Name a movie considered by most to be non-horror that you consider more terrifying than most horror films.
There’s a good many films that come to mind, but, I think, one in particular stands out for me. I’ll go with A Simple Plan (1998).
A cautionary morality tale reminiscent of Rod Serling’s wisdom fiction, A Simple Plan paints humankind as a biologically predetermined greedy and hopeless race. While watching this neglected masterpiece, one is reminded of Ben Franklin’s quote “Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead.”
I love this film, but, my God, this narrative takes SO MANY wrong turns. Things just get worse and worse until we are presented with an ending that is not only a supreme downer but on a par with the pathos of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.
Delicately directed, supremely acted, hauntingly scored, A Simple Plan is a perfect film; the only thing that I don’t like about A Simple Plan is the utter hopelessness of it. I don’t know about you, but if I don’t find something “good” everyday, life can become depressing mighty quickly. A Simple Plan reminds us that we have been a violent, brutal, and viscous species since before the neolithic revolution and that our so-called “civil” society has been around, in comparison, for about a New York minute. What does it take? A duffle bag with 4.4 million dollars? Is that the price-tag that hangs on happiness? Is it merely our laws that keep brutal acts of violence at bay? Does rampant consumerism and capitalism commit us to transgress these laws? Are we just greedy and hopeless? Upon finding the money, we are presented with this exchange:
Lou: “It’s the American dream in a Goddman gym bag, and you just want to walk away from it?”
Hank: “You work for the American dream, Lou. You don’t steal it.”
Brave talk, but, how quickly Hank’s rapid descent into the maelstrom. This is one mighty bleak and perfectly constructed (I argue, horror) film from a director with humble horror beginnings, Sam Raimi. A Simple Plan interrogates the thin line that separates us from committing unspeakable acts and our rationalizations for them. After a lot of blood has been shed, Jacob, played by Billy Bob Thornton asks his brother Hank, “Do you ever feel evil?” I suggest he’s asking us the audience the very same question. The monster is the one staring back at you in the mirror.
I would have to say Peter Bogdanovich first film, TARGETS. It was about horror movies but also about real life horror. An aging horror film star played by Boris Karloff is retiring because he thinks his films can’t compete with the Vietnam era horror of real life. It was extremely tense, suspenseful enough that it’s have to believe he didn’t go on to more films in the genre. Some parts of the film are genuine white knuckle moments.
I’ll have to go with Taxi Diver. That movie is so bleak, so sinister, and presents such an unforgivingly stark view of human nature and society at large. Travis Bickle’s world is a completely amoral one, with no checks and balances of any kind. Manhattan in that film truly is hell on earth. And at the end, when Bickle is hailed as some kind of hero despite being mentally unhinged, we’re left with a sense of the nihilistic hopelessness of life as Martin Scorsese saw it.
You know, most people don’t give the original “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” credit for how god damn scary it is. The scene with the clown surgeons destroying Pee Wee’s bike is at the top of the list of things that made me have trouble sleeping when I was a child. It should have been obvious by that film that Burton would go on to be a mad genius. Tequila!
The documentary Jesus Camp scared the hell out of me. It’s about the absolute bat-shit craziest Red State fundamentalists who brainwash their kids at these retreats where they learn about the “lie” of evolution, pay homage to a literal two-dimensional cut-out of George W. Bush and participate in these hysterical, guilt-filled prayer meetings where pre-teens are encouraged to talk in tongues. Few things are more twisted than sanctioned child abuse.
Hmmm. Most of the movies I can think of along these lines, I wouldn’t say that they’re “more terrifying than most horror films,” because I consider them to be horror films themselves: Barton Fink, Lost Highway, Eyes Wide Shut, Eraserhead, Heavenly Creatures…One movie I don’t consider to be a horror film but found very tense and frightening in a horrific fashion (as opposed to a thrill/suspesne fashion) is There Will Be Blood. It had the best promissory title since The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, that’s for sure.
When Harry Met Sally.
Steven, I’ve been waiting for you to ask this question. You see, there is one movie that I rank as the scariest I’ve ever seen. I watched it when I was young, having no idea what I was in for. After one certain scene, I shut the movie off, terrified to my very core. I suffered from nightmares for years. About a decade later, as a grown man, I watched the movie again. This time, I was able to watch the whole thing, but my god, that one scene is still scarier and more traumatic than any horror movie I’ve ever watched.
I think the conventionalized, often fantastic horrors of horror movies are so different from the more philosophical or real-world concerns a non-horror movie might try to evoke that I see little point in drawing such comparisons. To claim that the latter are “more terrifying” just because they’re realistic is completely to misunderstand the kind of experience so many horror movies aim to deliver.
Well the first example I thought of was Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem For a Dream. Most people, I suppose, don’t consider it a horror movie. Even though Aronofsky’s called it such himself, and I 100% consider it as such.
My second thought was of John Travolta in Hairspray. Scariest thing put on celluloid in 100 plus years. Travolta’s Edna Turnblad would snack on Max Schreck’s Nosferatu as an after-dinner mint.
Gasper Noe’s IRREVERSIBLE kicked my ass, stole my popcorn and chased me home from the theater. The opening credits alone were enough to have me wondering if I should just go home and hide under the bed. I remember reading somewhere that there are subliminal slaughter house pig cries incorporated into the opening music which I find very easy to believe. The whole movie just reeks of concentrated fatalistic dread. It’s brilliant as hell, genius even, but I doubt I will ever watch it again.
Frederick Wiseman’s 1967 film Titicut Follies. Wiseman’s incredible and deeply disturbing documentary takes viewers into a state run hospital for the criminally insane. It presents a rare view of a terrifying place that most people will never see and never want to see, which explains why it was banned for so long. It’s a horrifying film because it’s real and contrary to popular belief, conditions in state run hospitals have not changed much in the past 40 years.
I always thought Steve DeJarnatt’s 1988 “Miracle Mile” was pretty indicative of the kind of non-horror horror movie that scared me. It’s about a guy who gets “a chance phone call telling him that a nuclear war has started and missiles will hit his city in 70 minutes,” and while he’s desperately trying to get his girl and get out of the city, panic slowly spreads and chaos erupts. Maybe it’s because I live in a city of 8.3 million people, but I’m a sucker for mass hysterica flicks.
When I was a kid a saw a movie at my local drive-in called BLOODY FRIDAY, which was part of a double or triple bill. I still remember the tiny ad that had been in my local paper and the chilly phrase “The survivors would remember it as… BLOODY FRIDAY.” It was one of the first movies I ever saw in which, clearly, all bets were off. The violence in this thing was just horrific and the behavior of the characters (to my 10 year old brain) so inexplicable. The image of a uniformed policeman throwing himself down on top of a hand grenade (to protect a crowd of pedestrians) and being blown up stayed with me for the thirty-odd years before I could catch up with it on video. It turned out the thing was an Italian-West German coproduction and actually called BLUTIGER FREITAG, although the title was changed to VIOLENT OFFENDER when it was released on video. It really is primarily a crime film whose second act is a bank heist gone wrong in the tradition of DOG DAY AFTERNOON (although predating it by a few years) but there’s stuff in there that is beyond the pale, such as the rape of one hostage that is intercut with slaughterhouse stock footage and a downbeat (or not, if you’ve hated the characters all along) climax in which the protagonists go down in a Peckinpah-like slow motion machine gun bullet ballet.
Nope, they don’t make ‘em like that anymore.
What a great set of recommendations. Show this week’s participants some love by visiting their respective sites, won’t you? And if you have an opinion on this week’s question, please let us know in the comments below.