Jump Scares Don't Cause Nightmares: 10 Horror Films that Use Atmosphere Over Jolts


This article was originally published on July 18th, 2013.

Living in Birmingham, I tend to see wide releases only after they hit theaters, so I keep an ear out for any unlikely multiplex film to earn positive buzz. Chief among recent, surprising critical darlings is a horror film released in the middle of summer. James Wan’s “The Conjuring,” out today, arrives on a wave of critical praise rare for a horror film. Michael Phillips calls it “an ‘Amityville Horror’ for a new century” before comparing Wan’s direction to Robert Altman’s, while our own William Goss says that though “we’ve seen swarms of birds, levitating furniture and chaotic third-act exorcisms before, even down to its very last shot, “The Conjuring” demonstrates a scary — and welcome — amount of care.” It all sounded too good to be true, until I noticed a recurring tidbit in the reactions. Whether negative or positive, the buzz for “The Conjuring” has made special note of its volume of jump scares.

Most eye-catching was Calum Marsh’s article for this site, in which, as the title claims, he argues that the film is simply too scary. Admitting he found the film terrifying, Marsh goes on to say that the film “makes every gesture a fatal blow, paying off each moment of suspense almost the second it is established. Its most radical quality isn’t the extremity of any of its single scares...but rather its overall guiding principle, which is that no moment should go to waste.” But that same overwhelming asset ultimately becomes “exhausting,” a horror film comprising only a string of jump-scares that gives the audience no reprieve.

For a horror film to be described, whether by Marsh of the MPAA itself, as “too scary” is certainly a dream problem for a filmmaker, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t sound appealing. But even the praise for “The Conjuring” has started to make the feature sound like its own YouTube compilation of “Best Scenes from ‘The Conjuring,’” like a horror version of “The Raid.” Where at least “The Raid’s” counterproductive distillation of the action genre to a constant movement between setpieces at least had the advantage of well-choreographed fighting, “The Conjuring’s” vaunted series of expert jump scares are hobbled in one respect: jump scares suck.

Well, that’s not fair. Some jump scares are so ingeniously executed they take on a life of their own. The hand in “Carrie.” The blood test in “The Thing.” The homeless “monster” appearing behind the diner in “Mulholland Dr.” Even James Wan’s earlier “Insidious” shows a flair for setting up such payoffs and ably knocking them down, and by all accounts “The Conjuring” improves on that film’s strengths. But to excel at crafting films of nothing but scares is like being a master of cotton candy, putting great care into something that instantly dissipates. Deafening noises, bursts of music, faces materializing from nowhere can make the heart skip, send popcorn flying from tubs and reduce one to watching a screen through woven fingers, but after going home and surviving the night, all the just-a-cat moments and demon faces and gore slip from the mind.

Perhaps I should clarify that I’ve often delineated scariness, which describes an emotional reaction and is most susceptible to sudden frights, to horror, a method and focus of storytelling that, at its best, brings out one’s fears less for a quick scare than for a more sinister confirmation of the justifiability of those phobias and anxieties. To scare is not necessarily easy, but often it lacks the haunting power of great horror. In the moment, “The Conjuring” may be the most unbearably tense experience I have all year, but if it’s anything like “Insidious,” I’ll be going to Wikipedia the next time Wan makes a film to look up details just to remind myself what happened. Even Sam Raimi’s parody of this approach, “Drag Me to Hell,” worked a little too well at aping its targets’ mannerisms: nowadays, I remember only white noise and its meaningless twist ending.

For various reasons, horror is often compared to comedy: both deal in cathartic releases and are judged by the intensity of vocal responses to those releases. The volume of laughs and screams, then, becomes the yardstick for measuring a film’s success. But to equate the two is to miss how differently the genres work: comedy lives on surprise, where the outcome of an unexpected punchline is the reward. Horror, though, works through anticipation, through the unnerving setup of a person, place, even world that subtly turns against a character until hope is lost. In other words, comedy, no matter how long-winded and carefully ordered the setup, is about the end, while horror is about the means.

Atmosphere, then, gives horror its power, from Edgar Allen Poe’s stories through the Brontë sisters’ demented romances through H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmic doom. The best horror films, likewise, do not treat the act of unsettling an audience as a mere primer for the eventual spooks as an ongoing process of warping not just the world within the film, but the one outside the theater. Images, and, more importantly, moods, stay in the mind for days, weeks and occasionally even a lifetime after experiencing them. These movies may not be “scary” in the sense of eliciting screams, but they live on like Poe’s beating heart, or the impenetrable moors of “Wuthering Heights.” Below are 10 such films, a sampling of features spanning from the studio system to the present day, that may not send you running from the theater in terror like “The Conjuring” but may just come back to unnerve you later. By no means the last word on great horror, these films mark a good starting point to finding horror movies that work in mysterious ways.

“Diabolique” by Henri-Jacques Clouzot (1955)

“Diabolique” is a colossal horror fake-out, an entire plot structured on the “just a cat” principle as a trio of closely linked but secretly combative teachers plot to off each other and disguise their own duplicity as death. This is a film where the absence of a corpse scares more than the sudden appearance of one, and when one “reanimates,” Clouzot’s filming of the scene in silence and slow-motion flies in the face of generic expectation and is all the more frightening for it. The reversals continue all the way until the end, in which the monsters themselves are shocked with a normal person walks out from the shadows to defeat them.

“Night of the Demon” by Jacques Tourneur (1958)

Tourneur’s three films for Val Lewton (“Cat People,” “The Leopard Man” and “I Walked with a Zombie”) pretty much throw down the gauntlet for atmospheric horror, but not to be forgotten is this lesser remarked-upon feature, in which Tourneur goes against his ambiguous early horror to clearly show the existence of a monster at the top of the film. That makes the film more outwardly jolting than the eerily absent terrors of Tourneur’s other genre work, but Dana Andrews still plays things as if the looming demon might be a feverish hallucination that he can will out of existence. And even when the demon fills the frame, Tourneur’s vast gulfs of space remain unparalleled for the sheer discomfort and foreboding: in showing huge frames with nowhere to hide, Tourneur somehow only enhances the feeling that something will pop out from nowhere.

“The Haunting” by Robert Wise (1963)

The haunted house film naturally lends itself to atmosphere, what with the “monster” being the mise-en-scène, but Robert Wise’s 1963 masterpiece sets a standard few can meet. Before unseen forces pound at doors and lost visitors pop out of trap doors, the film sets its mood with brilliantly curved frames, warping perspective and confounding one’s sense of space at all times. No monster ever materializes from the shadows, but Wise’s meticulous tension building makes what most horror films would consider spooky setups (disembodied laughter, the turn of a doorknob of its own volition) act as effective payoffs. Wise cut his teeth on Val Lewton movies, and no film made since Lewton’s death so thoroughly demonstrates the knowledge of what made the producer’s work great.

“Repulsion” by Roman Polanski (1965)

This writer’s favorite horror film of all time is something of a haunted house movie, but only in the sense that the house (well, apartment) is both the vehicle for supernaturally grim manifestations and the victim of same. Cathereine Deneuve’s shut-in anthrophobic projects cracks and decay upon the walls as she stews in paranoid energy in her sister’s absence, and the apartment retaliates by materializing the sources of her deep fears. Polanski plays out the socio-sexual undercurrents of the film’s horrors through his camera, using his mastery with unorthodox, teasing compositions and undulating focal lengths to visualize not merely paranoia but a female perspective as it navigates a world aligned against it. The shot of arms reaching out from the walls to grope Carol, violating her in what should be her private sanctuary, is one of the great horrific images for its surreal shock, and its deeper implications.

“Don’t Look Now” by Nicolas Roeg (1973)

Nicolas Roeg’s elliptically ordered chamber horror tilts off its axis so rapidly that the spill of red ink on a photograph at the top of the movie proves a scarier use of red goop than the goriest pictures. As soon becomes clear, the monster of the film is grief, the destabilizing effect of losing a child on parents whose broken spirits lend the movie its erratic structure. The most accomplished horror features provide a keen sense of place, but “Don’t Look Now” is the rare film that benefits from obliterating any foothold for the audience to orient themselves, its looping movement only clarifying place and time in retrospect, and after several viewings.

“Possession” by Andrzej Żuławski (1981)

If “Don’t Look Now” consumes itself in agony over a lost child, “Possession” puts forward a strong case for never having kids in the first place. Żuławski mines Lovecraft for an extreme take on miscarriage, postpartum depression and more, with Isabelle Adjani’s powerful performance rooted in melodrama as much as terror. Images from the film linger for years: Adjani collapsing in a puddle of spilled milk and uterine blood, a double take of her rebelling on the street against Sam Neill’s abusive husband, and the final image of a monster’s hands slowly beating on a frosted glass door as bombers circle overhead. All monsters are grotesque expressions of inner human fears, but few feel as palpably connected to internal madness as the creature Adjani births.

“Prince of Darkness” by John Carpenter (1987)

Just about any Carpenter film deserves a mention when it comes to finely constructed, precision-timed horror, but in atmospheric terms, he tops himself with “Prince of Darkness.” From the moment that Donald Pleasence (in his most fear-stricken but least panicky role for Carpenter) confesses to a long-standing Church conspiracy to conceal pure evil with a mixture of disgust, resignation, and the quiver of deep fear, a pall of gloom is cast over the proceedings that mutes even the handful of jolts into something more cosmic. Interdimensional mirrors, a mass of zombified homeless, the slow dissolve of a possessed colleague into a mound of ants never overstep the film’s limited scale, but they all suggest a much larger presence that can only be directly seen in such minor visions because the full thing would be incomprehensible to us.

“Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” by David Lynch (1992)

David Lynch is the greatest horror director of non-horror films, though if he ever did make an outright entry into the genre, it was with his maligned masterpiece “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me.” With the actual mystery of Laura Palmer’s death solved, for better or worse, on the show, this quasi-prequel narratively covers trod ground. Emotionally, however, this is as harrowing and devastating and unrelenting as anything to ever be foisted on an unprepared public, in which a town so friendly to an affable male outsider turns toxic and unpitying for a girl who grew up there. The longer format and ongoing weirdness of the show put the focus on its supernatural elements, but “Fire Walk with Me” makes the likes of BOB seem more like coping mechanisms for blotting out the more sadly common horrors of rape, incest and murder. “Fire Walk with Me” forces the viewer to see the world through the eyes of someone who can find no solace in it, where even the spinning of a ceiling fan or a creepy painting contain a sense of danger.

“Pulse” by Kiyoshi Kurosawa (2001)

“Pulse” could have gone so wrong (just look at the American remake). A film directly tied to an emerging technology will instantly date itself, but “Pulse,” released before the widespread adoption of high-speed internet, the rise of social media and various other developments of Internet life, only seems to get more relevant. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s chiller finds ghosts in the machines, which crawl out slowly, not suddenly, and bring with them less a sense of terror than abject melancholy. The subtext of the Internet uniting people through a false sense of presence as it isolates mankind is hardly original, but Kurosawa suffuses the film with such rich despair that the viewer’s own life force threatens to turn to ash. Even the insistent score only spikes after a ghost has appeared, or a person has reacted extremely to loneliness, turning even the one truly clichéd element on its head.

“Halloween II” by Rob Zombie (2009)

For someone who so gleefully trades in throwback schlock, Rob Zombie admirably avoids the easy reward of jump scares. (Even his most jump-ridden feature, his recent “Lords of Salem,” puts its surprises in deep background rather than the fore.) His finest outing, “Halloween II,” finds its true monster less in Michael Myers than in the PTSD triggered in survivors from his first spree of terror. In both the theatrical and especially the director’s cuts, Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton) rips apart bonds with friends and surrogate family as the agony of her survivor’s guilt proves too much to bear. So frightening is Laurie’s self-immolation that when her brother returns, one is tempted to see him only as a manifestation of Laurie’s fear, as well as a now-necessary agent for her release. The film asks what happens to the Final Girl after she becomes the Final Girl, finding no victory, only a mere prolonging of torture that ends only when recurring monsters, or new forces, finish the job only just started with a franchise’s first entry.