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Friday, October 26, 2012

The Definitive Horror Films: 20-11

Wes Craven courtesy of 20. We've moved into a really solid list of movies in this portion. We have cases of meta-horror, we have the original film of some expansive series, and a couple science fiction/horror hybrid films. Either way, these are the final group before we hit the top 10, so factor in that some of these just missed it. Once again, not a "best of" list - definitive. So, here's numbers 20 through 11.


#20. Scream (1996)

In the mid-90's, the slasher film had all but run out of gas. We had loads of sequels and lesser imitators, as compared to the wave of fun 80's "sleepaway camp murderer" films. Then, director Wes Craven and writer Kevin Williamson delivered the first truly self-aware horror film. Characters not only suffered through horror movie cliches, but understood the pitfalls of those same horror standards they were falling victim to. While Scream followed a lot of those same plot devices as slasher films of past, it provided one memorable change: Craven killed off the film's biggest star in the first act. If anything, it proved that slasher films all look the same sometimes - but, when you break the rules, you open up a world of possibilities that even the biggest horror film buffs can't see coming.


#19. The Fly (1986)

More David Cronenberg, with his most memorable horror film - a remake of the camp classic of the same name. Starring Jeff Goldblum as scientist Seth Brundle, The Fly focuses on his attempts to have a breakthrough in the field of matter transportation. When a fly enters one of his transporters during a final experiment, he finds himself slowly transforming into a fly/man hybrid. Of all of Cronenberg's psychological nightmares, The Fly may hit closest to the heart, as we see much of the action through the eyes of Brundle's girlfriend Veronica (Geena Davis). This isn't a heart-pounding thriller. This is a slow, methodical look at the fear of body decay, the terror of the inevitable, and the sacrifices some make for misguided progress. This is not a horror film that makes you jump - it's a horror film that makes you think...and possibly get sick.


#18. Peeping Tom (1960)

Easily the most obscure movie in the top 20 - maybe the entire list - this Michael Powell film suffered from a little bit of bad timing. Horror films had yet to be psychological to the point of being incredibly unsettling. Unfortunately, Peeping Tom was made in 1960 and studios were hesitant to release this kind of film. That is, until September of the same year, when Alfred Hitchock's Psycho premiered. So, Peeping Tom was swept under the rug and finally released in the US in 1962, where it was mostly forgotten. So, in the same year that Hitchcock's landmark film was made, Powell was doing the same type of work overseas, telling a story of a lonely man (Carl Boehm) and his obsession with murdering women, all the while filming them. The camera has rarely been so terrifying and, while Psycho may be the more widespread success, had it been made two years later, Peeping Tom may be the bigger milestone in cinema history.


#17. Carrie (1976)

While we are going to be "treated" to a remake of this Brian De Palma classic, there is still a soft spot for the brilliance and terror of the original Stephen King novel adaptation. Carrie stars Sissy Spacek as a quiet, insecure teenager with telekinetic powers who deals with mental and physical abuse from all places: kids at school, strangers on the street, and even her own mother. Slowly, we see her being pushed and pushed until her breaking point, in a memorable scene at the high school prom. Carrie may be a metaphor about the cruelty of bullies. It may be hinting at the psychological study of rage-induced revenge. Most of all, it's one of De Palma's finest films and one of the scariest character studies ever put on film, grabbing Oscar nominations for Spacek and Piper Laurie, playing her mother. And, while I don't like that this film is being remade, they couldn't have picked a better actress than Chloe Grace Moretz to play the lead.


#16. Dracula (1931)

The Count Dracula we typically remember came courtesy of director Tod Browning and actor Bela Lugosi with this 1931 classic. All the major players are here in 1931's Dracula: the Count himself, Renfield (Dwight Frye), Van Helsing (Edward Von Sloan). Here, the title vampire is transported to England, where he begins to hunt down and prey on the virtuous young Mina (Helen Chandler), while Van Helsing and his supporters try to stop him. The myth of Dracula, created by author Bram Stoker, has been re-imagined in dozens of other ways, but, chances are, when you think of the Count, Lugosi's portrayal is the first to pop into your head.


#15. The Blair Witch Project (1999)

The hype machine at Apple couldn't even match what the filmmakers behind 1999's biggest surprise did. The Blair Witch Project was an independent film using the media circus and the new wave of Internet advertising better than any film before it or since. The film centers on a group of three student filmmakers in Massachusetts, documenting a local legend called the Blair Witch. The catch - they go missing and only their footage is found. The filmmakers' decided, instead of going a typical marketing route, to create a website explaining what happened, making it look real. They kept their actors in hiding until the premiere. The movie, almost entirely improvised, is the first of the wave of "found footage" films that has become a horror staple in the past 10-20 years. The movie itself is not great, but the brilliance behind the ad campaign caught the movie world by storm.


#14. The Thing (1982)

Imagine you're in the presence of an alien being who can shape-shift and take on the form of anyone you know. Where is the last place you'd want to be? John Carpenter's The Thing puts them in an expedition to Antarctica, led by R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell). Carpenter's film is chilling (pun totally intended) beyond reason, a study in paranoia and mistrust among friends, in addition to a terrifying alien attack movie. For a director who had made mostly slasher horror films and violent escape movies, Carpenter knew how to use the science-fiction aspect to his benefit, dialing up intensity through character interplay, rather than special effects (though they certainly helped).


#13. Alien (1979)

From one sci-fi horror film to another, this time a blockbuster with the rare female protagonist.  Directed by Ridley Scott, Alien follows the crew of the towing vessel Nostromo as it heads to deep space, only to be awakened by a strange signal coming from a distant planet. Assuming it's a cry for help, they investigate, only to find they are the ones in true danger. Alien won an Oscar for special effects ahead of their time, but the true impact of the film is the performance of Sigourney Weaver, as the strongest member of this crew fighting back against a terrifying extraterrestrial. James Cameron directed the equally brilliant sequel Aliens, but shifted the genre from horror to action adventure. Ridley Scott's original is a rare near-perfect combination of two genres, building mass terror in the middle of space.

#12. The Birds (1963)

I'm curious what the meeting was like when Alfred Hitchcock told his investors "I want to make a movie about killer birds." Based on the Daphne Du Marier story, The Birds follows Melanie (Tippi Hedren), a rich socialite who has a joke played upon her by a local lawyer (Rod Taylor). In an attempt to return the favor, she travels an hour north to Bodega Bay, California, where he spends the weekends with his mother. When she arrives in the small town, the birds in the area begin to act strangely. Slowly, they begins to attack townspeople, more and more viciously each time. There is never an explanation for why the birds are attacking - it seems completely random and Hitchcock never divulges the purpose behind it. Regardless, imagine the horror of having these seemingly harmless creatures wreaking the type of havoc they do in this classic film. The Birds took this ridiculous premise and turned it into one of the biggest horror films of all time.


#11. Nosferatu (1922)

Ladies and gentlemen, the original movie vampire. Director F.W. Murnau couldn't get the rights to Bram Stocker's Dracula, so he took a roundabout approach and created his own: Count Orlak (Max Schreck). The silent German expressionist film follows a similar plot as Dracula, but applies it to an infinitely scarier appearing villain, with bugging eyes and elf-like rigid ears. Murnau was one of the first true auteurs in cinema and Nosferatu is one of his most memorable creations, paving the road for thousands of horror films to come. In 2000, E. Elias Merhige directed Shadow of the Vampire, a fictional imagination of the making of this film, where Shreck (Willen Dafoe) actually is a vampire, and Murnau promises him the lead actress as payment for his work in the film. As imaginative as that is, it wouldn't be possible without the powerfully creepy work of the real Max Shreck in the original.

Well, next up, the top ten. The suspense is killing me....I hope it'll last.

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