” humans were the monsters.
What makes Freaks a great horror movie? It’s the fact that after making us comfortable with the freaks, Browning turns things around in the last act and makes them figures of horror wrenched up from our ids. The final effect is disorienting, leaving us questioning the nature of humanity.
I have narrowed the list of what I consider the greatest horror movies down to these four and my final choice based on the fact that I consider all of them perfect films that could not have been improved in any way. There are other films like Frankenstein (1931), Night of the Living Dead (1968), or Peeping Tom (1960) which are great horror films, but which in some way or another just miss the cut.
Also, what these five movies all share is that they render alienness and inhumanity in ways that burrow deep into our subconcious and make the threat they pose more than just existential. We might not only die, these films say, but we may die at the hands of something that comes out of the darkness in our own souls and minds.
Next post: The Greatest Horror Movie Ever.