Is Steven Spielberg a master of horror?

Spielberg often gets praise for his family films, his blockbusters and his dramas. But is he this generation's finest horror director too?

The alien and the beard

As you’re probably aware, the moniker of ‘Masters of Horror’ has been used recently for two seasons as a title for a patchy TV series that has some of the (ahem) best horror writers and directors in Hollywood producing hour long films.

While there are some genuinely good episodes, with Joe Dante‘s and Stuart Gordon’s episode standing out as prime examples, the producers of the show haven’t, when you look at it got many real ‘masters’ involved, with the likes of Tobe Hooper, Clive Barker and Sam Raimi sadly missed out.

Obviously this is to do with money, prestige and the like, and I am sure for every person who said yes to the show at least double said no. Now to me the few examples given above are what most people would count as real ‘Masters’ of the art of horror, their names synonymous with the genre.

However there is one name overlooked who, through his long and vaunted career, has produced some of the most terrifying films ever put on to screen. Step forward Mr Spielberg.

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Now it would be obvious for me to mention Jaws. It’s a masterpiece of tension, horror and a textbook piece of filmmaking, that makes you bite your nails and jump out of your seat at least three times in the space of the film  (the scuba head in box scare jumps to mind). And many people have over the years commented on the brilliance of Jaws and the ability of Spielberg to make a rubber shark look convincing, affecting the  consciousness with sound effects, music and implied horror. Visiting the seaside hasn’t been the same since.

However, it is not just Jaws that makes Spielberg stand out as a horror director.

A further exhibit is Poltergeist, which in my opinion is one of the scariest films ever made. Most people know that Tobe Hooper supposedly directed the movie, but really when you look at it, the film has Spielberg’s fingerprints all over it – the family dynamic, the suburban setting, and many traits that the director is famous for, and has used many times in films such as E.T.(which I’m coming to shortly).

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. We all had a teddy 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 we all have left the TV on overnight, all little things that combined together make up a familiar and disturbing scenario.

As well as this, the film is shot and lit from funny angles, making it at times very disturbing. 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 camera work, optical effects and backlit sets make for a very un-nerving setting.

This use of camera techniques, music and lighting is also used to great effect in E.T. 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 illness to the government storming the house with the containment unit, through to the initial hunt of the police and government agencies, there’s real horror here. And the use of light and setting enhance these tense and very dark scenes with the normality of a family life that’s been shattered by an invading force.

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It isn’t just Spielberg’s dismantling of the family unit that makes him a ‘master of horror’. If you watch the first two Indiana Jones films you can see a very strong vein of horror running through them. From the Kali cult heart ripping scenes to the melting Nazis, these epic set pieces hold sequences that would put a lot of horror director’s work to shame.

Of course the films listed above are only the tip of the film iceberg of Spielberg’s work. From Jurassic Park to shows like Taken, through to the horrific opening of Saving Private Ryan to his work on Amazing Stories, the director seems to tap the literal 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 or little green anarchists running riot in a small suburban town (again we all know that Spielberg had more than a little hand in Joe Dante’s Mogwai masterpiece), the body of work that the director has produced over the past thirty years not only shows that he, unlike the many names battered around by a dodgy TV show, really is a Master of Horror.