Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Top Ten Horror Films

Given the holiday and my adoration for the genre, I thought it appropriate to list my favorite horror films in cinema history. Here goes; happy Halloween!

1. Suspiria (1977)—The closest approximation of a true nightmare ever committed to film, Dario Argento’s Suspiria stands tall as the greatest horror picture ever made. The bizarre color schemes, the music box and subliminal message filled Prog-Rock soundtrack by Goblin, and long, heavily choreographed murder sequences, turn a simple story of witches in a dance academy into an all-out sensual assault that is unmatched. This movie taught me that, sometimes, any semblance of real plot can be detrimental to a horror film’s effectiveness.

2. Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)—With a zero budget, amateur actors, and grainy old film stock, Tobe Hooper made his first, and best, film into a true classic of the genre which forces the viewer into a truly palpable sense of discomfort. Hooper “composed” a score of noise and ambient sound that runs throughout the film and the tension-release system present in most horror films is thrown out the window for a system of never-ending stress. The most striking part of the film is the memory that gets attached after watching the film. It gets on plenty of “goriest films” lists when, in fact, maybe ½ an ounce of fake blood gets spilled the whole time. That is testament to this film’s power.

3. The Shining (1980)—While this is the most technically accomplished film on this list, it’s really the performances that stand out with Jack Nicholson’s over the top Jack Torrance and Danny Lawrence’s portrayal of the ultimate in ineffectual children. The twin girls have given me nightmares for years and the disintegration of the family structure through multiple means makes this fantastical supernatural tale downright believable. Jack’s chase of Danny through the hedge maze is a great example of Kubrick’s skills as a filmmaker as it touches both beautiful and hair-raising at once.

4. Hellraiser (1987)—Maybe the most unlikely film here, given the many unfortunate sequels that have come since (seven, as of right now). This is, however, the most pure vision of a fine horror author’s work. Clive Barker directed and wrote the screenplay from his own novella and brought in artist HR Geiger for set design. “Pinhead” has been given a modern horror villain stature in the same sense as Freddy Kreuger and Jason, but “Pinhead” is not the bad guy; he and his cohorts exact the desires of the true monster: mankind. The monstrosities are only around to satisfy the curious.

5. Frankenstein (1931)—More movie icons and clich├ęs have come out of James Whale’s classic retelling of Mary Shelley’s amazing novel about a modern Prometheus. At this point, it can really only be called a horror film as a result of the conventions that have stayed around for seventy years because of the sheer sympathy and emotion brought forth through Boris Karloff’s silent performance. While it is often billed alongside Dracula and Wolfman, this is the only of these original iconic horrors that has stood the test of time. In reality, Bride of Frankenstein is the better film, but it is comedy and, while it often isn’t, should be viewed as such.

6. Night of the Living Dead (1968)—George Romero created the modern zombie film single-handedly here, and is the only one who has shown the ability to properly execute it since. Beyond the walking dead, the picture is rife with social and political commentary and is the antithesis of many zombie films, which are overtly racist (especially in the foreign offerings). Frightening in its realism and utter cheapness, using faked news footage gives a documentary feel that makes the situation that much more chilling. Each of Romero’s four “Living Dead” films share the political aspects, but this reigns supreme in the too-oft played genre.

7. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)—Combining horror with the mundane has been done way too much over the last forty years, but Rosemary’s Baby is the film that ushered the trend in. What would seem to be a normal couple moving into a normal apartment building next to normal neighbors slowly, extremely slowly, turns into a menacing study into the horror of greed, childbirth, and religious fanaticism. The film takes its time so deliberately that, while you know that the other shoe will drop, it still takes you by surprise to see the blood orgies and devil babies. Mia Farrow nails her performance so soundly that it’s very hard for me to imagine her as anything but Rosemary. Viewers feel her exploitation in her horrified emotions. Polanski is a true and, until The Pianist, under-represented master of film who is able to turn anything into horror, even Macbeth.

8. Black Sunday (1960)—No horror film from the era better exemplifies the Italians’ desire for creating visual and sensual feasts to confuse and, subsequently, frighten the audience (as also described in Suspiria above). Starring horror princess Barbara Steele, this was the film that defined the European gothic esthetic in film and solidified director Mario Bava’s reputation for nearly fifty years. A ghost/revenge story that makes little sense much of the time, it is the style and imagery that are so memorable here, not the performances or the story.

9. Repulsion (1965)—The horror inherent in sex is commonplace throughout the history of the genre, back to the silent era but, in the case of Repulsion, sex is the cause of the horror, not the excuse for punishment. Catherine Deneuve’s one-woman performance is so staggeringly realistic and frightening that you want to at once comfort her and push her away. Polanski, in his first English-language film, creates an immensely oppressive hallucinatory experience that it’s hard to believe that he really isn’t completely insane. I’m not sure there is another horror film (and few of other genres) that have essentially one character that doesn’t smack of utter pretension, but this is utter success.

10. Cat People (1942)—RKO producer Val Lewton was given a title of Cat People and told to make a movie on essentially no budget and came up with the quietest, and one of the most beautifully atmospheric horror films of all time. Directed by Jacques Tournier (who would be remembered for Noir classic Out of the Past) and starring the enchanting Simone Simone, it is also directly about sex, in which a woman turns into a panther whenever aroused (ostensibly by jealousy, but c’mon) and stalks a man who loves her. The horror is never truly seen at any point in the film, adding to the menace and evoking the fear of the unknown. This, and Lewton’s other fantastic B-horror features, are essentially forgotten, but once Cat People is seen, it’s truly unforgettable.