Recently my friend Michelle O'Toole wrote a piece on how in which she called Threads (1984) the most terrifying movie of all time and she's right…to a point. I remember watching Threads and having to immediately put on This Is Spinal Tap to feel better about myself. Threads is everything you want in a horror, a group of normal Joes caught up in an awful situation against a faceless unknown they have no power against which brings home the soul crushing insignificance and pointlessness of humanity in the grand scheme of things, just like Storage Wars. And like Storage Wars it proves that the best horror is often not something that sets out to horrify for a cheap thrill. Avant-garde mindf**k that is Begotten (1991) is less horror as it is myth making, what with its deity seppuku giving birth to the Earth Mother-least that's what I thought was going-but neither of Begotten nor Threads really taps into the true horror. Sure Threads will give you a few sleepless nights but you can still calm yourself by saying it's not real, it's just a “what if”.
No for the most terrifying movie we have to look elsewhere.
Come and See
Come and See (1985) is without a shadow of a doubt the most terrifying movie ever made. The fact that it is a Soviet anti-war movie from the eighties should be enough to tell you what you're about to let yourself in for. Unflinching in its graphic detail it focuses on Flyora, a young Belarusian boy who longs to join the Partisans fighting against the Nazi occupation of the Eastern Regions of the Soviet Union. Nazis, Partisans, Soviet Union….this isn't going to be a cheery Red Dawn of a film. The movie follows him through the mental and physical minefield that is the Eastern Front for the civilians. When the Partisans come to collect young Flyora his mother's reaction is not one of fear for her son; it's one of fear for herself, her chances of survival seem higher with him around now that his father is dead.
That's the cheeriest part of the whole movie.
After joining the Partisans, Flyora becomes separated from the group jurying an attack and the story becomes one of survival from Nazi soldiers as he tries to relink with his Partisans brothers while travelling across a landscape degenerating under the weight of the war. An impromptu flee to his home by Flyora and his friend Glasha finds most of the villagers dead, in wall high piles behind his home and from there we begin to ask is this really a war movie or has Flyora died and is now in his own personal hell when he wades through a black bog to find survivors, finding one of his friends had been tortured with fire. There is no great heroics, no chance for justice, just a hellish death march through the horrors of war that leaves you drained and satisfied.
Contemporary accounts of Nazi occupation
Director Elem Klimov co-wrote Come and See, using contemporary accounts of Nazi occupation and paints everything in a horribly matter-of-fact why that makes it both enthralling and hard to watch. A bleak reminder that inside every human being dwells a potential psychopath and that's the key to the horror of Come and See. It happened. Without wanting to give too much away (really go an rent this movie now, you're only wasting your own time by not). The scene of the village massacre of whole families with grenades and flamethrowers while the Einsatzkommando unit happily drink and listen to music is not only gut wrenching to watch in its nightmarish juxtaposition entirety, it makes you question your own membership of the human race and to wonder if the cats currently have any openings. To truly capture the shock and horror of the war, Klimov shot the film in chronological order and casted unknown fourteen year old Aleksei Kravchenko to play Flyora, rather than a professional actor, who later said that he underwent “the most debilitating fatigue and hunger” and returned to school thin and grey haired. The glazed look in Flyora's eyes are not for show.
What makes Come and See so truly horrifying is that it shows, with neither a flinch nor warning the full horrors a human is capable of, the horror isn't allegorical or a warning or the threat of nuclear devastation or environmental melt down; no the horror is historical, it happened and has happened again and again. It's a constant reminder that the greatest horror is people stripped of the humanity by the machine of war and given the right circumstances, we'd do it all over again and never question it.
Can only make for a good horror.