Subtlety and Horror
Horror is a a funny old genre. Perhaps the most horrific thing of all about the genre is how awful most horror films actually are. The vast majority of them are cheesy retreads of the same tropes and themes, with jump scares, high-pitched screaming, poor, ancient special effects and endless sequels; but there are a few masterpieces to be found amongst the sea of mediocrity if you are willing to wade through it.
Personally what I find to be most effective in Horror is not excessive gore, jump-scares or loud screaming just for the sake of shock value. These are all predictable and overdone, and their impact has been whittled down to redundancy in most instances nowadays. Instead, I find that the act of scaring the viewer is more effectively achieved through more subtle means. Uneasiness that seeps into the scene through seemingly innocuous interactions or everyday scenarios are generally much more effective at creating tension and keeping the viewer on their toes, as they are able to put themselves into the shoes of the characters in the scene. Keeping the scene grounded in reality, at least in part, assists in allowing the sinister and the horrific to slowly and subtly creep in and dominate. Below are a few examples of this, for your viewing pleasure.
Exhibit A: Lost Highway, 1997. Director: David Lynch
Whilst not strictly a Horror film per se, many of Lynch's works delve into the surreal, often doing so with very dark and disturbing undertones that penetrate his films. This scene in Lost Highway takes place at a bustling party - hardly the ideal setting for an intense and chilling interaction with the film's "Mystery Man", but despite this, Lynch manages to achieve an excellent result here by using the setting of the party to create a false sense of security. As soon as the Mystery Man appears and locks eyes with Fred, the upbeat music is drowned out and replaced with a sinister tone. The camera pulls in, and the other attendees of the party blur into the background. The focus is now entirely on Fred, and his interaction with this strange man. With everything else out of focus, the audience is forced to focus on the bulging eyes, pale face and unnatural grin of the Mystery Man. Coupled with this is the surreal dialogue that ensues, culminating in a haunting moment where the Mystery Man's laughter is heard twice simultaneously; once in person, and again through the phone. As the conversation ends, he walks off, and the music of the party fades back in, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened at all. Again, while this isn't strictly horror; it's bizarre, chilling and memorable. It's one of the scenes in this film that really stuck with me after watching it.
Exhibit B: The Shining, 1980. Director: Stanley Kubrick
There are many excellent scenes in The Shining, but the restroom dialogue scene between Jack and Mr. Grady is my favourite of the whole film. Again, it starts off fairly innocently, with Mr. Grady helping Jack get a drink stain off his clothing, while the two make small talk. But as the conversation goes on, Jack recognises Grady as the man who shot and killed his wife and children, before cutting them up into pieces. The subtle change in tone of Philip Stone's character as he delivers the line, "I'm sorry to...differ with you sir, but you are the caretaker" is a masterful example of subtlety in action in horror, and the scene is turned on its head. Suddenly we've gone from innocent small talk to major revelations as to what may actually be occurring in the hotel. One of the comments on the YouTube clip of this scene from a user by the name Greg Mottola sums it up nicely - "When a ghost accuses YOU of being the ghost, you've got a problem". And of course, this scene (and the one preceeding it, with the dance in the Gold Room) conflicts with the central premise of The Shining in that the hotel is supposed to be deserted - so whether Jack is hallucinating this entire scene, speaking with a ghost or something else entirely here is left up to the viewer's discretion. I think this scene is a showcase of the greatest performances from Jack Nicholson and Philip Stone. Without them, the impact of it would be diminished severely.
The ambiguity of this, and many other scenes in this film make it initially confusing, but compelling, even after the credits have rolled. The fact that the viewer is left many clues, many of which end up contradicting each other, has made The Shining a hot topic of debate and discourse for decades since its release.
Exhibit C: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, 1992. Director: David Lynch
Two examples from David Lynch films... is my bias showing?! Once again it's up for debate as to whether the Twin Peaks film, Fire Walk With Me, counts as horror, but there are several sequences in this film that definitely count.
A troubled Laura Palmer puts a strange painting that she receives up in her room. It depicts a dingy empty room with floral wallpaper, and an open door. We get several extended static glimpses of this painting, followed by a shot showing us that Laura managed to get to sleep. We return to the shot of the painting again, and the camera abruptly cuts into the room depicted in the creepy picture. The camera slowly moves towards the open door, and a haunting melody plays, perfectly complimenting the eerie scene unfolding. Eventually, we get a glimpse of Mike, "The Man From Another Place", who proceeds to give Laura a ring. She wakes up back in her bed and finds the ring in her possession, horrified that what she just witnessed was real. But, then she actually wakes up. Or at least we think so.
I think this scene works well because we've all experienced a similar scenario, where we think we've woken up, only to find that we are in fact still dreaming. It captures the often dark and foreboding nature of our dreams, and the confusion that waking can bring.
Exhibit D: Midsommar, 2019. Director: Ari Aster
Last year's Midsommar was one of my favourite films of the year, and it did an excellent job of gradually revealing its true nature to its protagonists, and by extension the audience. The whole thing is absolutely wonderfully shot, and I think that helps to accentuate the disparity between the beauty of the setting, and the rather less beautiful nature of the events of the film.
Unfortunately the clip below starts a little further into the scene than I would have liked, but essentially the Ättestupa cliff sequence begins with the protagonists curiously wandering along with the rest of the commune, cautious and anxious to witness whatever holy event is about to unfold before them. All of the locals are dressed in white, and there is no dialogue for a few minutes - instead, all we can hear is a continuous series of calming tones. Dani, Christian and the members of the commune look up at the two elders, and you almost half expect them to start levitating and ascending to heaven or something. The scene so far has seemed almost mystical and divine in nature, but the tension slowly begins to rise as Dani and Christian begin to wonder what is actually going on. The calming tones in the music are subtlety drowned out by a much more sinister string arrangement, and by the time the characters, and the audience, work out what is about to unfold - it is too late. There have been moments of foreshadowing at the commune prior to this scene, but this is where the mood is drastically altered for the rest of the film going forward.
I think partly why it works so well is that the protagonists, like the audience, are strangers to everything that is going on around them. The fact that nobody else is phased by the gruesome deaths in front of them makes everything suddenly feel very wrong. Like maybe you shouldn't be staying with these people.
Here's a link to the actual score itself for this scene. It's around the 1:30 mark that the tone begins to shift.