With the horror genre currently dominated by gory ‘torture porn’ flicks like the Saw and Hostel franchises, psychological horror has temporarily fallen out of favour with mainstream film studios and cinema audiences. For fans of this tense and emotionally manipulative subgenre, it’s a perfect time to sit back and reflect on past glories while we wait for a new wave of chilling psychological horror movies to hit our screens.
Psychological horror has always relied on a gradual build up of tension and uneasiness for its scares rather than the monsters, cheap shocks and gore of splatter and slasher movies. That’s not to say that these elements never feature but the one overarching theme of psychological horror is that what we can’t see, whether it’s malevolent spirits or the dark side of the human psyche, is often far more terrifying than what’s out in the open.
Stanley Kubrick’s adaption of Stephen King’s classic novel is in many ways the archetypal psychological horror movie. Jack Nicholson is mesmerising as writer-turned-hotel caretaker Jack Torrance and his slow descent into madness is a deeply unsettling theme throughout the movie. The tension slowly mounts as the movie progresses, climaxing in the famous “Here’s Johnny!” scene that has been copied and parodied over and over again. Despite the presence of supernatural phenomena ranging from an Indian burial ground to ghosts, it’s ultimately Nicholson’s Jack who is the real menace in The Shining.
Originally conceived as a psychological thriller by director Alfred Hitchcock, the terror that Psycho has inflicted on audiences in the fifty years since its release has made it something of a horror legend. As well as being a remarkable feat of writing and cinematography, Psycho’s rejection of the supernatural proved once and for all that the innate darkness of human nature could be as terrifying as any monster. You would think after all the killing that went on in the Bates Motel, the owner would eventually seek legal counsel.
Another literary adoption, the Exorcist is widely considered one of the most disturbing films of all time thanks to it traumatic mixture of body horror, deeply sacrilegious themes and gruesome special effects. On its release in 1973 many movie theatres in America supplied audience members with “Exorcist barf bags” in case on screen events became a little too much to stomach. Even today, some viewers find the film too distressing to watch in one sitting.
Not to be confused with 2002 US remake ‘The Ring’, 1998 Japanese horror movie Ring made a big splash when it arrived in the West, giving a stagnating genre a much needed shot in the arm. While the film’s main plot device – a cursed videotape that kills the viewer seven days after watching – seems a little hokey at first, Ring’s tale of a perpetual cycle of death and terror surely ranks among the most disturbing pieces of cinema ever committed to celluloid.
David Cronenberg is generally regarded as the undisputed master of body horror but Dead Ringers is deeply unsettling even by his twisted standards. Jeremy Irons plays Elliot and Beverly Mantle, identical twin gynaecologists who seduce women who come to their clinic. The twins’ mental breakdown and fascination with mutation and abnormality is often difficult to watch and plays on some of our deepest fears.
Though highly reminiscent of fellow ‘found footage’ movie The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity is an entirely different beast altogether. Made for only $15,000 dollars, the film’s lo-fi aesthetic greatly contributes to blurring the line between reality and fiction as we watch home movie footage of a young couple being haunted in their home. The well-regarded sequel continued the story in 2010 and you can expect to see the Paranormal Activity 2 DVD in stores early in 2011.
Japanese horror Audition is one of the few movies to successfully bridge the gap between contemporary ‘torture porn’ and classic psychological horror. Featuring brutal scenes of torture and extreme psychological torment, Audition has disturbed even seasoned horror directors like Eli Roth and Rob Zombie and reputedly caused some audience members to collapse in early screenings. Definitely not one for the easily shocked.
The original ‘demon child’ movie that went on to inspire The Exorcist and the Omen, Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby pulls no punches. The story follows the titular Rosemary Woodhouse, who becomes pregnant after her husband makes a bizarre pact with a pair of eccentric neighbours. As the story progresses, it is revealed that baby is the spawn of Satan. Polanski’s personal difficulties in recent years may have pulled attention away from his filmmaking but movie’s like Rosemary’s Baby prove that he was a visionary talent in his day.
Jacob’s Ladder, directed by Adrian Lyne, is another crossover movie that introduces horror elements to an already disturbing psychological thriller. Vietnam veteran Jacob Singer experiences bizarre hallucinations that sees the perspective constantly shift from the film’s present day of 1975 to the action on the Mekong Delta. The fractured timeline is extremely disorientating and the movie’s big reveal at the end plays on our fears of mortality, conspiracy and madness.
Mulholland Drive, along with Blue Velvet, is generally considered director David Lynch’s masterwork. Blurring the line between the supernatural, hallucination and mental illness, Mulholland Drive’s plot, which follows the story of up-and-coming actress Betty Elms and her friendship with an amnesiac is non-linear and confusing, adding to the sense that the boundaries of perception are being broken. A strong surrealist streak runs through the movie and camera tricks, bizarre lighting and unusual shot framing greatly add to the sense of paranoia and deception that grow as the film progresses.
As with any list, there’s always something that has to be left out so honourable mentions must also go to the chilling crime thriller The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and its cannibalistic anti-hero Hannibal Lecter, Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) Guillermo Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Robert Aldrich’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962).
Lauren Thomas is part of the digital blogging team at getyourblogsout.com who work with brands like Play.com. For more information about Lauren, or to keep up to date with the latest in entertainment news, check out her posts at getyourblogsout.com or visit her Twitter account, @BlogsOut.