The obvious draw of a horror movie is the strong physical reaction it elicits in a viewer. Toes curling, shivers erupting, spine hunching as the on-screen killer rounds the corner, or the monster in the shadows finally shows its face. Horror is a wake-up call to the body, a genre that transcends the audiovisual. This gift of adrenaline is often touted as the genre’s greatest strength: fear is a brute force champion, and the viewer may be subjected to all manners of psychological torments at the director’s pleasure. When you sit down to watch a horror movie, you know exactly what you’re strapping in for.
Yet with these ten films, that’s not exactly true. Yes, they deliver on that intense physical experience, relying on fear to create complex sensory experiences; but it’s not fear alone that the viewer is left feeling. Each of these films acknowledges the truth at the heart of horror: that fear can only be achieved if there is something to lose. Through the course of the movie, something of value is developed – a relationship, a dream, a treasured personal item. Then, with pitch-perfect timing, this valued thing is destroyed. The result is a horror film that is made vibrant by the grief running through it.
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The Broken Necklace in ‘Jennifer’s Body’
Jennifer’s Body underperformed at the box office upon its release in 2009. However, the film has enjoyed an unexpected resurgence in recent years, with fans embracing Jennifer’s Body as a clever portrayal of the trials of femininity. Teenage beauty queen Jennifer Check is turned into a demon by a botched ritual, and her best friend Anita ‘Needy’ Lesnicki must stop her from feeding on the male student population of their small town.
Horror movie aficionados may bicker about whether this movie was more silly or scary; social theorists could debate for hours about whether it’s a feminist tale or an overglorified high school drama. However, no one can deny the deep chord of sorrow that plays through the movie, as former best friends Jennifer and Needy are torn apart by the acts of violence perpetrated by and against Jennifer. In the pair’s final confrontation, Needy reaches out and tears off the best-friend necklace that Jennifer wears, signifying that the pair’s bond is finally broken beyond repair.
Forgiveness on the Steps in ‘Cabin in the Woods’
Cabin in the Woods took a running swing at horror movie tropes. The film’s five main characters found themselves trapped in a remote woods-y location, forced to live out a manufactured horror show for the amusement of mysterious ‘old gods’ living beneath the earth. One by one, the unwitting sacrifices suffer gory and dramatic ends, culminating in the final two characters, Dana and Marty, being crushed by the rising first of a waking giant.
The best emotional beat of the film, however, comes right before those final deaths. As the doomed pair sit on a staircase, Dana apologizes to Marty for attempting to murder him to save herself. They share a few final moments of peace in each other’s company, made all the more tragic by the audience’s knowledge that this peace cannot last.
The Girl Under the Bleachers in ‘IT Chapter Two’
Image via Warner Bros.
The capering clown of the It movies has certainly provided excellent nightmare fuel. In a movie that stretched to nearly three hours, audiences found themselves barraged by harrowing scenes and kept captive by Bill Skarsgard’s Pennywise, who conveyed more menace in a single facial expression than many actors manage to do in whole monologues.
Yet one of the most poignant moments in this film came when Pennywise targeted a little girl in the audience of a baseball game. His victim was on the verge of walking away, seemingly clued on to the danger she was in; but then Pennywise lured her in by pretending to be lonely and vulnerable. It was this moment of empathy that made the girl’s death that much sadder, thus delivering a truly spectacular emotional punch.
Eloise’s Enchantment in ‘Last Night in Soho’
Image via Focus Features
Last Night in Soho was lauded as a beautiful and inventive story from director Edgar Wright, one which, at first, didn’t seem like a horror film at all. However, as main character Eloise’s investigation of the mysterious Sandy progressed, the film wandered down darker corridors, drawing on violence and paranormal dream sequences to create an enthralling tension.
For most of the film, Eloise revered Sandy, deliberately dressing and acting like the young would-be starlet. Given Eloise’s timidity and vulnerability at the beginning of the film, it was satisfying to see her gain some self-worth and engage more freely with the world. However, the discovery that Sandy was a serial killer shattered Eloise’s fascination with her, forcing us to watch her lose a role model who’d meant so much to her.
History Repeats Itself in ‘The Perfection’
Image via Netflix
Even for a horror movie, The Perfection offers a stark view of the world, delving unrestrainedly into the abuse that can be perpetrated by members of elite societies. The creation of art is used as a justification for violence, and over the course of the movie, the main character, Charlotte, comes to question and ultimately reject this justification.
In a film so rife with pain and violence, one moment stands out as particularly brutal. After fighting so hard against the people who abused her, Charlotte is forced to perform a musical piece for them, and is told that if she makes any mistakes, a young student will be punished for it. It is intensely sad to see how deeply this affects Charlotte, and to know that after all she’s endured, she still wants to protect other innocent lives.
The Vivid Bravado of ‘The Lost Boys’
The Lost Boys may not come up in discussions of epic horror movie cinematography, or make any top ten lists for scariest movie ever. However, this campy, rollicking eighties vampire flick told a great tale of a young boy torn between a shadowy clan of vampires, and his own moral code and familial connections.
This film was funny, it was silly, it had a banging eighties rock soundtrack; but more than that, it was a celebration of the motorcycles-and-tank-tops aesthetic that characterized rural American machismo. Protagonist Michael ultimately kills the supposed leader of the vampire gang, but in doing so, he loses the life he could have had: one where he pushed past his physical and mental limits amidst a pack of bold young vampires.
Sidney’s Self-Doubt in ‘Scream’
Image via Dimension Films
Few characters are as instantly recognisable as Ghostface, and few movies as synonymous with horror as Scream. The 1996 smash hit gave audiences a slasher flick full of tricky twists and suspicious characters, and it created an admirable main character in Sidney Prescott, a traumatized young women who finds herself targeted by a serial killer.
Sidney eventually discovers that her boyfriend, Billy Loomis, is one of the masterminds behind the recent spate of killings in her town, a moment which would be devastating for any young girl. But for audiences, this reveal hits harder because there was a moment earlier in the film where Sidney did suspect Billy. His betrayal is therefore not just a surprise twist, but a punishment for Sidney’s lack of faith in her own instincts.
A Daydream Ends in ’47 Meters Down’
Shark movies have drifted in and out of cinemas ever since Jaws proved the resounding attractiveness of a simple, big-toothed beasty in the water. 47 Meters Down is one such movie that capitalizes on the shark craze, with two sisters, Kate and Lisa, spending most of the film in a giant cage on the ocean floor, fending off attacks from shark after shark.
The film seems to finish with both sisters escaping their watery confines, but a last-minute twist reveals that this is only Lisa’s hallucination, brought on due to nitrogen narcosis from the use of oxygen tanks. The film then ends on Lisa weeping for her lost sister. After spending so long with these characters, watching them claw for survival against the ocean’s ultimate predators, this final scene strikes a bitter and resonant tone; it’s not the happy ending a viewer might hope for, but it’s one that fits the struggle that came before it.
The Wedding Dress in ‘Ready or Not’
Image via Fox Searchlight Pictures
Ready or Not is a rambunctious black comedy where Samara Weaving’s Grace, a young bride, finds that the family she’s married into has been cursed and must sacrifice her before the night is over. As her in-laws hunt her across the extensive span of their manor, Grace finds herself dropping her qualms and taking on a hard survivalist approach to make it to dawn.
The final moments of this film see Grace exiting the manor, still in her wedding dress, which has been completely splattered in gore from all the death she’s witnessed. The sullying of this gown serves as a stark visual reminder of everything that Grace has lost, and the audience is reminded that even though she has emerged victorious, she can never go back to that naive, hopeful version of herself.
The Blond Braid in ‘Bones And All’
Bones and All occupied a strange space in the horror catalog, advertising itself as a horror romance. Right from the get-go, the tone of the movie was restrained, nearly lethargic, and ribbons of loneliness were woven around protagonist Maren Yearly’s every move. Fear was almost an afterthought, and loss was the beating heart of the story.
The deepest wound in the film, however, was not inflicted on Maren, but on her partner Lee. As antagonist Sully breaks into Maren and Lee’s apartment and attacks the pair, a glance at his rope of braids – stolen from his cannibalized victims – reveals that he has already killed Lee’s sister, Kayla. Lee is given no time to digest this loss before he is mortally wounded himself. This ephemeral moment of loss shines through the ending of the film, leaving audiences heavy with that emotional impact.
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