Horror films always rely on manipulation of the senses. As Alfred Hitchcock famously said, “I enjoy playing the audience like a piano.” And the keys of that cinematic piano often revolve around the senses.
Who could forget the infamously slow eyeball impalement in Fulci’s Zombi, the ear-jarring screeches of Hitchcock’s The Birds, or the ghostly clapping hands in Wan’s The Conjuring?
While horror films rely on both tactile body horror and the psychological terror of the mind, a few films work the manipulation of the five senses into the themes of the films themselves. Here is a brief list of some of the “sense horror” standouts and the senses they manipulate:
Terence Young’s 1967 thriller Wait Until Dark is a masterful film that not only highlights the terror of a young blind woman being tormented by a psychotic killer and two crooked cops, but places the audience in her position by staging the terrifying climax in her darkened apartment. Trapped inside by the evil Harry Roat Jr. (a chilling performance by Alan Arkin), she breaks every light in the place, trying to put them on even terms. The chilling moments of darkness throw audience members into a very dark place, indeed. Young also plays brilliantly upon two forms of blindness: physical blindness and cognitive blindness stemming from assumptions and misapprehensions of character and ability.
2016’s Don’t Breathe puts a new spin on Wait Until Dark by reversing gears mid-movie, with the would-be home invaders becoming the hunted as their mark, an aging blind recluse, emerges as a very capable and hideously monstrous villain with a dark secret locked away in his basement. Director Fede Alvarez plays masterfully with audience identification with protagonist and antagonist, leaving viewers lost in the dark as to who, if any, of the characters they could identify with.
This year’s standout thriller A Quiet Place plays heavily on sound, not just for effect, but as an integral component of the story. In a world that has been invaded by an unknown and likely extraterrestrial hoard of creatures who hunt solely by sound, silence is not only preferred; it is the only means of survival. The opening ten minutes of the film are eerily devoid of sound, resulting in a slow build of tension and dread that finally explode when the first noise shatters the silence. Actor/director John Krasinski transforms the much-used conceit of using a scene of silence to place the audience firmly on the edge of their seats before a jump scare into a template for the entire film. Unnerving and often poignant, the resulting film is both eccentric and terrifying.
Hush, a 2016 independent film that premiered at the SXSW Film Conference before being picked up by Netfilx, uses a similar restriction and manipulation of sound in its tale of a young woman who can neither hear nor speak who is terrorized by a masked stalker in her secluded home. Director Mike Flannagan makes great use of ambient sound and striking visuals, especially when the stalker realizes that he doesn’t need to hide from his intended victim. His assumptions about what he perceives as her disability ultimately lead to his downfall, as Kate Flanagan’s character proves to be anything but helpless.
2016 was a great year for smaller, offbeat horror films, to which Colm McCarthy’s The Girl with All the Gifts stands as testimony. A fascinating and subversive twist on the zombie story, the film is set in the British countryside after a bizarre strain of pathogenising fungal infection has turned most of the world’s population into ravaging cannibal crazies. The twist is that the fungal infection crosses the placental barrier, and has resulted in a second generation of “hungries.” Several of the children are kept in a secure (or, as it turns out, not-so-secure) military facility, where they become test subjects for a possible cure. The children are capable of rational behavior unless they smell the human scent, which is masked by the soldiers and researchers with a chemical perfume. Upon detecting the true human scent, they dissolve into rabid cannibals. With smart commentary on evolution, ethics in medical research, and the militarized policing of refugee populations, The Girl is both smart and scary.
And on the subject of scent and perfume, 2006’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer take the obsession with scent to a new level of horror and revulsion. Set in 18thcentury France, the film concerns the life and crimes of an odd and disturbing man named Grenouille. Born and instantly abandoned among the filthy fish stalls in the equally filthy and stinking city of Paris, Greouille grows up in an orphanage before realizing that one of his monstrous qualities is that he has a superhuman sense of smell. This discovery leads him into apprenticeship among the perfumers of the city, where he becomes obsessed with procuring and possessing the ultimate human scent … a distillation that requires murder to complete. Along the way, he realizes that while possessing the finest sense of smell in the world, he himself has no natural odor. This witty twist on the Cartesian dictum, I think; therefore I am (I smell; therefore I am, for Grenouille) precipitates an ontological crisis that turns him into a serial killer as he goes to further and further extremes to extract the scent of humanity from his victims. Based on Patrick Susskind’s international best-seller, this is a very overlooked gem.
Yet another entry from the great year of 2016 deals squarely with taste, and the attendant associations with cravings, physical desires, and transformation was the international hit Raw. Raw is not your typical cannibal-gross out film. While shocking and revolting, the film has an intelligence and philosophical dimension that lifts it to a lofty position. The story of a young veterinary student who is a vegetarian turns into a hazing-gone very wrong parable as she is forced to eat raw meat at school, eventually releasing a craving for animal –and ultimately human—flesh. Horrifying, oddly beautiful, erotic, and disturbing, Raw made many “Best of” lists for horror films that year.
Antonia Bird’s 1999 horror/suspense film Ravenous is similar to Raw, this time moving the setting to the mid-19thcentury Sierra Nevadas. A film that draws on the 19thcentury histories of the Donner Party and of cannibal prospector Alferd (no, NOT Alfred) Packer, the legend of the Windigo, and sly comparisons of cannibalism and U.S. Imperialism, Ravenous is a blackly comic horror film involving an outbreak of mystical cannibalism in a remote Federal outpost in the high Sierras. The film’s tagline: You Are Who You Eat, sets the tone for a smart, violent, and irresistibly humorous critique of the Frontier Myth in the U.S. cultural imaginary. A cast that includes Guy Pierce, Neil McDonough, Robert Carlyle, Jeffrey Jones, and David Arquette brings considerable talent to this often overlooked and quite savagely funny film.
Clark Gregg’s 2008 very black comedy Choke may not technically be a horror film, but there is certainly enough trauma, hopelessness, and alienation to qualify it for this list. Based on Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, Choke tells the story of a deeply alienated sex addict who cons people into giving him money by pretending to choke in restaurants and allowing them to perform the Heimlich maneuver on him. After believing they saved his life, he tells them of his dire financial situation caused by the need to pay for his deathly ill mother’s medical bills. As he drifts into a relationship with another sex addict pretending she is someone else, the moments of physical contact when being given the Heimlich become the only true moments of physical contact for him, substituting hugs and touches of affection. Weaving addiction, impotence, and the illusions of identity into a strange and provocative film, Gregg turns Choke into a bizarre film worth watching.
And for a second entry in this category, I leave it to you. What horror films can you think of that work touch (or its absence) into their themes? Which of your favorites have I overlooked?