Friday, 29 May 2009

The 10 Best Horror Films

Image property of Universal Pictures ShockTillYouDrop

In celebration of today's much anticpated release I'm sharing my thoughts on the movies that make hair stand on my skin.

Gen-Xers like myself know director Sam Raimi from the Evil Dead 80s. In the 90s he went Hollywood and turned his back on horror. Those 90s that were bereft of scares until Scream remade the genre fashionable profitable and eventually respectable. Now Raimi’s back with the trailer tagline announcing ‘the return of true horror’.

I’m excited.

The Drag Me To Hell storyline is Hammer House of Horror by way of Faust. Entertainment is more the telling than the story. Otherwise James Bond would be dead. The trailer looks crisp and compelling. No bait and switch here.

A bad horror film – they’re aplenty – is always better than a bad drama (like that fantasy wishful-thinking claptrap Juno). A bad comedy is intolerable. A bad action film stars Steven Seagal and all romantic comedies are bad; Anne Hathaway for Julia Roberts? Kate Hudson for Meg Ryan?

I like horror because it holds my attention. When done well there’s dread throughout every frame. The following 10 movies are examples of genre excellence. They walk with you out of the cinema into your bedroom and into your sleep.

I wrote a horror screenplay No Fixed Abode and was quarter final placed at the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences .

My time will come.

10) The Uninvited US 2009
This recent gem rewrites conventional wisdom; it’s a remake that is better than the original.

Like everyone in Britain I grew up on American movies and television. I can close my eyes point at the screen and predict what will happen in the next scene. Foreign movies follow a different template. Ergo they receive my acute attention.

The source movie A Tale of Two Sisters (Korea) is baffling. If a viewer laughs at a horror film it’s a disaster. If the viewer scratches his head, it’s still a disaster.

The Uninvited is streamlined: there is no subplot. There is Emily Browning and David Strathairn who carry the heart soul and anchor of this movie. I’ve never seen Strathairn give a bad performance. I had never seen Browning before this.

Hers is the lead role and she carries the whole picture. Her face communicates. As does her diction, her gait, her body language. There is a contract between cinema and audience ie the suspension of disbelief.

I believed you Emily.

Once this film is over you remember you’ve been told this story before. Two obvious pictures starring A-listers come to mind.

Neither of them is as talented as Emily Browning.

9) The Orphanage Spain 2007
A catholic sensibility in the afterlife makes this ghost story both horrifying and poignant. Belén Rueda carries the movie in the role of nature’s most ferocious: the (adoptive) mother.

Which begs the question which is more maternal – birth mother or adoptive mother?

Watching her mental fragility as she battles the supernatural for her child is poetic heart wrenching and frightening. It elicits an investment from the audience of familia pitch. The resolution is shattering.

And worthy.

New Line Cinema is to remake it for American audiences. The remake of A Tale of Two Sisters worked because the original is flawed. Perhaps they’ll adopt a scene for scene approach as in the [REC•] remake Quarantine. Perhaps they’ll hire decent actors too.

8) Frankenstein US 1931
1931 was a good year for horror and Boris Karloff as ‘?’ is more famous than author Mary Shelly. Make up artist Jack Pierce deserves mention for creating the most enduring monster in horror movie mythology. This is horror as melodrama; the monster as victim. He begs for and receives our sympathy.

When the hulking Karloff tosses the little girl into the river into her death and he laughs with discovered joy because he thought it was a game they were playing. This is horror.

Bride of Frankenstein to my knowledge is the very first sequel worthy of its predecessor. Watch them back to back for the complete story and privilege.

7) Candyman US 1992
It was an oasis in the horror barren 90s. It is modern gothic - this love story between a post-grad student and urban myth. It is a diabolical revenge story. The Candyman has Dracula’s raison d’etre.

The film is based on Clive Barker’s short story ‘the Forbidden’. Good story, good directing and good performances will make any film. What propels Candyman into memorable is the chemistry between actors Virginia Marsden and Tony Todd. The latter captured the (supernatural) serial killer more so than Anthony Hopkins captured his. It’s still Todd’s most famous role – note the wry homage in the Final Destination franchise. The score served to sear the story into UK audiences. Word of mouth made it a hit over here.

6) Ring Japan 1998
I had heard about J-Horror in the late 90s but ignored it. Probably because I signed up for the John Woo led Hong Kong action thrillers and signed off after I’d seen Hard Boiled. I like action. I like thrillers. I don’t like the wallowing in violence of the Far Eastern flicks.

My first experience was through television watching the much trumpeted Battle Royale. I was hooked.

Ring was preceded by its reputation. It did not disappoint. The Japanese have a different way of story telling. Slow. Subtle. Cerebral. This accentuates the horror. The curse of the videotape – this was when DVD’s were taking over – and a new monster to be awed by. She had no dialogue. There was no love story. Just hate. Hate that led to the desperation of the protagonist’s final act. It is horror itself.

Best watched back to back with Ring 2. If you have the nerve.

TFi: Ring 0 the second sequel is backstory tosh that should be avoided. The US versions are bad beyond design.

5) Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde US 1931
I first saw this as a child. The imprint memory I have is of the metamorphosis. That and Miriam Hopkins celebrating her freedom - then begging for her life.

The Strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a novella written by Robert Louis Stevenson. Yes, he who wrote the boys own adventure Kidnapped. Surely other than Dracula no story has been filmed as much and has more cultural value. The latest version is the 2008 BBC TV mini-series.

I rediscovered the film in my 20s as an aspiring screenwriter. I was able to marvel at Frederic March’s all encompassing dual performance. The movie’s love triangle is a supreme example of a man’s dichotomy.

I love my wife. I will not feed my perversions on her.

The story is tragic stressful and horrifying. Of course it ends in death.

(sobbing) “Dr Jekyll.”

Free at last.

4) Ju-On: The Grudge Japan 2003
Take someone else’s idea (Ring), improve on it and you end up with Ju-On.

The horror film works better when the characters are in the dark and realisation slow dawns on them that death is coming. It becomes a survival of wits. This is where Ju-On beats Ring because the latter starts as an investigative venture. Ju-On is catch as catch can.

This film has its own canon. Ju-On 1 and 2 were made twice in Japan: The first couple were direct-to-video then due to their success were remade as features. The American remake The Grudge starring Sarah Michelle Gellar is good enough to be included in the canon. Ignore the exploitative Grudge 2 and 3. These are American films that go off on their own tangents. The good news is two more Japanese sequels are coming soon.

3) Dawn of the Dead US 1978
Satire as horror. Its doomsday scenario kicks the movie off as a TV news broadcast descends into panic and anarchy. From there a paramilitary police unit invade an African American housing project and fire at will. With malice. With glee. The terror did not end (there).

The abiding cultural image of this movie is the zombie horde in the shopping mall. It’s something that occurs to me every time I go into my local Asda Walmart. They wander aimlessly. I know what they’re capable of.

Like Orwell before him director George A Romero got it spot on.

One of few horror films not to focus on the female as victim actor Gaylen Ross declared she would not serve as ‘den mother’ to the men.

She did.

She had to.

I saw this unprepared.

The sheer simplicity of your dreams coming true is something every human being can relate to.
Nightmares can come true.

How can you stop them? Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep.

Director Wes Craven was inspired to write the script after reading in the LA Times the story of a Cambodian kid who refused to sleep after suffering nightmares. He was adamant they would kill him. The boy’s family watched him disintegrating and did everything they could to make him sleep.

It’ll all be better in the morning.

Finally they got him to bed. They heard him scream. By the time they got to his bedroom he was dead. Afterwards they found the coffee and pills he had stashed to prevent him sleeping. It turned out he wasn’t the only one. There were more. Cambodian boys. Dying. In their sleep.

Heather Lagenkamp carried the picture but unlike Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween it did not make her a star. That prize went to the director due mainly to the monster he created. Only one sequel A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors is a worthy companion piece. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare was a disappointing failure. A remake is incoming. The backstory I believe. I’m not holding my breath.

I can always watch the original.

1) Exorcist 3 US 1990

Based on the novel Legion by William Peter Blatty, directed by Blatty, screenplay by Blatty. It’s all his fault.

A film should not have to follow its source novel scene for chapter. What it should do is retain the spirit of the book. In Hollywood with millions of dollars at risk this does not always happen. Blatty had to reshoot the ending and a better film was made for it.

The movie is highly stylised with every shaft of light and angle of frame; the background, the foreground, the foreboding. Blatty elicited virtuoso performances from Brad Dourif and Jason Miller. Everyone else is just as good in subtlety. Most of all it’s the dialogue.

It mesmerises.

Bombastic and rollicking, eminently quotable, plagiarised in American History X. This is weaving of words into poetic grandeur.

When we were children they told us ‘words will never hurt (me)’.

Another lie.

The 10 Best Horror Films could have been expanded to the 20 best. There are gems not included. There are certainly sub-genre flicks not included. The listed are films that cross over into the mainstream. That in itself is not a criteria but it is an indication of a story well made. I like ‘em better than good.

Approve/disapprove/agree/disagree? Did I miss out your favourite horror? Let me see your thought in words.

Or are you scared?

Read more Thrill Fiction: The 20 Best Horror Films

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