Over the past couple years, I’ve written repeatedly about how “horror is everywhere”: how horror iconography slips across genre boundaries, turning up in surprising places; how savvy filmmakers employ traditional horror imagery—vampires, witches, ghosts, etc.—even in “straight” dramas, often to shocking effect. So now here are five more films, all plucked from the TSPDT “1,000 Greatest Films” list, and their scariest moments…
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
I’m certainly not the first to point out that Frank Capra’s “beloved Christmas classic” is also one of the darkest films to emerge from 1940s Hollywood, tearing as it does into American ideals like family and the free market with severe emotional precision. But the darkness extends beyond the film’s sociopolitical implications: when Clarence lets George experience the world if he had never been born, it’s visually coded as an actual horror movie—an anti-ghost story, if you will. George investigates his and Mary’s would-be house, but nobody lives there; in this reality, it’s an unlit, decrepit building with graffiti and broken windows. And it’s haunted, sure enough, by George and his now-false memories of his wife and children. Capra uses cobwebs and shadows right out of Gothic horror to give George the ultimate “Be careful what you wish for.”
Easy Rider (1969)
Long before he became an avatar of cackling grotesquerie in The Shining and Batman, Jack Nicholson was on the other side of horror, as a victim of redneck violence in Dennis Hopper’s hippie picaresque. Although smoking pot and riding motorcycles may sound like fun, a cloud of southern “good ol’ boy” bigotry hangs over the film. When free spirits Billy (Hopper), Wyatt (Peter Fonda), and George (Nicholson) stop off for lunch in a small Louisiana town, their mildly rebellious looks and behavior stir up rage and jealousy in the local men, leading to a late-night ambush on the hippies’ campsite and George’s death by beating. This bloody turn of events directly anticipates a whole wave of horror movies (Deliverance, The Hills Have Eyes, Pumpkinhead) wherein rural folk assault unwanted outsiders. (See “Getting Even,” the third chapter of Carol Clover’s Men, Women, and Chain Saws for more on this “city vs. country” strain of horror.)
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Really, what isn’t scary in Stanley Kubrick’s dystopian classic? In its futuristic England, no amount of locked doors can keep out psychopathic thugs, whose ranks include the protagonist, Alex. The film follows two different home invasion subplots, one of which segues into a rape-revenge narrative, while the other ends abruptly when Alex cracks the homeowner’s skull with a penis statue. The only reasons, I’d say, that A Clockwork Orange isn’t categorized as pure horror are 1) because of its sci-fi setting and 2) because it’s from the POV of the monster. And what a monster! Malcolm McDowell’s performance stretches the definition of “human” as he gibbers, lies, and beats his way through adolescence. Just listen to his low, chuckling delivery of the closing line, “I was cured all right.” Absolutely spine-chilling.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Watch the last 10-15 minutes of Coppola’s war epic without sound or context. Then tell me it doesn’t look like the kinkiest, most homoerotic art-horror movie ever made. A soldier, wearing little more than sweat, fog, and shadow, breaks into a temple and—symbolically cross-cut with the ritual slaughter of a water buffalo—stabs an older man to death. By now, they’re both possessed by “the jungle” (i.e. by the film’s still-colonialist conception of the Southeast Asian wilderness) and far from the pseudo-civilization of the American military. That soldier, Martin Sheen’s Willard, has refashioned himself as something more like the primordial Creature from the Black Lagoon than a war hero. And the coup de grâce he delivers is edited to feel more like an orgasm than an assassination. “The horror, the horror,” indeed.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Quentin Tarantino routinely makes visual nods to obscure horror movies—see the references to Dario Argento and Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell in the first Kill Bill, for example—but when Pulp Fiction‘s “Gold Watch” chapter (my favorite of the bunch) descends into Maynard’s basement, its horror is more than just an allusion. It becomes a short, sharp recapitulation of that same “city vs. country” horror found in Easy Rider (or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), as a pair of Angelenos are bound and gagged by a coven of pro-Confederate hick rapists. Butch and Marsellus get their grisly revenge, of course, but they can’t unsee what they’ve seen: that L.A.’s horrors go so much deeper than the criminal underworld they’re used to.
This lesson applies equally well to moviegoers, too: you may think you know what genre you’re in, but horror could be lurking just around the corner.