The horror film geek makes another list

In anticipation of Halloween, I decided to compile my “Top 15 Horror Flicks of All Time”. Being a big fan of the horror/dark fantasy genre, it was a significant challenge to whittle the list down to just fifteen. Why fifteen? Simple: ten was too few, but twenty would be too time-consuming.

You will note a preponderance of North American films in my list. This is a situation which I hope to rectify in the near future, as there are many excellent films from around the world belonging to the horror genre. I deeply regret having missed Italian director Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977), which is a film that appears on many critics top-ten lists. It’s on my list of “must sees” along with last year’s The Descent (a.k.a. “Chicks in a Cave”).

These films are not ranked in order of best-to-least best. And, yes, I am a total film geek. Here’s proof:

1. The Exorcist (1973). William Friedkin’s masterful supernatural thriller. Not only is it an excellent example of the horror genre, but it’s a brilliant film, period. This film offers fully-realized, believable characters and a storyline that allows the tension to build slowly and gradually. When the supernatural events finally do occur, they are experienced as a big pay-off. Avoid the “director’s cut” version that was released a few years ago. This version adds 12-minutes which are not only unnecessary but threaten the slow build plot that’s so effective in the original theatrical release.

2. Alien (1979). Ridley Scott’s best film (Bladerunner is a close runner-up) which arguably created the “science fiction-horror” genre and spawned countless imitators (and couple of ho-hum sequels). Similar to The Exorcist, this film builds the tension gradually. Scott is astute enough to keep his monster artfully hidden in the shadows until the last minutes of the film. German artist H.R. Giger provided the uniquely gothic designs for the Alien monsters and spaceship, and his detailed creations are both exquisitely beautiful and profoundly creepy. Alien was also one of the first films ever to feature a strong, self-sufficient female protagonist in the character of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver).

3. The Grudge (2003). Director Takashi Shimizu (Japanese title Ju-On). I haven’t seen the English-language remake starring Sarah Michelle Gellar (a.k.a. “Buffy”), perhaps because I’m such a fan of the original Japanese film. What do the ghosts of this film want? Why do people continually enter this boarded-up, haunted house? Why doesn’t someone just bulldoze the place? These questions are never really addressed, but the ride is so much creepy-fun that the details hardly matter. The Grudge is an exercise in effective editing to pry all those screams and jumps out of it’s audience. The scene where the spooky ghost-child suddenly materializes beneath the bed-quilt — and on top of the bed’s occupant — is classically creepy.

4. George A. Romero’s zombie trilogy Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985). What can I say about a guy who singlehandedly created the sub-genre of “zombie film” that hasn’t already been said? Romero’s films are campy, excessively gory fun counterbalanced with black humour and subtle social commentary. My favourite of the three films is Day of the Dead with it’s unlikely anti-hero, the zombie named “Bub”. There’s a final, signature “zombie feast” at the finale of the film that is so over-the-top gory that it’s hilarious. The latest addition to Romero’s zombie mythology Land of the Dead (2005), while not as much fun as his previous efforts, did offer one gloriously campy moment where the rich industrialist bad-guy (played with aplomb by veteran actor Dennis Hopper) chomps on a cigar and intones the classic line “I hate these fuckin’ zombies”.

5. An American Werewolf in London (1981). Director John Landis creates a unique sort of creature feature: a werewolf movie that’s equal parts scary, gory and funny. I recently rewatched this film on television at few night ago, and the famous werewolf transformation scene (created without the benefit of contemporary computer-generated graphics) still stands up as exceptional. Griffin Dunne turns in a hilarious performance as Jack, the murdered — and thus undead — friend of werewolf David who keeps turning up in an increasingly advanced state of decomposition.

6. The Shining (1980) is director Stanley Kubrick’s intense, epic, gothic horror film masterpiece – a beautiful, stylish work which distanced itself from the blood-letting and gore of most modern films in the horror genre. The film bears little resemblance to Stephen King’s 1977 novel — which is a good thing (I’ve always thought Stephen King was a hack). Kubrick deliberately reduces the pace of the narrative and expands the rather simple plot of a domestic tragedy to over two hours in length. Tension builds slowly and finally snaps with sudden, violent force when Jack (in a career-defining performance by Jack Nicholson) completely loses it … with an axe.

7. Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979). Werner Herzog applies his signature blending of truth with fiction to his remake of F.W. Murnau’s silent film Nosferatu (1922). Similar to Kubrick in style, Herzog’s camera is still and steady with the scenes revealing themselves at a deliberate, slow pace. The film’s resulting atmosphere is heavy and brooding, charged with a slowly building undercurrent of impending doom. Klaus Kinski’s Count Orlock is a sad, shuffling creature more strongly associated with a disease-carrying rat than a sensual seducer as seen in other interpretations of Dracula. Herzog’s anti-romantic concept of the vampire is one of the Black Death that slowly infiltrates the picturesque beauty of a quiet Gothic town.

8. The Blair Witch Project (1999). The low-budget mock-documentary cinema-verite phenomenon of the late nineties that worked on the time-honoured truth that a monster you can’t see is much scarier than a monster you can. While it’s documentary-style hand-held video was not a new concept in the horror genre (see 1993’s Man Bites Dog), it was used to great effect in this story of an ill-fated trek into the woods by three young, aspiring filmmakers. This film plays on our innate fear of being lost — never mind that you might have a witch and/or psychotic child-killer tracking your every movement. Creepy.

9. Eraserhead (1977). Although not generally classified as a horror film, director David Lynch’s feature-film debut is a masterpiece of the macabre and grotesque. Reportedly a reaction to the news that he was about to become a father, Lynch’s film follows a sensitive young man as he struggles to cope with impending parenthood. Apparently Lynch’s view of parenthood is an impossibly bleak one, as “the baby” born in this film isn’t exactly human, but a deformed creature more closely resembling a lizard. Eraserhead contains all of the trademark attributes of a Lynch film: haunting visuals, an ethereal score, unsettling sound design, and, most notably, a black sense of humor.

10. Hellraiser (1987). Author/director Clive Barker blends torturous sadomasochism with nightmarish gore in his creation of the creepy Cenobites. The film involves a mysterious puzzle-box (which serves as a gateway to Hell) and copious amounts of blood and guts. Stunning, if stomach-churning, visuals.

11. The Ring (2002). While this remake of the Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (1998) owes a great debt to the pacing and visual style of the Japanese original, it is ultimately a superior film. Naomi Watts stars as the intrepid reporter who watches a cursed videotape; a seemingly innocuous event which will result in her death in seven days. A weird, unique storyline with a satisfying — if predictable — twist ending.

12. Carl-Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1931) is a surreal meditation on fear. I had the great fortune of viewing this rare film at Cinematheque Ontario a few years ago. Moody and atmospheric, this film has little dialogue but many indelible images. An early sound film, it was originally shot as a silent film and had small amounts of sound added later in post-production. The most striking image of the film is the death scene of the evil Doctor, who gets his eventual comeuppance by being buried alive within the chute of a mill. This scene is achingly slow, as the audience witnesses every last shriek and gasp of the dying villain. Horrendous.

13. Doctor Terror’s House of Horrors (1965). Campy B-movie starring Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Donald Sutherland. Effectively creepy horror flick with five men aboard a train who are told their fates/fortunes by a spooky doctor’s Tarot cards with a quintet of tales of the macabre; the best is “The Hand” with Lee as an art critic who gets his comeuppance by an artist’s dismembered hand. The latter is a story that appeals to me for reasons which should be obvious.

14. Cauldron of Blood (1970). Original Spanish title “El coleccionista de cadáveres”. Starring horror-film legend Boris Karloff who portrays a blind sculptor working on his magnum opus, unaware that the skeletons he has been using for armatures are the remains of the victims of his evil wife and that he is the next target.

15. Shaun of the Dead. (2004). Director Edgar Wright. Bloody, gory and incredibly funny, this film is a loving, respectful send-up of the zombie movie genre. And when was the last time you heard the word “twat” uttered quite so often in a film? Those wacky Brits.

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