Horror films have been around a lot longer than I have, so I still have plenty left on my must-see list. I got initiated to the genre early by my big brother Joe who would always be awake in the early morning hours watching “Movies ‘Til Dawn” or hanging out on weekends watching “Seymour Presents.” Escapism comes in many forms. Fairly early in life, it became obvious that “Kung Fu Theater” and “Seymour Presents” were going to be a large part of my upbringing. The glorious results of my misspent youth are embedded with images of Tobe Hooper’s chainsaw wielding madman, Dr. Caligari’s insanity and demons possessing innocent teenage girls.
The genre gets a bad rap by too many people. Some say it is too violent, or too degrading toward women. Well, horror films have long-featured female protagonists who save themselves, sometimes they even save the world. There are no hard and fast rules to what makes a great horror film; probably because there are so many sub-genres that I lose track. J-horror, slasher films, teens in danger, escaped psychotics with saws or some other blade… the list seems to be endless. One thing holds true for all good horror films, they give a person a case of the creeps.
Lurking behind every corner is the boogey monster, or random spree-killer. In every neighborhood there is a dirty secret that people have to die to keep it from escaping. Horror films almost always have a message of some sort. Usually the message is don’t go into the woods alone, don’t run upstairs when you can run away or don’t open the door after midnight if the person does not identify themselves. Good horror can mix in drama, comedy or sci-fi over the course of a film. It can also blaze a trail into unknown territory. They can be great date movies, an
excuse to gather your buddies, or a reason to bring over a case of beer and get ready for a good scare.
I read a study in college that went in depth as to why people were drawn to horror films. The basic thesis is that we all want to feel unsettled from time to time. Somewhere in our psyche, we all have the need to upset the norm in our lives. That makes as much sense to me as anything else. Some people need to grill up a side of beef on Sundays and watch football, some are drawn to the beach to get some sun and feel the waves crash around them. Others enjoy hanging around an outdoor cafe, eating lunch and people-watching. But pretty much everyone I’ve ever met
has that one movie that made them uneasy, unsettled and terrified that they wanted to go back and watch again. Maybe as a species we do need a good smack to the cerebral cortex and an unexpected shock. If you do, here’s plenty to choose from.
A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)
By the time the franchise ground to a halt, there was nothing scary or original left to be wrung from the corpse. But the original “A Nightmare on Elm Street” scared the ever living hell out of me. Wes Craven’s disturbing tale of the bad guy who can’t hurt you when you’re awake jumped off the screen in 1984. It was a slasher film fused onto a psychological thriller featuring the already dead, so you can’t kill, him Freddy Kruger. By the time Amanda Wyss’ Christina gets the worst heart-to-heart talk ever, there is no turning back. All the neighborhood parents did
a really bad thing to a very bad man and circumvented the law. Karma, once again, is a royal bitch.
The Silence Of The Lambs (1991)
Jonathan Demme’s 1991 mega-hit “The Silence of the Lambs” may be the most nuanced, well-acted horror film ever. Some people say it is not a horror movie. Well, if the inside of Buffalo Bill’s house, or his mind, is not horrifying, I don’t know what is. Anthony Hopkins’ cannibalistic Hannibal Lecter may be the most polite serial killer ever. He is also the most sadistic. He lives by a different set of rules that only Jodie Foster’s rushed out of training Clarice Starling seems to understand. Lecter may hold the secrets to solving the crime wave, but Starling proves a worthy adversary. It’s like watching a mental jousting match with neither side giving an inch. There is also the best use of Tom Petty’s “American Girl” ever. The only thing that tops the psychological drama is the visceral murder and torture. It took home the Best Picture Oscar, and quite a few others, for a reason.
The Shining (1980)
The mind of Stephen King must be one messed up place. This is the mind that thought up “Carrie,” “It” and countless other freak outs. King is the king of horror. Pair him up with Stanley Kubrick and you have something epic. As in a waterfall of blood coming from an elevator and the creepiest twins ever put on film. “The Shining” may be King at his King-est and Kubrick his most Kubrickian. The meticulous detail of Kubrick is everywhere in
the Overlook Hotel, the site of this descent into claustrophobic, alcohol-fueled slide into madness. Jack Nicholson nails the role of Jack Torrance, the down on his luck writer who lands the job of caretaker for a hotel in the off season. He brings his long-suffering wife, Wendy (Shelly DuVall) and their son with him to reside over the hotel as winter sets in. Lost among the endless hallways, the hedgerow maze and Room 237 is a family falling apart, even as Wendy ignores the obvious. The heroic turn by Scatman Crothers is both endearing and heartbreaking. The scares build slowly and the tension gets thick. By the end, there is nothing to do but run. Except, there is no place to go. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, indeed.
Friday The 13th (1980)
A hockey-mask-wearing, machete-wielding Jason Voorhees is the indelible image of terror. He kills. Period. There’s no remorse, no emotion, there’s no “there” as the saying goes. In the original “Friday the 13th” he is only in the film for a brief moment, proving once again that it is what you don’t see that can scare you more than what you do. This film gets the credit and the blame for launching the slasher film craze of the 80s. What followed in horror is a mixed bag of great, good, bad and horrible films. This one should stand on its own: the plot was original, the scares were earned and you get to see a young Kevin Bacon get a spear in the neck.
Alfred Hitchcock is one of my favorite directors. He can take the every day and make it a mystery. He earned the nickname “The Master of Suspense” over the years with classic film after classic film. One of his best was “Psycho.” One of the things that made “Psycho” work was Anthony Perkins as the eerie and even-tempered Norman Bates. There are sly moments of fear, uncertainty and anguish as Norman pleads with his mother. There’s one of the most beautifully shot murder sequences ever (yes, I know how horrible that sounds). Seeing Janet Leigh’s embezzler on the run Marion Crane die hideously in the shower scene is both exhilarating and inhumane. There was a shot for shot remake that failed to capture the sexuality, the subtext or the noir-esque flourishes Hitchcock infused. Also, there is only one Anthony Perkins and the role of Norman Bates is his and his alone.
Italian filmmakers set out to put their own stamp on the horror genre. After several failed attempts to knock it out of the park, up stepped Dario Argento. When “Suspiria” was released, the game was changed, the rules were rewritten and all bets were off. A violent, grisly picture with a soundtrack from the prog-rock legends Goblin, this is not a film for the faint of heart or stomach. “Suspiria” is the hallucinatory tale of an American ballet student who enrolls at a prestigious dance academy in Germany only to find things are not as they seem. Supernatural forces leave despicable acts of murder in their wake. It’s sick, twisted, gory and brilliant all at once. As a 13 year-old I walked home from the movies after seeing it. Actually, I ran home after seeing this. I don’t think I slept for a week.
The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter’s 1982 “The Thing” is an excessive film that is jagged, pulling in tight on the gross and disgusting. Critics dismissed it as “schlock” when it first hit the theaters, calling it bad sci-fi fused with paranoia. Well, the critics were correct in their assessment, but not in their conclusion. “The Thing” is a tale of manly men stuck in an
isolated Antarctic research area being besieged by an alien presence. Not just any alien presence. It can assume the form of anything it touches. Some people have called the film a parallel to the Reagan-era and the fact that we were constantly almost at war with the USSR.
John Carpenter had no budget and an iconic piano score. He made a classic slasher film and gave Jamie Lee Curtis her breakout role. There would be no Scream Queen if it weren’t for “Halloween.” The budget was so low that the now-famous Michael Myers headpiece was a William Shatner mask painted white. In the film, Myers has escaped from an asylum and returned to his old neighborhood on All Hallows’ Eve. The limited budget actually helps give the flick a surreal vibe and keeps the screen clear of filler. Curtis is the smart, scared, teen who thinks on her
feet and is no damsel in distress. She’s more like the babysitter you would definitely leave your kids with. After what Curtis’ character goes through, she surely deserved more than 50 cents an hour. Forget the sequels and watch the original slasher film that used imagination, an insane villain, and the girl next door to deliver scares and heroics that will leave you breathless.
Night Of The Living Dead (1968)
Everyone needs to send a thank you note to George A. Romero. Because of him, we have zombie films, T.V. shows about zombies. Books about zombies. Survival guides too. “Night Of The Living Dead” is the reason for all of those things. Brain-eating, shuffling undead things wander through Romero’s adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novel “I Am Legend,” and they do it ever so ominously. The Cold War was in full swing when Romero unleashed
this to audiences. It was making a statement about everything from racism to religion to politics and the Vietnam War. The acting is not great, but it does the job. The camera work is adequate and the story is fairly thin. But it is a wholly-engaging film from the opening scene. It would spawn sequels, imitators and an industry of wandering undead things. Not a bad record for a zero-budget black and white film about flesh eaters.
The Exorcist (1973)
Strange things are happening to 12-year-old Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair). William Friedken’s “The Exorcist” is a tale of Regan being torn between science and religion. Her Mom (Ellen Burstyn) begins to notice Regan is not as daisy fresh and bright-eyed as she used to be. Pushed to the limits of sanity, mom calls on Father Damien Karras, a priest in the midst of a crisis of faith. Father Damien’s job is to cast out the demon that is living rent-free in the body of the formerly adorable little girl. Good versus evil is played out in this classic. Eternal truths are set up side by side with modern science, blasphemy and spirituality duking it out. Things get more than a little profane and the frights come fast and furious. There’s also that theme music that scares me to this day. One morning about 3 a.m., my friend John and I were driving home and he kept humming the theme. “Run, Damien, run” he kept repeating, laughing louder and more often after I told him that line was from a different movie. Somehow, we got lost on the way home and ended up on Otay Lakes Road before the sub-divisions of McMansions were built. It was dark, deserted, foggy and I had a drunk friend in the seat next to me, singing and getting creepier by the minute. Then he started in with the dialogue from the film. The fog got thicker, John got stranger, and, finally, we found our way to an all night diner. In a moment too horrifying to invent, the waitress who seated us had a nametag that read Regan. I felt my heart stop as I reached for the Crucifix hanging on a chain around my neck. The biscuits and gravy they served were delightful. John had the diablo chili. “Diablo means ‘devil’ you know.” He said. I just stared back at him, wondering if I needed new friends.
Horror can take itself too seriously as a genre. Sometimes, it needs to parody itself. It turns out that one of the genre’s masters was the one best fit with turning it on its head. “Scream” is self-aware and lets you know it is in on the joke from the get-go. Drew Barrymore lights up the screen with her smile until stark horror comes across her face and really bad things start to happen to really pretty people. Prettiest of them all is Neve Campbell, the virgin who always survives horror stories. Well, not quite virginal. At least she’s the smartest of the bunch. The comedy elbows in with the scares and the cliches abound. It’s a fun ride that was meant to be equal parts scary movie and a deconstruction of every scary movie that came before. It works.
Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1978)
The 1978 version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” is better than the original 1956 version. It’s also the horror film that Leonard Nimoy made. Philip Kaufman directs this tight, disgusting special effect laden sci-fi-laced film about pods taking over people. There’s also Brooke Adams and Donald Sutherland moving the script forward. A young Jeff Goldblum is included for your viewing pleasure. It does not end well for him, or pretty much anyone. We’re all taken over from the inside, the country is screwed, the whole world is screwed and if a friend points at you and lets out an un-godly shriek, run. Run fast. Well, on second thought, just give up. Running just wears you out and you’re going to want to look fresh for your new pod overlord.
Evil Dead 2 (1986)
“The Evil Dead” was one of the best films to come out of 1981. Director Sam Raimi gave the world a gift in putting Bruce Campbell on film. Screw nuance or method-acting, Campbell is the Chin that saves the friggin’ world again. Evil Dead 2 is more anarchic and more disgusting than the original. Campbell plays Ash, the deadite-killing protagonist still stuck in the worst cabin in any woods ever. He also finds himself the possession-plagued antagonist too. There’s also the iconic chainsaw hand and rooms that seem alive. There is a time and place for high art, brilliantly paced drama and witty comedy in the world. Evil Dead 2 is for the moments when art and comedy need a rest and you just want to scream “Hail to the King!”
28 Days Later (2002)
With 28 Days Later,” director Danny Boyle replaces the slow moving un-dead with the quicker, un-deader Hellspawn. Apparently, there is a virus sweeping through London that reduces ordinary folk to rare-fueled death machines. An abandoned London is a spooky place, it gets even more terrifying when the people
you meet are no longer people. Cillian Murphy is great as Jim, an uninfected man looking for other survivors. Brendan Gleeson is brilliant and the rest of the cast turns in solid performances of the few spared the virus, but cursed to try and survive the thing.