Have you ever noticed that one of the hardest things to do is to talk about the things you love. In general it is fairly easy to review films that quite frankly were no good or heavily flawed. I also find it easy to write about a new film I’ve just watch that was a revelation, or contained ideas that spark the imagination. But how do you review the films that you have always loved, the films you saw 30 add times, the type of film you still have a VHS copy of because you can’t bare to part with it. It’s a scary proposition, and even more audacious when you put them in an order. In my previous post I commented on Sight and Sound’s once a decade ‘Greatest Films‘ poll where they compiled a top 100 which in turn was compiled from the top 10s of critics and directors. How do you cut your favourite films down to 10? I couldn’t, as you will see I have decided to go for a top 20 and I didn’t have a similar amount of films to pick from because I am only focusing on the horror genre. If you do get a chance to look at S&S’s results from their poll do it (here is the link again: http://explore.bfi.org.uk/sightandsoundpolls/2012/) because when you look at a critic or directors top ten they often include a comment on what they took in to consideration when picking their 10.
Why make a list at all? In life (I hope) you would never pick a favourite child, but with films it is very different. People are often desperate to tell each other what their favourite film is, it is one of the first things people ask each other. (especially if conversation is scarce) I used to find it easier to respond but nowadays often a moment of doubt will wash over me before I am able to answer. This is because there are two main options; you can give an answer that is true, a lot of avid film fans would tell you that it is impossible to give a definitive answer, or secondly you can give the answer that you think people want to hear. This second road is perhaps one of the main arguments against lists and polls because in a great deal of cases it seems that people will give the answers that they believe they ought to, they list the films which are considered the best technically, or the best of art cinema, its comfortable to pick films that the wider film community has already established as great, it is easy to go with the cannon. If you give your top 10 based on films that impacted you the most, or films you enjoyed the most you leave your self open to criticism, your choices will reflect back on you, (although this might be true in any case) you are laying yourself out bare. Here’s where I tip my hat to those whose S&S lists were very personal. You can tell the difference. There is a middle ground of lists, you must of course also take the aforementioned factors into consideration to some extent or you will end up at the other extreme where Star Wars is always number one and something that caught the Zeitgeist that year is in the top ten, probably The Dark Knight (ahem Empire magazine)
So I say it again: why make lists? People make lists for all sorts of reasons; to catalogue, to remember, to impress, but mostly we are all so obsessed with making lists of our ‘favourites’ because it is an expression of who we are and our experiences and at the end of the day it is FUN. Which is why lists will continue for as long as man walks the earth (living or dead!) Now on with the business at hand!
A brief word about how I came to my decision. I have picked my top 20 favourite horror movies based on these factors: Am I still able to enjoy it after my viewings make it into double figures? Did it have a profound affect on me? Did it change the way I thought or felt about horror films? And most importantly did it scare the bleep out of me? I also include; was it atmospheric? under the last category as good atmospherics can be as important as outright scares. Well here we go. You read on, I’ll be right back…
20 Scream 4 2011 Wes Craven
Have you ever been such a big fan of the internal world of your favourite film or TV series that after it ended you always wondered what happened to your favourite characters? Well this id the beauty of Scream 4. To coin a phrase Kevin Williamson was my 90’s, and here he is re-united with the King of horror Wes Craven. Scream 4 is special because not only am I reunited with Sidney, Dewey and Gale but Williamson’s script is extremely sensitive to expectations of the franchise’s fans whilst at the same time cleverly updating the forth instalment for modern teenage audiences. This movie exists in a place where people are still intentionally post modern because the film makers are aware of the history and conventions of horror and can play with them. Scream 4 is quite simply a hugely enjoyable film.
19 Friday the 13th Part 2 1981 Steve Miner
I maintain that ‘Part 2‘ is the best Friday the 13th film to date. Whilst you may have found yourself laughing hysterically at the dated special effect of Mrs Vorhees head flying off in ‘Part 1‘ and re-wound the video tape to watch it over and over again ‘Part 2‘ is an all together more terrifying entity. It has one of the best double bluff shock openings of any film, and stylistically it is undoubtedly what I think of first when I think of 80’s slashers. For what could be more terrifying than being chased (Jason ran fast in this one) around by a mentally ill man with a sack on his head and a pick axe in his hand. He could be behind any corner and he could smash through windows at a moments notice. This is a taut thrill ride and director Steve Minor is a legend.
18 The Innocents 1961 Jack Clayton
For a film without a drop of blood in it The Innocents can be said to have such a disturbing atmosphere that I find it hard to watch it alone. Saying that this adaptation of The Turn of The Screw by Henry James is beautifully short in a style that can be described as a meeting of the minds between the classical style and a new emerging British cinema. A story of the supernatural that hints at devil worship, possession and madness The Innocents is a perfect thing, a rounded jewel, a true treasure, and Jack Clayton is one of modern times forgotten geniuses.
17 Suspiria 1977 Dario Argento
I only recently watched Suspiria for the first time and it was a revelation. Now I can’t believe that I spent so long without having this stunning and evocative film in my life. Suzy a young American ballerina moves across the world to learn at a prestigious ballet school. The school itself is a dreamlike world with its fantastical Grimm’s fairytale décor and the atmosphere soon becomes one of terror and paranoia. The death scenes really are like something out of your most abstract nightmares. Suspiria is like a hideously deformed creature grafted onto the back of a beautifully work of modern art.
16 Rosemary’s Baby 1968 Roman Polanski
Rosemary lives in one of the busiest cities in the world; New York but manages to become so isolated during her first pregnancy that she becomes vulnerable to the forces of darkness. Rosemary’s Baby is a horror film that will always stick with you. Over the summer on a visit to a country house found myself looking at some hideous pointy eared wood carvings and wondering if the occupants of the house were descended from generations of devil worshippers. A film about the horrors of child birth, the horrors of polite society and the things you sacrifice to get ahead. Polanski is meticulous, and everything has a meaning and exists within the plot for a purpose, and so this is a film you can keep going back to and find new levels of meaning. A masterpiece.
15 The Thing 1982 John Carpenter
There is something magical about the pairing of John Carpenter and Kurt Russell, for The Thing all the stars were aligned. Trapped in an Antarctic research station with an alien than can imitate its victims appearance a team of unlucky scientists find themselves unable to trust one another. The best horror stories are always set in confined places with no hope of rescue, and The Thing is a classic example. The tension is cranked up to 11 and this is Kurt Russell’s coolest role ever, not to mention how great the the funky Carpenter/Morricone sound track is.
14 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 1974 Tobe Hooper
‘One of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history,’ from the moment of its opening voice-over The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of the most highly fear charged films you can watch as a teenager. Notoriously banned in the UK from 1984 until 1999 Texas Chainsaw represented the unknown, even the title could strike fear into the heart, circumstances that would be hard to recreate nowadays. Texas Chainsaw represented the dark side of the ‘free love’ vision that 60’s kids had dreamed of. In real life up and down America predators like Bundy and Gacy were preying on innocents and in this sense Chainsaw felt chillingly realistic. Still one of the best cinematic depictions of true terror.
13 Psycho/The Birds 1960/1963 Alfred Hitchcock
As you can see I have been sneaky and chosen two classic Hitchcock’s for my number 13 spot. This is partly because although I love Psycho, and can appreciated what a seminal film it was for the horror genre and thus worth including in a top 20, I feel that I get more enjoyment out of The Birds which has a great atmosphere of looming doom and wonderful characterisations. Personally (and there is a lot to chose from) my favourite Hitchcock film is A Shadow of a Doubt, but I can’t really classify it as a horror.
12 Deep Red 1975 Dario Argento
One of the most exciting films I have seen in a long time, Deep Red made me wonder where Dario Argento had been all my life (I never saw any of his tapes in my local video store’s horror section) Deep Red is filled with incredible settings and set-pieces, the visual design is exquisite, as is the sound design. Like the best slashers this film is not only blood soaked in gore, but it is also a ‘who done it.’ And if you want a hand book on how it is done this is it!
11 Black Christmas 1974 Bob Clark
On to another classic with ‘who done it’ elements, Black Christmas is now often attributed as being one of the early forefathers of what we know of as slasher today. Despite this, and despite a remake it is still often overlooked. A terrifying and clearly insane individual named ‘Billy’ is hiding in the attic of a Sorority house and making obscene phone calls to the occupants. It is just before Christmas so at first no one notices as girls go missing. In my opinion Black Christmas is notable in two respects; firstly all the girls have individual personalities, and are not at all stereotyped to the extent they probably would be nowadays, and secondly director Bob Clark brings a chilling reality to the film with the arrival of the first victims farther who has come to search for her. His concern for his daughter is characterised with heartbreaking tenderness.
10 A Nightmare on Elm Street 1984 Wes Craven
Some ideas are so old that it becomes hard for people to remember that they were once new. Those old enough to remember now think of Elm Street as an old worn out stripy jumper, and the ‘fresh meat’ are so young that they probably think of Jackie Earle Haley as Freddy Krueger. The original Nightmare on Elm Street is so jam packed with genius and, original brilliance thanks to the legendary Wes Craven, that it makes me realise that we now waiting for something new and original to come around again and smash down the boundaries. Who could have imaging a girl wearing just a boys shirt being dragged across a ceiling by an invisible slasher. Shocking! Back then if you scratched the surface of a horror film you were in danger of getting tetanus, these days you break a nail on the shiny varnish.
9 The Exorcist 1973 William Friedkin
1998 was an exciting year. The Exorcist was re-released in UK cinemas, it was an 18 and I wasn’t but wild rumours circulated at our school about people fainting and vomiting in the aisles and that the film was so powerful that it would make you commit suicide (a rumour I can see from a quick Google search is still circulating the internet) It suddenly became very important for me and my friend to see the film as soon as it came out on video. We were slightly disappointed. The Exorcist is a film about themes and idea, the fear comes from what you don’t see, the fear comes from what you believe. This can be difficult for modern audience to grasp. It took me a second viewing to realise that The Exorcist is one of the most terrifying and affecting films of all time, and it only becomes more so the more you watch it. The Exorcist also had one of the best ever ‘making of’ documentaries made for it in Mark Kermode’s Fear of God, made by the BBC for the 25th anniversary of its release.
8 Alien 1979 Ridley Scott
Anyone familiar with The Red Museum will know from my review of Prometheus that I am a massive Alien fan. I can’t watch it without think ‘wow, so this is filmmaking!’ Every aspect is perfect (even the bit with Ian Holmes head) and as a whole can be described as a vision, and Ridley Scott a visionary director. But the great thing about Alien is it never loses sight of the entertainment aspect, it is a tight, claustrophobic thrill ride that will leave your heart pounding. No matter how many times I watch the end sequence I always find my self on the edge of my seat routing for Ripley, despite knowing full well what happens. This is the mark of a classic. There is nothing worse than re watching a film in the cold light of day and realising that with out the element of surprise you have been hoodwinked. Aliens might have all the good lines but Alien will live forever.
7 The Fog 1979 John Carpenter
The Fog is a film dear to my heart. I have recommended The Fog to a few friends in the past who have come back to me less than impressed. They seemed so distracted by the special effects design of the creatures of the fog that they failed to notice the painfully beautiful cinematography, and the tingling, strange atmosphere. The Fog is a late night movie, intentionally dreamlike enjoyment of the film depends on a suspension of disbelief, something that comes naturally to every dreamer. If you have ever sat up late at night and stared out of the window wondering what lies beyond then you will love this film, after all all that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream….
6 An American Werewolf in London 1981 John Landis
When I go to London and travel on the tube I often think of my favourite scene from An American Werewolf in London. American Werewolf is funny, touching, horrific and at times disturbing, what more could you want from a film? It not only ground breaking, but hugely enjoyable, filled with a patchwork of tiny moments that build up the fabric of a unique world. You only have to glance at John Landis’s filmography to see the profound influence he has had on a variety of genres. He was one of the first to realise that a horror movie could be funny and still be horror, after all real life is funny and sad, often in the same breath. Without this film there would be no Shaun of the Dead. When I grow up I wan to be like John Landis.
5 Candyman 1992 Bernard Rose
Candyman, candyman, candyman, candyman… I dare you to stand in front of the bathroom mirror ans repeat his name five times after first viewing this film. It’s not something I plan on doing any time soon. There really is no denying that Candyman is one of the scariest films ever made. Helen Lyle thinks that poverty, fear and a need for those forgotten my white middle America to establish their own social structure is behind the urban legend circulating the Cabrini-Green housing projects about an avenging figure with a hook for a hand. She was wrong. Thematically Candyman is one of the most interesting horror films yet to grace our living rooms, with a haunting Gothic score by Philip Glass this film shows us that fairy tails, folk law and myth still still play a role in the social structures of modern nations, from the top to the bottom. Candyman will leave you quaking in your boots.
4 The Shining 1980 Stanley Kubrick
There is a reason why people make whole films about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. I could literally watch it a hundred times without getting bored, and I know that I would root for Wendy, Danny, and Dick Hollorann every time. As a visual text The Shining is like the sea, one viewing is merely a drop in the ocean. It is the same with many of Kubrick’s works, they are hugely detailed, and often beautifully mysterious in their ambiguity, his films draw you in like a Siren on the rocks, but no matter what street you end up running down accompanied by piano music you will always ultimately find yourself faced with your own reflection.
3 Halloween 1978 John Carpenter
If you like horror enough to visit this site in the first place then I doubt their is anything I can say about Halloween that you wont of head a thousand times. One of the best things about the 31st of October, especially as a teenager, is that Halloween comes on late night TV, you get to sneak down to the living room, close all the doors (you wouldn’t want Michael to appear behind one”) curl up and enjoy . Sometimes if you are lucky a TV channel will run the whole Halloween series, one a night. I love everything about it, Halloween is a perfect horror.
2 The Silence of the Lambs 1991 Jonathan Demme
There really is nothing out there like The Silence of the Lambs. When was the last time you saw a modern studio film with a female hero that depicts the true nature of surviving as a woman in a male dominated world. Then add in a thrilling hunt for a serial killer and you have a rare Oscar winning horror film. Faced with examining the body of a girl that has fallen victim to a monster FBI trainee Clarice Starling puts in 110% just to be considered on an equal playing field with her male counterparts. Clarice and Hannibal Lecter share a polite understanding between them, because they are both subjugated by society, both considered outsiders, Hannibal is stared at in his glass cage, and Clarice is stared at as she travels through male domains and institutions. To achieve their goals they must effectively work together. A master-stroke from Jonathan Demme.
1 Scream 1996 Wes Craven
Billy Loomis "I was home watching television. The Exorcist was on and it got me thinking of you."
Drum role please! The number one film on my list is Scream. I suppose you always have a fondness for the first proper horror film you ever saw, I had seen plenty of spooky, creepy stuff like the X-files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was always on TV but the first time I ever saw a real slasher movie was when I convinced my mother to let me rent out the VHS of Scream because the cover looked intriguing At the time the idea of killer using a mobile phone to contact victims seemed terribly modern, of course you can watch it now and barely notice, it seems so natural now. I am glad that Scream was my first forage into horror because not only is it a key moment in 90’s cinema and 90’s popular culture but it is basically a horror hand book. It tells you all the conventions of the genre and then subverts them. Scream also contains a referential list of all the horror films you should be watching. It is a great ‘who done it’ too the plot and cast of characters will keep you guessing to the last, and on on the second viewing it will still stand up. Scream is a game changer, the Halloween of the 90’s and yet to be surpassed in eloquence or skill.