Creepiness without carnage has been embraced by Hollywood as a new idea, but there have long been filmmakers who embraced the idea of style over slashing as a vehicle for fear.
For some, it was a question of budget - fake blood costs money, you know. For others, it was censorship, the understanding that audiences at a given time would be willing to go only so far in terms of dismembering Mama. Some embraced the challenge, feeling that flexing the filmmaking muscles didn't require the obvious scare when a subtle spook might be just as, or more, effective. Here are some examples of outstanding movies that scare with style:
THE SIXTH SENSE (1999): The much-talked-about twist ending left audiences slack-jawed, but the real force behind this film was director M. Night Shyamalan's deliberate pacing punctuated by occasional otherworldly images. The image of hanging corpses that only one damaged little boy can see remains a masterful moment.
THE SHINING (1980): Blood flowed in The Shining, but what made it interesting was that it flowed from a hotel elevator. The real scares - a Jack Nicholson sneer, an empty hotel lobby or creepy twins trolling the halls - were far subtler.
THE INNOCENTS (1961): There's never a fear of death in this film about an English governess, her two young charges and the pair of malicious ghosts that prowl a picturesque manor. Instead, the fear is derived from a fight for sanity and perhaps the souls of the two children. Illustrated with vague, half-seen images that suggest, rather than demand, fear, this movie succeeds because of its unerring ability to build on its sense of dread.
PSYCHO (1960): Alfred Hitchcock was told this film would remain unreleased if the knife ever entered the naked flesh of Janet Leigh. Under that mandate, the master director fashioned an expressionist murder that suggests grave violence without, theoretically, showing it. I say theoretically because years later it was revealed that in a single split-second shot, the knife does enter the body. Evidently, Mr. Hitchcock didn't like taking orders.
CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962): Made on an absolute shoestring (about $30,000), this feature uses found locations, controlled overexposure and discordant organ music to build a fragile but effective film that manages to establish a real atmosphere of dread. A sequence involving the undead spinning across the ruins of a ballroom is a perfect example of this film's peculiar genius.
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