Who says a horror movie can’t also be a work of art? There’s no reason aesthetics have to go out the window when fear comes in the door. This Halloween, enjoy a little culture with your horror, and gasp in admiration as you cling to the edge of your seat. Read on for eight picks that combine viscera with vision. Call them the bloody and the beautiful — or just sit back and enjoy the show.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Not all art needs to be slick. This ragged-looking feature employed a wildly successful viral marketing campaign nearly as impressive as the finished film. Their purposefully disorienting shooting style — like a home video made by someone suffering from delirium tremens — only ramps up the atmosphere of dislocation, anxiety and, eventually, sheer panic. When else has a little bundle of sticks looked so scary?
Dead Ringers (1988)
David Cronenberg always gets points for originality, and this movie’s no exception: How many films have you seen about twin gynecologist barbiturate addicts in love with the same woman? But the major props here go to star Jeremy Irons: It takes one hell of an actor to play two identical parts that the viewer can tell apart — even when one character is impersonating the other. The horrifying dream sequences are just the icing on the cake.
The Shining (1980)
Stanley Kubrick’s masterful adaptation of the Stephen King bestseller is both a creepy thriller and a nearly endless parade of arresting set pieces. John Alcott’s sinister cinematography wrings terror out of scenes that might, in less capable hands, be simply ridiculous: A woman discovers her husband’s novel is kind of repetitive, and blood cascades out of an elevator like the parting of the (literally) red sea.
This groovy-looking gore-fest is reviled in some quarters for being a bit too enthusiastic about the elaborate ways its murder victims are dispatched, but to fixate on that is to miss the movie’s greatest strength: The way it encourages us to regard onscreen death the same way we watch any colorful, lively and loud cinematic event. The shockingly vivid palette is a true artistic assault on the senses.
The Exorcist (1973)
Any horror film can make you fear the sort-of possible — axe-wielding madmen, evil orphans, and the like. But a truly accomplished horror flick makes you fear something you’d never really been particularly worried about, like, say, demonic possession! William Friedkin lets the anxiety build to a fever pitch, until even a shot of a plain white door takes on an awful significance.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Production on this flick was notoriously troubled, but some good must have come of it, because we’re left with an intensely disturbing, beautifully constructed film that infuses the stylish Dakota Apartments with menace and makes Mia Farrow achingly believable as Satan’s baby mama. Note the way obstacles are placed between the camera and the action — a door, a baby carriage — in a technique which ratchets up the tension even more.
The iconic shower scene is justly lauded as a triumph of editing and sound, but there are other scenes in Hitchcock’s thriller that are more subtle, but just as stunning: Norman Bates discourses on mental institutions while flanked by swooping taxidermy owls; a car is pulled from a lake, its headlights staring like a pair of dead eyes. And there’s no denying the power of the moment when Lila Crane meets the elusive Mrs. Bates.
One of the earliest entries in the horror canon, F.W. Murnau’s expressionist vampire movie was inspired by (or ripped off from, depending on whom you ask) Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In contrast to the procession of pretty bloodsuckers we’ve seen in recent years, Max Schreck’s Count Orlok is as ugly as his deeds. But that doesn’t mean the movie itself isn’t gorgeous, with its unexpected angles and poetic performances.