Missed me? Been away for a little while, thought it was only fair to allow Picturenose’s other fair contributors (well, Colin) to have a sojourn in the spotlight. Anyway, Colin’s recent excellent post, 10 Great Final Bows, put me in mind of a list of my own that I have been meaning to do for some time. Regular visitors to this site will be aware that horror is my favourite kind of film and, I hope, will also know that I have, after many, many years of subjecting myself to numerous examples of what passes for the genre, developed a certain sophistication in my appreciation of things that slither by moonlight. So, in reverse order, and to set the record straight once and for all (or, of course, until another example comes along that will neccesitate a rejig), here are the ten films that for me define what horror should be all about – your disagreements, hurrahs and personal favourites that are not on the list are of course more than welcome.
NOTE: I am convinced that the ‘top five’ are in absolutely the right order – the remainder is somewhat more of a movable feast.
10. Tales from the Crypt (1972) Dir. Freddie Francis
As previously explained, this was the film that began, at around the tender age of 11, my love of the genre. Dispensing with the original stories that had comprised the previous Amicus compendium horrors, and opting instead for adaptations of tales straight from the EC horror comics, director Freddie Francis, helped by an ensemble cast including Joan Collins, Sir Ralph Richardson, Peter Cushing and Ian Hendry, created a truly creepy collection that still chills to this day, namely All Through The House (don’t let Santa in after you’ve just murdered your husband!), Reflection of Death (don’t leave your wife and kids!), Poetic Justice (don’t be mean to your neighbour!), Wish You Were Here (don’t make three wishes!) and Blind Alleys (don’t mess with the sightless!). My personal favourite? Reflection of Death – beautifully staged, with a twist that still shocks.
9. Theatre of Blood (1973) Dir. Douglas Hickox
With perhaps only the exception of his turn as Prince Prospero in Roger Corman‘s marvellous Masque of the Red Death (1964), this was Vincent Price at his most lip-smackingly erudite and evil (but with tongue firmly in cheek) as Shakespearean ham actor Edward Lionheart who takes his gruesome (and Bard-inspired) revenge on the critics’ circle that denied him the recognition he felt he deserved. With a cast that reads like a Who’s Who of 1970s stalwarts (including Diana Rigg, Ian Hendry, Arthur Lowe, Jack Hawkins and Diana Dors), and a sophisticated, startling central premise (Se7en (1995), anyone?), this is as good as Hammer horror got in the 70s, except it wasn’t made by Hammer and was, in this reviewer’s opinion, superior to any of that studio’s output.
8. Se7en (or Seven, if Colin is reading (1995)) Dir. David Fincher
How much more black could it be? None more. Fincher, along with excellent performances from Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman and, erm, ‘John Doe’, take us into the heart of existential horror, in a nameless US city in which it never stops raining (that is, until the terrifying, sun-drenched climax) where a serial killer with an agenda is bumping off his victims according to whichever of the seven deadly sins (Envy, Gluttony, Greed, Lust, Pride, Sloth, Wrath) they represent. Despite debate that this is more properly a thriller than a horror, I disagree – I mean, you have seen the ending, right?
7. Halloween (1978) Dir. John Carpenter
In need of a full Picturenose review is this (it’s got one now) as it had to be on the list somewhere. The first film to really, really scare me – Michael Myers (The Shape) escapes from the loony bin 15 years after inexplicably murdering his sister on Hallowe’en, and returns to his home town for some more slice and dice. A film that inspired the seemingly never-ending stalk-and-slash sub-genre of the 1980s (and the seemingly never-ending remakes with which present cinema audiences are now plagued), this differs enormously from its duplicates in that it is bloody terrifying and spills nary a drop of blood on screen. Donald Pleasence hams it up wonderfully as Dr Loomis, who’s on Myers’ trail, convinced that he is nothing more than pure evil – problem is, he may well be right. ‘It was the boogeyman!’ ‘Yes, as a matter of fact, it was.’
6. Rosemary’s Baby (1968) Dir. Roman Polanski
Forget The Omen (1976) and sequels and remake, Polanski’s journey into the urban heart of darkness is still by and large peerless (save The Exorcist (1973)) in its account of 20th-century diabolism. Expertly playing paranoia games with his central character, expectant mother Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and thus the audience, Polanski still manages to trump expectations with an ending that is far, far worse than we imagined possible. The devil, you say?
5. Alien (1979) Dir. Ridley Scott
With the exception only of John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), Ridley Scott’s terrifying masterpiece is the definitive sci-fi/horror crossover, with its bitching, whining crew of interstellar ‘miners’ of the distant future more than a little irritated to discover that their hypersleep en route back to Earth has been interrupted, at the behest of the on-board computer ‘Mother’, to investigate a seeming SOS signal emanating from a planetoid that’s only half way back to our solar system. But, of course, it’s not an SOS, is it? It’s a warning, and we all know what about, don’t we? The scariest alien ever put on film, that’s what, who enters this world via a set-piece that is still unsurpassed. And let’s not forget the tag line, either, which is still one of the best in cinema history. ‘In space, no one can hear you scream.’ Too true, too true…
4. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) Dir. Tobe Hooper
In some ways, a contender for the number-one spot; never was a film so villified, reprobated and dismissed, mostly by those who didn’t actually feel the need to see it. For the record, then – it may have the most gruesome title in movie history, but what it really does not have is an excess of blood, guts and gore. Rather, in its account of a group of young Americans who stray into the world of the irrational and macabre in sweltering Texas heat, it has perhaps the most oppressive atmosphere of dread and doom ever, and a last half-hour that will leave you whimpering. Perhaps the purest horror movie ever made.
3. Calvaire (The Ordeal) (2004) Dir. Fabrice du Welz
And this, directed by Belgian horror genius Fabrice du Welz (Vinyan (2008)) is so clearly modelled on Hooper’s masterpiece that it might even be described as plagiarism, had Du Welz not brought his own unique sense of terror, dread and black humour to his tale of a travelling Belgian singer (Laurent Lucas) who strays into hell. Jackie Berroyer, previously renowned for his lighter, more comedic roles, proves again just how effective comics can be as heavies, and this has a ‘dancing’ set-piece at its core that will stay with you forever. Fear, pure and simple.
2. John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) Dir. John Carpenter
Oh, decisions, decisions – I so wanted to give this top billing, but in the end (as you will hopefully agree), artistic judgement won over. Carpenter’s film was pilloried by critics on its original release and ignored by audiences – and how they all got it wrong. An account of a group of men isolated in an Antarctic reseach camp who discover that they have an extraterrestrial, shape-shifting intruder, this is cinema’s defining moment when it comes to crawling paranoia and suspense. With special effects by Rob Bottin that are still astonishing some 28 years on, you will never, ever forget The Thing.
And the winner is…(drum roll, please):
1. The Shining (1980) Dir. Stanley Kubrick
Perhaps the greatest director of the 20th century, Kubrick had always said that he wanted to make a horror film. And what better to adapt than a classic ghost story from the then up-and-coming horror legend Stephen King? And, much as this reviewer adores King’s work, I am still eternally grateful that this was Kubrick’s adaptation of his and Diane Johnson’s screenplay, rather than King’s own take on his novel. To be fair, the original story was very good – Jack Torrance (played by Jack Nicholson in the film), a recovering alcholic, goes to The Overlook hotel in the heights of Colarado to spend the winter as its caretaker and write a book, with wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and his young son Danny (Danny Lloyd). But, unbeknownst to his parents, Danny has extraordinary psychic powers, or ‘shine’, as the hotel’s friendly cook (Scatman Crothers) calls it, and there are dark forces at work in The Overlook…
All well and good, and in King’s original novel, said forces are indeed genuinely supernatural. But with Kubrick’s film, and Nicholson’s performance, things get much more complex – as viewers, we never really know whether the horrors and terrors that unfold in the film are for real, or whether we are all uninvited guests in Torrance’s interior madness. Sublime doesn’t even come close.
Thanks for your attention – I look forward to your thoughts, Constant Reader…