In case you’re curious, I do have standards. And here they are! These are some of my very favorite films, books and games in supernatural horror. In chronological order, no less.
This will be an ongoing project, and while it is intended to give some idea of where my reviews are coming from, it isn’t meant to be comprehensive. I’ll add new items as they occur to me or, with new material, as I experience them.
Don’t let the horrendous late-90s remake put you off: this is one of the best horror films ever made. It is completely seamless: the world it creates is airtight and believable, and the fear the filmmakers manage to evoke through the simplest of effects–primarily sound–is impressive, especially compared to more recent CGI-laden abominations. The scene where the female leads cower in bed while an unseen presence bangs on the door to their room is among the most powerful in horror cinema. (Read my review here. I also reviewed the novel here.)
Still one of the most disturbing films of all time, The Exorcist’s efficacy as horror lies in the incredible familiarity that pervades practically every seen: the busy urban setting; the ultra-modern home of the afflicted family, and the ultra-modern family itself (an independent, strong-willed woman raising her children alone, without religion); and, at least for some of us, the trappings of an organized religion that is as recognizable and mundane as it is irrelevant. Incredible performances by the entire cast cement this as not only one of the greatest films in the horror genre, but perhaps in any genre. (Read my review here. I also did a review of the novel.)
An early found-footage/mockumentary-style made-for-TV film that scared the hell out of a fair number of British folks and got itself banned as a result, Ghostwatch presents itself as a real, live television broadcast. While the illusion doesn’t hold up twenty-something years later, it remains a brilliant and spooky exercise in horror television. (Read my review here.)
These two really deserve separate treatment, as they are drastically different from one another. Regardless, Nakata Hideo’s Ringu and Gore Verbinski’s The Ring present a brilliantly reimagined ghost, combining contemporary anxieties about pervasive technology with some of the most frightening and memorable imagery the genre has ever seen. Much contemporary horror, both Asian and Western, draws on these films, and the unfortunate overexposure of the long-haired female ghost should not detract from their efficacy. (Read my double-feature review here.)
I can’t believe it’s been so long. Blair Witch is a polarizing film: I’ve met plenty of people who love it, and plenty who hate it, but not many who were lukewarm. I fall into the former camp. POV films are now so commonplace that much of their efficacy is gone, but when Blair Witch came out it was still a novel concept. I found the improvisational acting, the evidence-accumulation, and the inability to see everything that was going on greatly heightened the fear. (Read my review here.)
The scariest games you’ve probably never played. They suffer a bit from the old survival horror problems of clunky controls and awkward fixed camera angles, but this was a part of the strategy to scare players, and it worked. I’m a sucker for puzzling through supernatural mysteries, too, and FF is perfect for nerds like myself who like their ghosts with a healthy dose of library research. (Read my review of the series here.)
This Korean horror film–if you can call it horror–is simply beautiful. It’s really a tragic sort of filmic fairy tale, more Pan’s Labyrinth than Ringu (though it has a few of the now-familiar Asian horror tropes). Every frame of the film is perfect. The actors inhabit their characters in a way that’s rare in genre films. And the music is eminently weepable. It’s difficult to ever settle on a favorite horror film, but if you forced me to choose, I’d choose this one. (And pay absolutely no attention to the massively inferior, hugely disappointing 2009 American “remake” confusingly titled The Uninvited.)
If Ghostwatch and Fatal Frame had a kid, it would be Noroi. This is one of the best mockumentary-style horror films ever made, combining aspects of other films to create something more than the sum of its parts: like Ghostwatch it has a journalistic premise; like Fatal Frame it’s steeped in (fake) Shinto ritual; and like most of director Shiraishi Koji’s work, it has a sly sense of humor (which, in this case at least, in no way detracts from or feels inorganic to the plot). (Read my review here, and my interview with Shiraishi Koji here.)