Monday, October 24, 2011

Halloween Festival of Lists: October 24: TWENTY-FOUR Films In Which Atmosphere Kicks Ass

 One of the most important things to me in a horror film is atmosphere.  I can overlook bad acting, poor plot, and a whole host of other piss poor faults, if the movie has an impressive look to it.

Some of my favorites:

1) The Woman in Black - I've discussed this film (1989) dozens of times over the years and stand by my original assessment:  This is the most atmospheric ghost story I have ever seen.  While The Changeling is perhaps the best, this film just reeks of beautiful yet frightening ambiance.  The way the mist settles over the Eel Marsh house, out over the moors on an isolated causeway...the sound of the tragic accident that started the ghostly visits...the outright fear Mr. Kidd has as he spends time alone in the foreboding mansion.  Simply perfect.

2) The Strangers - One of my favorites of the last several years, The Strangers is one of those films that you can only wish for.  Something that keeps you on the edge of your seat.  I first watched this on Halloween a few years ago, with the lights out on the big tv screen.  It was a near-orgasmic experience, I was actually scared!  It takes a lot to get my ghost, so to speak, but this movie did it.  Simple premise, wildly effective.

3) Pumpkinhead - One of the only "backwoods" type movies that I can think of that doesn't come off as ridiculous.  Besides the grotesque creature, there is a spooky old witch, lots of running through foggy woods, and use of light that rivals some of the best in the business to evoke creepy images.  All this and Lance Henriksen too!  Can we top that?

4) The Innocents - Another wonderful black and white film, The Innocents really has some great images.  It is a ghost story through and through, and though it's probably evident that many ghost stories are very atmospheric and moody, this is really one of the best examples.  When young Flora is singing Willow-Waly and her and Miss Giddens see ghost of Miss Jessel, it is one of the most effectively frightening moments in horror.

5) 28 Days Later - So, what would it be like to find out the entire city - or perhaps the world - is over run by zombie-like creatures who have contracted a volatile rage virus? Watch this film.  It has the perfect blend of desolation and dread.  The striking visuals of a barren, empty London are reason enough to check this one out.  It's a nearly flawless film.

6) Wake Wood - You know what happens when you bring back the dead?  Of course you know!  You watch horror films!  Wake Wood is a UK/Irish production that is steeped in atmosphere, as many overseas films tend to be. Crazy pagan ceremonies and forbidden rituals amp up the weird here, with most of the film being overcast and rather dark.  Perfect.

7) The Others -Filmed in Spain but supposedly set in Jersey (that's the UK, not the state) after WWII, a  woman keeps her children holed up in a cavernous old mansion because they have a deadly physical reaction to sunlight.  The dark house, with its closed draperies, candle-lit rooms, and echoing hallways, is like the perfect haunted house.  And if you've seen the film, you'll know that's not too far off the mark.  Reeks atmosphere.

8) The Dark - I'm always championing this movie, I can't help it.  The sweeping vistas of the Welsh countryside combine with legend and mythology to evoke some of the most atmospheric scenes and images I've seen on film.  The musical score lends a lot to the movie as well, the darker segments matching the film scene for scene.  People jumping off cliffs has never looked better.  Neither have Sean Bean and Maria Bello.

9) Dead Birds - Mixed reviews plague this film, but I've always had a special place in my heart for it.  It's a slow burner, for sure - sometimes even lacking dialogue and leaving you to figure things out on your own.  But the ominous setting of a deserted plantation house that holds deadly secrets makes the movie work for me.  Adding to the tension is the group of thieves who are hiding out there start suspecting each other.  The whole film is just so quiet, it's nearly intolerable.

10) Lake Mungo - I'm a big fan of this film, and a big part of that is the sense of doom that is prevalent throughout the entire mockumentary.  The entire movie seems utterly real, as if these people are your next door neighbors.  Dread hangs in the air. The visuals are disconcerting.  And the twists in the story only make the experience seem more possible.  Truly unnerving.

11)  Angel Heart - From the seedy streets of Harlem to the occult-ridden back roads of New Orleans, this film is a moody example of how to set a scene.  The air is so thick with eerie atmosphere it is practically dripping off the screen.  Everything has a certain feel here:  the voodoo rituals, bloody walls, street dancers, diners, the dirt-track horse racing, the chats with the all feels heavy.  Laden down with creepiness.  It's a movie that you almost need a shower after watching.  My kind of film.

12) Let's Scare Jessica to Death - Sometimes a movie just gets inside you and camps out, never intending to leave.  I'm fairly certain a lot of people don't get this film, but for me, I love to sit down on a rainy afternoon and let Jessica seep into my pores.  It's just so somber and affecting, with an ominous haze over the whole thing.

13) From Hell - Whitechapel, 1888.  The stomping grounds of Jack the Ripper.  Obviously meant to be a grim, distressing look at the most famous unsolved crime in history, From Hell is teeming with foul alleyways, nasty-looking people, and gruesome murders.  That being said, the film is beautiful, with the blood extra red and the fog settling in for a long winter's nap.  A perfect blend of hopeless and dreadful.

14) The Abandoned - Probably one of the lesser-seen films on this list, The Abandoned falls apart a bit throughout the film, but wow - it leaks atmosphere right off the screen.  An American woman who heads to Russia to see about her long lost parents and the home she has apparently inherited.  This movie strikes a mood straight off, taking us to the (very) dark woods of Russia, to a house that is only accessible by a bridge.  Naturally, the isolation is stifling, and take my word for it....very spooky.

15) Session 9 - Horror fans will know what I'm saying here when I say Session 9 is certainly one of the best examples of atmosphere in the entire genre.  The unbelievably daunting and terrifying Danvers State Mental Hospital (in Massachusetts) is the real star of this film.  You could take a camera inside and simply walk room to room and scare the pants off yourself.  Combine that with the fictional tale of Mary Hobbs and her several personalities and the problems Gordon is trying to work through, and what you get is a work of art.

16) Below - Simple facts:  it's dark and mysterious under the sea.  And period films always have a distinctive feel to them.  When you combine both these things, you have an eerie trip to the Twilight Zone when mysterious things start happening and vengeful ghosts begin to take over.  It's as claustrophobic as it sounds, which is a good thing.

17) Jane Eyre - Quite often, films adapted from famous works of literature are plentiful in their period atmosphere, and the 2011 adaption of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre is no different.  A beautiful score by Dario Marianelli adds considerable flavor to the story of an orphan who falls for a man who holds more than a few secrets in his heart, and his daunting yet stunning estate, Thornfield Hall.  This version of the classic looks gorgeous, with impressive locations and effective set design to bring all the gothic horror of the tale to life. Put it this way:  lots and lots of misty moors.

 18) Suspiria is full of life. Dario Argento knows exactly how to make eyes close and palms sweat.  His use of color in this film and also in Inferno are striking, which is something he is famous for of course.  Goblin's score provides a proper yet chilling backdrop with its howling and moaning and banging drums.  In all, Suspiria is a nightmarish journey into a different world, and believe me - you should take that trip.

19) Sleepy Hollow - The look of this film is classic Tim Burton.  But that goes to say that he knows what he wants in a film, and he sure enough got it here.  The town of Sleepy Hollow, bathed in fog and looking like an eternal graveyard, lends an unreal amount of credibility to the story.  I mean, a man who has no head riding around on a horse?  You believe it here.  And the opening sequence, combined with Danny Elfman's superlative score, make for a first-class ride into the legendary tale.

20) The Fog - Fog is so often used to create atmosphere that it would seem to be overused.  But what else would you expect from a movie entitled The Fog?  I love a film that takes place in an oceanside setting. The ocean seems so threatening at night, and there can be no denying that seeing that large, ghostly clipper ship coming out of the fog is a really impressive - and shuddersome - moment!  Face it, fog is wonderfully menacing.

21) Wind Chill - Two college age kids are trying to get through a snowstorm when they end up stuck in a repetitious cycle of a ghastly event.  The fact that they are trapped along a mountain road in freezing temps with little to no food and a dwindling heat supply serves up tension with a side of panic as they face ghosts that want nothing more than to add them to their eternal haunting.

22) Sauna - Another period film that takes us to Finland, where two warrior brothers leave a young girl to die a heinous death.  It haunts the men, one brother in particular, as they are forced to traverse through remote swamplands to an uncharted town in which their secret is revealed, and to where they will face horrific repercussions.  The entire film is exceedingly dark, with misty fields and murky swamps that make you feel like the world is closing in on you. It's awesome.

23) Carnival of Souls - Black and white films always have a certain amount of ambience to them, but this movie has ridiculous atmosphere - and it's rife with frightening images. As a young woman cheats death in a ghastly car accident, she can't shake the feeling that something just isn't right.  She also can't shake a persistent ghoul who follows her everywhere. And let's not forget the hair-raising score of organ music - atmospheric in its own right.

24) Rogue -  Sure, it seems like a movie about a killer crocodile couldn't possibly be anything special.  But when you trap a bunch of people on a small island in the middle of a river inhabited by crocs, the tension runs high and you can't help but have a palpable fear while watching it.  With Rogue, the natural beauty of the Australian wilderness by day is transformed into a venerable hot box of panic and terror.  Goosebumps are likely.


The Film Connoisseur said...

I saw The Dark after reading your review for it a while ago, and loved it. Totally agree, very atmospheric!

I need to see The Innocents as soon as possible, it's one of those ghost stories that has eluded me for the longest time, and it's one of the good ones!

Budd said...

You have seen so many more horror movies than I have. OMG.

Christine Hadden said...

TFC: Glad you liked The Dark - it can be confusing at times but still well worth it I think :)

Budd: I've been watching them since I was a wee lass, that's why! ;)

James Gracey said...

Great list Christine! Some of my own personal favourites are included here. I do love a slow-burning, atmospheric horror flick. Feel free to berate me for STILL neglecting to check out Lake Mungo though... I suck. :/