Not all horror is about tearing your nerves to shreds, and of those that are, not all are as successful as their loud noises and jumpy antics might have you believe.
But among them, especially more recently, is a very special sub-genre of horror that’s truly not meant for the faint of heart. Works of masterful direction that not only leave you gnawing your fingernails to the bone, but questioning all you hold dear too, forever balancing on that knife edge of utter dread.
Don’t Breathe (2016)
Case in point, Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues’s original spin on The Blind Man; a novel, old-school suspense builder that finds a desperate trio of thieves breaking into Stephen Lang’s house, only for shit to go tremendously sideways, fast. Alvarez set-ups the space early on, introducing each section of the house with clever, theatrical gusto, only to litter it with all sorts of Hitchcockian rug-pulls along the way.
As the title would suggest, there’s a lot of long, deep-lunged silences to contend with too. It’s utter, spine-jangling genius, front-to-back.
Every horror fan worth their salt will’ve seen Rob Savage’s mid-pandemic Zoom chiller by now, especially after it was literally named by science as the ‘scariest movie of all time’ this year. But that shouldn’t stop you from going back for seconds, thirds or like this writer, fifteenths.
Packed ever-so-tightly into just under an hour, a huge amount of Host’s success is in the razor sharp editing by Brenna Rangott and that all important screen-life aesthetic. It’s instantly and unforgivably nerve-racking, from the all-too-real Zoom call display, to its next-level real world effects and stunt work. The scares are big, loud, and constant, and worst of all, everything is just very, very believable; you’ll find yourself searching the fuzzy little windows of every video call you find yourself on from now until, well, forever.
Session 9 (2001)
Filmed in a real abandoned asylum in the summer of 2000, master of the downbeat chiller Brad Anderson’s Session 9 took a while to get a decent release, and even longer to be properly appreciated as the grimy psychological masterpiece that it is. Starring a stoney-faced Peter Mullan in the lead, and shot on old-school DV video like the similarly grainy 28 Days Later, it’s a positively nerve-shattering experience that leans far away from simple jump-scares, into an even more uncomfortable air of general unease.
The setting alone is enough to push things to the limit, but Anderson (who followed this with the somehow even grimier The Machinist) milks every last rusted inch of it. Throw in a beautifully moody performance by Mullan and a shrieking, hands-over-the-face finale, and Session 9 will leave you in bits.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
The legacy of The Blair Witch Project runs deep in the horror community; but whatever you take from Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s found-footage gamechanger, there’s no denying that it’s utterly dripping with dread.
The genius of it isn’t just in the real-world detail that, like Host, makes it all feel much too familiar (who hasn’t heard freaky noises in the woods?), it’s in the way the filmmaking team unwound their cast of three on camera, largely in real time. You can feel the goosebumps rising in Mike, Josh and Heather as Myrick and Sanchez slowly turn the dial, and the result is something genuinely menacing that sticks around the backends of your brain for much too long once the camcorder shuts off.
Wait Until Dark (1967)
Owner of one of the most lauded jump-scares in all of cinema, it’s a real testament to Terence Young’s 60s thriller classic Wait Until Dark, that it’s still just as effective now as it’s ever been. An effortlessly loveable Audrey Hepburn stars as Susy, a recently blinded woman who finds her apartment repeatedly threatened by a gang of thugs, lead by Alan Arkin’s brilliant, fire-cracker of a bastard Roat.
If it sounds familiar, it’s because it has a lot in common with Don’t Breathe, from its Chekovian set-ups, to just how quickly Young and co. turn the tables. And while a good fifty years of horror separates them, Wait Until Dark still hits just as hard.
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