Before I start, I have to qualify the post title. I’m pretty big on genre studies, and the horror genre is kind of my thing. So I’ve spent a lot of time with horror movies, and my top favorites (except for one or two) change on a yearly, if not monthly, basis. However, with Halloween coming up soon I thought I would post a personal top 10 horror movies that I will be watching (and in most cases, re-watching) this year. I had a friend ask me recently for some recommendations, and I feel like I should apologize, because the top 10 I gave him is not the same as the top 10 I am about to post here. I could go into an explanation of why, but let’s just chalk it up to my rebelling against the arbitrariness of capping the list at 10 (In fact, now that I think about it, I’m going to give this list an honorable mention – hooray for making up the rules as I go!). Anywho, counting down from #10….
#10. George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead (1985)
Which of the first three of Romero’s Living Dead movies gets into my top 10 is kind of like a game of undead musical chairs – every so often one shambles a little faster than the others, and the list changes accordingly. However, I really do have a soft spot for probably the least appreciated of the original trilogy. Abandoning much of the dark humor and comic book tone of Dawn of the Dead, this one feels thematically very similar to the first film. The sets are much more claustrophobic, and the conflict between military and science has only become more relevant with age. Also, this movie has some of the best zombie effects and death scenes I’ve ever seen – it is full of memorable moments which have been copied, referenced, and parodied in later films. And, for Romero newbies, the best part is that the films are so loosely-connected that you don’t really have to watch them in any particular order. If you’ve never seen ANY of them, I still recommend starting with Night of the Living Dead (it is an undisputed classic, and is also public domain & thus free to download), but for anyone looking to expand their zombie movie viewing this is a must-see.
#9. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)
As a Wes Craven fan, I could have put any number of his films in this spot – The Hills Have Eyes, The Serpent & the Rainbow, A Nightmare on Elm Street, etc (Well, probably not The Last House on the Left – it is a very effective and disturbing film, but it’s never been one that I enjoy watching). However, I think Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is a key moment for both his directorial career and for horror films in general. New Nightmare is Craven’s first major attempt at putting a postmodern spin on slasher movies. Rather than making yet another cookie cutter Nightmare movie, this is a Nightmare movie about the making of a Nightmare movie, featuring Craven, Heather Langencamp, John Saxon, Robert Englund, and producer Robert Shaye as themselves. It’s a very clever conceit, and really the only movie other than the original to not overdo Freddy’s sense of humor. Also, the way it plays with the horror genre, tropes, and audience expectations are all very much a lead-in to Craven’s work on the more mainstream (but also more successful) Scream trilogy. It won’t make much sense if you haven’t seen at least the first Nightmare movie (for the inexperienced, I recommend watching Nightmare on Elm Street, along with Part III: the Dream Warriors and, to understand what Freddy had become just before New Nightmare was made, Freddy’s Dead: the Final Nightmare).
#8. Frankenstein & the Monster from Hell (1974)
This was Peter Cushing’s final outing for as Dr. Frankenstein, and probably my favorite film in Hammer’s Frankenstein series. I love the idea of Frankenstein running amok in an asylum and, along with Frankenstein Must be Destroyed (another favorite), this film shows Frankenstein at his most villainous. The monster itself is a bit of a disappointment, since his face is accomplished with a rubber mask, but his appearance is certainly different from any other incarnation of the monster and David Prowse (best known as the body of Darth Vader) is physically perfect for playing a monster. Continuity was never terribly important to Hammer’s Frankenstein series, so watching them out of order is fine, but to really get a feel for the character’s arc I would suggest at least watching Curse of Frankenstein, perhaps Revenge of Frankenstein, and definitely Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed.
#7. The Evil Dead (1981)
This is it. The movie that introduced Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi to the world. Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn and Army of Darkness may be the more polished films of the series, but neither is as scary as what happens on that first night in the cabin. If you don’t know the story, a group of college students go for a weekend vacation at an abandoned cabin in the woods. When the Necronomicon ex Mortis is read, evil sprits are summoned to torment them. Suspenseful, gory, and with a much darker sense of humor than its two sequels, The Evil Dead is a must-watch for any horror movie marathon. The film is made all the more impressive when one considers the extremely limited budget and resources the cast and crew had, including the clever use of “Fake Shemps” (stand-ins for unavailable actors) necessitated by actors leaving the production at various times. The entire trilogy is a lot of fun, and becomes much more explicitly humorous and quotable (not to mention bigger-budgeted) with each sequel, but you have to start at the beginning. Also, now that the blu-ray has been released, the film looks and sounds better than it probably ever has and has some all-new special features – if you’re a fan, I thoroughly recommend picking it up even if you have previously bought the film on DVD.
#6. Werewolf of London (1935)
Before Lon Chaney Jr was bitten by Bela Lugosi, Henry Hull was Universal’s original werewolf. Less commercially successful than The Wolf Man, I still find this film to be very entertaining and definitely an influence on many lycanthrope movies that followed. The makeup effects are much more subtle than the hirsute appearance of Larry Talbot, but it is still pretty effective, making the transformation more of a Jekyll & Hyde affair than the more animalistic werewolves. This one doesn’t get shown much, but is available on DVD and is frequently on Netflix as an Instant title.
#5. The Haunting (1963)
To be honest I haven’t seen this film in years, and I’m looking forward to revisiting it. Directed by Robert Wise, it is a successful example of less equals more in horror. From what I remember, it manages to be scary almost entirely through what it doesn’t show the viewer. Just make sure you don’t accidentally pick up the remake!
#4. Night of the Demon (1957)
I’ve never actually seen this film, but it comes highly recommended from many sources I respect, including Martin Scorsese. Also, it is a direct influence on Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell in terms of both plot and the appearance of the demon. I can’t say much more, other than I am really looking forward to it. Also, make sure you watch the UK cut, titled Night of the Demon – the American re-edit, Curse of the Demon, is missing some footage and is supposed to not be as good (I think the DVD release includes both versions). Also, I couldn’t find a decent-quality trailer that allowed embedding, so here is the film’s theatrical poster.
#3. Suspiria (1977)
Dario Argento’s giallo masterpiece! This horror of this film always sneaks up on me, creeping into my subconscious as I sleep. Technically this film is amazing – gorgeous Technicolor (using the same vivid imbibition process used for Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind), a really cool score by Goblin, and some really good special effects and cinematography. Jessica Harper plays an American ballet student who travels to Munich to attend a prestigious dance school, and all hell breaks loose. Stylish, scary, and very entertaining, this is one of my favorite horror movies, and is not to be missed. Below are both the American and International trailers for the film, with commentary by Edgar Wright. These are both from Joe Dante’s website Trailers From Hell. If you’ve never visited the site, it is where Dante and other filmmakers provide commentary for movie trailers, mostly from old science fiction and horror films. I love the site, and have spent many hours just clicking from trailer to trailer – if you like what you see here, be sure to check them out.
#2. The Wicker Man (1973)
One of the best horror films of all time, this is another one whose scariness always sneaks up on me. I’m not even going to discuss plot here, because if you don’t know what it’s about the best thing to do is just watch it. It’s a slow burn of mounting dread with one of the best payoffs in horror movie history. Add to that a great script by Anthony Schaffer, wonderful performances by Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee, and some really effective musical numbers composed by Paul Giovanni, and you get a horror film unlike any other. As with The Haunting, beware the remake!
#1. The Exorcist (1973)
This is one of my favorite films, horror or otherwise, of all time. This is the one that gets everything right. Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Jason Miller, Lee J. Cobb, and Linda Blair are all fantastic. The effects are incomparable, and the mixture of gross-out effects, shock scares, and subtle build-ups of suspense are measured in just the right amounts. In addition, the thematic depth of the film (and the novel on which it is based) sets this apart from the imitators that would follow. I alternate between the original theatrical cut and the director’s extended cut (formerly known as “the Version You’ve Never Seen), as both have their merits, but I think this year will be a director’s cut year. Like The Evil Dead, this film has a new blu-ray out, with remastering supervised by director William Friedkin and I have purposely avoided watching my copy until Halloween. As I noted in a prior review, I love The Exorcist III too, but for sheer horror the original film is unequalled.
Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
An early film by Brian De Palma, this is another favorite of mine. I omitted it from the list only because it isn’t really all that scary. Rather, it is a very smart parody of both the horror genre and popular music, with songs written by Paul Williams (who also plays the villainous Swan). Some day I’ll write up a proper review of this one, but take my word for it – it is worth seeing.
Dead of Night (1945)
This is another one I have not seen before, and I hope to be watching it soon. However, I probably won’t get to it for Halloween, as it is pretty hard to track down (thank you to my friends who have helped me in my quest). This is the original British portmanteau film (a kind of horror anthology made up of several short stories held together by a linking narrative) that would later inspire much of the output by Amicus Studios in the 1960s and 70s. Should be fun!
Nosferatu, Phantom der Nacht (1979)
No, not the silent movie (although it is awesome too) – this is Werner Herzog’s remake/readaptation which falls somewhere in between the original film and a more faithful rendering of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This was one of three Dracula movies to be released in one year (the other two being the Frank Langella version and the George Hamilton spoof Love at First Bite) and it is definitely my favorite of the three. Klaus Kinski plays a grotesque, haunted, melancholy vampire, and the dark, almost nihilistic humor that pervades the film is difficult to describe. It’s not on the list because, as with Phantom of the Paradise, it just isn’t very scary. Atmospheric, stylish, and beautifully shot, but not horror as most moviegoers think of the genre.
Another late-70s vampire film, this one is directed by George A. Romero. Martin is a young man who thinks he is a vampire. The film is never clear if this is true or not, but he clearly has issues. This is a brilliant deconstruction of the vampire myth combined with a Graduate-esque coming of age story, with a standout performance by John Amplas as Martin. The only reason it’s not in the top 10 is I’d already chosen Day of the Dead and tried to avoid using the same director twice. Nevertheless, it is an amazing, underrated film.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Part 2 (1986)
Director Tobe Hooper waited ten years to make a sequel to his classic Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and when he did I don’t think anybody got the joke. This grotesque, intentionally excessive and unsettling movie intentionally takes the tropes of 80s slasher movies to a parodic extreme, and is actually a very clever satire – if you can stomach it. Plus, the late great Dennis Hopper dual-wields chainsaws. It didn’t make the cut because I was trying to spread things out chronologically, and didn’t want too many 80s movies on the list (however, I was unable to shake my preference for 1970s horror, which clearly dominates the list)
And I think that does it for this Halloween! I could go on from here, but then I would just be listing every horror movie I enjoy – I’ve got to save something for next year, after all. I’m sure there are things I’ve left out, but it doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy them. Feel free to share the horror movies you’re most looking forward to this weekend either here in the comments or via Twitter – and by all means have a happy, scary, creepy, spooktacular Halloween!
© Ralph Lawson III, 2010, All Rights Reserved