So ghouls and zombies don’t scare you, not demons, not werewolves, not even vampires (though that last one has become far too friendly a monster in recent years to still be terrifying – Thanks a bunch, Stephanie Meyer). What about the horror villains grounded in the real world: what about the good old-fashioned slashers? Admittedly most of the crazed murderers in horror movies are skewed to the extreme end of the killer spectrum, even so, many are influenced and inspired by urban legends as well as real-life killers. So the question remains: is it scarier if it could happen to you?
Alfred Hitchcock made a lot of movies during his long career as a filmmaker and plenty of better ones, but none ever had quite the cultural or artistic impact of his 1960 masterpiece Psycho. Based upon the Robert Bloch novel of the same name which was inspired by the atrocities of Ed Gein, director Hitchcock and screenwriter Joseph Stefano fashioned Norman Bates as a complete crazed and unhinged killer lurking behind the façade of an unassuming amateur taxidermist and hotel manager rather than making him more like Bloch’s Bates who was a sloppy, overweight drunk who was obsessed with pornography and the occult. The film was a massive turning point for both Hitchcock and the horror genre, featuring the most intellectual and elegant examples of his eye for editing and frame composition whose inspirations can be in the films of Stanley Kubrick and the amazing Korean director Park Chan-Wook.
Wes Craven has made a great many and many great horror movies and is, depending on who you ask, the genre’s greatest director; all of his films are original and important, but none of them are quite as sharp and multidimensional as the original Scream movie. Screenwriter Kevin Williamson was inspired to write the film in the early nineties; trepidatious concerning the murders of Gainesville Ripper Danny Rolling, Williamson wrote his first screen treatment for the story after being scared upon finding a suspicious open window in his home. Part homage to the slasher genre, part parody, the metatheatrical chills-and-thrills classic tells the story of high-school kids in a small town who are killed off by a knife-wielding someone in a ghost-face mask who is obsessed with scary movies. Scream is the ultimate love letter to the slasher genre, filled with endless amounts of geeky knowledge that smartly mislead its audience not to mention opting to void the classic punished-sinners angle, making it even harder to guess who is going to die next. It also includes one of the scariest horror sound effects of any horror movie ever – short, sharp, eerie, perfect.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
This creepy cult favorite is unique among horror movies: its sympathetic protagonist is also the killer. Michael Rooker stars as the title character Henry, an average guy who lives with roommate and fellow jailbird Ottis and recreationally indulges in brutal murder. The character, inspired by real-life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, is slightly evocative of Norman Bates with a clear duality of personality, nice working class guy versus violent, unchecked madman; but whereas Bates mental disturbances are clearly defined by the end of the film, Henry’s motives are left largely up to the imagination with little to no insight as to why he is the way he is. Rooker’s overwhelming placidity make Henry’s blue-collar everyman a shadowy nightmare, the kind of guy you could pass totally unawares on the street.
The Loved Ones
When Lola’s prom date proposal is rejected by Brent, she does what any lonely, psychotic, unbalanced teenage girl would do: she gets her father to kidnap him so she can enact her twisted prom-torture fantasy at home. This freaky little Australian diamond-in-the-rough is one of those rare horror movies that looks painfully average on the outside but is so morbidly satisfying on the inside. The first writing/directing adventure of one Sean Byrne, who has deftly managed to mix equal parts, teen drama, bad taste black comedy, torture horror to make into an all-parts delicious frightener; it takes all of the best elements of The People Under the Stairs and Hard Candy and finds the best way for them to fit together underneath the macabre blanket of ocker maniacs and their homespun lobotomies.
Is there any fate worse than death? Torture, of course. Eli Roth’s sophomore effort Hostel tells the story of a couple of American college guys backpacking through Europe who stop in Slovakia and are kidnapped and sold to an underground company that caters to rich clients who pay to kill people. The flagship film of the torture-porn movement (an unfair moniker for a misunderstood niche genre, though unfortunately the only one) was inspired by a story Roth heard through geek guru Harry Knowles about how through a website a person can go to Thailand, pay $10,000, go into a room, and shoot a person in the head. Inspired by the more intense horror movies from more artistically adventurous film industries in countries like Japan and Italy, Hostel’s depictions of brutal torture are meant to be affronting more than titillating. In many ways it’s a metaphor for the ideals of instant gratification as well as a mockery of the all-consuming power of money and the moral depravity it can inspire.