Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Top 10 Horror Films

Probably my least favorite film genre is the horror genre. So many horror films lack decent acting, plot, or redemptive value. Many are borderline pornography with their explicit sex scenes or are simply an excuse to show as much gore as possible. As a follower of Jesus, the horror genre doesn't lend itself much to thinking about what is noble, beautiful, lovely, etc. Plus, I scare easily. It makes me feel embarrassed to flinch and cover my eyes in a public theater.

However, when the horror genre is done well, the films can be incredibly creative and redemptive. My good friend Gabe Renfro, a film student in Los Angeles, once told me that the horror film removes any moral ambiguity or relativism--there is definitive evil in horror films, much of it spiritual in nature. In our pluralistic world, it's hard to be morally relativistic where psychotic killers or demonic possession are involved. Horror is the dark side of redemption, revealing to us the consequences of sin and the spiritual "powers and principalities" that Paul warns about in Ephesians. It reminds us that there is an evil presence in the world we inhabit and that our fears are sometimes justifiable.

Thus, these are the best horror films I've ever seen. My criteria is both film quality and scare factor, i.e. if it's both well-crafted and genuinely frightening. Thus, proceed with caution if choosing to watch any of these films. (I haven't seen The Exorcist, or else it would probably be on here somewhere):

10. Se7en: David Fincher's first Brad Pitt film is about two detectives searching for a serial killer who dispatches his victims based on the seven deadly sins. Morgan Freeman also stars, and together the two must follow the disturbing trail laid out for them by the killer. This is less of a jumpy slasher flick and more of a creepy thriller filled with twists and turns. A well-deserved Oscar nomination for editing, the direction and atmosphere of the film make it stand head and shoulders above other similar serial killer films.

9. The Orphanage: A Spanish film about a mother and her son, this is a unique horror film that manages to be both frightening and heart-warming at the same time. When the mother opens an orphanage for handicapped children, her son begins to spend time with an invisible friend. Upon her son's mysterious disappearance, the mother must desparately try to understand the dark secrets of the orphanage. What this film has is a great story filled with memorable characters. These are people you actually care about, that you want to succeed. It made my top 20 films of 2008.

8. Jaws: It's hard to think of Jaws as a horror film since it doesn't fall into the neat categories of "supernatural evil" or "psychotic killer." In a way, the evil in the film is nature itself as a giant shark terrorizes a small beach community in New England. We fear what we don't understand, what we can't see, and what is more powerful than ourselves. A great white shark fits all those characteristics. Plus it has really big teeth.

7. Les Diaboliques: The wife and mistress of a disturbingly cruel school headmaster plot the perfect murder. When the body disappears, the paranoia mounts, leading up to one of the most tense-filled film endings I've ever seen. Seriously, I was on the edge of my seat for most of the film, not because it was intensely fast-paced, but because director Henri-Georges Clouzot creates a constantly increasing feeling of suspense. A classic French thriller.

6. Let the Right One In: Hauntingly beautiful in its wintery environment, this original vampire film is an touching romance at its center. Struggling with bullies and feelings of isolation, Oskar finds a friend in Eli, the strange new girl living in his apartment complex. Eliciting comparisons to Krzysztof Kieslowski, this meditative and hypnotizing film has some quiet moments of frightening intensity perfectly complementing the theme of mutual guardianship.

5. Psycho: Alfred Hitchcock's classic horror film begins as a simple story about a young woman stealing from her employer and going on the run. Things go horribly wrong when she enters the Bates' motel and takes a shower. I think the greatest part of the film lies in how simple it truly is, how unexpected things turned out for young Marion Crane, how Anthony Perkins creates an incredibly disturbing character, and how Hitchcock managed to communicate so much without showing the audience everything. You have to fill in the blanks in your own mind, and the imagination can be a much more terrifying place than simply revealing it all on-screen. People were scared to go in the shower after watching Psycho; that's a good horror film.

4. Alien: Dark, empty, and unknown, outer space can be a scary environment. A deep-space work crew is stopped by a distress signal, accidentally bringing a terrifying alien presence on board their ship. It's a great story with a lot of complex twists and interesting characters. The power of this film lies in the uber-creepy and claustrophobic atmosphere of the Nostromo space craft, with long dark hallways filled with blinking lights, impenetrable steam, and far too many places for a killer alien to hide. The scene with Dallas in the air ducts is one of the most tense scenes I've ever watched on film.

3. The Sixth Sense: A phenomenal script, subtle acting, and a twist ending make this complex film from M. Night Shyamalan a near masterpiece. Not only is there a constant atmosphere of dread due to the camerawork and direction of Shyamalan, but there is a heart-warming relationship--even mentorship--between the child psychologist and the boy with a secret. "I see dead people," will likely go down in film history as one of the most memorable movie lines.

2. The Silence of the Lambs: Arguably the only horror film to win Best Picture--unless you count Hitchcock's Rebecca from 1940--this crime thriller follows FBI cadet Clarice Starling as she builds an unlikely connection with the psychotic Hannibal Lector in order to stop a killer. Director Jonathan Demme creates some tense and frightening atmospheres in the film with the sets and camera work. Buffalo Bill's house is incredibly creepy, mostly because you only see hints of what he's got going on in there. The close-up shots of Lector's unblinking stare is unsettling, as if he is looking directly through you. This goes to show that when a horror film is artistically and tastefully made, it proves to be one of the best films of all time.

1. The Shining: When a writer takes his family to live in an isolated hotel, evil spiritual forces begin to take hold and drive the family to the brink of insanity. What makes this so scary and well-done is not only the art direction, editing, and cinematography--not to mention the incredible performance from Jack Nicholson--but the near-perfect analysis of evil and sin. Sin is both inner and outer, stemming from outside spiritual forces and inner selfish motives that drive people to evil and violent actions. Jack doesn't enter the hotel a spotless and pure man. He has inner demons that are driving him to isolation; the outer evil simply awakens those demons further until he's gone completely insane. Isolation from community perpetuates sin, removing accountability and the outside help that people need. We see this all the time when people harbor secrets, lead double-lives, or choose to embrace selfishness as a primary value for their lifestyle. The Shining simply shows us where sin ultimately leads us: death.

Honorable Mentions: Night of the Hunter, The Thing, Poltergeist, Night of the Living Dead, Nosferatu, The Others, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Birds, 28 Days Later

What's your opinion on horror films: mindless schlock or provoking entertainment?

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