May Means We’re On the Downhill Side of the Hill to Halloween
And as April came to a close, my social media feeds were filled with news of all the events taking place around the country and the world to commemorate the moment that shows that the greatest holiday of the year is now less than six months away. Combine that with the fact that I’m back on another horror film and novel jag that has me reading, writing, and watching everything from my all-time favorite genre, and all the ingredients are at hand for another list at Henry Harbor. So, for the thirty-one days in May, let’s take a look at thirty-one movies that I left off the October list. As before, these are not necessarily in order of most frightening, but every selection will always have a special place in my heart as they are each exceptional for any number of reasons. Just because May days are longer doesn’t mean a good movie night can’t be better. Stay tuned as the list updates daily.
1 – The Descent – Neil Marshall (dir.) – 2005
I don’t recall this having any sort of huge pre-release ad campaign, nor do I remember the movie even being released in theaters, but then again the early half of the 2000′s was a little hazy for me and I was not often in any condition to show myself in public. Let alone in a movie theater. What I do remember is seeing this DVD in massive quantities on the shelves at Hollywood Video, and I bought a copy along with copies of Hard Candy and a list of other horror flicks. I took it to my mom’s (who has just as great an affinity for the cinema of the grotesque as her son), popped it in her DVD player, turned out the lights, and we watched it together. What ensued was the best cinematic surprise of my adult life.
There’s a back story to this one, and it’s sort of important to what takes place with this group of cave diving chicks, but the film would still be just as terrifying, claustrophobic, and worth the price of watching if that back story didn’t exist.
The Descent revolves around the story of a group of females who take an excursion to the Appalachian mountains for a cave dwelling expedition. They’re all pretty well versed in this spelunking stuff (though God knows why anyone would be) as a form of leisure activity, but none of them are prepared for what happens once they’ve voyaged down into the bowels of the Earth. One thing is certain, after seeing this one, I have absolutely no desire, nor do I have any intention, to ever take a trip down below the surface of the ground floor to a place where humans were obviously never meant to roam.
I am a guy who is absolutely irrationally fearful of heights. Even slight trips a few feet off the ground send me into a bit of a panic, and I can’t even watch news footage or see pictures posted of people standing on the sides of mountains. I get panicked and tense and literally feel a cold sweat in the palms of my hands and layering the soles of my feet. The sensation that overtakes me during those moments is very similar to the feeling that I had while watching this movie. Not only do the women find themselves trapped in a dense, dark, and tight environment, they also begin to allow their anger and resentment toward one another begin to come to the forefront, complicating their chances of working their way out.
What’s more, they soon discover that they are not alone down below. And that’s where the fun really starts.
The Descent is the very best horror movie I have seen since I turned eighteen. It is well-filmed, well-acted, believable, and very, very scary.
2 — El Orfanato (The Orphanage) — J.A. Bayona (dir.) — 2007
Nearing the end of my list reminds me that there are still an endless number of titles that will have to wait for the real month of Halloween to be presented to Henry Harbor readers. In fact, in the list that I’d made at the end of April, I included two somewhat similar films side-by-side for the number two spot. The other, which will almost certainly appear in October, is much darker and on the other end of the horror spectrum, whereas this is a film that I feel somewhat honored to present. A far cry from the typical realm of horror cinema, tonight’s selection is something of a beautiful and poetic, lyrical and melancholic masterpiece that subverts everything that we come to expect from the horror genre in the new millennium to turn out something that can only be described as truly haunting.
El Orfanato is a magical story of pain and loss, hope and tragedy. It mixes elements of a classic ghost story with real-world regret and the inescapable sadness that comes from the sort of unforeseen mistakes that parents can sometimes make without realizing it. In the case of the characters in J.A. Bayona’s incredible 2007 film, the mistake is stomach-churning, unexpected, and one whose images will sit with viewers long after the film is complete.
Set by the seaside and magnificently filmed, El Orfanato is an absolutely breathtaking cinematic experience. There are scenes that are equal parts lovely and creepy to endure, but there isn’t a second that doesn’t demand total and undivided attention from anyone watching.
There is evil in this picture, but there is also a truly alluring aesthetic that needs to be seen to be understood. Like the previous film, Let the Right One In, it’s a picture that reminds me of the fact that some of the best stuff out there is coming from everywhere outside the United States and begs fans to continue to give foreign films a chance.
The director’s presentation is so advanced that he has created one of those films that you don’t want to tell anyone anything about for fear of spoiling any of the many surprises, but I will write that one of the most spectacular scenes in horror movie history takes place toward the end when a children’s game takes a delightful turn that will send chills swimming up your spine.
3 — Jeepers Creepers — Victor Salva (dir.) — 2001
Let’s face it, a really special set of filmmakers is necessary to successfully pull off a monster flick. King Kong and Godzilla were amazing technological feats when they first hit theaters in the Golden Age of Universal horror pictures. The Wolf Man has become something of a legend with many incarnations and The Mummy has been reanimated as many times as any of the other creatures mentioned thus far. But horror has a habit of forgetting how to be creative, and following the stomping whatsits of the thirties and forties, audiences would have to wait many years for new monster movie entries, and the time between was always much too long.
The fifties had The Creature from the Black Lagoon while the sixties merely re-birthed and regurgitated the creature features of years before. The seventies made waves with Jaws, and the eighties once again let monster fare fall by the wayside in favor of slasher pics right beside the Devil and his minions. Not to say that there weren’t many great films during these periods. Hell, I’ve spent the last month making a list to give you examples of some of them; however, varmints and rascals and their unnatural brethren aren’t brought to the screen often, and they’re definitely not often done very well.
The 2001 monster movie, Jeepers Creepers, is one of the rarest of rare and best of the best of the creature films. What it does, it does very well, and when it has no other choice, the picture firmly plants its tongue in its cheek and gleefully plays with the fact that it is, at its heart, total campy fun.
Far from being horrendously scary, it does offer its share of jumps, and the story is an incredibly original one that everyone needs to see at least once. It’s not like the director was doing something that had never been done before. Instead, it acknowledges the fact that its audience is savvy and prefers to have a huge amount of fun going for the jugular, razing up the gross-out factor, and presenting viewers with an original story about an ancient thing that operates on a cycle of returning once every twenty-three years for twenty-three days in a row to eat.
It’s quirky. It’s fun. And it’s a really deserved film that ranks at number three.
4 — The Blair Witch Project — Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez (dirs.) — 1999
Just as welcome and relieving the 1995 release of Scream was to horror-starved audiences, it was equally the best and the worst thing to happen to the fright genre. As original and unexpected a breath of fresh air the film was, it only gave Hollywood an excuse to attempt to replicate its success with an endless list of imitations. There were a few good ones thrown in the mix. I almost enjoyed I Know What You Did Last Summer even though it was nothing like the young adult novel from the mind of Lois Duncan, an author I’d really enjoyed in my formative years. Urban Legend was creative and accurate in its play on the supposedly true stories we’d all heard, but it stole most of its ideas from the Wes Craven masterpiece. Halloween H20 was a fun ride down memory lane and Cherry Falls was a tongue-in-cheek play on the formulaic virgin girl slasher idea; however, the late nineties really wasn’t offering anything as creative and different and jarring as the Kevin Williamson screenplay that begat the Scream franchise. What the horror aficionados were begging to receive started its release long before the movie ever actually hit theaters.
Just before the dawn of the new millennium, computers and access to the Internet was finally proliferating society as a whole. For the first time, it was unheard of to know of a home without a desktop, even if access to the World Wide Web was made through a phone line that took forever to connect. Sensing that times were different and that people were almost there, but not quite savvy enough to know that art can sometime imitate life, filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez did something that had never been done before. They created an entire back story and believable mythology surrounding the release of an upcoming film that promised to reveal footage that was found after a small group of film students went missing while conducting research surrounding a legendary and cursed folklore in the woods of Burkittsville, Maryland.
What’s more, people really believed it. Websites were dedicated to the mystery surrounding the release of the footage. Discussion boards speculated on what they were going to see. And people reamed theater seats in a combination of fear and high expectation. What happened in The Blair Witch Project was one of the most successful media campaigns of all time, driving the film to raking in huge numbers, scaring the crap about of people who saw it, and sending many to the bathroom with pangs of dizziness and nausea resulting from watching the jerky photography that has since become a staple of the found footage film.
I thought The Blair Witch Project was scary. It brought me back to the times when I’ve been out in the middle of nowhere with friends or family and heard the sounds of (I hoped) small creatures scattering in the distance, twigs breaking, and an assortment of other noises that I could never really define the origins of. Furthermore, I really marveled at what these guys had done with so very little. Most effective is the decision the filmmakers made to give one of the cameras sound and another camera much better visibility. As the result, the final scene, in which the camera with the better picture quality rapidly approaches the sound recording on another camera whose carrier has been disabled is incredibly effective. I remember my skin crawling and chills running down my spine as Heather ran through the disturbing building that they found in the woods, as she found the children’s hand prints scattered along the wall, and mostly as I realized why Josh was merely standing in the corner of the room when she found him — if you’ve paid attention to the story, you’ll realize what has and is about to happen.
Sharp. Creative. And very scary. No one can legitimately denigrate The Blair Witch Project for the stir it caused and for the profound and undying effect it had on horror cinema as a whole.
5 — Scream — Wes Craven (dir.) — 1995
I feel like including this film in my top five is something of a cliche, but so were some of the top five movies in my previous list. The truth is that cliches exist because there is always some measure of truth in how they became such. Scream is just such an example. Discounting the countless sequels that followed, each playing on the mythology begun in its predecessor, this pick is one of the greatest horror films ever made, and it literally reignited the horror genre of the late nineties, a period that was otherwise absent of anything really new and/or really creative. When it was released, it was the film that slowly grew into something really huge. People saw it and told their friends that they needed to see it and word-of-mouth spread like wildfire. Within a matter of weeks, it became a true success because it was something that everyone had sort of already seen before, but never seen in the incredibly clever way that it was penned by Kevin Williamson and directed by horror maestro Wes Craven.
Scream is a film that is totally aware that the audiences that would be seeing it had probably seen the countless films that inspired it. What’s more, the film played on that idea further by mentioning the many titles that contributed to its existence. The characters were smart, and the film’s production staff was counting on the fact that audiences were mostly comprised of kids raised on weekend video rentals. We were. And we loved what they were doing with us.
Quoting the many rules for horror film survival, following the formula set in place by classics such as Halloween and Friday the 13th, and merging the slasher genre with a murder mystery and adding in a few melodramatic soap opera elements, this masterpiece of modern horror played with its audiences so successfully that it managed to literally terrify entire theaters filled with grown adults. I remember sitting in one of the three viewings I saw while it was still fresh in its release and I vividly recall rows of people screaming, shielding their eyes, staring at the floor, and eventually yelling back to the characters on the screen, giving explicit instructions for what they should and should not be doing.
Wes Craven knew what he was doing by making the first ten minutes of the picture some of the best moments in horror film of all time. Every possible slasher movie motif was played out with incredible intensity and well-paced suspense, ending in a climactic bloodbath that left audiences in shock. It was a genius hand to play because every time a hint of anything comparable to the film’s opening began to play out, a palpable tension could be felt over everyone watching. We knew he was going to get us again, but we were never sure when it was going to happen – and when he did, the results were always unbelievably satisfying.
There probably aren’t many people who haven’t already seen this one, and although I enjoyed the second film (and Parker Posey’s performance in the third), I wish that the flood of sequels had never come on the scene. In and of itself, Scream is definitely one of the best horror pictures ever made.
6 — Let the Right One In — Thomas Alfredson (dir.) — 2008
Great works of literature rarely translate well into film. There are, of course, exceptions, but they are few and far between. For whatever reason, the bits that I find myself more easily able to suspend my disbelief to accept from stories that appear in print often become far-fetched, silly, and downright insufferable to watch when directors try to take horror novels and turn them into cinematic success. The 2008 Swedish film, Let the Right One In, adapted from a novel of the same name is one of the rare cases where the film is as good as the book on which it is based. Rather than call the movie better than its source material, I’ll write that both are modern masterpieces, each its own superlative in the genre.
Oskar is a shy and bullied twelve-year-old from a broken home who spends most of his time with his working-class mother. For whatever reason, some of his harder classmates have singled him out as the Carrie White of the school, and the majority of his days are filled with a sort of terror that only those who have been victims of such behaviors can really understand. His evenings are spent at home, silently plotting the ultimate scenarios of revenge that he might one day be able to extract against his tormentors if the opportunity should ever arise. Oskar is sensitive and seemingly inherently kind with a natural curiosity about the world around him.
Enter Eli, the cute brunette who has just moved into the apartment next door. She meets Oskar in the apartment building’s courtyard and the duo begin to develop a sweet friendship in which they both find tremendous pleasure. Oskar has finally made a friend in Eli, and he rapidly reaches the point of being willing to do anything to protect the sanctity of the pact they have found in one another. Meanwhile, a man who may or may not be Eli’s father leaves the house for nightly voyages that always end in bloodletting and viewers get the sense that something isn’t quite right in Eli’s home. As the film progresses, the truth behind Eli’s true nature is revealed and Oskar finds himself in the middle of something of an allegorical fractured fairy tale.
Let the Right One In is the best vampire story written in the past hundred years. It plays with the mythology and uses the symbolism surrounding vampire lore as a series of metaphors for compassion, friendship, and the nature of true love.
The cinematography is beautiful and the kids they got for these roles are absolutely perfect. The filmmakers couldn’t have done a better job of getting a boy and a girl who look EXACTLY the way I pictured them both while reading the book.
This isn’t exactly a scream-fest, although there are some truly freaky scenes and a couple that are guaranteed to make audiences jump (especially if they haven’t read the book and aren’t expecting the scares when they hit). There are only very rare times when one can honestly write that a horror film is absolutely mesmerizingly lovely, but this is certainly one of them.
Do not pass this one up.
Se7en - David Fincher (dir.) – 1995
David Fincher is a directorial genius and – in my opinion – one of the greatest minds working in film today. Having shot a handful of popular music videos in the early nineties (including Madonna’s Express Yourself), Fincher moved on to the grand world of cinema and abruptly splattered his guts on film screens everywhere with one of the darkest serial killer movies ever made. Filled with a variety of motifs that eventually became Fincher trademarks, Se7en was initially promoted as the next Brad Pitt vehicle, so audiences flocked to the theater in droves; however, viewers were subsequently disquieted and unsettled when they realized what a brutally sinister film they were in for. Countless imitations have followed, but no one will ever be able to achieve the dramatic pause that is given to anyone who contemplates the ramifications of what they have just seen after their initial viewing of the number seven (see what I did there) film on the countdown.
Blending elements learned from the greatest classical literary works (think Dante and Milton) of all time, social commentary, and Biblical prophecy, a pathological lunatic is working to create a masterpiece of grisly horror in a city where the rain never stops. John Mills (Pitt) is the pretty-faced detective who is new on the scene with his beautiful young wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) and a veteran homicide partner (Morgan Freeman), Detective William Somerset. Somerset is determined to finish out his final week on the police force with as little effort as possible when a body is discovered in a shabby apartment. What could have been a routine final investigation takes a bizarre turn when the killer’s modus operandi is found to be unlike anything the police have ever seen.
The cinematography and overall production of Se7en is overwhelmingly depressing, but the script is one of the better pieces to showcase top-notch talent in the genre of horror. Watching the tragedy unfold is like watching a commentary on the proliferation of the Seven Deadly Sins in modern times played out in a place that is the overall representation of filth and urban decay. It’s hard to watch at times, but one of the movies that one really cannot take his or her eyes off of even during the film’s final, chilling scene.
The film’s denouement, if one could call it that, offers a glimpse into the motive of the madman. Though it’s both perverse and incredibly insane, there is something to be said for the way the killer explains that what he has done is so brilliant that it will be discussed and researched and studied for years to come. I’ve never forgotten the ending of this particular flick, and it’s for the very reasons that the killer states.
I’ve always had my own thoughts on what would have been true poetic justice for John Doe, but the movie probably wouldn’t have been as effective if things had gone the way I wanted them to — and I don’t want to write too much about that notion for fear of spoiling the film’s most important plot points. Regardless, one of the most grueling and frightening films to date, Se7en is a terrifying police procedural that is a cut above the rest.
8 — 28 Days Later — Danny Boyle (dir.) — 2002
Upon its release, this was the best horror film that I had seen in the past several years. Tightly written and very well acted, 28 Days Later presented us with a post-apocalyptic vision of a Great Britain — and presumably, an entire world — that has been nearly completely decimated by a man-made virus intended for research; however, the plague that wipes out most of civilization doesn’t cause a mysterious and incurable flu. Dubbed “the rage virus,” this microbe infects hosts in a matter of seconds and turns its victims into incredibly terrifying and violent zombies hell-bent on destroying anything in their paths.
What Danny Boyle did in 28 Days Later was something that had never been done in the zombie genre before. His monsters are a far cry from the lurching, lumbering half-humans of previous films.
They are fast.
And the virus that mutates them into beasts does nothing to alter their strength, their deductive reasoning, or their ability to break through the barriers that held up for previous characters trying to keep them out in zombie films before.
In 28 Days Later, a small band of survivors handle the situation at hand with a surprising amount of resilience. There is something almost magical — whimsical and playful — that takes place on screen as we see their actions and decisions. A real sense of humanity fosters a sense of hope for the human race and some semblance of goodness graces this horror film in a way that other directors may have shied from developing.
Don’t get me wrong, this is definitely a scream-fest, but the pacing is truly clever and the characters are some that I’ve cared more deeply for than any others in any other horror film to date. Too mature for all viewers, but an all-out wonderful film that manages to scare the hell out of me.
9 — A Nightmare on Elm Street — Wes Craven (dir.) — 1984
One of my favorite stories to tell people is about the Friday night that Mom got to pick the family movie. A new installment in the Friday the 13th franchise had just hit theaters, but Mom was tired of all the blood and guts and gore and sex and gratuitous violence, so she searched the movie listings for something that would still satisfy everyone’s taste for something scary, but be less likely to be filled with all of these elements that she wanted to steer her children from seeing.
She settled on something that she believed, and I quote, sounded “like something Alfred Hitchcock would have made.” I even remember her reading the mini-blurb that described the film she dragged me, kicking and screaming, to watch along with my adolescent brother and sister: “If Nancy doesn’t wake up screaming, she won’t wake up at all.” And that became, in the Oliver family history, the night my mother took the entire family to see A Nightmare on Elm Street.
We. Were. Terrified.
Partly due to the incredibly long list of sequels that followed and partly due to the fact that some of the special effects haven’t held up amazingly well, A Nightmare on Elm Street isn’t always remembered for the true horror that was projected on the screen in the very first film. It was like someone had taken some of the scariest moments from the real nightmares that we all have — the archetypes — and projected them on the screen. And buried within this vivid and frightening dreamscape was this incredibly dark boogeyman who could transform himself and be anywhere that you were at any given time. The boogeyman eventually became something of a cult icon, but in the very beginning, he was just an incredibly horrifying image of everything that terrified us most.
For a large portion of my life I actually believed that it was possible to have dreams shared between myself and my closest friends. I also believed that, like in the film, if you died in your dream, you died for real.
One for the record books and one of the scariest movies ever made, A Nightmare on Elm Street is also one of the best horror films ever made.
10 — The Mothman Prophecies — Mark Pellington (dir.) — 2002
This is a film that I vacillated on including from the get-go; plus, I wasn’t entirely sure where to put it. In spite of the fact that this list is really in no particular order, I usually like to save the really special and most effective of the bunch for my last ten titles. Whether or not The Mothman Prophecies was a film that I wanted to include in the final few (and really in the list at all — I have way more than thirty-one films listed in my Henry Harbor notebook) was sort of up in the air.
Cue lunchtime at the office, a time that typically finds us all sitting around talking about the usual office stuff, until one of my co-workers related a story about something that happened to her recently at the home of another member of the office. It was a scary kind of story, the type that I wouldn’t normally expect from either of these two ordinarily happy and upbeat women who are always all about health, happiness, prosperity, and logic. These are the sort of notions that made the tales they told all the more chilling, and one of the four sitting at the table realized that the thing that the duo described having seen sounded very much like the Mothman (something neither of the two tale-tellers had any prior knowledge of). As tingly with goose flesh as my skin already was, the fact that the Mothman was brought up made the blood run a little cooler in my veins.
“You guys need to come to my office,” I said, and I led them to my computer. I moved the mouse to open up the screen to the spot where I’d left it before going to eat lunch: The Mothman Prophecies had been added to my Netflix queue just before lunch. You see, I was still debating its inclusion and thinking that maybe I should re-watch it after so many years, just to see if it still had the same effect as the first time.
In fact, for a film to leave such a long-standing and deep-seeded impression on someone who hasn’t seen it in nearly twelve years must mean that it has something etched into the celluloid to be of particular note.
The legend suggests that the Mothman appears as something of a warning to those who see it, foretelling some approaching, pre-destined tragedy that is soon to befall someone associated with the sighting.
Perhaps that is the case.
Maybe it’s just a bunch of crap.
Either way, The Mothman Prophecies is a really effective and unsettling film, earning a well-deserved spot in my top ten.
11 — Bug — William Friedkin (dir.) — 2006
Another one for the ranks of those titles that fall under the heading of the What-the-Hell-Am-I-Watching archives is the 2006 horror tale Bug directed by William Friedkin, the man who helmed one of the most terrifying and controversial movies of all time, The Exorcist. Although Bug is a far cry from the tale of a little girl possessed by one of Satan’s minions, it is just as viscerally reactive and dark as its predecessor.
Brilliantly written by Tracy Letts, who penned the original play on which the movie was based, Bug stars Michael Shannon (doing what Shannon does best: playing creepy) alongside Ashley Judd in a role that more people really ought to know her for. Judd plays Agnes, a raw, emotionally damaged alcoholic who spends her nights slinging drinks in a sleazy bar before retiring to a run-down hotel where she has set up residence in an effort to hide from the harsh realities that her life has handed her. She’s got an abusive ex played by Harry Connick, Jr. who is just about to be released from prison and dredge up all the wreckage of their shared past and only one true friend, a party girl who is doing her best to shield Agnes from the world and from herself.
In walks Peter (Shannon) who goes home with Agnes and brings with him a paranoid and disturbing infestation which Agnes is primed to receive. Peter begins to share with Agnes his many fears and a variety of secrets, which include his experiences as the victim of government corruption that resulted in his being infected with tiny, bothersome insects that the two begin finding all over the dilapidated hotel room.
As the duo realize that Peter has infected Agnes and their shared space is virtually crawling with the tiny bugs, the two become increasingly paranoid and delusional, and that’s where this movie really takes off toward a final half hour that is guaranteed to make anyone watching physically ill and emotionally exhausted.
Bug is a very odd film. It’s disturbing, disgusting, gruesome, and painful to watch — guaranteed to make your skin crawl and leave you in absolute shock in its final moments. Watching it is an experience that will terrify you and leave you to mull over one complicated notion: what parts of what you just watched were real, and what parts were figments of the characters’ psychosis?
12 — Orphan — Jaume Collet-Serra (dir.) — 2009
Movies with twists are nothing new. They’ve been around longer than the big reveal that came during the climactic scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho when the truth behind the events at the Bates Motel was revealed, and with directors like M. Night Shyamalan, they even became something of a cliche.
Would The Sixth Sense have been such a great flick without the unforeseen revelation at the end? Watch it a second time and see for yourself. Would The Others have been as effective if audiences hadn’t learned the truth that was sitting right in front of their eyes from the film’s beginning? Maybe, but it was the ending (and those damned photos) that everybody remembered. And what of the films that may have been better without giving watchers the twist that they were expecting? The French film High Tension (which deservedly made my first list regardless of the unnecessary ending) is a perfect example.
However, there are some films that simply build their entire plot around the fact that you’re going to find out something about one of the characters and it’s going to shock you, but they’re not going to tell you when. If a director can construct a story using such a framework, and do it successfully, then he or she has definitely done a wonderful job. Jaume Collet-Serra’s 2009 moody tale, Orphan, is just such an example.
The performances are wonderful (Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard, for sure, but Isabelle Fuhrman is the star) and the suspense is really intense. From the very beginning, we know that there’s something wrong with Esther, but not for one second are most people likely to figure it out. That’s because Collet-Serra does a remarkable job of really pulling viewers into this story of a family struggling through grief and the latching onto something (in this case, someone) who they hope will help them to heal and to move on.
Unfortunately for the family in this edgy fright fest, the new thing that they latch onto is a sweet little Russian refuge orphan named Esther, and she is hellbent on getting everything she wants from them. No matter what it takes.
I dare you to try to figure this one out before the truth is revealed, but it would be better time spent enjoying a really fun thrill-ride and reveling in the shocking surprise that the last act holds.
13 — Blood and Black Lace — Mario Bava (dir.) — 1964
The coveted number thirteen spot in my list of thirty-one great horror pictures goes to another Mario Bava classic technicolor horror feast. 1964′s Blood and Black Lace is something of an innovative landmark in the horror genre, and it’s filled with one of the better stories that Bava put on the big screen.
The film opens on a dark and windy night as an approaching storm begins to settle over the exterior of a posh fashion house. A pair of star-crossed lovers meet just outside the sprawling mansion, one of them a model, the other a drug addict, and make plans to fix the current pinch in which the addict finds himself. When the lovely Isabella, another smartly dressed model for the house, races toward the building, she finds herself pursued by a terrifying and relentless masked stalker who viciously attacks her before dragging her body into the trees. And all that happens in barely seven minutes of film.
What happens next is one of the most original, shocking, and impossible-to-look-away from terror movies of all time. The models, the proprietors of the fashion house, and their myriad associates all find themselves in something of a conundrum when Isabella’s diary is found to be missing. The diary — supposedly a book that holds their many secrets, lies, machinations, and personal ambitions — becomes the focus of everyone’s attention, and Bava films some of his best work during one of the shows when every single character finds himself or herself gazing in its direction and obviously plotting some way of getting their hands on it.
What ensues is an all-out bloodbath in which various models are chased and slaughtered in a variety of strange locations and sordid ways. The murders are grisly and cruel and the scenes are intense and frightening, but impossible to not watch.
With Blood and Black Lace, Mario Bava proves that he is, in fact, the master of the giallo and a director whose work can never be duplicated in spite of the long list of those who have attempted to do so under the guise of paying homage.
Get your hands on a copy and enjoy the ride.
14 — The Dark Half — George A. Romero (dir.) — 1993
Stephen King is unquestionably the most popular American author of modern times. He’s a great storyteller whose imagination seems to know no boundaries and whose body of work suggests a creative drive that also makes him one of the most prolific writers in the history of publishing. It just so happens that King’s forte is creating memorable works written in the genre of the supernatural, and that he has spent a large portion of his career deliberately trying to scare the shit out of people.
Long before he found success as a published novelist, Stephen King wrote prodigiously and not all of the work he turned out had elements to inspire the feeling of fright; however, many of the stories were good, though they were not the typical King fare. So, King published five original titles under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. After fans discovered that he was, in fact, the author of sordid thrillers like Rage, The Long Walk, and The Running Man, King used some of the notions involved with creating and subsequently ridding oneself of a pen name — and the writer’s creative process in general — in some of the fictional worlds he created. One of the tales that really took this ideology to original heights was his novel, The Dark Half. In turn, his friend, George A. Romero, turned the novel into the 1993 film of the same name.
Thad Beaumont is a writer who has overcome tremendous odds in finding success. A childhood brain tumor — revealed to be a twin brother that died and was absorbed in utero — sent him through an excruciating recovery process after temporarily incapacitating him. As an adult, Thad finally achieves success publishing a series of gritty thrillers under the pseudonym George Stark, but the success comes with a price as friends and family warn him that something in him changes when he writes under the alias. Thad becomes someone else. When a scummy swindler hellbent on blackmail discovers the truth, Thad’s problems only intensify so, Beaumont decides to come clean by revealing to the world that he is the man behind the George Stark novels, and a hefty media campaign ensues in which the pseudonym is killed off.
But George Stark doesn’t want to die, and the story that unfolds is a dark and melancholic horror tale that combines the supernatural, forgotten folklore, and murder served up in the tradition of the grand master of the terrifying.
The Dark Half doesn’t get the credit it deserves. Neither as a novel, nor as a film, but it’s one of my favorites and one of the reasons that I started writing in the first place.
15 — Poltergeist — Tobe Hooper (dir?) — 1982
The question mark punctuating Tobe Hooper’s supposed directorial credit is wholly intentional. Even more than thirty years after the film’s release, the person who is credited as having directed Poltergeist (Hooper) is debated by many members of the cast and crew who were present during the process. Many believe that it was actually producer, Steven Spielberg who deserved credit. Regardless of which of the two men (for the record, my money’s on Spielberg for this one) should really take credit for the honor, what came out of MGM lot is one of the greatest horror films ever made.
What gives this particular film an even greater mystique is the supposed curse that was placed on the people involved in its creation (and those involved with the two films that followed). Several of the cast and crew reported strange supernatural events occurring while the film was being made and many of the actors involved met rather untimely and tragic deaths. Add to that the fact that it was later revealed that the skeletons used in the climactic pool scene were actual human skeletons and you have all the fodder necessary to perpetuate the rumor that there is a pox on the celluloid.
I remember when the movie was originally released and several members of my family went to the theater to see it without me (I was way too young at the time), but I managed to catch it about a year later when it aired as the Saturday night premier on HBO. It’s a flick that scared me then and still kinda gets to me now, but not in the way that it did when I was merely a minor tot writhing in fear to the incredible special effects and big-time terror that comes in the film’s third act. Today, the moments that really get me are the smaller choices that the director(s) made in building a sense of unease and dread before the Freelings realize that something strange is happening . And that one of them is in terrible danger.
For me (then and now), I marvel at what a real family these people seemed to be. JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson were the same ages as my own parents. The older sister was the same age as my own. They lived in a real neighborhood that looked very familiar. They reacted normally to their daily routine (and though, as far as I know, my parents didn’t keep a secret stash of weed in their bedroom, I had plenty of friends’ parents who did). And when it become obvious that something odd is taking over the house, the family draws the audience into the horrific magic taking place.
The terror doesn’t come with a bang. It whimpers in a series of slow, steady chills that really build into a torrential downpour of fright, but I hesitate to write too much that would give away the many surprises that this horror classic has in store for anyone who has never seen it.
I will write that the scene with the kitchen chairs is impressive, and I remember counting between periods of thunder and lightning to see when the cacophonous storms would dissolve. I don’t remember ever having a tree that terrified me, but my childhood was filled with many misunderstood images that I remember finding bewildering. There’s something to be said for the supposed portal of entry for the mysterious forces (because, in my mind, they could’ve gotten into my own house the same way), and there’s definitely something to be said for the horrible clown sitting at the end of Robbie’s bed.
On a scale of one to ten, ten being a perfect horror film, this one definitely ranks at a well-deserved 8.5.
16 — Twitch of the Death Nerve (a.k.a. “Carnage,” a.k.a. “A Bay of Blood,” a.k.a. “Reazione a catena“) — Mario Bava (dir.) — 1971
I’m always sort of surprised that more people aren’t aware of Mario Bava and the long line of wonderful horror films that he directed throughout the latter part of the twentieth century. His movies are just as brutal and unnerving as anything that Dario Argento ever made, and it’s nearly impossible to watch an American film that followed at any point after Bava began releasing films that wasn’t influenced by something created my the Italian Maestro of the Macabre.
Take, for example, Friday the 13th Part 2, which is — in my opinion — the best film in the entire franchise. If one were to watch that particular endeavor side-by-side with tonight’s pick, Twitch of the Death Nerve, audiences would be a little shocked to see that the films are almost identical. In fact, the men and women behind the second Friday the 13th film could have even storyboarded their work while watching Bava’s groundbreaking film. The characters are similar in appearance. The kills are virtually the same. And both films center around the strange goings-on around an important body of water. In the case of Bava’s feat — ten years before the American rip-off — the action involves an all-out killing fiesta as the men and women near and dear to an aging heiress fight with each other to gain control of her fortune after she is murdered during the film’s opening.
Literally no one in Twitch of the Death Nerve is safe. Everyone is out to get everyone else. And, in the end, every single character has a little blood on his or her hands.
The versions I’ve seen aren’t exactly well dubbed, but that’s not why I love Italian horror films. These movies work because of the music, the cinematography, the original story lines, and the masterful direction of the pros behind the cameras. Mario Bava is one of those undisputed masters, and this particular entry is really a horror movie lover’s wet dream (soaked in plenty of gore, of course). I highly recommend this one whether you’ve ever seen one of Bava’s films or not.
It’s quick, quirky, bloody, and tons of fun to watch.
17 — Martyrs — Pascal Laugier (dir.) — 2008
Where do I begin on this one? It’s impossible for me to not include it in this list because it definitely qualifies as one of the most horrifying. It’s also impossible for me not to beg for your forgiveness in advance because it is absolutely disturbing. It’s also depraved, sick, disgusting, brutal, nightmarish, deplorable, unnecessary… so incredibly effective that I still find myself pondering it for two reasons. First, why the hell was this one made? Second, why the hell did I watch it? The answer to the first question is basically present in the answer to the second. And vice versa. It starts a conversation, a dialogue. And it really stays with you for some time after.
Back in October, when I was working my way through the first list, I was contacted by my buddy Ryan Pommier (you can find/blame him on Facebook), who was following the titles and asked if I’d ever seen it (the fact that this question came after I listed Alexandre Aja’s High Tension should have been a clue). I hadn’t, and though I’d heard the title and seen it listed on several great horror film lists in recent years, I didn’t know a thing about it — which is EXACTLY how I suggest anyone approach it, assuming they are willing to brave 99 minutes of one of the most shocking films in cinematic history.
As an entry into the land of what has come to be known as the New French Extremism (Irreversible, Enter the Void, and other disquieting titles) it certainly qualifies. It is dark and transgressive. The violence is sudden, shocking, brutal, bloody, and absolutely unrelenting.
Not to give anything away, you start off thinking you’re watching a film about one thing only to discover that it’s about something else before being thrown the ultimate curve ball and realizing that nothing you have ever said, done, thought, or imagined could prepare you for the film’s actual concept.
Four of us sat down to watch the DVD. Only two of us made it all the way through (and one of the two who left the room returned about fifteen minutes later only to exclaim: “IT’S STILL GOING ON?!”).
If you love this one, shame on you. If you hate it, I apologize for including it in my top twenty.
18 — Tenebrae — Dario Argento (dir.) — 1982
Another pick from the long list of Argento greats is his 1982 thriller, Tenebrae (Latin: “shadows” or “darkness”), a film that mixes elements of mystery, police procedural, and good old-fashioned slasher fare. It’s gruesome, twisted, engrossing, and one of the last truly delightful movies that the Italian master gave audiences before beginning something of a slow, steady decline in vision and quality.
Nowhere near as whimsically horrific and nightmarish as his masterpiece Suspiria and not nearly as epic as the perfection that is Deep Red, Tenebrae still manages to hold a special place in my heart where I am certain it will remain for many years, if not for the rest of my life.
The story is of a bestselling American novelist who has come to Rome to promote his latest book (Argento element number one: the American in Europe). Just before his arrival, a strikingly attractive (Argento element number two: incredibly good looking females) has just been brutally slain (Argento element number three: beautiful people being savagely murdered by a variety of graphic means; here: a straight razor) by a black gloved killer (Argento element number four) and the pages of the novelist’s latest work have been stuffed in her mouth. When the police approach the novelist to investigate, a series of subplots emerge involving his ex-wife, his agent, his personal secretary, a runner from his publicity firm, and the daughter of the owner of the building in which the novelist is staying. When a radical journalist who conducts an interview with the novelist becomes the second victim, and her haughty bisexual girlfriend the third, the American finds himself immersed in a thrilling ride that offers a variety of twists and turns.
The cinematography of Tenebrae is amazing, and the music is just as memorable as that of Argento’s other films, but for a host of totally different reasons. Of particular note is the extended crane shot of the apartment house in which the journalist and her girlfriend meet their unfortunate demises. One of the director’s trademarks is his attention to interesting architecture and this scene is an exercise in self-indulgence that is somehow witty and reaffirming. It doesn’t feel as if you’re watching a man who is stroking his own ego, it’s as if you’re watching a man who is just really having fun with the way he tells his stories and the means with which he builds suspense.
In typical Argento fashion (Argento element number five), the main character realizes that he has seen something of extreme importance which reveals the identity of the killer, but here, Argento throws his fans for a loop. The story then has a series of unexpected developments that really make Tenebrae something that stands out in his list of accomplishments.
19 — Play Misty for Me — Clint Eastwood (dir.) — 1971
This was a flick that my parents encouraged me to rent and watch when I was still a blooming pre-teen and totally in love with the terror film genre. Both my father and my mother remembered it fondly, telling me that it was a really great little yarn. Of course, I got my hands on a copy. Of course, I loved it. Of course, I have to include it in my top twenty list because it is the original hell hath no fury like a woman scorned story. What makes it even better is that it stars a very young Jessica Walter (Arrested Development‘s Lucille Bluth, Malory Archer of Archer) and an equally young Donna Mills (Abby Fairgate-Cunningham-Ewing-Sumner of 80′s prime time soap Knots Landing) in the dueling roles of the two women in Clint Eastwood’s life, one for better and the other much more for the worse.
Eastwood directs himself as a pseudo-playboy disc jockey who rocks and rolls along the northern California coast in his hot convertible and picks up a sexy woman in a trashy bar one night. The woman (Walter) seems like a good deal at first, even if she does have an affinity for calling into the station to have Eastwood play the old standard, Misty. The first signs that something isn’t quite right with his bed partner begin the following morning, and things only get much worse from there.
Long before Glenn Close went down on Michael Douglas in an elevator, proceeded to wreck his life, and inspired a scourge of like-minded films, there was this mostly forgotten treasure that was very much ahead of its time.
It’s cool, quirky, interesting, and really creepy. When Walter really starts to lose it, there is no end to the level of her depravity and madness, and the plot builds with a series of really well-woven twists that audiences will surely enjoy.
An oldie, but definitely a goody. Like the final scene in Looking for Mr. Goodbar, this is one that will make everyone re-think that dude or chick they’re thinking of inviting back to their apartment for the night.
20 — The Birds — Alfred Hitchcock (dir.) — 1963
I am thoroughly convinced that there are two kinds of people in the world: people who love horror movies and everyone else. It’s those who fall into the latter category that I somehow have difficulty trusting. A general love for the cinema is one of my unspoken requisites for assuming that I could actually date someone, but an affinity for the macabre only helps to drive the possibility home. When someone tells me that they hate scary movies, I don’t get it. How can you not like watching stories that are, at heart, the most creative and most original of all genres? It takes a strong mind and careful attention to concoct some of the ideas that I see played out on the celluloid in the realm of the moody, the mysterious, the monstrous, and the malevolent. To me, there’s nothing better than being scared. It really turns me on in a way that I almost can’t explain. And no other man or woman in all of the twentieth century was more capable of creating fright, guarantying suspense, delivering thrills, and really twisting the knife into the hearts of an audience than the unquestioned master of controlled and precise direction than Alfred Hitchcock.
His 1961 marvel, Psycho, was included in the list that I made back in October. I mean, of course it was. How could it not be recognized as falling somewhere in the top 31 horror pictures ever made? Impossible. Psycho was a great flick. It literally gave birth to the slasher sub-genre that would follow for years to come, and it will likely forever remain the crowing jewel in Hitchcock’s crown; however, Psycho is not Hitchcock’s best film (although it may be the best of its type).
For suspense built to near perfection, Rear Window takes the prize. For avant garde and experimental effort, there’s Rope. For a dose of Our Town on an acid trip, Hitchcock gave us Shadow of a Doubt. The fifties version of The Man Who Knew Too Much is the perfect people-in-jeopardy yarn. North by Northwest is an amazing thriller. Strangers on a Train is one of the best tales of the unexpected. And for mystery, Suspicion and Spellbound are absolutely pitch perfect (even if the ending of the former title is something of a let-down). But when it comes to straight-up, true horror at its most basic and primitive roots, Hitchcock made no better film than 1961′s The Birds.
Based on a short story from Daphne DuMaurier (if you went to Magnet, you probably had to read her book Rebecca at some point, which coincidentally was also made into a film by Hitchcock) and starring Tippi Hedren (Melanie Griffith’s mom) in what is surely her most famous role, The Birds combines elements of melodrama, family saga, a burgeoning love story, and human dynamics in a familiar setting and throws in one of the most unsettling possibilities for the end of days. I’ve read that Hitchock’s vision of what would lead to the catastrophic end of civilization was nature somehow turning on mankind, and that is exactly what he gives audiences with this masterpiece.
By today’s standards, some of the special effects are a little dated, but there is still something to be said for the images Hitch was able to create and the indelible impression that this film will continue to make on generations to come. He used real birds, trained birds, and mechanical birds to tell the story of a jet-setting California party girl who suddenly falls for a hot shot, liberally-minded San Francisco lawyer and tracks him back to his hometown of Bodega Bay, California. As the party girl, Melanie (Hedren), attempts to seduce the attorney by using her best moves over the course of an extended weekend, a series of strange events involving the local avian population slowly build to the point of wreaking total havoc on the blossoming couple, the attorney’s family, and the residents of the tranquil seaside town. What follows is a slow burn. The film doesn’t begin like a horror picture and the scares are both minimal and sporadic for the first hour; however, by the third act of the movie, a full-on monster extravaganza has ensued.
If you’re a horror movie fan, watch it. If you’re a Hitchcock fan, watch it again. If you just love really well made films, by all means: watch, watch, watch. Remember to pay very careful attention after Mitch’s mother returns from her discovery at her man friend’s farmhouse and asks Melanie to go get Mitch’s little sister from the school. What happens when Melanie arrives to pick the little girl up is one of the most incredible, eerie, and effective scenes in the horror genre. Everything from that point to the final, unsettling conclusion is truly scary.
As with his other films, Hitchcock promoted the hell out of this one in his own special way. Check out the trailer he gave audiences below.
21 — The Stepford Wives — Bryan Forbes (dir.) — 1975
I originally created the list of films for inclusion on this blog when I discussed the fact that I’d be making a new run at one with my editor, Ben Riggs. That was just before the beginning of May, so the titles have remained the same; however, I hadn’t planned to include this particular selection for a little while longer. My decision to move this one up in the queue was brought on by the premier of tonight’s television remake of Rosemary’s Baby, another film that was inspired by the work of author Ira Levin, a man who created some of the greatest horror and suspense yarns throughout the twentieth century. He wrote the twisted mystery play Deathtrap, the novels Rosemary’s Baby, Sliver, A Kiss Before Dying, and The Boys from Brazil (all made into major motion pictures), as well as the novel turned into this evening’s selection, The Stepford Wives.
One of the greatest things about this particular movie is that it has aged well. There were no special effects to turn the film weathered and dated and difficult to watch nearly forty years after its initial release. It’s filled with particularly good actors (mostly seventies icons) and that special sense that comes from watching films of this era, as if you’re viewing something that you’re not supposed to, taking a glimpse into worlds you’re not meant to see. Cinema of this period was paranoid, schizophrenic, hazy, and incredibly moody. There were so many social issues really hitting the mainstream at the time and filmmakers just went for the throat in addressing these matters in new and innovative ways. And through the art of film.
In the case of The Stepford Wives, director Bryan Forbes took a really hypnotic source novel and turned it into a treatise on feminism and women’s lib and, in doing so, really managed to hit a rational fear of the time: the need for women to be recognized as equal human beings while trying to hold onto the many ideals that make them who they are. This terror of losing one’s sense of self and the identity that makes us who we are is taken to a new extreme in Stepford with the postulation that the only way a woman can have it all (be the perfect wife, mother, and self-sustaining social being) is through the process that has come to practice in this seemingly tranquil little town.
Katherine Ross is absolutely beautiful and really accessible as an actress. I remember my father having a thing for her for some reason, so I think of her fondly anyway, but even without that notion being the case, I still find this performance unexpectedly honest. She’s like a real mom, a real wife, the kind of lady who I grew up living next-door to. The long list of other actresses portraying the ladies of Stepford are equally fun and easy to watch. Paula Prentiss and Tina Louise are great, and their shared genesis from true-to-life women of their time to Stepford wives is terrific. The pacing is organic, the suspense gains momentum at a slow, steady drip, and the payoff is absolutely rewarding.
The ending is one of the greatest in horror film history.
Stay away from the 2004 remake. Although it’s a fun movie to watch, it’s nothing compared to the original which was, and always will be, one of the greatest horror stories of modern times.
22 — See No Evil (a.k.a. “Blind Terror“) — Richard Fleischer (dir.) — 1971
Politics and strange bedfellows aside, Mia Farrow is an actress that people either truly love or truly hate. Personally, I am one of those who falls into the former category. Partly because she was, after all, Rosemary Woodhouse; partly because she was the television version of Allison Mackenzie; and partly because she has always stayed true to her horror movie roots and never shied away from playing some really great roles. Apart from the titular character in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, the scorned ex-fiance Jacque in Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, and the evil nanny in the remake of The Omen, her turn as the heroine in Richard Fleischer’s incredible foray into unrelenting suspense is one of British horror’s best terror film roles.
Farrow plays Sarah, a recently blinded young beauty who has just returned to her family’s country house to continue getting her bearings before she leaves to attend another school for the blind to learn a trade. The family is obviously of the upper-Middle class variety and everyone clearly takes on Sarah’s tragic circumstances as their own. Both loving and encouraging, her aunt, uncle, and younger cousin all put forth their best efforts to allow Sarah to do for herself even when she’s knocking over vases, attempting to pour tumblers of port wine, and nearly taking the wrong door that would lead her down the basement stairs instead of the kitchen. Meanwhile, a menacing presence lurks near the country house, watching from the shadows and planning to exact a sort of motive-less vengeance on Sarah and her family.
When Sarah’s old love drops by to take her out for an afternoon of horseback riding, she believes that she’ll be returning to an empty house. What Sarah doesn’t know — and what the audience can clearly see — is that something dreadful has occurred since she left and the true horror for her has not even begun.
The movie is mostly quiet until the suspense really takes off and light on any dialogue once the real frights have begun. It unfolds organically and with a certain amount of cozy realism, building an incredibly taut story of suspense.
See No Evil is yet another wonderful horror jewel from the vaults of fear.
23 — Ginger Snaps — John Fawcett (dir.) — 2000
This one was a totally unexpected surprise. What looked like a low-budget yarn of the ilk that are released in mass quantity every few years and totally undeserving of a second glance turned out to be one of the better monster movies I’ve seen. John Fawcett does a terrific job of taking a really creative script and bringing it to the screen in a well-paced and interesting way.
Brigitte and Ginger are the Fitzgerald sisters, two social pariahs who spend their days languishing in the low lights of being social outcasts, hating pretty much everyone in their commonly shared world, and obsessing over death — especially death of the bloodiest possible variety.
The film opens with a variety of incredibly graphic and well photographed scenes of people who have met a variety of gory demises. Impaled, eviscerated, and splattered with blood, the sisters present their visions to a class of sarcastically approving students and one very horrified teacher. With their dark humor and special type of creativity overlooked and unappreciated, the sisters continue living in their own special wonderland inhabited only by the two of them.
Meanwhile, an unseen creature is on the loose in their small, suburban community. It has left a long line of dismembered family pets in its wake and has the entire town on a sort of curfew for fear that a person may become the monster’s next victim. When the Fitzgerald sisters deliberately disobey their mother’s wishes and go out for an after-dark stroll, Ginger is attacked by the creature and that’s when this dark, brooding tale turns into something really unexpected.
In many ways, Ginger Snaps is a sort of extended metaphor for the end of adolescence and the beginning of adulthood, but the film never takes a step toward waxing poetically on any hidden meanings or underlying messages. It’s just a really fun monster flick that turns the werewolf mythology on its head and takes viewers on a creative journey. Ginger’s transformation and subsequent sexual awakening is made all the more visceral and gut-wrenching when its been smattered by her transition from angry, repressed teenager to fully aware and totally aggressive female assertion.
I haven’t seen the follow-up films, but that’s just because I really believe that this is a selection that is just about perfect as it is. A little bit cheesy and a little bit predictable in the end, but true to the various motifs associated with lycanthrope lore. And it’s ten times more original than any of the Twilight crap that brings kids to the theater in droves.
24 — Sisters — Brian De Palma (dir.) — 1973
In all fairness, Brian De Palma spent some of his most prolific years as a director taking inspiration from men like Alfred Hitchcock and Michelangelo Antonioni. He couldn’t do it with Carrie because he had Stephen King’s source material, but Dressed to Kill has elements ripped directly from Psycho, Blow Out was basically a remake of Blow-Up, and Obsession was strikingly similar to Vertigo; however, De Palma got his start in the avant garde world of the art cinema in the early 1970′s. Phantom of the Paradise is something in and of itself, but his 1973 film Sisters with Margot Kidder in the dual roles of Siamese twin sisters Dominique and Danielle is one of the most original, creative, and utterly bizarre horror films in the history of cinema.
Filmed and set in Manhattan and Staten Island, the story is of a beautiful French Canadian model named Danielle who films a few scenes for a very swanky game show and leaves with the winning contestant, a well-meaning young professional. Their date, completed by their individual parting gifts from the show, is briefly interrupted by a creepy dude who claims to be Danielle’s husband, but is sworn to only be her ex-husband, a man who just cannot accept the fact that they are divorced. Danielle and Phillip spend the night together and wake up the next morning to the fact that it is Danielle’s birthday and she has a very angry twin sister eager to celebrate and hiding in another room in the apartment.
When Phillip leaves to buy Danielle a cake to help celebrate the day, the film takes a decidedly odd series of twists in which De Palma begins playing tricks on viewers and pulling the audience into an absolutely bewildering landscape where every character has a rather tenuous grasp on reality. In short order, a graphic murder occurs, an outspoken and extremely liberal journalist witnesses the event from another building, and Brian De Palma begins to utilize the split-screen techniques for which he would become famous. He also forces audiences to transfer their attention from the murder to the witness, Grace Collier (a pre-Soap, pre-American Horror Story producer Jennifer Salt), who no one believes and everyone thinks is cracking up.
Filled with all sorts of unexpected and delightful twists, to write very much more would be giving away the surprises and the pleasure of watching one of the films that I always marvel at the fact that more people haven’t seen.
Get yourself a copy and enjoy.
25 — La Residencia (a.k.a. “The Finishing School,” a.k.a. “The House that Screamed“) — Narciso Ibanez Serrador (dir.) — 1969
I originally saw this one when the idea of watching entire movies with only my laptop and an internet connection was still relatively new. Hulu ran a small assortment of free films (littered with tons of commercials) and among those were a smattering of horror films presented by Elvira. These were rough, grainy, badly cut creep fests and creature features of decidedly low budget quality, but I remember one of them — tonight’s selection — as being something that really stood out from the others.
Depending on the version you find, the film may be called La Residencia, The House that Screamed, or The Finishing School, but regardless of the copy, what you’re going to find is one of the most remarkable hidden gems in cinematic history. Truly Gothic in nature and brimming with just-below-the-belt sexually depraved subtext, the film is one that tells the story of a sort of boarding school, sort of finishing school, sort of foster home, sort of house for wayward girls… well, to be fair: I don’t know that the hell it is. It’s a place where a bunch of adolescent-aged girls of varying questionable natures learn about Moliere and gardening and how to properly knead a pie crust into submission.
They also flirt discreetly with one another, take turns rolling in the hay (both literally and figuratively) with one of the delivery boys, and engage in some really crazy sadomasochistic activities – sometimes under the direction of the school’s owner who uses physical punishment as a means of asserting her authority. The majority of the film is a strange sort of whimsical girls’ school story interspersed with some really unexpected imagery and clever camera work; however, when the creepy stuff begins, it rolls out with care, precision, and the sort of downplayed old school horror direction such as that which is seen in all the Hammer House of Horror movies.
One by one, students begin to disappear, falling prey to an unseen killer and assumed to have run away from the school grounds. Meanwhile, every single student seems to be harboring her own deep, dark secret and engaging in any one of a hundred secret alliances and hidden allegiances. The greatest and most chilling moments unfold in the final half hour when it becomes clear that this is a film that is not playing by any formula and also definitely not adhering to any of the typical horror movie rules.
Absolutely no one is safe and the audience’s sympathy and empathy is intentionally transferred from one character to another and then to another again. In the end, you are left with a horror film that you may feel surprised you’ve never heard of before now.
This selection is filled with a very odd score, Argento-like sequences, a really interesting story, period costumes, absolutely beautiful girls, and a combination of foreign accents so strikingly dissimilar that they all combine along with the atmosphere and mood to create something that puts the viewer slightly off-kilter. You’re never really sure what you’re watching, when you’re watching, or what the hell the filmmaker is trying to convey. You only know that what you’re seeing is something really special and a truly wonderful, lost horror gem.
26 — Coma — Michael Crichton (dir.) — 1978
When I was in the eighth grade at Caddo Middle Magnet, one of our big projects in our English class was to read a techno-thriller, a genre of fiction that became extremely popular that year with the release of Jurassic Park. As the result of the film’s popularity, Michael Crichton’s books were all the rage. Everyone read and presented class projects based on The Andromeda Strain, The Terminal Man, and several others. I opted to read a novel that had one of those covers that really intrigued me, and I tore right through the pages inside. Coma was a book that really sat with me for many years after. I recently re-read it to see if the story still freaked me out as much as it did during the spring before my freshman year in high school. In spite of the many advancements that we’ve made in medicine and technology in general, I found that the Robin Cook medical horror story still had the ability to scare the crap out of me, simply because it was — and still is — totally plausible.
After reading the book, my sister and I got a copy of the movie, and I worked scenes from the film into my presentation. To this day, it remains one of my favorites even though I can easily admit that there are some parts that aren’t nearly as believable now as they were back then (although A&E did a fairly bang-up job of bringing the story into the new millennium with their two-part miniseries remake a couple years ago).
The film had some drastic changes from its source material, but the alterations were done with care and made perfect sense to add the necessarily cinematic elements to create a genuinely creepy movie.
Genevieve Bujold stars as Dr. Susan Wheeler, a rising young surgeon at Boston Memorial Hospital. Her best friend, Nancy (Lois Chiles) checks into the ‘Mem for a routine D&C and inexplicably slips into an irreversible coma. Dr. Wheeler reacts as one would expect after learning that her dearest friend, a healthy, young beauty, has been rendered brain dead, but begins to suspect that something is amiss when she helps care for another young patient who goes in for a minor surgical procedure that ends in the same results as Nancy. As Wheeler begins looking into the cases of irreversible coma in young, healthy patients, she notices a pattern that takes her research into a direction she could never have expected; a direction that leads her to the Chief of Anesthesiology, on a lengthy chase straight into the medical school’s Anatomy Lab, and all the way to the creepiest medical facility in cinematic history: The Jefferson Institute.
Coma plays on everyone’s fear of the doctor, our mistrust of organized healthcare, and the social dilemmas of modern times. Ironically, its director was the very man whose books were so popular at the time that I originally read the novel, and Crichton does an above average job of managing a very interesting story.
I dare anyone who sees this one to ever go in for any sort of medical procedure without at least a little bit of fear of being wheeled into the hospital’s Operating Room Number 8.
27 — V/H/S — Adam Wingard, Tyler Gillett, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, David Bruckner, Justin Martinex, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Chad Villella, & Joe Swanberg (dirs.) — 2011
The greatest horror portmanteau since the original Creepshow, V/H/S is like diving into a very twisted version of The Canterbury Tales if the tales were told via bootleg video tapes and filled with wild sex, gratuitous full frontal male nudity, aberrant behavior, twisted haunted houses plagued by demonic forces, surreal subliminal visuals, and tons of violence and gore. Underrated, cleverly written, and truly terrifying, I’m surprised that this selection has such a lowbrow rating on IMDb, but that’s likely because it’s definitely not for everyone; and the only problem with the film is that the box story that contains the individual tales doesn’t necessarily work as well as the brave and inventive horror masterpieces contained within the movie’s frame.
V/H/S feels like gonzo film-making at its dirtiest and most corrupt, something that makes watching this flick all the more unnerving. What many other directors have attempted to do with the found footage subgenre, these guys have taken to a totally unexpected extreme. In some cases, the results are only slightly above average, but in others, the results are simply brilliant.
David Bruckner’s Amateur Night is an example of why I have such a high opinion of this selection as a whole. The tale was like watching one of Clive Barker’s Books of Blood come to life. Think Jeepers Creepers, but with a lot of T&A. It was sexy, deviant, coy, and offered some truly unnerving twists that the audience will not see coming. Ti West’s Second Honeymoon is another clear-cut winner. The climax of the story literally made me sick to my stomach, but not in the way I felt after watching other flicks like Irreversible or Hostel. This was a really good, honestly shocking bit, and I can write with great certainty that Ti West is this generation’s John Carpenter. I literally can’t wait to see what the dude does next. 10/31/98 is the last of the three best entries, and the entire movie is worth watching simply for what the four directors(collectively known as Radio Silence) did to turn the haunted house story on its ass.
What’s so great about V/H/S is that the movie doesn’t play by any rules. There are no cliches, no fake scares, and absolutely no attention to good taste. It’s not necessarily one of the most frightening films I’ve ever seen, but it is very, very good. Fellow horror film junk fiend and good buddy Jeff Corley put the bite on me to watch this at my earliest possible convenience months ago, but I waited until early February and watched it on my Roku right after moving into my apartment.
My one bedroom apartment.
I had the bright idea of pulling out the leftover Athena that we’d had for lunch, turning out all the lights, cracking the windows to let in a little of the cold winter air, and settling in for a fun horror movie night. I’m not usually one to have the sort of visceral reaction to horror flicks to the point that I get up and turn some lights on, but after making it to the conclusion of Second Honeymoon, that’s just what I did. I dare you to watch all the way through that one and not find yourself looking over your shoulder at least once.
Perfect date night film — just be sure your date has a wicked sense of humor, nerves of steel, and a strong stomach.
28 — The Spiral Staircase — Robert Siodmak (dir.) — 1945
Beyond doubt, one of the creepiest thrillers ever released, The Spiral Staircase is the kind of film that is safe enough to watch with an entire family — assuming that none of the younger viewers have any prejudices or preconceived notions about watching titles old enough to have been made in black and white. It’s moody, atmospheric, well-paced, and rather significant in that it contains multiple horror film motifs that have become cliches in the many years that followed its release in 1945.
The story is somewhat perverse, especially for its time and the general period of the film. Set in a small town at a non-disclosed period that one assumes to be the very early twentieth century, the majority of the film’s action occurs in a massive, but somehow cozy, mansion secluded by a great distance and a small forest from the rest of civilization.
The Spiral Staircase opens with the murder of a downtrodden blonde who suffers from a physical impairment that causes her to limp. The audience sees that the killer is watching her from her closet and goes on the attack as the woman begins to change her clothing and a silent film plays in the movie hall downstairs. As the story progresses, we learn that a deranged killer is on the loose and this blonde is only another in a long list of girls who have been murdered simply for having some sort of physical or mental imperfection that drives the unseen stalker to madness.
Helen is the movie’s heroine. Played by Dorothy Maguire, she is a companion and caregiver to the matriarch of a very wealthy family that seems to be on the cusp of immorality should the old lady die. Rendered mute by a psychologically traumatizing event from her early life, Helen finds herself among a group of women designated as “afflicted,” women who are falling prey to a local psychopath.
As a fierce storm builds outside and the many secrets of the family for which Helen is working begin to come to light, the audience learns that the killer is almost certainly a member of the family and — even worse — definitely lurking in the house.
The Spiral Staircase is filled with great performances, interesting dialogue, a long list of very famous actors and actresses from old Hollywood, and a very scary story with incredible cinematography on par with some of the tricks that directors are playing with today.
29 – L’uccello dalle iume di cristallo (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage) – Dario Argento (dir.) – 1970
Dario Argento is truly a master of building tension and telling a story in a wholly inventive and original way. L’ucello dall iume di cristalo (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage) was his directorial debut, and it sets the standard for the long list of violent, fast-paced films that followed.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is an excellent example of the Italian giallo (yellow), a movement in the European cinema that I’ve explained once before, but I probably need to redefine once again. Giallos were horror films released en masse, particularly in Italy, throughout the sixties, seventies, and eighties. They were a more artistic and creative example of what would come later in the American slasher crazy, and they form a long list of wildly imaginative films. Named “giallo” because of their resemblance to the yellow-covered pulp paperbacks on which they were inspired, these were violent, often very sexy flicks, that combined crime, murder mystery, and high melodrama.
Dario Argento put his marker on his forays into this field by portraying a set of motifs that continued in virtually every other film he has made. In The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Argento has an American writer, Sam Dumas (a ridiculously attractive Tony Musante) finishing a book and preparing to leave Europe to head back to the States. Just before his departure, he witnesses the attempted murder of a gallery owner’s wife and is subsequently plunged into an incredibly complex mystery that he inexplicably finds necessary to solve. Haunted by strange, dreamlike memories of the near crime, Dumas aids the police in hunting down a cold blooded killer who is believed to have been the individual he inadvertently interrupted. He becomes a target himself and turns amateur sleuth.
One of Argento’s directorial trademarks is to have his protagonist suddenly recall a very important clue from the beginning that he or she has either forgotten, misunderstood, or doesn’t realize has been seen at all. The director’s use of this motif in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage offers a very unexpected twist ending that makes viewing the film all the more worthwhile.
Although The Bird with the Crystal Plumage isn’t exactly a straight horror picture, it should be required viewing for everyone who follows the films in the horror genre.
30 — Terror in the Aisles — Andrew J. Kuehn (dir.) — 1984
In re-reading some of the descriptions of the films that I picked back in October, I realized that I used the term “gem” quite frequently. Maybe a little too frequently, but the truth is that there are so many great horror movie selections that are more than just scary; they are really wonderful pictures. I think that the genre of the macabre and the supernatural is often overlooked. All too often, people dismiss fright films as subversive, less than worthy of critique, and poor candidates for cinema buffs to give credit and review. My Halloween list was littered with all sorts of selections that I don’t think many people have ever seen and many that I doubt most have ever heard of, and tonight’s pick is yet another example of a bright, shining winner of a movie that I really think ought to be seen to be believed. I first saw it when I was very young, late one Friday night on HBO when my dad had gone to bed and it was just my mom, my brother, my sister, and myself (the horror movie nuts in the house), and the first time I saw it on the shelf at Video One in Shreve City, I immediately rented the tape (on more than one occasion). For many years, it was incredibly difficult to find, and it’s only just recently been given a DVD release (something I hope to add to my collection at some point in the not-too-distant future).
Terror in the Aisles is not a traditional horror movie, but it’s not necessarily a documentary either. It’s more of a very well edited and clever montage of every possible terrifying moment from every possible supernatural, slasher, science fiction, and crime flick released up to the point that the film first came out. Imagine all the creepiest, most dramatic, and most inventive bits from the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Roman Polanski, John Carpenter, George Romero, and Dario Argento. Set those wonderful snippets to a really fun score. Have Nancy Allen (Carrie, Dressed to Kill) and Donald Pleasence (Dr. Loomis from the Halloween series) sit in a theater and offer the audience commentary on some interesting moments from the history of the horror film. Include some realistic audience reactions. And you’ve got a really exciting ninety minutes of reliving some great memories and getting ideas to check out some of the selections that you’ve never seen.
Personally, I’m shocked that someone was able to secure the rights to the clips from all of the films included, but I’m glad he or she did. Additionally, I read on IMDb that when Terror in the Aisles was originally released, it had to be edited to avoid an X rating even though none of the films included had an X rating themselves — something that I believe gives even more credit to the masterful and painstaking editing that went into this one.
Probably not for everyone, especially not for those who don’t necessarily have the sort of visceral reaction to great cinematography and clever editing that those of us raised on these movies may; and there’s a rather protracted segment that focuses on the portrayal of sex and the objectification of women in terror films that includes one of the more graphic scenes from Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 — which I could have done without; however, Terror in the Aisles is worth the watch and definitely a DVD that people should probably try to get their hands on.
31 — Prom Night — Paul Lynch (dir.) — 1980
In America, in the late seventies and early eighties, movie houses and drive-ins were ruled by the tenets of the slashers. Like the often quoted lines of Randy Meeks from Scream (1996), there was a formula, “a very simple formula,” and these movies were released in droves and followed the formula to perfection. There was always a somewhat complicated and melodramatic back-story that either explained motivations for the events that were to follow or set the stage for crimes that were to be without motive — just relentlessly violent and gory for the sake of a screaming audience. The characters were usually stereotypes and often examples of larger cliques of students at an all-American high school. There was always the slutty girlfriend and the stock jock; the funny chick with the snappy lines whose sole purpose was to inject a little gallows humor into an otherwise irreverent script and the nerdy guy who is the butt of many jokes (….suspect number one…); there were the disapproving adults and the clueless police force; and then there was the other girl.
Smart, resourceful, often bookish, and usually an out-spoken symbol of virtue, you could always pick her out right at the start of the film — she was the one you knew would be the last woman standing, the one subjected to the final ten minute chase scene, and the one who would be left alone in the horror of a wasteland filled with the blood of all her dead friends. No one played this particular role better and with more noteworthy acclaim than the one and only Jamie Lee Curtis. In fact, she practically invented the trope of the “final girl.”
On the heels of the sleeper success of John Carpenter’s Halloween, Hollywood realized that it had a way to make a fast buck and guarantee a filled theater on a Friday night by simply copying what Carpenter had done: create a group of hyper-sexual, pot smoking party kids, pick a holiday or an event, give them all some shared secret or very loose morals, throw in a maniacal killer with a variety of clever weapons, splash a load of blood all over everything standing still, and kill everyone on screen off. Except one.
Prom Night isn’t much different from any of the other slasher flicks released around its time; however, it hasn’t rotted with thirty-odd years of age and deteriorated into something not worth the ninety minutes. Some of the actors really ham it up and there are moments of total camp that are a sheer delight. It’s fun and filled with all the perfect scares to make its audience jump at all the right spots as they beat their hands against their thighs while the killer pursues one of his or her victims through the halls of a dark high school and the dance reaches full force on the other side of the building. As usual, Jamie Lee Curtis is the chick who makes it all the way to the end, but it’s not a bad hour and a half spent watching her get there.
Academy Award worthy it’s not, but it’s something that really should be seen by every self-respecting and self-proclaimed horror genre aficionado.