There must be at least a hundred great horror films. Determining the top hundred is easy, the top five impossible. Rather than omit too many of the greats, and tempt film buffs and the undead into vengeful revolt, here’s instead five of the best. All prised from a seething mass of horror, and chosen because they tell the story of something very specific: that moment when dread arises out of the banal, and lingers, sticking to the skin like cold damp ectoplasm, for days and weeks. An overwhelming melancholy dread, inspired by loneliness, at times feared more than death.
5. Get Out, 2017. A very dark riff on Sidney Poitiers Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Classified by some as comedy horror, this is sombre, bleak humour. Plenty of gore and gruesome scenes, but all secondary to something far more painful and unsettling. The icy dagger that pierces the heart comes from something quite different: the isolation and loneliness of a black person surrounded by a swarm of white people. Suspiciously friendly white people. The intense loneliness and sense of jeopardy are kept slightly in check through occasional flashes of gentle humour. The film otherwise would be one of deep gloom, too close to life, and very hard to watch. The horror is set against the background of comfortable, banal lives, at a time when the season turns to autumnal melancholy. No spoilers, but just to say: in the depths of the abyss, sometimes goofy friends can come in handy.
4. Let the Right One In, 2008. The drama of being a child is here in full force. The heartache is unspoken. Loneliness, bullying, parental betrayal, time stretching out interminably, murderous boredom. In the cold dark winter of a suburban Stockholm council estate, a young boy suffers and dreams of revenge. When he meets his soulmate, a child neither boy nor girl, his life takes a fantastical and savage turn. Plenty of gore, cruelty and savagery, and a strikingly surreal and violent swimming pool scene. The juxtaposition of horror and a banal setting creates something wonderfully unsettling. But here too the horror comes from something else than the abundant gore. What hurts and lingers is the sorrow of ostracism, abandonment, and loneliness. The gore simply makes that sorrow flesh – and blood. Rather a lot of blood.
3. The Vanishing, 1988. Not to be confused with the 1993 remake, this is the film Stanley Kubrick is said to have found more terrifying than The Shining. And yet, there is no gore, no blood, no flamboyant violence. Instead, coldness, absence, longing, and dread. A young woman vanishes suddenly while on holiday with her boyfriend, at a motorway rest stop. Before her disappearance, she has nightmares – that she is trapped inside a golden egg, unable to get out, lost in space forever. She says the loneliness is unbearable. After she vanishes, her boyfriend looks for her in vain, for years, obsessed with finding her – or at least, obsessed with knowing what has happened to her. A man, who might be her killer, plays cat and mouse with him. Maybe he can help him find out what happened, as he muses that killing is not the worst thing.
2. Carnival of Souls, 1962. This US independent film remained obscure for decades before becoming a much-loved cult movie. It is a likely influence on George Romero’s first film, Night of the Living Dead. In a drag race gone wrong, a car leaps off a bridge and into a river. Rescuers search for the car and its occupants for three long hours before one of the women in the car, Mary Henry, miraculously appears out of the water. She is the only survivor, and her survival comes at a price. Mary is at odds with the world around her, pursued by mysterious characters, and at times feels she is becomes invisible to others around here. She starts a journey of terrible loneliness, saying at one point ‘I don’t belong in the world’. She is right. Here too, the growing realisation that one is not part of the world, the absolute sense of loneliness, is what gives the story its unsettling sense of horror.
1. Night of the Living Dead, 1968. The cult film par excellence. It has made its mark in film history, and its maker, George Romero, is generally acknowledged to have kicked off the modern era of horror films. The film came out at the time of Martin Luther King’s assassination, years before the end of the Vietnam War. In a desolate area of rural Pennsylvania, the dead are rising. They attack the living and in doing so turn them into ghouls. A small group of people take refuge in a farmhouse. Despite the desperate efforts of one of their number, Ben, an African-American man who unusually for the time, is the hero of the film, they turn on each other. The film is terrifying and gruesome.
Some scenes from Kubrick’s The Shining are reminiscent of Night of the Living Dead. If The Shining does not feature on this list, it is simply because while solitude and isolation provide rocket fuel to Jack Nicholson’s murderous insanity, loneliness itself is not at the heart of his story. But it is at the heart of Night of the Living Dead, which was inspired, in part, by I am Legend, another story of utter isolation and loneliness, of the last human standing in the world. Night of the Living Dead opens with an awful sense of dread, a winding road leading up to almost nowhere, empty and desolate landscapes, gloomy skies, bare trees – the melancholy doom of loneliness, about to burst into full horror.