A lot goes into making a great horror movie. First, you have to get a monster or threat. Then you need a group of people who can be eaten, murdered, and/or tortured by said threat. Throw in some shocking music, and you're ready to go, right? Not so fast. Great horror movies pay just as much attention to where the horrible things happen as to what those horrible things are.
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10. The Skull House - The Amityville Horror
Some places are evil because of what happens in them. Kill a few coeds at even the most charming little B&B, and it'll become evil. Some are evil because of where they are. The most common example of this are those places built on top of ancient burial grounds. But a very few sinister places are simply evil because they look evil.
Take the infamous Skull House from The Amityville Horror films. You couldn't have built a better place to house unspeakable terrors and unhappy ghosts. In fact, you have to wonder what the architect of this place thought was going to happen in a house that looks like a malevolent skull. And what about the people who bought it? Regardless of how cheap it was or how good the local schools were, they had to know they were courting disaster moving into a place that scary looking. But what did they know. They bought the house even after they found out that an entire family had been brutally murdered there.
9. The Cube Prison - Cube
Source: Cineplex-Odeon Films
Imagine you wake up in a perfectly square room. On each wall, the ceiling, and floor are six doors. You look through each door and find six more rooms that are identical to the first one except in color. You can go into any room you like, but they are all exactly the same. Well, except that some if them contain savage death traps involving spinning blades and sprays of acid. There is a way out, but to add one final insult, the only way to find it involves the most horrific thing of all. Math. Welcome to the Cube. First appearing in the 1997 cult classic Cube, the Cube is a great example of how a very clever filmmaker can use a low budget to his advantage. Director Vincenzo Natali creates an instant horror classic with basically one set and a really cool idea. Never before or since has simple geometry been so frightening.
8. The Shopping Mall - Dawn of the Dead
Source: United Film Distribution Company
In George Romero's second film in his legendary Dead series, our four heroes steal a helicopter to flee the growing menace of living dead that is threatening to consume the entire country. After realizing that fuel is going to be hard to come by, they stumble upon a shopping mall. At first, the Mall seems like a perfect place to ride out the flesh-eating ghoul storm in luxury and comfort. Things go well for awhile as they indulge their consumer fantasies in the best Seventies style, but it isn't long before the mall's garish colours and decorations become just as frightening and ugly as the skin rotting off the zombies outside. Only an expert filmmaker like George Romero could make a mall full of free consumer goods seem less attractive than a world overrun by rotten, hungry corpses.
7. A Totally Normal Suburban House - Poltergeist
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In Steven Spielberg's E.T., the California suburbs are presented as a magical place where children are free to explore, play, and spend hour after hour with small, wrinkly creatures from beyond the stars. Even the single mom with three kids has a huge house full of toys and luxury. In Poltergeist however, Spielberg, along with director Tobe Hooper, explored the darker side of those sunny neighborhoods.
The Poltergeist house is just as well appointed and cozy as the one in E.T., but this time, the otherworldly visitors aren't of the friendly variety. They turn the house against its occupants. The chairs form weird patterns spontaneously, the TV talks in a voice only the girl can hear, and even the toys try to kill them. Once the upstairs closet turns into a portal to the Other Side, things go from bad to worse. All in a tastefully appointed, roomy, perfect suburban house.
6. An Empty Japanese House - The Grudge
Source: Columbia Pictures
The average Japanese house is already pretty creepy. Purposely draughty to combat the country's humidity, full of low ceilinged, narrow hallways and crawlspaces, and using mostly wood flooring, they are creaky and claustrophobic places. Perfect for sounds that could be the wind, or could be the bone-chilling wail of a vengeful spirit. In The Grudge (American remake and Japanese original) the filmmakers use the noises and maze like passages of a vacant Japanese house to horrifying effect. As a variety of poor suckers brave the house, sinister things occur almost immediately. With nothing more than a few odd sounds and a visual flash or two, the audience knows this empty house is full of evil. A cat cries but can't be found, a silent boy appears and disappears, and a dark cloud of palpable dread and fear emanate from the tiny attic. And that staircase. Dear God, that staircase.
5. The Nostromo - Alien
Source: 20th Century Fox
Before Alien hit the big screen in 1979, most movie spaceships (besides the Millennium Falcon-which was basically a bachelor pad with a hyperdrive) were clean, beautiful vehicles shepherding handsome heroes to far-flung planets for adventure and the occasional make-out session. The genius of Alien is that it posits that any organized space exploration by humans would probably involve dirty work instead of glamorous adventure. The ship in the movie (called The Nostromo) accordingly is a dingy, grimy place that has more in common with an oil refinery than an interstellar luxury liner of the kind popularized by Star Trek and the like. Full of grit, steam, noise, and corners dark and scary, it made the perfect place for a newly born hostile alien to rip people to pieces. As it pursues the shrinking crew through the hulking ship, it takes full advantage of every shadow and cranny. And so does director Ridley Scott.
4. The Bedroom - Paranormal Activity
Source: Paramount Pictures
The 2007 sleeper hit ghost flick Paranormal Activity showed how even the most mundane places can look scary as hell if a director knows what he's doing. A perfectly normal bedroom in the light of day isn't all that creepy. But take that same bedroom and bathe it in nightvision and cover it in shadows, and you've got yourself one terrifying location. Like other low budget horror flicks, Paranormal Activity couldn't afford to splash out on expensive CGI and costumes but that works to its advantage. If it wanted audiences to be scared, it was going to have to do it the old-fashioned way. With a well-placed camera, a little noise, and a whole lot of dark. The boring location works so well because it's so familiar. If demonic evil can occur in this thoroughly average bedroom, maybe it can happen in yours.
3. The Bates Motel - Psycho
Source: Universal Pictures
By itself, the dingy, rundown Bates Motel doesn't look like much. Underused and dilapidated, it almost fades into the black and white Arizona sunshine of Alfred Hitchcock's most famous film. Sure, the guy who runs it is a creep and something very, very terrible happens in one the rooms, but overall, it's pretty forgettable. That is until you see the supremely unsettling house up on the hill behind it. Seemingly transported from some dark, foggy place back east, it looms over the little motel like a beacon of unspeakable horror. (Or, like a domineering mother might loom over a timid son. Hmmm.) It stands on the hill as a warning to any weary traveler who may consider stopping at the Bates Motel. You may be tired, it says, but maybe you'd better wait for the next motel.
If only poor Marion Crane had listened.
2. The Bathroom - Saw
Though the increasingly irrelevant yearly sequels have needlessly complicated and expanded upon the original, the first Saw was a masterpiece of simplicity. Two men wake up chained to opposite sides of one of the most horrible bathrooms in the world. Everything they need to escape is there, plus one dead guy, as long as they follow the instructions of their absent captor. The concept is clever enough on its own, but it's the bathroom that sells it. Old, bathed in a sickening fluorescent light, and home to at least one dead guy, it looks like a place where hideous life and death games are played out. Even more terribly, it looks like a place where no matter how much you scream, no one is ever coming to help.
1. The Outlook Hotel - The Shining
Source: Warner Bros.
There are a lot of creepy, unsettling things in Stanley Kubrick's 1980 masterpiece The Shining. Jack Nicholson's psychotic twitchiness, Shelley Duvall's mousy terror, and that kid's bowl cut go a long way to creating an atmosphere of fear and dread. But none of these things are anywhere near as terrifying as the Overlook Hotel. With its endless, empty halls, maze-like designs, and sterile cleanliness, it looks exactly like a place where horrible, horrible things have happened and will continue to happen. Captured by the predatory gaze of Kubrick's Steadicam, the hotel becomes the central character of the movie. It stalks, confines, and constricts the characters until there is no hope for escape. As the movie builds to its bloody climax, there's no mistake that while Nicholson is the one running around with an axe, the Overlook Hotel is the real killer.