Being a horror fan often raises many questions; for example why is it that the majority of us are actually perfectly nice people and not the blood-thirsty raving psychopaths that the tabloid media insists watching this stuff will turn you into. However flippancy aside, there is still the question of why we embrace this genre with such delight, especially as many horror films frankly aren’t actually very good.
Well, firstly we must acknowledge the truth embodied in Sturgeon’s Law – that 90% of anything is crap. Yes, there is a lot of old tat lurking in the horror canon but the genre can and does produce bona fide classics, and in precisely the same proportions as any other form of cinema. Now as I have remarked before, non horror fans can be roughly divided into two camps – the first is the group that simply can’t bear horror movies; they never watch them in case they get frightened, and are amazed anyone would pursue being scared as a leisure activity. Now the second group are somewhat better informed – this is the gang who don’t bother with horror because ‘they just aren’t scary’.
But as I have discussed in the previous two articles in this series, horror offers a variety of different movie experiences. But it’s fair to say that discovering the particular films that really terrify you; the films that haunt you long after the film’s close, and in Macbeth’s memorable phrase ‘murder sleep’, is part of the fun of being a horror fan. Maybe it is related to the obsessive collector gene that fans of any stripe possess; a modern manifestation of our primal hunter gatherer instincts, or perhaps it’s a home brew form of psychological exploration, but the questing through hours of footage to find a flick that delivers the fear,is, in some regards, as satisfying as watching the films themselves. It may be years in between finding a movie that freezes your blood and has you praying for the dawn, but when you do it’s like finding a personal Holy Grail.
Now with Hallowe’en approaching, that haunted time of the year when everyone’s looking for a good scare, I thought I’d share my personal gallery of terrors, the films that frightened me. Now before we begin, I must stress that this is a list of the movies that most gave me the fear rather than a countdown of the best horror films ever made. Rather the movies discussed below are the cream of Pure Terrors (see Part I for a definition) and therefore many great films I love and admire in the genre have not made it onto the list.
Now there are many movies that have given me the chills over the years, and an ‘honourable mentions’ section would include many of the expected classic names. However we aren’t just looking at the films that frightened while onscreen, but the crème de la crème, movies that after the credits rolled honestly had me too on edge to sleep and running up the old electrickery bill by having every light in the house on for most of the night.
Also I should point out that I’m not touting these films as the scariest movies of all time – fear is a subjective thing and therefore your mileage may vary... But as some of you may decide to give some of these titles a whirl this Hallowe’en, I’ll be keeping my remarks spoiler free.
Now from a quick glance down the featured films, you’ll note that most are ghost stories of one variety of another. Yes, it’s hauntings that get me most often, probably because of all the horror staples ghosts seem the most likely to actually exist. Non-supernatural menaces such as serial killers, psychopaths and cannibals I tend to find belong more to the realm of Disturbing Visions than Pure Terror, and evidence for vampires, werewolves, demons and the walking dead existing in the real world is thin on the ground, plus the silver screen has often radically altered these horrors from how they appear in folklore and legend.
Ghosts however seem to be a lot more commonly encountered. Now we could argue the toss over the evidence all night, but everybody, regardless of whether they believe or not, knows at least one spooky story, and we’ve all at some point or another visited a place that for no readily apparent reason gave us bad vibes.
Anyhow without further ado, here are the flicks that frightened me...
To begin with, let’s journey back to the golden age of ye olde Video Shoppe. The rise of the home VCR back in the ‘80s was a revolution for movie fans both young and old, with thousands of old movies suddenly available to be enjoyed in the comfort of your own home. However for the budding horror fan, still too young to see fright flicks at the cinema, the unregulated video rental market meant you could now see modern horror films with ease.
And one of the first titles I rented was the then just released Poltergeist. Now looking at this unlikely team-up of Stephen Spielberg and Tobe Hooper, it seems more of an over the top special effects whirlwind that an exercise in inducing dread. And these days you can play the film buff game of trying to work out who actually directed what in the movie. Rumours abound to this day over the tussles for the directorial reins on this picture, but no one so far has come out with the truth. And when Poltergeist was released as a two disc special edition on DVD, a making of feature was suspiciously absent. But regardless of who actually was behind the camera, the collision of the minds produced a memorable haunted house movie.
It’s easily the mildest film on the list. But the kind of wall to wall visual wizardry that Poltergeist abounds with, and now comes fitted as standard for any blockbuster, back then was new and startling. More to the point though, Poltergeist well and truly got me by hitting several personal fear buttons with pinpoint accuracy – namely clowns, evil trees and looking the bathroom mirror at night. So if you are looking for a good solid Ghost Train that might rattle your cage a bit this Hallowe’en, give Poltergeist a spin.
The most recent film on the list and something of a surprise as I don’t generally find zombies frightening - horrific yes, but scary no. However this little Spanish movie well and truly gave me the creeps. The premise is simplicity itself – a TV crew are filming a documentary following the local fire brigade as they go about their usual night shift when a call comes in which will bring them to an apartment building where all hell is going to break loose. It’s a found footage/faux documentary affair but unlike so many other low budget zombie shockers that use the same schtick, [REC] uses the shaky cam to impressive effect. It’s suspenseful and intense, often brutal but building up to a climax reeking in dread. And indeed it’s the last act which features some truly nightmarish images that ensured I stayed up very late reading that night until the shivers subsided.
Probably the best zombie flick in recent years and the sequel, produced by the same team, upholds the high standards set by the first for a change. [REC 2] picks up right from where the first film ends, making ideal for a double feature. Fair warning though, the sequel introduces some plot twists that may not sit well with everyone. However on the flipside, the direction this second film takes may make it a more frightening experience than the first for some of you...
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Although it’s become somewhat fashionable in some quarters to look back and sneer at this one and mutter about hype over content, I still highly rate this little picture. And though some decry the movie for not showing you anything, personally I feel this was the right decision, as the story build ups the mythology surrounding the strange phenomena in the woods to such a degree that any shots of the eponymous witch would have been redundant, if not an outright let-down.
It’s a film that generates a remarkable atmosphere but to get the full effect, I think you really need to watch the short promo film Curse of the Blair Witch first. This faux TV special fleshes out the folklore and history of the movie and actually adds to the film’s fear factor. Indeed having watched this semi prequel before giving the movie a second watch when it appeared on DVD, I discovered that in one scene you’re actually seeing a lot more than you realise, which gave me a terrific jolt of fear that I didn’t get on the initial viewing in the theatre.
Although many of the iconic scenes have been parodied to death, I do think the film still holds up, and indeed now all the hype and the send-ups are fading from public memory, I suspect its critical star will rise once more and The Blair Witch Project will be delivering terror for a good while yet.
But not only does it grasp the nettle many found footage films avoid - i.e. why the hell are you still filming instead of legging it - all the dread and scares aside, the movie is actually an interesting essay on the process of film making itself.
Finally if you really want to scare some one with this movie, lash up one of those cross-meets-stickman arrangements of twigs seen in the film and leave it outside their door or on their bed! However I strongly advise not venturing into the local woods after dark in order to gather materials for this practical joke. I did and realised to the cost of my sanity how much the movie had really got to me... And the ear splitting shriek that ripped through the silence when my flatmate ventured out for a trip to loo in the wee small hours nearly scared me to death.
Dead of Night (1977)
Not the classic Ealing film that launched a thousand portmanteau pictures, nor the late Bob Clark’s 1974 Vietnam themed chiller of the same name. No, the Dead of Night to which I refer is a TV movie created by small screen genre favourite Dan Curtis. As well bringing the world the gothic soap Dark Shadows and the horror investigator Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Curtis also produced several anthology films, the first of which Trilogy of Terror (1975) is fondly remembered by horror buffs. However less well known is his second outing into the realm of portmanteau horror Dead of Night.
Like Trilogy of Terror, this little film consists of three tales all penned by genre maestro Richard Matheson. The first story ‘Second Chance’ is a quaint ghostly tale of a haunted car, which I’m willing to bet Robert Zemeckis has seen as it appears to share some common narrative DNA with Back To The Future. It’s reminiscent of the gentler Twilight Zone episodes, very pleasant but nothing too terrifying here.
The second story, ‘No Such Thing As A Vampire’ is your more usual twist in the tail affair. More solidly in horror territory than the whimsical opener, and featuring an entertaining performance from Patrick Macnee, this is a fun little tale. However the highlight of Dead of Night and the story that spooked me good and proper is the final offering ‘Bobby’.
This final tale really goes for the jugular. The premise may well just another spin on the old classic The Monkey’s Paw with a young mother turning to the black arts in order to bring back her dead child. However unlike WW Jacobs’ tale, the return of the deceased son is just the beginning. I can’t really say anymore but ‘Bobby’ plays out with heightening tension and suspense, and the final twist is a killer and what kept me from sleep the night I watched it!
The Haunting (1963)
Veteran director Robert Wise had a long and distinguished career, crafting cinema classics as diverse as The Day The Earth Stood Still and The Sound of Music. However a year before Wise unleashed the problem that was Maria on the world, he helmed this impressive screen version of the Shirley Jackson novel The Haunting of Hill House.
The Haunting is one of the greatest haunted house movies, with Nelson Giddings turning out a very faithful adaptation of Jackson’s classic book. Throw in a strong cast, truly gorgeous cinematography and inspired sound design and you have a very frightening film with a solid dramatic core. Rather than the usual transparent dead people walking through walls, you never actually see a ghost in the The Haunting but you will feel their presence. Instead of wheeling out folks in shrouds, Wise makes Hill House a character in itself and leaves us in no doubt that this benighted dwelling is a very bad place indeed, not just deleterious for the nerves but your sanity and soul too.
Although it’s fair to say that the film is somewhat dated now, and for some viewers it may seem overly melodramatic in places and too talky for it’s own good. And another potential problem is that this movie has been so influential, indeed it has become something of a template for a whole slew of haunted house pictures, that many of the ghoulish tricks Wise springs on the audience, you will have seen done many times before. But if you can embrace the period stylings, The Haunting can still deliver the chills.
The Innocents (1961)
Often found fighting it out for best ghost story ever filmed is Jack Clayton’s The Innocents. Adapted from the Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw, it tells the tale of a governess, Miss Giddens, tasked with the care and education of two children in a crumbling manor house. However the children are being stalked by the revenants of two former staff.
With a screenplay by William Archibald and Truman Capote, with stunning cinematography from the legendary Freddie Francis, and featuring a stellar performance from Deborah Kerr, The Innocents is truly a quality production. And for my money it does top The Haunting.
Certainly for those of you who like to see their horrors, Clayton does not hold back from showing us the restless dead – we have several long shot of the malevolent revenants as well as the usual fleeting glimpses. But even more impressive is that some of these manifestations occur during bright daylight, and are actually all the more eerie for it.
But the clincher for me, apart from delivering some very haunting spectral imagery that stayed in my mind’s eye far longer than was welcome, is the masterful way we are never sure whether the ghosts are actually real or just the product of Miss Giddens’ mind. However Jack Clayton has masterfully weighted the film so that one can read it both ways, and whichever interpretation you favour, it is equally chilling. Rather than the possible explanation for the hauntings diminishing the terror, if you take the psychological route you have a frightening journey into creeping insanity that is just as unsettling as taking the ghost story route.
The Woman In Black (1989)
In 1983, Susan Hill penned The Woman in Black, a novel inspired by the great English ghost stories of yesteryear. A few years later, her tale of a malevolent spectre was adapted for the stage, initially opening in Scarborough before moving to the West End where it still runs to this day.
Given the play’s meteoric rise from a provincial opening to the prestigious heart of English theatre and numerous tours of the country to boot, it’s perhaps no surprise that a film version was to follow. Produced for ITV, this television movie was quality through and through. Not only did it air on Christmas Eve, a traditional time for ghostly tales, but the screenplay was written by the great Nigel Kneale, creator of the Quatermass quartet and a host of other genre favourites.
Beautifully shot in wintery colours by Herbert Wise, like its parent novel The Woman In Black is very much a modern day return to the classic ghost story, and with it’s period setting, East coast location and malevolent revenant there’s a definite echo of the works of M.R. James. And much like the work of the good doctor, The Woman In Black is gently paced, almost quaint but with the gloves coming off to deliver scenes of spectral terror. In Kneale’s capable hands, the story gradually builds up to delivering one of the great fright scenes of all time, one that will come back to haunt you once you turn out the light.
The Others (2001)
Now while I really enjoy a good period ghost story, it seems the general public do not share my tastes; for while The Sixth Sense cleaned up at the box office, a couple of years later a far superior tale of spooks and spectres failed to set the world alight in the same way. The Others is a quintessentially English tale of a haunting. Set in a fog bound Jersey just after the close of the Second World War, The Others tells the tale of Grace (Nicole Kidman) and her two children who gradually come to realise that they are sharing their home with some unquiet spirits.
Featuring some excellent performances all round, and beautifully shot and staged by Spanish director, Alejandro Amenábar, The Others is a quintessential English ghost story, and not only a fine addition to the canon of spectral fiction but a true modern classic. Like The Haunting and The Innocents there is a solid drama underpinning the ghostly action, but that’s not to sell the haunting depicted short, for Amenábar crafts some absolutely terrifying scenes. And we aren’t talking easy jump scares either; he carefully builds up the atmosphere and tension, and with some very elegant cinematography and evocative sound design really brings home the terror you would experience if you were to begin to suspect that invisible incorporeal beings have invaded your home.
Right then, this is the big one – the film that scared me most! This little made-for-TV feature is the stuff of legend. Now you’ve probably heard about the War of the Worlds radio adaption by Orson Welles which had many listeners at the time believing it was true and inspired outbreaks of panic. Now although scholars and historians have debated how much of the panics reported in the press actually occurred, a young writer called Stephen Volk, remembered Welles’ Martian wheeze and set about creating his own piece of hoax fiction.
Now around this time, the venerable BBC had been producing a series of live programmes with the ‘watch’ tag, the most popular being Foxwatch in which viewers were treated to an intimate portrait of vulpine life thanks to then the still new and shiny technologies of night vision cameras and live feeds. So then for Hallowe’en night ’92, Volk cooked up Ghostwatch, a faux ‘live’ broadcast from an allegedly real haunted house. The studio side was anchored by legendary chat show host Michael Parkinson, and with then prominent presenter Mike Smith manning the calls. Out in the field, at the troubled Foxhill Drive residence, was Smith’s wife and famous TV host Sarah Greene, veteran of Blue Peter and numerous other shows, and Craig Charles, best known for playing Lister in Red Dwarf.
Now although the programme began with the ident for Screen One, the BBC’s TV film strand at the time and there were full credits available in the Radio Times that revealed this production was a film and not a proper programme, many viewers it seemed were unaware that the events on screen weren’t real. And as the story unfolded, BBC phone lines went ballistic and Ghostwatch garnered a flood of complaints, and to this day holds the record for the most complained about programme ever screened on UK television. Thousands rang in or wrote angry letters and not because the show was bad, but simply because it had terrified the living daylights out of them. Part of the anger was undoubtedly due to the fact that viewers blamed the BBC for not making it clearer that the show was fiction, but largely it seemed many felt that old Auntie Beeb had gone too far in screening a programme that scared them out of their wits and in an early evening slot too.
The BBC were somewhat shocked by the response and Ghostwatch was never repeated. And it’s a measure of the unease the reaction to the show generated among the mandarins at Broadcasting House that they wouldn’t even release it on video. Eventually the show did surface on DVD a couple of years ago, but tellingly it was not released by BBC Enterprises but put out by the BFI.
Now sadly I missed the original broadcast, with Hallowe’en that year falling on a Saturday night and being a young man whose liver hadn’t yet filed for divorce, I was down the pub. Now back then the track record for TV producing anything remotely scary or horrific was very poor instead – although the ‘70s had seen a slew of frightening shows, in the ‘80s TV had become very sanitised and safe. So then when the furore blew up in the following days, I deeply regretted missing what sounded like a genuinely terrifying piece of TV.
And it wasn’t until many years later that I finally got a chance to see it, courtesy of the BFI release. Being a fine midsummer evening, I had to wait until quite late before wrapping the case and slipping the disc in the player – after all you couldn’t watch Ghostwatch in daylight could you now? But on the upside, my housemates were away for the weekend so I had the place to myself and guaranteed no chatter or interruptions...
Obviously I knew going in that this was a fake broadcast, and that there had been much debate over the years as to how many times the ghost actually appeared - Ghostwatch you see, had been very cunning with its haunting, having the restless spirit of Foxhill Drive, the wonderfully named Mr Pipes appearing in the background of scenes and in reflections and the like. So when the last glow of sunset had been swallowed by inky black, I sharpened my eyes and hit play...
Now my initial impressions were that this was a very well done mockumentary, the famous faces from the gogglebox were all putting in great performances and I began to understand how if you missed the ident at the beginning you could easily believe that this was a real live broadcast. And for any viewers from outside these shores watching it these days, I can confirm that this was indeed exactly how such shows were done back in the early ‘90s on UK TV.
But as the show progresses, slowly unwrapping layer after layer of the history of the haunting and weird events in the house being to accumulate, my admiration was gradually replaced with a growing sense of dread. Volk and director Leslie Mann had captured the authentic chill you get from hearing real life accounts of hauntings, and their fiendishly clever approach to Pipes’ manifestations were really getting to me.
Now at this point, I should point out that we had only recently moved into this house, an old Victorian terrace, and at that time I wasn’t familiar with the quirks of this old pile. And being a venerable property it had quite a repertoire; the water system was somewhat eccentric and prone to making odd noises every now and then, there was a free standing wooden staircase that creaked in the night when the timbers cooled, and odd muffled bangs and crashes would emanate as bits of old mortar came loose and fell down in the wall cavities. And oh boy, the old place was in fine voice that night which only added to the creeping fear that was sweeping over me.
By just over the halfway mark, I don’t mind admitting I was bloody petrified. And hearing strange sounds coming from upstairs wasn’t helping either. However about over an hour in, when the haunting in the house is really coming to the boil and all hell is breaking loose, I did something I’ve never done before and the reason why Ghostwatch is my Number One Frightening Film – I had to turn the bastard off!
Now what precipitated this momentous event was that when the supernatural events at Foxhill Drive really kick off, you start to hear the sound of cats crying. Just after the yowling began, one of the neighbour moggies decided to hop up to the window sill a few feet from my sofa and join it. The sudden additional caterwauling coupled the noise of something at the window needless to say nearly had me on the ceiling. However then catching a glimpse of weird human-shaped shadow flitting across the room seconds later sent me over the edge. The remote was scrambled for, the DVD turned off and every goddamn light in the house was turned on, and would remain on until morning!
Of course eventually the disc went back on and I watched the remaining twenty or so minutes. But man, was that a long night, jumping at every subsequent creak and crack! Yes, Ghostwatch got me good and proper and I can only imagine what it would have been like if you were watching this back in 1992 and thought it was real… And I totally understand why the BBC switchboard went into meltdown with viewers ringing in to echo that famous line from An American Werewolf in London - “you really scared me you shithead!”.
And I imagine I am not only the viewer who was catching glimpses of strange shapes afterwards. The genius of Ghostwatch is it’s unique approach to showing us its ghost; once you catch on to the fact that you need to be watching very closely – something the film sets up for the viewer early on with a review of some camera footage from the house – you actually end up essentially programming yourself to see things, which is why until the advent of the DVD release fans of the show were so uncertain as to how many times Pipes actually appears. And Volk did want to go further, he had wanted to include a tone at key points of the broadcast, which although would be undetectable by human ears, would have sent pets crazy.
All in all Ghostwatch is an excellent movie, and thoroughly deserving of its fearsome reputation. But not only was it a wonderfully realised ghost story, with the terror mounting as the many layers of the story are revealed, it was also a very prescient piece of television. As Mr Volk explains in this article on its origins, Ghostwatch is also a commentary on the nature of TV reportage; it’s a highly insightful piece that remarkably largely predates the rise of reality television.
Although the BFI DVD is now out of print, as well as taking a flight to the past courtesy of Bit Torrent Airways, you can watch Ghostwatch online here. There's also a retrospective documentary being made, slated for release in 2012 to mark the twentieth anniversary of this uniquely terrifying piece of television history. So if you’re looking for a good scare this Hallowe’en night, dim the lights and give Ghostwatch a spin. Happy hauntings!
Coming in the next IN SEARCH OF SLEEPLESS NIGHTS – The Importance of Being Eldritch...
JIM MOON, 21st October 2010