I scare easily.
A well-timed jump moment, a quick cut to an image of a ghostly child, a glimpse of the killer before he makes his move on the all-too-vulnerable victim, even being sneaked up on in a haunted horror trail at Cedar Point–no matter how obvious the scare, I succumb. Granted, there is the rare exception to this rule. I don’t flinch over torture porn; not even the grisliest moments in the first Saw movie got much reaction out of me. I don’t really fear supernatural figures or traditional monster lore. For me, horror is based entirely in the element of surprise. That, and kids that aren’t all right. Give me a dark, dank Victorian mansion, vengeful spirits in childlike forms, and a dramatic soundtrack, and I’m up for all kinds of terror.
That’s probably why my list of favorite horror films is relatively short. (OK, not relatively. It’s just plain short.) I enjoy being scared, really, I do, but it has to be done a certain way for it to be what I’d call satisfyingly scary. Here are the ones that absolutely nailed it, and I’ll save the best for last.
Trick ‘R Treat
Trick ‘R Treat isn’t a great movie. At times, it isn’t really even a good one. But the production team and the actors seem perfectly aware of that, and they glory in the fact that this is shlocky, hacky horror at its finest. From Anna Paquin as the sexy Puritan to a mouth-breathing manchild in a pumpkinhead costume, this is trope after trope after trope, each as ably handled as the next. Naturally, my favorite storyline (of which there are many) involves a group of costumed children plunging to their death in a school bus driven by a man bribed to kill them for their hideous deformities. (He was bribed by their parents. Cute, right?) Naturally, those kids’ spirits are far from quieted, and so we get to see them in all their grotesque glory, coming back to the town where they died on Halloween night years later. I watched Trick ‘R Treat one night when I thought all I wanted was a fleeting distraction. What I got was a fast-paced, thoroughly enjoyable, and irresistibly re-watchable distraction–yes, still a distraction, but a worthy one nonetheless.
The Woman in Black
I saw The Woman in Black because of three key reasons: 1) it looked to be a traditional, largely bloodless haunted house movie; 2) scary children were involved; and 3) I can’t say no to Daniel Radcliffe in period clothing. It was exactly what it looked to be, plus Radcliffe stubbles up real nice as he encounters an angry spirit seeking revenge for the death of her son decades before. That means there’s lots of kids dying, lots of eerie music, and lots of lingering shots of Radcliffe as Arthur Kipps attempting to contact her or appease her in some way as he skulks around an appropriately terrifying mansion. More than half of this film consists of Kipps walking through the hallways of the Eel Marsh estate, sometimes with an axe, sometimes with those antiquated wind-up toys with spooky painted eyes that we’re all glad to have left behind at the turn of the 20th century, and sometimes, perhaps unwisely, on his own. The Woman in Black feels timeless in its frightening elements, revisiting the kind of twists and turns that make the horror genre great, if rarely.
And now, we get to the stuff my worst nightmares are made of.
To me, The Orphanage is nothing short of petrifying. I literally slept with the lights on after seeing this Spanish horror film, and I’d like to think my reasons were qualified. It tells the story of Laura (Belen Rueda), a woman with a husband and a child who decides to move into the decrepit mansion that once housed the orphanage where she grew up. Laura and her husband’s plan is to open up a different kind of orphanage, this one for disabled children, but their plans stop short when their son Simon disappears. That’s when Laura begins seeing and hearing things with more frequency, tracing the visages of suffering children back to a tragic accident that killed many of Laura’s childhood companions. I don’t want to ruin a single element here, because this is a movie that needs to be watched. It’s engaging, it’s creepy, and you’re really never sure what’s going to happen from scene to scene. But you know that with the deft hands of producer Gulliermo del Toro and director Juan Antonio Bayona at the helm, it’s going to look amazing the entire time.
(Also, half the scary stuff happens during the daylight hours, so not only did I sleep with the lights on, I was horrified of being alone at 2 in the afternoon for days after seeing The Orphanage.)
I can’t limit myself to three favorites in literally any other genre of film, but I think that’s a testament to the true power a horror story can have when it’s running on all cylinders. Though even these three films vary greatly in terms of quality and consistency, they all play on the viewer’s key vulnerabilities. They’re purely, entertainingly scary, and that’s just the way it should be.