See No Evil, Hear No Evil: The Six Senses of Horror
Film is a medium of two senses: sight and sound.
We can’t touch the people or objects depicted, we can’t smell or taste them.
But horror? Horror involves all the senses.
We feel the fear on the back of our necks, in the goosebumps crawling up our arms. We taste that metallic tang on our tongue as anxiety builds, as we chew our lips or bite our nails. When zombies lurch across a city, do you ever find yourself imagining how bad the stench would be?
In honor of the full-bodied experience the best scares inflict upon us, let’s look at some movies centered around the senses.
Bird Box (2018): Malorie (Sandra Bullock) and two small children—all blindfolded—are rowing down a river with a box of birds. Through flashback, we discover why it’s vitally important they remain blind: entities in the now post-apocalyptic world drive people to commit murder and suicide through horrible visions.
Talk about a terrifying concept. We’re so dependent on our sight to escape danger, having it weaponized against us is an awful twist. Bird Box cleverly never shows us what’s causing the chaos (or what the characters are seeing that drives them to their atrocities), allowing our imaginations to fill in the blanks while using music and the unexpected to jolt us out of our seats.
A Quiet Place (2018): In a world overrun with extraterrestrials that attack any source of sound, the Abbott family—Lee (John Krasinski), Evelyn (Emily Blunt), Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and Marcus (Noah Jupe)—has a unique advantage: due to Regan’s deafness, the family can communicate solely through American Sign Language.
Plenty have nitpicked this intense, atmospheric movie apart for its plot holes. But come on, people. Almost every genre movie requires a suspension of disbelief—just sink into the story and savor the stellar performances (real-life marrieds Krasinski and Blunt are heart-breaking) and moving family dynamics.
I will always love stories that turn disabilities into superpowers; just as the blind become ideal survivors in Bird Box, it’s powerful seeing Regan (played by the amazing deaf actress Simmonds) prove instrumental in destroying the seemingly unstoppable monsters.
Pontypool (2008): A Valentine’s Day broadcast by radio shock-jock Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) is interrupted by violent zombie-like attacks in the Canadian town of Pontypool. Those trapped in the studio soon learn there’s an airborne virus being passed through English words.
A disease transmitted through words may seem silly, but the committed performances by (the always wonderful) McHattie and the handful of co-stars really sells it as a source of horror. This is a low-budget, claustrophobic, zombie-style flick well worth watching, with plenty of disturbing visuals to accompany the insane premise/dialogue.
The Stuff (1985): A yogurt-like substance known as “The Stuff” becomes a nationwide craze, rapidly selling out of stores as more and more consumers become addicted to it. What no one realizes is “The Stuff” is actually a living, parasitic organism that takes over anyone who ingests it, turning them into mindless zombies.
Writer/director Larry Cohen always said The Stuff was a satirical comedy highlighting Americans’ obsession with junk food and big companies’ willingness to put money-making products out that were later recalled as hazardous. But the zombie army and tasty brain-eating parasitic sludge stuff is pure horror.
Fallen (1998): Detective John Hobbes (Denzel Washington) discovers the serial killer he captured was no mere human when the killings begin again after the man’s execution. Investigating further, Hobbes realizes a fallen angel known as Azazel can jump from host to host with a touch.
What really sells this movie is that ending. No spoilers here, but it’s a whole series of gut punches. Also, besides the always watchable Washington, there’s a great turn by the legendary John Goodman.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006): In this edgy adaptation of a bizarre book by the German recluse Patrick Süskind, Grenouille (Ben Whishaw) is a sociopath with a preternatural sense of smell. Obsessed with preserving the scent of a beautiful red-haired woman in the perfect 13-note perfume, he begins a murder spree in the French city of Grasse to refine his technique before finally reaching the object of his desire.
Do you like really weird stories? Do you like sumptuous European cinematography paired with awful deeds, a la Hannibal? Do you like Alan Rickman? Perfume has it all! Boy, this is a weeeird picture, very art-house and very disturbing. On the plus side, the super awful central character has a pretty nasty, extremely Gallic ending that has to be seen to be believed.
The Sixth Sense (1999): Child psychologist Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis)’s newest client, Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), isn’t just a maladjusted, bullied loner: the little boy really can see dead people.
It’s been 20 years and we all know the Big Twist now. (And we’ve watched writer/director M. Night Shyamalan’s career go from meteoric to dumpster-fire, sadly, as he refuses to budge from his Every Movie Needs A Big Twist mantra.)
But when this first hit theaters, before the spoilers leaked? God, that was a satisfying first watch. While it’s not quite as good as Stir of Echoes—another little-boy-sees-ghosts chiller released within months of Sense—it’s still solid thanks to the ghostly images and superb performances of Osment and “Scream Queen” Toni Collette as Cole’s mother Lynn. Few movies top this one when it comes to extrasensory perception.