Most audiences like their thrills fast and simple; hence the horror film. But there are subtler ways to get the creeps; hence the suspense film. In 53 features over 51 years, Alfred Hitchcock imprinted himself so indelibly on that genre that he was known as the Master of Suspense, influencing scare artists on three continents. In the films below, the accents are unique but the frissons are similar. Fear, after all, is a universal language.
THE MASTERPIECE COLLECTION
Hitchcockian: that adjective instantly conjures dark ballads sung with a puckish lilt. The darkness--the evil that befalls beautiful people--infuses the best of the 14 films in this handsome DVD set: Shadow of a Doubt, Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds. (The package also includes nifty docs on the making of the last two films.) Viewers saw the director's impish side as host of the TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the first season of which is now available in a separate set. That makes for a two-box festival of Hitch--some ephemeral, most of it seminal.
THE CLAUDE CHABROL COLLECTION
In 1957, a year before his film debut, Chabrol co-wrote a book on Hitchcock's oeuvre (with fellow critic and budding director Eric Rohmer). Of all the new-wave auteurs, Chabrol was the one who took Hitchcock's fancy for cinematic dread most to heart, then gave it his own twist. In deadpan tragedies like Le Boucher, La Femme Infidèle and The Beast Must Die, passion leads to crimes of passion, and crime to self-lacerating punishment. These films are all the more potent because they speak their evils and ironies in a Gallic whisper.
THE WAGES OF FEAR
Chabrol also learned from Clouzot, whose bleak, brilliant melodramas--Le Corbeau, Diabolique, Quai des Orfèvres--allow for few heroes. Most of the characters are a blend of victim and villain. The Wages of Fear is a tale of four desperate men trucking a ton of nitroglycerin across bumpy South American roads. It's a brutal ride, relentlessly tense and informed by Clouzot's stop-watch timing and a tone that effortlessly juggles machismo and misanthropy.
THE VAL LEWTON HORROR COLLECTION
The Russian-born Lewton produced, but did not direct, the 10 low-budget films in this long-overdue package. Yet, heading a B-movie unit in the '40s at RKO, he was as much an auteur as Hitchcock. His pictures had horror-movie titles--The Curse of the Cat People, The Body Snatcher, Isle of the Dead, I Walked with a Zombie--but they are really suspense films, achieving their thrills through indirection: a shiver of shadow, say, to quicken the heroine's anxiety. Lewton's monsters needed no special effects, for he created them purely in the imaginations of his audience.
Most suspense films these days are high-voltage gross-outs. It took Nakata to restore delicacy to dread with his Japanese hit The Ring and its sequels. His 2002 Dark Water got a Hollywood makeover this year, but the original is the one to see and savor. This fable of a woman and her daughter in a very wet apartment building slowly builds an edifice of fear. Like the other masters of suspense, Nakata makes films that infect viewers with an unease lasting long after the final fadeout. --By Richard Corliss