Truth be known, I'm not beholden to the horror genre, for the simple reason that I don't dig gore. Today's crop of torture porn offerings don't interest me in the slightest, and the slew of 80s knockoffs featuring an endless stream of Jasons and Michaels and Freddies serve mainly as poor camp. I'd rather consider a few films that aren't ordinarily considered to be bona fide horror films, yet for me capture the sense of unease, mystery and surrealism thaat make up the best horror.
1) The Night of The Hunter, Charles Laughton (1955). Laughton's sole stab at directing was not a success, either financially or critically. Today, it's considered among the finest in American cinema of the 1950s. This is Southern Gothic at its most dreamlike and poetic - Flannery O'Connor on the silver screen, with Catholicism dropped for fire-and-brimstone preaching. Robert Mitchum's turn as the Rev. Henry Powell introduces a grand rogue to the movies, while the great silent film star Lillian Gish adds both a haunting presence and a stubborn nobility to a twisted story of murder and chase.
2) Spider, David Cronenberg (2002). I could have picked any of this Canadian master's horror offerings, from his early splatterfests (The Brood, Scanners) to his later works of psychological terror (Dead Ringers). But Spider lays off the gore and travels inside the mind for a deeply disorienting journey into the realms of memory and schizophrenia. There's a kind of O. Henry twist at the film's conclusion, but this is not merely a gimmick film along the lines of M. Night Shyamalan. It's deeply moving and deeply disturbing. And it boasts a wonderful performance by Ralph Fiennes.
3) The Virgin Spring, Ingmar Bergman (1960). There was often more than a touch of Old Norse unease to Bergman's works, but while The Seventh Seal may have the most iconic imagery, it's this work which best illustrates the deeply pagan roots of Scandinavia. The detached nature of the film resembles those old American Child ballads that calmly detail acts of horror against plaintive melodies. This was later updated by Wes Craven in the 1970s as the extremely gory Last House on the Left. This is the one to track down.
4) Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror, F.W. Murnau (1922). No big surprise here. F.W. Murnau's silent masterpiece is one of the finest of early films and an early high point for horror. Those unversed in the world of silent film might not appreciate every moment of this work, but there are enough classic images and sequences to unnerve any viewer. The scene in which the vampire rises up from his coffin to directly face the viewer is one of the great moments of the silent era. Kino's new transfer is one of the better available versions - be warned that silent cinema is still rather poorly represented on DVD.
5) The Woman in the Dunes, Hiroshi Teshigahara (1964). Japanese horror is a whole world onto itself, and while much of it helped prefigure the current trend towards extreme violence (Ringu = The Ring), the moody 1960s trilogy offered by Teshigahara and novelist Kobo Abe are quite different. This existentialist piece offers stunning visuals and a haunting story, one in which beauty can often be found amid deep unease. The images of skittering sand grains and the wind's ever-present howl will stay in your mind long after the credits roll.