Thursday, 29 October 2009

The 20 Best Horror Films

Five months ago I posted The 10 Best Horror Films. The article determines not how great the individual film is but how great a horror film it is. Those movies serve as an indicator of my taste. This is my criteria:

  • Story eg A lynched child killer haunts the children of his murderers to their deaths.
  • Plot eg Police investigate ritual murders that are reminiscent of a deceased serial killer (Exorcist 3).
  • Actor(s) eg Do I connect? Do I care? Do I believe? Yes. Her name is Heather Langenkamp.

Such elements make for a good movie. The following added criteria make for repeated viewing ie a great movie.

  • Moments eg Frankenstein (1931) throws a little girl into a river thinking she would float.
  • Music – John Carpenter, Candyman (1990), The Exorcist (1973).
  • The Big Bad eg Freddy Kruger.

Pacing, atmosphere and lighting serve to enhance the experience. Of course these elements cannot exist without story however they can turn good film into great film eg Halloween (1978).

Horror exists within its own genre. There are notable movies that will not make the Thrill Fiction list. The sci-fi or the thriller does not become horror simply because it is scary. Horror is intent – it is not incident. Thus with scant respect for the misinterpretation by the mainstream media here is a number of noteworthy exceptions;

  • Psycho 1960 – psychological thriller
  • The Thing 1982 – sci-fi
  • The Fly 1986 – sci-fi
  • Jaws 1975 - thriller
  • Alien 1979 – sci-fi
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1956 – sci-fi
  • The Stepford Wives 1972 - psychological drama
  • Pans Labyrinth 2006 - fantasy
  • Les Diaboliques 1955 - psychological drama
  • Spoorloos 1988- psychological drama

Cinema is the art of story telling with moving pictures - it is a communal experience akin to tales round the campfire. As a child I sat on the floor with my peers in a semi-circle around Mrs Hulme. She read us The Pied Piper.

It haunts me still.

20 Night of the Living Dead 1990 US

I was born in the year of the original ergo I can only see its impact through the eyes of others. One can view the documentary The American Nightmare[1] (2000) to appreciate that impact. Horror bears witness: John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven, George A Romero, David Cronenberg. There are others.

The original was a commentary of their time. Their time was a pre-democracy United States where a segment of its own citizens were denied the vote and state sponsored terrorised for demanding it. Their time was Vietnam. The assassination of Dr Martin Luther King. The Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The Cold War.

Our time is different.

Our horrors remain the same.

The remake follows the trajectory of the original. However unlike Psycho (1998) this is not a scene-for-scene carbon copy. An update is an apt description. Yet removed from the social political context of ‘68 this version was in danger of being a boo! movie. Scared ya. That’s all.

Ben: “You can be boss down there.

I’m boss up here.”

1990 was the year Nelson Mandela walked out of apartheid prison. In this film a black man and a white man fight over territory.

There is context. There is Tony Todd, Patricia Tallman and Tom Towles. With a bigger budget comes better actors and production. The three leads have chemistry that combusts this movie. Tallman is one of few credible successors to Sigourney Weaver and Towles brings the conflict to life. And death.

Night of the Living Dead (1990) does not have the same cultural impact as its original. It is the better movie regardless.

19 Halloween 1978 US

It’s the most important horror film in the last 30 years. Every slasher movie since is a direct descendant and every torture porn flick a poor relative. The set up is concise, the build up is involving and the pay off rewarding. Michael Myers switches from maniac to monster behind Laurie Strode’s back and an icon is born. Despite the sequels and the remakes every year has only one Halloween.

18 Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1978 US

The original, made in 1956, is not a horror film. It is classic[2] cinema that serves as an allegory of McCarthyism and communism. This '78 version was also adapted from the novel The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney. The point is Finney wrote a great story. The remake, like the original, is a great adaptation.

Director Phillip Kaufman filmed this version as horror. Backed by an alarmist score his camera induces anxiety, paranoia and claustrophobia. The protagonists are trapped indoors and out. The great city of San Francisco is in lockdown. They are pursued to despair and exhaustion by the authorities/lynch mobs. There is no escape.

Nancy: “Don’t fall asleep.”

A word of praise to the cast including Kevin McCarthy in perhaps the best movie cameo ever.

Thrillers and horror are guilty of the ‘surprise ending’. This device is overwhelmingly abused and contrived. The surprise ending in this film is in the same league as that in Planet of the Apes. The original. Not the remake.

17 Les Yeux Sans Visage 1960 FRANCE

Every vampire needs a watchdog. Its human helper. Its collaborator. It’s Uncle Tom. Alida Valli harvests young girls for her master. Dr GĂ©nessier processes them a la Frankenstein. His daughter is the vampire.

What kind of culture goes to such macabre lengths to obtain and maintain beauty[3]? By implication do these people not envy the young and the pretty? Do they not hate them? It is not beauty the vampire achieves. It is a ghoulish visage.

Eyes Without a Face is a ghoul story of despair, desperation and madness. Though its score is disarming the film is eerie in almost every scene. I cannot think of a movie more perfect for a Hollywood makeover. It is more socially relevant now than it was in 1960. There is even a torture porn scene. Once witnessed it can never be forgotten.

This type of film does not frighten. It horrifies.

16 The Others 2001 SPAIN/US

I dislike Nicole Kidman. I saw what all the fuss was about in Dead Calm (1989) or rather I didn’t see what all the fuss was about. This woman remained in leading roles flop after flop[4]. She divorced Tom Cruise too late. The damage was done. The public had been beaten into submission.

Then along came The Others.

This is haunted house story is set in Jersey, an island in the English Channel. Americans can’t do English accents but this Australian does one pretty well. No one can build houses like the English be they castles, manors or mansions. This is a big house filmed in candlelight and shadows.

There are two children; a wee boy and a girl. These child actors are not Hollywood kids. They act like real kids. They see ghosts. Mother – Nicole – does not. She does however see doors open that she has locked. She hears the piano playing. The curtains are ripped down. It’s not the servants. It’s not the kids.

I don’t like Nicole Kidman. I was rooting for her 100% in this movie. She gives a bravura performance; tension racked, highly strung, anxious, stressful, obstinate. With ash blonde hair she is actually quite beautiful in a quiet way. After watching this film I had to concede what the Hollywood press continue to blab about: she is a talented actor. The Others is tragic, romantic, gothic. The reveal is shattering. It’s been done before and since. This is how it should be done.

15 Ju-On 2: The Grudge 2003 JAPAN

It helps to have seen Ju-On: The Grudge but even if not this ghost story spooks from the first scene. There is a two ghost onslaught that is both mute and malevolent. Nothing is beyond their hatred not even the unborn.

Like its predecessor this is a portmanteau film with each section interconnected and overlapping another. How many years have passed since the original film is unclear but enough for a TV crew enter the haunted house to film a documentary. The leads of each section will have to face the ghosts but Chiharu’s haunting is the worst. The school girl pays the piper for wanting to be a movie star.

This is J-horror at its best. The motifs and techniques have been copied and plundered all over Asian and North American cinema. In time it will be regarded a classic. This is a film made with one purpose – to induce horror. It does so inventively and relentlessly.

It is genre purity.

14 Zombie Flesh Eaters 1979 ITALY

“’The key to exploitation cinema is,’ Roger Corman

always says, ‘you get someone who wants to

be Visconti or Fellini or Antonioni and you get

them to make Stripped to Kill 3.’”

Mark Kermode[5]

Also known as Zombi 2 in the US this film is exploitation, nasty and inspired. Despite its notoriety and lurid telling it is plot that makes this film great. Like Halloween its trajectory is laser precision. There are no plot holes, lapses of logic or leaps of faith.

Though plot and story are rated 10 the acting is not. Bear in mind this is a low budget flick; you get monkeys – and Mia Farrow’s sister – for peanuts. Be that as it may horror fans are prepared to overlook shoddy acting. It comes with the genre.

An unmanned boat drifts into New York harbour. It is her father’s boat and Ann Bowles is duly worried. Along with a newspaper reporter she journeys to father’s last known whereabouts: an island in the Caribbean where the locals fear to tread.

If the plot is the star then the score is the scene stealer. Giorgio Tucci and Fabio Frizzi create a rhythmic, haunting and menacing masterpiece. It is better than the Carpenter score for Halloween.

Director Lucio Fulci opens strong and imbues the whole film with tension. His camera tracks the twitches and the terror as it comes. Despite the thrust of the pace the first encounter with the island zombies is a visual ambush. There are other set pieces; the curtain raiser, the shark attack, the graveyard, the last stand. The most infamous one was banned in Britain in 1984 and remains so today. I’m fortunate enough to have watched the uncensored cut. The eyeball piercing is not one shot. It’s a whole scene.

Some horror films do exactly what it says on the tin. There is no agenda, no subtext, no subplot. For better or worse. Intelligent zombie films are too few and far between. What Zombie Flesh Eaters[6] lacks in insight it makes up for in verve.

13 Peeping Tom 1960 UK

Britain raved upon the release of Reservoir Dogs (1992) then Empire magazine[7] reviewed City on Fire (1987). Regardless Britain still raved. America raved over Scream (1996) despite When a Stranger Calls (1979). To watch the opening scene of Peeping Tom is to question your own knowledge. Just how good is John Carpenter’s Halloween?

The movie opens with a POV camera stalking a trusting girl.

He kills her.

In 1960 the celebrated Alfred Hitchcock was in America and made Psycho. The celebrated Michael Powell stayed in Britain and made Peeping Tom. It ruined his career[8] [9]. The establishment hated the film. They buried it. In 1996 I went to London to pick up my Carl Foreman Award. I met the critic Alexander Walker (deceased). He was a lovely man to me. He was the hangman of Peeping Tom.

In 1979 Martin Scorsese helped re-release the film to a wider audience in New York. Its status increased and improved. This very British film does have a Hollywood ending; by the time of his death in 1990 Powell was rehabilitated and once more revered.

As far as the movie itself is concerned there’s a term we have in wrestling - mark out.

The Criterion Collection DVD[10] contains the documentary A Very British Psycho. Buy it. Own it forever. This is a work of genius.

12 The Wicker Man 1973 UK

Storytelling is best depicted in the novel. Cinema may well be best sourced from the novel[11]. This movie is a story of occupation, colonialism and imperialism. That such an obscure British film has endured for so long is testament to the quality of its tale. In recent years there has been a rediscovery and upsurge in its popularity. Along came Hollywood with the remake treatment.

Lord Summerilse: “Come. It is time to keep your

appointment with the Wicker Man.

11 The Exorcist 1973 US

Adapted from the novel by William Peter Blatty and directed by wunderkind William Friedkin this is possibly the most infamous horror film of all time. During the 20th century my experience of this movie was urban myth. Warner Bros withdrew it from the UK video market in 1986 due to the video nasties scare[12]. They had no choice. It would have been banned otherwise. In 1999 a new regime arrived at the censors. Warner Bros submitted the film for classification and it was passed uncut. I got to watch it for the first time.

Legend has it priests sprinkled holy water on patrons upon its ’73 release. During screenings it is said people vomited, fainted and fled. The furore resulted in an increase in church attendances. I’m a (lapsed) Pentecostal Christian. I can see why.

Science has scant answers for the occurrences in the universe. Have you ever broken a dream? All the scientific community can do is superimpose a hypothesis over the facts. Rarely do they say ‘I don’t know’. Ditto the medical profession. Thus we have the voodoo science of psychiatry/psychology and diagnosis such as bi-polar, schizophrenia, Munchausen’s syndrome et cetera. The ‘cures’ are worse: lobotomy, shock treatment, opiates.

Regan MacNeil suffers the carousel of witch doctors until one of them suggests a priest. The demon within her fights back. The war between good and evil is fought over the body of a child.

The Exorcist is a work of fiction. Based on fact. You the viewer have the God given free will to believe what you choose. I believe The Exorcist is a great horror film.

Mark Kermode believes it is the greatest film ever made.

Storytelling is the nth degree of communication. Horror films afford us the thrill of fear with no consequence. Between 2003 and 2008 135 horror flicks were theatrically released in North America. Hundreds more on DVD[13]. The boom continues. Undoubtedly so will this list.

I want to thank DTW once again for pointing me to The Wicker Man and Ricky Sprague for pointing out Les Yeux Sans Visage. You’re a friend. I’d also like to thank my girrl Lex, thanks to Dominic, Carly, the kid Cody and D Dumond. The top 10 was fun. Oh and Kiriyama? I don’t thank you.

Last but not least my gratitude to everyone who took the time to read The 10 Best Horror Films. Blogging is a form of communication too. I want your feedback and your thoughts as horrifying as they may well be.

I’m a fan. Like you are.

Read more Thrill Fiction: Re/Made – The Last House on the Left

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