Things that go Bump in the..light? Not all ‘horror’ films are explicit. Look out for these unexpectedly scarily gems..
THEY WILL SCARE THE SHIT INTO YOU!
ALL fear can be traced back, ultimately, to our most primal, physical struggles for survival in this life. Indeed, there is a theory that we sleep (and by extension, dream) as an evolutionary throwback to our days evading wolves in the wild. Hence the ‘wolf at the door’ as a symbol of horror from fairy-tales to Gothic epics. And hence our embrace of Halloween: a night where we take back and own the symbols that scare us (for fun /commercial gain/role-play and ANY excuse for a great party!).
Think Halloween and you will of course go to vampires, ware-wolves, axe murderers, witches and so on. But horror and indeed the supernatural elements with which we associate that genre are not always obvious. It is entirely possible for a non horror genre piece (romance, drama, whatever) to contain genuinely horrific moments, just as full on horror frequently exposes the domestic drama as more menacing than any scary clown or telekinetic teen (take a bow, Stephen King).
And so, here is a list of films you might not have considered in assembling your scary movie collection for the night of the witches. By no means exhaustive. But it might get you thinking. And if you have any choices of your own? We’d love to hear from you.
HERE BE SPOILERS. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!
Here we GO! BOO!
REVOLUTIONARY ROAD / ON CHESIL BEACH
I am NOT joking. These are genuinely horrific and frightening pieces. One dissects the dangers of a marriage amidst the repression of 1950s suburbia, piercing the American dream and leaving it immersed in a sodden darkness. The other shows the dread of intimacy; how it can backfire in a split second and thereby cost one a lifetime of lost love. Both are brutal, sparing no detail of human frailty or physical vulnerability.
You WILL be haunted and might not even sleep for a few nights afterwards. Fear is primal. It need not be of death or harm to life and limb or of glimpsing malevolent afterlives. ‘Hell is other people’ (Sartre). One can be frightened of losing self and soul, a tragic destruction of dreams through social /corporal interactions.
And these two movies capture that kind of trauma in their skilfully composed, beautifully acted and directed frames.
007, unlike Indiana Jones, does not, on the surface of things, dabble in the supernatural. His enemies are flesh and blood and when he kills, that’s it. Or so it seems.
In both the books and the movies, there is a hint of something more.
Solitaire reads Tarot cards in Live and Let Die (book and film). One could read her ‘gift’ for the cards as literal rather than staged or coincidental and it is fair to say that Bond is a character defined by his LUCK as much as wit or skill. The movie also ends with an appearance by Baron Samedi in a kind of jokey coda that could nonetheless be read as a literal vision of ‘death’: the man who cannot die? MOONRAKER also features a nasty sequence in which a girl is ripped apart by hounds, followed by a claustrophobic attack by the steel toothed assassin, Jaws (Richard Kiel) at the Rio Carnival. A View to a Kill has 007 take on two genetically engineered super-villains (Christopher Walken and Grace Jones as Zorin and May-Day).
Licence to Kill had a troubled production history; with the tax situation in the UK then ensuring the units moved abroad to Mexico for the majority of the shoot. Quite how John Glen as director managed is beyond me: but he turned in both his finest film and one of the more discussed, dissected and distinguished Bond thrillers. There is an aura of evil pervading the atmospherics, from the first shot of a villain (Robert Davi as Sanchez: excellent) whipping his mistress through to Timothy Dalton’s take on Bond itself: consumed, in every scene by a palpable thirst for vengeance. Bond has sunk into evil here, one could argue? Once again, this is not ‘horror’ but the darkness is ‘there’ both on and off-screen. Indeed, while filming the amazing Tanker chase: cast and crew were warned of local areas being haunted. Sure enough, if you take a still frame from the explosive finale to those scenes? A demonic hand can be seen in the flames like a curse upon the film itself. Spooky.
Of course Ernst Stavro Blofeld is Bond’s nemesis above all others. Notice the way his appearance changes without comment? Also: the Dracula like nature of his aims and methods in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service: a vampiric desire to tap into the status of aristocracy, via the bloodlines of Brides that will pollute world live-stocks. Is it THAT different to Bram Stoker’s ‘ Count’, aside from the explicit supernatural power as a key separation line?
Certainly, the Hammer horror films frequently treat Dracula more as recurring Bond villain to Van Helsing’s vampire hunting detective. Christopher Lee is of course the definitive Dracula and was a cousin to Ian Fleming. Lee would go onto play Scaramanga in The Man with The Golden Gun (I still think he should have just played Bond!).
The Daniel Craig 007 era sticks to the more ‘grounded’ vision. No invisible cars. Fine. And YET? Casino Royale has its fair share of foreshadowing (Vesper’s red dress; the Bodyworks skeleton exhibit laid out at a cards table etc). SKYFALL is a meditation on mortality of almost Gothic proportions, with Javier Bardem as Silva: an avatar for death, stalking M (Judi Dench). And then SPECTRE (itself a synonym for ghost rather than old school acronym for evil plan divisions) dwells a great deal on the possibility that once again, death as a thing, is stalking Bond. ‘The Dead are Alive‘ is the tagline at the movie’s start. The baddie, initially, is thought to be of Bond’s imagination? The prolonged ending feels like an extended dream sequence and the film begins with Bond dressed as..death. Possibly portending Bond 25.
Much is made of Batman being ‘grounded’ and ‘gritty’. And yet with those adjectives (overused, both) comes the synonymous ‘dark’. And so, in turn, the natural possibilities for forays into fantasy beyond the mere ‘crime-fighter’ genre limits. Batman is by his nature a Gothic creature of the night and his verisimilitude changes according to the iteration. Some directors and writers will of course lap up the ‘realism’ and eschew the more fantastical dimensions of the character’s extensive mythology. But even they have tended to allow for just that hint of horror, waiting in the wings..
The myth about the Adam West 60s tv series is that it is somehow entirely free of mystery and menace. Its tone is of course camp and upbeat for the most part. But there are real threats in certain episodes and the villains, though unlikely to bring even the most imaginative kid a sleepless night, certainly played to the idea of finding the sinister lying in the otherwise seemingly innocuous everyday item. Exploding cakes, killer hats, torture traps. It’s all ‘there’ but coated in primary colours; akin to Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (bright and fun but still has a child catcher) or Roald Dahl’s children’s stories (far darker than ANYTHING he wrote for the grown-ups).
Tim Burton of course DID make Batman ‘darker’, quite literally, in his 1989 and 1992 movie takes on the character. BATMAN ’89 is indeed a Gothic gangster movie of sorts but (aside from the demonic energy of a post Witches of Eastwick Jack Nicholson as Joker), it stayed fairly close to the 80s action movie tropes and avoided anything TOO rooted in horror or surrealism save occasional visual nods.
BATMAN RETURNS however is full on German expressionism; a pantomime of the Grotesque. A genuine satire on industrialism, twenty years ahead of its time in its motifs and a reflection of how good Daniel Waters could be as a writer. Above all? A full on horror movie; featuring a human Penguin and a lady resurrected by cats and granted a literal batch of nine lives. Batman himself (Michael Keaton) lives a vampiric / zombie like existence; sat in catatonic trance and awakened solely by the Bat signal: a beautiful tableau. All supported by Danny Elfman’s evocative score.
Much was made, ad nauseam, of Director Christopher Nolan rebooting Batman in 2005 and making things ‘dark and gritty’ and ‘rooted in reality’. And fair enough: yes he did accomplish that aim, with distinction. BATMAN BEGINS is a joy that stands the test of time. It has a clear beginning, middle and end; a graduation in its villainy from low to high life and the stakes increase in proportion towards a heroic and rousing crescendo, backed by a Hans Zimmer score.
And whilst there is no explicitly other-worldly motif? The bats are presented as a source of genuine phobia, with young Bruce Wayne sustaining a traumatic attack as a kid that sticks with him until he channels it to his war on crime. Note the hallucinogenic scene where Christian Bale is transformed into a demonic human Bat; and Liam Neeson’s character posing the question: ‘Is Ras Al Guhl not immortal? Are his methods supernatural?’.
THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) is to my mind, overrated. But it is accomplished and loved. The most ‘realistic’ of Nolan’s Batman films, it nonetheless refuses to explain where Heath Ledger’s Joker comes from. Multiple origin stories are offered throughout and one could ultimately see him as a personification of chaos and evil. In short: Satan in a clown mask.
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012) then revisits the idea of Liam Neeson being resurrected, not via ‘Lazurus Pit’ of the comics but in a dream sequence that is left, deliberately, open to interpretation as an actual apparition; a portend of Batman’s possible death in the closing scenes. And, whilst that beautiful ‘cafe in Florence’ ending arguably gives a happy ending to Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), one could equally see it as a projection by Alfred (Michael Caine).
THREE MEN AND A BABY
It’s one of those urban myths of cinema: is there a GHOST in this seemingly harmless comedy? NO. What happened was that in one scene, a film poster casts a shadow of sorts against a curtain /window. That gave the LOOK of an other-worldly visitor haunting the set and so began a thousand stories and theories, mostly among kids trying to scare each other. A perfectly rational explanation!
That’s enough for now. Don’t want you all getting too scared. HAPPY HALLOWEEN 😉