Beyond blood and gore: Four great horror films that defy the genre's conventions

Beyond blood and gore: Four great horror films that defy the genre's conventions

Leatherface, the villain of the 1974 classic film, “Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Sam West

It’s probably the most maligned cinematic genre. The horror film, a beloved Halloween tradition, is typically associated with misogynistic slasher movies, “torture porn” and low-rent drive-in flicks. And this perception isn’t exactly wrong; the ratio of bad to good scary movies is skewed more than any other variety of film. For every “Ju-On” or “Night of the Living Dead” there are about a hundred low-rent b-movies with titles like “Murder Basement 16: Clown Teeth.”

And to a certain extent there’s nothing wrong with this: sometimes it’s fun to watch ketchup splatter on walls and make fun of low production values. But if you’re in the mood for some red meat this Halloween, I’ve made a list of just a few of the best horror films which capture the fear and terror of the best exploitation films but transcend their cliches. These are some of my personal favorites, too.

A horror film that’s kind of like a social documentary: “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre”

Probably the most influential movie in the genre’s history, Tobe Hooper’s classic is remembered for creating a truly terrifying villain in the character of Leatherface and for starting a tradition of powerful women in scary movies. By having the main female character escape and outsmart her captor rather than fall victim to him, “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” is said to have rejected the misogyny of older films in the genre.

But beyond that, what’s most striking about the movie is it’s bleak portrayal of post-industrial America. Leatherface and his hideous family, after all, are really just red-blooded, hard-working meatpackers who only turned to murder and cannibalism after they were laid off from their jobs. Though there is a scene in this movie featuring a couch made from human skin and bones, the real villain of “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” is the unfeeling force of neoliberal capitalism.

A horror film that’s kind of like science fiction: “The Cabin in the Woods”

I can’t possibly write a lot about this movie without giving it all away; the trick of “The Cabin in the Woods” hinges on a killer plot twist. The film starts out as a fairly typical teen horror film that seems to hit all of the genre’s best cliches: five friends, sex, drugs, alcohol, an abandoned house in the hinterland, etc. But what’s quickly revealed is that the universe of “The Cabin in the Woods” is much, much stranger. This movie is really more like conceptual science fiction than a horror film. Like an episode of “The Twilight Zone” or “Black Mirror,” “Cabin” will keep you guessing and has an ending you’d never expect. As an added bonus, it’s also quite funny.

A horror film that’s kind of like a teen romance: Let the Right One In

It’s a teen vampire romance movie that’s actually good. Shot and set in rural Sweden, “Let the Right One In” tells the story of Oskar, a middle schooler who catches feelings for Eli, a new neighbor in the apartment next to him. The bad news for him: she’s a hundred-year-old vampire with a thirst for human blood.

There’s plenty of violence in this movie; a lot of red blood is sprayed on white Nordic snow. But the emotional heart is the innocent relationship that Oskar and Eli strike up, which perfectly captures the dopey sweetness of puppy love and pre-adolescent romance.

This film is in Swedish, so if you don’t like reading subtitles, you can watch the very good American remake Let Me In instead. However, you should note that as a part-time movie snob, I’m looking down on you.

A horror film that’s kind of like a crime drama: The Silence of the Lambs

Before the glut of TV police procedurals about serial killers, there was only “The Silence of the Lambs” and the sneering visage of Hannibal Lecter. This classic stars Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling, an FBI agent looking to bring down serial killer Buffalo Bill. To do this, however, she must ally herself with Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), a cannibal who has been locked up in a maximum security prison for an number of years.

The charming Lecter cryptically guides Starling to find Bill, but he has his own motivations as well. The film cleverly reverses the usual genre dynamic by having an intelligent and strong woman keeping a male killer captive; it also perfectly blends drama, suspense and gross-out revulsion. “The Silence of the Lambs” is the only horror film to ever win an Academy Award for Best Picture, and it represents the height of what the genre is capable of doing.