This is a list of the best horror films made by filmmakers who dabbled with horror for the first time, and managed to do a damn good job of it.
The Innocents (1961)
Jack Clayton was one of the major figures of the British New Wave during the late 1950s/early 60s, so to go from social realism to atmospheric horror in a relatively short space of time seemed a tad out of character.
Based on the gothic horror novella The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, set in Victorian England, an uncle of orphaned brother and sister hires a governess to raise the children at his estate. Soon the governess comes to believe that the spirits of the former governess possesses the children.
The opening scene consists of the eerie sound of a young girl singing to a black screen, eventually as the credits appear we see a beautifully composed shot of Deborah Kerr’s character praying in the corner of the frame. Quite possibly one of the spookiest opening credits in film history.
The Innocents utilises a subtle and sophisticated approach to scaring its audience, relying more on subtext than shocks. The films intelligent use of sound, compositions and mise-en-scène, made the simplest of scenes ridiculously scary. A scene where Deborah Kerr’s character looks over a young girl playing with a turtle, suddenly on the island in the middle of the waterway in the distance an old woman’s figure is visible. The old woman is never seen any closer than a mid-wide shot, making her ambiguous presence even more unnerving. It is expertly constructed scenes like this that have given The Innocents its acclaimed reputation. Yes it is a great horror, but it is also a technical tour-de-force and a poetic masterpiece.
Most of the directors from the Japanese New Wave had a tendency to produce spooky and atmospheric films in general, which was kind of a by-product of their rebellion away from the “classic way” Japanese films were made.
Director Kaneto Shindo’s breakthrough film was The Naked Island, a minimalist family drama set on a small island in the Seto Inland Sea and consists of only one line of dialogue in the whole film. Despite their being absolutely no themes of horror in it whatsoever, there was in fact a creepy atmosphere that you find in all of the best horror films. So when Shindo went on to make Kuroneko he had a great technical foundation to produce a potentially great horror film.
Kuroneko (A Black Cat) is an adaptation of an old folktale set in the Heian era of Japanese history (794-1191) and could possibly be considered as one of the great revenge horror films. The plot is about woman and her daughter-in-law Shige who live in a bamboo house, they are raped and murdered by bandit soldiers, and their home is burned to the ground. From out of nowhere a black cat appears and begins to lick their bodies. The women return as ghosts who congregate at a゠Rajomon gate, they find samurai and bring them to an eerie mansion in the bamboo grove where the burnt house was. They seduce and then kill the samurai, tearing their throats with cat like teeth.
Along with a double edged sword love story, stunning cinematography and atmospheric sound design, Kuroneko is one of the all-time great Japanese Horror films.
The Hour of the Wolf (1968)
There is a lot of controversy to whether Ingmar Bergman’s The Hour of the Wolf is actually a horror or not, but I think whenever Bergman delved deep enough into the human mind the results were always quite freaky. The Hour of the Wolf deals with familiar themes you find in most Bergman films; the abstract nature of the human condition, the Freudian relevance our subconscious plays in our dreams and the emotional effects that can result after losing faith. The difference between this and any other Bergman film is the extreme levels to which his themes are pushed and the line between psychological drama and horror become frighteningly elusive.
Bergman frequently played with the idea of portraying dreams in his films (Sawdust and Tinsel and Wild Strawberries are some great examples of this), The Hour of the Wolf takes it one step further; the dream sequences and reality begin to merge, resulting in a disturbing world that would make David Lynch bow down in awe.
The film is rammed with abstract characters, from an old woman taking her face off (literally) to a man who walks on the ceiling, however the film remains symbolic and never really falls into the avant-garde.゠Fear can sometimes be an effective mechanism when exploring the human condition and The Hour of the Wolf is a perfect example.
Don’t Look Now (1973)
Director Nicolas Roeg in retrospect is known more for his disjunctive editing and narrative structures than anything else. His films often constructed time and action through a mosaic style of editing, this created extremely subjective impressions of certain moments his characters were experiencing.
The opening scene of Don’t Look Now consists of two separate sequences, the death of the protagonist’s daughter and a developing photograph of a red hooded person sitting in a church. The relativity of the two sequences becomes more apparent as the film goes on, but this theme of correlating sequences (sometimes from different periods in time) is common throughout.
Don’t Look Now is an archetypical example of a horror film adopting a patient and reserved approach, which not only frightens its audience but leaves them with a sad sense of remorse towards the characters. Also the film possibly has one of the most disturbing and creepy final scenes of all time.
The Shining (1980)
Stanley Kubrick put his finger in as many genre pies as possible and always managed to do them justice. Full Metal Jacket and゠Paths of Glory are always in top war film polls, Dr. Strangelove is hailed as one of the best comedies and 2001: Space Odyssey is often considered to be the greatest sci-fi of all time. So going by previous patterns of logic it’s only natural Kubrick was going to get a film in a few best horror polls as well.
Writer of the original novel Stephen King was quite outspoken with his disappointment in the film and it was also subject to criticisms relating to the different approach the film takes to the novel. I’ve always despised the concept of comparing a film’s merits to the criteria of literature, which for me is like judging the quality of a badminton player by the standards of tennis. So naturally I tend to disagree with most critiques towards novel adapted films, especially when the primary area of disapproval is “It didn’t follow the book”. I actually think that Kubrick’s The Shining is a better piece of cinema than King’s novel is a piece of literature.
Jack Nicholson’s performance was so disturbingly charismatic that in a strange way he almost became an antihero. Recently a social media poll was conducted by a UK Games company that asked people “What classic horror film would make the best video game” and according to their figures just under 80% voted for The Shining. One of their voters justified his poll by saying this “The Shining, from Jack Nicholson’s POV. He starts off fighting ghosts then when he’s possessed, he chases his family”.
Despite Nicholson’s character attempting to slaughter his own family, his performance was such a predominant part of the film, it seems most people would rather pick his perspective than his innocent family. However, let’s not forget that as in all Kubrick’s work, the use of symmetricity and Cartier-Bresson-esque compositions makes the film a technical masterpiece in itself.