I've been harping on and on about how we need to reconsider what the word "genre" really means, and how we should redefine the word based not on what a movie has, but what a movie intends to do to the audience. So, even the movie Shaun of the Dead may be considered a "horror movie" in the traditional sense, it really has a completely different effect on the audience than a movie like Jaws, which is not usually considered a "horror movie" but succeeds far better at horrifying the audience than Shaun of the Dead ever will.
I sat down to make a "Top Ten Horror Movie" list for Halloween, but realized that I was going all over the place. I had Paranorman and Nightmare Before Christmas on the list, alongside Pan's Labyrinth. Not only was the list all over the place, but there were too many good movies under that traditional "horror movie" designation, so I decided to narrow it down to movies that produce an uncomfortable or scary effect on their audiences.
10) The Flowers of War
Right off the bat, my theory about the difference between horror movies and horrifying movies is put to the test. Flowers of War is a movie set in war zone, directed by someone known for martial arts movies, but it had a profoundly disturbing effect on me. It involves people being trapped in a situation that they cannot escape from, which has no way to escape unharmed, made all the worse by the fact that it was based on World War II, and that this same story has likely repeated itself countless times throughout history.
9) Session 9
Session 9 was a great little surprise for me. Before I started really liking horror movies or even really liking movies in general, I used to just get together with my friends and watch B-movies to make fun of. We picked up Session 9 expecting it to be cheap, which it was, and expecting it to be hilariously bad, which it most certainly was not. Again, this movie is shot almost entirely in one location (like many movies on this list) which succeeds in slowly wearing down the audience's defenses.
8) Perfect Blue
Perfect Blue succeeds to make the audience question what is real and what isn't, and even then, sometimes what is real is often more terrifying and uncomfortable than what's imagined. It captures the psychological damage of someone under extreme stress with the nebulous nature of the film industry.
I swear to god, I didn't make Se7en number 7 on this list on purpose.
Se7evn does what I think every good movie should do: It breathes life into an entire city. There are constant references to "the city" throughout this movie, and how awful it is. You begin to feel that the city is another character in this movie, and that adds to the almost stifling feeling that you're watching one crime among many unfold before you.
Akira is uncomfortable because it should be a cool-ass anime about fighting robot monsters, but instead you get body horror and a distopian future. One aspect that I think is crucial to a horror movie is when you, the audience, have no idea how a character in the movie may escape or succeed in a situation. If you can watch a slasher movie, and think to yourself, "Why doesn't she just go out the front door and get the police?" then your screenplay fucked up. If you go, "Oh shit, he turned into a giant monster and can't control his body and just smooshed his girlfriend into jelly how the fuck do you even" then you're on the right track.
Are you catching one of the themes here yet? This movie is again set almost entirely in one location, which makes the audience feel like the entire world of the movie is horrific. Thanks to a couple key scenes in this movie, it scared the crap out of me the first time I watched it. CLOWN.
Hey, guess what? This movie takes place entirely in one location as well. It also has some of the best makeup effects and stage-setting in a movie I've ever seen. Not only am I captivated throughout the entire film every time I watch this, but I will never, ever, ever get used to the final scene.
3) The Thing
This movie doubles-down on the psychological trauma in Perfect Blue, coupled with the unsettling effect of being locked in one location for the entire film. This movie is set in a dreary, cold world, where anyone you know may be a shapeshifting alien out to murder the fuck out of you. You can't stay in that place for over 90 minutes and not feel disquieted by it.
2) Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari
Fuck you if you think a silent film can't be scary. This film is arguably the first horror movie ever made, and it can still make me feel uncomfortable while watching it. The story goes that the studio ran out of money to pay for electricity, and so had to paint shadows onto all the sets. Whether they were incompetent at painting shadows or just geniuses I'll never know, but the lines in this movie shoot off in all different directions, so you never know how big or or how far away something is. It's en effect I've yet to see reproduce in any movie since then.
YOU KNEW THIS WAS COMING DON'T ACT SURPRISED.
Check out the themes throughout this list: Single location, psychological dread, inescapable situation, body horror, body violations...all of it present in this perfect horror movie.