Editor’s note: As a part of Robot 666 Week, we welcome guest contributor Van Jensen, writer of Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer and its upcoming sequel.
by Van Jensen
I was on a panel with Steve Niles and Bernie Wrightson to discuss horror comics earlier this year, and I admitted that I didn’t really like horror as a genre. I can’t even see a trailer for Saw MCXVII (or whatever number they’re up to) without feeling repulsed. But Steve and Bernie talked me down from the ledge. The problem isn’t so much with the horror genre, it’s with the trend of comics and movies that use gore as a substitute for real fright. So here’s my list of favorite horror comics and films, and they’re all projects that rely heavily on atmosphere and thrills (the real hallmarks of horror) rather than buckets of blood.
1. House, by Josh Simmons.
Simmons’ debut graphic novel is a relatively simple story, with three teenagers exploring a giant old house in the woods. Things go wrong, which is predictable, but in an unpredictable way. Simmons uses no words through the entire story, but his real accomplishment is utilizing the design of the pages to deliver an increasingly claustrophobic, disorienting and terrifying story.
2. Creature from the Black Lagoon.
My grandparents used to run a theater, and there were lots of stories of how my grandpa would do different things while horror movies were playing to scare the audience. During a showing of Creature from the Black Lagoon, he waited for a dramatic moment and then — wearing tights, scuba flippers and a mask — ran through the aisle. I only saw the movie on VHS years later, but I always loved it. Not just for the iconic design of the creature, but more because it excels at slowly building tension.
3. Beasts of Burden, by Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson.
The concept of a group of pets protecting a neighborhood from the occult sounds kind of silly, but this series is both genuinely scary and, more importantly, haunting. The difference is that Beasts of Burden is full of well developed characters, and Dorkin and Thompson create them in such a way that when the horrific violence surfaces — as it inevitably does — one is left with an emotional pain that far outlasts the momentary frights.
4. The Host.
This Korean film is far from flawless, but it earns a lot of credit for breaking so widely from genre conventions. It’s the exact same type of giant monster movie as Cloverfield. But whereas Cloverfield offers nothing new beyond the gimmick of the handheld camera, The Host defies expectations at every turn. It’s a monster movie that becomes a family drama, a social critique and finally something of a ghost story. It is weird, daring and beautiful — words too seldom associated with horror.
5. From Hell, by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell.
I was tempted to choose Moore’s Swamp Thing run, but for my money, his masterwork is From Hell. Part historical graphic novel and part pseudo-journalistic examination of the Jack the Ripper slayings, the book is an in-depth examination of one man’s insanity played out in the larger insanity of a turbulent time in England’s history. It also deserves a lot of credit as a book that immediately reveals the identity of the villain and still manages to keep readers on edge.
6. The Devil’s Backbone.
Pan’s Labyrinth always earns mention as Guillermo del Toro’s best film, but his earlier foray into the Spanish civil war, The Devil’s Backbone, is far superior. Its protagonist is a boy who’s taken into an orphanage, which happens to be haunted. The ghost is what terrifies the children, at least until they begin to see just how horrifying adults can be. It’s an almost painful movie to watch, one that will alternately have you covering your eyes out of fear and covering your eyes so no one will notice the tears.