Here at ACPL, we start to see horror flicks fly off the shelves when October rolls around. Fear is a funny thing; it’s our natural response to dangerous situations and it acts a survival mechanism. Somewhere along the line, something turns in us and we want to be scared. We want that rush, the chill, that sudden sense of impending dread — all in a controlled environment of course — and horror movies are our window into that world where danger is very real. Even more than that, we have turned horror movies into a social experience. Sure, you can watch them alone, but they are more fun with an audience. When there’s a room full of people, you can feel the tension in the air as the protagonist creeps toward the closet that may or may not conceal their doom.
Here are a few suggestions for horror films to give a watch this October, hopefully a few that you haven’t seen.
The Omen (1976)
The Omen will forever stand out in my mind as one of the most terrifying movies I watched as a teenager, and I found it no less suspenseful re-watching it years later. The Omen centers on a couple named Robert and Katherine Thorn (Gregory Peck and Lee Remick) who adopt a young boy after their biological son dies during birth. They soon receive warnings from a Catholic priest that the boy may have a very infamous and diabolical lineage, but the parents shrug off these warnings as the ravings of a madman. A series of mysterious incidents surrounding the young child, Damien, causes Robert to look further into the origin of his son and the deeper he goes, the more grisly the discoveries become.
Unlike some modern horror movies which tend to inflate their body count as much as possible, The Omen shows restraint making each gruesome death that occurs shocking and memorable. In a precursor to some of the tropes that the Final Destination films would latch onto later, there is no single entity as a killer, but rather a series of unfortunate accidents and Rube Goldberg-like machinations that result in deaths that seem to be guided by some malevolent unseen force as various people surrounding Damien meet their doom. While some of the practical effects look dated when scrutinized closely, I still think they are more convincing than some of the digital effects in modern horror movies.
The Omen works so well because it builds a mounting sense of menace that pervades the entire film. In the world of the film, there are dark forces at work from which our characters are never truly safe. This transcends the trope of mere supernatural abilities that are never clearly defined — something I find problematic in a lot of supernatural horror. This feels bigger; in essence, The Omen posits how terrifying it would be if the Devil himself was out to get you, and it delivers on that. You may never be able to look at a black dog the same way again if you choose to give The Omen a watch.
Cabin in the Woods (2012)
You are either going to love or hate The Cabin in the Woods. I’ve talked to people from both camps, and while I think it was easily the best horror movie of 2012, I understand the criticism. This film starts out weird and doesn’t really explain itself fully until the third act. It may be too clever for its own good, and many viewers merely looking for a spooky movie will be turned off by how little it is concerned with conventional scares in lieu of its larger commentary on the state and function of horror movies themselves. In some sense, this is perhaps its greatest failing; The Cabin in the Woods reaches so far at nailing its meta-textual commentary that it ceases to be a very scary movie, although what it does manage to be is a hell of a lot of fun.
The trailers for The Cabin in the Woods resemble your typical horror movie set up. A group of attractive young people, each looking like the embodiment of some screen stereotype, plan a weekend get away to a quaint cabin with plans for plenty of alcohol-fueled shenanigans. As always happens in these situations, some terrible evil is awakened and our protagonists are soon fighting for their lives. The scenario sounds so tired that many people decided to pass on it until word-of-mouth spread that there is something more going on here. The movie itself makes clear from the opening scene that not all is as it seems as two technicians in what appears to be a sprawling laboratory complex cryptically refer to a ritual that is about to take place. This is our first glimpse at the strange arbiters of our protagonists’ fates, the unraveling of which ultimately reflects, with biting satire, what the modern horror fans desire out of a film.
Directed and by co-written Drew Goddard (Buffy, Angel, Lost), and produced and co-written by Joss Whedon (Buffy, Firefly, Marvel’s The Avengers), this film is sure to delight anyone who loves horror genre and can appreciate it with tongue planted firmly in cheek. I’ll leave you to uncover the secrets of The Cabin in the Woods on your own, but suffice it to say, you will be getting something a little off kilter, and in the age of cheaply produced, found footage Blair Witch knock-offs, that’s a good thing.
The opinion of today’s audience regarding Takashi Miike’s Audition may largely be swayed by how many films in the “torture horror” genre they have watched since its explosion of popularity with James Wan and Leigh Wannell’s Saw franchise and Eli Roth’s Hostel films. These films tend to eschew the sudden scares and sudden brutal violence of slasher films in favor of graphically showing impending torturous consequences that are as much a psychological hazard for the audience as a physical hazard for character who is being tortured. This is obviously not everyone’s cup of tea, and the annualization of the Saw franchise proved that it was much easier to think of sadistic torture scenes than create compelling stories or characters to inhabit those set pieces. For those who are interested in seeing twisted storytelling done well, Audition leaves an indelible impression, and predating Saw by five years, audiences at the time had seen very little like it.
The set up is simple enough. Widowed Japanese businessman Shigeharu Aoyama is encouraged by his teenage son to start looking for a wife. Along with his coworker, he concocts a plan to interview potential women by posting an ad for a fake job. He gets to sit down and talk to plenty of young, professional women and if he feels a connection, he already has her contact information. Oh, they had to give the job to somebody else, but would you like to meet for coffee? Yes, it’s sleazy, but not quite enough to make Shigeharu into a full-fledged villain. He is instantly smitten by Asami Yamazaki, and while he sees her to be your average, amiable young bachelorette, we as the audience sense that there is something off about her. There is a chilling scene early on of Asami sitting alone and motionless in a sparsely furnished room, staring intensely into space, waiting for Shigeharu to call. Oh, and hints of something more sinister.
What makes Audition really work as a narrative is that you feel bad for and bad about everyone involved. Asami is a character who has clearly suffered mental and physical abuse in her life, and most of the story’s tension is related to how and to what extent her apparent psychosis will manifest in her behavior. Shigeharu’s method to score himself a younger wife is pretty reprehensible, but it is hard to justify what he has to endure as the movie goes on. Where this movie truly succeeds, and where it holds an interesting perspective in the world of horror flicks that use torture as a plot element, is that the ultimate point of the grisly activity is not to visually shock the audience, but to convey the extent to which Asami’s psyche is completely broken. The glee she takes in exacting revenge, to be the one doling out the abuse rather than taking it, is a haunting look at psychosis. I’m not going to sit here and say that these characters are handled especially sensitively toward those who have encountered real life abuse (again, this movie is hard to recommend to anyone who is turned off by the very description), but I think there is something admirable in the way it creates pathos with its pitiable antagonist. If you’re in the mood for something dark, this may fit the bill.
Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
If psychological horror appeals to you, but you want to skip all that torture business, Jacob’s Ladder may be more your speed. Unconventional among horror movies, this film doesn’t rely on monsters or serial killers to deliver scares, but rather the very real horror of war and the uncertainty of one man’s psyche that has been irreparably warped by his experiences. The film follows a soldier named Jacob Singer during his deployment in the Vietnam War and his experiences in New York City after returning. We see Jacob suffer a horrific injury and are then thrust into his post-war life as a postal worker, a fragmented non sequitur by which he seems just as confused. He has very few memories of what really happened to him during the war except for vivid flashbacks that offer only glimpses of the whole story. Is this merely the manifestation of PTSD, or something far more clandestine? Jacob starts to piece together clues that point toward mysterious experiments that may have been foisted upon him and his comrades, and it becomes unclear whether he will uncover the truth, succumb to insanity, or be silenced by a third party first.
What director Adrian Lyne does so well in Jacob’s Ladder is communicate Jacob’s psychological instability visually through the hallucinations he has. In some ways, this is like a visual representation of schizophrenia; the audience starts to feel constant unease and even paranoia, never sure what is tangible and pertinent to Jacob’s situation and what is merely an artifact of his horrific experience in the war. We grow to accept the unreliable narration, but it makes us all the more curious about what actually happened to Jacob. The horror here is that innate fear many of us have regarding mental illness and the ability to trust our own perception of reality. Despite having relatively little gore, this film nevertheless has imagery that will stick with you long after watching, making it a great choice to give a watch this season.
Like comedy, horror is a very subjective genre. The film that you find the most terrifying is bound to be something completely different from things that I’ve listed. What was the first horror movie to keep you awake all night? What about horror novels? Let us know in the comments below, and don’t forget to give this article a share if you enjoyed reading it. Happy Halloween, everyone!