It’s been quite a year for horror, hasn’t it? Jordan Peele’s Get Out is currently being discussed for Academy Award nominations, while the enormously popular It has become the highest-grossing horror movie of all time. And that wasn’t the only Stephen King adaptation this year, as Netflix released Gerald’s Game and 1922 to positive reviews. Popular franchises were revived with critic-repelling films such as Cult of Chucky, Jigsaw, Leatherface, and Rings, while a number of original movies like The Bye Bye Man and Happy Death Day also failed to strike a chord.
Being a massive fan of the genre for many years, I’d like to take you back to four older titles that each deeply affected me in my teenage years or as an adult, contributing to my ever-growing fixation on horror cinema. Now, for the record, this isn’t a list of my favorite horror films, per say. It’s more a round-up of the movies that personally impacted me, regardless of whether they’re masterpieces or not. As an adult, I adore and admire Psycho (1960), Halloween (1978), and The Thing (1982), but by the time I finally watched those awesome titles, I just wasn’t as easily frightened. Hopefully, this list can enhance the way you see these films as either a first-time viewer or as somebody rediscovering them. So, grab the popcorn and let’s discuss the four horror films that changed me, listed in the order I watched them.
#1. The Strangers (2008)
Weirdly intrigued by the genre during my early high school years, I watched my first true horror movie when home alone for an evening — stereotypical, I know. And I think what frightened me most about The Strangers was the idea of it. The film’s opening states that it’s inspired by true events, a statement that’s been made so many times now it’s almost become a meaningless ploy, but a statement I had not yet heard at that age. When researching the “true story” in question, I learned about the unsolved Cabin 28 Murders in Keddie, California, which the screenplay was partially based on. This didn’t exactly help my fright levels.
Late into the third act, a single line emphasizes its realism, when Liv Tyler’s protagonist, Kristen, begs the masked assailants to explain why they’re doing this and the blonde-haired stranger replies, “Because you were home.” Her sincere honesty and lack of reason suddenly made it all the more plausible and, even worse, possible. A completely random crime, not driven by an absurd motive like family or revenge. Simple: this couple was home, so the killers chose them. Afterward, I switched every light on around the house and kept checking over my shoulder and glancing at the windows in fear of spotting a masked stranger. You could say that each film on this list affected me in its own different way and The Strangers absolutely terrified me through traditional suspense and invasion. In retrospect, the brilliance I saw in this film had actually been achieved perfectly in John Carpenter’s Halloween a few decades before. I just hadn’t seen it yet.
#2. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006)
During a Halloween sleepover, a friend and I wanted to try and watch Tobe Hooper’s original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), knowing nothing about it besides its infamous reputation. Searching for links online like two little rebels, we found one subtitled The Beginning and presumed it to be the original. We were very wrong, having instead found the prequel to the remake, far-removed from the original movie. But it didn’t matter. What unfolded before us was the most horrific thing I’d ever seen and I absolutely loved it. From the grisly, maroon violence to R. Lee Ermey’s torturous family leader hurling physical and verbal abuse at the victims, something about this movie just fascinated me. Prior to this, The Strangers was the most adult horror film I had seen, and that’s rated 15 in Britain with most of its horror remaining suspenseful, not graphic. The Beginning, on the other hand, put its violence on full display, portraying human beings committing primal, unspeakable acts to other human beings in the most savage of ways. A particular scene that stayed with me was when Thomas Hewitt, aka Leatherface, obtained his latest mask — if you’ve seen the film, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
I admit The Beginning isn’t one of the franchise’s finest entries, nor is it my favorite after having seen them, but it was the first installment I was exposed to. Back then, I didn’t think the cinema could get any more graphic and cruel.
#3. Wake in Fright (1971)
During my first university year, my lecturer gave me the assignment of watching and analysing Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright, what he called “by no means an ordinary horror film.” Lost for decades but recovered and re-released in the 2000s, it now enjoys Blu-ray sales as one of Australia’s biggest cult classics. I found this peculiar little movie sat innocently on the Blu-ray shelf in CeX and took it home for my assignment, and about an hour after popping it into the disc drive, I wanted to either wash down an ibuprofen or tear my eyes out. So gruelingly raw and realistic, it just gave me a throbbing headache and a desire for anything even remotely light-hearted (I think I turned to the joys of Friends afterwards).
Despite “fright” dominating the title, it’s not actually advertised as a horror, and I suppose it sort of isn’t one. There’s no knife-wielding psychopath, no horrific monster, or supernatural entity here. Just “The Yabba”, an Australian mining town in which the main character (played by Gary Bond) finds himself and, eventually, loses himself amongst the dust and sweat of its brutal, masculine underbelly. Through the movie’s harsh events (each more disturbing than the last), it explores social realism in a way you’ve probably never seen before and leaves you with a portrait of the Outback that you’d much rather keep locked away. After a painful process of analyzing Wake in Fright for class, I told my lecturer I would never watch it again and would probably sell my copy as even the mere cover art reminded me of its horrors. But a few years later, having just not gotten around to it, the Blu-ray still sits on my shelf. I think I’ll keep it now as an appreciation of just how well that film achieved its goals.
#4. Mulholland Dr. (2001)
“It is an illusion…” David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. isn’t often labeled a horror film, but its impact on me not only warrants its placement on here but might make it the most justified of all the films discussed. Famously conceived as a TV pilot that wasn’t green-lit for a full series, Lynch added almost another hour to the salvaged remains and released his project as a film instead. My experience watching this was rather bizarre, much like the film itself. It was only last year that I decided I wanted to finally delve into David Lynch’s work without really knowing much about it. Mulholland Dr. always caught my attention, looking like some kind of intriguing mystery set in Hollywood — I suppose I was both right and wrong. Buying the picture on Blu-ray, I watched it one morning over coffee, and you know what? I hated it. I mean, of course, I hated it. I didn’t understand a single thing by the end! That entire day I simply mulled over the film as I went to class and came back, feeling pretty gutted. But then, that night, something brilliant happened. I played the film again from the beginning and by the end, I was changed by it. It moved me, it impressed me, and it frightened me.
I won’t discuss the film’s events in fear of spoiling it for those who haven’t experienced it yet, but I can’t recommend it enough for those who haven’t. Mulholland Dr. is like a box of puzzle pieces spilled out over the floor. The difference is that puzzles usually have only one arrangement, while Mulholland Dr. is anything and everything you want it to be. While Lynch has his own secret structural answer and has even provided fans with clues to find it, these pieces can fit together in multiple different ways depending on what the viewer looks for. It goes without saying that some of the film’s content is visually and conceptually unsettling and will probably remain with you for a while after you’ve finished it, but what I truly feared (and strangely appreciated) most on that second viewing was the way Lynch’s smart, one-of-a-kind direction manipulated and bewildered me from behind the camera. To me, that’s scarier than a monster on-screen.