Halloween: 3 Must-See Cinematic Nightmares

In my review of this month’s Sinister, I wrote, “Crafting an extremely effective genre film is never an easy task, but it always seems especially challenging when the genre is horror. Most obviously, this seems to be because everyone is frightened by different things…one man’s torture porn could be another’s tasteless comedy.” For me, there’s nothing more horrifying than a really effective psychological thriller. While horror films like Saw, Hostel, and even The Exorcist provide creepy-crawly chills in the moment, most horror films never really keep you up at night. A seriously good psychological thriller, however, will do just that: give you an unnerving, nightmarish sense of dread that will keep you up for days. While The Shining is an easy and obvious choice, last year alone, three exceptional psychological thrillers were released that define, for me at least, true and utter horror. With Halloween upon us, it couldn’t be a better time to check one of these three cinematic nightmares:

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1) We Need To Talk About KevinDirector Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin was labeled as a dramatic thriller during its late 2011/early 2012 release, but after watching this extraordinary film there’s no doubt that it’s truly a horror movie. The last time I felt this unsettled and disturbed after watching a film was Danny Boyle’s 2002 zombie masterpiece 28 Days Later, and both that and Kevin use silence greatly amidst images that will stay in your brain for days. I honestly don’t want to spoil anything about this film for its cinematography will blow you away, but the opening scene amidst a crowd of tomato stompers is jaw-dropping and perfectly sets up the rest of the film as both beautiful and spine-shatteringly haunting. In the film, Ramsay abandons a linear story and, instead, creates an impressionistic nightmare that tells the story of a mother’s emotional and physical state before and after her son commits an unthinkable tragedy. We don’t just see the mother’s emotions as Tilda Swinton acts, we feel them in every shot and every frame thanks to Ramsay’s effective direction and editing that leaves it up to the viewer to figure out where in time the movie is at different points. And then there is, in fact, Tilda Swinton as sociopath Kevin’s mother – I can’t say anything other than wow! Swinton proves that she is the actress of her generation in this tour-de-force performance, and the fact that she didn’t even receive a nomination for Best Actress is perhaps the biggest Oscar snub ever. Much like Ryan Gosling in Drive, Swinton is often silent in the film but her eyes and facial glances are always on point with whatever emotion she has to convey: fear, horror, concern, etc. This film left me thinking about its haunting images for days – I dare you to see it and not feel unsettled after. This is how real horror is done

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2) Martha Marcy May Marlene – Director Sean Durkin’s debut feature is a mesmerizing and terrifying psychological nightmare with a star-is-born performance by Elizabeth Olsen. Similar to the equally-as-haunting Kevin, Martha unfolds in both the past and present simultaneously as it tells the story of a young woman’s encounter with an abusive colt in the Catskill Mountains. The effortless switches between past and present (sometimes a switch lasts only seconds) help draw us into the damaged and fearful mind of Martha, and the quietly building suspense pins you to your seat in ways most conventional horror films couldn’t even dream of. While Sarah Paulson and John Hawkes do strong supporting work as Martha’s distant sister and her sinister colt master, respectively, it’s Olsen’s ever-changing sense of deranged fear and paranoia that will leave you jaw-dropped. While flashbacks to the colt are sickening and mentally distraught (a depiction of a colt-initiation rape will force you to look away from the screen), it’s really the scenes set in the present where fear takes over as we see just how damaged Martha is. In one scene, Martha’s mental time switches cause an anxiety attack that will leave you, just like her, in a state of paranoid dizziness – you won’t know where to look, what to think, or what to do, and that is horror in every sense of the word. Really powerful stuff.

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3) Take Shelter – I’m not sure what it is about psychological thrillers, but between Kevin, Martha, and the equally haunting Take Shelter, 2011 was the year of the mental movie nightmare. With a more straightforward and definitive narrative, Shelter lacks the ambiguous chills of both Kevin and Martha, but that small complaint is well made up for thanks to the dynamite duo of Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain. As Curtis, a family man slowing losing his mind thanks to a string of apocalyptic nightmares, Shannon is so powerful and so convincing in his portrayal of fear and distress that it’s a shame he wasn’t nominated for a Best Actor Oscar. We may not know whether or not Curtis’ warning of the end of days is valid or not, but Shannon’s constantly twitching distress is enough to prove that this man isn’t messing around, and the quest to find the answer turns Shelter into a maze of psychological horrors. As his loving wife, Chastain also does understated wonders, and a scene between the two in an underground bunker during the film’s climax is an acting master class – prepare to be wowed, these two will blow your mind and keep you awake for hours on end once the credits begin to roll.

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Are you fan of psychological thrillers? What scares you most when it comes to the movies?

Happy Halloween!

Article by Zack Sharf

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