Horror films are not considered the purview of the wimpy, the wussy, or the weak. They are the domain of monsters: slashers, shape changers and serial killers. Aficionados will search out the worst of the worst. Old-school video nasties like Cannibal Holocaust or recent bits of butt-to-mouth down the rabbit hole mind-screws like The Human Centipede, not because they’re interested in seeing a good horror film; rather, they want bragging rights: to prove to themselves and their friends that they have the constitution, the force of will, to sit through buckets and buckets of blood, gore, and viscera. Not all horror, though, is aimed at gore hounds, nor is every film made to be a tight, taut, piece of piano wire around the neck. Horror is about the irrational and the things that cannot be; subject matter that can be moody rather than violent- mischievous and comic without resorting to torture; cynical and critical of the social machinery without being cruel. Even then, there’s simply no accounting for the reactions of a total coward. Will they pee on the sofa? Will stress-induced vomiting leave you cleaning up more chunks than what was on the screen? Keeping that in the mind I’m going to be…gracious when it comes to defining a scary movie. Some are flicks with ideas or moments that, without any ghouls, will make wimps squirm in their chairs sans night terrors. Others are straight-up Halloween candy wrapped in orange foil, appropriate for all ages.
Don Coscarelli has made some wild stuff. Director of both the Phantasm series and John Dies At The End, he gravitates toward projects that have little concern for this thing called “reality.” However, Bubba Ho-Tep trades in much of the terror for tragi-comedy. It stars Bruce Campbell as Elvis. See, the conspiracies are true, Elvis is alive, and he’s been living in an old folks home with John F. Kennedy, whose brain now resides in the body of a black guy. They fight a mummy dressed in what can only be described as a disco cowboy get-up. There’s a big bad bug fight that will strike a cord with the squeamish, but it’s a bloodless film, and the ending will send the meek and the mild to bed knowing all is well with the universe.
When Yeates said the “worst are filled with passionate intensity” he was talking about Ed Wood. Plan 9 From Outer Space is an excellent choice for hipsters, trash cinema connoisseurs, and anyone else with an abundance of ironic appreciation. The film isn’t scary. The film is not even remotely frightening. A five year old who can’t sleep without a night light could have done better. Defenders of the film admire the…um, you know, I’ve never completely understood what they admire about it. I have a minus 2 to irony. Essentially, it is an epic failure. The film is sucked into a black-hole of incompetence only to be spat out through a red giant of admiring guffaws. Maybe you’ll connect with Ed Wood’s vision. Perhaps you’ll be moved by its ambition. You might laugh. You might roll your eyes. You will not, however, flinch, not once.
And herein is the first time we bend the rules. Jesus Camp is a documentary, and I don’t mean it’s a found footage story. This is the story of life on the far-side of the American Evangelical Right, and the downright terrifying ideology they espouse. It centers on a summer camp, Kids On Fire, and its mission of creating God’s Army: a generation that reviles the separation of church and state, turns George W. Bush into an object of idol worship, and treats the Harry Potter novels as an extension of an imagined pagan culture out to convert America’s youth into black magic wielding warlocks (Sigh, if only.) No one dies. No one is harmed. What’s truly unsettling is the casual application of political propaganda on those without the critical facilities to question it: children.
Roger Croman’s version of The Raven would have you believe it’s based on Poe’s poem, but I don’t recall Poe spinning a yarn about three wizards, a love triangle and Jack Nicholson. Film historians will appreciate it as a tri-force moment: the coming together of Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre and Vincent Price. Boy howdy, do they ham it up. I’d call it a dark children’s fantasy if it wasn’t for the cleavage. Hmmm, maybe it is a dark children’s fantasy because of the cleavage? Ugh, if it’s an issue, use it to open a larger conversation on slut shaming and the paradoxes of sexuality. If boobies are your biggest concern for this film, then that alone should make it wimp-worthy.
The Spanish film Cronos is for borderline wimps. Guillermo Del Toro has built a strong following over the years because of films like this-his first. It’s a dark fairy tale about an antique dealer looking to spend a little more time with his granddaughter. The Cronos device promises immortality, but the cost, a thirst for blood and the worst case of psoriasis I have ever seen, proves to be too high. Although he mutates, the film treats him as a kindly, tragic figure. If anything you’re more scared for him than of him. The true villain, played by Ron Perelman, is a stunted man-child of a bully preoccupied with getting a nose job. There’s a little pain and suffering and a few cups of blood. If you can handle the old Universal monster movies, you’ll enjoy this one comfortably.
The Walter Hill classic action film, The Warriors, is presented with a couple of caveats. Horror critic Noel Carroll would slap me for daring to include it all) One, watch it at 3:00 a.m. The soundtrack tips the film into the realm of waking dreams. Two, the film works as horror if you’re afraid of clowns. What are the Baseball Furies if not weaponized mimes with specialties in bats and distance running?
I’m willing to bet $100 that more than a few chicken-hearts have avoided Time Crimes, a Netflix streaming gem, on the basis of its thumbnail: a large, lumbering, trench-coat figure wrapped in a blood-red scarf. Don’t let the image or the first act of the film fool you. This is not a slasher film, no final girls here. It’s a cat and mouse time travel movie, making it perfect for our list. The bait and switch will provide the cowardly with relief while keeping them absorbed in the thrilling twists and turns.
I saw this for the first time this week, and my only regret is not seeing it when I was 5. This stop motion “animagic” classic by Rankin/Bass, the same studio responsible for Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, is the bee’s knees. At times, the humor is dark. Baron Von Frankenstein doses a crow with his anti-matter serum, sending it out into the world to explode in a giant mushroom cloud of goofy evil. Gale Garnett voices Francesa, a proto-Jessia Rabbit redhead determined to get her hands on Frankenstein’s secrets.
Along with Cronos, I’d pencil Horror of Dracula in as a matinee double feature. (There is a little blood) Notable as the very first paring of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee as Van Helsing and Dracula, respectively, this Hammer classic borrows from the golden age Universal tradition while managing to find its own voice. It pivots away from the romanticism of the earlier era in favor of a dry wit and stiff upper lip. Oh, how could I forget. This first marks the beginning of a long tradition of spectacular cleavage in Hammer horror.
The final edition to the list is another great animated feature. I know there are readers thinking “why didn’t he include Nightmare Before Christmas??” Because it has a strong following and doesn’t need a champion. ParaNorman, on the other hand, doesn’t get the accolades it deserves. Although like Nightmare and Monster Party, it pulls from the stop-motion tradition. This is a tale of bullies and outsiders, or revenge and forgiveness. All this, and it’s funny. If you’re a teacher, I highly recommend including this in a unit on the Salem Witch Trials.
There you have it, 10 horror films for wimps. In researching this article I asked a lot of people for input. I was surprised by some of the suggestions. In conversing with both fellow horror nerds and outsiders I discovered their conceptions of intense and horrifying varies greatly. Why do some people have a high tolerance for gore, suspense, terror and depravity while others run screaming? I don’t know, but I think this article could be seen as the basis of an experiment. If you consider yourself a horror wimp, could you use this list to acclimate, slowly, to more intense fare? I encourage you to try, or if you’re already a horror buff looking to share your love with the youngsters, use this list as a way to ease them in instead of shoving them into the deep end (make sure you watch the films first before determining if they’re kid friendly).
By David Arroyo
The Philosophy of Horror