It’s Halloween time, need I say any more? This is one holiday that is all about atmosphere, and I am a big fan of setting the proper mood, so please follow this recipe before reading the rest of this post:
…. As a preface, Mussorgsky’s Night On Bald Mountain from Walt Disney’s Fantasia. Give a look…
Play this very loud!
…. Turn the lights very, very low… lower… lower…
…. Make yourself a nice, warm glass of apple cider. Add something stronger if the spirits move you.
…. Scan the room… Is anyone there? Hello? Sorry, I thought I heard something…
Everything set? Ok, there are a few films that I really think deserve a special mention around Halloween, films that deal with fear, fright, and scare the pants off of me. You’ll notice some glaring omissions (Suspiria? Nuh-uh), but to each his own. In honor of 2012, try one of these twelve films for the long, scary nights of the Halloween season. You’ve probably seen them before, but they’re still scary good!
12. Dead Ringers by David Cronenberg (1988)
It Hurts Just To Look: Elliot Mantle’s tool set from David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers
This one is for the ladies. I have no idea what drugs David Cronenberg takes for recreational purposes, but oh, what I would give to have been a fly on the wall when he pitched Dead Ringers to Twentieth Century Fox…
“Ok, here’s the idea: Twin gynecologists, one dominant and one submissive, trade lovers. Slowly, they develop a co-dependent drug habit which coincides with their development of extreme gynecological tools and botched procedures…”
Cronenberg loves the concepts of penetration and body modification, but nothing he has made is scarier than his use of this theme in medical, and reproductive, circumstances in Dead Ringers. Few movies in history have dangled impending horror more deftly than the moment when Elliot Mantle (one of two roles played by Jeremy Irons) goes to pick up the gynecological tools he has had made. If you can watch the revelation of those tools and not be filled with dread for the film’s remaining run time, well, you’re made of stronger stuff than I.
11. American Psycho by Mary Harron (2000)
It’s Hip To Be Square: Christian Bale in Mary Harron’s American Psycho
That’s right, American Psycho. Wanna know why? Because if you want to see the model upon which the current economic crisis was built, there is no finer cinematic example. This movie is a hilarious and dignified transcendence of its source material (the novel, not the Regan administration), and it also is very, very frightening. Frightening because it is a perfect excoriation of greed, selfishness, and ego run amok; it shows the invisible, moneyed yuppie class for what it truly is. Highlights abound, but Christian Bale’s delivery of nonchalant insanity like “Sorry, I have to go meet Cliff Huxtable at the Four Seasons” and his menacing monologues describing the glories of Whitney Houston, Phil Collins, and Huey Lewis and the News are terrific fun.
I STILL Can’t Get A Table At Dorsia…(100% NSFW)
But at its core, this might be the most politically relevant horror movie of the past decade. Politics have always been at the core of horror films, and with all the debate about “corporations as people” raging in the country right now, no movie distills the psychopathy of corporate “personhood” any better than this one. Of course, you could just watch Fox Business Channel or CNBC and get the same level of insanity, but why not at least have some fun?
10. Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens by F.W. Murnau (1922) and Nosferatu by Werner Herzog (1977)
The Face: Max Schreck in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu
If you EVER doubt Murnau’s mastery of the cinematic form (and how could you?), I suggest a double feature of Sunrise and Nosferatu. The best vampire movie of all time, Murnau’s Nosferatu is a lesson for all film fans in how to generate fear purely in images. The first time I saw Max Schreck’s Count Orlock slowly rising from his grave was in the Bowie/Queen video for Under Pressure; it scared me then, but that was only a small sampling of the horror that awaited when watching the film itself.
As an added bonus, give a look at Werner Herzog’s remake and marvel at Klaus Kinsky’s performance in the role Schreck made famous. Kinsky is so committed to the part, it seems as if he is about to eat everything on screen (including the scenery). Herzog’s remake doesn’t attempt to tonally match Murnau’s film, but then again, how could it? Instead, the film has an oppressively formal feeling that delivers a tension all its own.
9. Poltergeist by Tobe Hooper (1982)
There Is Nothing Scarier Than An Evil Clown: Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist
As a child, and clearly childhood has a profound influence on my list making, no movie fucked me up more than Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist. Is there a sequence in this movie that did not make me shit my pants in fear? The killer clown? Check. The trees coming through the window? Check? The woman peeling her face off in the bathroom mirror? Oh my God.”They’re heeere…” Ahhhh!
I can’t really talk rationally about this film, which is my favorite in the “ghost story” genre, because it has left such a huge impression (okay, scar) on my psyche. I think I saw Poltergeist four or five times in the theater, and it scared me to death every time. I’ll never move to suburbia.
I also think this movie is rather under-appreciated as a horror film; because of Steven Spielberg’s involvement perhaps, or because it made shit loads of money, or because it was so accessible to children when it was released and focuses on childrens’ greatest fears– the idea of being separated from our parents and testing their love for us. Will mom and dad come through? Poltergeist puts our innermost fears to the test in a big budget frightening ghost story that I have a hard time watching to this day. Love it.
8. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre by Tobe Hooper (1974)
This Will Not End Well: Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the best of the 1970’s horror films, which puts it near the top of this list by default; the 70’s redefined horror for all time, bringing intensity and graphic violence to the service of low-budget, independent filmmaking. After Night Of The Living Dead set the bar, films like Last House On The Left and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre took the disillusionment of the flagging counter culture, its assumptions of innocence and idealism, and put it through the meat grinder of cynicism. For this alone, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is something of a masterpiece; the film works both as an allegory for the end of an era and as an unfathomably depraved story of the worst family in history. Sure, it also launched an entire genre of films that demonize uneducated rednecks, but that sin is more than absolved by the potent urgency of the film, whose violence comes tortuously slowly and then suddenly, without warning. The triumphant psychopathy of Leatherface at the end of the film, swinging his saw as he dances in that 1970’s sunlight, lens flares exploding on the screen, remains one of the images that has haunted my dreams for decades.
7. The Silence Of The Lambs by Jonathan Demme (1991)
You Covet What You See Every Day: Jodie Foster in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence Of The Lambs
This film is the only one on this list to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, which tells you all you need to know about the power and accessibility of this movie. I took a screenwriting class once where a student proposed a serial killer film and the instructor replied “We have Silence Of The Lambs. How will you surpass it?” (which, terrible teaching, but also, true.) For me, the film is the perfect thriller that takes a dark turn into the realm of horror not with Hannibal Lecter, but with Buffalo Bill (played with devastating perfection by Ted Levine), the film’s main target and its most terrifying character.
Yes, Anthony Hopkins’ rationalism and psychoanalysis is scary for those suspicious of intellectuals (or those who don’t want to be eaten by one–I could write a book on how this character panders to American anti-intellectualism, but I’ll save that), but it is Clarice Starling’s pursuit of Buffalo Bill that drives the film onward and hurtles it toward its amazing conclusion. As much as I want to find something not to like about this movie, and there are so many things that should drive me nuts, it does absolutely everything right. I can’t watch it without being sucked in every time. By the time Clarice rings the right doorbell and dives in to Bill’s world, there is nothing that can pull me away.
6. Halloween by John Carpenter (1978)
The Shape: Michael Myers Haunts John Carpenter’s Halloween
All hail the king of the slasher films. Any horror movie list that does not feature John Carpenter’s genre defining Halloween is essentially worthless; this is the blockbuster that forced studios to invent their own ultra-violent killers, the movie that put the audience behind the murderer’s mask, the movie that picked off over-sexed but otherwise innocent teenagers one by one. The score? A classic. The killer? That white mask will forever be etched in the memory of everyone who saw the film. The heroine? Jamie Lee Curtis at her “scream queen” defining best.
What stands out for me, though, is the way in which Carpenter establishes the tension, using Michael’s slippery presence in slow driving cars, behind bushes, in backyards and schoolyards to set the atmosphere for what is to come. And when it does come, the movie shifts into an entirely new gear, quick and deadly. I was tempted to put in my other favorite Carpenter film, The Thing, here but Halloween remains first and the best.
5. Night Of The Living Dead by George Romero (1968)
Guess Who Doesn’t Die First?: Duane Jones in George Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead
Night Of The Living Dead makes the list for its place as the transformative horror film; there are the movies that came before, and there are the movies that came after. It was also an incredibly transgressive response to the era of free love and Vietnam; graphic cannibalism, an African-American hero, a child murdering her parents and zombies, those apathetic American ciphers, all made a huge impact on horror storytelling while describing the state of world.
There are so many amazing aspects to the film’s story– the non-existent budget, the fact that the distributor naively allowed the copyright to lapse, which inadvertently put the film in the public domain– but ultimately, it is an utterly frightening template for a million films to come. There are better zombie films, but none as important or as primal as this definitive movie.
4. The Exorcist by William Friedkin
A confession: this movie never really scared me all that much. Even as a child, the pacing of the film, the way in which the exorcism itself was carried out, it just felt really rushed and without much depth. We never really got to know Linda Blair’s Regan other than as a helpless child, which strips this story of its emotional stakes for me. But over the past year, watching the film again, I was struck by how deeply I was moved by Jason Miller’s performance as Rev. Damian Karras, the young priest struggling with his own doubts about his faith. I identified deeply with his reluctance to get involved too deeply in the film’s central crisis, until he must at last act; his decision to absorb the possession at the end, that sacrifice, was profoundly moving this time around. I feel like I have been misreading this movie for way too long, always in it for a good scare when, essentially, it represents one of the most interesting onscreen representations of faith I have seen, let alone in a Hollywood movie (God bless you, 1970’s)…
The film has rocketed in my estimation and while it still provides the goods (especially when it works on a subliminal level), I think it has become one of the most important horror films for me, a film that is truly transgressive for its portrayal of religious faith, a transgression that seems to deepen as the years go by…
3. Alien: The Director’s Cut by Ridley Scott (1979)
In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream: Ridley Scott’s Alien
Ridley Scott’s career is, for me, divided into two sections; Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma And Louise and Black Hawk Down (yay!) and everything else (bleh!). People often forget about Alien when thinking about horror films, probably because the film is set in outer space and therefore has been classified as sci-fi. Also, the franchising of the film’s titular monster has only detracted from the reputation of the original film. Let me tell you, when the digitally-projected Director’s Cut of Alien played at the Union Sq. Cinemas a few years back, it scared me shitless all over again. This is one instance where the ‘Director’s Cut’ has resulted in a superior film; the pace is slower, which allows the tension to build and the audience time to explore the insanely creepy sets. There is no movie with better design.
It also features a revolutionary heroine, removing horror’s unfortunate trope of women as screaming victims in favor of the proactive badass. Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley would come to define the genre, bringing women into the horror/action fold in a whole new way; Linda Hamilton in Terminator? Carrie Anne Moss in The Matrix? The entire oeuvre of Angelina Jolie? All of them are indebted to Ridley Scott who, despite some films that don’t work for me at all, has proven to be a true feminist and deserves praise for changing the roles of women in these films. But no matter what your opinion is of the film’s gender politics or which edit you prefer, this movie is a masterpiece of tone and storytelling. The dinner scene alone will live forever. Makes you wonder how this man could possibly be the same guy who made Hannibal…
2. Psycho by Alfred Hitchcock (1960)
The Eye: Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho
True story: At my mother’s 40th birthday party (sometime in the mid-1980’s), a friend of hers she had not seen in decades took to the podium to tell a story of their friendship from 25 years prior. In 1960, the two teenage girls went to see Psycho and they were completely freaked out by it. The next morning, while my mom’s friend was taking a shower, my mom grabbed a knife and snuck into the bathroom, tearing open the curtain and scaring the absolute shit out of her terrified friend. Twenty five years later, the friend was still unable to shower with the curtain closed. That story is not a testament to my mother’s perverted teenage sense of humor (who hasn’t pulled the Psycho gag or had it pulled on them?), but instead to the power of Hitchcock’s movie, which remains a definitive film in the genre.
Most Influential Scene Of All Time?
Not only was it influential in its use of editing and camera (how many of the shots from the film have been stolen? what other movie has endured a shot-for-shot remake?), it remains plausibly terrifying some 51 years later. Hitchcock’s perversity and fetishes are in wicked form here and if the movie doesn’t top my list (it’s not even the best Hitchcock movie), it must come near the top of the discussion because it is an utterly incredible piece of filmmaking made by a master of the form. If only there were another film or filmmaker that could top it… oh, wait….
1. The Shining by Stanley Kubrick (1980)
Oh, Danny Boy: Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining
This is the scariest movie of all time. Period. End of discussion. I think of The Shining as one of those fortunate, perfect moments when an artist’s technique and his chosen subject matter converge into a flawless harmony; this story of a family wrenched apart by a nervous breakdown in a haunted hotel was seemingly written specifically for Stanley Kubrick’s camera. Of course, it wasn’t (Stephen King reportedly dislikes Kubrick’s version), but this movie is an absolute masterpiece. Call me a charlatan, but I think it is Kubrick’s best movie, and that is saying something. Of all the films on this list, it is one film where the camera, slowly prowling around the Overlook, is the most frightening character in the film; it’s as if Kubrick himself is the evil soul of the hotel, showing us precisely what we fear. I could list the shots that will live forever, but i might just have to recite the entire film; the elevators, the twin girls, the sound of Danny riding that Big Wheel across the carpets and hardwood floors, the axe going through the door of the bathroom, the chase through the maze, the haunted ballroom, the corpse in the bathtub, and on and on. The atmosphere of dread in this movie is unfathomably great; no one has come close to duplicating the tension achieved with Kubrick’s simply gorgeous cinematographic style.
Perfection (scene ends at 1’59”)
I will never forget the first time I saw this movie. I can describe the sofa I was sitting on when those elevator doors spilled blood, the color of the blanket I used to hide my eyes when the dead woman sat up in the bath tub, and the memory of sitting bolt upright for the film’s final 30 minutes. I hate to sound fucked up, but I CAN’T WAIT until my kid is old enough to watch this with me. I plan on spending the whole time just watching his face. On a primal level, the idea of the family turning in on itself is utterly terrifying, and this film is the most frightening vision possible of that most intimate of fears. The definition of cinematic horror; a perfect film as far as I am concerned.
Bonus Selection: My Favorite Horror Movie Sequence
The film is not on the list, probably because I saw it too late in life, but Ti West’s House Of The Devil (2009) features my favorite horror movie sequence of all time. Why? It is a perfect representation of the horror tropes of my youth and it is simply a great use of cinematic tension (sound, the editing, earphones blocking out the dangers lurking in the house, the nonchalant dancing a counterpoint to the horror behind the doors, etc). And those camera moves; straight out of the 1980’s playbook! I can’t help but get giddy. Of course, the whole thing hinges on that cut to the black basement, looking up the stairs, the sound suddenly changing to an external reading of the headphone music; this is just brilliant work. It comes at a point in the movie that has been defined by slow, creepy silence, then suddenly, the Sony Walkman (yes!) comes on and a whole new tone is established, equally troubling, with a wink and a smile as well. I just love this sequence, so as a parting gift, here it is. Turn it up! Happy Halloween!