Just as one person’s trash is another’s treasure, one person’s nightmare is another’s pantomime. This is what makes cinema so richly rewarding and ultimately fascinating. It is an extraordinary art form that gives as equally as it takes, and the horror genre is no exception.
In fact, the horror genre is arguably the most complex and difficult genre of them all, both artistically and technically. It is the genre that is most frequently derided, yet probably has more fanatics, the world over, than any other. It is the genre most lampooned and mocked, and yet the horrorphiles – the True Believers (to use a great term coined by the late great Chas. Balun) – know that for every nine horror movies that are mediocre or worse there is one that can be championed above dozens of others, one that gives credence and kudos to the genre and proves just how extraordinarily powerful, in cinematic terms, a horror movie can be.
The True Believers understand that as a rule a purist horror movie takes no prisoners (with a clutch of exceptions, but every rule has those), and that most horror movies held in high esteem by the genre aficionados are the horror movies that most accurately capture the elusive atmosphere and vibe of a genuine nightmare; a movie horrifying and terrifying. Not an easy feat to achieve. Trust me.
But just what are the elements that transform an otherwise ordinary, mediocre, or conventional horror movie into a movie that is truly frightening and shocking; a genuine nightmare?
It’s a movie that successfully disturbs the viewer through surrealistic mise-en-scene and imagery, utilises a highly unsettling score and sound design, disorientates or confounds the viewer with a narrative technique that operates within an oneirodynia logic, successfully conjures feelings of deep dread and paranoia, seemingly exudes symptoms of madness, provokes acute feelings of xenophobia.
And nearly always ends on a grim note.
Some of these horror movies are just plain strange no matter how many times you watch them, some pack the biggest punch on first viewing when knowing little about them, while others writhe wilder and wilder the more your mind tries to straddle them. Some start meek and mild and get steadily creepier, while others lure you into a false sense of security only to throw down their Ace of Spades, their Black Bitch, in the denouement, causing a meltdown in the viewer.
The spectre of the supernatural frequently plays a major part, and if the premise is not from somewhere within the twilight zone, then it’s those ominous scenarios where everything appears normal, but something is dreadfully, dreadfully wrong.
A genuinely nightmarish horror movie can pierce, or tear, and can even ruin the most jaded horror movie enthusiast, as they refuse to play by the rules of the game. Not just a haunting experience, these movies can be downright harrowing. Bad dreams certainly don’t play by the rules – and, let’s face it, there’s no such thing as lucid nightmaring. Spooky is for kids, nightmare movies are strictly for the mature.
There are horror movies – but not many – from way back that definitely capture some of these elements, and there’s no denying just how influential and inspirational these movies have been on the genre as whole, however their technical trappings, stylistic structure, and performance aesthetic prevent them from being as nightmare palpable as the modern horror movie. However a few movies worth noting are F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932), Erie C. Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls (1932), Val Lewton’s Cat People (1940), and Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).
There are many genuine nightmare horror movies, so here then, plucked from the Darkness, are twenty-five from the last forty years that carve a dark poetry from the spilled blood of a nightmare.
Films are listed in chronological order.
1. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (US, Tobe Hooper, 1974)
Who will survive and what will be left of them?
Nightmare Fabric: A bunch of friends on a road trip to visit relatives run foul of a local family of cannibals who terrorise and murder them one-by-one. Shot on the smell of an oily Southern rag, TCM has gone on to become amongst the most successful independent horror movies ever made.
Based loosely on the necrophilia crimes of real life serial killer Ed Gein, Hooper utilised cinema verité cinematography, a jarring, resonant soundtrack, unknown actors, very effectively sustained a tone dripping with despair, and introduced the world to Leatherface. Curiously, there is very little bloodshed, but there is maximum dread.
Nightmare Logic: Hanging by the skin of its teeth.
Nightmare Impact: To the bone.
2. Eraserhead (US, David Lynch, 1977)
A dream of dark and troubling things.
Nightmare Fabric: Henry Spencer, an Everyman inverted, finds himself abandoned by his neurotic girlfriend and left to father a hideously deformed baby. His already bleak and overwhelming world threatens to engulf him.
Shot over a period of four years, with a year in post-production spent on audio alone, this monochrome mondo bizarro seemingly exists on another planet entirely; an urban wasteland peppered with deranged relations, hammered by an industrial soundscape, and wallowing in avant-garde sexual imagery and symbolism. One of the original midnight movies.
Nightmare Logic: Swirling.
Nightmare Impact: Grotesque.
3. Halloween (US, 1978, John Carpenter)
The night HE came home.
Nightmare Fabric: In the fictional town of Haddonfield, Illinois, 6-year-old Michael Myers stabs his teenage sister to death. Fifteen years later he escapes a nearby mental institution, returns to the township and begins to stalk high school student Laurie Strode, with Myers’ desperate psychiatrist Dr. Loomis several steps behind. The myth of the Boogeyman is embodied with terrifying clarity; a white emotionless visage, dressed in a dark blue boiler suit, clutching a large kitchen knife, and standing between the garden clothes lines, gazing up at you with the thousand yard stare. Although not the first of its kind, this has become a seminal slasher movie, and remains the benchmark. Carpenter’s original score is sublime.
Nightmare Logic: Shapeable.
Nightmare Impact: Like razorblades hidden in pumpkin pie.
4. Phantasm (US, 1979, Don Coscarelli)
If this one doesn’t scare you, you’re already dead!
Nightmare Fabric: An impressionable young teenage boy, being fostered by his older brother, is witness to very strange goings-on at the local cemetery and within the mausoleum. He is pursued by a Tall Man, a figure from somewhere beyond time and space. With the help of the local ice cream vendor they attempt to solve the mysterious deaths of the township’s citizens.
Almost singlehandedly Mr. Coscarelli made this extraordinary debut, writing, producing, directing, shooting, and editing, with his wife Kate handling production design, makeup and wardrobe. An adolescent’s wet dream nightmare, melding science fiction and horror into a surreal phantasy escapade.
Nightmare Logic: Hectic.
Nightmare Impact: Garish.
5. Alien (US, 1979, Ridley Scott)
In space no one can hear you scream.
Nightmare Fabric: On route back to Earth the crew of commercial towing spacecraft, Nostromo, are wakened from hypersleep to respond to a distress signal from a nearby planetoid. The investigative team discovers a derelict alien spaceship, and inadvertently one of the crew is attacked by some kind of parasite.
It is revealed the creature is a highly aggressive xenomorph. The beast relentlessly stalks and kills the crew. Dan O’Bannon’s original draft, Star Beast, was brought to life with the realism of director Scott, the imaginative production design of Swiss surrealist H. R. Giger and the ingenious practical effects work of Carlo Rambaldi.
Nightmare Logic: Graspable.
Nightmare Impact: Extreme.
6. Inferno (Italy, 1980, Dario Argento)
Come face to face with Hell.
Nightmare Fabric: A young poet, Rose, living in New York City finds a book about three sibling witches who rule the world with sighs, darkness, and sorrow. Rose discovers that the building she lives in is one of the three abodes belonging to the evil sisters. She urges her brother to join her in her investigation.
All hell breaks loose. Inspired by the literature of Thomas de Quincey from 1845 it is the second part of Argento’s Three Mothers trilogy, dealing with Mater Tenebrarum, the Mother of Darkness (although Mater Lachrymarum, the Mother of Tears, makes a brief, and mesmerising appearance).
Like Suspiria, the first part, Argento’s partner Daria Nicolodi conceived the story. Strikingly shot in mostly primary colours, and almost entirely on studio sets in Rome (apart from scenes in Central Park) with miniature work and optical effects supervised by Mario Bava, the movie features a storm-saturated score from Keith Emerson. It is a fever dream ne plus ultra.
Nightmare Logic: Labyrinthine.
Nightmare Impact: Vivid.
7. The Beyond (Italy, 1981, Lucio Fulci)
… And you will live in terror!
Nightmare Fabric: Following the lynch mob crucifixion of a suspected warlock in the late 20s, one of the Seven Doors of Death is tentatively opened in Louisiana, allowing the dead to roam the realm of the living.
Liza, a New Yorker, inherits the cursed hotel and begins to renovate, but this ignites the sinister flame and before you can say “Zombie holocaust!” the gnarly undead are roaming and the realm of the living and causing all manner of traumatic injury to life and limb. Hell hath no fury like Schweick scorned. In an atmospheric league of its own Fulci’s “gates of hell” portal transcends its delusional carnage by its uncompromising, liberating descent.
Nightmare Logic: Unfathomable.
Nightmare Impact: Apocalyptic.
8. Possession (France/West Germany, 1981, Andrzej Zulawski)
Murder. Evil. Infidelity. Madness.
Nightmare Fabric: Mark, a spy, returns home from his latest mission to discover that his wife, Anna, wants a divorce. Mark allows Anna custody of their young son Bob, but he becomes obsessive about Anna, attempting to reconcile, but only aggravating the situation.
Eventually he learns Anna is having an affair … of sorts. A movie whose cult status grows with every year, it is a genre hybrid entirely of its own; part dysfunctional domestic drama, part thriller, with science fiction intrigue, and a spine of horror guaranteed to pluck the hairs from your nether regions. Isabelle Adjani delivers a tour-de-force performance (dual, in fact) that earned her the best actress gong at Cannes. Possession is the date flick to end all date flicks.
Nightmare Logic: Duplicitous.
Nightmare Impact: Confrontational.