With Shutter Island tearing up the weekend box-office, it seemed like a good time for a list of
Ten Great Horror Films by Non-Horror Directors
Vampyr (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1932)
It’s hard to pin down exactly what kind of filmmaker Dreyer was throughout his legendary career, but we can at least say that none of this other films was as explicitly paranormal as this one: an atmosphere-heavy nightmare that is more uncanny than scary, but since most vampire movies can’t manage either of those things, I’m not inclined to quibble. It remains amazing to me that even dabbling so heavily in a genre and a style (borderline Surrealism) totally alien to the rest of his work, Dreyer still made a film wrapped up in his private concerns, like no other filmmaker in history could have dared.
Ugetsu (Mizoguchi Kenji, 1953)
At least some of you are currently wondering whence I had the gall to call this a horror film. Let’s see: ghosts trick a man into staying where he had ought not to be, bringing him near to ruin. It’s not “madman with a knife and sporting equipment,” but it’s horror by any measure I know, and particularly haunting, uncanny horror, too: the kind that sticks with you for years after you’ve seen it. Probably the best film by one of Japan’s all-time greatest filmmakers.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956)
The 1978 remake directed by Philip Kaufman fits this list even better, but I frankly prefer the original: in which a tough-guy B-movie directed noted then mostly for his crime and war movies, and now mostly for his run of iconic Clint Eastwood vehicles oversees the creation of cinema’s first great paranoia thriller, a Cold War parable so bent by its time that even now nobody knows what side of McCarthyite divide the film is supposed to come down on. And the message about losing your identity to conformity remains bone-chilling.
Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960)
A film that makes Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, released the same year, look like a dress rehearsal crammed in between tea parties. Coming from the director who, partnered with Emeric Pressburger, had overseen some of the most visually sublime, wonderfully theatrical movies in British film history, this story of a man who gets sexually excited by filming women’s death spasms was – let us say – unexpected. Enough that it more or less ended his career (at any rate, he was forced into the hinterlands till he retired 18 years later), and that it’s still shocking and uncomfortable a half-century later.
The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963)
He started his career in Val Lewton’s sphere of influence, so it’s not altogether fair to call Wise a non-horror director; but that was years earlier, and this film was tucked into his career in between two Oscar-winning musicals (West Side Story and The Sound of Music). The Haunting won no Oscars, just as many as it was nominated for, but it’s far better than either of those: a movie that gets virtually all of its many legitimate scares from nothing but well-designed sound, great production design, and the canny position of the camera.
Hour of the Wolf (Ingmar Bergman, 1968)
Of course, all of Bergman’s films are horror after their fashion: the horror of God’s silence, of sex, of isolation, of death. Nor would you ever mistake this for, oh, Lucio Fulci or a slasher movie: it’s pretty straight-up Bergman. But instead of examining some existential fear of religious emptiness, like so many of his movies, this one is actually about the most elemental fear of them all: when you’re in the dark, and you can imagine anything filling up that space. That the protagonists greatest fear is his own self, and not zombies or tentacled werewolves… well, it is a Bergman picture.
Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973)
Psychological terror par excellence in this, the most adult horror movie of all time. Sure, at the end it takes a turn into ArgentoLand (and thanks to Roeg’s pre-established gift for poetically fervid imagery, a tremendously gratifying turn it is), but that’s just the nightmare revving into overdrive before you wake. Before then, we’ve already had a full, long movie of the most horrifying thing that there is: being a parent with a dead child, wondering if you’ll ever be able to put together enough of the pieces of your life to function as a human being again.
The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
Kubrick’s usual method of filmmaking – if it’s at all right to accuse him of having a “usual” anything – turned out to be serendipitously perfect for horror: slow pacing, long takes, and lingering wide shots trained on objects we can’t quite discern for certain make for one of the few genuinely terrifying movies in history. And for that matter, the most artistically perfect English-language horror movie ever.
The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)
Whenever I’m particularly depressed about the Oscars, I always can perk up by reminding myself: “yes, but they gave Best Picture to a cannibal movie.” Not an especially gruesome cannibal movie, of course – but it’s far and away the most fucked-up nominee of all time, let alone the 81 films to take the big prize. Nothing in Demme’s hopscotching, chameleon-like career is at all like this, before or since, but he really ought to think about returning to it: not many people have the talent to make a scene of two people talking the most hair-raising moment in a film with a man who turns young women into clothing, but that scene with Jodie Foster telling Anthony Hopkins about the spring lambs still freaks me out whenever I see it.
28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002)
Technically, Boyle is right: it’s not a zombie movie, but a “bio-crazy” film, a well-established genre with a good pedigree. Also, 28 Days Later is stylish as hell with some truly eerie footage of a depopulated London, great sound and lighting effects that imply way more than we see, and some truly revolutionary digital photography that still ranks as one of the best arguments in favor of video that anybody has made yet. So he can call it any damn thing he wants to. Third act? I do not know this “third act” that you speak of.