[30 October 2006]
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 - the Devil films of the ‘70s - will give way to an entirely new fear fad - 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.
This is what the SE&L list strives to uncover, the true masterpiece and milestones of post-modern horror. 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 Silent Hill, Shaun of the Dead and Hostel, as well as deserving efforts from decades past like The Howling, Hellraiser, Prince of Darkness, Ganja and Hess 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. As we live in a contemporary world, a place that prides itself on rediscovering and then reconfiguring the past to fit its current concerns, the movies SE&L selected are all indicative of the era. They manipulate their ideas with various analogous elements, creating films that function as both macabre as well as a mirror on the modern world.
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 idea of fear flawlessness and belittle any attempt to praise some perceived hackwork over what they feel is a true shock landmark. Nonetheless, SE&L stands by its choices, using decades of film knowledge and years seated firmly in front of the TV (with VCR/DVD hook-ups providing the product) to make its final determinations. Sure, there are gaps in the analysis and forgotten efforts that missed the list based solely on their ‘out of sight, out of mind’ situation, but this does not take away from the ten titles found below. Each one stands as one of the genre’s best conceived and executed expressions. Authoritative? Perhaps not. Arguable? Most definitely. Ten terrific examples of terror? There is absolutely no doubt about it. Let’s begin right at the top:1.The Exorcist
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 anymore flawless than this.
Classic Moment: A late night visit to Regan’s room reveals a disturbing message.
2. Evil Dead 2
It is 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.
Classic Moment: Ash replaces his severed hand with a chainsaw – Groovy!
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.
Classic Moment: Leatherface’s ‘dance of death’ in the light of a Texas dawn.
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.
Classic Moment: Suzy discovers the truth about the Tanzakademie.
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.
Classic Moment: Freddy reminding us just who ‘God” is.
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.
Classic Moment: Flyboy ‘returns’.
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.
Classic Moment: Michael Myers stands in awe of his horrifying handiwork.
8. The Fly (1986)
How Canadian auteur David Cronenberg pulled this off is still one of the movies’ most powerful mysteries. Given the task of revamping the hoary old creepshow standard from the ‘50s – the human transformed into insect – he instead created a combination geek show and love story. Along with stellar performances by a cast who took the horror as seriously as the more heartfelt material, he managed a masterpiece that gave astonishing depth to the entire palette of fear. When a filmmaker can have you weeping at the end of his creative creature feature, you know there is more going on here besides your standard scares.
Classic Moment: Brundlefly requests to be put out of his misery.
Looking for a way to reinvent himself (his post-Halloween efforts had been more or less ignored) John Carpenter again traded on his past, and his love for the 1951 ‘classic’, to craft this claustrophobic paean to paranoia. Mercilessly slammed by critics as being nothing more than an offal-spewing orgy of special effects and grue, time has definitely tempered opinions. Along with Kurt Russell’s sensational star turn, what once was seen as a technical triumph without a lick of cinematic soul now stands as one of this director’s trio – along with Halloween and Prince of Darkness - of undeniable triumphs.
Classic Moment: The Thing makes itself known inside the camp’s dog kennel.
10. The Other
As the primer for all the ‘twist’ ending experiences that would fill the latter part of the ‘90s this amazing 1972 movie is a tone poem to terror. Using the stuffy standard revolving around twins (one evil, one easygoing) and hints about hidden horrors within the fragile family unit, actor turned novelist turned screenwriter Tom Tyron mapped out a nostalgia laced vision of countrified calm, and then exposed the menace lying below the surface. With amazingly natural performances from the Udvarnoky brothers and scenery chewing choices by acting legend Uta Hagen, this is a fright flick as noted for its mood as its ghastliness.
Classic Moment: We finally learn what Holland “did” with the baby.