Alien, Alred Hitchcock, David Lynch, Donnie Darko, John Carpenter, Like a Geek God, Mark Pursell, Mulholland Drive, Ridley Scott, The Birds, The Thing
Like a Geek God #10 by Mark Pursell
A Dreadful Double Feature Triple Threat
Halloween in the Information Age always sees a glut of “favorite scary movie” lists clogging up your feeds and repeating the same recommendations over and over again. The thing is, if you’re a horror geek or a fan of scary movies in any way, you already know and love classic, foundational horror flicks like The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, The Exorcist, Carrie, and more. You’ll also see plenty of lists from self-righteous horror geeks, directing you to their favorite under-the-radar splatterfest gems (many of which are meritorious only because of a certain flair for cringeworthy gore and not because of strong storytelling or atmospherics). The truth is that, somewhere in the divide between the standards and the schlock, any number of deeply frightening films often get lost or overlooked as horror movies, even if they are famous or have followings for other reasons.
I wrote last time about the nature of fear, and how truly successful horror movies foster an unbearable sense of dread as opposed to jump scares and shock tactics. So, in that spirit, I present six must-see, truly scary movies for your Halloween viewing pleasure. These are all movies that only occasionally pop up on Halloween-themed “scariest movie” lists; they also do not self identify as horror (with the possible exception of The Thing) but are more truly terrifying than most movies that do. The movies in this list not only craft strong, complex stories with memorable characters, but also and most importantly create an atmosphere of tangible dread. Danger imbues every frame of these fine films. And, just for extra fun, they are paired together in ready-to-view double headers. You’re welcome.
Jaws and The Birds
Nature is rife with terrific and unstoppable forces that threaten our existence at every turn, but there is something so specifically disturbing about our fellow living creatures turning against us that bone-chilling tales about marauding animals are a media staple in genres ranging from adventure and drama to straight horror. Maybe our fascination with these stories stems from a sense of Biblical betrayal: Judeo-Christian philosophy describes “the dominion of man” over the earth and its other inhabitants, and as a race, we certainly seem to take that to heart. No wonder, then, that stories about our supposedly subservient and non-sentient cousins in the evolutionary chain rising up like avenging spirits make us clutch the blankets closer, look askance at the neighbor’s cat, refuse to go swimming. Of course, straightforward stories about wounded, unhinged, or otherwise marred animals acting out against humans because of exploitation or mistreatment inspire pathos instead of fear, but the movies where our bestial intelopers seem to embody a force much more terrible and destructive than simple animal behavior hint at something insatiable and apocalyptic that lurks just beneath the surface of the natural order.
Jaws and The Birds both embody this idea, and make use of surprisingly similar contexts—beleagured seaside towns, with one threat coming from the waves and the other from the wide blue. However, they elevate themselves beyond your typical “creature feature” by building complex human characters whose welfare we are made to care about long before the trouble really gets going. Jaws in particular folds its air of panic into a small-town human drama that accentuates the movie’s anxiety, pushing the plot and the characters into ever more reactionary places until, with a sense of inevitability that is the beating heart of all true horror, the three heroes—grim, resolved—put out to sea to face their nemesis. They carry with them the burden of not only having to find and defeat the great white threat, but also the knowledge that doing so will save their livelihoods and the existence of Amity.
The Birds is, of course, closer in tone to classic Hollywood with its chilly, Hitchcockian beauty, but what makes the avian threat equally as terrifying as the maw of a shark is its unexpectedness and uncertainty. A man-eating shark is not necessarily anomalous in the real world, but hundreds of birds inexplicably turning on us mammals creates fear because it is such a disruption of the “natural order”, a feeling which is only enhanced by Hitchcock’s (wise) decision not to address the reason behind this event. With a slyness that has only become apparent to me on repeated viewings, Hitchcock and the script imply a mix of factors which might, at least thematically or metaphorically, be the cause—the unwed Tippi Hedren’s sexual independence, perhaps, or the mysterious pair of lovebirds she takes to Bodega Bay as a flirtatious sally fired at Rod Taylor, and which the survivors (probably unwisely) take with them when making their final escape. The uncanny nature of the birds’ aggression mixed with this teasing lack of explanation create an atmosphere in which, like Jaws, the laws of nature seem to no longer apply, and the invisible structures we cling to to make sense of the world fall away from us, leaving us exposed and with no place to hide.
Alien and The Thing
Aggressive organisms from our own planet are one thing, but aggressive organisms from the uncharted bournes of outer space are another matter entirely. The universe beyond our fragile atmosphere is a Rorschach sort of canvas on which humanity has projected its capacity for wonder and terror since our infancy as a race. Small wonder, then, that some of our most hair-raising tales concern themselves with the nigh incomprehensible horrors that might one day come slithering out of the void.
Much has been made over the decades about Ridley Scott’s Alien—it is a seminal science fiction work—but I rarely see it described as a horror movie, or lauded as one. Which is odd, because that is essentially what it is. It’s not even really a creature feature—it has less in common with something like Jaws than it does with slasher flicks, the methodical slaying, one by one, of an isolated and fearful cast of characters. Much like Jaws, though, Alien builds its feeling of dread by keeping the titular aggressor out of sight as long as possible, allowing our imagintions—always more powerful than the most dazzling special effect—to work overtime and juice up our adrenaline and anxiety as the fiend’s nature is slowly, sickeningly revealed. (It’s worth noting that both Jaws and Alien employed this type of restraint not because of the initial intent of their respective directors, but because the special effects for both creatures were not as effective as desired, forcing both Spielberg and Scott to keep their monsters out of sight as long as possible). The DNA of Alien’s particular flavor of dread—the run-down blue-collar spaceship, evoking a grim lower-class future; the oral rape and violation metaphors, mixed with the sexual aspects of the xenomorph’s life cycle and design; the overwhelming hopelessness of pitting oneself against the whims of a powerful corporation, a particularly relevant thematic strand for today’s America—all of these things have been written about and analyzed. But perhaps the most chilling aspect of the movie is the xenomorph’s bloodthirsty aggression itself. Possible to explain away the behavior of a rogue shark; possible, even, to form thematic explanations for unnatural avian aggression (the encroachment of man, perhaps). The xenomorph’s predations, though, are as unfounded as they are nearly unstoppable. It seems to exist for no other reason, and to want nothing, other than to destroy life, and the movie leaves us dangling in desperation at that unexplainable fact. Faced with such unreasoning destruction, what is there to do but run?
The Thing, for its part, is not set in outer space but in an equally desolate, isolated setting: Antarctica (a nod, perhaps, to Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness”). It exchanges Alien’s mixed-gender cast of interstellar truckers for a gruff assortment of male scientists, headed up by a scruffy Kurt Russell, but much like Alien, the titular organism infiltrates the group by subterfuge—in the case of The Thing, the creature takes on the likeness of a dog, and by the time the scientists realize all is not well with Rover, it is practically too late. The Thing is largely the same “type” of movie as Alien, a series of suspenseful encounters that gradually escalate into pitched battle, but one element that distinguishes the Thing and makes it terrifying in its own right, and not just by default of its alienness, is its protean nature. It can shapeshift, yes, but it’s also the intermediate forms it takes in transition (which show off some amazing special effects and makeup work that, though dated, still dazzles almost twenty-five years later) that inspire in us human beings—fixed as we are in our forms—a deep and queasy unease. The idea of a living organism that seems to have no “true” shape, jumping from copy to copy like a macabre chameleon, is so anthithetical to our view of the world that we reject it outright, shrinking away from it with revulsion at its unnaturalness.
Donnie Darko and Mulholland Drive
Space, as a frontier, overwhelms with its vast and unknowable reaches. The frontier of our own minds, though—and the way that we build our relationships with time, with dream, and with memory—is no less mysterious and no less full of potential danger.
Donnie Darko presents at first as the simple tale of a troubled teen. But as the movie winds on and becomes more complicated, bringing in subtle flavors of science fiction and true horror, it turns out that Jake Gyllenhaal (a breakout performance in the title role) is right to push with adolescent rage and frustration at the boundaries of his cozened suburban life; his feeling that all is not quite right with the world, that there is a flaw in reality hovering just beyond his ability to define or grasp, turns out to be the only thing that can avert tragedy and bring him to his ultimate fate.
There is a similar sense of ultimate inevitability laced through David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, as Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring struggle to piece together an unsettling mystery, racing towards a revelation and an outcome that, we realize as the credits roll, was actually racing towards them all along with the inexorability of a freight train. In Mulholland Drive, though, it is not our heroines who sense the “wrongness” of their world, even as they struggle to piece together an unsettling mystery; it is the audience who senses this wrongness, a feeling that this version of reality is alternate, somehow, and when the final revelation plays out and our worst suspicions are confirmed, it makes our ability to understand time, dreams, and memory seem not only suspect but traitorous, that attempting to get a fix on ourselves in relation to the ever-flowing forces of time and the limitations of our own perception is a battle that can’t be won and, if pushed too far, can boomerang on us in strange, frightening, and ultimately fatal ways.
Mark Pursell is a lifelong geek and lover of words. His publishing credits include Nimrod International Journal, The New Orleans Review, and The Florida Review, where he also served as poetry editor. His work can most recently be seen in the first volume of the 15 Views of Orlando anthology from Burrow Press. He currently teaches storytelling and narrative design for video games at Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida.