Apparently there is a gene in all of us that determines whether we will find scares in horror movies shocking or ridiculous, and explains why some people fainted and other people laughed during the initial run of The Exorcist.
My personal view is that people laughed because The Exorcist is just not that scary (and actually contains moments that could possibly be construed as [gasp] silly). It is undoubtedly a very disturbing piece of filmmaking, dealing intelligently with themes of faith, innocence and evil. It also has startling, vivid imagery and distressing sound, reasons far more likely to make someone feel a bit dizzy than a masked man jumping out from behind a pillar.
But I don’t think it is scary, at least not in the way the scientists seem to have defined scary. The test subjects were shown horrific images of wounds or weapons and their instant reaction was monitored. This seems to me to be the photographic equivalent of the head-in-the-boat in Jaws or the knife attack on the detective in Psycho.
The Exorcist, for all its dread and horror, just isn’t scary in a jump-out-of-my-seat-I’m-off-to-change-my-trousers way.
And if we describe scary as shock rather than dread, I would even go so far as to say that William Peter Blatty’s misunderstood Exorcist III is a far more terrifying film experience - the scare in the hospital corridor is masterfully conceived and is far more likely to get the heart pounding than a head spinning 360 degrees.
However, I digress. It seems to be the rule that if horror movies are mentioned in a story, The Exorcist must be brought out as the example.
Which is a pity really, because the British horror genre is still alive and kicking today, and has a rich and interesting history - from Ealing to Hammer to the new blood responsible for such great cinematic experiences as Shaun of the Dead, Severance, and The Descent.
So I say forget the Exorcist, and forget your American teen slasher films or Japanese J-horror. For real scares try these five classic Brit flicks.
1: Dead of Night
Possibly the most quintessentially British horror film ever made, Dead of Night is a portmanteau of five very different terrifying tales, held together by a single, increasingly sinister narrative. Walter Craig arrives at a country house for reasons he cannot explain, and proceeds to inform the assembled guests that he is living a recurring nightmare, which can only resolve itself once they have told their stories of fear and dread. Remembered mostly for Michael Redgrave’s turn as a ventriloquist tortured by his dummy, this mixes humour and terror and culminates in a cracking twist.
Best shock moment: the Moebius-like final revelation
2. The Wicker Man
Edward Woodward is the Christian detective searching an isolated Scottish island for a missing girl. The pagan locals, however, are less than helpful, and he finds himself more and more frustrated and threatened by their “heathen” ways. Hailed as the “Citizen Kane of horror movies” in Cinefantastique magazine, it still shocks today with its startling imagery and music, and the relentless drive to its seemingly inevitable conclusion.
And a quick word of warning: never, ever watch the dire Nicolas Cage remake of this film. Rarely has something so mind-shatteringly pointless and nauseatingly awful made it through the vetting process.
Best shock moment: Edward Woodward coming face to face with The Wicker Man
3. Dracula (1958)
Terence Fisher’s gloriously melodramatic take on Bram Stoker’s classic created two horror icons in Christopher Lee as the charming monster and Peter Cushing as his dedicated nemesis Van Helsing. Jonathan Harker arrives at Castle Dracula, ostensibly to work as a librarian, but really to kill the evil vampiric Count.
However, when Dracula discovers his plot, he kills him and embarks on a brutal campaign of revenge. With moments of surprising humour, this is a thrilling, sexual and terrifying classic.
Best shock moment: the startling realisation as to the location of Dracula’s lair
4. Death Line
A description of “Zombies on the Tube” is a disservice to this surprisingly poignant elegy to the working man. When a Government official goes missing from a tube station platform, the police notice that it is just the latest in a string of disappearances. Further investigation reveals that a group of underground workers cut off almost 100 years earlier may not have been as deceased as first thought. Although looking (and sounding) a little dated now, this still has the power to horrify, indeed far more than 2004’s Creep, which treads the same bloody ground. It also somehow elicits genuine sympathy for the plague-ridden, bloodthirsty “villain”, whose only words after a lifetime on the underground are “mind the doors”.
Best shock moment: underground platform, spade, head...
5. The Descent
Neil Marshall’s follow-up to his ludicrously enjoyable Dog Soldiers swaps men for women and werewolves for the dark depths of underground caves. Six friends, a year after a horrific tragedy, meet up in the Appalachian mountains (actually filmed entirely in the UK) for a spot of climbing and caving. However, a sudden rockfall leaves them trapped, and aware that they may not be alone… Mostly shot in near darkness, the claustrophobic nightmare relentlessly builds to a bloody, brutal and shocking conclusion.
Best shock moment: the night vision camera pans around the group of terrified women, suddenly revealing...