Here at 25YLSite, we handle a lot of heavy lifting. Analysis, interpretation, deep discussion, introspective interviews…you name it, we’ve got it. “Favorites” takes a lighter approach to the material we normally cover. Each week, we will take you through a list of favorites—whether it’s moments, scenes, episodes, characters, lines of dialogue, whatever!—in bite-sized articles perfect for your lunch break, a dull commute, or anywhere you need to take a Moment of Zen. So, sit back and enjoy this week’s offering: Hannah Searson’s top horror films for wimps.
For reference, here is an incomplete list of things that scare me: snakes, loud noises, crowds, bees, wasps, loud flies, being outside of my house at night, fire, the very concept of insomnia, people in real life bringing up my Twitter, losing my memory, being stranded somewhere unfamiliar, driving, snow…
My list of fears is endless, so Halloween is kind of a nightmare for me. Even more unfortunately, I enjoy horror films. I love their metaphors, their visual style. I love the women at the centre of them, and the gore, and how engrossed you get in the story as a viewer. I’ve always been too scared to watch many of them, though. I spent my childhood reading the backs of DVDs in supermarkets, trying to figure out if I’d be brave enough to watch it, should the opportunity arise. I counted it as a genuine achievement earlier this year when I made it through roughly two thirds of the (admittedly excellent) It Follows before switching to watching the Great British Bake Off in an attempt to purge the fear from my mind (It didn’t work. I still had nightmares that night).
I also understand that I’m not the only one who feels that way; who is quite comfortable in identifying as a bit of a wimp, but loves good films. So, in the spirit of Halloween, I humbly present some of my favourite horror films that won’t give you too many nightmares, but also won’t embarrass you in front of your friends when you suggest it for a Halloween film night—unlike when I suggested watching the Disney Channel Original Movie 1998 classic, Halloweentown. An excellent film, to be sure, but not quite the right vibe.
The Conjuring (2013, dir. James Wan)
I watched James Wan’s film, based (extremely loosely) on a true story from the 1970s, earlier this summer when I was feeling particularly brave. I remember watching the trailer in cinemas and gripping my friend’s hand embarrassingly tightly as I tried to push through it without running to hide in the bathroom, so I was proud of myself for not only watching the film in its entirety, but also loving it.
The Perrons are a very nice family who have recently made a poor real estate choice. The family consists of the parents (played by Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor), and their five daughters. As it’s a horror film, I’m sure you can guess that the house is haunted. After the hauntings begin to effect each member of the family (including the dog), they seek the help of real-life married paranormal investigators/demonologists, Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). A highly-detailed investigation, and exorcism-related hijinks, ensue.
Ed and Lorraine are the true stars of the film—they’re charming and funny and sweet. You, and the Perrons, trust them; they’re compassionate and kind towards the family and have a genuinely adorable marriage. They’re also eminently sensible people. They have a room in their house where they keep all their haunted objects from previous cases, but they’ve clearly explained to their daughter why she’s not allowed to play in there. A very good move. Also, the first thing they do upon arriving at the Perrons is make the family feel safe in their own home again, reminding them of happy family memories to act as a balance to the terror of the haunting. They treat the haunting methodically, almost scientifically. They’re wonderful. I love them. I trust them. If my house is ever haunted, I know who I’m calling to bust the ghost.
The film itself is creepy, without much gore. There is the occasional jump scare, but the film feeds off a creepy atmosphere more than anything else. Honestly, by the time I finished, I was charmed, not scared. A solid Halloween film night choice.
The VVitch (2015, dir. Robert Eggers)
I am proud to say that I did not find The VVitch scary. It’s a period drama, after all, and period dramas inherently add a bit of distance in horror. You can’t really be all that scared when Finchy from the original version of The Office is talking in “thee”s and “thou”s. But it was a great film, and definitely suitable for a more ‘wine and cheeseboard’-style Halloween film night.
The VVitch is delightful. It’s great. Anya Taylor-Joy is magnificent as Thomasin. The cinematography, the dialogue, the music, and performances all combine to make it into a wonderfully creepy folktale.
Indeed, its subtitle is ‘A New England Folktale.’ That’s fascinating—it doesn’t even position itself as a horror film, but rather as a folktale; a genre that runs on very different rules to horror. There are layers upon layers of storytelling in the film, as characters narrate stories of witches, see things in the woods, and a family turns into something truly monstrous. More than anything, Eggers’ film relies on the anxiety wrought by isolation from the outside world to create a sense of dread and paranoia.
The family at the heart of The VVitch are exiled from their village in colonial New England due to the father’s (Ralph Ineson) overzealous religious beliefs (you’ve got to be sure his beliefs are truly hardcore to get exiled from a puritanical settlement). They move to a meadow deep in the woods, and are gradually picked off one by one by a mysterious presence. Maybe. Or maybe Thomasin truly is an evil witch who has pledged her soul to Satan. But who can blame her? After all, what teenage girl wouldn’t want to “live deliciously”?
Cloverfield (2008, Matt Reeves)
Cloverfield was more of an event than a film. I don’t think I can explain to you what the Cloverfield marketing ARG (Augmented Reality Game) was like to follow unless you were Extremely Online in 2008. It was so involved—secret websites featuring videos developing background extras from the film into characters were found, there were MySpace pages (because it was 2007-2008) where characters from the film interacted with each other in real time. It was so entertaining; probably more so than the film itself.
This is because every man in this film is an unlikeable monster. They all suck. They’re arrogant and moronic and when they die, you feel like they sort of had it coming. Because they did. Team Cloverfield Monster all the way. I’m limiting this to the men because two of the women in the film—played by Lizzy Caplan and Jessica Lucas respectively—act like normal, sensible human beings who definitely do not deserve to be forced to hang out with these losers. Why are they friends? How are these two sensible, attractive women friends with these people? That’s the true mystery at the heart of the Cloverfield universe.
So, why is it on this list? Simple: watching unlikeable, awful people in a horror film die gruesomely is a Halloween tradition, and a worthy one at that. Also it’s a really entertaining film with some truly excellent sequences (I regularly have nightmares about the subway scene). If I were to describe the type of Halloween party where you could comfortably watch this film, I’d say it’d be one where there are almost too many people seated on the sofa, there’s large bowls of popcorn on the coffee table, and your friends are in the mood to yell at the screen.
Get Out (2017, dir. Jordan Peele)
Do I even need to explain why Get Out rules at this point? Jordan Peele won an Oscar for his screenplay. It was a serious contender for Best Picture. It’s incisive, political, urgent and, most of all, just a really great film.
It’s also funny as hell. “I would have voted for Obama a third time if I could” Bradley Whitford cluelessly tells Daniel Kaluuya, because that’s the ultimate sign of being Not Racist, of course. The scene where Catherine Keener slowly hypnotises Chris (Kaluuya) by stirring her spoon in her teacup and forcing him to talk about the trauma of losing his mother is terrifying in a really great way. It’s not scary because of jump scares or gore (although I should warn that there is some gore), but because the film itself disarms you with its charm, its intelligence, insidiously working its way inside your brain until, like Chris, you fall into its trap.
My favourite thing about Get Out is how it brings the metaphors back to horror. Peele states the thesis of the film from the start—of liberal white people’s fetishization of black people, of racism and how simply covering its rot with nicer language does nothing to actually address the real issue of systemic and institutional racial inequality. He homes in on this and doesn’t let up on his anger, his fear and his amusement throughout the film.
Get Out is a great horror film because the fears it evokes linger after it has ended. It identifies something that no one likes to acknowledge (for white people because it makes them, us, feel guilty, for black people because it means the problem is more pervasive and deep-rooted than can be tackled) and explores it with nuance, intelligence and wit.
The Thing (1982, dir. John Carpenter)
There’s something wonderful about being able to see the seams of special effects. I love old episodes of Doctor Who, where you can clearly see that the alien is just a man in a suit. I find it lovely—a mark of human ingenuity.
John Carpenter’s The Thing is perfect for that. It’s a classic for a reason—it’s scary and its use of practical effects is groundbreaking. The shape-shifting creature at the heart of the film holds up, as does the gore. But what stuck with me long after it ended was the paranoia, as the crew of the Antarctic station turn on each other, convinced that each other has been taken over by the creature. Ultimately, it’s a film about the effect of isolation, and how it crawls under your skin, and transforms you into something you can’t recognise.
The Thing, despite being the oldest film on this list, is also the scariest. Of course its special effects have nothing on those of Cloverfield, for example, it’s not as socially gruesome as Get Out, and not as intellectually engaging as The VVitch, but I found it terrifying. Perhaps because I understand the psychological metaphor at its centre the best of all of them, perhaps because there’s something timeless about the dialogue, or the setting. Perhaps because the thought of being replaced by a gory, unstoppable shape-shifter is just terrifying. Watch it when you’re feeling brave.
Crimson Peak (2015, dir. Guillermo del Toro)
Crimson Peak is, quite specifically, not a horror film. It’s a Gothic romance, but it’s pretty scary. There are more than a few jump scares, some gore, and it’s just generally rather creepy.
It’s also a truly excellent Gothic romance. It’s got every trope I love reading in early 19th Century literature—weird sibling relationships, a castle that literally bleeds when you step on it (it’s technically red clay, but what’s the difference), mysterious brooding strangers charming intelligent and kind young women, the super boring nice guy back home who you just know the protagonist is going to reject. It’s so great.
It reminds me of the books I grew up reading, the ones that shaped my taste into the mess of ghosts, sad romances and crumbling castles of which it is comprised today. Towards the beginning of the film, some local bullies call Mia Wasikowska’s aspiring author, Edith Cushing, “Our very own Jane Austen,” to which she replies “I’d rather be Mary Shelley. She died a widow.” What a great line, what a great moment, what a great summary of my teenage sensibilities. Guillermo del Toro and I truly understand each other on a profound level. A friend of mine saw it in cinemas and texted me that evening. “I think I understand you now,” she said. I’m still not sure if that was an insult or not.
Crimson Peak, despite not technically being a horror film, is most certainly a great Halloween party choice. This is especially true if your friends, like me, are over-dramatic weirdos who totally would be into Tom Hiddleston playing a Sad Inventor Boy and Jessica Chastain having the time of her life as the sister-in-law from Hell.