Bollywood's popular writer-director Abbas Tyrewala once narrated an interesting incident that happened to him while watching a horror film in the theatre. He spotted a man sitting apart from the rest of the audience. The reason the man sat alone was he wanted to get scared. That, precisely, is the charm of horror films. They frighten us, make us cover our faces in fear, yet we can't resist peeking from the corner of our eyes.
But is horror on celluloid only about haunted houses, malevolent spirits, blood and gore? Not for me! My love for the genre stems from what Alfred Hitchcock remarked: “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” The fear of evil is psychologically more horrifying than the actual sight of it. That's why my favourites don't include Evil Dead or Dracula, but rather those that aren't just skin-deep.
Among the horror films I've watched – ranging from terrific to terrible – here's a list (in no order of preference) of my most-loved ones.
The Others (Dir: Alejandro Amenábar; English)
A horror masterpiece, The Others treads a rather difficult path between the supernatural and the psychological. Haunted mansion, uncanny occurrences, distressed lady with troubled kids and gloomy darkness: it's vintage gothic horror! The film gets creepier as it unfolds and culminates into a heart-in-your-mouth twist climax. It completely bowls you over, making you question who to believe in and who to fear.
The Devil's Backbone (Dir: Guillermo del Toro; Spanish)
An unusual horror film that raises the pertinent-yet-often-ignored question: what is a ghost? It effortlessly blends elements of gothic horror and magical realism, while making a strong comment on the horrors of war. Del Toro packs in some genuinely hair-raising moments that will haunt you for a long time to come.
The Shining (Dir: Stanley Kubrick; English)
The auteur treaded the supernatural path only once, but when he did, Kubrick created a cult classic. Inspired by Stephen King's novel, the film has all the elements of classic horror – isolated hotel, evil spirits, paranormal activities, possession – perfectly blended with Kubrick's painstakingly immaculate direction. Add to that a grinning Jack Nicholson saying, “Here's Johnny!” Unforgettably horrifying!
A Tale of Two Sisters (Dir: Kim Ji-woon; Korean)
Asian horrors create a sense of dread right from the first frame and then escalate the tension, luring viewers into their spooky realm. Here's one such gem! The plot is complex, but never gets tedious, thanks to the taut screenplay. The explosive climax where the 'monster' is revealed comes across as a jolt, making you gasp for breath.
1408 (Dir: Mikael Håfström; English)
Another Stephen King adaptation, 1408 consciously stays away from done-to-death horror tricks and yet petrifies you every moment. The action takes place in a hotel room and by the time the finale arrives, a sense of paranoia engulfs you. The film has three alternate endings in addition to the theatrical one, and interestingly, none matches King's original climax!
The Orphanage (Dir: Juan Antonio Bayona; Spanish)
Del Toro opened the peephole, but it was Bayona's spine-chilling thriller that sucked me into the world of Spanish horror cinema. No ghastly monsters, no digital gimmicks, the film convincingly creates a sinister atmosphere without descending to clichéd tactics. Watch out for the scene where the protagonist initiates a game to contact the ghost children. Goosebumps guaranteed!
The Ring (Dir: Gore Verbinski; English)
Unfolding like a thriller, The Ring frightens you, disturbs you and yet makes you eagerly await the next twist. The gripping narrative coupled with impressive camerawork (underexposed, grey-tinged shots accentuating the dark, menacing ambience) makes it a must-watch. And who can forget the hideous, wet-haired ghost girl crawling out of the TV set? It ruined my night's sleep!
Psycho (Dir: Alfred Hitchcock; English)
Talk about horror cinema and not mention the maestro of suspense? Impossible! An edge-of-the-seat whodunit, Hitchcock's masterpiece makes you fear everyone because even the person sitting beside you could be a killer! If you still think Psycho isn't as terrifying as ghost-horror, watch the iconic shower scene. You will be scared. Very scared.
Audition (Dir: Takashi Miike; Japanese)
Horror stories should feature ghosts, says who? Exploring horror's psychological sphere, Audition makes you uncomfortable over and over again, infusing a sense of fear-lurking-behind throughout. Notorious for his graphic depictions of gore and violence, Miike redefines the slasher genre and presents one of the bloodiest climaxes I've ever seen. Warning for the faint-hearted: watch it at your own risk!
Oculus (Dir: Mike Flanagan; English)
Intense and unsettling, Flanagan's non-formulaic scare story spooks your psyche instead of resorting to cheap gore. Like the characters, you too start disbelieving your eyes, doubting what's happening is real at all. Surprisingly, the ghosts make fleeting appearances and yet you're hooked, courtesy the smart treatment and the hero (or villain?): the ominous mirror.
The next time you pick any of these movies, watch them alone. At night. In a dark room.
Image design: Rahul Nagi
Photo credit: Andy Crawford © Dorling Kindersley