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Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Definitive Horror Films: 30-21

Dario Argento courtesy of
And so we've arrive at the halfway point of the list. Here, we see two sequels, some haunted houses, some scary kids, and a few movies that became lightning rods for controversy in their respective time periods. I'm sure to get some very, very angry people complaining about how low some of the movies in this section are on the list. But, there have been a lot more important horror films than these, as great as they are. Once again, a reminder that this isn't a "best of" list - merely a cultural discussion of which horror films have embedded themselves into the genre's history and changed the way people view the industry. Here are numbers 30 through 21.


#30. The Amityville Horror (1979)

 When you look at the history of haunted house movies, The Amityville Horror always seems to stand out, though it certainly isn't the best of them. Capitalizing on a new stream of horror auteurs and independent ghost stories, director Stuart Rosenberg brought together a pretty solid cast to adapt Jay Anson's book that, he claims, is based on a true story about a family on Long Island. Newlyweds George and Kathy Lutz (James Brolin, Margot Kidder) move into their dream house with their children, though it was the site of a gruesome murder (the realtor was upfront about this). Standard haunted house problems arise, including the blinding of the family priest (Rod Steiger), who came to perform an exorcism. Don't waste your time on the remake - witness the chills of the original and the brilliance of James Brolin's perfect facial hair.


#29. Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

The sequel to one of the greatest horror films of all time delivered both scares and laughs, thanks to director James Whale. Bride of Frankenstein finds the doctor and the monster from the first film alive and well, though believed to be dead. Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) wants to hang up his lab coat, until another mad scientist kidnaps his wife and forces him to create another creature to be his monster's mate. The iconic performances from Boris Karloff and Elsa Lanchester make the film what it is: a story, though frightening, that is about the pain of loneliness and solitude. When no one understands you, all you need is to see a little bit of yourself in someone else, even if she is a monster. Mary Shelley may not have written about his bride, but the cues this film takes from her original novel are there to be seen.


#28. Saw (2004)

Welcome to the 21st century of horror. James Wan's brutal original film Saw kickstarted the world of torture horror in Hollywood, where the more filmmakers can make the audience squirm, the more the audience will pay to see it. In the film, two men wake up in a room with a dead body between them, under the watchful eye of a serial killer affectionately called "Jigsaw." They are given scenarios and games to play if they wish to survive, and the film tests the limits of its actors and audiences alike. Starring Cary Elwes, Danny Glover, and Monica Potter, Saw gave birth to a slew of unoriginal sequels and imitators (i.e. Hostel), but the original is still an exercise in pain and anguish to get through, however clever the scenario may be.


#27. Freaks (1932)

At the time (and still to this day), the concept is a little tasteless. For God's sake, a tagline for the movie was "Can a full grown woman truly love a MIDGET?" - not very politically correct. But Tod Browning's iconic film still stands up as a terrifying story about living outside the fray. In Freaks, a circus trapeze artist named Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) begins a romance with a dwarf named Hans (Harry Earles), though it is revealed she is only in it for the inheritance he will one day receive. When the other performers find out about her ruse, they decide to take matters into their own hands and make her pay. Using real circus performers in the roles makes it all the more chilling, especially when you consider how degrading the film probably was for them to make.


#26. Evil Dead (1981)

The sequel may be the better film and the third of the trilogy may be the most memorable due to its tone shift, but long before Sam Raimi was directing the Spiderman movies he gave the indie horror world a shot in the arm with Evil Dead. Starring the incomparable Bruce Campbell as Ash, the film follows him and his four friends as they head to a cabin in the woods for the weekend (do people actually do this?). There, they find a tome called "Naturan Demento," or the "Book of the Dead." Alongside the book is a recording of the text that, when played, unleashes an evil like none other. As they all become possessed, it's up to Ash to put a stop to it. Originally rated NC-17 for it's excessive gore, Evil Dead proved what independent directors could do if they just let loose. It's perfect for this time of year, too - would you support a woman's right to choose if she was raped by a tree?


#25. Poltergeist (1982)

Yes, it's this low on the list. While Poltergeist certainly took the haunted house movie to a different level, its real addition to American culture amount to two words: "They're Heeerreee." Real estate agent Stephen Freeling (Craig T. Nelson) lives in a nice housing development in California with his wife and three children. One night, they find their house is also the home some to spirits who, at first, don't seem to do any harm. Then it all falls apart. Directed by Tobe Hooper, Poltergeist delivered some pretty terrifying imagery in the early 80's, never allowing people to look at clowns and televisions the same way again. See? This is why you don't build a housing development on top of an Indian burial ground.


#24. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

An early proponent of the German Expressionist movement of the later 1910's and early 1920's, Robert Wiene's silent classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari worked from a script by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer. The film is told in flashback, as Francis (Friedrich Fehér) tells a story about traveling to a circus in the hopes of winning the hand of a young woman named Jane (Lil Dagover). There, they meet Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) and his near silent sleepwalker Cesare (Conrad Weidt), whom he seems to control hypnotically. Francis begins to investigate Caligari and his practices, which eventually takes him down a terrifying road a little too close to home. It's a landmark of horror and silent films and, most importantly, it gave us cinema's first true "twist ending."


#23. The Omen (1976)

Before you complain about your child throwing a temper tantrum, watch Richard Donner's 1976 horror classic and relax. At least your son isn't the antichrist. Literally. Starring Gregory Peck and Lee Remick, The Omen centers around Peck's Robert Thorn, an American ambassador to Great Britain. When they have a still born child, Thorn follows a priest's advice at the hospital and takes a newborn whose mother just died during childbirth. Unfortunately, there are no lemon laws to protect us from bad kids and Thorn not only got a junker, but evil incarnate. The Omen won the Oscar for Best Music and, to this day, is a horrific allegory of the fears of parenting and taking responsibility for another's life.


#22. Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Ten years after George Romero defined the zombie movie, he released another widespread cultural criticism with Dawn of the Dead. As the world continues to suffer through the outbreak of walking dead, four people take refuge in a deserted shopping mall, forced to fight off the coming onslaught of zombies looking to feed. A pretty ingenious attack on America's obsession with retail and materialism, Romero's sequel took his original idea and expanded it, with the help of more money and better actors. Zack Snyder directed a pretty decent remake in 2004, but it will never compare to the brilliance of its source material.


#21. Rosemary's Baby (1968)

Ira Levin's 1967 best selling horror novel was the perfect model for Roman Polanski, who directed and wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for this terrifying metaphor for pregnancy fears and lack of control. Rosemary's Baby centers on Guy and Rosemary (John Cassavetes, Mia Farrow), as they move into a new apartment complex and are surrounded by strange people and occurrences. Rosemary becomes mysteriously pregnant and she notices that Guy is becoming more and more distant, spending more time with their elderly neighbors, Roman and Minnie (Sidney Blackmer, Ruth Gordon). As she struggles through her pregnancy, she begins to suspect their well-meaning neighbors may have other plans for this child. Gordon won an Oscar for her role in this horrifying film, one of the last true horror film Polanski would direct.

Well, only 20 left. Maybe you can see where we're going.

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