Recently, after having gone out with friends to see a very effective horror film (Sinister, which will feature here at some point soon) were exchanging anecdotes about our scariest horror viewing experiences. This concept came to me based on a comment left unsaid, and believe me this is a pure compliment, plain and simple. Nothing backhanded about it.
One of the films I was going to reference was Halloween, and the specific note I was to make on it was that not only is it a consistently, identifiably frightening film, but the end offers you no relief. In fact, the film is scarier after it’s over based on what occurs right before the end credits roll. I then proceeded to think about other similar films for this list.
The list may grow at some point in the future, but for now here are my five selections.
The Exorcist (1973)
This is the most visceral of the selections on this list. In every other selection the lingering effect has at least a little something to do with the way the story decides to resolve itself. With The Exorcist when the film is over, it’s over. The fact that there are sequels is a prime example of a studio meeting a demand that the story didn’t necessarily leave open. I understand that many horror films aspire, at least in a very small way, to leave the franchise opportunity out there. Being a horror “tentpole” is desirable, especially for studios who don’t have to spend much and get a massive return on hits, but the The Exorcist was over. Finished. What makes it such a lingering, troubling viewing experience is not only the steady intensity of the film that builds to a beautifully protracted, gutting, exhausting climax, but it’s a film that has you invest in all of its characters. All of them.
The Exorcist bravely eschews cutting to the chase in favor of character development. It could afford to do so, in part, because it was a new kind of tale at the time so you meet Reagan both before and after her possession; Chris, her mother; Father Merrin and Father Karras. The film raises the stakes for all those involved. All the characters have something to gain and lose in the final confrontation.
The film ends in a life-goes-on denouement, which other horror films have taught you not to trust, but why it really works is the overall power of the third act. The end is natural and makes sense, but you’re uneasy throughout due to all that transpired up to this point.
The Exorcist is the kind of film that wears on you and continues to do so long after it’s over.
As previously stated, out of the three long-running slasher franchises that this one is the best overall. However, with regards to the first installment of the series, nothing in the subgenre comes close to Halloween. Few horror films are anywhere near it.
Halloween, like The Exorcist, is rather incessant, this time in the use of the stalking motif, some of the scenes leave you waiting and some of them lead to kills. That can be exhausting, but add to that how the film ends (You really should’ve seen it by now) that’s what makes it linger.
You have a rather lengthy, well-staged and fairly well-strategized final battle between Laurie and Michael. Then, finally, there’s no respite just escape.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Not dissimilar to the choice above, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has a similar effect of an ending. The major difference being there’s no mystery element about how does Leatherface get away. Our last remaining hero merely manages to get away by the skin of her teeth.
A fuller reaction to the film, specifically the end, can be read here.
As a fan of the genre, you can start to become desensitized the more material you watch. That is not to say that a horror film can’t really affect you. Sometimes they manage too. The really good ones do. What’s fairly rare is to not really know how much.
After having seen it, when it was already late, suddenly some very creepy music was heard by both myself and my brother. Neither of us immediately figured out where it was coming from. After a second, we realized he’d left his laptop on with his iTunes playing. He and I both took it as an additional indicator that we saw something pretty good because that unnerved us so. More effective, in fact, than we realized.
Inferno is the second, and perhaps most overlooked, film in Argento’s Three Mothers Films. Suspiria gets a lot of love and is deserved, Mother of Tears…to be kind I’ll say it’s divisive, but I’m fairly convinced I’m in a small minority of people who really like it. Anyway, the reason Inferno ends up here is because it quite literally ends on a jolt, on its highest point and then its followed by the entire theme blasting through the credits. What more could you want?