I have an odd relationship with the horror film genre. When I was fourteen I bottled out of watching The Texas Chain Saw Massacre with my mates, making up some feeble 'need to go home for dinner' excuse. No one was fooled. Then in my 20s I set about catching up on all the scaries I'd missed as a teen, challenging myself to sit through them without flinching, no matter how gruesome the content.
(I had exactly the same experience with roller-coasters, incidentally. Anytime I saw one, it had to be experienced on principle.)
I've tiptoed back from that point and made my peace with the genre, having acknowledged one simple fact. I don't want to be appalled, sickened, harrowed and depressed for its own sake. Scared witless, yes. Provoked, thrilled, exhilarated, challenged, chilled, set on edge, even filled with a sense of creeping existential dread now and then. Yes, I'm good for all of those, possibly even at the same time. But spare me the Saws and the Centipedes. Those are the stuff of teenage dares, and screen horror can be so much more. It doesn't have to horrify literally, like being involved in an M25 multi-vehicle pile-up. There's a reason why the Michael Jackson song is entitled Thriller, rather than Horror. Think about it. (And no, it's not just because horror doesn't rhyme with killer.) Few viewers if any want to be horrified in any real sense.
So after that long introduction, here are five of my all-time favourite horrors to enliven your Halloween - films that each on some level provide me with actual entertainment. Once again I aim to provide a service. Don't mention it.
1. Halloween (18)
Yes, it's the most obvious of choices. And some of the dialogue is a bit duff. And a few of the actors are ten years too old to be playing teens. But the use of sound and silence, the darkness in the periphery of the frame, the killer's mask looming out of that darkness, Jamie Lee Curtis' genuinely fraught responses, and that utterly chilling piano/synth score - all combine to make this one of the most beautifully sustained pieces of suspense-horror in the history of cinema.
2. The Exorcist (18)
This film is not just about a couple of iconic moments involving literal head-spinning and projectile vomit. There's so much more going on than that. It's a stone-cold serious story of good and evil, where there are metaphorical demons in the characters to compliment the literal one in the little girl. The effects look old, but the sense of dread is as fresh as when the movie first came out. Few things chill as much as innocence infected with evil. Brrrrrrrrrrrrr. Put your coat on.
3. The Vanishing (15)
Not the 1993 Hollywood remake, the 1988 Dutch/French original. A young man's sense of disorientation and rising panic, when his girlfriend goes missing. He gets an opportunity to discover what really happened to her, but the implications for both him and her are truly terrifying. It was between this and The Wicker Man (original Brit version, obviously) as to 'most scalp-prickling ending', but I think The Vanishing just edges it.
4. Shaun of the Dead (15)
The wonderful thing about Shaun is that it manages to be truly unsettling and truly funny at the same time. (It's also gut-wrenchingly emotional at one point.) It combines all the claustrophobia and paranoia of the best zombie horror with truly joyous comedy at every turn. See? Horror can be joyful. Endlessly watchable and still the stand-out of Edgar Wright's magnificent Cornetto Trilogy.
5. The Babadook (15)
Mother and child horror once more. I've said everything I need to about it on this blog. Twice. Click on the link and check out what I said first time around. It's utterly unspeakably awesome.
I could go on - classic horror titles are clamoring in my head along with a few hidden gems, but I'll save those for another occasion. The point is that horror for me has been rescued as a genre. Yes it's loaded (as is all genre cinema) with dross, but this calendar year alone has proved that there's life in the (slavering, human-flesh-craving) beast. Get Out, IT and Happy Death Day are all worth your time.
Horror lives, and it doesn't have to be grim. At its best it can be truly life-enhancing. Happy Halloween...