Saturday, October 26, 2013
Reader Duanne Walton gives us our last list of the day.
"...Another thing I dislike about making my own top ten lists: I'm always struggling with what I want to put on the list versus what I think I'm "supposed" to put on the list. Well this time, I'm following my convictions and putting what I want on the list. And since my lists are always subject to change at any given moment, it's probably a moot point anyway.
Anyway, here we go...
10. The Blair Witch Project. I was sort of ambivalent about this movie at first, since I didn't find it scary at all. But I've developed an appreciation for it due to the details they put into the backstory (told through the website) and the filmakers' intentions.
9. Disturbing Behavior. Another movie where I appreciate the filmaker's intentions. Too bad the studio executives didn't. If any movie deserves a director's cut, it's this one.
8. The Abominable Dr. Phibes. A classic black comedy with a classic horror anti-hero, as only Vincent Price could play him.
7. Carrie. Another classic horror anti-hero, courtesy of Sissy Spacek. The best monsters are the ones you root for in some way.
6. Psycho. And here we have another classic horror anti-hero, one of the best: the ultimate mama's boy, Norman Bates.
5. Rosemary's Baby. Some things are scarier when you don't see them and your mind fills in the blanks. This movie does that very well. The Lord moves in mysterious ways, and sometimes Satan does too.
4. Bram Stoker's Dracula. Bela will always be the definitive Dracula. But this movie may very well be the definitive version of Dracula.
3. An American Werewolf in London. This one was the game changer for me. My first modern horror movie. Having been raised on a steady diet of Universal classics up to that point, I was completely unprepared for what this movie had in store for me. Those two guys sitting behind me in the theater definitely got their money's worth.
2. The Baby. The first time I tried watching this, I shut it off after the first eighteen minutes and wouldn't touch it for two weeks. This is one of those movies that crawls under your skin and stays there!
1. Jaws. The shark is pretty much the only movie monster that actually scares me.
Well, there you have it. And I have to say it felt odd having to leave out the movies of the thirties, forties, and fifties. I'm guessing that's because 1960-2000 is more your time period?
I limited the years to 1960 - 2000 in part because I wanted to preserve the possibility of future lists (like 2000 - present), and (1910 - 1960).
Also, I have a real love of horror films from the 1930s and 1940s such as Frankenstein, Dracula and The Wolf Man, and it seemed odd to lump them into a direct competition with films like The Exorcist and Halloween. It just didn't feel right to me. So that's why I erected some barriers so far as dates are concerned. I can understand why it may seem arbitrary, but hopefully those reasons make some degree of sense.
I'm also glad you felt empowered to create the list you wanted to see: that's what this exercise is all about. There should be no pressure to conform to anyone else's notion of the best films. We all want to know what you think, and that's what you gave us. Part of this list-making on the blog is, for me, absolutely selfish, because I get introduced to films I haven't seen, or re-introduced to ones I need to see again. So, please, don't be shy!!!
In terms of your list, I am most thrilled by the presence of Blair Witch -- everyone here knows I'm a huge advocate for that film -- but also The Abominable Dr. Phibes. I love both Phibes film, and wish there had been a third. I think if there had been, Phibes would be right up there today with Freddy, Jason and Michael as "Big" modern monsters.
The great and incomparable Roman Martel of Roman's Reviews and Musings writes up his choices for the greatest horror films circa 1960 - 2000.
"How do you manage to pick such tough topics for these lists? Maybe it’s not your topics, but my personal problem narrowing down a list of movies I love. Still, it’s always fun to participate and I had to give this one a spin.
I took what I felt were the most influential horror films from this era, and then put them in the order that they frightened me the most, with the top two giving me some serious nightmares after the initial viewing.
10. The Exorcist
The film that launched the demon/devil possession subgenre, and one that has never really been topped.
Most slasher films wish they could be as lean and mean as John Carpenter’s opus.
8. Night of the Living Dead
Zombies got a real make over with this film and it turned it into the iconic way to portray these fearsome foes.
There is a nasty heart at the center of the story, and the 90s apathy and sarcasm give it a wonderfully dark sense of humor.
The way Hitchcock’s brilliant thriller is shot and edited are really a marvelous exercise in how to craft a top notch thriller. And one more little thing – Bernard Herrmann’s musical score to the film is nothing short of genius. He gave us the stabbing strings in that film and it has become a legacy in the horror genre that continues to this day.
I had this flick in my top ten Science Fiction films too, but this genre straddler really deserves a place here as well. The horror of the unknown is perfectly captured here, with space evolving from a place of wonder to a place of predatory terror.
4. The Blair Witch Project
Some people don’t find this movie scary at all. But I love the way it builds the atmosphere, the loneliness and the fear of having no control of the world around you.
3. The Thing
This movie deserves a place on the list for the amazing creature effects alone. Add to this Carpenter’s wonderful framing, editing and ability to create an atmosphere of oppression and you have a film that is one of the best examples of horror out there.
The original Japanese film remains one of the most perfect examples of atmospheric dread I’ve ever seen captured on film. The movie oozes a fatalistic demeanor that eventually overpowers all the characters.
1. The Haunting
Robert Wise crafted one of the most perfect examples of atmospheric horror that I have yet seen. This is one of the most frightening films in which the main antagonist never actually appears on the screen. And yet you could argue that the antagonist is very much on screen the whole time – Hill House devours our protagonists and looms over them in nearly every frame of the film. “The Haunting” is still the king of that physiological horror that I find endless appealing.
Roman: You have a deep understanding of horror, as your outstanding blog attests to on a regular basis, and this is a fantastic list. I' glad to see The Haunting at the number one spot. The film has made many lists, but this is the first time it placed at the top. Robert Wise is a great director -- Andromeda Strain, Audrey Rose, Day The Earth Stood Still, The Haunting, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and so on, and I'm thinking it's time for a retrospective of his work.
Also, I'm glad to see Blair Witch and Scream make the cut. Too often, 1990s horror films get forgotten or overlooked, and those are two outstanding ventures of the decade.
Reader, horror enthusiast and friend, Jeremy Meyer contributes our second list of the day, vis-a-vis the greatest horror films of the period 1960 - 2000.
"Another great question, but one that was almost impossible to answer satisfactorily. I've had to settle for a very personal set of choices and I'm not convinced at all about my ordering - it's changed maybe five or six times over the last 24 hours.
10. Phantasm (1979) [Coscarelli] - Widely regarded as one of the seminal indie horror titles, Coscarelli and his game group of friends proved that a surplus of ideas can more than make up for a shortage of cash. Phantasm is a luridly imaginative and visually powerful metaphor for how children learn to cope with death and accept their own mortality. The closing scene cements this, and unlike similar scenes in other titles (A Nightmare On Elm Street for instance) it is the key to the narrative rather than a cheap scare.
9. The Iron Rose (1973) [Rollin] - The name Jean Rollin normally brings to mind lesbians, vampires and twins, but his best work for me is the simple story of two lovers trapped in a cemetery for the night, 1973's La Rose De Fer. The narrative or lack thereof is largely unimportant; this is a gorgeous visual meditation on the entwined nature of death and love. The inseparability of Thanatos and Eros is the sort of idea you'd expect to be explored by an auteur like Bergman, but Rollin's hugely underrated lyrical gem proves that he had depths people seem to forget.
8. Carrie (1976) [De Palma] - Sissy Spacek in Carrie is surely one of the most inspired casting choices of all time. Spacek has such a strange, ethereal type of beauty that there was somehow no explanation necessary for her outsider status; her looks set her apart from her peers but were alluring enough to utterly engage the viewer. Aside from Spacek, the real star here is the magnificent cinematography and direction - the opening and closing scenes are the stuff of legend.
7. The Shining (1980) [Kubrick] - Like Carrie, The Shining is carried by a sterling performance and outstanding cinematography. Jack Nicholson gives a stylized but unnerving turn as troubled writer Jack Torrance that ranks for me as the second best descent into madness portrayed on screen.
6. The Last House On The Left (1972) [Craven] - One of the most powerful anti-violence movies ever produced. Sure, the direction is occasionally ropey (this was Wes' first feature after all) but they key to its success is how the final third is handled. The frank brutality of the gang's crimes has the audience baying for their blood, but the cold, antiseptic portrayal of the Collingwoods' revenge leaves only a hollow feeling once it's over. Violence dehumanizes everyone, no matter how 'good' or 'just' our intentions.
5. The Wicker Man (1974) [Hardy] - The genius of The Wicker Man is how it manipulates the sympathies of its audience. From the outset Sgt. Howie is stuffy and humorless, whereas the inhabitants of Summerisle are fun loving and free-spirited. Before long however the sinister nature of islanders becomes apparent; the menacing undertone of their bawdy songs and pagan rituals is brought to the fore while the previously unlikable Howie is thrust into the role of righteous martyr. Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle and Ed Woodward as Sgt. Howie are marvelous, and the music will stay with you for years.
4. Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer (1986) [McNaughton] - A film so controversial it languished unrated and unreleased for three years, Henry is one of the very few true horror movies. It coldly oscillates between showing the banalities of Henry's life and the unimaginably brutal crimes he commits to alleviate that boredom. What elevates Henry to the status of a great movie, albeit one that is difficult to watch, is its overt criticism of horror voyeurism. Those lengthy tracking shots circling discarded corpses, that infamous and stunning scene with the suburban family... we are Henry and Otis, re-winding for our own sick pleasure.
3. Repulsion (1965) [Polanski] - Polanski's first foray into English language cinema is one of his best. Repulsion is the most committed and disquieting portrayal of madness on film. Polanski's beautiful, twisted visuals combine with Catherine Deneuve's chillingly catatonic performance to create an inimitable and devastating picture.
2. The Thing (1982) [Carpenter] - The Thing has it all: incredible non-digital effects (courtesy of Rob Bottin and Stan Winston), beautiful location work and cinematography, a fantastic and nihilistic ending, and some brilliant character work from the talented cast. The tension is palpable throughout, and Carpenter expertly juxtaposes feelings of claustrophobia and isolation to create one of the most atmospheric movies ever made.
1. Rosemary's Baby (1968) [Polanski] - One of those rare moments when the stars align and a near-perfect movie is possible. Given Polanski's nature and his previous explorations of female sexuality and the male gaze (see Repulsion), this was the perfect story for him to tell. Couple that with one of history's great performances from Mia Farrow, a wonderfully creepy and overbearing ensemble cast, and a haunting score, and you have one of the finest horror movies in history. Polanski's direction is deliberate and methodical, building tension until it froths into paranoia and then pure terror.
Close but no cigar:
Halloween (1978) [Carpenter]
The Beyond (1981) [Fulci]
Videodrome (1983) [Cronenberg]
Nosferatu The Vampyre (1979) [Herzog]
Profundo Rosso (1975) [Argento]."
Jeremy: A fantastic list, and two things stick out. First, your admiration for Polanski's genre work (which I share). I also think his The Ninth Gate (1999) is extraordinary. The second thing is that you included Phantasm, a film that I also included on my list, but which hasn't had a great showing here with readers.
Writer, horror enthusiast and friend Brian O'Rourke, gets us started with our Reader Top Ten Greatest Horror Films (1960 - 2000) this Saturday afternoon.
"The list is in ascending order from #10. My choices for #3, #2 and #1 are a given: they haven't changed for over 30 years. They're not only my favorite horror movies ... they're my favorite movies. I've seen each of them countless times, big screen and small, and although the three have been endlessly copied or remade or re-imagined or plagiarized or sequelized to ever-diminishing returns, the originals steadfastly remain perfect cinematic gems.
10. HALLOWEEN (1978)
Very scary and very stylish. This movie is as much a part of Oct. 31 as IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE is to Dec. 25.
9. SPOORLOOS (THE VANISHING) (1988)
This movie freaked me out! In fact, just thinking about it now, 25 years later, I start squirming. My immediate answer to any question that begins "Do you really want to know ..." is a quick and firm "NO!"
8. THE EXORCIST (1973)
I saw this first at a university Halloween screening; nobody was sober and the atmosphere was ROCKY HORROR zaniness. The second time I saw THE EXORCIST, a few years later, I found it extraordinarily depressing. Then a third time, two or three years after that, the movie finally clicked: I felt Chris MacNeil's anguished desperation and determination to save her daughter. The prologue in Iraq made sense. The Kinderman scenes suddenly fit. And, yes, it took a few screenings, but I finally made the connection between the Pazuzu statue and Regan's ugly bird toy. Still, for several years some unanswered questions really bugged me (What is the deal with Karl and Willi? What the heck is going on between Karras and Dyer?). Well, I got my answers this year when I finally read the book!
7. RINGU (1998)
This is one of the few movies of the recent past that actually made me get up from my chair to turn on a light and shut the blinds. Creepy, unsettling and fresh. I saw this before the remake, Gore Verbinski's THE RING, which I found to be weak and poorly filmed. The climactic scene in the US version was ruined by crosscutting, a misguided editorial choice that robbed the movie of the original's visceral impact. Stick with RINGU.
6. TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME (1992)
One of the most frightening and harrowing movies of all time. And most misunderstood. And underappreciated. After the "Twin Peaks" television series was cancelled in its second season, David Lynch turned the enitre mythos inside out, shocking and angering fans of the humorously off-kilter mystery show with a horrific study of sexual abuse and violent family dysfunction. FIRE WALK WITH ME was savagely rejected at the time, but 20 years later Lynch's descent into Laura Palmer's private hell stands up better than the series does.
5. DON'T LOOK NOW (1973)
The horror movie as an art film. Beautifully filmed, with mysteries and symbolism peeking from every dark canal. Every viewing brings something new to the experience. And that soundtrack by Pino Donaggio -- gorgeous!
4. ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968)
A superb story populated with dynamic characters, at once artful and simple. Minnie Castevet is one of great characters of film. And while the sequels -- a novel and a television movie -- were both dreadful and I hope to never see a remake or another follow-up, this is one of the very few horror movies that leaves me wondering what could possibly happen next ...
3. ALIEN (1979)
ALIEN is undoubtedly one of the great horror films of all time, a text-book example of perfectly paced tension, suspense and dread. The characters aren't saddled with cliche-ridden back stories and comic book motivations. They are just blue-collar workers who want to go home. The writers upended many of the "rules" of horror movies with their screenplay, and Ridley Scott created a masterpiece with it. (Note: The filmmakers do owe a huge acknowledgement to the '50s B-flick IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE and Mario Bava's PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES. Check either of these movies out, you'll recognize scenes from ALIEN.)
2. CARRIE (1976)
I know the rap: Brian De Palma is a Hitchcock plagiarist. Yet while he is most definitely a Hitchcock acolyte, to dismiss him as merely that is reductive and, well, wrong. De Palma's obsessions and themes are vastly different, as are his style and film language. SISTERS, THE FURY and DRESSED TO KILL are all favorites as well, but CARRIE is the top, a perfect blend of cinematic virtuosity and high caliber acting. The prom scene is probably my favorite film scene, masterfully shot in slow motion, vibrant colors and gorgeous close ups of the actors' faces. I love this movie.
1. PSYCHO (1960)
I'll never forget the first time I saw Hitchcock's game changer. I was still in elementary school. I had heard whispers about "the scariest movie ever made," but all I really knew was that there was a motel and a knife. My parents made the evening a big deal: Jiffy Pop popcorn; the console television tuned to Philadelphia's Channel 17, the rabbit ear antenna perfectly adjusted for crisp reception; my father and mother on opposite ends of the couch, my brother and I between them. I was enthralled. My brother fled the room, never to return that night, the moment Marion Crane's bathroom door opened and Mrs. Bates' shadow darkened the shower curtain. My parents kept an eye on me throughout the movie, but by the time Arbogast's body hit the floor at the foot of the staircase they knew I was loving every single moment of it. All these years later, after countless viewings, I'm still completely intoxicated by PSYCHO every time.
PS: I know, I know!, it makes sense to do a "Top 10", but it hurts to leave a few of my favorites off! My second 10 would probably look like this:
DRESSED TO KILL
THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE
LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH
DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS
HUSH ... HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE
CARNIVAL OF SOULS"
Brian: that's a great list, and I love that both Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) and Spurloos (The Vanishing) made the list. Spurloos terrifies me to this day, and is superior to The Vanishing remake, which I liked but didn't love,
I'm also gratified to see that Psycho landed in the top spot. That film is revolutionary in terms of structure and approach, and the modern horror film owes much to Hitchcock's enterprise.
Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Return to the Planet of the Apes: "Tunnel of Fear" (September 27, 1975)
In “Tunnel of Fear,” this week’s episode of the animated series Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975), General Urko plans a new hunt that will eliminate the humanoid threat forever.
Jeff (Austin Stoker), meanwhile, wants to move the jeopardized and primitive humanoids to a new location where they can be protected from this and all future ape aggression.
Accordingly, Jeff and Bill seek assistance from Cornelius and Zira in Ape City. The astronauts from Earth’s past return to the city they recently escaped from and encounter a giant spider in the sewer system.
After they reach the chimpanzee’s lab, the astronauts ask for help, and Cornelius, after grappling with his conscience, realizes he can help the astronauts get the humanoids to a new home. He knows just the place too. His archaeological dig in the Forbidden Zone runs near an underground river, and leads into a serene, hidden valley. It would be the perfect home for the humanoids.
“Tunnel of Fear” opens with two gorilla sentries talking about General Urko and his plans for total ape domination of the planet, while they sip hot coffee by chilly moonlight. This scene is one of the (many) reasons I appreciate this particular Saturday morning series. It would have been just as easy to create a scene with Urko himself making his plans (before the council, or his troops, perhaps), but instead we get this boots-on-the-ground discussion of strategy between “grunts” and it seems more like a scene from Shakespeare’s Henry V than a moment on a 1970s cartoon. Urko’s efforts, after all, impact the men -- er apes -- he leads into battle.
The episode also presents a nice moral dilemma for Cornelius and Zira. Dr. Zaius trusts the pacifist chimps, and solicits their help in capturing Blue Eyes and the humanoids.
Meanwhile, Bill and Jeff want the same individuals to help them get the humanoids to safety.
Thus Cornelius and Zira need to determine the “higher” morality in this case, and must grapple with feelings that they are betraying Zaius, and therefore their own people. The scene wherein Cornelius sort of “waffles” -- going back-and-forth from side-to-side -- is especially well-presented t and showcases both perspectives ably. This scene is especially good for children to watch, as it involves decision-making, and ways to choose when both options might rightly cause harm to some party. In this case, Cornelius realizes it is better to betray Zaius than to let the innocent humanoids die, and he speculates that someday Zaius and the Planet of the Apes might even be happy that he chose this way.
“Tunnel of Fear” features only one overtly juvenile moment. In the sewers, Bill and Jeff encounter the aforementioned giant spider and get trapped in its web, before breaking free. This is the first outbreak of pulp childishness on a TV series that otherwise avoids such clichés. The whole idea of a giant spider in the sewers is a silly one. If there were really spiders of this size in Ape City’s sewers, certainly it would be a public health crisis. And besides, the encounter with the giant arachnid adds nothing to the overall story. It’s just a “danger” for the kiddies to enjoy between scenes of dialogue.
Next week, Bill and Jeff go off in pursuit of the laser drill in “Lagoon of Peril.”
This week’s episode of the Sid and Marty Krofft Land of the Lost remake (1991 – 1992), “Jungle Girl” is a vast improvement over last week’s installment “Shung the Terrible.” In this story, an alignment of the Land of the Lost’s three moons causes all the denizens -- including Stink and Tasha -- to head lemming-like in a stampede towards “The Valley of Death.” There, they will fall over a high mountain precipice to their deaths, in the vast boneyard below.
The Porters and Christa race to save their friends from this terrible fate, even as Mr. Porter seeks to learn more about Christa’s past, and her early life in San Francisco. Christa dismisses her memories of Earth as “just dreams,” but Mr. Porter suspects she came to the Land of the Lost the same way his family did…
“Jungle Girl” feels authentically like a throwback to the Original Series in many ways. In particular, there were many episodes of the 1970s Land of the Lost in which some environmental mechanism of the Land of the Lost broke down and caused the creatures living there to react erratically. Sometimes it was an eclipse, sometimes a sun that wouldn’t go down at night and sometimes the Skylons, devices which warned of weather variations.
Here, the alignment of the three moons jeopardizes Tasha and Stink, and the Porters and Christa react out of love to save them. In other words, the Porters care for the members of their “extended family,” much as in the original series, Rick, Holly and Will came to care for Dopey in episodes such as “Tar Pit,” or for Chaka. The difference here, in terms of Tasha, is that she has moved in with the Porters, something that didn’t happen with Chaka until the third season of the original Land of the Lost. In other words, the Porters are a “blended” family more quickly, and this reflects the change in family units in America in the nineties.
In terms of the specific threat in “Jungle Girl,” Mr. Porter theorizes that perhaps the alignment of the moons is “warping the light rays” in the sky and causing the valley-wide trance. Perhaps, he suggests, the dinosaurs emerged from an ancient ocean that once existed at the bottom of the mountain (in the Valley of Death), and somehow the light programs them to return there, to that same spot. The only thing that’s hard-to-swallow about this is idea that both Pakuni (mammals) and dinosaurs (reptiles) are impacted in the exact same way by the alignment. On the other hand, this trance might impact all denizens of the Land of the Lost, since only Earthlings -- the Porters and Christa -- are immune.
In terms of the episode’s resolution, the Porters use their car again, and break the eclipse spell by honking the horn and stopping the stampede. This is a believable solution, but this makes “Jungle Girl” yet another story (the third out of four, I believe…) in which the Porters’ car is utilized to save the day. That makes it officially a writer’s crutch at this point. And it’s so bad a dramatic resolution because at some point the car’s gas has to run out…and the vehicle isn’t going to be an option. Either that, or the writers are going to ignore that eventuality totally, and the series then has a problem with continuity and logic to contend with.
Still, I liked this episode more than last week’s because it brings everybody together, gives us some more background on Christa (we know she has Polaroids of her family, and her pet dog, Princess…), and doesn’t rely on one-dimensional villains like Shung and his sleestak stooges.
Next week: “The Crystal.”
Friday, October 25, 2013
Jeffrey Siniard, writer and blogger extraordinaire at A Beachfront Cineaste contributes our next Reader Top Ten list.
“In my opinion, any great horror must subscribe to what I'd call the Craven Commandment: "The first monster that an audience should be scared of is the filmmaker."
Here's the Honorable Mentions
Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971)
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Dressed to Kill (1980)
The Fly (1986)
The Top 10
10. The Hitcher (1986) Robert Harmon's road trip featuring C. Thomas Howell's Jim Halsey and Rutger Hauer's iconic John Ryder in a duel of violent (and unspoken) sexual dominance. What I like best about this film is the creepy unspoken attraction that Ryder has for Halsey, the desolate desert roadscapes, and the lack of obvious motivation which forces the viewer to seek out subtext. This film is also a textbook example of how suggesting the unthinkable is often more terrible than seeing it (such as Halsey's discovery of the abandoned station wagon, or the horrific fate of Jennifer Jason Leigh's Nash). The Hitcher is one of the absolute best at letting your mind do the work for you.
9. The Last House on the Left (1972) Wes Craven's terrible reimagining of Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring is a rebuke to the notion that violence can be a fully justified and cathartic experience. Craven shows us the barbaric torture, rape, humiliation, and murder of two young women by a gang of thugs, who then have the misfortune of spending the night with the parents of one of the victims. Instead of allowing the audience to take pleasure in the parent's revenge, against monsters who absolutely deserve what's coming, Craven rubs your face in the awful messy squalor of death with no retreat, no compromise, and no happy ending.
8. Event Horizon (1997) Paul W.S. Anderson's finest moment is one of the most criminally underrated horror films of the last 20 years. The experimental spacecraft 'Event Horizon' disappears in 2040, only to reappear in 2047 in orbit around Neptune. The rescue ship 'Lewis and Clark' is dispatched to investigate, and literally all Hell breaks loose. Event Horizon features marvelous cinematography, stunning set design, tremendous visual effects, and a marvelous ensemble cast who never camp up or deaden the material. And in response to those who dismiss the film as bastard child of Alien, The Shining, and Hellraiser (that's a bad thing?); thematically the film is like a Bosch triptych of the dangers of forbidden knowledge, man's technology attaining sentience and turning against him, and an examination of how guilt tortures and destroys the soul.
7. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) Wes Craven's deeply unsettling dream film is about the sins of the parents visited upon the children. Under the guise of Robert Englund's great Freddy Kreuger, a child murderer burned and killed by vengeful parents, who now seeks revenge by torturing and murdering the teenaged children of his killers in their sleep. In addition to carrying forward his themes of unjustifiable violence from The Last House on the Left, Craven's great achievement is in the blurring of the real world and nightmare world, which disorients the viewer and establishes a reality which has no discernible rules. Also, the film features a strong social critique of family life in the 1980s, with children left to their own devices by parents distracting themselves with work, booze, and sex.
6. The Shining (1980) Stanley Kubrick's labyrinthine film about the Torrance family's unfortunate term as caretakers of the Overlook Hotel is a masterwork of set design, music, and camera work. As many others have noted, the Hotel itself is an ever changing maze, which causes the viewer to become disoriented. The immediately established sense of isolation and loneliness, which makes the viewer feel completely cut off. The horrific images that Danny Torrance's "shining" produce. The slowly building suspense, which reaches a sustained fever pitch for the last 45 minutes. And of course, four great performances by Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd and Scatman Crothers. Best of all, the movie remains ambiguous to the end; Is the film the delusion of a snowbound and alcoholic Jack Torrance? Is the Overlook Hotel truly haunted? Has Jack always been the caretaker?
5. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) Tobe Hooper's low budget shocker is a master class in black humor and horror. What's amazing is how he manages to make you interested in a group of relatively uninteresting teenagers, how he takes the character in a wheelchair and makes him the most annoying person in the film, as well as the butt of every joke. And how he makes you almost feel sympathy for a family of butchers who maintain the family trade, even when there's humans to slaughter in place of livestock. Hooper has a fine eye for details, like the nest of daddy longlegs, the scattering of bones in the house, and the masks the family wears. Of course, he also is a master of pitching an audience to the edge of panic, as he does with Leatherface's arrival, Sally's flight following her brother's death, and with the infamous dinner scene-which manages to be deeply disturbing and hysterically funny at once.
4. The Evil Dead (1981) Sam Raimi broke through with one simple idea. To assault his audience non-stop for 90 minutes. This film never lets up. The opening moments of the friends arriving at a remote cabin in the woods, the discovery of the Sumerian Book of the Dead, and the quick sprint to nightfall are all the suspense Raimi needs. What follows may still be the single greatest sustained stretch of horror ever committed to film. We have girls being raped by trees, a camera which glides and zooms all over the forest attacking the characters, the continual bloody dismembering of virtually every single character we've come do know. Lastly, Raimi introduced audiences to one of the great cult actors and characters of the last 40 years: Bruce Campbell as Ash.
3. The Thing (1982) John Carpenter's version of John W. Campbell's classic story is one of the best depictions of paranoia and mistrust ever committed to celluloid. It features Carpenter's typically assured (and underrated) command of craft, a wonderfully desolate snowbound location, and ground breaking make-up effects from Rob Bottin. What makes this alien different is it's ability to imitate any organism it comes into contact with, and it's reluctance to show itself. Thus, we have long teasing sequences of suspense and paranoia which are turned upside down into set-pieces of pure madness. The essential questions of what makes us human, how to tell friend from foe, and how to battle an (essentially) unseen foe serve as rich subtext. Finally, there's no sense of victory, as Kurt Russell's MacReady battles the creature to nothing more than a draw, in the freezing Antarctic night.
2. Halloween (1978) Speaking of command of craft, John Carpenter's boogeyman classic may be the finest example of what a great director can do with a small cast and limited budget. Halloween opens with one of the great reversals in cinema, as the audience experiences the commission of murder through the eyes of a child. Then, Carpenter's camera showing Michael Myers lurking on the edge of the frame, behind bushes, and around the corner generates plenty of suspense. Carpenter gleefully spends the entire film showing exactly where Myers isn't, so that you jump out of your seat when he shows up out of nowhere. Further, the lack of motivation for Myers' actions allows the audience plenty of room for questions which have no answers, and the film is made all the more terrifying for it. Lastly, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Halloween stands nearly alone as an influence on three decades worth of sequels, imitators, and rip-offs. None, however, match the precision and artistry of this effort.
1. Alien (1979) Ridley Scott's film may have a hard science fiction sheen, but at its heart, it’s a monster movie. For me, no film ever has succeeded as quickly and completely at conveying the sense of total isolation and loneliness. The extremely believable design of the 'Nostromo' and her extremely believable crew eliminate any sense of artifice. Then there's the decent to LV-426, and the discovery of an alien ship that is truly alien. Then the discovery of a dead creature, and then the eggs. The creature in this film may still be the most terrifying monster ever committed to film. There's the subliminal fear of sexual attack, the constant feeling of being trapped in some sort of biological maze, the numbing claustropobia, corporate malfeasance, the evolving creature - all combining perfectly to leave the viewer shocked and terrified. The tremendous camerawork, set design, art direction, music, and editing. A phenomenal group of character actors bringing texture and wit to what would otherwise be cardboard roles. Sigourney Weaver's first portrayal of Ellen Ripley. Maybe the greatest shock scene in movie history, and for 25+ years, still the standard by which I judge all efforts to scare me witless.
Jeffrey: Allow me to gush all over your list. I loved it. I totally loved it. I adore your descriptions of the Craven films -- Last House on the Left, and A Nightmare on Elm Street -- and what they mean on a sub-textual level. And I completely agree with your analysis of both films.
I was also thrilled to see The Hitcher on the list, and read your description of the thinly-veiled sexual themes. That’s my feeling about the film too. There’s a strong, subversive sexual undercurrent to the film, and involving the two lead characters. Too often, reviewers seem to miss that fact, and thus misunderstand the film.
Finally, I would like to say that, like you, I deeply admire Event Horizon (1997), and feel that it is much better than many critics said. Again, you absolutely nailed the reasons why.
“I've been following your blog for a couple of years but I never quite got around to e-mailing you before or even left a comment on your site. However, these Reader Top 10 lists seem like a nice icebreaker and since horror is probably my favorite movie genre I couldn't really pass this up!
I feel like I should also apologize for any mistakes I might possibly be making in my writing since English is not my mother tongue, but hopefully those are not too numerous. I guess I should also mention that I'm writing to you from Croatia (in Europe, just across the Adriatic Sea from Italy), which is probably a place that you aren't getting too many e-mails from!
Having said all that, here are my picks:
1. Halloween (1978)
2. The Wicker Man (1973)
3. Suspiria (1977)
4. The Shining (1980)
5. The Thing (1982)
6. The Innocents (1961)
7. Alien (1979)
8. The Exorcist III (1990)
9. Black Christmas (1974)
10. Psycho II (1983)
I feel like I should perhaps point out that some of my more peculiar choices (Psycho II and The Exorcist III) are there because those are the sequels that I tend to re-watch far more frequently than the originals so I wouldn't feel right sidestepping them in favor of the original films, as excellent as those are. If this was a Top 20 list then there's no doubt that those movies would have been included as well.
In the end, I'd really like to thank you for all the wonderful work you've been doing on your blog, especially when it comes to giving a more fair and balanced assessment of much maligned movies such as John Carter, After Earth and many others.”
Ratko: I want to thank you for your affirmative words about my work, and say it is a pleasure to meet you, and to read your top-ten selections. I didn’t see any errors in your English, so don’t give that a second thought.
We share our #1 choice -- Halloween (1978) -- but I also find your other choices to be very strong. Black Christmas (1974) is often pointed to as one of the pre-Halloween originators of the slasher format, and a deeply creepy film. Suspiria (1977) is also my favorite Argento film, and an authentically terrifying movie.
Also, I am a huge fan of Richard Franklin. He’s a truly underrated talent, and has given the genre films such as Patrick (1978), Road Games (1981), Psycho II (1983), and Link (1986). He is a legitimate heir to Hitchcock in terms of both style and mastery, and I’m thinking it’s time to do a retrospective of his work here on the blog, so thank you -- through your selection of a Psycho sequel -- of reminding me of a movie-maker I really admire.