by Richard Reynolds, AKA Mr. Doomed Stuffing
Horror films usually suck. The reason is that most of them are low-budget with shitty actors and shitty scripts and shittier directors. Horror isn't just about having a big monster's head come out of a closet and bite someone's head off unexpectedly, then showing buckets of blood that couldn't have possibly been inside the victim for the monster to spill out everywhere.
Good horror films should start creepy, build upon the creepiness layer by layer, then reach a climax that leaves you heaving your breath out of your lungs like you were shoveling wet sand until you had filled an empty swimming pool full of dead people.
A great horror movie is so rare that you could probably fit the list on a pinhead. Great horror movies start creepy, build upon the creepiness layer by layer, then reach a climax that leaves you feeling like you were just attacked by two jaguars and a deranged traffic cop on PCP with a blackjack and who thinks you're the Devil.
The only film that has ever truly fit that bill with me is The Exorcist, directed by William Friedkin in an intentionally documentary style of realism that builds into a surrealistic swirl of terror-filled imagery.
I first saw it when I was about twelve, when the really nasty parts were cut for regular television (although plenty of nastiness was left in for my taste at the time). I wasn't a squeamish kid. I had been raised on Alfred Hitchcock films like Psycho ... and I would regularly sneak out of bed in the middle of the night to watch creature features and Eurotrash horror films from the late 1960's and early 1970's. But I had never, ever seen anything remotely like The Exorcist.
The Exorcist knows no boundaries. It introduces its particularly human characters, none of them especially exciting or funny ... most of the while you're watching these characters in the first thirty or forty minutes of the film, none of them really strikes you as someone you want to get killed off quickly so they won't annoy you anymore (as usually happens in most shitty horror films). You don't find the characters especially interesting or their personalities especially note-worthy. They are rather banal characters (although the film's main protagonist, Ellen Burstyn, who is brilliant in everything she does, plays a movie star ... even her character is rather banal and understated, but not at all annoying or obnoxious). And while you're watching the first forty minutes, there are few, if any, scares -- maybe one, which happens in an attic and involves a candle.
Shortly after those first forty minutes, things get progressively fucked up. The pace of the film doesn't so much quicken as it does starts, stops, starts, keeps going, stops, explodes, stops, and then fucking dementedly explodes into a culmination of the creepiest fucking sound effects ever done in film. I felt traumatized after I watched the film on television for the first time as a kid; then I watched it every time I could until it no longer had that effect, and I kept watching it over and over, marveling at how well-executed the film was. It was a perfect horror film, the best one ever done. No horror film has surpassed it.
Stanley Kubrick made an OK horror film called The Shining. It had creepiness, but it had the true horror-scare factor of maybe ten-billionths of The Exorcist (and I'm a big Jack Nicholson fan).
Some dickhead once suggested to me that The Amityville Horror was as scary as The Exorcist, and I wanted to projectile vomit into his face. The Amityville Horror was one of the worst horror films of a significant budget ever made, and I felt it was disgraceful to mention that piece of shit in the same breath to say it was comparable in any fashion to The Exorcist.
I wish I had never seen The Exorcist, so that I could watch it now for the first time, and get that same feeling back I had the first time. Alas, no film since has come close to the relentless tension and horror of that film, made back in 1973.
Oh, well. They say never give up hope.
And then a monster eats them.