Now I will admit I am a sucker. I love watching a movie- playing a game, reading a book, consuming any media really- and getting caught up in the emotions. That being said, it’s not as though I am completely easily manipulated. A by-product is that while horror movies will shock me, scare me, gross me out, they will rarely make me have an emotional reaction. Yet a few come along and just grab me and make me cry.
Be warned MAJOR spoilers for the following- Wolf Creek, The Descent, Scream, Hostel II, Frankenstein, Silence of the Lambs/Hannibal, Train to Busan
To be fair, I should have desensitized to this film at some point, but I didn’t. Wolf Creek takes a near agonizing amount of time to hit its climax. It’s not a bad movie until that point, but you begin to relax. Perhaps that is the genius behind it? By the time you have only half an hour left you start to think;
“This more a thriller than a horror movie. Tense, a bit shocking, pushing the ropes of what mom and dad would call a thriller. Not horror, at least not by the standards of the 2000s.”
Then bam! The killer (who’s shown his sadism to a slight degree) hits Liz, and it rapidly goes down hill. Liz’s last scene is agonizing. She gets tortured both physically and emotionally in a heart-wrenching scene. All three characters (Kristy, Liz, and Ben) have horrific scenes where they suffer, and you as the audience does so with them. You don’t know if any of them will make it and it is just brutal. Most of the time when I watch horror I am somewhat passive about who lives and who dies. I will sometimes root for one character but accept their death if it comes. In Wolf Creek, I rooted for all three characters from start to finish and wanted to see the killer be brought down, desperately.
Sarah, our protagonist, goes out with her friends on a rafting trip. After she is in a car wreck that kills both her husband and her daughter. Flash forward one year later, and one of Sarah’s friends wants to get the group together to go on another trip to help them heal. They decide to go cave climbing instead of rafting. Part way through the group is put in danger, and the woman that organized the trip admits that they are in an undiscovered system with no one looking for them there. Thus begins many tense moments of them trying desperately to find their way out of a cave no one has survived.
Much like Wolf Creek this movie then hits with a bam. This one happens a bit more towards the middle than the end, so it’s not as shocking, but it’s still a massive jump forward in a new type of horror.
Sarah who has already suffered so terribly goes through the loss of each of her friends, as well as the discovery that one of her friends had been betraying her for years. In the American version of the movie she survives. In the much better, and more on tone original version, Sarah falls and hits her head, and the escape scene is just a dream. She wakes up with a hallucination of her dead daughter. While these spoilers might seem specific, it’s hard to explain how heartbreaking this movie is without giving those details.
Sarah, who is wonderful from start to finish, has suffered in a way no human being should. Then on her first outing to heal she is broken even more. It’s… it’s crushing.
The movie is over 20 years old, horror fans have formed their opinions on it, it’s part of our pop culture, yet there was a time when the ending was a surprise to us all.
Cindy lost her mother, and now after the trial, she is being hunted by someone. Cindy has no trust, is damaged, and genuinely afraid. That’s what makes it so awful that her boyfriend not only stalks her and kills those around her, but also builds up her trust in him before doing so.
Cindy fights him over and over. She can’t open up to anyone, and she can’t trust him. He manages to convince her that he is the one person that cares about her. The movie goes a little over the top with the virginity metaphor, but the emotional implications are there. Not only are they there, but they are strong. So when Billy ends up being the killer not only did it catch many people off guard, but it’s pretty upsetting.
I never cared for Billy, but I liked Cindy, and to see her heart broken like that…
In the very average Hostel II, there is a subplot that touches on the same tones as Scream. Lorna is the slightly annoying girl that tags along with the two leads. She is extremely uncomfortable around people and very afraid. She does not give her trust; Beth seems to be the closest person she trusts. Like Cindy, her walls are broken down, and she pays for it.
There are two factors that make it even worse than Cindy. Factor one, her walls didn’t come down due to her own control. Whitney gives her alcohol knowing that Lorna has never drank. Lorna trusted someone because she was drunk against her knowledge and will, not because someone actually earned her trust. In her mind the man did earn her trust, even loved her. She may seem too old to be learning this lesson, but she’s not, and everyone did at least one stupid thing the first time they drank.
Factor two, she does not survive her betrayal, and her death is horrific. She is sliced, diced, and tormented. On top of that, she is being forced to watch a woman bathe in her blood while getting off on it. If that’s not enough the man she thought loved her kisses her on the forehead before this all happens. The movie is eh, but Lorna’s plight is upsetting.
This might be more personal, but this movie breaks my heart. In a near perfect example of ‘the sympathetic monster,” Boris Karloff delivers. There is only one moment (that rumor has it was forced in) that changes this context a bit. While The Creature is shown to have an abnormal brain, every other moment is one that can be blamed on those that created him. Frankenstein creates him and neglects him; Fritz abuses him, all he does is react.
The monster’s only real crime is accidentally killing Maria. Maria’s death can also be blamed on Frankenstein’s neglect however as The Creature has no idea what he did. Aside from that act, all other acts on the part of The Creature are reactions to his awful situation.
Boris Karloff does so much without words, and it makes me cry nearly every time.
Silence of the Lambs & Hannibal
This one is personal. I am a lover of strong ladies in media. Clarice may not have aged well (regarding feminism) over the years, but for the time she is tops. For the horror/thriller genres, she begins to stand out even more. That’s why, for me, as I watch her life be trampled by others and haunted by her past, I start to get upset.
She is never able to escape working with Hannibal. Expectations are set from that case. People setting her up to fail are also motivated by it. Not only that, but you are struck with the knowledge that her demons never cease to haunt her.
I am not even going to go into what various psychologists would say about the fact that her most successful emotional relationship is with a cannibalistic serial killer.
It’s all very upsetting for a very likable character.
Train to Busan
This movie is crushing. In my long history of watching horror films, I can’t think of one that upset me as much as this one. Every time things start to look up something terrible happens, and a likable character is punished. Train to Busan follows a man who is taking his daughter to see her mother when a zombie outbreak occurs. The man has been an absent father at best but eventually, steps up in the face of something horrific. Aside from him, there are a number of other characters that make up the core plot, including a “tough guy,” his pregnant wife, and two teenagers that were going on a school trip. At some point during the movie each of these characters is confronted with losing a loved one, and most of them with losing their own life. Since this movie is newer than any other on the list, I don’t want to give away too much, but I will say there is a lot of loss in this movie, a lot of betrayals, and a huge heaping of heartbreak. In the end, it’s a pretty touching story that mostly focuses on the father redeeming himself, which is beautiful on its own, but it’s a zombie movie, so most of us know where it’s going. Train to Busan is brilliant, but will likely make you cry.
What are your top picks for emotional horror movies? Do you agree that horror tends to not lend itself to this emotional reaction? Let me know!