Friday, November 6, 2015

Top 10 Favorite Horror Films

Horror, it's not a genre that's a favorite of mine, but one that nonetheless has given us some great movies. I was inspired to make this list by my fellow blogger over at Guy with a Movie Blog who did his top horror movies in honor of Halloween. We are collaborating on some upcoming posts, so I thought I'd match his horror list with my own.

1. Psycho (1960)

Almost an afterthought as a #1, I almost downgraded it just for its obvious greatness. There's not a lot left to be said about it, other than that the shower scene has lost none of its power, and even though things like the doctor's long explanation of Norman's behavior is unnecessary, there's so much greatness in it that little quibbles like that don't matter.

I would, however, like to address Gus Van Sant's 1998 remake, which I think is one of the boldest experimental films ever made. When asked why he wanted to remake it, Van Sant (riding high off the success of Good Will Hunting) said "so no one else will have to". I thought at the time that that was just a funny, flippant kind of answer. But the more you look at the experimental nature of what Van Sant did after Psycho you see that he was really trying something narratively with his remake. He was trying to see if there was a certain indefinable magic in Hitchcock's movie that could be recreated by recreating the movie, or if the indefinable thing stays indefinable even if painstakingly recreated. Now, of course the movie is a failure, an awful imitation of a masterpiece, but it's still an admirable experiment and we now definitively know that there is just magic in some movies.

2. Don't Look Now (1973)

I almost didn't put this on the list because it's an untraditional horror movie. This is really more of a psychological thriller disguised as horror. But it does have psychics, serial killings, supernatural things we and the characters don't understand until the most emotionally impactful moment. And above all this movie is haunted by death. That strange, labyrinthine city of Venice seems colored by death in every frame. It hangs like a raincloud over this movie so that even if we see very little death on screen, we feel it in the movie.

Most famous for the extended sex scene between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, Don't Look Now is so much more than that. It has even been voted by Time Out magazine as the greatest British movie ever made.

3. The Haunting (1963)

Hopefully everyone has forgotten about the atrocity against movies that is the awful remake of Robert Wise's masterpiece, because the original take on Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House is a flat out amazing movie. The great ghost story of all-time, The Haunting works because it spends a little bit of time setting up its characters so that we care what happens to them. Then, the haunting of the house starts slow and builds and is sometimes inexplicable, but always affecting. I got goosebumps multiple times when watching this. One of the great horror movies, and one of the great movies, period. To think, this is one of two movies Wise made between West Side Story in 1961 and The Sound of Music in 1965, what filmmaking range!

4. The Shining (1980)

Stanley Kubrick's The Shining is a movie that didn't frighten me until I was older. When I first saw it as a teenager I wasn't paying enough attention for it to work on my nerves the way Kubrick made it to do. With his steadicam flowing throughout the haunted hotel, Kubrick plays on our minds as well. The twins, the blood gushing down the hallways, the frantic frazzled performance from Shelley Duvall offset against Jack Nicholson's descent into madness. It's all carefully controlled, and all the more chilling because of it. Stephen King, unhappy with Kubrick's take on his novel, later oversaw a TV miniseries adaptation that is just terrible. After making that, King has conceded that The Shining is likely the best adaptation of his work, even if its more Kubrick than King.

5. The Devil's Backbone (2001)

Guillermo del Toro is a master visual storyteller, whether in his action hero Hellboy movies, Pan's Labyrinth, or this, which he calls Pan's brother movie. A ghost story set in Franco-era Spain (just as Pan is), it has some of Del Toro's best visuals, including a huge unexploded bomb, a creepy orphanage, or the ghost of the boy which drives the story. Again, like all of my favorite horror movies, this is about mood and atmosphere more than it is monsters or jump scares. You feel this movie while you watch it. Del Toro draws you in. When the main character has his first encounter with the ghost, it's one of the only times I can remember going cold and feeling my stomach drop in a movie (the finale of Don't Look Now is the other one that I can remember).

6. The Thing (1982)

John Carpenter's career has been hit and miss. He's had huge hits like Halloween, and then movies like The Thing, which failed commercially even if its become a classic since then. One of the great creature features, The Thing boasts strong work from its cast, especially Kurt Russell and Keith David. The endless snow as our background gives a terrific and seemingly inescapable setting for the movie, which thankfully has risen in popularity and prestige every year. While it wasn't in my top 10 of the 80's, it has to have a place here in the top 10 horrors.

7. The Fly (1986)

David Cronenberg's remake of The Fly didn't have to compete at the box office with the juggernaut of E.T. the way that Carpenter's remake of The Thing did, and so thankfully he had a huge hit on his hands with his body horror masterpiece. Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis are wonderfully awkward and real in the lead roles, making Goldblum's gradual descent into becoming a human fly have an emotional resonance behind it instead of just the great makeup and horror elements we'd expect. Cronenberg's movie was latched onto as a metaphor for AIDS at the time, something to which he's said it could certainly apply, as he'd meant it as a metaphor for the affects of aging and cancer on the body that he'd seen on his parents. No matter how deep you take it, The Fly works on the surface and below and might be the best work of Cronenberg's career.

8. Alien (1979)

One of the more famous movies on the list, I don't care how popular Alien is, it's just a really good movie and one of the best sci-fi/horror flicks ever. Ridley Scott's impeccable visuals sending us to a new planet in the beginning even if we end up spending most of the time in a space ship, with the alien picking everyone off Agatha Christie style. It still works so well, and gave us one of the great badass female roles in the movies, in Sigourney Weaver's Ripley. Many prefer the more oppressive and bigger/louder/gorier oriented sequel, but not me.

9. Eyes Without a Face (1960)

One of the least seen great horror movies ever made is this disturbing little poetic horror movie from France. The story is that of Christiane, who was in a horrible car accident that left her face scarred and disfigured. Her father, whose fault the crash was, Dr. Genessier and his assistant kidnap young women who have similar features to Christiane. The doctor then tries to take off their faces and graft it onto Christiane's so that his daughter can be beautiful again, which would absolve him of his guilt over the crash. Meanwhile, Christiane wears a nearly featureless mask that ended up being the inspiration for Halloween's Michael Myers. Seeing just the pain, loneliness, and oncoming madness through her eyes in the mask, the movie engenders a lot of complex emotions in us. We sympathize with the doctor and his guilt, as well as Christiane and her impenetrable sadness. The face grafting scene can still be disturbing for many audiences, and is not for the faint of heart, but that's to the movie's credit.

10. Masque of the Red Death (1964)

I debated not putting this in here and swapping it for something like George Romero's Dawn of the Dead or Bong Joon-ho's The Host, but the more I think on this movie the more it works itself into my mind as an unconventional and great horror movie. Adapted from Poe's short story, director Roger Corman, working with cinematographer Nicolas Roeg (who went on to direct Don't Look Now among other masterpieces), creates a forbidding mood headed by Vincent Price's nasty Prince Prospero. The prince holds grotesque and occasionally Satanic parties in his castle while the common folk outside succumb to the ravages of plague. Wonderful sets used as leftovers from the same year's Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton starrer Becket, and sometimes garish colors thanks to Roeg's photography, plus the unpleasant and torturous behavior of the guests of Prospero all combine with the sinister turn by Price as the prince. With none of the wink and nod he could often bring, Price is frightening and affective in the lead role. The best work of his great career in one of the great movies of the horror genre, which I'd previously put as one of my top 10 of the 1960's.

Honorable mention for the work of producer Val Lewton, whose movies like I Walked with a Zombie, Cat People, and The Body Snatcher are masterpieces of classic era mood horror. The kind that gets in your brain and really haunts you like a good horror movie should. Check out Scorsese's great documentary Val Lewton – The Man in the Shadows for a retrospective of his work.

No comments: