3 Modern Classics That Redefined the Art of the Scare

By Robert Silva

How The Exorcist, Get Out and The Silence of the Lambs hacked horror.


It’s not all about blood squibs, guys with chainsaws and creepy synth scores — creating true terror requires expert filmmaking technique. The Silence of the Lambs, Get Out and The Exorcist are just three movies that redefined the conventions of the horror film, catching the attention of critics and Oscar voters, who tend to regard the genre as a sideshow of cheap thrills. We’ll break down how these next-level thrillers found new ways to get under our skin.

The Silence of the Lambs

The story: To catch a brutal serial killer, FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) requires the psychological insights of his peer, convicted cannibal Hannibal Lecter.

The approach: Director Jonathan Demme brilliantly manipulates perspective to put the audience firmly in the shoes of Starling. First-person shots, beginning as Starling descends into Lecter’s crypt-like cell block, subtly establish her perspective with the audience. Going a step further, the Demme uses the same technique to evoke the everyday dread of working in the man’s world of law enforcement: Entering a coroner’s office to view the latest female victim, we see through her eyes as a room of tall men in uniforms stare back, sizing her up.

When it comes to the film’s climax, its cat-and-mouse finale brilliantly rethinks slasher conventions. This time, we follow through the killer’s perspective, equipped with night vision goggles, as he pursues Starling in a blacked-out basement. What we fear isn’t the jolt of someone jumping from the shadows; we know where the killer is. Instead, as we watch him watch Starling stumble in the dark, what makes our stomach clench is the thought of losing someone we’ve come to care deeply about.

Get Out

The story: A black photographer (Daniel Kaluuya) observes bizarre behavior while visiting the family of his white girlfriend (Girls Allison Williams) in their backwoods home.

The approach: Aspiring screenwriters should take note of Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning screenplay, which employs an essential tool for a psychological thriller: reasonable doubt. Sleight-of-hand keeps the viewer questioning what’s really going when Kaluuya’s character meets the parents. Is this a case of first-meeting jitters, rural racism, or something more macabre? Giving us a reason to suspect the worst-case-scenario keeps the tension of taut. It also puts us firmly in the shoes of the main character, as he moves from uncertainty to mounting paranoia.

What makes Peele’s movie stand out is his use of horror tropes to help the viewer feel the 24/7 terror of living in a racist world. The fear, the distrust, the claustrophobia all resonate a little too true.

The Exorcist

The story: A sweet 12-year-old (Linda Blair) starts behaving badly in ways doctors can’t explain. Lacking answers, the parents turn to a pair of priests who render a diagnosis of demonic possession. And then … all hell breaks loose.

The approach: An unconventional style can resurrect as stale genre. Director William Friedkin revitalized the cop movie with the gritty documentary approach of The French Connection, but applying that to his next film, about demonic possession, was clearly more of a reach. With The Exorcist, it results in a movie that’s unsettling in ways that go beyond its premise. That’s because Friedkin grounds his tall tale in mundane middle-class life: A quiet Washington D.C. neighborhood. An average American family. The comfort of ordinary problems.

With its streams of green bile and twisting heads, The Exorcist unflinchingly displays the extremes of a disobedient body. These scenes are still standard-bearers in cinematic gross-outs. Yet Friedkin understands that nothing is as disturbing as something that can’t be explained. Whether one searches for answers in the Bible or the DSM-5, what’s happening to the young girl is real, and it’s destroying her. That reality goes beyond explanation, and it’s something to truly fear: losing possession of one’s child, one’s sense of order, one’s self. The unsettling moral of The Exorcist is something even the faithless can understand: Normal life is a thin veil.