Friday, February 11, 2005

Great Horror Films

So, someone stopped by a previous post and asked me to write up my Top Ten Horror Films of All Time list. This is an extraordinarily hard list to compile. Horror might be my favorite genre, and many horror films rank among my favorite movies of all time.

Adding to the difficulty, there are several types of horror films, and each variety provides its own distinct pleasures. How to compare a cerebral, idea-driven horror film like Dead Ringers to a slasher movie in the Halloween vein? It's nearly impossible.

So, instead of a traditional Top 10, I'm going to give you a list of terrific horror films and then tell you why they deserve a ranking on the list. It will make your trip to the video store more difficult, perhaps, but elucidate more about these films than any numerical listing could ever provide.

So, without further ado, here is the Crushed by Inertia presentation of:

Great Horror Films, According to Me

The Shining (1980)

This one will find a spot on any reputable list of the greatest horror films ever. Stanley Kubrick's chilling take on psychosis, alcoholism and the plight of the American family man just gets under your skin right away. The relatively simple story about a family trapped in a haunted, snowed-in hotel is filled with memorable imagery - elevators leaking blood, ghostly little girls taunting a young boy, Jack Nicholson chasing his family around like an axe-wielding maniac.

But what sticks with me the most about The Shining isn't the voilent conclusion but the feeling of inevitability that hangs over the entire film, from the very first scene onward. We hear about Jack's history of violence with his son, Danny, not to shed light on his character but to warn us. This will happen again. When Scatman Crothers' cook discovers the young Danny has ESP, he uses the opportunity to warn him - use this gift when you get in trouble.

Is this a comment about alcoholism? That addicts are doomed to repeat a endless, destructive cycle? I'm not sure. But whatever it is, it makes the whole film difficult to watch, intrinsically unsettling. This is quite possibly my favorite horror film of all time.

Repulsion (1965)

We're hitting up some of the unquestioned classics of the genre first. This Roman Polanski entry stars Catherine Deneuve as a seriously troubled young women who goes insane while spending a week alone in her apartment. She normally lives with her sister, you see, who has just gotten married. So when Big Sis goes on her honeymoon, Carole is left to her own devices. She begs off of work for the week and locks herself inside the apartment, beginning a process of mental deterioration that will end with her turning homicidal.

Polanski's film works for two reasons: we're only granted Carole's perspective on the events as they unfold, and Carole's bizarre thought processes are never explained. It's clear that Carole fears men (the "repulsion" of the title), and a few times, it appears she may have been raped or assaulted sexually, but there are no gimmickly flashbacks or emotional breakdowns to reveal the truth. Carole simply is who she is - a woman terrified of male contact - and the film asks us to fill in the rest.

By the final act, when the light of the real world once more penetrates the dark hovel in which Carole has spent her time, we're surprised by just how far she's sunk, even though we were there with her the entire time. It's a brilliant performance by Deneuve, manic, crazy, non-verbal and yet somehow sympathetic.

May (2002)

And now, let's jump ahead to 2002, to this phenomenal debut film from Lucky McKee. May is a wonderful genre mash-up, combining the oddball charm of Ghost World or Rushmore with the spastic malevolence of the best 80's slasher films. It's filled with terrific, oddball characters and goofy dialogue, but there's more going on in this underrated indie than meets the gouged-out eye.

Angela Bettis' May is a one-of-a-kind film creation. She's a cute, likable freak, the sort of girl you'd meet and flirt with for a few minutes before discovering that she's hopelessly insane. All May wants is a little companionship, but her innate weirdness keeps freaking people out, causing them to leave her and occasionally treat her very cruelly. What else is she to do but butcher them and pack them in her cooler?

McKee has a sense of humor that's darker than most. Dark comedy usually plays on the absurd morbidity of a situation. A good example would be Peter Berg's somewhat underrated Very Bad Things. A group of friends freak out about having accidentally murdered a prostitute, and argue about what to do with the body. It's funny because these are neurotic middle-aged family men suddenly thrust in a violent, horrific situation with which they can't cope. Most movie characters know what to do when there's a dead body, but not these suburban office jockeys.

May doesn't go down this road for a moment. It has a character who's exceptionally comfortable around blood, gore and horror. Who craves it in a way. It's funny because no one else in the movie realizes that they're dealing with a psychopath, and not just some weird goth chick. McKee is one of the very few filmmakers who could get a laugh out of a roomfull of blind kids crawling over glass, but God bless him, he does.

Don't Look Now (1973)

I've mentioned this film a few times before on the blog. It's not a horror movie in the traditional things-coming-out-and-shocking-you mold. It's much more about mood, along the lines of Amenabar's The Others or Guillermo del Toro's The Devil's Backbone. Parents Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie lost their daughter in a tragic drowning accident, and now, months later, they're haunted by her memory during a trip to Venice.

Christie's character meets an elderly pair of sisters, one of whom claims to have psychic contact with the dead girl. Sutherland wants to hear nothing about it, insisting to his wife that their daughter is dead and gone forever. But then he begins seeing her dashing about between canals in her bright red raincoat.

Director Nicholas Roeg kind of borrows these elements from traditional horror films, without really embracing them as his own. His film concerns itself much more with the marriage at its center, and how the pain of their shared loss has driven Christie and Sutherland apart. The sudden re-entrance of their daughter into their lives could either renew their bond and bring them closer together or finally pull them apart forever. I'll leave you to discover which.

Videodrome (1983)

The first of two twisted, ingenius David Cronenberg masterworks on this list. James Woods stars in the role he was born to play, pervy creep Max Renn. Renn programs a small UHF station, mainly with smutty content illegally pulled off of international satellite broadcasts. He comes across a program, sent out from a location he can't identify, called "Videodrome," that appears to be a snuff film.

It turns out, "Videodrome" is a mind-control tool, created by a whacked out inventor to produce "video hallucinations," but then hijacked by a villainous corporation for use as a weapon. Now that Max has seen "Videodrome," he's become something of a programmed assassin, at the mercy of his unknown masters.

The film was notable in its time (1983) for its groundbreaking make-up and special effects, done in part by Rick Baker (who has also worked on Star Wars, American Werewolf in London, Men in Black, The Ring, The Frighteners and Hellboy, among others). Max's "video hallucinations" involve all manner of horrific images. He sees a videotape made of breathing, flesh-like material. He sees a cavity open up in his own chest, into which videotapes can be inserted. And he sees all manner of violent sex fantasies acted out before him, sometimes involving him and his fantasy woman (played by Deborah Harry of Blondie).

These effects are squishy, gooey, and gross, and they have an added visceral effect on the viewer because they're real, not CG. As sophisticated as digital imaging technology has become, there's something about practical special effects created by the human hand that's simply more disgusting than anything created on a machine has yet become.

Like all Cronenberg films, the horror of the situation comes from within Max, from watching him deteriorate over time. He loses control over both his physical form and his mental state, and as he's manipulated by strange forces from afar, we begin to feel confused, almost dizzy from the gruesome visuals and the stacatto, underexplained narrative. This is an intensely disturbing, dense and difficult film, but it's worth the effort.

The Fly (1986)

The second Cronenberg film on this list has been his biggest box office success to date, so it's fairly well-known. Seth Brundle's accident, mixing up his genetics with that of a common housefly, has become something of a pop culture touchstone, making it into, among other things, an episode of The Simpsons' "Treehouse of Horror" Halloween special.

Which is all the more surprising when you consider the troubling, dark nature of the original film. Soon after Brundle's accident, he starts adding new deformities and mutations by the second, and though his girlfriend (Geena Davis) wants to stand by his side, eventually she's as disgusted by this freak as the audience, and must leave him.

I've read people theorizing that the film works as a metaphor for AIDS. Brundle contracts his "problem," begins to physically fall apart, and eventually his lover leaves him because she can't stand to see him in weakened form. It holds together, for the most part, but the film, to me, says more about Brundle's single-minded devotion to his craft. We've all heard the phrase "giving his body for science," but here's a man actually willing to go for it on a literal level.

And, of course, the movie plays with Cronenberg's ongoing obsession with technology and biology's strange interrelation. Brundle gets into this situation in the first place attempting to teach his computer about the strange properties of human flesh. Just as "Long Live the New Flesh" becomes a refrain in Videodrome, so do all of Brundle's innovations depend on instructing technology to understand the intricate, strange nature of human life.

Dead Alive (1992)

Okay, so that's enough serious, thought-provoking horror for the moment. Let's move on to some fun stuff. Peter Jackson's zombie comedy Dead Alive is about as close as anyone has ever come to making live-action Looney Tunes. This film is a pure assualt of comic carnage, with spectacular effects work by the WETA company that would later gain worldwide acclaim for its work on Lord of the Rings.

But here, it's less about larger-than-life monsters (although there is one), and more about dizzying amounts of airborne viscera. When the nebbishly Lionel discovers that his mother has become a zombie, his first reaction is not to exterminate her, but go on serving her in death as he did in life. Even after she goes on a rampage creating more zombies, he can't bear to even tell anyone, preferring to lock her up in his basement.

Soon enough, half the town has become an army of the undead, and Lionel's only escape is to, well, churn them up with his lawn mower. Or force their limbs into a blender. Or rip their heads off with a fork. Or even have a kung fu fight with them in a graveyard. Like Sam Raimi's Evil Dead 2 or Jackson's later The Frighteners, there's so much gore on display, it becomes humorous rather than disgusting after about 2 minutes. This is maybe the least disgusting disgusting movie ever made.

Evil Dead 2 (1987)

And, of course, I had to mention this standard-bearer of the comedy/horror genre. Bruce Campbell remains a geek god to this very day because of Sam Raimi's low-budget romp. As Ash, Bruce opens up the Necronomicon, the Book of the Dead, and then faces off against some sort of ancient evil, hiding deep in the woods.

The first Evil Dead movie told this story essentially straight (though Campbell's always one to add a dash of sly humor). But the sequel keeps getting bigger and zanier until the entire enterprise becomes a slapstick farce, kind of like Bringing Up Baby if it involved an army of zombies and a power capable of slamming into trees.

Plus, the soundtrack kicks ass. And Bruce Campbell has to chainsaw his own hand off. You can't beat that.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

I said The Shining was probably my favorite horror movie of all time. This one might get my vote for "The Scariest." Tobe Hooper's film is so unflinching, so gritty and so immediate, it puts most traditional Hollywood scare machines to shame. Has any horror filmmaker in history put a low budget to better use? Hooper's film would look all wrong with slick cinematography and professional actors (as Marcus Nispel's failed remake proved last year).

We follow around a nondescript group of hippies traveling through Texas in a van who run afoul of a family of cannibalistic redneck whackjobs, headed up by a guy in a mask made of human flesh named Leatherface. In one sequence, featuring some of the most unforgettable mise-en-scene in horror film history, Marilyn Burns stumbles into a room where all the furniture has been fashioned from human bones and body parts. This is what horror films are all about - giving you a glimpse, an image, of insanity, and then letting you mull it over for a while.

There's very little resolution to the film, which left it open to inferior sequels but also adds to the film's overall mystique. Leatherface, according to the mythology, is still out there in Travis County, swinging his chainsaw around and looking for attractive teens to gut. So, try to stay on the main roads.

The Thing (1982)

John Carpenter made a whole pile of films in the 1970's and 80's that I greatly admire and enjoy. Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13, The Fog, Escape from New York, Big Trouble in Little China, They Live. But this entry tops them all. It features outstanding special effects from Rob Bottin, the single greatest Kurt Russell performance of all time, and a remarkably adept supporting cast including Wilford Brimley, Richard Dysart and the always-entertaining Keith David. You know Keith David, people. He's the guy in Something About Mary who asks Ben Stiller if it's "the franks or the beans?"

Anyway, The Thing is a remake of an old horror film I haven't ever bothered to see but really should. In involves an alien who has crashed to Earth in Antarctica, and who possesses the unique ability to meld with any living thing it comes in contact with and steal its form. When a team of researchers and sub-military guys from a nearby station discover the creature, it turns them against one another. After all, if this Thing can look like anything it wants, what's to stop it from impersonating one of the crew members.

The Thing slowly winnows the team down, and even when it leaves some people alive, they can't be sure who's real and who's an alien. So the whole film works constantly on multiple levels; most horror movies just give you a monster running around that everyone has to avoid, but this one takes the monster and puts him in the hideout along with all the characters. They're running from everything, both outside and in, and Carpenter really works overtime to bleed all the tension he can from the situation.

Plus, Bottin's effects are just jaw-dropping. Russell is constantly interrupting the alien halfway through its assimilation process, creating all sorts of freakish biological material, most memorably a head with spindly legs spiking out of it. He also worked on Total Recall, which used oozing detritus with somewhat less success.

The Creeping Flesh (1973)

The Hammer Company in England made tons of terrific horror films all through the 50's and 60's, right through the 70's. The most memorable of these films combine the talents of legendary actors Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, both best-known in this country for their work in George Lucas' Star Wars series (and, for Lee, anyway, for his contribution to the Lord of the Rings series as Saruman).

I'd recommend all of the Cushing-Lee Hammer team-ups, especially 1958's The Horror of Dracula and 1959's The Hound of the Baskervilles. Several of the films in which they appeared independently are terrific as well, like The Evil of Frankenstein, which stars Cushing or Taste the Blood of Dracula, which only stars Lee.

This is among my favorite of the team-ups, made by the two actors in the immediate post-Hammer era, and it's little-seen so I thought I'd feature it above one of the more famous entries.

The film stars Cushing as a Victorian-era researcher who made a bizarre find during a trip to Papua New Guinea. It appears to be a bone, but when water is spilled on top, flesh begins to grow out from the bone and create some sort of life-form. Lee plays Cushing's confidant, who heads up an aslyum and has begun work on a volume about the origin of insanity.

And the whole thing unravels from there. Soon, the bone has become a voracious monster roaming the countryside, making Cushing afraid for his well-being and that of his comely daughter. The film uses the trappings of a horror film to really explore the sexual repression and mysogeny of the Victorian era. Cushing goes mad in an attempt to "save" his daughter from "the creeping flesh," clearly meant to be hysteria about her reaching sexual maturity, even going so far as to inject her with an "anti-evil vaccine." Well, the allegorical ramifications of all this activity, I leave to you to decide.

Suffice it to say, this is a wonderfully made film with a lot on its mind, and of course, terrific, Grand Guginol performances from Lee and Cushing. Director Freddie Francis was a cinematographer initially, and helmed some of the best-looking of the Hammer and post-Hammer films, including the aforementioned The Evil of Frankenstein, Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, and Dracula Has Risen From the Grave.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Every movie dork worth his salt knows George Romero's zombie satire Dawn of the Dead backwards and forwards. It's the greatest zombie film ever made. Romero didn't invent zombies, exactly, but he defined what they are, how they work, why they're here and what we can do about them for an entire generation of filmmakers and zombie fans.

This was his follow-up to the more straight-ahead scares of Night of the Living Dead. That film contains its share of social commentary, no doubt, but it's also made up of fairly elemental horror film stuff - an isolated cabin, a few lone survivors, a menace terrorizing everything just outside the door. Dawn of the Dead really opens up the universe. We open with zombies taking over the world, not just a cemetary or farm. A few survivors manage to escape in a helicopter, headed for parts unknown, and they stop on the roof of a shopping mall to gather supplies.

As the heroes attempt to outlast the zombies in the mall, they are foiled by a reckless gang of bikers (headed by Tom Savini, who headed the film's make-up and effects team) who themselves seek refuge inside the walls of the shopping center. The set-up allows Romero to explore not just the nature of zombie-dom, but get in some real sharp digs at modern America's consumerist society. During an early scene, when someone wonders aloud why zombies would gravitate towards a mall, it's suggested that they work on instinct. "This was a place that was important in their daily lives." And the shots of zombies awkwardly lurching about to the strains of muzak speak for themselves.

Savini famously said he wanted the gore in Dawn of the Dead to resemble the corpses he had seen during his service in the Vietnam War, and while I can't say the effects ever look realistic, they are incredibly vivid and memorable. Early on in the film, a zombie takes a bite out of a man's arm, and Savini gets the consistancy of the flesh just right.

Carrie (1976)

The second Stephen King adaptation on the list, this is another film that rises far above the rather pedestrian nature of its source material. (Hey, that's not a was, after all, King's first published book).

Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie both have the roles of their careers in Brian De Palma's hyper-sexual, over-the-top take on King's novel about a shy young girl with telepathic powers. Carrie's meekness is tied instantly to her blossoming womanhood, and her "powers" express all the passion she's forced to bottle up around her unstable, overzealously religious mother. When she's really set off by a prank concocted by the popular crowd (portrayed by newcomer John Travolta and De Palma mainstay Nancy Allen), the result is fiery death for just about everyone at the prom.

The fantasy of every misunderstood, unpopular high school girl writ large, Carrie is a film that sticks with you, both because of De Palma's technical mastery and Spacek's otherworldly, sensitive performance.

Freaks (1932)

Tod Browning made Freaks with a bunch of real sideshow performers in 1932, with few effects, only one year after directing the classic Dracula, and it's among the creepiest, most successful horror movies I've ever seen. The story of a beautiful trapeze artist transformed into the hideous Feathered Hen by a group of nefarious midgets and weirdos shocked audiences in its day, and it's still a shocking as ever.

Part of the effect of the film, it must be said, is exploitative. Browning cast real "freaks" in the film to shock his audience, and a lot of the reaction to the film comes from seeing these deformities projected on the big screen. There are Siamese Twins, a girl with no arms who does everything with her feet, and Johnny Eck, known to the world as Half-Boy. Many of the freaks give sensitive, nuanced performances, but it's difficult to see them as real people in a film that casts them as sinister mutants.

Much about Freaks has become the stuff of legend, particularly the unsettling "one of us" chant the freaks give to Cleopatra after accepting her into their fold. And the message isn't all bad - she is punished in the end because of her inability to accept the freaks as fellow people. There's at least some level of understanding here, a level of maturity not present in most other horror filmmaking of the time.

The Ring (2002)

My father reminded me this evening that I forgot to include Gore Verbinski's entirely successful American adaptation of The Ring to this list. I enjoyed this version a good deal more than the Japanese version, Ringu, whose director will helm the upcoming American sequel. How confusing...

Anyway, Verbinski kept what I enjoyed about the Japanese film - the eerie mystery that permeates everything about the videotape, and the unsettling effect of a barely-seen girl with hair covering her eyes - and made the entire enterprise bigger and more atmospheric. Plus he added the extraordinarily easy on the eyes Naomi Watts to the mix, and some of the most crisp, dark, sleek cinematography of any recent American film.

A journalist investigates a strange videotape that kills anyone who watches it within the span of seven days. This extremely basic story evolves simply, directly over the course of around 90 minutes, leading to a conclusion that feels creepy, yes, but also rote. And just when you think it's all over, the movie takes a shocking, unexpected left turn, and ends with a genuine surprise. And the final "scare" scene, in which a member of the undead propels itself through a TV screen in dramatic fashion, surely ranks among the best such sequences in any horror film this decade.

Rear Window (1954)

I initially thought to exclude Hitch from this list. Not Alfred Hitchcock...Will Smith's character from the delightful new romantic comedy of the same name.

No, I'm kidding. Alfred Hitchcock.

Anyway, I was going to leave him out because I don't really consider his movies to be "horror films" in any traditional sense. They're marvelous movies of which I'm quite fond, but most of them seem to balance the suspense, thriller and comedy genres, without ever making a movie into territory that could be considered scary or horrifying. And most of my favorite Hitchcock movies don't really deal with horror material at all, they're psychological portraits like Vertigo, Marnie, Rope or Notorious.

But Rear Window would certainly qualify as a horror film. It includes a somewhat shocking murder, a lot of suspicion and nerve-rattling near-misses, and a finale that could be considered "scary," particularly if you're under 10 years of age.

Anyway, I don't need to waste a lot of space on why Rear Window is a complete classic. You can check any number of fine movie sites for this information. I've always enjoyed it because of the Jimmy Stewart performance, and his easy interplay with Grace Kelly. These two are so natural together on screen, and share such comraderie (more than, say, Stewart and Kim Novak in Vertigo), you instantly begin to root for them. So, when Hitch rattles up the tension in the final act, it's all the more dramatic and exciting. Plus, this has some of the most crafty, ingenius framing and cinematography in film history. Almost all the shots look out at the apartment complex through Stewart's window, putting you in his isolated, cramped living quarters to the point of claustrophobia.


PSoTD said...

Mostly great picks. Glad to see the inclusion of both The Fly and The Thing, both remakes were excellent horror thrillers that put the originals to shame in style and substance.

Lons said...

Yeah, Carpenter's "The Thing" was a very formative film for me. Possibly the first gross-out movie I saw and truly appreciated.

Bruce Rheinstein said...

I saw Dawn of the Dead when it first came out and was impressed by the special effects. Years later I saw it on video and they looked really fake. I suspect that, like the original Star Wars movie, this is a film that really only works on the big screen.

Lons said...

A fine point, Bruce, although I enjoy my DVD of "Dawn of the Dead" immensely. Savini's effects don't so much simulate the actual appearance of flesh being ripped off, so much as create the impression of bloody gruesomeness. I feel it's effective, even if it's not photo-real.

Boyd McKendrick said...

I liked the "Freaks" inclusion. Have you ever heard rumors that they were gonna make a Johnny Eckhardt movie with DiCraprio? Would have been great to have a biopic to contrast "Ray". Doubt the Academy would be as generous toward that film. I think it could be a great movie, especially with a soundtrack choc full of music by (your favorite) Tom Waits, who makes references to the Torso from time to time in his songs. Download "Table Top Joe" man! Just picture it as opening credits for a triumphant Burton return.