15 Great Tragedies Disguised as Horror Movies
8. Don’t Look Now (1973)
Nicholas Roeg’s ‘Don’t Look Now’ is one of the great British masterpieces of cinema. It’s ultimately a clash of fate vs. hubris; a beautiful, poignant, hypnotic and eerie look at the inescapable.
Adapted from the Daphne du Maurier short story, it tells of a couple (Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland) who retreat to Venice following the death of their daughter Christine. There they are warned that their deceased daughter is attempting to warn them of forthcoming danger.
Inserted into the story are Shakespearean references which ground the tragedy in human nature. By altering the cause of Christine’s death from meningitis to drowning, Roeg compares her demise to the drowning of Ophelia. The grief is unbearable and water is established as a motif for misery, one which will surround and consume the couple as they enter the canaled city.
The weird sisters and their ambiguous intentions fulfil a similar role in the plot to the three witches in ‘Macbeth’; while far less sinister they act as another jigsaw piece which seals the couple’s fate. Had they not provided the prophecy, could the tragedy have been avoided?
John Baxter’s pride, and his unwillingness to acknowledge the signs, is ultimately packed against the will of fate. The editing fractures time and space as congruent images from various points in the narrative are thrown together. It is only at the climax – the final twist – that they all collide coherently and both we and he realise – too late – his fatal error.
‘Don’t Look Now’ is easily one of the greatest ever horror films. The climactic sequence is one of the most cathartic in cinema history; it’s a baptism of blood which summarises the pathos and the beauty of an entire life to a single, shattering instant.
9. The Wicker Man (1973)
Few films achieve the kind of cult martyrdom that ‘The Wicker Man’ has achieved over the last 40 years. It’s strange to think that the quintessential British horror film performs most spectacularly as a folk tragedy rather than a conventional horror movie, and yet that’s exactly what it is: a cataclysmic clash of two worlds which will end in fire, smoke and squeals.
A devout-Catholic police sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) travels to a remote Scottish island, lorded by the pagan Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), in search on a missing girl.
The film itself is uniquely British (hence an American remake was doomed in its very conception alone). On the island there’s a collide of Celtic and Judeo-Christian culture, both in the initial landscape of the Hebridean isles – a harsh unforgiving place in contrast to Howie’s modern plane – and the music which skips between Scottish laminations and Catholic hymns.
‘The Wicker Man’ probes into the value and the violence of society: is the tragedy of a single death worth the survival of the community?
Rarely does a movie hinge as fully as ‘The Wicker Man’ does on its twist. Seemingly random outbursts of sex and song disguise the film as harmless exploitation fare; it lulls us into a false sense of security. Such a misplaced belief, similar to the ones held so zealously by the characters themselves, leads to a shocking, and inevitable, climax.
Human sacrifice played a key part in Greek tragedy. Unlike in the original myth where Iphigenia is saved by the Gods at the very last instant, no one comes to Howie’s rescue in ‘The Wicker Man’. There’s no deus ex machina.
The final shot of the setting sun offers one last tragic irony; a rich, seasonal harvest is on the way and the villagers will believe that the end justified the means.
‘The Wicker Man’ is a masterwork of British horror. Chilling, mesmerising, unforgettable and pathetic, it reminds that outdated beliefs and systems can still have tragic sway upon our “enlightened” present.
10. Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)
Werner Herzog’s remake-cum-homage very nearly approaches – if not – reaches, the indefinable nightmarishness of F.W. Murnau’s silent masterpiece. Expanding upon the sympathetic themes which Murnau merely hinted at, Herzog created a chilling reminder that death is a gift when time destroys all things.
The vampire Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski) brings a plague upon Wismar in search of Lucy (Isabelle Adjani), the wife of estate agent Jonathon (Bruno Ganz).
Like Herzog’s other films, ‘Nosferatu’ is rich in haunting imagery, existential musings and confrontations between man and nature. The question is whether man can escape his own demise, or rather, should he?
More so than Max Schreck’s performance in the original, Kinski’s equally unforgettable portrayal of the eponymous vampire is sympathetic. His awkward moans and mournful eyes are tragic; and in the high contrasting lighting, he’s a pale phantom alone in the vast night.
Herzog’s story follows Murnau’s for the most part until the very end. Then, in one of the cinema’s cruellest twists, a new vampire emerges, calling for the arrest of the last remaining hero, before striding into the endless sands of time.
All love is lost; there’s no hope of reuniting in the afterlife; no hope of vanquishing evil.
‘Nosferatu the Vampyre’ is likely to stay with you; it’s mystically beautiful, eerily lingering and darkly distressing. If the tragedy teaches nothing, it’s that our humanity is not the tragedy of our lives; it’s the hope that we could be anything different than who were are – a God exempt from passion and death – that will destroy everything.
11. The Fly (1986)
David Cronenberg’s quasi-remake of ‘The Fly’ is one of the most curious and most devastating science fiction horror movies ever made. Injecting a fresh dose of sex, Kafka and doomed romance into the original story, Cronenberg created an unforgettable tragicomedy which is at once mythical and modern.
Seth Brundle, a talented scientist (Jeff Goldblum), enlists the help of Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis), a budding journalist, to recount the development of his teleportation machine. After a botched experiment however, Brundle begins turning into an insectoid monster.
Whilst the plot itself perhaps seems juvenile, Cronenberg’s treatment of it is strangely mature. It’s a devastating look at adulthood and the insights gained with age; observing the power of sex, the pain of love, the need for significance, the drive to create a family, the ugliness of a changing body, the inevitability of death and the agonising regret for the irreversible.
It’s ironic that a fly – the smallest of all things – is Brundle’s downfall. It’s easy to define this simply as a story of fate vs. hubris – a warning against scientific arrogance – yet Cronenberg himself said the film was ultimately about two star-crossed lovers.
In the end, the cause of the tragedy seems irrelevant when the horror begins. Chris Walas’s & Stephan Dupuis’s makeup effects, showing Brundle slowly losing his humanity – a mortal projection of his corrupted soul – by losing his face and limbs, was well worthy of its Academy Award.
‘The Fly’ is a cultural icon and a tragedy for our modern times. Dealing with the travesty of age, it reminds that in the eyes of the Gods we might as well be bugs worthy of being smooshed.
12. Pet Sematary (1989)
While Mary Lambert’s adaption of ‘Pet Sematary’ is far from the best adaption of a Stephen King work, it’s at the very least one of the most underrated ones. Chilling yet poignant, it warns that the dead deserve to remain in their graves; grief may destroy more lives than one when the coffin is disturbed.
Against warnings from his new neighbours, a family man (Dale Midkiff) buries the body of his dead son (Miko Hughes) in an ancient pet sematary. His son returns back to them, however not unchanged.
The film, like the book (which Stephen King himself adapted), is at its very barest a tale of fate vs. hubris. Like Prometheus or Oedipus, our hero plays God. Blinded by his grief, he transgresses the barriers of life and death, and sends misery into the lives of everyone attached to him.
There are forewarnings throughout the film: literal in the case of the reminders of the town-folk and metaphoric in the case of the eerie black cat, evil-eyed, hissing in the night. The messages of the Gods aren’t misunderstood; they’re ignored.
Throughout the film, we’re reminded of the insignificance of man in the face of nature. Humanity is literally reduced to its own flesh and blood; the scalpel (a tool used to heal mortal tissue) is handed and the blood runs freely.
Despite its inherently Catholic ideals, ‘Pet Sematary’ is a modern tragedy akin to those told by the ancient Greeks. It’s a worthwhile film that proves that sometimes dead is better.
13. The Orphanage (2007)
Juan Antonio Bayona’s debut feature is one of the great gothic films of the new millennia. Skilfully mixing grief with ghosts, light with shadow, and life with silence, ‘The Orphanage’ is a rare example of a recent horror movie which is just as troubling and sad as it is terrifying.
Bringing her son Simón (Roger Príncep) and husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) with her, Laura (Belén Rueda) attempts to reopen the orphanage where she was raised. Dark events unfold when Simón begins communicating with an invisible boy.
‘The Orphanage’ is a slow-burning ghost story and realises that anticipation is usually scarier than the thing anticipated.
The suspense comes from the dark atmosphere established in the film; the colour pallet is drenched in dreary greys and melancholy blues, strange noises and cries rattle out of nowhere, and the very title alone – ‘The Orphanage’ – interposes the movie and the gloomy, decaying house, with inherent tragedy.
Whilst there are countless instances where the movie is likely to make your heart stop and countless more to make it pound, the movie leaves on a heart-wrenching note.
Whilst the movie’s twist maintains some ambiguity and gives no exact cause to the tragedy – whether it was out of fate, chance, supernatural intervention, or character flaw – it loses none of its raw emotion. There’s nothing quite as painful and miserable as hearing Laura’s wordless lamentations upon discovering the fate of her disappeared son.
‘The Orphanage’ is proof that the horror genre has a higher emotional maturity than most give it credit for. Not only can good horror make you scream, but it can make you laugh and make you cry.
14. The Mist (2007)
Frank Darabont’s adaption of the Stephen King novella is one of the most notorious horror movies to come from the new millennia. Curiously mixing political commentary, tragic irony, creature-feature shocks and an unprecedented, utterly pessimistic ending, it’s become one of the more memorable horror movies of the last 10 years.
A strange mist, filled with creatures, falls upon a town and traps a large group of strangers within a supermarket.
Like a Sopholcean tragedy, ‘The Mist’ uses events and situations which a contemporary audience is familiar with albeit allegorically. Athenian legend is substituted with the grief, uncertainty, paranoia, scapegoating and turmoil of post-9/11 America.
The ghostly mist is a veil hiding the true evil, innocent people are blamed and slaughtered, the townsfolk turn to a Christian fundamentalist out of fear, and a soldier is sacrificed for military decisions beyond his control.
The unforgettable ending releases the anguish and sorrow bubbling away as subtext. We, as an audience, ultimately play the part of the last survivor: screaming and forced to endure the agony of the tragedy. Just like him, we watched it all unfold, powerless to stop it.
‘The Mist’ is one of the best commitments of a Stephen King work to celluloid in the past few years. Unlike so many other films born from “The Master of Horror”, the tragedy of this story comes not from the author’s hand but by that of the director.
15. Let the Right One In (2008)
Some have argued that Tomas Alfredson’s ‘Let The Right One In’ is the best horror film made so far in this millennia. While such a bold claim isn’t likely to sit well with many fans, there’s no doubt that the film is – at the very least – a modern masterpiece: an unnerving look at the tragedy of youth, isolation and doomed romance.
Adapted by John Ajvide Lindqvist from his own novel, it follows Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), a violently-bullied schoolboy, who builds a relationship with Eli (Lina Leandersson), a lonely vampire.
While not a simple rendition of Shakespeare, the film follows the basic tale of “a pair of star-cross’d lovers”; a relationship grounded in hate and which will leave destruction in its wake.
The mythical premise of the vampire is paired with an almost Darwinian way of thinking. Just as the vampire must murder people to obtain their blood, so must Oskar – out of pure desperation – kill and injure to survive. The virginal snow is corrupted and turns red with blood.
While the ending is somewhat optimistic, there are troubling moral ambiguities in the violence which occurs, and ambiguities regarding how Oskar and Eli – who is beyond human in more ways than one – can now spend their lives together (which, for vampires, will last for eternity).
‘Let The Right One In’ is the great, cathartic tragedy of our time. Like others of its type, the English-language remake ‘Let Me In’ is a good film in its own right and makes for worthwhile viewing however owes nearly everything to the masterful original.
Author Bio: Kyle McDonnell is an aspiring filmmaker based in Sydney, Australia. He recently graduated from high school and hopes one day to emulate his screen heroes David Lynch and Ben Wheatley. When he’s not watching, writing or filming, he can be found listening to ‘The Smiths’, contemplating life.
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