Monday, October 30, 2006

The 15 Best Horror Movies

A fellow blogger has called for lists of the 15 best horror movies, and I, memewhore that I'm becoming, have joined in. Plus, Halloween is basically the horror film holiday, with candy and costumes as nice accessories. Note that this list, like any list I make, is subject to change at any time. I enjoy making lists but I can never decide on them.

1. DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978). One thing I've never liked is the use of the phrase "scary movie" in reference to horror films; it seems limiting. DAWN OF THE DEAD has a few good shocks and scares, but they're not really the point. The film is an epic which pushes the limits of the genre in several places. It incorporates shocks, humor, drama, action, and social commentary in a way that no film in the genre has before or since. It's also just very, very well made, with beautiful photography and sharp editing. A unique experience.

2. ROSEMARY'S BABY. Subtle yet intense, this is a brilliant example of how suspense can be built gradually through good writing and acting. Though it's an interesting time capsule, drawing on the shifting culture of the 60s, the contemporary decline of organized religion, and the seeming rise of neopaganism (which ended up having very little to do with Satan at all, but it gave us some great imagery), it really works best as a piece of biological horror, tapping into women's anxieties about pregnancy and the uncertainty and loss of control that seem to accompany it. Thick with an atmosphere that starts out charming but soon becomes oppressive, this is a perfect example of the "less is more" school of horror filmmaking.

3. THE HAUNTING (1962). Then again, maybe this is. A remarkably faithful adaptation of THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE by Shirley Jackson, this slick Robert Wise chiller juxtaposes the psychological terror of Nell's increasing madness with scenes where actual ghosts seem to undeniably make their presence known. The line between external and internal horror is nicely blurred, and a superb performance by Julie Christie in the lead seals the deal.

4. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968). George A. Romero's subgenre-defining directorial debut is a classic of low-budget filmmaking. Still terrifying to this day, it's a relentless, savage drama about the collapse of civilization, and not only created the rules for zombie films, but broke new ground for "siege" pictures as well.

5. THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. This seems to have been the first horror film to make humor a major element of its story, as James Whale moves the Universal horror series fully into the realm of gothic opera and fantasy. The injection of camp into the proceedings, alongside a daring gay subtext, makes for one of the most *fun* horror films ever made.

6. DRACULA (1931). Tod Browning's at-times-underrated rendition of the definitive vampire story is indeed talky and stagy and typical in some ways of the early sound pictures (lack of musical score included). It is also hauntingly atmospheric, intimate, and dreamlike, while showcasing amazing performances from Bela Lugosi, Dwight Frye, and Edward Van Sloan.

7. CURSE OF THE DEMON. The demon may be on screen just a tad too long, but damn if it isn't a great monster. The atmosphere of this one is amazing- everything's windblown fields and skeletal trees and Celtic runes and black magic. A masterpiece of style.

8. EVIL DEAD 2: DEAD BY DAWN. This was a tough call from among the three films, but ultimately Raimi's first sequel is probably the best as a movie. It's hard not to like a horror film which draws from slapstick, Ray Harryhausen, and 1930s cartoons, and which, for a long stretch of its running time, is essentially one actor being abused in several interesting ways.

9. HALLOWEEN. Maybe the film that best captures the holiday in America: suburbs, jack-o-lanterns, late night horror movie marathons, and costumed maniacs roaming the streets. The slickest low-budget indie film I've ever seen (Carpenter never seems to miss a beat technically), with an infectious score and good acting by Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasance. However, I think what really makes this stand out, even after years of imitations, is the sheer nihilistic evil of its killer. I still want to know what store in the world sells white William Shatner masks, though.

10. THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1973). A crude, energetic, and relentless grindhouse thriller which, though short on actual gore, manages to repulse mainly through the sheer unpleasantness of its subject manner and the killers' "meat is meat" attitude. Beneath the rough surface, though, it's an efficiently constructed picture, the first "appearance" of Leatherface being a perfectly assembled shock.

11. THE EVIL DEAD. Another great example of how a really gifted filmmaker can get the most out of very little money, this over-the-top shocker is easily the scariest of Raimi's EVIL DEAD trilogy and possibly the best film for simple splatterhouse thrills. The story is pure campfire stuff, the demons are annoyingly sadistic bastards, and the gore is without parallel. The horror film that makes you think maybe you've seen enough horror movies for the current month. (This is why I'm saving it for Halloween night.)

12. FRANKENSTEIN (1931). James Whale's unique adaptation of the legendary novel isn't as slick and well-paced as its camp sequel, but the expressionist imagery is still unsettling, with an interesting contrast between the distorted, unnatural world of the doctor and his experiments, and the natural, pastoral landscape into which the monster intrudes. Jack Pierce's legendary makeup design and Boris Karloff's astonishing performance make this essential viewing, even if it has dated a bit.

14. HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959). Cheesy as hell, but still effectively spooky, like a carnival funhouse. Lots of weird 50s style shocks, some impressive screaming by the tiny Carolyn Craig (EDIT notice: Not Carol Ohmart, who's the gorgeous blonde), and great performances by Vincent Price and Elisha Cook, Jr. (whose character gets increasingly bombed as the story progresses).

15. HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II. Most folks prefer the original, but somehow I found this surrealistic sequel more satisfying. Clive Barker didn't write or direct this one, but his stamp is all over it, from the uniquely arty visions of Hell to the heavy sexual overtones. And the music- my GOD, the music. A collection of gorgeously bloody images with just enough story to hang them together.


Adam Ross said...

Good call on Hellraiser II, that was a quality sequel because it gave us more of what made the original great but in a different direction. The Haunting didn't make my cut, but the last line always gives me chills: 'We are the ghosts of Hill House, and we walk alone.'

PaulM said...

I saw Rosemary's Baby not long ago during a Faith & Film festival. The prof who talked after was mostly interested in the neopaganism & weird coincidences (Polanski to Manson to Helter Skelter to John Lennon to the apartment building), but what's most striking is, as you say, the "biological" horror, though I'd also add the source of a lot of the horror is John Cassavettes & the husband/wife relationship. So, domestic melodrama stuff (in the best way), to my eyes.

Joseph B. said...

I only watched the first Hellraiser a few weeks ago and was impressed. I hear the third one is the best, no? I'll definitely have to check them out.

Evan Waters said...

The first is still regarded as the best, I think. HELLRAISER III is thought of more as where the series took a turn into slasher-movie territory, with Pinhead being pushed as a Freddy Kruger type.

Anonymous said...

This is a great list. You might want to check out and view the list of the best horror movies

Matt said...

According to rankopedia, the best three horror movies ever are Alien, The Exorcist the The Thing.