Now that we’re a little closer to Halloween night, I thought I would compile my top 10 favorite horror movies. This was something I had never done before, so even I was surprised by some of my answers (for instance I don’t list any films before 1960, most are somewhat mainstream fare and for the most part are American productions). For good or bad, these are the movies that strike a nerve in me in one way or another. The following are in no particular order.
Roman Polanski’s tale of a woman’s incapacitating fear of men works on many levels, both as pure psychological thriller, outright horror movie and arthouse film, but it is Catherine Deneuve’s amazing performance that is really at the heart of the movie. Her facial expressions and body language alone carries even more weight than the some times throw-away dialogue. Her complete nervous breakdown is manifested in the disintegration of the interior of her apartment. From cracking plaster to hands that emerge from hallways, her emerging insanity is writ large. Deneuve’s intense performance coupled with the beautiful cinematography, this is probably the best of Polanski’s “horror” films.
Evil Dead (1981)
Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness are really funny and fun to watch, but the original is dead serious (no pun intended) and the best of the three. Shot on a shoestring budget (this seems to be a theme running through many of these films on this list), Sam Rami’s first feature is genuinely frightening. He is able to make the woods feel claustrophobic and wide-open at the same time. Yes, it’s another version on the “isolated- cabin-in-the-woods-no-way-out” sub-genre, but Evil Dead is one of the most intense and relentless entries.
Again, nothing beats the classics. Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead both pack a punch, but for my money, the grainy black and white, ultra low-budget frankness of Night of the Living Dead still holds up in so many ways. Sneakily subversive, and in many ways a dark satire of the times in which it was released, the film still feels utterly original and striking.
The “shower scene” aside, this film still has the power to shock all these years later. This was Hitchock’s “stab” at making a B-movie, apparently admiring the work of director William Castle. The black and white photography is gorgeous and the iconic score by Bernard Herrmann is so well done, so perfectly matched to every scene, one couldn’t imagine the film without it.
The Hitcher (1986)
Rutger Hauer. That’s all you need to say about this taught thriller. He is pure menace and off-handed charm all at once, sort of like a Hannibal Lector, without the eating of humans-thing. The film does a fine job of building tension, until it’s very bleak ending. I’ll never look at a basket of fries the same way again.
The Howling (1981)
My favorite of the latter day werewolf films (yes, I like it more than an American Werewolf in London) The Howling stars Dee Wallace, horror film staple of the 80s, as a reporter who is sent to a retreat for psychiatric patients. A dark satire of the self-help movement of the late 70s early 80s, Joe Dante directs this movie great relish, and is someone, like John Carpenter, that has an obvious fondness for B-movies.
Yes, this is an obvious allegory of drug addiction, but director Abel Ferrara doesn’t clobber you over the end with this notion, but rather delves deeper into other, even more weighty subject matter (the Holocaust for one) using a vampire film as a vehicle. Lily Taylor, as the philosophy student who is stricken with vampirism, is genuinely amazing and is really the one who makes this movie “believable”. Plus, the climatic graduation party scene is even terrifying in the middle of the day.
Starring adult film actress Marilyn Chambers, this completely over-the-top but inventive take on the zombie outbreak sub-genre, Rabid is another one of Cronenberg’s films about the body revolting against itself. It’s an exploitation film at heart, but Cronenberg’s savvy writing and directing raises it above pure schlock. And with a vampiric creature that emerges from the main character’s armpit, this has family fun written all over it.
Written and directed by Dan O’Bannon, Return of the Living Dead is an off-shoot of the original Dead series (John Russo the writer of the Night of the Living Dead begun this new series). The first movie in this hybrid, Return of the Living Dead features zombies and punks (finally!), and has more of a comedic feel to it, much more in the vein of the later Evil Dead movies. Great soundtrack as well.
John Carpenter (Halloween, The Fog, The Thing, They Live)
Yes, I really can’t pick one, so I’ve included them all. And what I love about John Carpenter is that he loves movies, B-movies especially, and it shows in every single frame of his films. Often cheesy, but always sincere, his films (primarily the ones from the late 70s to late 80s) somehow never feel dated (well, maybe They Live; I’m not sure if the casting of “Rowdy” Roddy Piper was just plain silly or a self-reflexive wink and a nod). His self-composed scores are utterly iconical and his narrative pacing is always sharp, a filmmaker who knows how to keep the tension rising throughout an entire movie. It’s all about economy in a Carpenter film, with a focus on story and characters.