Yes, There Are Many Intelligent Horror Movies
Those who aren’t fans of horror would argue that there’s no such thing as an intelligent horror movie. They’re just about blood, gore, and screaming teenagers. But those who are fans know that horror comes in all forms–even smart ones. According to Will Bakke of RiotStudios.com, there are five types of horror films: Spooky Scary, Slasher Scary, Suspenseful Scary, Comical Scary, and Spiritual Scary. Intelligent horror movies can fall under each of these categories.
1: Psycho (1960)
‘A boy’s best friend is his mother.’ – Norman Bates, Psycho
Psycho is the grand dame of horror and suspense. It took the genre to a level no one had seen before. Many 1950s scary movies relied on invasions by the unknown–monsters and aliens. Psycho made the everyday dangerous. Showers were no longer safe. Checking into a motel wasn’t safe. And the seeming boy-next-door was no longer safe. It was a slasher movie that only alluded to the slashing. From the audience’s viewpoint, the knife never touches Marion’s body. All we see is movement and then blood going down the drain. It’s still one of the most frightening scenes in film.
2: The Exorcist (1973)
It’s the movie that made a huge impact on the psyches of many. For those who watched it when it was first released in theaters or when they were kids, it’s the film that has stuck with them. “No film has even come close to scaring me as much as The Exorcist,” said Reid Robinson, Rock Island, Ill. “It’s an exceptionally well-crafted movie that hit me at just the right (wrong?) time. I saw it when I was 12, the same age as the Regan MacNeil character. My parents forbid me to watch it, so I snuck downstairs in the middle of the night to see what all the fuss was about. Pitch black, by myself, about a foot away from the TV so I could keep the sound way down and not wake up my parents. Scarred. For. Life.”
3: Poltergeist (1982)
‘They’re heeeeeeeere.’ – Carol Anne, Poltergeist
From my own personal experience, Poltergeist is the one that kept me and my imagination awake at night. Having watched it multiple times on HBO, I can practically recite the whole thing. What I related to was how “cool” it would be to have your very own ghost haunting your house. I’d be the mom who let the ghosties slide my child across the kitchen floor over and over. Since I would be so busy marveling at the friendly haunted fun, I would be completely shocked when everything went to hell. As an adult, I understand how the movie hits you where it hurts most–attacking the children, kidnapping the youngest, dividing the family, and keeping a mother from her child. Throw in a sinister clown doll and dead bodies floating up in the pool, and you’ve got a blood-free horror movie that will haunt you forever.
4: The Shining (1980)
‘I’m not going to hurt you, I just want to smash your brains in.’ – Jack, The Shining
No horror list is complete without at least one Stephen King movie. Because of its lasting influence, The Shining is on this list. As a true, longtime King fan, I’m not super impressed with Stanley Kubrick’s take on the story. Even King didn’t like the movie. According to Laura Miller of Salon.com, “King has always thought Jack Nicholson seems ‘too crazy’ at the very beginning of Kubrick’s The Shining. Everything that makes Nicholson’s performance iconic–his grinning, campy, manic nastiness–undermines King’s point, which is that Jack Torrance could be you.” I completely agree. That being said, I cannot argue that the movie is very creepy. It’s the atmosphere of the film that makes your skin crawl. Specifically, it’s the hotel. Arguably, the Overlook Hotel is the main character in the film. Even with its flaws, The Shining is a damn scary movie.
5: The Conjuring (2013)
Variety’s Justin Chang called it “a sensationally entertaining old-school freakout and one of the smartest, most viscerally effective thrillers in recent memory.” It stars the fantastic Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as real-life paranormal investigators Lorraine and Ed Warren. Directed by James Wan, The Conjuring “is one of the first horror movies rated R, not for blood, guts, gore, language, or sexy sex–but for sheer scare factor.” The story takes place in 1970, and it has that early ’70s feel. But it also has atmosphere and real tension. It’s smart because it pulls you in but allows your imagination go into overdrive.
6: Cabin in the Woods (2012)
‘Cleanse them! … am I on speaker phone?’ – Mordecai, Cabin in the Woods
This movie is so meta. It’s a horror-comedy that knows it’s a horror-comedy, except it takes the concept and flips it on its head. On the surface, it’s a movie about five college friends spending a weekend at a cabin in the woods. Traditionally, this wouldn’t bode well for the group–and it doesn’t. But it’s the twist in the story that makes it brilliant. The stereotypical characters don’t start out that way. Rather, there’s manipulation all the way through. Only two of the main characters realize what’s going on, and by that time, the movie has become something else entirely.
7: Tucker and Dale vs Evil (2011)
The premise: a group of college students heads to the woods over break and soon crosses paths with psychotic, killer hillbillies. Except that the hillbillies are actually just two really nice guys who are taking a few days off to fix up a cabin and go fishing. The misunderstanding of the students leads them to basically start killing themselves off by accident. And they do it in the goriest of ways often seen in traditional horror movies. As Roger Ebert said, “one cliché after another is ticked off and upended.” This movie is wonderfully funny, gory, and clever.
8: It Follows (2015)
‘… all you can do is pass it on.’ – Hugh, It Follows
The idea that sexually-active people in horror movies are doomed isn’t a new one. Many of us can tell right away who’s going to die first as the movie unrolls–the couple that just had sex. But It Follows takes it a step further. Namely, when someone has sex with a guy and “contracts” not a disease but an evil entity. It’s the worse STD ever. Robert Kojder of FlickeringMyth.com said the movie “plays on fear of the unknown … has some creative twists on the horror genre … [and] also takes sex, a cliché of horror, and uses it to charge a narrative that is sometimes surprisingly smart and compelling.”
9: Let the Right One In (2008)
What do you get when you cross the story of a bullied boy and a vampire? A Swedish film called Let the Right One In. It’s fascinating and uncomfortable, which must be how young Oskar feels about his new friend, Eli. “It’s intelligent from a traditional perspective and has tremendous emotional intelligence at the same time,” says Matt Gibson, Portland, Ore. “I found it beautiful, moving, scary, and wholly original. I love it when fundamental human needs are dramatized through the prism of extreme genres like horror and sci-fi.”
10: Get Out (2017)
‘Now you’re in the sunken place.’ – Missy Armitage, Get Out
Jordan Peele’s Get Out was the break-out film of 2017. According to Rob Wile of Time.com, “…the low-budget comedy-horror film that explores racism in America has enjoyed a whopping 630% return on investment, more than any other movie released in 2017.” And that was back in August. Peele has said the film was meant “to combat the lie that America had become post-racial.” That’s a big part of the horror–there’s a disconnect between how we think America has evolved and if and how we really have. Plus, it’s a great creepy movie. Peele recently won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for the film.
What’s Your List?
This was a difficult list to narrow down. Since it was a top-10 list, I couldn’t include all the intelligent horror movies that came to mind. For instance, I wanted to include The Others, The Devil’s Backbone, Pet Sematary, The Babadook, A Tale of Two Sisters, and some others. But I had to go with my gut instincts and feedback from some friends.
What intelligent horror movies make your list? Do you agree with these? Disagree? Share your list in the comments below.
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