Ever since the dawn of film, Horror has played a part in its development. Acting as a mirror to our innermost fears, while challenging us to face the ghosts of our deepest anxieties and terrors. Whether fictional, religious or real, horror has played with the psychology of human fear, shining a light into the darkest corners of human existence. Subsequently making us jump, scream, reevaluate humanity and relive the childhood monsters under the bed. While giving us some of the best films of the past 100 years; the genre allowing directors to open up their imaginations on screen.
Horror has enabled the public sharing of emotional and psychological fear; the cinema acting as a safe place in facing our demons with others. In turn, embracing the collective and personal experience of theatre while bringing classic literature to life with sound and pictures.
Horror has taken us to places that exist only in our deepest imaginations, from the haunted house to the deepest reaches of space. Allowing us to explore the unknown corners of our human experience while reflecting the social landscape of the day. At the same time, as holding a mirror to the very social themes and anxieties that create public opinion and social policy.
So dim the lights, lock the doors, and join us as we explore a selection of essential horror films everyone should see.
Just don’t have too many nightmares.
Director: Terrance Fisher and others
Founded in 1934, Hammer Horror has become synonymous with melodramatic gothic tales. Taking classic Victorian horror, while adding its unique visual style, in bathing its stories in dramatic sets, vivid technicolour and the period charm. Therefore building a catalogue of movies that have become classics of horror and British cinema.
Hammers first colour horror movie came with 1957s The Curse of Frankenstein. Building on the Universal horror pictures of the 1930s while introducing the world to the horror double act of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Director Terrence Fisher, creating the very template for a decade of hammer horror films. His visual style embracing theatrical Victorian gothic horror while reflecting the cinematic landscape of the 1950s and 60s British film.
Fisher took classic literature and set it free on-screen, consequently allowing each character to travel beyond the literary roots of their creation. With 1958s Dracula and 1961s Curse of the Werewolf clear examples of Hammer allowing horror icons to break free of their chains. Therefore cementing their place in the world of modern horror for decades to come. While 1959s Hound of the Baskervilles built upon the stark imagery of the 1939 film, delightfully emphasising the gothic horror of the Devon moors.
Later Hammer decided to embrace a new aesthetic with The Devil Rides Out 1968. Simultaneously replacing the gothic horror audiences had become accustomed too with occultism in sleepy rural England. The fantastic Charles Gray and Christopher Lee set free in character development, with a screenplay of darkly delicious dialogue and action. As a result, cementing a whole host of new Hammer films leading into the 1970s.
With a back catalogue full of riches, the power and creativity of ‘Hammer’ have stood the test of time. And while it movies are tame by modern horror standards, they remain some of the best Halloween night pictures out there.
The Omen (1976)
Director: Richard Donner
Two years before he brought us Superman the Movie. Richard Donner’s The Omen placed the biblically inspired story of the antichrist’s return into the hands of a child. The child’s unsuspecting adoptive parents slowly realising the demon held within.
The Omen created its own mythology, primarily due to an intelligent screenplay that dovetailed classic fiction with religion. Creating a unique version of the antichrist’s return to earth. That has cemented itself into broader public belief ever since its release in 1976.
But beyond its religious themes, Donner takes the 1970s cinematic fascination with the occult and removes the horns and demonic iconography; subverting the innocence of a child on-screen. Meanwhile, hiding the demon from the unsuspecting audience. Simultaneously playing with the fears of every parent in discovering their child is not what they thought them to be. The final scenes bathed in the terror of an impossible choice. The life of your child versus the welfare and lives of others; a decision no parent would ever want to make.
As a result, The Omen cleverly implants its ideas into the imaginations of us all; its themes and concepts only strengthened by the terrible accidents that swept through the production; cementing its place in modern cinematic folklore.
The Orphanage (El Orfanato) 2007
Director: J A Bayona
Borrowing from the visual style and delivery of Guillermo Del Toro’s ‘The Devils Backbone‘. Bayona’s 2007 film places story before scares in a visually stunning ghostly tale that sublimely builds tension through place and performance. Therefore, delivering a film that delicately plays with the emotional horror of grief and loss. More importantly, weaving a supernatural story with far more human emotions; the enigma of death and the guilt of life wrapped in a haunting dream.
Director: Bernard Rose
Born in the imagination of the formidable Clive Barker in a collection of short stories The Books Of Blood (1984-1985). Barker’s original story took place on a Liverpool housing estate, as its residents investigated the urban legend of a local serial killer. However in translation to film, British director Bernard Rose (Paper House) transferred the action to the urban decay of 90s Chicago. As a result creating a nuanced horror that speaks to social themes of poverty, crime and race in 1990s America.
University researchers Helen Lyle (Madsen) and Bernadette Walsh (Lemmons) are investigating local urban legends, with a particular interest in the Candyman legend of the Cabrini Green housing project. A rough, crime-ridden estate of abject poverty, populated by black families. The legend of revolving around the son of a slave viciously murdered following a relationship with a white woman. His hand cut off, and his body smeared in honey, before being thrown naked into an apiary. The community of Cabrini Green still living in fear of legend, alongside the abject poverty of the racial segregation still alive and well.
Candyman’s horror comes from mixing urban legend with the uncomfortable realities of a racially divided America still living in the shadow of slavery. Its white middle-class university researcher getting far more than she bargains for as she crosses the divide of wealth and race in 1990s America. Once seen never forgotten, Candyman is a truly unique horror film that stays with you forever.
Black Christmas (1974)
Director: Bob Clark
Santa Claus stalking houses for a night has become strangely normal in our view of Christmas traditions. However, a serial killer stalking a group of students with not one present is simply not acceptable.
Black Christmas has become a cult horror classic, by subverting the joys of Christmas with a terrifying slasher film. Offering the world a taste of what was to come with Halloween and Friday 13th a few years later. By cleverly keeping its killer in the shadows; their motive unclear. Meanwhile, also providing the template for ‘Scream’ in 1996.
Director Steven Spielberg
When Spielberg embarked on the translation of Peter Benchley’s popular novel to the silver screen, he must have been under the influence of a noxious substance. After all, how do you take a book about a great white shark gobbling people up, and transfer it to celluloid at a time when visual effects were not only physical but restricted in scope? Spielberg’s answer to this dilemma was to focus on the tension and fear above the water. The hidden depths stalked by a serial killer with a taste for human flesh. In turn, taking inspiration from Hitchcock in ramping up both tension and fear to excruciating levels, while lacing it with brief moments of devastating horror. The result of which is one of the most taught, engaging and downright scary films of the 1970s.
Jaws not only petrified cinema-goers in their droves, but also heralded the start of the summer blockbuster. Its template, design, sound, advertising and cinematography breaking new ground in cinema. While at the same time raising Spielberg to the ranks of a directorial superstar. Forty years on, Jaws still carries an incredible impact, and while it may have damaged the view of sharks in the public imagination, its glorious fear-inducing rollercoaster ride has never been equalled in scale, terror or scope.