Steve Jarrett, Director of Media Facilities in the Communication Department and cinema aficionado, provided an excellent elaboration and a list of recommended viewing, when we asked him, “What makes a great horror film?”

What makes a great horror film? It’s too easy just to say that if it scared you it did its job. By that measure, the Zyklon roller coaster at the Dixie Classic Fair would be a great work of art, and so would the phone call from the doctor about that suspicious spot on your chest X-ray. A great horror film, for my money, is not so much scary as disturbing. It doesn’t make you jump out of your chair; it makes you squirm in your chair. A good horror film touches on mortal dreads.

The wellspring of these mortal dreads is the lizard brain that lies buried under our neocortex. When our dreams tap into this roiling swamp of primordial emotional ferment, we call it a nightmare. The cinema, as it happens, is especially well positioned to do the same. Consider that when viewing a film we are typically in the dark, with limited sensory input. Ingmar Bergman put it this way: “No other art medium … can communicate the specific quality of the dream as well as the film can. When the lights go down in the cinema and this white shining point opens up for us, our gaze … settles and becomes quite steady. We just sit there, letting the images flow out over us … We’re drawn into a course of events – we’re participants in a dream.” The cinema experience may well be as close as we can get to the dream state while still fully conscious. It follows, therefore, that some of those cinema-dreams are bound to be nightmares.

All great art puts us in touch with our essential humanity; the spark of divinity we carry within us. Great horror films do so by drawing us into waking nightmares that compel us to confront the demons that live in the basement of our psyches, cloaking those demons in fantasy imagery. This confrontation, of necessity, calls forth our better angels as counterpoint. We come away reassured that confronting our mortal dreads is, after all, survivable.

5 Lesser-Known Horror Films that are Worthy of Attention:

  • VAMPYR (1932) Loosely based on Sheridan LeFanu’s “Carmilla,” Carl Theodor Dreyer’s moody vampire film is light on plot but densely packed with striking fantasy imagery. Once seen, it is never forgotten.
  • MAD LOVE (1935) This is one of several film versions of Maurice Renard’s novel THE HANDS OF ORLAC, in which a concert pianist’s injured hands are surgically replaced with the hands of a recently executed murderer. Following the surgery, the hands seem to exert a will of their own, showing more interest in returning to their former occupation than in making music. This version of the story draws on the theatrical tradition of the Grand Guignol, in which luridly melodramatic staging of elaborate acts of violence was foregrounded. The film was directed by Karl Freund, who was the cinematographer for METROPOLIS and other German classics of the 1920s, and the mad surgeon is played with delicious villainy by Peter Lorre.
  • I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943). Never mind the title. Trust me, this is the best zombie movie you will ever see. Producer Val Lewton oversaw a series of intelligent, literate B movies for RKO, of which this is one of the best. The uniformly cheesy titles were dictated by the studio, and Lewton didn’t bother arguing to change them. As a result, a series of cinematic gems from his production company hide behind titles like CAT PEOPLE, THE LEOPARD MAN, and THE BODY SNATCHER.
  • EYES WITHOUT A FACE (1960) George Franju’s melancholy classic tells the doleful tale of a surgeon so obsessed with restoring the former beauty of his daughter, whose face had been disfigured in an accident, that he kidnaps young women and attempts to transplant their facial skin onto hers. Moody and oppressive, this film is most often described as “poetic.”
  • THE CHANGELING (1980) Not to be confused with the completely unrelated 2008 Clint Eastwood film of the same title, this shivery ghost story has been unjustly overlooked. It belongs on the same shelf with such better known ghost movies as THE HAUNTING (1963), THE INNOCENTS (1961), and THE UNINVITED (1944). George C. Scott plays a composer whose family has been torn from him in a tragic automobile accident. Suddenly and jarringly alone, he buys himself a new house, and in short order finds that he is less alone than he thought.

For more from Steve Jarrett, check out our Library Lecture Series film Double Jeopardy: Nightmare Cinema and the Doppelganger“.

Want more horror film (or other film) recommendations?
Want to offer a movie recommendation?
Visit the Recommended Viewing Board in the DVD Room on the 4th floor of the Reynolds Wing at ZSR.