Here is a subject I have mulled over for a time that seems ready to post on. Horror is one of my favorite genres, and even though Halloween is months past, there's no reason to skip horror films until next October, is there? We like horror, I think, because it allows us a free adreneline release. Once the action on screen is over, we can look down and realize it was only a movie. But at times, images or acts on screen may stay with us and continue to scare us long after the movie is over. This is the mark of a great horror film for me. And thus my list includes those films that accomplished that. The list I offer is my own personal opinion, but there are surely a movie or two I forgot, or perhaps one I have not yet seen. So look it over and let me know if there are others missing. I reserve the right to change it if I notice a glaring mistake. So here's the list (with director and year released also listed):
1. Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975)
Of course this movie makes it. If it is my favorite movie of all time, then it must be # 1 on this list. As a pure horror film, this movie offers up plenty of scares and suspense, and that John Williams score doesn't hurt that effort at all. Read the link for a full review.
2. The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973)
If you have not witnessed this spine chilling, creepy and downright disturbing classic, then you must. I would recommend the original, however. The "version you've never seen" should stay that way. There are far too many moments to pick out, but suffice it to say this movie has horror written all over it from start to finish and it is a bonafide classic. Poor Father Damian.
3. Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)
The sight of Michael Myers in his white Bill Shatner mask scared the bejesus out of me when I was a youngster. Not much has changed over the years except that I am now aware of what The Shape is about to do. Throw in some Donald Pleasence ("He's pure EVIL!!") and the scream queen lungs of Jamie Lee Curtis and here is a winner. Her first scream on film, by the way and the mold from which cookie cutter slasher flicks took their cue for the next two decades.
4. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974)
I suppose it is the pseudo-documentary style this film uses that creeped me out so much. From the moment the kids pick up the hitch-hiker, we know that we are in for a ride too. And it's not pretty. The debut of Leatherface, grandpa and the gang, the lungs of Marilyn Burns and the insaneness of it all - these make this one of the best, and one that has had its share of imitators over the years. None have ever been as good.
5. Re-Animator (Stuart Gordon, 1985)
This came very close to landing at #3, but I could not short change the last two. But as a horror film, it's pretty darn near perfect. Now you may question some of the acting decisions, but not me. In fact, some of the overacting works well to harken back to the Lovecraft story. In my opinion, Jeffrey Combs does an incredible job, not only portraying the insanity of Dr. West, but also the frustration gained from the reanimating fluid not always working correctly. Some hilarious bits as well as horrific. And do not miss the doctor and his daughter in their tender moment. Let's just say he wants to give her a great big kiss.
6. Night of the Living Dead (George Romero, 1968)
Most fans of this series will say Dawn of the Dead is the better film. I disagree. Perhaps it is the black and white of Night, or perhaps it is because Night was the first. For me it is because of the daughter and her mother in the basement. If you have not yet seen it, I will say no more as to not spoil it. If you have seen it, then you know exactly what I am talking about. That and some pretty good acting for a low budget picture make this one of the best and most beloved horror films of all time.
7. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
How could anyone do a "tops" list of horror and not include this film? Not only is this a great horror film, it is a great film overall. In fact, it may rank in the top 5 of my favorite Hitchcock films - and that is saying something since he is one of the best. Perkins shines as the reclusive and mother loving Norman Bates. The tone is suspensful from the very moment the movie begins, and the ending will shock those that have not seen it. I imagine that to fans of the late 50's and early 60's, this film was considered edgy. Though it has not dated much, if at all really, the level of horror and gore on screen today tends to make this one seem a bit tame in comparison. In truth, however, the horror is plenty there, if perhaps more subtle and psychological. It is a film that desrves its own review one of these days so I shall stop there and let this suffice until such time. You simply must see it.
8. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Part 2 (Tobe Hooper, 1986)
Laugh all you want, but this film easily ranks among the best. Where the orginal used shock and realism, this film uses camp and gruesome settings. Most of the action is the same in many respects, but there are scenes in Part 2 that rival any in the first in terms of level of horror. The ordeal that the heroine must go through in 2 is just as bad, if not worse in some cases, as the lead character did in the first. And the acting, by not just the heros (Dennis Hopper anyone?) but also the evil Sawyer family is top notch in my opinion. It really is a nonstop descent into horror just as much as the first, it just takes a different way there. Both succeed.
9. Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)
Not long ago, I might have left this off of the list. I admit to watching Aliens far more than the orginal over the years. And not because I thought it better - just more current and more action oriented. But after rewatching this recently, I have to say it matches up well to any other slasher flick made, and in most cases rises above them. Possibly due to its outerspace setting, or the fine actors involved, this film raises the bar on both science fiction and horror. In some ways, this movie follows some of the same path of Jaws in that you rarely see the evil killer in the first part of the film, and things tend to get off to a slower start than one thinks about in a horror film. But it works as the tension level is raised and eventually our crew is battling alien beasties and dying one by one. Not to mention, this was Sigourney Weaver's first film. Not a bad beginning for a great career.
10. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (John McNaughton, 1990)
First, this movie was actually made in 1986 and not released until later. And B - it's creepy as hell! Not sure how to actually describe the film other than a look into madness and depravity. Michael Rooker is incredible as the lead character, and this movie does not try to kid you into thinking "It's just a movie. The jock gets it next, then the black guy and then it's over and the scream queen lives." No, this movie throws it in your face with reality as its watch word. For many, it is too much. For me, it was disturbing and extremely well made. Not something I want to watch over and over again, but certainly one that deserves the praise it gets.
11. The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)
A film that gets it's cast, director and script little golden statues ought to be considered one of the best in it's genre and this film does not disappoint. Anthony Hopkins revitalized his career playing what amounts to a supporting role, in truth. Jodie Foster I have always felt was a bit over-rated in this movie, but by no means bad. The rest of the cast takes care of business and well, and the whole thing is tied in a neat and scary bow. The horror is not seen so much as thought about here, and it works. It won Best Picture for a reason.
12. Dawn of the Dead (Zach Snyder, 2004)
Oh, how the Romero lovers will be out for me tonight. How can I suggest such a blasphemous thing such as this - that a remake of the classic Dawn of the Dead is better than the orginal? Well, watch both and then ask me that again. There is more subtext to the orginal Romero film (more on that later) but as far as action is concerned, this version beats the orginal hands down. The acting is better, the zombies are better, the kill shots are better and frankly, the script as a whole is better. Don't get me wrong, I liked the orginal. But I loved this one.
13. An American Werewolf in London (John Landis, 1981)
There are just some movies that hold a special place in your heart and mind and this is one of them. As you have most likely noticed in the list so far, I tend to like a little humor in my horror films. Perhaps this is my way of gearing myself up for the scary scenes or something - a little brevity in between. This film has that and it is smooth humor. Nothing overt or campy, nothing meant to take you out of the mood completely - only a few moments here and there that mark this as a classic. I believe the line is something like "David! You let me die!" Correct me if I am wrong good readers. The make-up and special effects were awesome, the acting top notch and the feel something truly special.
14. Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn (Sam Raimi, 1987)
The sequel to Raimi's original Evil Dead comes out much different than the first film. In most respects, it is the same film, but the second offers many more things than the first attempted, most notably humor. I admit to not seeing this film for many years knowing full well I was missing out on something. Once I did see it, I was impressed and overjoyed. Bruce Campbell is a cult favorite for reason and it's this film that really shows why. Slapstick and gore combine to give the audience something truly special - hilarious, disgusting and disturbing. You must see it.
15. Rosemary's Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968)
What can I say? I hate Mia Farrow and like to see her having to deal with the devil. That and I love Ruth Gordon and don't mind seeing her act evil. Of course, the fact that Rosemary's Baby is a great film does not hurt either. The tale of one woman's fight to keep her baby, Papa Don't Preach this is not. Instead, you cannot help but be horrified as you watch her come under the influence of Satan's merry band. Plus, it's Polanski.
16. House of 1,000 Corpses (Rob Zombie, 2002)
You may not agree, but this film took me on a ride. You can see my small write up of it here. I was overjoyed to see a director and screenwriter who were not afraid to pay tribute and even copy some of the classics of the genre. Much as Brian De Palma has with his own films, Zombie does a wonderful job paying tribute and creating something original at the same time. The performances, situations and gore all come together to make a truly terrific horror film and probably the best one made in the past five years (not counting remakes - see above.)
17. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
"Honey? I'm home!" Classic line, isn't it? No, I don't particularly care for Shelly Duvall. And no, I realize that King did not feel this version was truthful to his source novel. But with all that said, Kubrick makes a stylized film with his signature touches all over it, and Nicholson gives a truly creepy and nuanced performance, at least for the first half. And by the time we are into his over-acting phase, we just enjoy watching him chew the scenary...and trying to chop up his wife. I was hooked the first time I saw it, and it has stayed that way for me ever since. It might just be one of those really loved it or really hated it type of movies.
18. The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1983)
Yes, both of Raimi's Evil Dead movies make the list despite being pretty much the same film in principle. However, there was an attempt on the first to make a horror film in the classic sense, though with plenty of gore (thank God.) Rather than just Ash and his girlfriend, this one has five people going to the cabin for a weekend and finding that they are not alone. This one has the classic tree rape (I will leave you to figure that out on your own if you have not yet seen it), far more elements of sheer horror than the remake and should be watched, if anything, because it is the debut feature film from one of the most talented directors working today. Raimi's first film showed the promise of what would become a string of great if not classic films. And this one did it's job in both gross out and frightening horror.
19. Scream (Wes Craven, 1996)
If anything, this film belongs as a chronicle of popular horror over the last twenty years. The references alone are worth it (and make note that Halloween gets more than any other). But if you recall, the scares are just as big as the humor. Yes, it's commercial. Yes, it led to a slew of I Know What You Did At The Last Wrong Turn Before The House On Haunted Hill Made You Scream 5s, starring pretty and dumb WB actors and no script, but this was the orginal and by far the best. And one simply must have a Craven film on a list of horror films. Musn't they?
20. Dawn of the Dead (George Romero, 1978)
OK, here you go Dawn fans. It does belong on my top 20, just not as close to the top as some would like it to be. There is something about Romero's horror that differs from all others - he actually tries to say something with it, to a point. The main object of disgust in this film is consumer culture. So our leads end up in a mall and at one point in the film (which I really liked) seemed to drift right back into their daily habits without much thought, even though the entire town is outside wanting their sweet, sweet brains. It is a must see film, and tries to take the idea of Night a step further. Whether it truly does or not is subject to discussion. I'd say no myself, but reasonable minds can easily disagree.
And a few honorable mentions:
Friday the 13th (Sean Cunningham, 1980) - Some might argue that this film belongs on the above list. I found it difficult to leave it off, I admit. The first Friday has just as much production value as, say, Halloween. But the killer does not quite scare like Michael. Plus, you don't get to see the famed Hockey mask until #3. Jason does not even start to kill until #2. There are good performances in it, most notably Betsy Palmer, and includes one notable face that unfortunately does not help you play his game any better - Kevin Bacon. I love the series, and love this film, but it falls just outside of the top 20.
Christine (John Carpenter, 1983) - Another film that falls just outside. There is not a lot of true horror in this movie, even though it is billed as such. I don't recall being particularly scared. But I do recall enjoying myself every time I see this movie. Great acting, great story and a really cool looking car make for a fun film. And the story is at least a horror story. So for that, it gets a mention.
The Hitcher (Robert Harmon, 1986) - Ahh, the joys of early cable. This is one of those films that I caught thanks to early HBO and I have always been happy that I did. Rutger Hauer and C. Thomas Howell (remember him?) combine for a suspenseful and quite scary outcome. The mood and tone are perfect throughout and Hauer's performance is truly creepy. I have not seen it in some time, so this is a sense memory more than anything else. I just recall it scared the hell out of me when I first saw it.
Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, 2004) - And this last is one I have just recently seen. It combines the zombies of Romero with British humor. Since I enjoy both, you can imagine that this film was a winner in my book. Simultaniously being hilarious and scary, it pulls off a hard order. Mostly because the British humor found here is much more subtle and dry than other humor/horror mixes. The humor could have easily pulled you out of the horror, but the actors stayed true to the material and did not play anything overtly for laughs. But make no mistake - horror is this movie's game and it delivers that as well. One of the best of the past year, it has quickly gained a place in my DVD library and may crack the top 20 with repeated viewings. We'll have to see.
* * *
Well, that's the list. You will note that there are no classics prior to 1960 on the list. I admit that I have not seen near enough films prior to this year, and thusly horror suffers along with all other genres. But the ones that I have seen do not rise to the level of the later films listed above. This is not to suggest that films such as Nosferatu, Frankenstein and Dracula are poorly made. All three were fun to watch, and in some cases even scary (especially Nosferatu), but the scares are created by an earlier mode of movie-making and thus easy to anticipate. Nor does the acting style and limits of design lend towards the realism one can expect from later films.
I would mention one film from that time that has potential to make the list - Freaks (1932) by Tod Browning. I have not seen this film but once, and since that time have never truly decided if I liked it or not. Guess that means I should see it again. And somewhat off the subject, there is another film from much later (70's I am guessing) that revolved around a babysitter and someone calling her from inside the house asking her if she had checked on the children. I cannot recall the name and have never seen it since, but I vividly recall watching it when I was a child and it scared the holy hell out of me. If someone recognizes the film, let me know and I might have to adjust the list after watching again.
And finally, I should mention three last films that are horror and are ones I enjoy - just not enough for them to make a "tops" list. The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955), Dressed to Kill (Brian De Palma, 1980) and Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1985). All three are good films, with Hunter being truly great. But for one reason or another, none of them rise to the level of horror I was looking for. Night of the Hunter's best qualities are the acting and mood, and it would be the closest to cracking into the list, but just misses. I guess I never really thought of it as a horror flick, though the subject matter does lead that way. Dressed to Kill has parts that are dreadfully slow and tedious. I know much of that was what De Palma was going for, but it really ruins the film for me. And Nightmare - well, let's just say that by the time it came out, the slasher flick had really been done to death. Freddy pales in comparison to Jason or Michael. And besides - my favorite Nightmare is #3 with Patricia Arquette....mmmmm, Patricia Arquette....
Woops...sorry about that. I drifted off. Anyway, that's the list and my various thoughts on it. Watch the films if you have not seen them. And let me know if I forgot one. Shoot - if you want, feel free to leave me your own top 10. Enjoy. That is all.