Alfred Hitchcock is one of those Hollywood folks whose films can be associated with various types of creative work. Thrillers are probably what he’s best known for as, over the years, Hitch cranked out many excellent films with espionage, murder and other general all-around mayhem as the main component to their plots. Hitchcock even frequently discussed his use of the MacGuffin, put simply, whatever it was the protagonists were fighting over, be that secret plans or, typically in his films, some vague, unspecified crucial thing that sets up all the thriller elements.
While I do seriously enjoy Hitch’s various array of thrillers, I’ve always been more of a fan of his horror films. While many of his most famous works straddled the line between multiple genres, there are a few that I feel fall squarely into the horror category, and I believe they include some of the very cream of his cinematic efforts.
Before I get into my list, though, I want to give a specific shout out to four of his films, in particular, that simply straddled that line too far on the thriller side to be considered horror. I also very briefly considered The Lodger, which is definitely in the horror genre as it’s based on Jack The Ripper, but ruled it out immediately. It was Hitch’s first film, a silent one at that, and simply doesn’t hold up to the standards set by the other movies listed here.
I really wanted to have Vertigo on this list, mostly because it’s my single favorite Hitchcock film. Jimmy Stewart gives simply an awesome performance as the troubled and almost creepy-obsessive main character. And the plot, with its hints at ghosts, dopplegangers and an all around unhappy ending really had me struggling to overcome what I knew was true. Vertigo is a sublime example of a richly textured psychological thriller, not a horror film. It pained me to do so, but Vertigo is out.
Speaking of great performances from Jimmy Stewart, I had nearly a carbon copy internal conflict over the fantastic Rear Window. Stewart was again wonderful, this time as a curious but helpless man stranded in his apartment, only able to watch a murderous plot unfold through his telescope, powerless to do anything about it. In the end, though, even more than Vertigo, Rear Window was just too clearly a psychological thriller to make it on this list.
Another film I was compelled to leave out despite myself was Grace Kelly’s fabulous turn in Dial M For Murder. A husband’s ruthless plot to have his wife murdered in a fake robbery goes awry when she manages to kill her would-be assailant. Unfortunately for Kelly, she herself ends up being arrested for murder. This is truly a great film, but after her arrest, the movie plays much more like a murder mystery than a horror film. Despite my initial consideration, deciding to leave this one off was actually easier than either Vertigo or Rear Window.
The fourth film I seriously considered was Strangers On A Train. In this one, Guy meets a mysterious man on a train trip who offers a bizarre bargain: he’d kill Guy’s wife in exchange for Guy doing away with the man’s father, thereby solving both of their problems. Guy says no, but the man carries out his end anyway soon thereafter, by killing his wife. While the setup has some elements of horror, this movie ultimately becomes a thriller/blackmail film.
So, which of Hitchcock’s films did make the cut? Here are what I consider to be his five best actual horror films:
Ok, so this one is obvious. Psycho may well be the best horror movie ever made, and if not, it’s on an extremely short list. Written by horror great Robert Bloch, Psycho set the standard for quiet, unassuming nice guy cum serial killer stories. There’s a creepy old house, a creepy rundown motel, split personalities, cross dressing, desicated corpses and more. Do I even need to mention the shower scene, quite possibly the single most famous scene in cinema history? This is a totally creepy masterpiece of horror, no doubt about it.
Like Psycho, there is simply no question that this is first, foremost and completely a horror film. What starts as a seemingly innocent romantic flirtation turns downright frightening as a small coastal California town becomes ground zero for an all-out war on mankind by the area’s bird population. Made well before the current environmental “green” movement, Mother Nature is pissed in this horror classic and she’s not gonna take it anymore. Has there ever been a creepier scene than the end of this film, where the birds perched on every available surface magnanimously provide a brief reprieve from their all-out assault to give the few remaining people an opportunity to give up and get out? If there is, I haven’t seen it.
Some may say that this film is a thriller, but I disagree. It is very much a horror story. Two college friends decide to kill a third friend before a graduation party just to see what it’s like to murder someone. They then proceed to stuff the body into a trunk, put a table cloth over it and serve the party guests refreshments on it. If that’s not horror, then I don’t know what is. The cold, calculated manner of the killing, and the way in which the stronger of the two friends totally relished every moment of the tension during the lead up to and throughout the party was just simply psychopathic. Besides, I already ruled out two great Jimmy Stewart Hitchcock films, no way I was leaving off a third.
This film may actually be more famous for the way it was filmed, presented in real-time, cleverly masking cuts to make it appear as one long continuous shot. Those elements helped to build up the tension right from the start, opening as it did with the last gasp of the dying man, strangled by the title character, the rope. Murder, madness and unfeeling evil sounds a lot like a horror movie to me.
What many people, including the man himself, consider to be Hitchcock’s finest film, this is another thriller that I believe totally fits the bill as a horror movie. Joseph Cotten is charming Uncle Charlie, come to pay a visit to his namesake niece in California. What the young girl doesn’t know is that sweet Uncle Charlie is also the Merry Widow Killer, seducing and killing a series of wealthy widows, and part of his visit is motivated by a need to flee one of his recent bloody conquests.
During his visit, young Charlie begins to suspect and finally confirms her Uncle’s murderous ugly side, and has to survive an attempt on her life, leading him to a gruesome face-first meeting with an on-coming train. Serial killer, beautiful young girl marked for death, and a brutal comeuppance for the killer at the end. Yup, this is a horror movie.
Hitchcock’s final film and one of his most horrifying. The Necktie Killer is stalking London, strangling unsuspecting woman with, you guessed it, a necktie. This film features one of the most disturbing scenes of rape and murder ever put on film, at least up until 1972, when this movie was released.
Frenzy follows the killer as he plies his deadly trade all over town, and even leads police to pursue and arrest an innocent man for his crimes. The murder scene alone, and I mean alone as it was so effective that it was the only actual murder shown in the film, rates this as a definite horror movie.
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