Is Steven Spielberg the best horror director of all time?
Rob explores Steven Spielberg's dark side, and looks at four of his movies to see if he's the unsung master of suburban horror...
When you think of horror, or at least modern horror, a few directors will immediately spring to mind. John Carpenter, Wes Craven, Sam Raimi, and even Peter Jackson are some examples. While these directors have often moved on to other things, they will always be remembered as primarily horror directors – it’s a label you’re stuck with, it seems, even if you go on to win an Oscar.
So why isn’t Spielberg seen in the same light, as a horror director done good?
Spielberg, it seems, has escaped the typecasting that horror directors frequently experience, but looking back at much of his work, especially of the late 1970s and 80s, this is exactly what he is. An auteur in his field, he is the director’s director. A man who has spanned nearly four decades of filmmaking, who has assisted in the development of American New Wave cinema, and who also helped bring dinosaurs back to life, and scared a few people away from swimming in the sea, too.
And it is with this final element that the crux of this argument begins – for all intents and purposes, Spielberg directs horror, and it is his skill to scare that might well be seen as his most lasting legacy.
When you think of modern horror (say, from the 1970s until now), you may think of killings, gore, or the endless debate about how fast zombies should run. These are the current ‘rules’ by which horror is measured, and it seems that if you can do it on the cheap with a video camera, all the better.
Horror, in its current incarnation, is cheap, streamlined, and gritty. Full of quick cuts and fast-paced editing, there’s very little in the way of underlying tension, dysfunction or just plain fear in modern horror, you could argue. But this is what Spielberg managed to inspire: fear within the familiarity of a family unit and the suburban environment.
Think about his body of work in the late 70s and early 80s. Each film is set or based around something very, very familiar. The characters in his films are not clichéd, two-dimensional characters or potential victims for the next impressive kill. They’re real people, with real lives. And as is hopefully proven in each of the four films below, it’s the humanity and realistic setting of Spielberg’s films that makes them so terrifying.
Thanks to Peter Benchley’s original novel, and Spielberg’s uncanny ability to make a rubber shark look convincing, the effect of 1975’s Jaws on our consciousness has been indelible. With a few sound effects, some tense music and subtly implied horror, Jaws, even to this day, makes anyone visiting the seaside just a little wary of dabbling their feet in the sea.
While Spielberg piles on the requisite scares and jumps (at least three major ones spring to mind, especially the infamous severed head), it’s the more subtle things, such as the mayor forcing the family to take a swim in the still infested sea, that shows the true signs of a great horror director.
Look at Brody (Roy Scheider), for example. He isn’t special, just a police chief who gets mixed up with stuff that he really has no real understanding of. He smokes, he chats, moans and is flawed. His family argues, slams doors and doesn’t really get on. They, along with him, are far from perfect, and are essentially a normal (albeit dysfunctional) family.
He is an everyman onto which the horror of a giant shark descends, and it’s the fact that this bespectacled, middle-aged chief can become a flawed hero that makes the film so terrifying. It’s as though this entire scenario is happening to us and our families. We ask, what if it was us?
What would we do? We’re not heroes in the traditional sense, and neither is Brody. He’s just a person, and the shark has come in and disrupted the thing that Spielberg sets up so well: namely, the familiar trappings of family life.
Close Encounters Of The Third Kind
One of the alien sci-fi films by which many are measured, Close Encounters is, for the most part, grounded very much in the mundane workings of its protagonist’s life. Admittedly, the epic scale of the encounters are known by the government, who are depicted as faceless, as they were in E.T. a few years later. But the real horror lies in the fact that an everyday person experiences something that is life changing.
Like Jaws, Close Encounters is essentially about a character crossing paths with something he shouldn’t. Roy Neary (Richard Drefuss) hasn’t been foolishly inquisitive (playing with a puzzle box, as seen in Hellraiser, or repeating the name Candyman in a mirror), or deliberately meddling with things he shouldn’t. He’s just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Unlike Jaws, the aliens are ultimately revealed to be benign. Nevertheless, there are strong elements of horror earlier on in the film. It’s Roy’s gradual breakdown, neurosis and the destruction of his family unit that bring about the most disturbing sequences.
Roy’s obsession with the mental image of a mountain, which soon becomes all encompassing, slowly drives a wedge between him and his wife. Again, Roy is the everyman, the guy next door who ambles along. He’s not special. Again, he’s you and me, and his close encounter completely alters the balance of is life. It is this attack on a family man’s normality that makes Close Encounters such a scary film.
While Spielberg was officially the producer on Tobe Hooper’s film, he nevertheless had a large (though hotly disputed) creative impact on the making of Poltergeist. It takes the concept of suburban nightmares to the extreme, where a family is torn apart by the trappings of modern life.
A new house, television, and a lively neighbourhood, filled with families and people so similar to you, was becoming an increasingly common horror setting in the 80s, following the success of The Exorcist and the novels of Stephen King.
With not a haunted house, creepy forest, catacomb or abandoned shack in sight, this is a film that could happen just down your road, and to a family just like the one you grew up with. The Freeling family in Poltergeist are like most people, and apart from their dabbling in pharmaceutical recreation, are a normal family living a suburban lifestyle.
They bicker, they have breakfast, the air-con doesn’t work, they have kids who won’t go to bed, and live in a house filled with toys, ripped open cereal boxes, dead pets and the hubbub of a family going about its business. It is this normality that makes Poltergeist, in my opinion, one of the scariest films ever made.
Most people know that Tobe Hooper directed the movie, but really, when you look at it, the film has Spielberg’s fingerprints all over it. Just look at the family dynamic and the suburban setting. It's features such as those that the director is famous for, and that he revisited many times in films such as E.T.
So, with that in mind, why is the film so terrifying? It’s not the obvious things, such as the face ripping scene, or the appearance of the Beast at the end. Rather, it’s the tense music, setting and the association we have with the family that once again resonate with the emotional horror at the film’s core. The simple things, too. Most of us had a teddy bear or toy we didn’t like, and the clown in the film sums that up. We all have arguments with friends, families and neighbours, and many of us have left the TV on overnight. All these little things come together to make a familiar yet disturbing scenario.
It’s also shot fantastically well. The suburban Californian setting gives the film a hot and humid glow. There is a warmth to everything. It’s late summer, so the orange hues and sticky nights are prevalent throughout, and when we get to the spectral encounters, the standard, relatively static shots normally seen in horror are rejected in favour of bizarre angles. Back-lights and harsh spotlights bleed onto the screen, and add to the unearthly nature of the encounters.
From the obvious climbing the wall scene, to the use of filters to create the ghosts, to the very fast close-ups of the skeletons in the swimming pool, the film’s use of camerawork, optical effects and backlit sets make for an unnerving depiction of a normal suburban setting. In fact, Poltergeist’s woozy, erratic camerawork, and its portrayal of a family in danger, is arguably only beaten by one Spielberg film…
E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
Now this, to me, is probably Spielberg’s most terrifying film. It is not, by a long shot, the family feel-good movie it claims to be. Admittedly there are elements of sheer exuberance and jaw dropping wonder, but behind the flying bikes, there’s a much darker film lurking here.
The film’s horror lies not in the cuddly alien of the title, but in those hunting him. And for a family that, it seems, is already fragile (there is little explanation as to where Elliott’s father is and why Mary - Dee Wallace - is a single mum), the invasion of their home by government agents is the part where the film takes a decidedly dark turn.
In many ways mirroring Poltergeist, E.T. is, once again, shot in the idyllic Californian estates of the early 1980s. Full of children on bikes, chatting neighbours and eternal summer holidays, these are real people living relatively normal lives.
Think about the scene where the kids are playing Dungeons & Dragons. They talk across each other, complain and bicker. They’re being shown as kids – it’s people talking and interacting in a realistic way, and this normal setting is the perfect foundation to build the suspense, horror and intrigue of the rest of the film.
Following E.T’s integration into this mundane family, we come to the film’s most terrifying scenes, as government agents in bio-suits cordon off of the house. These moments, filled with backlights, weird angles and faceless aggressors, once again show a threat invading the relative normality of family life.
It doesn’t really matter if the alien is there or not or whether he’s good or bad – it’s the intrusion by a faceless unknown (the government agents) that causes more horror and tension in their final reel appearance. It is this slow and subtle build of horror that makes Spielberg rise head and shoulders above other directors.
In many ways similar to Poltergeist, E.T., although a family film, has some very disturbing bits in it.
From E.T. dying, and in turn infecting Elliot with his sickness, to the government agents storming the house, to the initial hunt of the police and government agencies, which is lit from behind, the use of light and setting are used to up the tension.
Spielberg’s true understanding of horror again comes to the fore, as he takes apart what we love and care for, and explores whether the family is strong and loving enough to overcome the odds pitted against them.
I’ve covered four films, none of which could be seen as traditional horror, which all came out around the time horror contemporaries such as Carpenter, Romero and Raimi released their best work in the genre.
It isn’t just Spielberg’s dismantling of the family unit that makes him a master of horror. His 1971 TV movie, Duel, in which an ordinary businessman (Dennis Weaver) is pursued relentlessly by an unseen truck driver, was a masterpiece of wordless tension.
And if you watch the first two Indiana Jones films, you can see a very strong vein of horror running through them, too. From melting Nazis to torn-out hearts, some of these epic set pieces would put the work of some horror directors to shame.
Of course, the films listed above represent only a small fraction of Spielberg’s work. From Jurassic Park, to the horrific first few minutes of Saving Private Ryan, to his work on Amazing Stories, the director seems to tap the vein of horror, rooting out what makes us tick, and presenting our darkest fears on screen.
Whether it’s the horror of war, the dismantling of the perfect family unit, the body of work that the director has produced over the past forty years not only shows that he is probably the best filmmaker of this generation, but also, possibly, the best director of horror films, too.