31 Days of Halloween
I am truly a child of the eighties. I was raised on Friday night trips to Video One, where I was allowed to rent four tapes (they’re these things we had way before DVD’s and the Internet, Netflix and Redbox; we put them into these gadgets called “VCR’s” and had to “rewind” them before we took them back to the store, or run the risk of a one dollar fine for the discourteous behavior) for the weekend. The horror section was the spot from which the majority of my selections were gleaned, and my family never really discouraged the fascination (although there was the one time that my mother, sick of all the gratuitous sex and violence showing up in the cinema, got to pick our flick for a family movie night; she read the blurb that accompanied the ad – “either Nancy will wake up screaming, or she won’t wake up at all” – and took her three young children to see A Nightmare on Elm Street… an attempt at good parenting gone horribly wrong).
Before I’d reached the real life terror tale that is middle school and the evil of adolescence, I had seen every installment in the Friday the 13th franchise, every moment of the Halloween series, and pretty much every twisted option that the video stores in town had to offer. I started reading Stephen King in the second grade (Dad: “ah, hell, at least he’s reading”), and I fell in love with everything morbid, supernatural, witchy, and macabre.
Although I am by no means an expert on the subject, I do know scary when I see it, and I think I’m a fairly good judge of what works to make a film superlative to its contemporaries. With these notions, I present a prudent list of 31 horror movies that work to make the coming 31 days leading toward Halloween a little more celebration-worthy. Stay tuned for daily updates as the list continues all the way to number one on All Hallow’s Eve…
1 — The Texas Chainsaw Massacre — Tobe Hooper (dir.) — 1974
When the boyfriend had a look over my list of the first thirty films last night, he texted me to let me know that he finds some of the titles in my list improperly ordered (and a little “f*&ked up” — his words, not mine). He can’t see how it’s possible that I’d put The Skeleton Key in my top ten and leave The Shining and Psycho at significantly lower spots. I had to remind him that the list doesn’t necessarily represent an order of the scariest, but my order of the best. Is The Skeleton Key scarier than The Shining? Not really. Is Funny Games a better film than Psycho? Definitely not. Where’s Dracula? Friday the 13th? A Nightmare on Elm Street?
I created the list based on film quality, cultural significance, relevance, preponderance of terror, and overall worth. In the end, I had to remind him that Suspiria is actually one of my ten favorite films ever made, but I put it at number 31. Overall, The Strangers is far more terrifying than Lake Mungo, and The Haunting is of much better quality and relevance than Hellraiser, but I’m not going to go back and re-order them. Besides, the real horror factor really doesn’t come into play until the top five, and I hold steady to the order of them all the way up through to the film that I consider to be the most terrifying ever made. The absolutely relentless, efficient, and downright disturbing Tobe Hooper 1974 cult classic, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Rooted in the same legendary story of Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein (the same man whose crimes inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and the Academy Award winning The Silence of the Lambs), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a picture that grabs your attention at the very beginning, sinks its claws into your flesh, and literally does not let go even as it comes to a dramatic conclusion. The strange, distorted sounds of camera flash photography open the film, along with brightened glimpses of rotting corpses, while a radio reporter describes a series of graveyard vandalisms that have occurred in a small Texas town. Sally Hardesty, her wheelchair-bound (and rather annoying) brother, and three friends make an afternoon journey to check on Sally’s grandfather’s grave to see if it remains intact. Reading from a book on astrology, one of the passengers reveals that trouble may lie ahead, and when they pick up a creepy hitchhiker who later exhibits strange tendencies and begins to mutilate himself, they throw him back out to the side of the road. That’s when their troubles really begin. Stopping for gas seals their fates and the horror that ensues is literally the scariest cinematic vision that I have ever seen in my life. I have never forgotten it, and nothing has ever come close to actually effecting me the way this one did.
The entire movie has the feel of old newsreel footage from the early seventies. Yellowish brown, grainy, and ambivalent, it seems as if one is not watching a movie but actually catching scenes from a breaking hard story on the ten o’clock news. It’s as if a documentary film crew is following this group of young travelers through the wave of terror and is able to capture everything perfectly and without judgment, as if Tobe Hooper is showing us something that actually happened. The result is a series of shocking deaths, a breathless and long-lasting chase scene, and a family dinner party that makes the Manson family look like Amnesty International.
I have only seen the film one time in its entirety, and I’ve never been able to actually watch it all the way through again. I always feel as if it’s filled with images that I can never un-see, as if I desperately need to take a long, hot shower with all the lights on and in a house filled with Christmas music. Some may disagree with its position in this list of 31 films, but I doubt anyone can argue that it deserves a spot very high on anyone’s honest accounting of the best and the scariest.
I’ve enjoyed counting down through these titles, and I’d love to read comments from anyone who has been following me. I’m always down for a little criticism, and there’s nothing better than a good, solid argument from some of the people who I know have been paying attention (Conchita, Sarah, Angie, Erik, Jeremy, Christina, Hunter, Ryan, Mike, Kristi, Geri, Shelley, etc.).
Be sure to stay tuned next month. I’ll have a new list (in honor of Thanksgiving, the best dysfunctional family films ever made), but it’s one that I’ll be posting a little bit differently.
In the meantime, happy Halloween — don’t forget: tonight is the best horror movie night of the year. Watch and enjoy…
2— The Exorcist — William Friedkin (dir.) — 1973
We definitely were not supposed to be watching it, and — in retrospect — I was far too young to see it, but I remember my brother, my Uncle Timmy, and myself somehow wound up with a copy, and we stayed up late watching it in my grandparents’ living room. The aspects I remember from my initial viewing were the images of the two dogs fighting near the excavation site in Iraq, the first images of the demonic statue poised against Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) in battle, Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) urinating on the rug, Father Damian Karras’s mother’s voice, the medical tests (particularly the painful spinal procedure), the Ouija board, the disturbing scene involving flying records, moving furniture, and a crucifix, and intensifying and the horrifying story of a little girl being possessed by an unimaginably evil force.
Director William Friedkin has stated that he used as many frightening images as possible to create as potent an example of evil imprinted to film as possible in an effort to create an overwhelming sense of unease. He was successful. My mother has stated that she stood in the rain for two hours to get in to see it upon its premier and then spent the majority of the movie looking at the floor, unable to block out the soundtrack of a little girl spouting off the foulest language she had ever heard in her life, some of the words that she’d never even heard before. Audiences lined up to pass out, to vomit, and to be carried from theaters on stretchers to be transported to hospitals. The Catholic church called it an abomination. It was banned in cities across the country. News crews stood by for audience reaction and saw people literally crying in fear, not even having seen the entire film. There’s a reason that The Exorcist, based on the hit novel from William Peter Blatty, remains at the top of every horror film buff’s list of favorites and most terrifying: it is truly one of the two scariest films ever created.
What I remember most about the first time I saw the film is the feeling I was left with afterward. I felt like I had done something bad — I wasn’t supposed to be watching it in the first place — and feeling as if I were being punished for several weeks after. Already afraid of the dark, I would no longer enter a room without turning on a light (and — my family can vouch for this — usually having to have someone else do it for me). For an incalculable amount of time following the viewing, I recall waking up in the middle of the night — or unable to go to sleep at all — in fear that my bed was shaking and I was being possessed by the Devil. I was absolutely terrified. Twenty-odd years later, the film still has the power to instill a sense of tremendous dread and foreboding. It’s something that I cannot watch alone, and definitely not in the dark. Perhaps because the story mixes notions from religion with abject horror, it has the ability to create more dialogue, more trepidation, and more debate for the controversy that surrounds its creation than any other film ever made.
It really is that scary. If you don’t believe me, and you’ve not yet seen the movie, pick up a copy. It is, at times, reprehensible and almost embarrassing to watch, but it is important and necessary. Unless the minds of Hollywood get really creative and come up with something we’ve never seen before, there never will be another film anything like this one.
3 — Halloween — John Carpenter (dir.) — 1978
For nearly a quarter of a century, John Carpenter’s simple, startling cinematic masterpiece was considered the most successful independent film of all time, and rightfully so. The movie was made on a shoestring budget, with a large portion spent on Donald Pleasence’s salary for eight days of shooting. The cast consisted of a variety of unknowns, even the star of the picture, Jamie Lee Curtis, was merely the daughter of Hollywood royalty at the time and had miles to go to prove her worth as an actress. There is very little blood and comparatively (to the films of today) very little violence; however, all film goers and movie buffs have to agree that Halloween is undoubtedly one of the greatest horror creations ever to find its way into the American zeitgeist as a sleeper hit that just will not quit. It has spawned countless sequels and an incredibly poor contrivance in the form of Rob Zombie’s big budget remake, but it is the classic first horror outing of director John Carpenter and his inimitable attention to detail that makes Halloween a force to be reckoned with.
On Halloween night, 1963, the audience watches from the point of view of someone spying into the dimly lit rooms of a house while a teenaged girl and her presumed boyfriend run upstairs to fool around. When the upper lights go out, the camera moves along the side of the structure and through a back door to find a kitchen knife in one of the drawers. Donning a mask and creeping toward the stairs, the camera watches the boyfriend leave before slowly ascending the staircase to see the naked teenager brushing her hair before fatally stabbing her to death. Turning to dash back downstairs and out the front door, viewers see a car pull up, an older couple get out and rip the mask from the killer’s face to reveal that he is a mere child, standing with a bloody butcher’s knife in his hand. The action moves forward to October 30, 1978, and the killer’s doctor and an accompanying nurse inadvertently aid an escape from a creepy sanitarium in the middle of a torrential rainstorm. What happens next, on October 31, 1978, goes down in history as one of the most frightening days in the life of a girl named Laurie Strode and her two close friends, Annie and Lynda.
Originally titled “The Babysitter Murders” and planned to take place over the course of several days, John Carpenter revised the script to take place on a single day in 1978, the most maleficent day of the year, Halloween. Everything about this selection works. Every one of the characters are well-scripted and totally believable. The action is pitch perfect in pace. The cinematography is outstanding, with the majority of the film taking place at night. The score and sound effects are among the most effective and viscerally stunning of all time. John Carpenter proves the old Alfred Hitchcock axiom that “there is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it” by literally inventing the modern slasher flick. In short, Halloween is a classic horror opus, guaranteed to build tension through a remarkable amount of suspense and leave the audience breathless with every stroke of the killer’s knife. Perfect movie for Halloween night. There have been countless imitations, but there is absolutely no comparison: Halloween is in a class by itself.
4 — Spoorloos (“The Vanishing“) — George Sluizer (dir.) — 1988
There are two films that I vacillated between when considering which to choose for this list because both are remarkable in their own rights, but neither is wholly fulfilling all the way through. When a Stranger Calls was the title that almost bought this spot on the list, but if it had done so, it would only be due to the first twenty minutes of the picture. The opening of the film is extraordinary, intense, scary, and very well filmed. Unfortunately, the remainder of the movie falls by the wayside and gets hung up and boring at parts. Although the resolution is satisfying, I fought with myself over whether or not to include it for the mere first third of the story. Its competitor, my number four pick, is a generally creepy flick, engrossing and lurid, but does not truly pay off as absolutely terrifying until the incredibly shocking conclusion. In the end, Spoorloos won out because of the possible conversational ramifications it spurs. It will truly leave the audience dwelling on what they have just seen long after it’s over.
From the Netherlands, it tells the story of a young couple, Rex and Saskia, vacationing in Europe. When they stop at a gas station, Saskia disappears without a trace and Rex becomes obsessed with the inexplicable vanishing. The abductor, Raymond Lemorne, has concrete reasons and an interesting rationale for having kidnapped her, but they only serve to scare the hell out of anyone watching. He is a genuine psychopath, the kind we know really exist, but never like to think about walking alongside us at the grocery story. In fact, the only other character in film history that I find as terrifying as Raymond is Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men. Like others on the list, I’m hesitant to write too much about the plot because this is a film that is very much driven by both characters and story. Part of the unease that grows from watching comes from the way Rex and Raymond are developed. When Rex finally has the opportunity to find out what happened to Saskia, you are guaranteed to feel a breathless sense of overwhelming dread and impending doom. Raymond gives Rex the chance not to be told, but to be shown what he did. The result is shocking, disturbing, and absolutely devastating.
5 — Alien — Ridley Scott (dir.) — 1979
Regardless of the titles I outline in my top five flicks, I feel certain that there will be some dissension. I only hope that any dialogue that disputes any one of my favorite five horror films is only regarding the order and not the actual selections. The five remaining films are arguably the most creative, the most important, and unquestionably the scariest movies ever made.
Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece owes a great deal to Italian horror maestro Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (but then again Friday the 13th Part 2 — the best film in the franchise — stole many of its elements from Bava’s Twitch of the Death Nerve), but it still stands out as a classic blend of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Most science fiction stories are really just westerns shot in space; however, Alien is unlike the rest as it’s really more of a haunted house creature feature encapsulated in a bizarre futuristic setting, nothing audiences had ever seen before. Like the tagline suggests, “in space, no one can hear you scream.”
The crew of the cargo hauling ship Nostromo receives a distress signal from a foreign planet which awakens everyone from a hibernating state to investigate. I’m hesitant to write very much more for fear of giving away any of the movie’s secrets, but I will write that the crew discovers the reason for the distress signal and unwisely brings that reason back on board with them. When the shocks begin — and trust me, there are several — they come quickly, unexpectedly, and with intense precision and masterful direction. The dinner scene has become something of a cliche in cinema, but that’s really only the second big surprise in the movie. There are plenty more (and the one involving Tom Skerritt still makes me shudder). Alien is all about the suspense, the claustrophobia, and the overwhelming terror that one feels watching the action unfold. It spawned several sequels and some of them (especially the second film, Aliens) are actually quite good; however, it’s the first that remains a seminal work of staggering genius. One of the greatest horror films of all time, and definitely the best of the bunch set in space.
6 — Rosemary’s Baby — Roman Polanski (dir.) — 1968
I discovered Ira Levin, the author of this film’s source novel, while struggling through the disastrous experience that was my life at Caddo Middle Magnet circa 1993. I thought it was great to find out that this man had actually written several books that were made into horror movies and thrillers that I’d heard about but never seen. Included in his oeuvre were titles such as The Boys from Brazil, A Kiss Before Dying, and The Stepford Wives (Sliver would come later), but it was what I would later come to know as his most famous work, Rosemary’s Baby, that I was most eager to read first. The novel is unquestionably shocking, and Roman Polanksi, a veritable cinematic genius managed to turn it into one of the greatest and most terrifying movies in the history of film making.
Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse (John Cassavetes and Mia Farrow) are a happy young couple who instantly fall in love with a prime piece of New York real estate, a stately apartment shown to them just after its previous tenant’s death. They move in with incredible gusto; Guy is an up-and-coming actor and Rosemary has aspirations of being the consummate housewife with eyes on the two of them building a family and having a truly happy life. As the boxes are unpacked and the apartment is decorated, Rosemary befriends a young girl in the apartment house’s laundry room and finds out that she is staying with the couple who live in the apartment that backs up to theirs. When the girl inexplicably jumps to her death, Rosemary and Guy first encounter the couple with whom she’d been living, Roman and Minnie Castevet (Ruth Gordon in a role that won her an Academy Award), and are slowly drawn into their lives. The elderly couple exhibit parental-like behaviors toward the younger couple as Rosemary and Guy begin enacting their plans to have children. Over time, it becomes apparent that Roman and Minnie have questionable motives and possible designs on the baby with which Rosemary soon finds herself pregnant. As the action progresses, Rosemary discovers that she is at the center of an elaborate and malefic plot, but she has no idea just what the Castevets and the other strange men and women of the apartment house have in mind.
Rosemary’s Baby is good, old-fashioned, creepy fun. The acting is superb, the sets are impeccable (the movie was filmed at the Dakota, which — like its fictional setting — has come to have a rather unpleasant history itself), and the story is beyond engrossing. It’s a classic that I’m sure is at the top of nearly every horror film lover’s list, and for good reason. The puzzle unfolds in a series of shocking revelations, bizarre twists, anagrams, secret allegiances, and tragedies that really pull the viewer into a world where the most unthinkable and horrible things imagined are totally possible. It is an experience that one simply must not miss.
7 — Night of the Living Dead — George A. Romero (dir.) — 1968
It was totally unexpected and unconventional for the time of its release, and it managed to set a standard by which all zombie flicks to follow would have to adhere. George A. Romero didn’t invent the idea of the reanimation of dead human beings, but he did create a sort of mythology by throwing them right in the middle of status quo Americana and turning zombie lore into a plausible threat to the hoi polloi. An endless parade of imitations have followed in the footsteps of this cinematic classic, but few (the most notable exception being Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later) have managed to come close to capturing the cultural zeitgeist on film in the form of a truly horrifying movie with obvious political undertones.
A mysteriously clouded event reawakens the land of the dead and a group of survivors slowly converge on an old farmhouse not far from — of course — a cemetery. The living dead are hungry for human flesh and there seems to be no sure way to stop them. Once bitten by one of the creatures, the victim is certain to become one of the same, and the straggling hordes just seem to multiply, preparing for a climactic attack.
Romero and his film buddies just set out to make a very low budget movie. What they created was a masterpiece that still holds the crown as something of horror film royalty.
8 — The Thing — John Carpenter (dir.) — 1982
Its source material, a short story from 1938 called “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, Jr., had quite a significant impact on Hollywood as it has been adapted for the screen a total of three times. The first was 1951′s The Thing from Another World and the most recent was the 2011 prequel, but John Carpenter’s 1982 version of The Thing is not only the best adaptation, but one of the greatest (and — most deliciously — goriest) creature features in existence.
An amazing cast led by Kurt Russell works to make John Carpenter’s vision something spectacular and definitely much more than simply a monster movie. A group of researchers working in the subzero climate of Antarctica inadvertently stumbles upon a frozen find after witnessing the bizarre suicide mission of a Norwegian helicopter pilot in pursuit of a dog. The thing the Americans find is brought back to their camp to autopsy and study, something that uncovers a previously unknown life form capable of the perfect imitation of all other organic life, including human.
The scares really start when the men realize that the eponymous creature has infiltrated the camp and is already imitating one or more of them. The overwhelming feeling of paranoia leads them to a variety of methods to determine who is who and who is now what. The result is a series of intense shocks and incredibly creative transformations that still hold up more than thirty years later. The Thing is actually quite scary and one of John Carpenter’s best films. The parallels between what is happening to these men and the very real threat of Communism from the time the film was released are extraordinary. Some of the most effective scenes are those in which the men question every alliance they have and every relationship they thought they knew in the deliberately claustrophobic environment on the bottom of our planet. The men realize that, regardless of how things turn out for them, the most important mission is to ensure that the horror does not spread outside of their group or they will be realizing the virtual end of humanity.
9 — Funny Games — Michael Haneke (dir.) — 2007
There are an increasing number of movies, all released in the new millennium, that have had an incredibly profound effect on me fr days after seeing them for the first time… The Devil’s Rejects, Irreversible, Hostel, and The Human Centipede are all films that are, admittedly, frightening, but really made me feel bad after watching them. I felt as if I’d seen things that I hadn’t really wanted to see, and then I could never un-see them. At times, I thought of them as displaying, glorifying, and advocating violence for the sake of violence. At other times, I consider films such as these are important to the genre, direct reflections of the desensitized times in which we live. For most of these movies, I cannot find any really redeemable qualities; however, there is one twisted flick of a similar ilk as the others that stands out as being incredibly perverse, upsetting, and, above-all-else, unbelievably terrifying. Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, the 2007 version of the same film he’d originally written and directed ten years before in Germany is also one of the most ingenious movies I’ve ever seen, though it takes a particularly strong constitution to make it all the way through.
Naomi Watts and Tim Roth are Ann and George Farber, a well-to-do couple whose idyllic trip to their waterfront property with their son rapidly disintegrates into a veritable horror show at the hands of two good looking, preppy visitors with positively malevolent intentions. The thing that makes this cinematic experience so incredibly brilliant is the game that the filmmaker plays with his audience while Peter and Paul, two of the most deranged devils in movie history, play their own game with the captive family. Although the level of tension built with the skilled direction is, at times, worse than the many elements of gratuitous violence, the images are absolutely stomach-churning and the audience absolutely hates the perpetrators, but they sure know how to make us watch them. The trick is that we could stop watching and turn the movie off at any time, but Haneke knows that we won’t. He allows Peter and Paul to play their bizarre game and to make the audience complicit participants in the gruesome action.
10 — The Skeleton Key — Iain Softley (dir.) — 2005
Louisiana is a state of contradictions. Travelling south from the ultra-conservative Arkansas border, culture shock hits somewhere around Alexandria, where the people and life in general begins to change to a more liberal and laissez-faire mindset. The opposite ends of the state are virtual worlds apart, and the setting of The Skeleton Key is what most people probably think of when they think of Louisiana. Seemingly backward at first glance, the southern swamp areas are amazing examples of the sort of wonders that Louisiana possesses. For anyone who doesn’t believe that things like this actually exist, I suggest they book a journey down that way and see if there aren’t actually those who practice the old religion portrayed in this film. Once you’ve done so, pick up a copy of The Skeleton Key and see if it doesn’t totally freak you out.
Kate Hudson plays Caroline Ellis, a Hospice worker who takes a well paying job as caretaker to Ben Devereaux (John Hurt), a man whose month-old stroke has left him partially paralyzed and unable to communicate. As Caroline attempts to provide Ben with the best possible care, she butts heads with his overbearing, creepy wife, Violet, played by the phenomenal Gena Rowlands. Caroline’s yen to perform adequate patient care leads her to begin research into the strange customs and religious practices of the people in and around the eerie old plantation house and into the bewitching history of the property itself. Aided by the family lawyer, Luke Marshall (Peter Sarsgaard), Caroline slowly uncovers the truth about the Devereaux family and what strange mysteries the house holds. The Skeleton Key is one of my favorite movies of all time. The audience is on the same journey as Caroline and very little involved requires one to suspend his or her disbelief. It’s clever, original, and a truly scary story that will haunt viewers if they choose to believe.
11 — The Omen — Richard Donner (dir.) — 1976
Every film in this list has the common denominators of some combination of fear and dread, but any film that uses mankind’s oldest fear as the basis of its story line is almost guaranteed some degree of accolades and recognition. There have been many movies made that deal with the presence of absolute evil appearing on Earth, but my selection for number eleven is definitely one of the best.
The Omen is a Richard Donner film starring screen legends Gregory Peck and Lee Remick as an expectant political father and his wife whose baby dies just after its birth. In an effort to spare his wife the certain heartbreak of knowing the truth, Robert Thorn (Peck) makes a deal to adopt another child whom he has been told was born at the same time as his own to a woman who died in the process. Thorn commits to raising the boy as his own, never telling his wife the truth, and subsequently begins rising politically to the position of American Ambassador to Great Britain. For a time, it seems that the Thorns are living a dream, but a series of bizarre events changes the course of their lives and simultaneously has the potential to permanently change the course of life for the entire human race.
The Omen is a cinematic classic and is one of the most frightening films ever made. For anyone with any knowledge of Biblical prophecy and suppositions from the Book of Revelations, it may be even more terrifying. The legendary chilly score and the constant twists and turns make this one for a very intense night of horror film viewing.
12 — Terror Train — Roger Spottiswoode (dir.) — 1980
Beginning in 1978 and carrying over into the early part of the following decade, Jamie Lee Curtis (daughter of Hollywood royal couple Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh) was the reigning scream queen of the fright film circuit. Knowing that a scary movie was coming out and seeing her name listed as one of its stars was almost a guarantee that viewers were in for something special, albeit formulaic. Of the string of flicks that she appeared in, there were only two that really resonate as actually scary. Terror Train (though not the best) is definitely one of them.
A fraternity prank on a mentally unstable pledge member has long-lasting repercussions on a group of college students as they embark on a New Year’s Eve event aboard a chartered train through the desolate and frozen night. Everyone is in costumes and ready to have one final foray into debauchery as they prepare for their approaching graduations and separate lives, but the brothers and sisters of the kindred Greek societies are killed off one-at-a-time. Every time a victim is offed, the killer dons his or her costume, always wearing a mask and making for a constant guessing game of the murderer’s true identity.
Terror Train isn’t especially well written (but the story is a little more creative than some of its siblings), and it follows the system set up by its obvious predecessors. There’s a ton of gratuitous sexuality, drinking, and drug use (all the bits one would expect from a frat party anyway, right?). There’s a somewhat melodramatic back story, the obvious bad girl and the obvious good girl (also known as the “last girl,” i.e., Jamie Lee Curtis in every horror movie of the time)… in other words, the staples. The deaths are usually very sudden and shocking. Although the acting, over all, could be much better, the final half hour of the train ride is truly intense and utterly frightening. This is one that I remember showing on late night network affiliates while I was growing up, and I never missed a single airing. The final chase scene is actually very scary and proved a little too intense for my nieces and nephews who wanted me to turn it off. I’m probably not the best uncle in the world, but they wanted to watch a good scary movie and asked me to pick it out.
13 — Carrie — Brian De Palma (dir.) — 1976
As I’m compiling the post for my pick of the thirteenth greatest horror film of all time, I’m getting ready to shower before meeting up with my trusty movie buddy, Hunter, to see the Kimberly Peirce remake. Although I’ve been excited about its release for quite some time (I’m often opposed to the remake of any film as great as this one, but the director and the new actress set to play Margaret White, Julianne Moore, piqued my curiosity), I feel a bit apprehensive for two reasons. First, going to see any horror flick on its opening night with a Shreveport audience could possibly deter enjoyment. Second, a fellow film buff, Erik Champney, did not put the most positive spin on his review. Typically, Erik and I have similar tastes, but I’m planning to view with an open mind.
The original 1976 version is one of the greatest films (not only of the horror genre, but of cinema itself) ever made. Brian De Palma managed to take its source material, Stephen King’s first published novel (an epistolary work, of sorts) and do it tremendous justice. Sissy Spacek is incredible in the title role, and Piper Laurie is marvelously over-the-top as Carrie’s hyper-religious, fanatical mother. The remaining cast, a string of unknowns who would all become major Hollywood players, is incredibly believable in every scene.
The film begins with every adolescent girl’s worst nightmare when outcast Carrie gets her first period in the locker room shower, believes she is bleeding to death, and becomes the victim of merciless taunting. Her mother later forces her to pray and espouses the idea that Carrie has brought sin upon herself. No one understands, or even really likes, Carrie White, but she will exact the ultimate revenge when a classmate’s good deed goes horribly wrong and Carrie’s special, secret power turns the senior prom into a horrific blood bath.
The effects are amazing, the acting proved Oscar worthy, and the direction is successful in its clever experimentation (pay attention: from the moment that Norma picks up the ballots from the table until the king and queen of the prom are announced, the camera never stops moving — it’s a trick that is both seamless and impeccable). Among the list of horror films that everyone should see at least once, Carrie is also one of the most important.
14 — Lake Mungo — Joel Anderson (dir.) — 2008
An incredibly twisted series of events is relayed in faux documentary style in this wholly original and wonderfully smart horror film from Australia. After a teenaged girl tragically drowns while on a family outing, the family begins their grieving process in full view of a film crew as the story of a possible haunting plays out in real time. When the truth surrounding the developing ghost story is revealed, the real mystery that was the dead girl’s life begins to unfold in what proves to be a surprisingly inventive and surreal way. The filmmakers display an extraordinary sense of patience and precision as their characters are allowed to develop in an organic fashion not normally seen in the creations of the new millennium. Such tactics invoke simultaneous degrees of overwhelming melancholy and ever-increasing tension.
Lake Mungo was a selection of the After Dark Horrorfest series of films a few years ago, and I saw it based on the recommendation of a good friend; however, it has never gained the widespread acclaim or recognition it so deeply deserves. If Twin Peaks were set in present day Australia and focused solely on Laura Palmer and the real life she was living prior to her murder, this would be the result. As the mother gradually comes to understand the circumstances surrounding her daughter’s secret, double life and discovers the terrifying truth of what her little girl learned in the days just before her death, viewers are treated to some of the most frighteningly unsettling possibilities ever explored in modern cinema. The climactic imagery is shocking, and the images are certain to leave the audience breathless. The truth is far more disturbing than the hoax portrayed as the story begins. Truly unnerving. Find the time to dedicate to this wonderful little gem. You will not be disappointed.
15 — Hellraiser — Clive Barker (dir.) — 1987
Clive Barker has written some of the greatest horror fiction in history. His first three short story collections, The Books of Blood, are the sort of tales that put everyone else who is in the business of trying to scare people to absolute shame. To write that the man is creative is putting it mildly. His work is incredibly inventive, filled with details and images that really get readers to think long and hard about how far they’re willing to suspend disbelief, and there isn’t a moment of any of his written work that I haven’t pondered for quite some time after. The stories are utterly profound, something that one does not typically find in the realm of such fiction. Unfortunately, most of his work fails to translate well to film; however, his now famous novella, The Hellbound Heart is a noteworthy exception. After all, it served as the basis for what would also become his feature film directorial debut: the 1987 classic Hellraiser.
This is the story of Frank, an unsatisfied adventurer who never seems to settle down. Instead, he searches the Earth for greater and more intense pleasures in any form, and his quest finally gives him the exact thing for which he has always been looking: a puzzle box that offers its solver the ultimate experience of pain and pleasure combined. The only problem lies in what happens to anyone who ever solves the box and discovers what it has to offer, which Frank does. And so begins one of the greatest films in the history of the horror genre. Hellraiser is one of those rarities that manages to combine the two polar opposite ideologies of sensuality and death with a clever sense of imagination. There were a string of sequels that followed, the second film being just as good as the first as it takes everything that the first movie teaches and sets it into an insane asylum, something of a haunted house of horrors. Definitely not something for every audience out there, but for those select few who get this sort of flick, pick up a copy and enjoy.
16 — High Tension — Alexandre Aja (dir.) — 2003
The only advanced knowledge that I had of Alexandre Aja’s film was the trailer that I’d seen about a year before noticing the DVD on a shelf at Best Buy and dropping the thirty-odd bucks on a copy. It was one of the few times in which I was entirely pleased on such an impulse purchase. In fact, I was so taken with this particularly brutal selection that I quickly passed it around my circle of fellow horror-loving friends, and I waited nearly a year before I finally got it back. In order to comprehend why this is not only an important film, and relevant to the genre as a whole, one should have some prior appreciation for terror movies; it would also help if viewers were raised on the endless thrill-ride of chase-and-slash variations that seemed to release weekly in the eighties. High Tension is probably the most violent of all the films I’ve picked. It is definitely one of the bloodiest and completely unrelenting in its choices that display directorial precision and the kind of suspense that would make men like Alfred Hitchcock and John Carpenter proud; however, unlike his predecessors, director Alexandre Aja has no qualms about showing you not only the anticipation of the boom, but every blood-dripping detail of the boom itself.
A French flick that has a plot remarkably similar to the Dean Koontz novel Intensity, the story is of Marie and Alexia, two university students staying at Alexia’s family home to study for exams. Obviously very close girlfriends, their trip begins with all the fun and frivolity one might expect from college students banging it all the way out before buckling down to cram. They arrive at the farmhouse, have the opportunity to relax, and all is serene; however, there is a depraved and sadistic psychopath on their heels, and he arrives at Alexia’s home in the middle of the night. What follows is an incredibly gory bloodbath and an ensuing, relentlessly intense chase that lasts the remainder of the movie. The terror never lets up, and the dramatic climax is a truly unexpected resolution that most viewers will never see coming. High Tension is the perfect date night movie, in the tradition of Prom Night, My Bloody Valentine, and any horror movie franchises that raised you to love these types of films.
17 — Deep Red [a.k.a. The Hatchet Murders, a.k.a. Profundo Rosso] — Dario Argento (dir.) — 1975
Long before Japan and Korea started creatively kicking American butt in the realm of horror cinema, Italy had an entire world of influential flicks that tons of directors from the United States ripped off with the regularity that they currently re-make films that were much better the first time around. The term Giallo describes a special genre of film made popular by Italian directors in the 1960′s and 1970′s. Giallo, Italian for “yellow,” got its name from the lurid pulp crime novels, typified by their yellow jackets, which inspired filmmakers to use them as literary templates for full-length features. These were the well-bred, European cousins to the string of American slasher flicks released en masse in the 1980′s. A slough of directors, including Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci, created some of their best work in the sub-genre, but it is horror maestro Dario Argento who is credited as the master of the Giallo, and his film Deep Red as being the greatest example of the art form ever made.
An American pianist working in Italy witnesses the brutal murder of a psychic who has just discovered the identity of a killer in the audience of a conference. Although he has no idea, Marcus Daly (the pianist, played by David Hemming), witnessed not only the murder, but also has seen the killer (so has the audience, but no one will have any idea that they have until the very end). The remainder of the film is his personal investigation into the series of murders that happen as the result of the first, his research of a supposedly haunted house, his budding relationship with a quirky reporter, and intermittent images of the killer’s lair. The various characteristics that combine to make these murder-mystery horror flicks work are all present (an unknown, black-gloved killer, the American character caught in the intricate web of murder, borderline outlandish modes of death, a well-written melodramatic subplot, and an important clue forgotten until the very end of the story), and Argento proves himself here as one of the most influential people in the business. Watching an Argento film is like taking a long, hot and bloody bubble bath. Pure escapist cinematic genius. The music is eerie, the plot is engrossing, and the suspense builds with incredible precision. It’s not the typical go-to film for an all-time greatest list, but that’s only because American critics don’t give Argento (or Bava, or Fulci) the real credit they deserve. Deep Red is clever, violent, layered with red herrings and colorful characters, disquieting, thoughtful, and interspersed with just the right amount of humor to keep an audience entertained. Get a copy. Watch it. Enjoy. You can thank me later.
18 — Hard Candy — David Slade (dir.) — 2005
Two years before Ellen Page won the hearts of audiences with her turn as the eponymous character in Juno, she proved her range as an actress of great caliber in David Slade’s incredibly emotional Hard Candy, a film that starts making the viewer uncomfortable from the very first scene. An internet chat between a teenaged girl and a man who has no business talking to her leads to their meeting in a coffee shop. From the moment they first see one another in person, viewers will likely immediately begin shaking their heads, believing that they know where the action is headed, certain that she is in trouble. The dialogue and physical contact between the two is enough to inspire nausea and to make one really believe that the usual good guy that Patrick Wilson so often plays is not at all present in this film. She agrees to go back to his house and the level of unease instilled in anyone watching begins to escalate. I was sure that Ellen Page’s character, Hayley, was doomed, but the masterful direction of David Slade combined with the phenomenal performances by Page and Wilson kept me transfixed, watching something that I would normally have already turned off. Just when I thought things could not possibly upset me any further, the story took such an incredibly dramatic turn that everything I thought about the two went totally out the window.
What happens in the home of Patrick Wilson’s sleazy character, Jeff, is one hour of the most intense and disturbing cinema experience I’ve ever had. The movie is an exercise in patience, expectation, and a series of changing allegiances that are guaranteed to leave anyone seeing it talking about it for quite some time after. This is one that has the ability to make one angry, sad, stressed, curious, and absolutely terrified simultaneously. It literally has the power to make viewers hold their breath for extended periods of time as some of the more viscerally shocking moments are drawn out with excruciatingly clever pace. Not your typical fare when thinking of the horror genre, but it definitely qualifies. I was shaking well before the conclusion and positively brutalized by the climax.
19 — Psycho — Alfred Hitchcock (dir.) — 1960
Though not necessarily Hitchcock’s best film, it is the one that is most notable, and definitely the one that is most important to the horror genre. Every slasher film that followed owes its very existence to the gamble that the “Master of Suspense” took in making this picture; thanks to the director’s sheer genius, clever marketing scheme, and genuine artistry, the gamble paid off. Without Psycho, there would be no Michael Myers, no Jason Voorhees, and definitely no Freddy Krueger. Many of the twists that take viewers through this masterpiece of cinema have become veritable cliches, and pretty much everyone remembers the movie for the most infamous shower of all time, but if one is as unfamiliar with the story as the audiences who saw it upon its release, he or she is definitely in for a series of thrilling shocks.
The film opens as Marion Crane (played by Janet Leigh) is just ending a lunchtime tryst with her lover, Sam (played by a very sexy John Gavin). Upon returning to work for the afternoon, a customer leaves a very large sum of cash and her boss tells her to deposit it immediately as he is uncomfortable with such an amount being left at the office over the approaching weekend. Seeing an opportunity suddenly at her fingertips — a chance for her to rescue her lover from financial distress and start a new life together — Marion pockets the money, slips town, buys a car, and spends a lengthy bit of the first third of the movie acting suspiciously and contemplating the pros and cons of her actions as she drives toward no particular destination. When a torrential downpour forces her to seek shelter for the night, she checks into a secluded motel run by the benevolent Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins in the role that would haunt him from then on) and his overbearing, invalid mother. While joining him for dinner, the two discuss their lives, and Marion comes to the realization that she has made a terrible mistake. Returning to her room, deciding on the best course of action to repay the money, and clearly exhibiting catharsis from her resolution to repair the problem she has created, Marion heads to the bathroom to have a shower. The subsequent events of the movie were absolutely terrifying to the men and women in the theaters who — accustomed to Hitchcock’s tales of mistaken identity, mystery, suspense, and foreign intrigue — believed they were watching the story of Marion Crane stealing money and going on the lam. What they got changed the face of horror cinema forever.
If you haven’t seen it, you should. If you have, this is the perfect time of year to check back into the Bates Motel, relax, have a sandwich, have a decent conversation with an attractive young man, and then go wash away the filth of your crimes. There are fresh towels and soap, and the shower is very inviting…
20 — The Other — Robert Mulligan (dir.) — 1972
Some of life’s greatest surprises emerge from the most unlikely places. My affinity for this particular film was born at the annual Centenary Book Bazaar, where my fingers danced across the spine of the novel on which the first of my top twenty selections was based. When I pulled the tome from the well-priced stacks of other horror reads, I recognized the title as belonging to another Cinemax pick that I had never had the opportunity to see in the days of my misspent youth. Opening the cover to read enough of the blurb on the jacket to know it was the same story, I immediately stuffed it into my bulging bag and then waited until the subsequent Christmas break to read it. A very rare example of the visual interpretation of a novel actually doing justice to its source material (although the Thomas Harris novel, The Silence of the Lambs, is one that I believe surpasses its creator in the deft hands of Jonathan Demme), The Other is a marvelous descent into the painful events that befall a simple Pennsylvania farming family in the mid-thirties. It is the story of a series of cataclysmic developments that haunt them, and the secret life shared between twin brothers, Niles and Holland. Long before James Wan’s Insidious made astral projection cool, Robert Mulligan made it both believable and terrifyingly enchanting. Veteran stage grande dame Uta Hagen turns in a tour-de-force performance as the grandmother who has taught them their gift, and real life twin brothers Chris and Martin Udvarnoky are equal parts sweet and sinister as the boys. Whether you choose to read the Thomas Tryon novel or see the movie first, you are guaranteed an absolutely remarkable trip into the genuinely horrific secrets of The Other.
21 — Carnival of Souls — Herk Harvey (dir.) — 1962
The first time I saw this selection was on Cinemax in the very early nineties. It was shown as part of a bundle of monthly movies that the network aired to showcase the best in horror, and it is one of the reasons I remember feeling grateful that we were a cable family growing up. Along with some of the other titles in this list, Carnival of Souls is a film that makes me wish more critics and movie buffs would honor the terror genre as a whole because it offers a very layered cinematic experience that has never gotten the recognition it deserves. This particular piece works as an entirely perfect and completely haunting composition. The cinematography, plot, understated acting, and one-of-a-kind soundtrack all combine to create something that is at times both bewildering and thoroughly mesmerizing to watch.
The film opens with a deadly car accident following an ill-conceived drag race over a rickety bridge. The sole survivor of the watery crash, Mary (Candace Hilligoss), crawls to the bank of the river and subsequently spends the duration of the film working to put her life back together. A gifted pianist, she takes a position as an organ player with a church congregation in another city. On the long drive to her new location and new, Mary passes an abandoned carnival, which at once captures her attention and interest. It literally begins to draw her frail psyche into its eerie metaphorical meaning as something that will take her the length of the film to decipher. The scares come suddenly throughout, and the spectral images that begin to haunt her daily life are truly frightening. At points, the viewer becomes uncertain as to whether we are on the same ride toward insanity as Mary, or if she is actually being haunted by the ghouls that have followed her from the carnival. Obsession slowly brews into a dark cauldron and intensity builds at an unrelenting rate. Like the acting, the entire film is an understated and poetic ghost story with an unexpected, twist ending that rivals those we’ve come to expect from our modern day scary movies. The filmmakers of today could really study this classic gem for a lesson in what really works to make a terror film simultaneously interesting and spooky. This is one that I hope people will check out and find themselves mulling over long after the story ends.
22 — Paranormal Activity — Oren Peli (dir.) — 2007
Another one I didn’t see until well after its release on Netflix; I was absolutely terrified after catching the first film in the series, one of the most successful horror franchises of all time. One reason that I waited to finally watch this flick is because of all the hype that surrounded its release. The ad campaign, which featured night vision video of audience reaction, only inspired me to want to step away. I typically never find myself fond of anything that the majority makes popular, but Oren Peli’s film, created on a shoestring budget, is one sleeper hit I’m pleased I finally acquiesced to watching.
Whether a believer in the supernatural, or a total demonology agnostic, Paranormal Activity requires total suspension of disbelief (do I really think that Katie and Micah made sense as a couple — nope, I couldn’t figure out what he saw in her; did I find his constant desire to pick up the camera a little too convenient — absolutely!), but if one can watch the story with the mindset of this being actual found footage, it works. In fact, it really leaves the watcher constantly looking over his or her shoulder. Part of what intensifies the experience of the film is believing that the real evolution of a couple is taking place before your eyes. If you can do that — and forget all the popular hype — you’re in for a thrill ride once the scares start creeping into the celluloid. The subsequent films are working to create a sort of mythology surrounding whatever it is that haunts the characters, but the first one sets a standard that’s hard to beat.
23 — The Strangers — Bryan Bertino (dir.) — 2008
At a very young age, I remember that Geraldo Rivera hosted a prime time special about the most notorious crimes in the annals of our nation’s history. The apex of the program was to be an interview with Charles Manson, the reputed mastermind behind the gruesome murders of several people in Los Angeles throughout the summer of 1969. The story of the crimes and the display of news footage and photos from the days surrounding the events would both terrify and perversely fascinate me well into my adult years. I was able to finally exorcise this demon that frightened me every time the media ever gave any information on the men and women involved by finally reading the true crime novel, Helter Skelter, published by the man who prosecuted the killers. Bryan Bertino, the director of The Strangers, may have done the same thing in making this film, which he has said is inspired by the murders of the Manson family and an unsettling event from his own childhood in which a man came to his door one evening to ask for someone who was not there; he later discovered that several houses in his neighborhood had been broken into that night. Whether Bertino’s intentions were to exorcise some particular ghost of his youth or to just give viewers one of the most horrifying experiences in movie history, he definitely succeeded. The Strangers is one I waited to see at home, and I remember literally standing up for the entire length of the film. Had I been in a theater, I’m certain I would have been on the proverbial edge of my seat. Some may disagree, but I believe that this is truly one of the scariest movies ever made. In fact, I dare you to not leave a trail of lights on behind you the night you get your hands on a copy. Perhaps the most difficult idea that the film gives its audience is that this kind of thing actually happens all the time.
24 — The Brood — David Cronenberg (dir.) — 1979
Before the body enhancement craze that began in the eighties, society was temporarily inspired to improve itself through a variety of psychological and emotional techniques. The peace, love, and happiness espousing loyalists of the late sixties’ flower child movement eventually rejoined the establishment, started families, and began working toward the American dreams of their post-World War II fertile parents; however, something of their old notions remained, and the self-improvement industry boomed at a staggering rate. Recognizing this trend and exploiting its underlying mystique, Canadian director, David Cronenberg released one of his earliest masterpieces of visceral horror, 1979′s The Brood.
Oliver Reed plays psychiatrist Dr. Hal Raglan, who runs a private clinic that operates with an innovative technique called “psychoplasmics,” a form of therapy that he believes will launch him to the forefront of the modern medical world. The program encourages patients to gain such a deep and thorough ability to understand and experience their strongest and most oppressive emotions – most specifically, unresolved anger – that they are able to literally force these feelings to manifest themselves in actual physical form. The doctor’s most impressive patient is Nola Carveth (played by Samantha Eggar), a woman in the midst of a bitter custody battle. Although all of the men and women involved with the clinic exhibit bizarre medical signs and symptoms while undergoing therapy, it is Nola, the cornerstone of psychoplasmic research, who has the most unsettling means of physically channeling her anger. The Brood is violent, transgressive, provocative, and extremely bloody, but it is also smart, creative, and very scary. I can assure anyone who has not yet had the chance to catch it (or any Cronenberg work, for that matter) that they will never forget the nearly repugnant climactic scene that reveals just how far Nola’s repressed anger has gone. There are some films that stay with the viewer long after the credits roll, and there are those filmmakers who could very well be considered dangerous. This film and its director are both of those things. A perfect selection for a night by the fire — just try to avoid watching it on a full stomach.
25 — The Haunting —Robert Wise (dir.) —1963
“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone (the opening of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House).”
The Haunting, the incredible film version of Shirley Jackson’s famed novella, is cinema’s definitive ghost story. Julie Harris plays Nell (Eleanor), one of a quartet of two men and two women, invited to an old house with a terribly tragic past to investigate the nature of its fabled haunting. Nell is a talented psychic, but just as tormented as the very house she is visiting. Even before the scares begin, she is repeatedly overcome by a self-deprecating inner monologue that exploits her overwhelming feelings of loneliness, disillusionment with her current life circumstances, and the notion that the best opportunities in her life have already slipped from her reach. Whomever, or whatever, possesses Hill House knows this, and the disturbing events that occur in the film — other-worldly noises and unnatural psychological manipulations — seem to be centered around making certain that Nell will remain there with it. Expertly directed by Robert Wise, who really pulls out all the stops in creating genuine tension with his audience, The Haunting is a classic that continues to hold its place as one of the most effective haunted house stories of all time. The notion that Hill House is simply a place that was “born bad” stays with you for the entirety of the movie, and the performances of the four actors are some of the best in the horror genre’s history. With no gore, only very mild violence, and a minimum of special effects, The Haunting works by the power of suggestion rather than by pandering to anyone watching. If you have difficulty locating a copy, I’m sure that Turner Classic Movies will be airing this selection at least once this month (just avoid the 1999 remake – it’s crap).
26 – The Shining – Stanley Kubrick (dir.) – 1980
A preface: I love Stephen King, the writer. Note to the preface: this is NOT a Stephen King film. Although it is billed as being based on one of the greatest horror novels of all time, the work is actually inspired by the book. The Stephen King fan in me is hesitant to include The Shining in this list by sheer orneriness; however, there is no disputing that Stanley Kubrick’s intense psychological study of the effects of isolation on a troubled family in a truly haunted setting is unquestionably one of the most terrifying films in existence. I would suggest reading the novel before seeing the movie, but then making an effort to consciously remove any preconceived notions about what is to translate before turning on the Kubrick work. Many scary movies require viewers to suspend disbelief in order to allow for usually implausible events – especially if the film incorporates supernatural elements into its plot – and all otherworldly occurrences as believable components to the plot. This is not one of them. The Shining tells the story of a writer, a recovering alcoholic, who lands a job as caretaker of a grand resort hotel in Colorado while it shuts down for the coming harsh winter. He views this as an opportunity to work on a novel he has been outlining and takes along his wife and their son, Danny, who is gifted with the talent to which the title of the movie alludes. At first tranquil and ideal, the setting quickly turns on these three people as the secrets of the hotel reveal themselves in a slow brew of rapidly intensifying and claustrophobic suspense. The architecture and layout of the Overlook Hotel are just as much characters as the Torrance family and the ghosts that begin to haunt their daily lives. There are more terrifying and memorable images in this one than any other selection, and they are sure to inspire chills in anyone viewing: the river of blood cascading from the elevator doors, the rotting old lady from the bathroom in room 237, the giant maze on the hotel grounds, the two little twin girls in matching dresses, the repeated refrain of “redrum” by Danny in the second half of the film, the kitschy patterned carpet throughout the hotel hallways, and Jack Nicholson’s crazed performance as a man descending into absolute madness. I’ve already given too much away. The Shining is, in many ways, the perfect horror movie. If you’re still not convinced, check out the trailer below.
27 — Black Christmas — Bob Clark (dir.)—1974
Clearly, I find that the 1970’s were a particularly interesting time for the horror genre. Maybe it was more interesting era. Maybe filmmakers were simply trying new and innovative techniques. Maybe the filmography is just a reflection of the times. Regardless of the reason, I cannot write anything to substantiate any argument to the contrary: scary movies released from some point around 1967 to 1984 are of particular note. In fact, I consider this roughly twenty year period to be the golden age of terror in the cinema. Directors like Dario Argento, Mario Bava, Wes Craven, and John Carpenter were really honing their chops and making waves with some of the greatest releases ever to hit any spot in the international terrain; however, one man in particular did something that no one had done well since Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho – he gave us the template for the modern slasher film: Black Christmas. Several years before the John Carpenter masterpiece, Halloween, and set in an antithetical holiday landscape, Bob Clark’s creation is arguably one of the most effective and terrifying films of all time. Set at the one time of year when most of us are not thinking about thrills, chills, and scream-fests, Black Christmas is the story of a series of murders that take place in and around a preppy college campus – particularly, in a sparsely populated sorority house – as the Christmas break is just beginning. It’s the original the-calls-are-coming-from-inside-the-house story, but we know that from the opening scene when our unseen killer (filmed entirely from his point-of-view) climbs the sorority house’s latticework to the second floor before securing a lair in the attic, hiding out in between his gruesome deeds and making increasingly unsettling and entirely deranged phone calls to the frightened girls below. The script is not especially complex, but in the masterful hands of its director, what audiences get is brilliant and seamless. I’ve read that Bette Davis was the original choice to play the alcoholic house mother, and of particular note is Margot Kidder as a drunken sorority sister with an unbelievably colorful vocabulary. Other strong performances come from Olivia Hussey (Juliet from the Zeffirelli version of Romeo and Juliet that everybody watched in high school) as Jess, Keir Dullea (Dave Bowman, 2001: A Space Odyssey) as her troubled boyfriend, Andrea Martin (SCTV), and John Saxon playing the role he plays so well: intense police lieutenant. This is definitely not one for a fun family horror night as the language is incredibly strong, especially during one of the more provocative phone calls, but it would be a better option for a late night selection anyway. Get yourself a copy as soon as possible and enjoy.
28 — Let’s Scare Jessica to Death — John D. Hancock (dir.) — 1971
A moody piece set somewhere in the New England countryside, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death has been a personal favorite since I was a teenager. I originally saw it on The Shreveport Channel late one Saturday night when the network aired horror classics such as this one long after the sun had gone down. I’m sure there are plenty of people who have been at least exposed to the title, but how many of you have actually seen it? The plot is fairly simple: Jessica, her husband, and a close friend of the couple buy an old estate, complete with the full furnishings of the previous owners and an apple orchard in desperate need of attention. Their aim: to live off the fat of the land while Jessica recuperates from a nervous breakdown. Having just been released from a psychiatric hospital, Jessica already has a tenuous grip on reality, and the events that take place throughout the course of the film only make her grasp on sanity increasingly loose. From the opening scene (a sort of epilogue that follows the action to come) and through the group’s journey (in a hearse, no less) into the town that is to be their new home, director John D. Hancock does an impeccable job of setting up what is to become an incredibly intense supernatural-psychological thriller. Upon their arrival at the tall, old house (complete with foggy, panoramic views of the haunting landscape), the New York City transplants discover that they are not alone. The house is filled with secrets, and Jessica begins to question which aspects of this journey into a new way of life are real, and which are all in her mind. The content is most likely over most children’s’ heads, but there is little blood, sexuality, or violence to necessarily keep them away. If you’re looking for a surefire, spooky flick to accompany the cooler nights ahead, try to get your hands on a copy, and be ready to have your resolve tested. Absolutely everything for which a horror film lover could hope is present: eerie music, an overwhelming sense of paranoia, truly chilling scenes, and a terrific blend of overall creepiness and unease that will stick with you long after the film is over and it’s time to walk down the long hallway to your bedroom. I promise it will not disappoint.
29 — Alice, Sweet Alice [a.k.a. Communion, a.k.a. Holy Terror] — Alfred Sole (dir.) —1976
One night, while I was pretty much up to no good, a good friend and I were comparing notes on some of the better, lesser known flicks that really rocked our senses the first go-round. In agreement that the 1970’s produced some of the best films in the history of American cinema, we considered those that induced an overwhelming sense of paranoia and uncertainty, those great movies that almost threw one’s equilibrium out of balance and left us reeling in thought, wondering what the hell we’d just watched. My fellow film buff, Dennie Conrad, mentioned this title, certain that she had finally outdone me by seeing something that I’d never even heard of, but that wasn’t the case. Alice, Sweet Alice is a release that I distinctly remember seeing overflowing bargain racks and bins at Wal-Mart while growing up. I remember the cover blatantly advertising its one hit star, a very young Brooke Shields, and brandishing an oddly cloaked mask alongside a butcher knife. I never bought a copy during any of those trips, but I did eventually have the opportunity to rent a copy (probably from a Video One in town), and I was really amazed at this little treasure that I’m surprised doesn’t have more viewership – at least more of a cult following. The film has a definite dreamlike quality, and it is filled with images that vary from profoundly disturbing to downright sick. Although it isn’t on the level of Rob Zombie or Eli Roth (two directors who have me leaving a viewing of their films filled with an almost depressed and hopeless mindset), the director manages a magnificent job of creating a world in which anyone watching can really escape. The story is one of a devout Catholic family, the youngest daughter (Brooke Shields – NOT Alice, as most of the ads would have people believe) poised for her first communion, and the startling series of events that begin to transpire in and around their home. I really detest spoilers, but I will go so far as to say that the titular character is a very twisted child; however, the movie is filled with a stream of other not-necessarily-redeemable characters (ever wonder what the morbidly obese guy from the David Fincher flick, Seven, was like before he ate that bowl of spaghetti – here’s where you find out) falling victim to every one of the seven deadly sins. There are twists, turns, and revelations that really leave your head spinning, and a rather unexpected ending that stays with the audience. True to 1970’s film form, a bit of ambiguity and uncertainty is right where the director leaves you once the credits begin to roll. The trailer for this one is a bit long, and I fear that it gives a tad too much away, but it’s the best one I could find to accompany this review/suggestion.
30 —The House of the Devil—Ti West (dir.) —2009
Ti West is an absolute genius, and this is the film that proves it. The House of the Devil is a movie that I’d read about prior to its actual release, and I was eager to watch it the moment it became available. It’s layered, textured, very well filmed, and actually one of the truly creepy flicks that I’ve selected to discuss this month. For anyone raised on the horror movies that proliferated the video market in the 1980’s, you will probably find a greater appreciation for this foray into the macabre than others. It’s definitely a slow burn, and requires viewers to invest a tremendous amount of patience to see the whole thing through to the very end. The film is built around the notion that was all over the media at the time of its setting: the existence of actual Satanic cults that practiced black rites in reverence to the dark side. I clearly remember Geraldo Rivera covering the topic in his afternoon talk shows and the occasional prime time special, and there was one Halloween night during which I recall donning my elaborate costume in preparation for a night out trick-or-treating when KTBS announced that there were reports that a Satanic cult was planning to kidnap a blond-haired, blue-eyed child that night for ritualistic purposes (physically, I fit the bill, and my parents nearly stopped me from going out to get my candy). Present day sociological evidence proves that these were mostly urban legends, and cults really were not in the abundance that those days purported; however, this movie will definitely take you back to the time when the idea was a lot more believable, when pizzas were promised to arrive in half an hour or less and horror was a lot less in-your-face than the way it is often portrayed in movies today. Just see if you don’t find yourself feeling as if you’re not only watching a movie set in the very early eighties, but also watching one that was filmed in the very early eighties. The clever picks for the soundtrack are unexpected surprises, and the suspense builds to a final fifteen minute climax that is well worth the investment. Get a copy of this one, invite your favorite make-out buddy (I’ve got one picked out), turn off every light in the house, and get ready for a really great and satisfying horror gem. Still undecided? Check out the trailer below.
31 — Suspiria — Dario Argento (dir.)— 1977
I was originally introduced to the horror master Dario Argento with this classic tale of Technicolor black magic set at a prominent ballet academy when I was far too young to appreciate what an absolute masterpiece it really is. Later viewings – and there have been several – reveal countless details that are impossible to catch the first time around. Many consider this film to be Argento’s magnum opus, a grand guignol of visually staggering and heart-jolting imagery that would probably never make it through to a mass marketed R-rating if released today. A variety of details that have given Argento his cult following are present: incredibly graphic and overly elaborate murders splashed with tauntingly unrealistic color, a mysterious killer, a fish-out-of-water foreign character who is also a total victim of circumstance, and that same character remembering a very important clue from earlier in the film (the best example of this was actually Argento’s Deep Red, but we’ll get to that one later). The acting isn’t great, the storyline is a little nonsensical, and the actors’ voices are not very well dubbed; however, Suspiria is a flick that one has to see to understand and appreciate. One of the last films produced in 3-strip Technicolor (shot on normal Eastman Color Kodak stock), Argento modeled it off of Disney’s 1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (watch closely, you can see it). A movie that some consider the closest that anyone has come to actually capturing a nightmare on film, Suspiria – and its score from rock group Goblin – is an experience not to be missed. Check out the international trailer below: