Jun 18 2012
When we think of scary movies, we think of Freddy’s knifehands, of Linda Blair’s revolving head and of Samara walking out of a television. In each of these films, and countless others, the horror film’s evil is encapsulated in an antagonist, be it monster or little girl. Perhaps one of the most comforting elements of a genre dedicated to making you uncomfortable is the guarantee that there will be a bad guy. But despite the seeming necessity of an evil foe, several movies have found a way around using concrete characters as the basis for their scares.
I was inspired to compile this list after watching Prometheus, which certainly does feature several specific bad…entities. Still, the main characters are more or less being haunted by an abstract black goo, one with the power to become something more substantive. Even though most of us know the larger series that Prometheus is set in, taken as an isolated movie, there isn’t any one specific person/creature that stalks the crew. Now in a movie like Piranha 3D, it may be many individual piranhas wreaking havoc, but the bad guy principle still applies. With Prometheus, the ambiguity of whom to fear set in motion the following list.
5. Final Destination
Whenever I think about this movie, it conjures images from the episode of South Park where Stan and Cartman accidentally break the Beaverton Dam and the world fears global warming has come to seek vengeance. In particular, there is a scene in which a South Park resident is “pursued” by global warming, which eventually “catches” him. He writhes around on the ground, which to the viewer appears to be an act of his own volition.
A South Park man dies at the hands of global warming
Final Destination is a fun movie, but it does lean pretty heavily on the invisible hand of fate conceit, even to the point where inanimate objects move or break to ensure one of Devon Sawa’s planemates meets their maker. There’s a shower scene where a clothesline hangs one guy, and another where someone gets straight-up destroyed by a speeding bus, Faces of Death style. The film’s plot revolves around Death coming to claim a group that should’ve died on a plane that crashed, and opens a Pandora’s box of options for the screenwriters to kill off their characters.
Perhaps not a film that we will show future generations of children in the way The Shining and The Exorcist are handed-down, Final Destination (at least the original) was an inventive, intriguing answer to the question of how break-away from the slasher genre while still luring in the same demographic. With a timeless concept (Death) acting as the killer, this movie remains in my memory as a unique offering in a period filled with cookie-cutter Scream rip-offs.
4. Dark Water
Water has played the bad guy in many movies over the years. It’s had supporting roles behind a great white shark (Jaws) and an iceberg (Titanic), and killed all on its own in The Perfect Storm and Poseidon. The ocean and large bodies of water in general, are one of the few things a human cannot truly conqueror, and so water readily triggers a primordial fear of drowning or getting lost at sea. Dark Water takes this fear and subverts in a way only the dude who created The Ring would think of.
When Dahlia and Cecilia move in to a new apartment, they find water leaking down from the flat above. Perhaps someone left the tub running? Fat chance. In typical Japanese horror film fashion, Dark Water is peppered with dead children, creepy dreams and tons and tons of murky water everywhere. Currently sitting at a 46% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, this movie is nowhere near as scary as The Ring or Ju-On, but it does fit on this list.
By film’s end, we learn that a dead girl left in the water tank atop the apartment has been reaching out to Dahlia and her daughter. In the US version, the girl’s ghost is more prevalent from earlier on, but in the original Japanese film, it’s the foreboding, persistent water that takes center stage. Even with the appearance of a more traditional bad guy/monster at Dark Water’s climax, the ghost’s intentions are less malicious than tragically confused. Couple that with the scariest moments coming courtesy of H2O, and you’ve got a certifiably abstract horror film.
3. Let the Right One In
I was debating putting The Silence of the Lambs on this list for the same reason I’m including Let the Right One In. Both films have an easily identifiable villain, but the villain is made out to be a sympathetic character to the viewer. In the case of Lambs, the argument would be that Hannibal is actually an ally (albeit a twisted, psychopathic cannibalistic one) to Agent Starling in her hunt for Jame Gumb aka “Buffalo Bill.” Does Hannibal kill some people along the way? Oh, most definitely. But Lambs sets us up to root for Hannibal’s freedom. However, as the American Institute’s #1 Best Film Villain of All-Time, the good doctor is pretty much untouchable.
Let’s instead examine a similar circumstance as presented in Let the Right One In. Oskar is constantly tormented by bullies, until one night when he meets a strange girl on the playground between their apartment buildings. Eli is a vampire, something the viewer realizes much more quickly than Oskar. But she has a soft spot for the kid, so while she’s out feeding on various members of the neighborhood, she also has Oskar’s back.
Ostensibly, Eli is the bad guy in Let the Right One In. She’s a vampire, she violently kills a handful of people throughout the film and exhibits no remorse in doing so. However, seeing her through Oskar’s eyes, as his only friend and protector, we have pretty much no problem with her murdering the husband of a woman she infected towards the end of the movie. Oskar’s bullies stand-in as bad guys, but even in the wake of their gruesome deaths, we’re left feeling pretty ambivalent about the whole thing. They were hurting Oskar, potentially even about to let him drown, but also four kids just got slaughtered. The mess of feelings conjured by the final third of Let the Right One is a vast departure from the tunnel vision of “defeat Jason Vorhees” etc. one gets in most traditional horror films.
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