A guest review by Eliza Dorst
What makes a good horror movie? I think a successful horror movie traps its audience into a fantastical scenario that feels scarily intimate, something a little too close for comfort. Good horror displays uncensored human instinct–both good and bad. Personally, horror is my favorite genre of movie because I enjoy how my adrenaline starts to pump and my brain somehow forgets I’m watching a screen. I believe good horror movies make you forget you’re watching a production and instead cause you to feel as if you are in a high-stakes situation along with the characters because you’re so entrenched. My top five horror movies all accomplish these goals.
5. Scream (1996)
Twist endings are my favorite endings. When they are done right, plot twists can make a movie more exciting, along with more meaningful. A lot of the movies on my list have twist endings and they’re all done magnificently. Scream is included on my list for many reasons, but it mostly stands out due to the beginning and ending sequences. With Drew Barrymore getting murdered right off the bat (at the height of her fame), the entire movie is set up to defy audience expectations. The dialogue shows how ironic the film is by discussing horror movie tropes. The movie also makes constant references to other horror films, not in a cheesy way, but to pay homage to them. And the last sequence is when the audience finds out who the killer… or killers– are. It’s truly terrifying because it makes you think about the people you surround yourself with, their secret lives, and the fact that most serial killers blend into society pretty well.
I love the use of “rules” in the movie. If you don’t know what I’m referring to, there is a character in Scream who relays certain unspoken “rules” of the horror movie genre and these rules are what keep the characters alive or cause them to die. Then, throughout the actual film, the audience notices that almost all of these rules get broken. Scream is self-aware, as many horror movies are, yet is a breath of fresh air as it understands the sad, demoralizing history of female characters in the genre and other similar cliches. Scream doesn’t just reference and recreate tropes; it breathes life into the genre and its tropes by giving us new refreshing characters, along with amazing acting and creative dialogue. It’s can hard for a horror movie to strike a perfect balance of humor and horror, but Scream does it. And it’s not as if there is just one character to rely on for comedic relief, but rather multiple truly humorous characters that take the edge off. Scream is a re-watchable classic that opened up a whole new opportunity for horror movies.
4. Psycho (1960)
This classic Hitchcock thriller makes number 4 on my list for the way it changed cinema forever… More than 60 years ago Psycho was released and immediately gained traction for its outbursts of violence, sensuality, and twist ending. Adam Rosenberg writes, “On June 16, 1960, Psycho premiered in New York City. On that night, the world saw the birth of the slasher genre and one of the earliest examples of graphic violence in a film… There are many works of ‘classic cinema’ which, while important, seem unimpressive by today’s standards. Hitchcock stands apart; his work endures and his influence is still felt whenever a movie pushes you to the edge of your seat with tension.” Hitchcock’s stylistic choices and the dynamic characters helped create a phenomenal thriller that digs under the surface and reflects on mental illness.
3. Get Out (2017)
Can we take a moment to appreciate Jordan Peele? He came from a background in comedy acting, and then directed and released two fantastic horror movies in a span of two years. Comedy and horror have plenty of overlapping qualities, but it still always surprises me when someone can do both. His other film, Us, is one of my honorable mentions. But Get Out made it onto my top five for a couple of specific reasons.
First, it shows the audience aspects of the Black experience, specifically the anxiety in an interracial relationship. I’ll give a summary of the movie: Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose (Allison Williams) are dating and Chris is going to meet Allison’s family for the first time. Allison’s family first welcomes Chris, who is Black. But as the visit progresses, the situation gets increasingly disturbing as truths are unveiled.As a white person, I come into this movie with a certain amount of ignorance to the fear a person of color would feel in situations such as this (meeting their white potential in-laws), but Jordan Peele makes it so easy for someone outside of the community to understand that terror. The brilliant twist ending causes us all to reflect on internal racism and microaggressions we may be participating in. Compared to Us, Get Out is less gory and is mostly a psychological terror. It’s a slow burn, and therefore I felt that the ending was more satisfying than in a typical horror movie where the thrills are scattered all over. Get Out is a lot more than just a horror movie; there’s social commentary and a focused narrative that gives the audience something more than just jump-scares. The film also has a structure and vibe similar to an episode of The Twilight Zone or Black Mirror due to its slow buildup and then extreme climax and “resolution.” This structure was brilliant and perfect for the story Peele wanted to tell.
2. The Shining (1980)
There is no doubt that The Shining is one of the greatest horror movies of all time. While the film received mixed reviews when it was released in 1980, it has since been reevaluated and is now critically acclaimed. Filmmakers such as Jordan Peele, Tim Burton, and David Lynch refer to this film as an inspiration for their work. Stanley Kubrick’s meticulous attention to detail, the score, and Jack Nicholson’s performance make this horror film the masterpiece it is and number two on my list.
Every actor in this film does an amazing job. from Shelly Duvall playing a completely hysterical mother and wife to Danny Lloyd’s eight-year-old performance as an abused child with a strange sixth sense. But, for me, Jack Torrance is one of the scariest movie antagonists of all time. As the movie unfolds, the audience finds out that Mr. Torrance has had a past of alcoholism. I was rooting for Jack from the beginning, hoping that he would continue as a sober man and loving father and husband. My hope was in vain, as the Outlook Hotel slowly turns Jack into an evil murderer who hunts his own family. Jack Nicholson was perfect for this role and truly gave us a performance horror history will never forget.
One thing that has always stood out to me about this film is the psychological terror. It’s slow-paced but perfectly executed through an eerie plot and character development. It doesn’t just outright surprise the audience, it takes its time building suspense, creating high stakes, and showing Jack’s loss of sanity over time.
Stanley Kubrick is quoted saying, “The manuscript of the novel was sent to me by John Calley, of Warner Bros. I thought it was one of the most ingenious and exciting stories of the genre I had read. It seemed to strike an extraordinary balance between the psychological and the supernatural in such a way as to lead you to think that the supernatural would eventually be explained by the psychological: ‘Jack must be imagining these things because he’s crazy.’ This allowed you to suspend your doubt of the supernatural until you were so thoroughly into the story that you could accept it almost without noticing.”
Although the movie is noticeably different from the original novel, Stanley Kubrick used his own vision to take a challenging manuscript and make it into something new.
1. Hereditary (2018)
Hereditary is my all-time favorite film, I’ve watched it about 6 times and it never fails to surprise me. I will try to summarize the film without giving away too much for those who need a bit of a refresher. Hereditary is about a family that has just lost their grandmother. Through her death, the family has unknowingly been sacrificed to a sinister cult the grandmother was a part of (although this fact is not apparent, or even very relevant until the last 15 minutes). The movie mostly focuses on the family, specifically the mother Annie (Toni Collette), after the tragic death of her daughter. As blame is shifted to different family members and parental trauma unfolds, all while a spiritual awakening is bubbling over, Hereditary is straight out of a terrible nightmare.
One great thing about this Ari Aster movie is that it doesn’t need gore or actual horror tactics to be a scary movie. It perfectly embodies realism, surrealism, and fantasy. The family dynamic alone is suspenseful enough. The plot is completely plausible, every character’s personality and response to each situation is completely believable. Honestly, up until the end, this movie could easily just be somebody’s unfortunate life. Aster said of the film: “I enjoy turning things on the audience. I like working in genre because people come into films with certain expectations. They know the tropes so well that, when you turn on those, it can be shocking because there’s a complacency that comes with watching those films.” He accomplished exactly this with Hereditary. I went into the movie expecting the cliche horror movie tropes, and he completely defied those expectations. Another aspect that gives this movie my number one spot is Toni Collette’s acting. Don’t get me wrong, I loved her in Muriel’s Wedding, but she gives a phenomenal performance in Hereditary that shows her true acting talent and range. All the acting is terrific, but for me, Toni Collette deserved an Oscar, no question. She plays a believable mother trying to cope with the traumatic death of her daughter, right after the death of her mother. As Annie, Collette perfectly encompasses the emotions a person in her shoes would be experiencing, and the movie just throws in a couple of supernatural experiences to push her over the edge.
Honorary Mentions (not in any specific order):
A Quiet Place 1&2 (2018 & 2021)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
The Haunting of Hill House (Season 1, 2018) -This is a Netflix series, but definitely worth the watch!!