The first 10 minutes of Suspiria (Dir Dario Argento, 1977)
Chosen by Edgar Wright, the British director who made his name internationally with the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy – Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End. His 2017 film, Baby Driver, starring Ansel Elgort, Lily James and Jon Hamm, was nominated for three Oscars.
If you look at the original American poster for Dario Argento’s Suspiria, the tagline is: “The only thing more terrifying than the last 12 minutes of this film are the first 92.” Essentially the ad campaign is saying that the rest of the film is scarier than the ending. That’s not untrue. The ending of Suspiria isn’t bad, but it’s not as scary as the opening, which is one of the great set pieces in horror cinema.
Most horror films start with a sense of normality, and then plunge you into the horror world at the end of the first act. But in Suspiria everything is intensely sinister from the very start, and not just because of [Italian prog-rock band] Goblin’s unsettling, nursery rhyme score, with its chants of “Witch, witch” (alerting English-speaking audiences [of the Italian-language film] to what’s coming down the tracks).
As soon as American dancer Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) arrives at Munich airport, you’re brought into Argento’s world of expressionistic technicolour. Primary colours are pumped up, so things are immediately unsettling. Even the automatic doors feel ominous. When she gets into her taxi, you have extremely stylised shots of the rain and the colours outside. Argento creates the impression that the very country we’ve landed in is inherently evil.
When Suzy arrives at the dance academy in Freiburg, another character, Patricia Hingle, is fleeing from the building – she screams something that Suzy can’t understand, because of the wind and the rain, and then runs off through the woods. We follow Patricia back to her friend’s apartment in town, with its nightmarish art nouveau designs.
Alone in the apartment, Patricia thinks she hears something outside and looks out of the window, through the washing lines. We see a pair of eyes, which appear to be floating in the darkness. A hand bursts through the glass and presses Patricia’s face against it.
Then we get into the finale of this sequence, a gloriously baroque, nasty death where Patricia is first stabbed by the faceless creature, then tangled up in wires and pushed through the stained glass ceiling of the atrium. Her friend comes back and sees Patricia’s head poking through the glass. Then she fully falls through, is hanged by the electrical cord she’s tangled in, and the falling debris kills her friend. That is an extremely operatic way to open a movie.
There are parts of my films that nod towards Dario Argento: the hooded killers in Hot Fuzz; the trailer I did for [Quentin Tarantino’s] Grindhouse, which is my tribute to Euro-horror. In The World’s End and Baby Driver, there are scenes with what we’d call Argento lighting, with two opposing primary colours in the same frame (notably the contrasting red and blue in Suspiria). If you look at the end of Baby Driver, where Jon Hamm is in the police car, you’ve got the red and blue lights – that was very deliberate. That hyperreal use of colour tells you that you’re entering a slightly fantastical dimension – which is something I took from Argento’s work.
The party scene in Lost Highway (Dir David Lynch, 1997)
Chosen by Alice Lowe, whose directorial debut was Prevenge (2016), about a pregnant mother receiving murderous thoughts from her unborn baby. Lowe played the lead in Prevenge and has also starred in Sightseers and Hot Fuzz.
There’s a scene early on in Lost Highway that doesn’t sound that scary on paper, but it’s really, really creepy. Bill Pullman’s character, Fred Madison, is at a party when he’s approached by a mystery man with weird makeup. It’s a normal party atmosphere – clinking glasses and people chatting. Then everything goes quiet and the mystery man (played by Robert Blake) says: “We’ve met before, haven’t we?” Madison says no, and asks where he thinks they met. The mystery man says: “At your house, don’t you remember? As a matter of fact, I’m there right now.” He makes Madison call his house – and the mystery man answers the phone.
The scene has a nightmarish quality, but you don’t quite know why it’s frightening – there are no explosions, no prosthetics, it’s all done with sound and editing. I’m actually afraid of the scene. There’s something demonic about it – you feel like you might get a phone call from this guy immediately afterwards. It makes you feel dirty in an intangible way.
The way it’s filmed – quite close up, nearly dead-on, but not quite – imprints it in your mind. It feels super-real. The lighting is interesting too: it’s quite flat, not typical horror lighting. You can see everything, which to me is more horrifying.
It’s a general rule in horror films that things stop being scary after you show the monster. David Lynch breaks that rule completely and shows you the thing that you really don’t want to see. In Lynch’s films, you meet the monster in broad daylight, even if he’s just a guy in lipstick who looks vaguely like Lindsay Kemp.
I love that the mystery man in the party scene is smiling. I made a short film, Solitudo, about a medieval nun who meets the devil and he’s kind of funny. Lynch has that understanding of how, in nightmares, there’s a weird line where you feel like laughing even as you’re terrified. I love that. The more unexpected something is to the audience, the more frightening it becomes.
Mia Farrow being betrayed by her doctor in Rosemary’s Baby
(Dir Roman Polanski, 1968)
Chosen by Karyn Kusama, the American director of Girlfight and the horror films Jennifer’s Body and The Invitation. Her next film, Destroyer, a crime thriller starring Nicole Kidman, is out in January.
I watched Rosemary’s Baby for the first time when I was about 20. At first, to me, it was more about the concept of a satanic cult, about the idea of giving birth to the child of Satan. But I’ve been reinterpreting it over the years and now I see it as a domestic abuse parable, and what it means to be partnered with men who want power at a woman’s expense.
The scene I’ve chosen reflects that theme. It’s not overtly frightening, it’s not really using conventional horror movie language, but for me it remains the most troubling and difficult component of the movie.
Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) has come to believe that a satanic coven, including her current gynaecologist Dr Sapirstein, wants her as-yet-unborn baby for nefarious purposes – and that her husband, Guy, is cooperating with them. She goes back to her original doctor, played by Charles Grodin, and tells him everything. He makes it seem like he believes her story and urges her to rest while he gets some help. She drifts off to sleep, telling little Andy or Jenny in her belly that it’s all going to be OK. When she wakes up, the “good doctor” has brought her husband and Dr Sapirstein to retrieve her.
It’s such a betrayal. After believing she had found someone – a man in a position of power – that she could trust, she finds that she’s been delivered back to her captors.
Part of what makes the scene so rich and ambiguous is that, at this point, Rosemary is pretty far gone; she feels like she’s being driven insane, that a satanic cult really is after her baby. It’s in a tradition of movies that I particularly appreciate, the paranoid thriller, in which you feel like everyone is out to get you, in a way that seems irrational and yet your fears are justified. It’s a worst-nightmare scenario: because you’re behaving in an unhinged way, you lose anyone who might support you, even though your suspicions are well founded.
In my last two films I’ve been exploring the question of who are we meant to trust (by “we” I mean both the audience and the characters we’re following). The brilliant thing about Rosemary’s Baby is that the audience understands that something nefarious is going on, and yet Farrow plays it with such a fragility that it’s easy to feel like somehow she’s part of the problem.
That’s a very interesting choice, because it makes our relationship with the characters much more complicated. As a narrative strategy, I find myself drawn to it over and over again.
What makes Rosemary’s Baby such an enduring classic is that, in the end, Lucifer is kind of an afterthought – the real horror comes from Rosemary’s husband and her neighbours and doctors, who fail her. That’s a much more authentic kind of terror for all of us to grapple with, particularly women. One thing to add here is that Roman Polanski has made one of the great feminist parables of cinema – and yet we have to struggle with Polanski the man and the mistakes he has made, the crimes he has committed. But that to me is the enduring possibility of art, that it can stand apart from its maker, and I believe we have to judge Rosemary’s Baby on its own merit.
Deborah Kerr walking through the house at night in The Innocents (Dir Jack Clayton, 1961)
Chosen by Anna Biller, the US director whose horror comedy The Love Witch was selected by the New Yorker as one of the best films of 2016. She is currently working on a film about Bluebeard.
In the scene I’ve chosen, the governess Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) is reading the Bible by the fire in an enormous English country house. She hears voices and laughter, so she goes to investigate. She looks unhinged, with her hair down for the first time. Walking up the Victorian staircase, she hears a woman saying things like “kiss me” and “love me”. She tries to open various doors, but they’re all locked. The voices multiply, and the sounds get louder and louder as we see her from above turning around and around like an animal trapped in a cage. Then the voices stop and she sees the little girl, Flora, at her window, looking down with a creepy smile at her brother, who is in the garden. Miss Giddens’s face twists into knowing dread – she is certain that the children are possessed by two evil servants who were lovers before they died.
I first saw Jack Clayton’s The Innocents – an adaptation of Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw – on television when I was about 20 and it didn’t leave a big impression on me. When I saw it again recently I was devastated. The film sets you up to identify with the governess, but then you realise that she may in fact be going insane. I have madness in my family, so being inside the head of an insane character is really frightening for me. But at the same time I felt incredibly exhilarated by the cinematic technique.
Clayton seems to be using everything in the film-maker’s toolbox in this sequence. Through his use of sound, the voices feel like they’re in her head and not in the house, which highlights the idea that she’s going mad. A lot of the horror is played out in the lighting, the way her face and nightgown come out of the darkness – it’s very claustrophobic. The camera work is very fluid, following rather than cutting, giving you more sense of being inside the house. And a lot of the horror comes from Deborah Kerr’s eyes, her acting.
In my own film-making I’ve used high-contrast lighting, sound effects, dream sequences and closeups to create horror. But I would love to use more fluid camera movement, and more of that type of atmospheric lighting where the negative space becomes so important.
The best way to create fear, I’ve found, is through having a character do something early on that frightens you out of your wits, so you’re on edge every time you see that character. In The Love Witch, the audience gradually realises that Elaine eats cake during sociopathic episodes, so just the sight of her shovelling cake into her mouth becomes frightening. Contrast can also be powerful. There is music throughout The Love Witch, but at the end, when Elaine has lost her mind, there is no music on the soundtrack. The silence itself becomes this horror – it’s like being trapped inside her mind which is now a padded cell.
The hospital corridor scene in The Exorcist III
(Dir William Peter Blatty, 1990)
Chosen by Panos Cosmatos, the Italian-Canadian director whose latest film, following 2010’s Beyond the Black Rainbow, is the action-horror Mandy, starring Nicolas Cage and Andrea Riseborough.
We see a nurse in a hospital, doing her rounds. She goes in and out of rooms, thinking she can hear strange noises. This goes on for nearly five minutes, in almost complete silence, most of it filmed in a long shot from the end of the corridor. The audience is probably anticipating something, but it’s held just the right amount of time that you let your guard down – and suddenly this figure comes running out behind the nurse with a pair of spring-loaded scissors.
I saw this scene for the first time when I was in my mid-teens. I was sitting at the very back of the movie theatre, and I remember this wave of physical fear rolling through the audience from the screen towards me. It was truly bone-chilling, in part because the film until this point had a realistic feel, and suddenly there’s this moment of absurdist horror out of nowhere. What makes it so effective is the immaculate timing: it starts with the audience anticipating a jump-scare, but holds it long enough that the anticipation dissipates, then comes back, then dissipates again, and when the scare happens it feels genuinely startling.
As a kid I reacted very intensely to films – I had no ironic distance and I always felt emotionally connected to what was happening, however absurd. That changed as I grew up and became aware of the mechanics of film-making. It’s got to the point where it’s actually quite difficult to scare me, and I’m constantly searching for it.
I don’t really think of myself as a suspense film-maker, though there are suspense scenes in both my films. I think it’s like hitting a note and then holding it, as William Peter Blatty does in that Exorcist scene, and then cutting the note when it’s least expected.
Sound plays a huge role in creating tension – to me it’s every bit as important as the image and the music. I think of Black Rainbow and Mandy as audio-visual immersive experiences, and I have a lot of discussions with sound designers to achieve very specific and unexpected textures.
One film that has a spectacularly unsettling use of sound is Session 9. There’s a reveal that happens two-thirds of the way through that’s foreshadowed by abstract sounds and images, and when it finally hits it feels like a crystallisation of anxiety and terror that I’ve rarely seen in a film before. You’re not quite sure what the sound is evoking, but when it finally becomes clear it’s truly terrifying.
Audiences enjoy being scared for a multitude of reasons. For some it’s an adrenaline rush: it’s just fun to feel scared in a safe environment. For others – like me – it’s a very therapeutic thing to face emotional darkness in a controlled manner, outside of yourself, within the frame of a film. The next time I watch a horror film, instead of watching it in a theatre, I’m going to watch it at home alone in the middle of the night, with all the lights turned off, to maximise the potential for fear.