A trembling trifecta of horror, the three scariest films of the past fifty years aren't zombie flicks or slasher horror-porn movies, but come instead from the master of subtlety, Roman Polanski. Perhaps his greatest and certainly the three most frightening films are known as the "apartment trilogy," as each film is contained in, or centers around an apartment. Polanski masterfully plays upon our fears of small confined spaces, as well as our intrinsic fear of the unknown. The characters (other than the protagonists) seem to only add to the uncertainty and fear, though they claim to be there only to help -- how can you ever trust someone fully? The only way back from the hellish nightmares Polanski presents us with is through the dark recesses of our own minds.
Repulsion, released in 1965, plays most fully upon our fear of ourselves.
Catherine Deneuve is young and breathless as a shy French woman, who, when left alone for a weekend by her sister slowly becomes trapped by her own endless paranoia and the fear of her own sexuality. The small apartment seems dark and endless, a space known well to the young woman suddenly becomes frightening and feels different. It is desperately difficult to watch what feels like an inevitable conclusion. Trapped once again by self-imposed limitations, she rejects all attempts at salvation, unsure of what the input of others might bring about. Dark and sensuous, Deneuve carries the film with a remarkable understatement that would inform the rest of her work and sets the tone for the Polanski films to come.
Rosemary's Baby is his best known of the three, and a perfect blend fears -- our fear of others, our fear of ourselves, and our fear of the unknown.
As one of the best known horror films of our time, the film, which was released in 1968, seems perfectly mundane upon first glance. Rosemary (played perfectly by Mia Farrow) and her husband (John Cassavetes) are happily in love and find a new beautiful apartment; things are looking up career-wise and soon she becomes pregnant. Cue the beginnings of the strange coincidences and frightening dreams. What ensues is one of the darkest trials, a slow descent into madness ending only in a final reveal so stunning, it remains one of the most hotly contested and vehemently discussed twists in cinematic history.
The final entry in the apartment trilogy, The Tenant from 1976, plays most dramatically on our fears of others.
A new tenant takes control of an apartment recently vacated by a woman who committed suicide, and slowly begins to suspect the other apartment tenants are conspiring to drive him insane. He begins to play along, dressing as the departed tenant, attempting to gather evidence or some kind of acknowledgment of foul play. Polanski toys with us: perhaps it is the tenant who is mad; perhaps the neighbors are truly against him? How can we know? The fear that perhaps there is a vast conspiracy against us, waiting to destroy us if we do not fight back is a recurring theme. The Tenant is perhaps the most wrenching of the three films: Polanski is eleven years older, the innocence of Repulsion is gone and we are left with the vision of a terrified man, looking over his shoulder at every turn.
Polanski shows us a world that seems much like our own upon first glance, complete with caring neighbors, solid family ties, and nothing much amiss. Over time, though, imperceptible changes occur -- paranoia may overwhelm us and we begin to mistrust even our own senses. In all of the films, we are left to wonder until very nearly the end: is something wrong; are we too quick to falter and fear? Polanski devours us with the fears we hold at bay, particularly the fear that our lives hinge delicately on a point so fine that a drop into madness is inevitable.