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Recently, in honor of Halloween, I raided the Digital Film Academy library for horror films (well-known and obscure) that filmmakers need to see. If you love horror, and especially if you hope to make horror films, all of the below deserve a look.
BEST HITCHCOCK – Psycho, 1960, Alfred Hitchcock
Alfred Hitchcock churned out masterpiece after masterpiece, and the DFA has his masterpiece collection. This includes other horror classics like The Birds, but I’m going with Psycho as his best ever. This movie, the story of a young woman who steals $40,000 and then escapes to a motel with a very creepy secret, beat out the censorship system and opened the door for all horror movies to come. Even though it breaks so many “rules” (it kills off its heroine and has an exposition-filled ending), it’s completely engrossing from start to finish. Its cultural impact has also been tremendous. In addition to spawning countless parodies, sequels, a TV show, and a remake that you’re better off avoiding, it’s forever linked in people’s minds with taking a shower… and with roadside motels. Not to mention that the words “mommy issues” now go hand-in-hand with “Norman Bates.”
Filmmakers need to study Psycho not just for the inventive shots, but also for a lesson in how to build buzz… part of the film’s success is attributed to how Hitchcock refused to allow people inside the theater once it started, heightening curiosity.
MOST PSYCHEDELIC – Santa Sangre, 1989, Alejandro Jodorowsky
This will rank among the strangest movies you’ve ever seen – but will also leave you in awe. A much more graphic and somewhat modernized version of Psycho, Santa Sangre tells the story of a circus boy, Fenix, who witnessed his mother pouring acid on his father’s genitals and his father, consequently, cutting off his mother’s arms. Why? His mother had just caught his father in the act with the Tattooed Lady.
Years later, Fenix’s mother shows up and demands that he act as her arms. In addition to their creepy stage act, “Concha and Her Magic Arms,” what his mother wants most of all is for “her arms” to carry out a series of brutal murders, the victims being any and all women who incite lust in her son. But is Fenix’s mother really there, or the product of a drug-induced hallucination? Santa Sangre’s powerful visuals and subtle commentary on such issues as poverty, religion, and international relations, combine with its overall creepiness to deliver a movie every horror fan MUST see.
CLASSIC – Rosemary’s Baby, 1968, Roman Polanski
This is the ultimate paranoia movie. Rosemary’s Baby, based on the best-selling book of the same title, tells the story of Rosemary Woodhouse, a young wife who suspects that her husband made a horrifying deal with their Satan-worshipping neighbors: Rosemary’s baby in exchange for help advancing his career.
More than that, following a dinner with these neighbors, Rosemary passes out and dreams that she is raped by the devil. When she comes to, her husband says he made love to her while she was unconscious, so they wouldn’t miss a chance to conceive. (What a gentleman). Rosemary does conceive that night, and then things just get worse…
While the film obviously dapples in the super-natural, part of its brilliance is that the
supernatural elements are so subtly done that the audience is left questioning whether or not anything scary is really happening to Rosemary – until the chilling final scene.
MOST DISTURBING – Persona, 1966, Ingmar Bergman
It’s hard to look directly at the screen while watching Persona, which is odd… despite two moments when the screen “ruptures,” showing disturbing images, you’re mostly just watching two women interact. Yet your heart rate will climb and you’ll find it almost impossible to look.
Persona tells the story of Elisabet, a famous actress who, one day, stops speaking. She’s hospitalized and, during an agonizingly long close up, looks pleadingly at the audience for help. (The only time in my life when I had to fast-forward out of sheer discomfort.) Her nurse, Alma, winds up taking her to a beach house to rest and recover and, throughout the course of their trip, Alma begins to lose her mind. Dark secrets from Alma’s past emerge in her incessant babble, but it becomes increasingly hard to tell whether these things happened to her or to Elisabet. Famously, the movie contains the first-ever merging of two faces into one onscreen.
Once you watch it, you can read more about what I thought was going on at:
BEST METAPHORS – Night of the Living Dead, 1968, George A. Romero
It’s famous for the zombies and a particularly disturbing scene where a child eats her parents, but the reason it’s on this list is because NOTLD was saying more than meets the eye. This film, which sparked a zombie craze, is in actuality one giant metaphor for communism, heartland theory, and, of course, racial tension. This makes it a must-study for any would-be filmmakers who are in touch with the fact that each era’s most popular horror films often achieve their status by subconsciously tapping into the fears of their time.
To top it all off, metaphors aside, NOTLD pulls off a super creepy thrill ride even at face value.
(DFA students may check out these films from the DFA library at any time!)
Have a favorite horror flick that’s not on the list? Tell us about it in the comments!
By Digital Film Academy Blog Manager Sara McDermott Jain