Here are the exceptions.
The Body Snatcher
This Val Lewton-produced gem is one of the darkest movies I’ve seen. The movie is at once disturbing because there seems to be no solidly delineated good or bad. Everyone in the film moves about in a kind of gray area between light and dark. The villain of the piece, Gray the Cabman, is capable of great cruelty, and yet is somehow sympathetic in his loneliness and thirst for companionship and (perhaps) some kind of revenge for a past wrong. The apparent hero, Dr. Toddy MacFarlane, a surgeon, is not so good as we are first led to expect. And even his assistant, who provides a romantic interest for the audience, can be led astray by duty. For its visual accomplishments, and for Karloff’s performance as Gray, this movie deserves a place on my all-time favorites list.
Night of the Living Dead
George A. Romero’s landmark horror film is easily one of the most emotionally wrenching stories I’ve ever watched. Cheaply made, starring no one who made a name as an actor, the movie presents a claustrophobic and paranoid atmosphere that has been pretty much unmatched in all the years since I’ve seen it. And this is the seed of his zombie mythos, the beginning of an entire genre of film that scratches at the itch of paranoia in every person. His zombies are frightening in their sheer plainness, and implacable in their thirst for the destruction of the living.
Dawn of the Dead
Romero returned some years later with this fantastic sequel that doubles as a superlative commentary on the consumer society of the USA. This time, the heroes are not confined to a fragile house, but are able to roam in a kind of wonderland of commercial delight inside of a shopping mall walled off from the zombie hoards who wait outside. Finally, in this movie, we see the zombies not as someone coming to get us, but as ourselves willing to destroy those who are different. This film rivals its predecessor in its effects of generating a sense of horror and dread.
If there is a more atmospheric horror movie, I have yet to see it. The Haunting is a series of visual and auditory illusions whose whole effect is to completely unsettle the viewer. One identifies immediately with the most vulnerable of the characters, and the witnessing of the downward spiral, mentally and physically, of this person is one of the most disturbing experiences in all of modern cinema.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
The greatest horror novels and films prey upon human paranoia. Finney’s novel that spawned these films is a classic, rivaled in the category of paranoid fantasies only by Matheson’s I AM LEGEND. Both of these versions of Invasion are superlative films, and while generally I disdain remakes of classic and perfectly fine movies, in this case the remake was worth the doing. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is both effective science fiction and evocative horror. The fifties version relied on the Red Scare, perhaps subtly or maybe on the surface—but who’s to know. The paranoia of being ratted out for being different (leftist) could also be the germ that created the fear in some viewers of that era.
The later version has a cast at least equal to that in the 50s film, and a script that goes the original one better in having the courage to end with a far more horrifying and downbeat ending. The small changes in the storyline were startling and make the film different enough so that what was familiar is made strange enough so that the experience is new.
The Woman in Black
This is, to my way of thinking, the most frightening ghost story ever put to film. Based on the very popular novel of the same name, and the stage play, The Woman in Black is a ghost story with a grain of logic behind it. This is the key to creating a good ghost story—if one is to accept the perfectly ridiculous idea of a ghost, then one must be presented with a kind of twisted logic to make it all seem believable (on some level). This movie does that, and brilliantly. The ghost in the film (the Woman in Black) appears tenuously, at first, her presence building and building as the protagonist of the film slowly realizes just what he is dealing with. The movie has the single scariest ghost encounter I have ever witnessed, and every time I see it (even in daylight), I never fail to be literally scared and to feel the gooseflesh creeping up my spine.
Alien is probably the scariest pure science fiction film I’ve seen. The movie relies not on a single fear to generate dread, but on many different fears. There is the fear of the unknown, the fear of one’s own body, the fear of betrayal, the fear of violence, fear of the dark, claustrophobia, and on and on. Ridley Scott has succeeded in crafting not only one of the finest horror films ever made, but also one of the best science fiction films ever. This one works on so many levels that it’s hard to understand how it works so well. Add to all of this the most disturbing film monster of all time, and it’s a recipe for total horror.