The Unsettling End: An Ode to My Favorite Horror Films

The first time I was introduced to the horror genre, or rather the “scary movie,” was when I was in preschool. It was also around the same time I was introduced to sex on screen, probably from the same movie. I was three years old when Wes Craven’s “Scream” came out in 1996 and terrified at this white droopy face on TV in my parent’s room. I’m not even sure if that movie could justly be called a horror flick, but it kept me away from them for a number of years. I once saw Leprechaun: Back 2 tha Hood” on what probably was the SciFi channel (before the stupid SyFy) and was scared to use the bathroom for a while. I had no idea what horror was, much less the variations on the genre and so became a certified wimp until I got over it. I never gave the genre a proper chance again, although “What Lies Beneath” and “The Grudge” did give me a good scare.

My attitude towards these movies, especially in the 2000s and the influx of recent flops within the genre, was that these movies are trite and the worst of all, predictable. It’s all atmosphere with no punch, no metaphor, deep thinking, unsettling feeling that stays with you throughout the movie. When I started getting into film, I stayed away from the genre as well, but after watching one of my favorite movies the 1976 Spanish drama directed by Carlos Saura, “Cria Cuervos,” and hearing arguments that it was a “borderline horror film,” I started to change my thinking. I usually go to the past for my favorite horror flicks, and most of them aren’t even that scary. I think our disappointment with the genre is garnered from a perception that cinema is supposed to be a spectacle, and in many ways it is. Stanley Kubrick’s fantastic world in “The Shining” speaks to this, as does David Lynch’s variations on the Black Lodge. When I say spectacle, I mean we expect movies to do the emoting for us and also draw out these theatrical reactions so that we feel scared, thrilled and exhilarated. The formula for modern horror movies works on this principle and creates a whirlwind of boring films lacking true dimension.  You know it when you see it – the dim lighting, handsome villain, buxom girl, the spike note in the soundtrack, turn around: nothing, then suddenly a sight gag to scare you. When I think about my favorite horror films, most of them didn’t even scare me at all (with the exception of one, though it’s not even a movie) yet they’re fantastic films with unsettling feelings shown, not forced, through cinematography, set design, and minute details.

Rosmary’s Baby (1968)

The first is “Rosemary’s Baby,” a classic on many people’s lists. The tale of Rosemary Woodhouse is based on the novel by Ira Levin and adapted for the screen by Roman Polanski. Most people who haven’t seen it recognize it for Mia Farrow’s haircut. “It’s Vidal Sassoon. It’s very in.” Those who have seen it need no convincing of its genius. Shot in Technicolor, the film’s visual impact is less obvious than Kubrick’s “The Shining,” but it does provide the right depth in defining characters. Rosemary’s ghostly look at the beginning of her pregnancy in contrast to the Castevet’s tacky powdered on face and frilly clothes depicts the unsuspecting devil growing inside Rosemary that threatens to take over her appearance. The haunted-mansion-turned-apartment complex, the overbearing prominence of her nosy neighbors, a strange “good-luck” charm, the death and handicaps of those against her husband and his narcissistic star-hungry disposition are all components that set the stage for the horror that is to come. We see the reality of this horror in the beginning of the film, yet it’s under the hazy guise of a hallucination or dream. We forget about it until evidence leads us, and Rosemary, to no longer deny the truth. The film turns into a magnificent thriller toward the end before ending strangely and perfectly. We never see the product of this horror, save for a cheesy, superimposed image of the Devil’s eyes. The true horror after the anticipation comes from the imagination and its decoration: a black-tulle veiled basinet hanging an upside-down cross.

Levin based the impossible story on the reality of New York in 1965-1966. Collecting newspaper clippings, the writer used the Pope’s October visit to the city as the night of conception, so the baby would arrive half a year from Christmas. When Polanski’s film came out in 1968, like most good European movies, it was met with angry viewers. People from the church condemned the film, but perhaps because of this anger, and because of the era no doubt, the film persevered.

Said Levin in a 2003 essay featured in the film’s Criterion Collection DVD: “The success of ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ inspired ‘Exorcists’ and ‘Omens’ and lots of et ceteras. Two generations of youngsters have grown into adulthood watching depictions of Satan as a living reality. Here’s what I worry about now: If I hadn’t pursued an idea for a suspense novel almost forty years ago, would there be quite as many religious fundamentalists around today?”

The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)

In many ways, “The Spirit of the Beehive” (“El Espiritu de la Colmena”) could be considered a sister in Spanish cinema to the aforementioned “Cria Cuervos.”

Both films start the brilliant Ana Torrent as a wide-eyed, somber child obsessed with death. Both films are considered to be metaphors for the Franco regime, but whereas “Cria” classified as borderline horror, “The Spirit of the Beehive” goes full on. You won’t notice it until you finish watching the movie. You won’t jump out of your seat or scream, but you will feel the unsettling creepiness of film that seemed to be floating in cinematic space leaving more questions asked than answered and relying on that childish brand of fear that never really leaves us.

The film was released in 1973, directed by Victor Erice. It’s set in a lonely, dilapidated village somewhere in Spain in the 1940s. The imagery evokes border towns destroyed by war to the likes of the concentration camp featured in the French love story, “Entre Nous.”

The movie is grounded on the beginning of cinema and the travelling movie theatres that would set up a projector in a building an charge una peseta to escape to a new world. The girls, Ana (as in “Cria,” her character takes the same name) and her sister Isabel watch a film about Frankenstein for the first time and Ana asks her sister what happened to the little girl who wanted to play with Frankenstein. She died. Why? Her older sister shrugs and tells her she’s taken on the real-life role of the girl and has met Frankenstein – the spirit, which is the catalyst for Ana to go searching for him in remote fields.

The girls live secluded in a mansion with honey-comb resembling windows overlooking the town. The house is so big, the parents never seem to be in the same vicinity. Their mother writes love letters to a mystery man (or men) off in the war. The father is a beekeeper and a poet. Ana sometimes goes into his study and gets close to the indoor beehive he has installed.

The film is cinematographically beautiful, rich in warm honey tones, just as the vast plains where Ana meets “the spirit” who is really just a homeless man taking shelter in a weathered building. She steals her father’s coat and pocket watch to help the spirit, and the police later find them. Embarrassed, Ana runs away into the dark forest and presumably eats a mushroom what causes her to hallucinate (though that’s my own reading of it. The mushroom comes from an earlier allusion in the film) and Frankenstein appears.

Ana and her sister explore death without much understanding, as a joke, but one sister is fixated on the unknown, which can often be a dangerous place, even for the adult.

Silence of the Lambs (1991)

It took me a long time to finally watch “Silence of the Lambs,” but when I did I loved it. What all these movies have in common is their strong, often ambiguous endings. These are endings that stick with you that make you think and don’t promise roses. Unfortunately, this ending made way for sequels, which the movie didn’t need, but I digress.

Cop dramas and serial killers always make for good horror stories. Instead of focusing on the unknown, such as spirits, demons or ghosts, our source of fear is familiarly human, and with that comes the fear that we have that capacity inside us.

The film is complicated for a horror film. It stars a young Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins of course plays the infamous and over-portrayed Hannibal Lecter, an intellectual, former psychiatrist with a distinct palette for cannibalism. He helps Foster, starring as the FBI agent-in-training Clarice Starling, find the psychopathic serial killer, Buffalo Bill, who was a former patient of Lecter’s.

Dealing with two villains psychologically ramifies the film, but ultimately we have to settle with the unsettling fact within ourselves that one villain is the lesser of two evils.

The film focuses on a variety of themes such as women as the object of the male gaze. Clarice Starling is noticeably gawked at by her superior, by Lecter, the prison ward and pretty much everyone else she meets. We also deal with the male gaze in the case of Buffalo Bill, who uses society’s endangering gaze on himself as he abducts and kills women sixe 14-16 to skin them and make a “woman suit” made out of flesh. Lecter says he’s not really a transgendered woman, he just thinks he is. Either way, this “woman suit” shows the theme of the disposability of human flesh and the fear that comes with it.

Buffalo Bill merits just as much praise as Hannibal Lector, although we see less of him. One of my favorite movie scenes ever has to be the BEAUTIFUL, creepy, funny and overall unsettling showcase Bill puts on for himself as he applies makeup to the tune of Q Lazarus’ “Goodbye Horses” and his victim’s screams coming from afar.

There’s also as much suspense warranted throughout the film as Starling puts all the pieces together, solves Lecter’s puzzles and ends up in the belly of the wolf without knowing it. The editing in the film is not to be overlooked, successfully heightening the suspense and surprising viewers without the need to use gags or visual/auditory cues that something scary is about to happen.

Twin Peaks (1990)

I save David Lynch’s foray into television for last because I am primarily a TV writer, and this show will forever have a place in my heart. There are plenty of episodes that are scary, but the series itself is fantastically scary because it lingers with you way after the end. This is an instance where the fear of the unknown comes into play, but with the face of a human killer.

Lynch takes on the paranormal and mixes it with thoughtfully enacted kitsch to create a world far from fantasy, realistic enough to happen anywhere, yet to strange to comprehend. The death of the homecoming queen, Laura Palmer, is central to this show, and the search for her killer extends way beyond that. Becoming convoluted at times, the series’ second and last season does get a little muddy and lost before finishing off with the more disturbing episode ever.

Watching the entire series is a must to get to this point. There are plenty of other harrowing episodes such as “Lonely Souls,” in Season 2, but nothing compares to the finale “Beyond Life and Death.”

For a villain who only totals being on screen for about 6 minutes in the entire series, Bob is one of the scariest figures in the horror genre. This is one episode that prevented me from sleeping. It’s got the WTF-factor of Frank is “Donnie Darko” and the human element of Buffalo Bill. The credit goes to Lynch for keeping a slow burn on the elements of the show that add up to one spectacular ending.

The show has been mimicked recently by series like “The Killing” (almost exactly, down to the tagline of Season 1) and “Top of the Lake,” each saying the offer something new to the game, but they’re all trying to copy “Twin Peaks,” but frankly, no one can.


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Author: Claudia Marina View all posts by
Journalism student at the University of Florida. Sally Draper is my spirit animal. I love writing about TV and how it affects culture. Occasionally I watch bad TV, but reviews make it better.

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