Watching a horror film should always evoke some kind of intensity. It's horror's calling card. It's meant to make you stop and think. Some films do this in leaps and bounds, far more than others. These six films I've highlighted made me stop like a deer in headlights. They are profoundly affecting. As well as brilliantly effective. See if you agree....
THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999)
The first time I saw The Blair Witch Project was in the comfort of my own home. I never saw it on the big screen as I'm not much for "hype" movies, and couldn't imagine it being everything it was made out to be. And it really isn't. It's just three people wandering through the woods for 90 minutes. HOWEVER. There are moments of this film that made my skin crawl. My husband and I own a cabin in the woods, and all I could think was how similar it looked. I've never been able to look out into the woods behind the cabin and think of anything but Blair Witch or Evil Dead. Being lost in the woods is bad enough, but the real kicker here is the film's final moments. It scared the hell out of me - and my husband too. Too many people dismiss this movie, saying they "didn't get" the ending. Well those people obviously didn't pay attention earlier when the townsfolk were discussing how child killer Rustin Parr would take two children into the basement and would take make one face the corner and listen while he murdered the other child. The final moment is Heather coming into the basement and finding Mike standing in the corner. And then she screams and drops her camera. Powerfully effective. I am not easily freaked out, but it took everything I had to go down to the basement after the film was over to put my dog outside. I thought about that film for weeks afterward.
LAKE MUNGO (2008)
Lake Mungo is one of those movies that you sit and think about for long after it's over. Like The Blair Witch Project before it, the found footage style in which the film is presented makes you feel like you are watching a true story. Especially in this film's case because it is a mockumentary. You could be watching a forensic show about a young girl being missing and it would be no more effective than this tale of fifteen year old Alice going missing at an outing with her family. Presumed drowned, Alice is mourned by her loved ones and soon the film morphs into supernatural territory when the family begins to experience strange happenings at their home.
Interviews with Alice's family, friends, and a local psychic all help to string together the events of her apparent death, though an explanation is never fully given. You don't need gore, you don't need jump scares, and you don't need a rational explanation to create an effective and unsettling horror film. Just ask anyone associated with Lake Mungo, they'll show you how it's done. The subtlety that surrounds nearly every frame of Lake Mungo is an unnerving freight train barreling down the tracks. It's a quiet film, in fact so quiet that it's deeply disturbing. I found myself reliving a few key scenes every time I closed my eyes. To me, that's a sign of excellence in horror. Nearly everyone who has seen this film would agree with that.
I'm not exactly sure what bothered me so much about Sinister. I mean, it's an effective horror film on its own merit, and the acting is above average with Ethan Hawk's presence, but it's nothing earth-shattering, plot-wise. Perhaps it's because I first saw the movie alone in an empty theater, I don't know. Maybe it's the thought of living in a house where something terrible happened. Which is what Hawke's character does, in bringing his family to live in a house where a family was hanged to death in the tree in their backyard. Ellison (Hawke) doesn't tell his family about the murders, just brings them there to live while he writes a book about the crime. He finds a box of 8mm films - each with titles like "Pool Party" and "BBQ" - obviously left by the former owners. In watching them, however, they depict horrific murders instead of family gatherings. What's worse is that Ellison, in studying the films, discovers a ghoul-like demonic face seemingly watching each murder scene. What he discovers in delving into the mystery is totally unsettling, even more than the creepy murders themselves. After seeing this movie I couldn't wait to get out of the theater and into the daylight. Which, in turn, didn't make me feel one bit better. Go figure.
APT PUPIL (1998)
Nazi's scare the ever-loving shit out of me. I've always been morbidly fascinated with the horrific events of the Holocaust and wondered how in the hell the entire world let that kind of atrocity go down. In any event, Hitler and his henchmen were pure and simply evil. And who knows evil better than Stephen King? Based on one of his short stories, Apt Pupil takes a teen (Brad Renfro) who develops an unhealthy obsession with the Holocaust and places him in the same town as a man who may or may not be a Nazi war criminal (played to perfection by Ian McKellen). Todd Bowden (Renfro) discovers his elderly neighbor Arthur Denker (McKellen) is almost certainly Kurt Dussander, a high-ranking SS soldier hiding out in sunny California. Todd ends up blackmailing Denker, trading his freedom for tales of mayhem from the death camps during WWII. The two develop an uneasy friendship, and the stories of ghastly concentration camp conditions and horrendous human tortures fill their days and nights. To make matters even more dreadful, Todd buys Arthur a duplicate of an SS uniform and forces him to wear it, which in turn helps Arthur reach deep into his memory, exposing the true horror of his previous life, which then begins to leech into his present. Deeply disturbing, Apt Pupil made a lasting impression on me, and remains one of the most chilling films I've seen to date.
WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (2012)
Horror comes in all different shapes and sizes. While this film would initially be thought of as a drama, there's no doubt in my mind that this film is an outright horror film. Tilda Swinton marvellously plays the dejected mother of a seemingly loveless and obviously disturbed child. Flashbacks tell the story that from the moment the child is born, he isn't happy and does everything he can to make his mother equally as miserable. He cries endlessly, won't play with toys, deliberately poops in his diaper, and gives his mother essentially no reason to love him. It's unclear if Swinton's character ever wanted children, yet for all her trying to be a good mother, it ends up being no contest to Kevin's inherent psychopathic tendencies. As a teen he is nothing less than frightening, pretending all is well when his father is around yet always on the verge of something... And that something is reprehensibly evil. Because we are privy to the mother character constantly flashing back to a scene where she is driving to a tragedy at a high school, it's not hard to imagine what has happened, but it's the getting there that just takes your nerves and twists them until your stomach flops. From the day he was born, this child has irrevocably changed her life forever, and yet in the last scene there is still a mother's love evident. Swinton was somehow passed over for an Academy Award for this role, but it's a tour-de-force of skill and perfection. I don't think any film has affected me quite like this one. Terrifying.
An intense, effective movie like Oldboy just sticks in your head like a bad song. The first time I saw it I was stunned by how twisted and deviant it was. If you've never seen it, you need to. The ending will blow you away. Choi Min-Sik, (I Saw The Devil), plays Oh Dae-su, a man who - after missing his daughter's birthday due to a drinking binge - wakes up in a hotel room, alone. He is then kept prisoner in this room for fifteen years. FIFTEEN YEARS. His captor is never seen and after said fifteen years, releases him on a roof top without any indication of why he imprisoned him in the first place. Herein lies the mystery of the film. As Oh Dae-su tries to put together the pieces and discover the truth, he is taunted by his captor. It is obvious that Oh Dae-su is meant to understand eventually. Along the way he falls in love with a young woman who helps him try to solve the puzzle and seek revenge. The thought of losing fifteen years of your life because someone had some kind of vendetta against you is pretty damn sobering. The lengths his captor goes to make Oh Dae-su's life miserable is unheard of. I've never seen anything like this film before or since. One of a kind and bloody brilliant.