[18 October 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
In an arena as thoroughly subjective as the scary movie, how does one even begin to come up with a list of the artform’s very best? In the hierarchy of horror, things change so rapidly (and frequently) that, at any given moment, one category of creepy such as the Devil films of the ‘70s will give way to an entirely new fear fad like the slasher films of the ‘80s. This means that, as the genre shifts, trends taper off and subcategories flourish, one man’s terror quickly becomes one filmmaker’s trash. It’s the same with opinions on what is and is not petrifying. Dread is indeed a personal propensity, difficult to discuss in terms of absolutes and universals. Yet whenever fans get together and share their experiences with the cinema they love the most, conversations typically turn toward the defining films that began their affair with fear in the first place. Though they may not always agree, it is clear that there are certain films that stand out amongst the throng, that argue for their place as not only good grue, but expert cinema as well.
Again, there are certain caveats to this non-definitive Decalogue that should keep the obsessed and the angry in check, hopefully avoiding most call-outs and complaints to a minimum. Several sensational films from the myriad that many would consider crucial just missed the cut. They include current offerings like Shaun of the Dead and Hostel, as well as deserving efforts from decades past like The Howling, Hellraiser, Prince of Darkness, and Peter Jackson’s Brain Dead. In addition, classics from the Golden Age—films featuring the likes of Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolfman—were also discounted, given their already important place in the overall history of horror. Some will still argue that favorite films are missing or seated too far down the roll. They will dismiss any compendium that does not contain their own idea of fear. While no one claims its 100% authoritative, one thing is for sure, all 10 titles here will shiver you down to the very marrow in your bones, beginning with a truly movie bit of macabre…
Cemetery Man aka Dellmorte Dellamore is a most unusual horror film. It is a movie so brazen and beautiful that it argues for its acceptance as art. It easily outpaces dozens of derivative efforts from the era (1993), making them the crude, comic creations they really are. Anyone coming to this movie hoping to continue their fascination with flesh-eating corpses will have to get their Romero/Fulci fill elsewhere. In the hands of the amazing Michele Soavi, this is moviemaking as poetry, cinema as stunning visual feast. It’s one of the best films about the end of life ever crafted, not so much terrifying as horrific in its insights.
With its bursts of horrific violence and stark, matter of fact mannerism, Let the Right One In instantly becomes one of the few outright foreign fright film classics. It uses routine to unholy ends, and takes the standard coming of age and turns it right on its pointy, perplexed and paranormal little head. Rare is the movie that can take the trials and tribulations of peer pressure and personal awareness and make it into something both celebratory and sinister. But thanks to the efforts of Thomas Alfredson and his collaboration with source novelist John Lindqvist, we wind up with a compelling companion to every story of overlooked and alienated youth ever told.
John Carpenter was not setting out to start a trend. As a huge fan of both Hitchcock and Argento, the filmmaker wanted to fashion a tribute to the suspense epics he adored as a young film student. The result was the beginning of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s slasher age for genre cinema, and the rebirth of the yearly calendar call of ‘Trick or Treat’ into a night of unspeakable evil. While both this fine first feature and its creator have fallen on hackneyed hard times of late (the numerous lame sequels haven’t helped the frequently floundering franchise) no one can deny the precision and potency of Carpenter’s original vision.
The master of the modern zombie film finds yet another novel way of mixing scares with social commentary as he investigates America’s growing consumerism while upping the atrocity ante. This time, everyone’s favorite suburban cathedral, the shopping mall, is transformed into the setting for a strange lesson in situational sociology. It’s a battle between the haves (the survivors), the have nots (the roaming biker gang), and the flesh-craving caretakers of a land slowly subsumed by both sides inability to work together. Add in Tom Savini’s autopsy-level make-up work and you have one of the most memorable visions of internalized Apocalypse ever created.
Reading the terrifying tea leaves of early ‘80s society—Regan in the White House, children cherished as biological trophies by ever-wayward parents, his favorite genre overrun by slice and dice silliness—horror hero Wes Craven reintroduced the monster back into the monster movie. Using a newspaper account of a boy who was “killed” by his dreams, the man responsible for Last House on the Left created a creepy cult symbol in Freddy Krueger—killer of kids both in reality and in the far more vulnerable world of their dreams. Though later reduced to a cloying comedian, this is Mr. Finger Knives coming out—and its unforgettably frightening.
[REC] is ridiculously good. It’s a show-stopping terror trip through something that really shouldn’t work all that well. But thanks to the talent of directors Jaume Balagueró (the main man in charge) and Paco Plaza (our witness with the handycam), the visceral nature of the first person POV approach avoids any such issues. Like Cloverfield, this unique take of the genre (we aren’t quite sure what has infected the residents of this apartment complex) suggests a zombie invasion. But thanks to the single setting, the impressive acting, and a finale that will literally scare your socks off, this is a fine film that stands as a true classic.
Dario Argento’s fractured fairytale is an outrage-filled trip into a world where beauty is obliterated and the friendliest façade hides sharp, salivating teeth. From the moment Jessica Harper’s Suzy Bannion arrives at the creepy Austrian ballet school, the chaos of a massive thunderstorm foreshadowing the torment she’s about to be put through, we realize we are in the hands of a full blown cinematic genius. Then the first murders occur, and a whole new sense of sublimity arrives. Like a dream peppered with poison, or a nightmare dressed in lace, no one uncovers the gorgeous inside the grotesque—and visa versa - better than this able auteur.
Thanks to the uneasy iconography of its formidable fiend—the human skin masked homunculus named Leatherface—Tobe Hooper’s original Saw story has been marginalized and mocked over time. But some 32 years after its initial release, this vile journey into the heart of a grisly American Gothic is still the most disturbing cinematic experience ever. Between the oppressive opening somewhere in the Southwestern wilderness to the dinner table standoff between actress Marilyn Burns and her cannibalistic captors, we find ourselves lost in an unrelenting world of anxiety and abomination. And then it gets worse…much worse.
It’s safe to say that Sam Raimi literally revived old fashioned horror… twice. The first time was with his original brazen Book of the Dead extravaganza. But when the tide in terror started to turn away from fright and more towards the funny, Raimi reinvented his own initial film. Presented as a sort of requel (a combination sequel and remake), Part II forever cemented his stature as one of fear’s maddest hatters. This is the one fan’s remember most—Bruce Campbell’s bumbling badass, the Three Stooges inspired severed hand fight—and with good reason. It is a benchmark in cinematic diversity and delirium.
The darkest dream of America circa 1973, a country out of control with the generations gapping so viciously it seemed almost supernatural. While the connections to other universal elements (the onset of puberty, the familial fear of separation and divorce) added heft and depth, the combination of William Peter Blatty’s narrative and William Friedkin’s irrefutably great direction creates an experience that is remarkably frightening. But more than this, The Exorcist also asks the hard spiritual questions, exploring elements of faith, love and the lack thereof. With perfect performances and F/X that still manage to chill the bones, fear doesn’t get any more flawless than this.