Who will survive…and what will be left of them?

So it’s my favorite time of the year…Halloween. So why not indulge myself a little and review some of the best horror, thriller, and suspense films in the book. Some of them I’m super thrilled about writing reviews of, and some are certainly popular but not necessarily my favorites. Read on to find out which is which. Enjoy!

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

A classic, certainly without which we wouldn’t have such staples as The Walking Dead, Dawn of the Dead and it’s remake, or the fantastic Shaun of the Dead, as well as a whole host of other films that have borrowed from it. The paranoia, mounting tension, and overwhelming odds of this first Zombie movie, transferred smoothly into non horror themes, such as isolation, race-relations, and fear of the Nuclear age in which we live.

L’uccello Dalle Piume Di Cristallo AKA The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970)

In this early film, Dario Argento, arguably the biggest name in italian horror, creates a film that is more Hitchcock than it is a slasher movie. The tension and carnage that ensues is more about pacing and misdirection than it is vicious thrills, and gore. That being said, it does have its share of gore. Oh, those italians, never short of gore. While good, I actually liked his later, more iconic film, Suspiria better than this one.

Deliverance (1972)

A horror movie of a different variety, rather than use a monster or a psychopathic antagonist, this film explores the terrible behavior exhibited by humans onto one another. The group of hunters looking to spend some time together having fun, get to know way more about each other than they ever wanted to know. Normally I wouldn’t give away any spoilers, but I think most people know exactly what the “twist” to this movie is. Men raping men has never been so much fun.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Quiet, slow, and nearly bloodless apparently equals really effective and terrifying. Who knew! Despite the fact that I credit The Exorcist with being better all around (scares, craftsmanship, and acting), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is pretty fantastic in its own right. By all means you should see the original version and relish in the grainy washed out film stock, the real locations that haven’t been over dressed or grimed up to such a degree as to make looking at them unsanitary, and the overall impact of a movie that can utilize calm as well as it does chaos. One hell of a good movie!

The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

This film predates the slasher sub-genre of horror movies by close to 5 years, however it definitely shares and in some cases has inspired certain sadistic qualities in them. The movie gives us a family full of socially dysfunctional, nomadic killers as the source of our fear, an anxiety, and a nice everyday innocent family to compare ourselves to. More camp than scare. More sadism than not.

Suspiria (1977)

This film is far more surreal, and otherworldly than The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, the other Dario Argento film that I’ve seen. It is by far, more psychological and subtle in how it works under your skin, but also has a far less believable (read: ridiculous) set of traps and horrors for our heroine to escape. A room in a dance academy that is inexplicably filled with coils upon coils of barbed wire, is decidedly unbelievable, and therefore draws us out of the “story”. That being said, I still liked it better than The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, for its use of rich full color, and it’s dedication to that certain uneasy feeling.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Holy Shit! If you have managed to make it through your life to this point without seeing this movie, do yourself a favor, go buy (not rent) it and watch the shit out of it! For a movie that is so closely associated with the horror genre, Dawn of the Dead manages to be so relevent and forward facing on such a large variety of subjects. From race relations, religion, and consumer culture, to the nature of willful violence, and interaction between the sexes, not to mention some pretty outstanding makeup effects. This film has so much to offer first time and repeat viewers alike. Granted some of the makeup looks a bit bad by today’s standard, and some of the euphemisms seem a bit dated and clunky, but by and large this film has all the energy and fire of the films of the seventies, plus a pretty compelling horror story to boot. Make sure to buy the version that comes with the theatrical and directors cuts, so you can compare and contrast the values of each. (Hint: The Director’s Cut is better.)

Halloween (1978)

In terms of craftsmanship and construction Halloween is a master-class in editing and pacing. Featuring very little in the way of jump-scare type tactics, this film instead, skillfully builds the tension slowly through the use of shot composition, and editing, along with skillful acting and directing. Of course, John Carpenter is no stranger to the praise due to him from the horror fan community, including myself. I’ve enjoyed almost every single one of his films, and I only say “almost” because I can’t remember if there has been anything that I haven’t liked. Watch this!

Alien (1979)

In terms of futuristic visuals and slow building tension, Ridley Scott seemed to have cornered the market in the late 70’s and early 80’s. With films like Blade Runner and Aliens he helped to bring a living, breathing, realism to the science fiction genre that had before been absent. Where Star Wars was shiny and optimistic, Alien was concerned with the accurate depiction of its characters in a true to life setting. With Alien, he also managed to bring horror to a new level. For proof, just go watch the still terrifying trailer for the original Alien.

“The baby alien is soooooo cute! And there’s a cat!  And a butt crack!” – Ashley

The Shining (1980)

With the Shining, Stanley Kubrick made one of the finest films ever committed to celluloid (or digital mediums, I’m not playing favorites). The power and the impact of the imagery sticks with you long after the film is finished (they’ve been with me since I saw it way back when I was young.), and while the dialogue and delivery seems stilted at first, it all serves a grander purpose of creating a slightly skewed feeling in the viewer. The disharmony and discord starts to build at an imperceptible level, but once it rears its head, it is obvious that it has been around for a long while. Absolutely one of my favorite movies, and well deserving of being on this list!

“You know it’s a good horror movie if Shelley Duvall is in the film and still not the scariest part.” – Ashley

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

A classic in my circle of friends, this is actually a movie that I came to finally see rather late (only 4 years ago or so), and I’m really glad I did.  Part slapstick comedy, part horror movie, American Werewolf in London manages to balance the two genres giving a room for the comedy to live, without ruining the scary elements.  Then there is the astounding fully lit, werewolf transformation scene, something that was nearly impossible in the days before CGI.  Definitely worthy of its spot on this list.

“Suck it CGI!” – Ashley

Check out guest reviewer Mike Petrik’s review, here!

The Thing (1982)

Kurt Russell and John Carpenter have, together, made a pair of my most favorite films ever, Big Trouble in Little China, and this movie, The Thing. Along with being a completely absorbing well paced thriller in its own right, it also happens to have some really outstanding special makeup effects, and puppetry. Add in to the mix a young Wilford Brimley, Keith David in all his glory, and who could forget the heartbeat of a score that relentlessly pushes us onward, towards the end of the film. Outstanding all around!

(***Warning Spoilers***)

“One point for the great special effects makeup…one point for the sexy Kurt Russell beard…negative one million points for the hurting beautiful puppies” – Ashley

Poltergeist (1982)

As far as this list goes, the Poltergeist has perhaps left the smallest impact on me. All I really remember is the tiny woman with the child’s voice. She actually played good character in the film, yet still she stands out as a defining characteristic of this horror film far more than the big gauzy skeleton, the skeletons in the basement, or heaven forbid the terrifying child-sized doll that those shitty parents put in their kids room.

“Thanks to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, I know that Poltergeists are not ghosts.” – Ashley

The Evil Dead (1982)

Despite the fact that this film revolutionized the way that horror films were shot, produced, watched, edited, and scored, The Evil Dead was, in my opinion not nearly as good as its slapstick sequels, The Evil Dead Part 2, and Army of Darkness. Definitely worth watching, but make sure you watch the other two, so you can see director Sam Raimi reboot his own film, and make it worlds better.  Give me some sugar, baby!

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

This was the movie…the movie that scared the bejesus out of me as a kid far more than any other movie has ever done, before or since. Looking back at it now, it doesn’t make sense why this film had such a profound effect on me, but none the less, it did. The most terrifying image in the film (in my younger-selfs opinion), comes in the first 10 minutes, and the real terror of the first watch was the anticipation of whether it would be topped in the remaining 80 or so minutes. Not to mention, the film had a rather ingenious premise of allowing the victims to be vulnerable in their dreams, a place that no one can escape. Worth the watch, but I’ve heard you should avoid the remake.

Manhunter (1986)

The best of the Hannibal Lecter movie adaptations, this one combines the visual sensibility of Michael Mann, the menace and animalism of Tom Noonan, and the depth and intelligence of Brian Cox as Lecter into a luscious, dangerous, thrilling movie. Despite it’s inclusion on this list, I feel that the more popular Hannibal Lecter story, The Silence of the Lambs, is far inferior to this film, though there are many who would disagree vehemently. One thing that everyone can agree on, however, is that the remake of Manhunter, Red Dragon, is completely a piece of shit by comparison.  Brett Ratner my ass!

The Fly (1986)

Your standard story about a man who invents teleportation devices only to have it backfire on him when a simple little house fly gets caught in the machine with him. This film creeped me out quite a bit when I was a kid, particularly the arm wrestling scene. The Fly is a great horror movie, worthy of inclusion on this list!

Aliens (1986)

Quite possibly my favorite of the movies on this Halloween list. I grew up with this movie, so as a result, I am in capable of judging it in any way other than favorably. A great continuation of the story that began in Alien, one that manages to go far beyond it in terms of action, character development, and stakes. Where the original was effective through the isolation of its characters, Aliens succeeds by forcing them to band together to combat the threats from without as well as within.  This is when James Cameron was at his peak in my opinion (well, that or during the Terminator movies), not during the bloated gimmicky Avatar days.  Robot versus space-bug!  That really says it all.

Spoorloos AKA The Vanishing (1988)

If you’ve seen the remake of this film starring Jeff Bridges and Keifer Sutherland, then do yourself a favor, drink a bunch of turpentine till you forget that one, and when you’re back from getting your stomach pumped at the hospital, watch this creepy-as-hell movie. Using simple tactics to inspire fear, Spoorloos is surprisingly contemplative, and deceptively calm for a list such as this. Don’t let that fool you though, it’s terrifying all the same.

Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

Creepy. Creepy. Creepy. CREEPY. This mind-bending film tests the limits of the audiences perception, making us debate up until the very end whether or not we think our main character is, in fact, crazy, delusional, or correct that there are strange beings out to get him. The fantastic Danny Aiello electrifies every scene he is in, and make sure to watch out for a small appearance by Ving Rhames, too!.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Way, way over-rated. While this movie isn’t bad, the fact that it took home best picture, best actor, best actress, and best director honors at the Oscars is a little absurd if you ask me. Hopkins was good as Lector, but not nearly as menacing as Brian Cox was in the role just a scant 5 years earlier. Foster was good as well, but has been much better in better things as well. Jonathan Demme, is the exception. Though I don’t think he necessarily deserved the Oscar for his work here, this actually is the best thing he has ever done. In fact, he did such a bad job on The Truth About Charlie, a terrible remake of one of my favorite movies of all time, Charade, that he ought to have any awards and accolades stripped from him.  He actually owes me an Oscar.  Watch Manhunter instead.

Scream (1996)

I saw this movie at just the right time for me to see this movie. I saw it with a bunch of really good friends, and had a really good time doing it. The movie as it turns out was pretty good too, turning the usual conventions of the horror movie on its ear to great effect. This movie also benefited from an up and coming cast, a good soundtrack, and a rejuvenated director, Wes Craven, ready to attack the genre that he helped create in the first place.

Tetsuo (1998)

It’s strange that this is the only Japanese horror movie that is included in the list of 1001 movies, that I’ve seen, especially considering the fact that Japan seems to specialize in decidedly creepy horror movies. Tetsuo is really more of a bizarre, sci-fi-sex-fantasy with a fair amount of blood in it. Basically a man turns slowly and painfully into a machine, a process which grants him great strength and power, but also makes him a terrible monster at the same time. If you’d like to know if you will like it, base whether you see it on this spoiler-ish phrase…”Drill penis”. And there you have it.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

I’m a fan of its concept, I’m a fan of the mark such a low-budget movie was able to make, but I was not a fan of the fact that it spawned a lot of cheap imitators, nor was I a fan of the movie itself. There was so much hype surrounding this movie, that it couldn’t help but fail in the eyes of a film student / horror film fan like me. You will never hear anyone say this again, ever, but I liked The Blair Witch Project 2: Book of Shadows way better.

“Ughkk…God!” – Ashley

Mulholland Dr. (2001)

My lovely wife would disagree of my assessment of this film. I thought it was an un-paralleled work of craftsmanship and genius, with a creepy/dreamy surrealistic concept that translated well to the glimmering, shining facade of Hollywood. She thought it was crap. In my humble opinion David Lynch redeemed himself after the terrible, and terribly confusing Lost Highway, to make a work that stands alongside his very best (Blue Velvet, Wild At Heart, Twin Peaks, and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me). Of course he went right back to making terrible crap with Inland Empire, but there is no need to dwell on that here. Go see Mulholland Dr., one of the scariest movies that isn’t supposed to be scary , you’ll ever see!

“I know experimental narrative.  I like experimental narrative.  I went to film school to make experimental narrative.  You sir, are not an experimental narrative.” – Ashley

And there you have it.  Just a few of the horror selections on the list.  I don’t necessarily agree that these should all be held up and called the best of the best, but conversely, some of them are absolutely worthy of such distinction.  Good or bad, however, each has its importance in terms of the history and art of film.  Happy Halloween!

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The Exorcist (1973)

TheExorcist

The Exorcist – 1973

Director – William Friedkin

Starring – Linda Blair, Ellen Burstyn, Max Von Sydow, and Jason Miller

As far as controversial movies go, I can think of no more infamous movie than William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Often cited as the “scariest movie of all time”, or at the very least one of the scariest, banned across the United Kingdom from it’s release until fairly recently in the 90s, and condemned by prominant religious figures and organizations as vile and evil, it’s safe to say that The Exorcist had quite a lot to live up to. I even encountered some trouble when trying to watch it, as it’s reputation was a bit daunting.  Ultimately I just bit the bullet, sat down, and watched it. But the big question is, “was it worth all the hype?” I’d have to say, resoundingly, yes.

To start with, the story. A young girl, Regan (Linda Blair), becomes possessed by a demon, and in the process, frightens her mother (Ellen Burstyn) with her foul behavior, filthy language, and her severe, self-inflicted wounds. After exhausting the options available to them through science and medicine, they turn to the church in an attempt to rid Regan of the demon. Sound original? Not really. The story isn’t a new one, stories similar to this one have been told before and since the release of the Exorcist. It is in the execution of this story, however, that the real difference comes in and where the magic lies.

The pacing of the film is huge. Without anything obviously scary happening, Friedkin still takes every opportunity to build the tension and create an atmosphere of un-ease, and anxiety. Every minute that goes by, we are slowly drawn in to the characters, the story, and the setting. The film is roughly 2 hours and 15 minutes. It could have been double that, and I still would have been caught up in it. Not one frame was wasted in moving us towards the climax, flickering lights, ambient sound, negative space, everything was used effectivly to create the mood. Without the time taken to get us into the minds of the characters, this could have very easily become a sensationalist monster movie, or a horror movie that was dependent upon shock value.

Sound. One very important method of ramping up the tension is through sound. It can be used to add an almost subliminal layer to the film, something like the rhythmic pounding of some machinery in the hospital, or the raspy breathing of Regan as she is possessed by the demon. The sound design is, when necessary, a bit more overt too. For example, the priests, fathers Merrin and Karras (von Sydow, and Miller respectively) walk up the stairs to start the exorcism and leave the girl’s miter Arther foot of the stairs watching. The camera pulls in slowly on the mother, and suddenly out of the blue, the phone rings causing her, and the audience, to jump out of our collective skins. These little, seemingly innocuous noises, like a phone ringing, or a floor creaking, or a soft scrabbling sound, go a long way towards building the tension for the inevitable climax of the movie.

Friedkin utilizes a lot of contrasting imagery to amplify the good versus evil theme of the story. One of the best examples of the use of this technique is the image used for the poster. Max von Sydow’s character (father Merrin) has just arrived at the house, and surrounded by a glowing white light he steps towards the darkly lit house. He is surrounded by darkness (evil), but brings with him light (good) and hope (still good). The light that surrounds him draws our eyes to the upstairs window of the house, where Regan and the demon are waiting, not only does this image characterize the themes of the story, but it visually connects the fate of the two opposing sides. This use of pregnant negative space occurs throughout the film. A darkly lit scene often times is immediately contrasted with a bright one, flip flopping to heighten the conflict, and draw the characters closer together. The imagery is at war with itself, vying for the audiences attention, while undermining and simultaniously accentuating the scenes that came before it. The positioning of the characters in The Exorcist speaks a lot about the battles and conflicts they face in the story. Often times characters are either ascending or descending into or from the scene (a buddy of mine actually wrote a bit about these contrasting visual qualities, you can read that here.). The staccato nature of the imagery builds to a frenzied pace, never letting up until the conclusion.

Tying all these elements together is the subdued yet distinctive musical score. It never overwealms the film, it instead helps to glue everything together. The score is instantly recognizable, and conjures up instantaneous images from the film (just ask who’s been terrorized by it).

If it isn’t clear up until this point, I loved this film. Depite my lack of religion based fear, The Exorcist kept me on the edge of my seat, enthralled every step of the way. This is what horror and suspense films should aspire to. Completely and totally recommended!

“Hilarious!” – Ashley