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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Definitive Horror Films: 10-1

John Carpenter, courtesy of
And here we are, to the top ten. See your favorite on the list yet? If not, it's probably here. If it still isn't on this part of the list, either you have bad taste or I forgot it. Or I have bad taste. And no, Peter Jackson's Bad Taste is not on this list. One more time, this isn't a "best of" list. These ten are the most culturally important horror films of all time. Feel free to log your arguments in the comment section. I look forward to hearing from you.


#10. Silence of the Lambs (1991)

The first (and only) horror film to ever win the Oscar for Best Picture I still maintain is not really even a horror film. Jonathan Demme's adaptation of Thomas Harris's novel swept the awards, winning Best Picture, Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins), Best Actress (Jodie Foster), Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director. Hopkins won his award while only being on screen for less than 20 minutes of the film, but stands as the most memorable thing and character in the film - Dr. Hannibal Lecter - spinning two sub-par "sequels." The story follows Foster as young FBI agent Clarice Starling, on the tail of a serial killer nicknamed Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine). In order to find him, she has to understand how he thinks and seeks the assistance of Lecter, locked away from society in high security.The film gets its brilliance from the interplay between Foster and Hopkins, but gets its horror from the eerily misogynistic work of Levine, who makes your skin crawl in every scene.

#9. Friday the 13th (1980)

The 1980's saw the rise of the teenage slasher movie, where a seemingly unstoppable force just navigates his way through the cast, murdering people one by one (usually when they try to have sex - tough break). But, lest we forget, Jason Voorhies - the villain of all the sequels in this series - was not the antagonist of Sean S. Cunningham's first entry, Friday the 13th. At Camp Crystal Lake, a group of young counselors are hoping to welcome a new crop of new campers, reopening the resort after a child had drown in the lake years before. But these counselors can't keep their pants on and their predator doesn't take too kindly. It's a campy slasher movie that led the way in the decade of excess, with an insane ending that has to be seen to be believed (though I'm sure we've all seen it by now).

#8. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Most of the popular killers in the late 70's and into the 80's had masks on. In 1984, Wes Craven decided to not only give his villain a face, but give him a horrifyingly disfigured one. Not only that, but he doesn't hunt you down during by day. He waits until you sleep. In A Nightmare on Elm Street, a group of teenagers start to die, one by one, all while they slumber. The culprit is a child murderer who was set afire by a lynch mob, coming back to pick off their children, all in their hazy dream lands. Freddy Kruegger (Robert Englund) is a hideous burn victim with sharp claws attached to gloves he wears - not a pretty image. Remember - the rules are a little different in this one (versus the rest of the series), since Freddy can follow you out of your dreams, too. Scary stuff, though slowly numbed by lackluster sequels. Oh, and this film was the screen debut of Johnny Depp. It doesn't end well for him.


#7. Halloween (1978)

John Carpenter's quintessential horror film is more than just a slasher movie. While thousands of other horror films have done the same thing but either made it too complicated or too mindless, Carpenter's 1978 hit Halloween found a perfect tone right in the middle. It doesn't try too hard, but doesn't sacrifice story just to include some cheap thrills. The film revolves around Michael Myers, institutionalized since he was six for the murder of his sister. He breaks out the night before Halloween in 1978 and heads for his hometown of Haddonfield. His main target: teenage girl Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her friends. A much more realistic horror film than the others that premiered around it, the movie was a breakout hit for Curtis and memorialized the killer's mask forever, which is actually a mold of William Shatner's face.


#6. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Word to the wise - if your grandfather's grave has been desecrated, just let the police handle it. You don't need to check it out. While Halloween dialed up the intensity with stretches of quiet, Tobe Hooper's cult classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre loudly shoved the horror in your face, with frightening imagery and effects. A group of teenagers head out into country to visit a grandfather's grave, only to encounter a disgusting slaughterhouse and an inbred family of misfits, led by Leatherface, a chainsaw yielding madman who kills, skins, and eats his victims. Torture porn horror films started here. Independent, graphic horror films started here. While The Texas Chainsaw Massacre may not be as truly stomach-turning as it seemed on second viewing, it led the way for horror films that aren't just scary, but downright nauseating to watch.


#5. Frankenstein (1931)

At its heart, Mary Shelley's novel and James Whale's iconic film Frankenstein is about being an outsider in a world that doesn't understand you or want to accept you. You know the story: a mad scientist creates a monster made up of loose body parts from corpses, only to see it break out and terrorize the surrounding world. Boris Karloff's portrayal of the famed monster will always stand the test of time as one of the true sympathetic horror villains, creating a "man" who is not quite as evil as he is misunderstood. It took a fellow misunderstood outsider - filmmaker James Whale - to capture the terror not just behind the monster's appearance, but the monster's inability to fit into social norms. A movie that is really sadder than it is scary, it paved the way for dozens of other Hollywood monster movies, though none would equal the brilliance of this original.

#4. Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre may have expanded the reach of independent filmmakers in the horror genre, but George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead was the first to open the door. Made in Western Pennsylvania for next to nothing, Romero's allegory of Cold War paranoia around Joseph McCarthy's Communist witch hunt was far from a well-acted movie, but made its impact all the same. Featuring a rare (at the time) African-American protagonist and ringleader of the heroes (Duane Jones), the film created a claustrophobic feel, taking place almost entirely within one house in the middle of nowhere (not far from where I went to college). Nowadays, we have "The Walking Dead." We have new versions of zombie movies being released every year. Fans of zombies in the media need to look no further than this trail blazer in the genre.


#3. The Shining (1980)

Has a more beautiful horror film ever been made? Stanley Kubrick's big screen adaptation of Stephen King's novel took a few liberties with the story King was trying to tell (he still doesn't care for the film), but still stands as one of the scariest films ever made. The Shining stars Jack Nicholson  as Jack Torrance, an author suffering from writer's block who takes his wife (Shelly Duvall) and son (Danny Lloyd) to the Overlook Hotel to "house sit," so he can get some writing done. Unfortunately, this already unhinged man is driven to insanity by the isolation, his son's unexpected telepathic gift, and the spirits inhabiting the walls. In the novel, Jack's insanity has a much longer crescendo than in Kurbrick's vision, which essentially has Nicholson playing him kind of crazy from frame one. This labyrinth of a hotel and the confusion Kubrick builds with camera tricks and seemingly out of place imagery makes for a mind-bending, terrifying film experience you won't soon forget.


#2. The Exorcist (1973)

Horror and religion have never melded so beautifully and terrifyingly in a film before William Friedkin's 1973 adaptation of the William Peter Blatty novel (Blatty also wrote the screenplay). The Exorcist mixes three important characters - a worried mother, a holy man who begins to question his faith, and an elderly priest set to defeat evil incarnate. Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) sees her daughter Regan (Linda Blair) possessed by a demon, and calls upon local priests (Jason Miller, Max Von Sydow) to cure her. The film is ripe with horrifying imagery, but the real suspense of the film comes from the ongoing religious discussions and references, as Regan gets sicker and sicker, turning her tiny bedroom into her representation of a cold Hell. The film won two Oscars (Sound and Adapted Screenplay) and was nominated for eight more (including Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actress, Supporting Actor, and Lead Actress), proving that even a horror film can be a critical success, if it has an intelligent script and brilliant people working on it.


#1. Psycho (1960)

And then there was one. The most important horror film ever made. Alfred Hitchcock had made some scary movies, i.e. Rear Window, Dial M for Murder, but in 1960, he took suspense and terror to a new level with Psycho, a twisted spin on the murder mystery. When a woman (Janet Leigh) takes $40,000 meant for her employer and skips town, she finds herself pulling into a quiet, rural place called the Bates Motel, managed by a kind-eyed man named Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). From there, we are taken into the world of Norman Bates, a quiet man with an Oedipal complex (to say the least) who isn't exactly a social butterfly, as it were. Amongst the mystery and missing money is a sinister study of a twisted man, played hauntingly by Perkins, from his unassuming voice to his hollow eyes. It may not be the scariest movie you'll ever see (in 1960 it probably would have been), but every sinister villain - from horror films to thrillers to even children's movies - owes a little bit to Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Perkins for what they gave the world with Psycho and Norman Bates.

Well, that's it. I hope you enjoyed our list. Below I listed a few movies I left out and why.

Sins of Omission

Phantom of the Opera (1925) - I forgot about it. Honestly. I really should've been included on this list, somewhere between 20-40. Thank you to my friend Wyatt for reminding me and shaming me.

Jaws (1975) - I mentioned it in the first post. While this is a scary movie, I just can't call it a horror film.

Dario Argento's Films - the Italian director's films like Suspiria and Opera certainly aren't easy to forget, but I wouldn't say they made the impact needed to make the list. Plus, they aren't very good, in my opinion.

Every Other Hitchcock Film - Other than Psycho, I would argue Hitchcock never made a horror film. Lots of fantastic suspense, but no real horror.

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