Sunday, October 31, 2010

#1: The Shining

For my money, it does not get any more terrifying than Jack Nicholson being driven down into a rabbit hole of insanity and unhinged madness. The Shining may not be everyone's favorite horror film, and there may be a few who would dismiss the film completely, citing Stephen King's own dislike of Stanley Kubrick's nightmarish adaptation of his novel. But this is not Stephen King's story. Sure, there are the names and the places and the events, but everything else from top to bottom was molded into a vision Kubrick had for the story. The result is a picture that is pure nightmare, a version of a nightmare that is seen through the eyes of several unreliable narrators.

Jack Torrance is informed, when he eagerly accepts the job of winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel, that the previous caretaker murdered his family and himself. That doesn't seem to phase him or alter his decision. Nothing seems to phase Torrance, and I don't think he ever tells Wendy, his wife, or Danny, his son, that these things ever happened. But this picture is not all about Jack; I would argue that young Danny is the focal point. Danny has a voice in his head, and can see events and nightmarish visions of the future. Dick Halloran, the old man who shows the Torrance's around the facilities, tells Danny that he has "the shining," and that Dick shares the skill. The two form a bond that is quite important later in the film, when things begin to unravel.

The winter comes, and routines begin, but never are the members of the family together as a unit. Jack works on his book, Wendy and Danny work through events as if it were a regular day back home. But Jack's sanity is the first to show signs of slippage. He begins seeing and interacting with ghosts, drinks with a ghost (although there is no alcohol on the grounds of the hotel), and grows increasingly frustrated with Wendy disturbing him while he works. Wendy becomes frightened. Things slowly unravel into madness.

So what about The Shining is so frightening? The visions these three family members have, from the elevator full of blood filling the foyer, to the twin children standing in a hallway where they were murdered, to the erotic dream Jack has that soon becomes something quite the opposite of erotic, all play a part in creating a mood and an atmosphere of dread and impending madness that is going to overtake these people. Not one of the members of the family is a reliable narrator, each having their own sets of visions and interactions with this hotel that keep the audience uncertain as to what is happening and not happening. The uncertainty and the wooden way in which these characters interact creates a dreamlike air about the events as well. And then there is Jack Nicholson, who becomes absolutely unraveled once he is chasing Danny through the maze in the blizzard. Nicholson's performance is the cog in the story and perhaps the main reason I would have The Shining atop my list of the finest horrors ever.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

#2: The Silence of the Lambs, by THE SKULLBASHER

The Silence of the Lambs is what I would call a perfect film. The events that led to the production and casting of this film make for an amazing story in itself. For example, just imagine Gene Hackman and Michelle Pfeiffer as the lead characters. It just sounds insulting really but it almost happened. My point is that the cast and director that were brought together somehow formed an emotional chemistry that is rarely seen in film. This is the reason the film went on to win five Academy Awards in 1991.

So how does a crime novel become a horror film? Some say it's not horror but if you want to put a specific label on the movie, it is a psychological horror thriller. I seriously don't feel it's a stretch at all to place this film in the horror realm. First of all, it's a film that will scare the complete shit out of you. The sets and imagery created in the film alone are enough to creep you out. The dungeon-like area in the depths of the insane asylum in which Clarice has to visit Hannibal Lector, Clarice's discovery of the head in the jar at the storage unit, the security guard skinned and strung up on Lector's cage and, of course, Buffalo Bill's sadistic basement lair, all are elements of a film that deserves its spot in the genre.

What really drives this film though is the relationships between the characters. Clarice is an inexperienced FBI agent when her boss, Jack Crawford, throws her to the wolves basically to pry information from the infamous Dr. Lector. The only real reason she is given the duty is because Crawford knows she will be of interest to Lector and possibly get something out of him. Nevermind the fact that he could certainly destroy her psyche in the process. The plan does work though has Lector eventually gives her bits and pieces of information that may lead her to the serial killer known as Buffalo Bill. These meetings between Starling and Lector are very few but they hold so much power within the film. The most intense scene being when Lecter begins a game of "quid pro quo" with Starling, offering clues and insights about Buffalo Bill in exchange for events from Starling's traumatic childhood.

Now what about Ted Levine, the man who plays Buffalo Bill? So much attention is given to Hopkins and Foster in the film for good reason but Levine's turn as Jame Gumb is perhaps the one of the most sexually disturbing performances in horror, which is saying a lot. Director Jonathan Demme and Levine collaborated on much of how he was to play the character of Buffalo Bill but Levine went out on his own and improvised some of his scenes, including the one we are all thinking about right now (the, um, the tuck). Another pivotal moment in the film is between Buffalo Bill and Catherine Martin, the kidnapped daughter of a US Senator. She is imprisoned in Bill's dry well in his basement. While she is terrified, she does not simply give up and die like so many victims in horror film. She is a fighter and challenges him constantly, eventually baiting his beloved poodle into falling into the well to gain some leverage.

The Silence of the Lambs succeeds on all levels. It keeps us in constant suspense and it makes us care about the characters whether we love them, hate them or sometimes both. It shocks us with it's violent and gory scenes as well as it's steady stream of plot twists. It also makes us laugh with subtle dark humor and because of it's excellence it has become one of the most quotable films in American cinema. Think about all the memorable lines in the film, especially the last one. "I'm having an old friend for dinner."

Friday, October 29, 2010

#3: Halloween (1978)

Halloween is the penultimate slasher film, the beginning of a subgenre of horror pictures that has been routinely driven into the ground ever since John Carpenter introduced us to Michael Myers in 1978. What is often overlooked about the film itself is the fact that Halloween, despite its multiple murders, is not a gory picture. Much of the gore and excessive violence is left out because it is simply not necessary for Carpenter to frighten us. What is frightening more so is the calm in Halloween. The calm of Michael Myers, who never feels the need to run, the calm of the eerie Haddonfield, Illinois, the calm of the night in which Myers strikes.

Michael Myers was a child who murdered his sister and was sent away to a mental institution under the eye of Doctor Loomis (Donald Pleasance). Loomis sees the evil in Michael’s eye, he sees the blackness of his heart, and he knows there is no saving him. So when Myers escapes his chains in a prison bus and heads for Haddonfield, Loomis knows he must be tracked down before he kills again. Unfortunately he cannot track him down soon enough, as Myers knocks off unsuspecting teens on his way to Laurie Strode. Strode, played by Jamie Lee Curtis in the performance that made her a star, is Michael’s family, and is next in line.

Halloween spawned countless sequels and some terrible and gory remakes from Rob Zombie, who misses the point of the original. The impact of Halloween is a ripple effect across the horror genre. Michael Myers, in his white William Shatner mask, is scary in his calmness and the ease at which he stalks his prey. And credit goes to Carpenter, who turned a basic story and a simple plot into a film that will forever feel relevant.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

#4: The Exorcist

William Friedkin’s The Exorcist is an assault on the senses and sensibilities in so many ways. It is a brilliant piece of horror, and a film that is unafraid to show demonic possession so vile that, when it was released in 1973, it had people passing out in the theater. It has an opening act that works as a template for the events that will unfold, but that first act is short lived. Once young Regan (Linda Blair) comes into the living room at her mother’s party, says “You’re going to die up there,” and wets herself in front of everyone, you know something is happening to her. Her bed won’t stop shaking, she can’t sleep, and her mother, Chris (Ellen Burstyn) has no real answer. Things deteriorate from there.

It is clear to the audience, at least a modern audience, that Regan is possessed by a demon. Once the demon takes hold of young Regan, Chris is hopeless. Regan’s skin turns a sickly shade of green and her eyes cloud over, she vomits and spits out foul language that would make a sailor blush. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. After exhausting her options with medical expertise, Chris desperately seeks the help of Father Karras (Jason Miller), a priest whose faith is falling away from him. He doesn’t think an exorcism is in order. “I would have to take your daughter back to the sixteenth century,” he informs Chris. Everything can be explained neurologically these days. But not this time. Karras reluctantly visits the home and realizes that yes, poor Regan has been taken over by Satan. Once Karras employs Father Merrin, played by a large, imposing Max Von Sydow, things become rather serious and the intensity is ratcheted up to almost unbearable proportions.

The Exorcist is still, and will always be, the singular most horrifying film ever made. William Friedkin, one of the finest young directors of the seventies, throws everything he can imagine at the audience. The ferocity of the demon is key in the film’s impact, and the juxtaposition of this evil spirit and a timid young brown-eyed girl is perhaps what frightens the audience so much. Of all bodies to inhabit, could this sweet, innocent girl be the victim? Yes, she very well could.

#5: Psycho (1960)

Sometimes horror films exist in a fantastical world, where the things unfolding on the screen are things that could never actually happen, not in this world anyway. Sometimes, horror exists in a very real world, with real people doing things that, no matter how demented or disturbing or ultimately gruesome, could physiologically (or logically) occur. Psycho, Alfred Hitchcok’s masterpiece, one of the biggest game-changing horror films of all time, exists in the latter, in a world where these things can happen. After all, as Norman Bates tells Marion Crane, “we all go a little mad sometimes.”

Norman Bates we all know by now, is the proprietor of the Bates Motel, a run down open-faced motel that the interstate left behind. This is where Marion Crane (Vivien Leigh) finds herself one rainy night. Marion has recently stolen $40,000 from her boss and is headed to see her lover. Her paranoia-fueled escape leads her astray in the rainstorm where she finds the Motel, and finds lonely Norman, a curious man with a taxidermy hobby that borders on strange. Hell, it is strange. Things seem to be headed one way at the Bates Motel but soon they take a nightmarish turn for Marion, and for the picture itself. Everything the audience had known up to this point in the film is upended, and even after knowing the early twist in the narrative, the fact that Hitchcock had the gumption to pull it off is the stroke of a genius. The narrative rug has never been pulled out from under an audience the way it is in Psycho.

The rest of the film involves uncovering the disappearance of Marion, an investigation headed up by her lover, her sister, and an unlucky detective on the case of the missing money. But the most important character in Psycho is, of course, Norman Bates himself. Anthony Perkins plays Bates with an easy bit of unease, a squirrelly discomfort in his own skin – albeit for good reason we find out. Perkins is a deft mixture of squirmy nerves, anxiousness, and eventual madness unleashed as Bates. His work with Hitchcock, a master of suspense, buildup, and payoff the likes of which we have never seen. Hitchcock uses unique camera angles, shadows and light, and quiet tension to create some of the most memorable, iconic scenes in horror film history. That first murder in the shower at the Bates Motel, despite the fact that it is fifty years old this year, exists forever as one of the five or six most memorable scenes in film history not only for its technical mastery, but for that memorable score and brilliantly suggestive violence.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

#6: The Bride of Frankenstein

The Bride of Frankenstein is not number six on this list necessarily because it is one of the scariest films. It is not really very scary to be honest. But what it is is a fantastic film, the best Universal monster movie ever made, and perhaps the one of the group that has aged the least. There are elements of horror, stylistic decisions and a narrative that anchor it in the genre – otherwise it wouldn’t be here – but Bride of Frankenstein also has some funny moments, some satire, and an underlying theme of homosexuality that seems startling given the fact that it was made in 1935.

The story picks up where the original Frankenstein left off. Only director James Whale opts to have Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein herself, tell the tale to Lord Byron. Shelley claims that after the fire at the mill, the monster escaped and fled across the countryside, and Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive, reprising his role) is left for dead. Once Henry recovers, he plans on living a quiet life with his bride-to-be, Elizabeth, but Doctor Pretorius, a mad scientist to end all mad scientists, has other plans. He has plans to build a mate for the monster. Meanwhile, the monster himself (again, played by Boris Karloff), befriends a blind man in a cabin in one of the more touching, famous scenes in all of Universal horror films. The blind man teaches the monster to speak, enough so that he can bargain with Henry and force him into building a mate.

The image of the bride is so iconic, so unforgettable, that it is easy to forget she is in it for maybe a minute or two. Her look, with the two white bolts of silver shooting up her shock of black hair, is one of the most recognizable creations, and her scream at the site of the monster carries a great amount of weight and a great deal of heartbreak for the misunderstood creatures. Bride of Frankenstein is a timeless picture, one with any number of brilliantly-shot scenes. There is a moment early on where we see Doctor Pretorius’s creations, tiny people living in bell jars. The effects are quite excellent for 1935. And aside from the mention of the scene in the cottage and the introduction of the bride, there are some funny moments that include the monster and his penchant for wine and cigars. And as I mentioned, there are definite homosexual references here, as James Whale was one of only a few openly gay men in Hollywood during this time. Audiences at the time may not have caught the metaphors at play in Whale’s story, but today they are clear.

Scary or not, Bride of Frankenstein is one of the most important and indelible monster movies of all time. It has held up against time more than some of the horror films from the sixties and seventies, thanks in no small part to James Whale’s keen eye for art direction and subtle innuendos that make it timeless. It is not as interested in horror as it is in the idea of horror, the idea of the mad scientists and intricate labs and love and death and resurrection. As bold a picture as you will find on this list.

Monday, October 25, 2010

#7: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

When Skullbasher and I began to make this list last month, we both came to the conclusion that once we arrived at number seven, perhaps the rankings didn’t mean as much. On any given day, these last seven could interchange with each other and be the top on the list; it just so happens that today, on this list, number seven is Tobe Hooper’s grizzly horror classic, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Certain words come to mind when considering TCM. Words like: shocking, gruesome, raw, seminal, game-changing. Tobe Hooper’s creation is not a true story as many believe, but it doesn’t really take away from the effectiveness of the story. Sally and her invalid brother, Franklin, are traveling with Sally’s boyfriend and another couple. It seems that Sally and Franklin’s grandfather’s grave may have been vandalized. Along the way they pick up a hitchhiker, a bizarre and mentally unstable hitchhiker who is quickly booted from the van after slicing open Franklin’s arm. And then things start to get weird.

The plot may seem tired today, but in 1974 it was somewhat of a new idea, the teens going on a road trip and falling into a nightmare. The idea may have been driven into the ground, but has never been as impacting or as chilling as it was in the original TCM. The group finds themselves in need of fuel, and they stumble upon a farm house in the middle of a Texas plain. It is hot, and you can tell. The farmhouse is where their trip spirals into a nightmare that is still the most gruesome displays of horror I can remember in cinema. The world is introduced to leatherface, a retarded killer who wears a mask sewn together from human remains, and the member of a family of cannibals. There are a number of chases, a number of deaths that include impaling, bludgeoning, and a rather large chainsaw, and everything is told with a sincere bit of realism. The camera is grainy and dull, giving the picture the feel of documentary. And the ending, just as the sun is rising, is one of the most abrupt and exhilarating endings in horror history. That last image of leatherface, defeated and swinging his chainsaw wildly in circles, is truly iconic.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is still one of the most shocking and thrilling horror movies of all time. It is a raw piece of filmmaking that set Tobe Hooper’s career up. Although he directed the campy but solid sequel and Poltergeist a few years later, Hooper would never match the power and the brutal psychopathic brilliance of his 1974 classic.

#8: Jaws

Everyone identifies Jaws as a summer blockbuster, the first of the summer blockbusters, and an exciting action film that transforms seamlessly into a high-seas adventure. But what Steven Spielberg’s film is more than anything is a monster movie at its very basic core. The ocean can be a scary place, and the scariest of all creatures in the ocean are sharks. Well, maybe before 1975 sharks weren’t on the minds of every person who set foot in the ocean, but after the release of Spielberg’s transcendent picture, not one person got into the water without John Williams’ spooky score running through their head.

Roy Scheider plays Chief Brody, a city-slicker who brings his family to Amity Island in the Northeast for a calmer life. But after mysterious deaths in the water around the Island, Brody begins to discover that there may be a shark. Despite his warnings, the Mayor of Amity Island is not going to close down the beaches on the eve of their biggest money weekend of the year, the Fourth of July. Of course things do not end well that fateful weekend.

The hunt is then on in full for this killer shark. Hooper, an energetic young marine biologist played by Richard Dreyfuss, arrives in town to try and help Brody. But once their attempts to catch the shark turn up fruitless, they hire a grizzled old man of the sea, Quint, a wisecracking adventurer who seems to have somewhat of an Ahab-like obsession with getting the beast. Robert Shaw as Quint is vital to the success of the last half. The final act of the film is an adventure out on Quint’s boat where we finally see the massive shark. Up until now, the shark existed only as a fin out of the water or an invisible beast. And those are the horror elements of Jaws that help to classify it as such. Spielberg brilliantly makes the audience wait to actually see the shark, making the opening sequence and the early attacks all the more horrifying. We think we know what is doing this to the victims, but we really have no idea.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

#9: Rosemary's Baby

Rosemary's Baby, director Roman Polanski's masterful horror thriler exists in the realm of dread more than shocks and scares. The picture works as a sow build and a patient revelation, where the final result is something the audience knew was inevitible but could not do anything to prevent. Mia Farrow plays Rosemary Harris, a happily married young socialite living in a posh area of Manhattan with her actor husband, played by John Cassavettes. The Harris's neighbors, the Castavets, seem nice enough. They are an older couple, very welcoming for Rosemary as she supports her husband's struggles to get steady work. But it isn't long before strange occurences and curious behaviors change the complexion of the relationships. Rosemary's husband seemingly makes a deal with the devil to get work, and the trade off turns out to be the devil's child.

There are some shocking moments in Rosemary's Baby, but those moments are told by Polanski with an eerie calm and sense of dread. Are the Castavets what they seem? Or are they Satanic worshipers who are using Rosemary and her husband to bring about doom? Those are the questions that the audience knows the answers to, only they cannot tell the players in the picture. The performances in Rosemary's Baby are more vital to the story than in most horror films. And the final shots, where the child is never revealed, are more horrifying than if we caught a glimpse. Polanski is a master at the art of suggestion, and his strength is never more on display than it is here.

Friday, October 22, 2010

#10: The Omen (1976)

The demented, evil child has been done a hundred times over in Hollywood, but never quite as effectively as in The Omen, Richard Donner’s moody 1976 film which spawned numerous sequels and a fairly solid remake back in 2006. The Omen does an effective job of telling an intimately horrifying family tale while still reaching what is ultimately an international spectrum by the end. Gregory Peck and Lee Remick play Robert and Katherine Thorn, parents to young Damien. Damien, however, is not their real child. Their child was stillborn, and rather than tell his wife the news Robert takes a child from the nuns at the hospital, a child who was born without a family. Robert is the new American ambassador to Great Britain, and the family lives serenely in London until Damien’s fifth birthday when his nanny hurls herself off the roof of their house with a rope around her neck. The moment is one of the most shocking, blindsiding moments in horror cinema.

The replacement nanny seems to have other motives. “I am here to protect you,” she tells Damien. Meanwhile, a priest is trying to warn Robert that his child may be evil incarnate, although his dogged determination has him meet a rather chilling end. There is also a photographer who has begun to uncover sinister things with the young boy, but his investigation spells his death as well. Everyone who may be able to uncover the truth about Damien is in danger.

The Omen ends with a rather shocking revelation, one of the best payoffs in the picture. Donner directs with bold strokes, ominous music, and great theatrical panache. There are a handful of truly shocking images, horrific deaths, and an intense visit to a zoo and a church that emphasize Damien’s origins. The Omen is not told with subtlety, and that is what makes it such a memorable horror film.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

#11: Night of the Living Dead (1968), by THE SKULLBASHER

In 1968 George Romero wrote and directed a little independent black and white film called Night of the Living Dead. With it he revolutionized the zombie sub genre while at the same time critiquing America's involvement in the Vietnam war and for the first time in film featured an African-American protagonist, this coming on the heals of MLK's assassination. Now, social impacts and commentary aside, NOTLD forever changed the world of horror much the way Alfred Hitchcock did with Psycho just a few years earlier.

The word zombie is never used, but Romero's film introduced the theme of zombies as reanimated, flesh-eating cannibals. Until this point the term zombie had only been in a couple films and was only in reference to people enslaved by voodoo witch doctors. Night of the Living Dead ushered in the splatter film sub-genre. As one film historian points out, horror prior to Romero's film had mostly involved rubber masks and costumes, cardboard sets, or mysterious figures lurking in the shadows. They were set in locations far removed from rural and suburban America. Romero revealed the power behind exploitation and setting horror in ordinary, unexceptional locations and offered a template for making an "effective and lucrative" film on a "minuscule budget".

As I said about Dawn of the Dead, by today's standards the horror and gore portrayed in the film seems somewhat tame but in 1968 it shocked it's audience. I'll leave you with Roger Ebert's intial thoughts...

"The kids in the audience were stunned. There was almost complete silence. The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying. There was a little girl across the aisle from me, maybe nine years old, who was sitting very still in her seat and crying... It's hard to remember what sort of effect this movie might have had on you when you were six or seven. But try to remember. At that age, kids take the events on the screen seriously, and they identify fiercely with the hero. When the hero is killed, that's not an unhappy ending but a tragic one: Nobody got out alive. It's just over, that's all. "

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

#12: Alien

Alien is the first film on this list that could be defined as science fiction, but the elements of terror and the Hitchcockian way in which these elements unfold – the slow reveal that is the key for a film like this – are the very reasons you find Ridley Scott’s finest thriller so high on this list. If you were to poll a hundred people, seventy or so would claim that Aliens, James Cameron’s energetic, roided up sequel , was their favorite. But that is because it is loud and fast and ferocious. Alien is everything opposite; it is quiet, calm, subtly frightening. It shows us only one thing at a time. It makes the audience work and concentrate and focus on the events at hand, therein making those shocking moments, where something might just jump out of the darkness, all the more satisfying.

The plot has been done a thousand times over (up to a point), so it is up to Scott to create an impending sense of doom as a crew of mercenary workers lands on a planet to answer what might be an SOS call. They uncover a nest of eggs, one that has hatched and attached itself to one of the crewmembers (John Hurt) face. But it disappears, and the crew moves along until one night in the mess hall that creature reappears in one of the most shocking and horrifying moments of the picture. The crew is then stuck with the monster as it evolves and grows into something much larger and more threatening. The evolution of the alien, from egg to spidery face grabber, to small infant creature, to large monster, is such an important aspect of Scott’s telling. It keeps the audience off guard, never knowing really what the creature will look like or do. Sigourney Weaver plays Ellen Ripley, who becomes the hero of the franchise that spans twenty years. Her hatred and single-minded desire to destroy the alien keep Scott’s film on task.

The two most important elements of Alien are the alien itself, an iconic character, and Weaver’s portrayal of Ellen Ripley. Ridley Scott is working on a prequel to his original masterwork, something that I fully do not agree with. He will never capture the ability he had here, where silence is the scariest thing you can have in a story of such intensity and fear and horror.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

#13: The Wicker Man (1973), by THE SKULLBASHER

What do I even say about The Wicker Man? First of all, I'm not talking about the abominable 2006 remake with Nicolas Cage. The original 1973 British film is a cult classic, although somewhat of a forgotten one. The films is at times, off the wall and confusing as hell but that is what makes it so much fun. It's so very 70's in every way and the payoff is epic. Starring Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee, it is part horror, part mystery suspense and part musical. Yes, I said musical. It is very bizarre indeed but the music makes sense within the scope of the film. The characters don't just suddenly turn toward the camera and begin a song and dance routine.

Inspired by the basic scenario of David Pinner's 1967 novel The Ritual, the story centers on the visit of Police Sergeant Neil Howie to the isolated island of Summerisle, in search of a missing girl the locals claim never existed. Howie is a devout Christian, and is appalled by a religion loosely inspired by Celtic paganism practiced by the inhabitants of the island.

The film relies not only upon the clash of religious beliefs but also just the general creepiness that the island community exudes. Their propensity to burst into song as well as their constant disception of poor Sergeant Howie. The suspense throughout the film builds as Howie tries desperately to solve the mystery of the missing girl while resisting the hedonistic temptations that are thrown at him at every turn. The audience is pulled along with him every step of the way to the community's May Day celebration. Here is when the looming madness of Christopher Lee's character is revealed. Lee is Lord Summerisle, the grandmaster of ceremonies in this parade of craziness and Howie falls right into the trap that has been set for him.

The late Edward Woodward who portrays Sergeant Howie gives, for me, one of the great cinematic speeches of all time. Full of shock, fear and rightous religious indignation he preaches to his tormenters, pleads with them and finally prays for his life as he discovers that his fate lies within The Wicker Man.

Monday, October 18, 2010

#14: Frankenstein (1931)

1931 was the great jumping-off point for Universal Pictures' run of horror classics. James Whale’s classic monster picture, Frankenstein, was one of two films released that year that would become franchises for the studio forever really – the other being Dracula. These two franchises have always existed alongside each other throughout history for several reasons. Aside from the pictures being released in the same year, both were classic novels adapted for the screen. And while the characters themselves may appear to be polar opposites, they are both tortured creatures forever trapped in immortality. Tod Browning’s Dracula was an iconic creation, but for my money, James Whale’s Frankenstein is a much deeper, darker, more impactful, more entertaining picture from start to finish.

The story, much like Dracula, has been ingrained into our subconscious over the years, so much so that there is no real reason to lay out the plot. Colin Clive plays Henry Frankenstein, the mad genius who brought the monster to life. Clive’s theatrical energy and madness as Henry are key to the early portions of the film. And of course, the monster itself is played by the great Boris Karloff (an interesting sidenote: the original title card reads “The Monster………………..?”). Karloff is so completely convincing and chilling as the monster, and manages to take a part without any dialogue aside from a few grunts and screams, and add so many layers of confusion, anger, and fear.

What impressed me the most about Frankenstein is the look. Whale’s cinematography, shot in gloomy lighting, sharp architecture, and a certain air of dread throughout, is most powerful. And the iconic moments, from Henry screaming “It’s alive,” consumed with madness, to the monster throwing the young girl in the water, never meaning to really harm her, are moments that will never be forgotten in the history of cinema.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

#15: A Nightmare on Elm Street, by THE SKULLBASHER


A Nightmare on Elm Street and Freddy Krueger are almost single-handedly responsible for my love of the horror genre. As a boy the allure of this franchise dominated my young mind. Spending nights at my grandmother's house, she let me do 3 of the things a little boy loves to do: Stay up late, eat junk food and watch scary movies. I vividly remember going to the local generic video store and ogling all the grotesque 80's VHS covers. I knew all about NOES though and any time the newest one was released I looked forward to watching it in my grandma's living room under the pillow fort while dining on pizza rolls and sherbet ice cream. Yes, those are some of my fondest memories.

Now if we look back on the heyday of the slasher genre in the 80's, I think that most of us can agree that the best film, all in all, was Halloween. John Carpenter created the boogeyman of modern cinema while making a brilliantly minimalistic film. Michael Myers also stayed within the realm of reality and didn't venture into the supernatural until the sequels. The same can be said for the original Friday the 13th.

Freddy, however, is a supernatural boogeyman from the start but was a twisted child murderer before his death. He is also a far more interesting character than the tongue-tied Mike and Jason could ever be, due in large part to the subversive brilliance of Robert Englund. And even though NOES did inspire rip off films in the vein of supernatural talking killers, the real concept of the film and the character are so original that no one has ever really tried to reproduce a villain like Freddy. He is not a creature such as a vampire, werewolf or zombie that can be recreated in film decade after decade. He is not simply a plodding silent killer that stalks his prey through city streets, after prom, at summer camp or any holiday known to man. He is a serial killer though and a demonic spirit that enters the dreams of teenagers whose parents were responsible for his demise. Freddy is sadistic yet playful and charismatic. With his four-bladed glove, fedora and red and green striped sweater, he has a style and look that can't be matched. And hailing from the dream world, the fields of play by which he can choose to torture and kill his victims are endless.

Freddy Krueger is truly a pop-culture icon like no other character in modern horror. In the 80's and 90's he was everywhere and has never faded far from our collective consciousness. The word nightmare cannot be uttered without the thought of him. He has been mentioned or appeared in numerous songs, commercials, video games and TV shows. More figurines, merchandise and Halloween costumes have been created and sold in Freddy's image than any other single villain. And I know I'm not the only one that thinks about him at Christmas whenever I see green and red together.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

#16: An American Werewolf in London

The horror/comedy is perhaps the trickiest of all subgenres. If the comedic elements of the story overshadow the horror, you have parody. If the opposite happens, you have a film with poor taste and a sick sense of humor. Director John Landis walked that tightrope to perfection in the summer of 1981 with the release of An American Werewolf in London, one of the most entertaining films you will find on this list. The humor is there in quite a few scenes, but what is also prevalent is some truly nightmarish images, plenty of bloodshed, and one of the most iconic werewolf transformations in film history.

The film stars David Naughton and Griffin Dunne as David and Jack, two young Americans backpacking across Europe. Despite the warnings of the locals at The Slaughtered Lamb, a countryside pub, David and Jack continue on their trek and are confronted by a monstrous werewolf. Jack is practically ripped to pieces, David bitten and taken to the hospital. Of course he heals quickly, as is the case with new werewolves. David falls in love with his nurse and moves in with her, but the entire time he is haunted by the ghost of Jack who warns him that he is going to turn into a werewolf on the next full moon. David shakes off these visits as nightmares, but you can imagine what happens the next time the moon is full...

The transformation is the key moment in the picture. Rick Baker's makeup work, now 29 years old, still feels more genuine than even The Wolfman effects from earlier this year. Everyone points to this moment in the film, but there are several shocking images and sequences throughout. One that I always seem to forget about is the completely insane nightmare David has in which his family is slaughtered by Nazi monster... things. There are a number of shocking moments, but somehow Landis still manages to infuse humor at the right times. An American Werewolf in London is another of my favorites on this list, and a prime example of a deft balance that is sometimes difficult to accomplish. And please, do yourself a favor, ignore the dreadful sequel.

Friday, October 15, 2010

#17: Nosferatu (1922)

Nosferatu, the great silent film from F.W. Murnau, is the beginning of the vampire on the silver screen. Despite the fact that it is nearly a hundred years old and without sound, there is something refreshing about Murnau’s vision of the vampire. This was a time before the mythos of Dracula had been driven into the ground with endless versions, parodies, telling and retellings. This is the foundation for everything from Bela Lugosi to Bella and Edward (as painful as that may be). Nosferatu is the story of Dracula; only things were changed due to the protests of Bram Stoker’s widow at the time. The vampire this time is played by Max Schreck, and this version of the vampire barely resembles human form. His skin is as thin as paper, his ears huge and distorted, his fangs jutting out like buck teeth. He is a frightening, unadulterated vision of a tortured soul. And those hands, the spidery claw-like tentacles, are key in completing the horrifying image.

Count Dracula is Count Orlock here, living in Germany and not Transylvania. While the conventions of familiarity may be gone, the story itself is still intact. Nosferatu, however, embellishes the moments on the ship where Orlock is traveling to London. In most tales of Dracula the passage is a brief moment, but these are the most unforgettable images in Murnau’s picture. As a matter of fact, the images of Nosferatu are what keep this silent film refreshing and relevant. It is told with the use of shadow and angular architecture, with the use of Schreck’s nightmarish features. Without Schreck’s performance – one that he was said to have gotten so deep into that he began scaring Murnau and the crew – Nosferatu would have been forgotten long ago.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

#18: Carrie

The fact that the final act of Carrie, Brian DePalma’s 1976 adaptation of the early Stephen King novel, is inevitable does not make it any less terrifying. Poor Carrie White has been picked on relentlessly in high school by some of the wickedest of all bullies, a sadistic popular girl and her friends. She has a mother who is consumed by religion in all the wrong ways, so much so that when she comes home crying after getting her first period, Carrie’s mother (a disturbing and effective performance by Piper Laurie) locks her in a closet with an unsettling image of Jesus hanging from a cross and orders her to beg for forgiveness. So you can imagine, with a mother like that, the hole Carrie is in before she even started school. But nobody really knows the powers Carrie has in her corner. She can move things with her mind when she is provoked or cornered.

So the film goes as a set up for the final act. Carrie is pitied by one of the girls, so she asks her superstar blonde boyfriend Tommy Ross, who is probably out of room on his letter jacket, to ask Carrie to the prom. It is a whim at first, but it seems that Tommy genuinely cares for Carrie. Meanwhile, the evil Chris (Nancy Allen) and her sadistic boyfriend (an uncharacteristically dark John Travolta) are plotting to embarrass Carrie in front of the student body at prom. They succeed, but in doing so they unleash the power of Carrie, who has now turned a corner from timid and abused to angry and wrathful. The moments in the gymnasium during prom are horrifying indeed.

Brian DePalma has always been a visually flamboyant director, and here he is no different. He has a flair for the dramatic in his camera; sometimes it works, sometimes it crashes and burns. But in Carrie, his camera and his theatrical eye pay off. Carrie is one of the more memorable, shocking Stephen King adaptations, and that is a rather large sample of films.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

#19: 28 Days Later

Looking back on it now, Danny Boyle’s apocalyptic zombie thriller, 28 Days Later, was a bit of a revelation for the world of horror in a couple of ways. Boyle’s flesh-eating creatures moved at a furious pace rather than plodding along waiting to be decapitated; these were not your father’s zombies. However, more importantly in the grand scheme of things, Boyle’s apocalyptic film, released in 2002, was the first picture to really play on the fears and the dread of global annihilation and mass chaos in this post-9/11 era. After the attacks in New York, sensibility had shifted globally, and the film world always shifts with the landscape. And Boyle’s vision was a trailblazer of a certain type, one of the finest thrillers of the decade.

A then unknown Cillian Murphy plays our eyes and ears in the picture. He is Jim, and after a brief prologue it is Jim who wakes up in the hospital. He is a bike messenger and has been in an accident. The hospital is completely empty, the street outside is vacant, and as he makes his way out into the daylight he discovers – in perhaps the most iconic and shocking moment in the picture – that virtually all of London is empty. But he soon discovers that there are people looming, people that have become blood-spitting zombies. He falls in with a group of survivors trying their best to steer clear of the mobs of the undead, and they work their way across the London countryside to try and gather a group that could possibly start a new community.

The set up had been done before, but the stark imagery and the sensibilities at play here were very much the product of a post-9/11 era. The image of downtown London, vacant and cold, is unforgettable. The idea that society has been wiped out was an underlying fear at the time, and Boyle played on these fears to add a certain aspect of doom and gloom to a typical zombie thriller. And the zombies themselves, moving with a furious energy, spitting and red-eyed and angry, are a layer vital to the success of the terrifying moments that are plentiful throughout Boyle’s fully-realized vision.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

#20: Dracula (1931)

It’s all in the eyes for Bela Lugosi, the legendary horror actor who, in 1931, became forever the gold standard representation of Dracula. The iconic character may have had origins in years before Lugosi’s portrayal, but it is the look and the acting of Lugosi that is the most iconic. The cape, the crest, the slick black hair, the full lips, all are elements of Dracula that we can trace back to Tod Browning’s classic Universal picture. But it is Lugosi’s eyes which make the character. Often highlighted by pin lights, Dracula’s cold stare and arched eyebrows are the primary source for Lugosi’s performance. At a time when sound was still a very new thing for cinema, a stare from Lugosi speaks a thousand words.

The story is so ingrained in our subconscious that it needs no back story. Here is Castle Dracula, a gothic, lonely world borrowing from German Expressionistic architecture. Here is Renfield, the man driven mad by Dracula, and here is Van Helsing the vampire hunter. And the objects of Dracula’s obsession, Mina and Lucy, are also here. Dracula is less about performances and more about mood and ambiance, about the silence and the stares, about the darkness and the fog. Lugosi, a theatrical man who tragically fell into serious drug addiction in his later years, delivers Dracula’s lines with almost a mockery of the society in which he is corrupting. Aside from his performance, the energy delivered by Dwight Frye as Renfield is really important to the momentum of the story.

Some may see this version of Dracula as simplistic or stunted, but Browning’s vision is still a very important piece in the beginnings of horror in cinema. Lugosi as Dracula is the most recognizable vampire that we have. What I found interesting, but not surprising given the time and the censorship issues, is the fact that we see no fangs or no bite marks, everything is insinuated. Perhaps in this modern world aching for realism that may take something away for viewers, but Browning excels in the powers of suggestion when suggestion was the only thing he could work with.

Monday, October 11, 2010

#21: Dawn of the Dead, by THE SKULLBASHER

Dawn of the Dead is, of course, the follow up to Romero's Night of the Living Dead. It also happens to be the first zombie movie on our list. In 1978 it was the most gruesome and brutal zombie movie ever made but by today's standards it might seem tame. The 2004 remake has one of the most stunning opening sequences in film history and is a modern update worth watching. However, the original finds it's place on the list because of Romero's brilliance in creating a satirical look at the emergence of mass consumerism in American culture.

The core survivors in the film hole up in a shopping mall as the dead plod about still driven by memories of their living days. The shopping mall is a perfect setting for Romero to experiment with the genre mixing low brow and sly humor then hitting us across the face with a shocking disembowelment.

Really the main focus of the film isn't the zombies at all but the group of survivors who fight amongst themselves and against outsiders trying to steal their safe haven. The characters display the whole spectrum of human emotion from courage to cowardice, from humor to fear and loneliness. In the end it is an examination of humanity in a setting that nobody does quite like Romero.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

#22: Poltergeist

Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) may be the director of Poltergeist, but producer Steven Spielberg's fingerprints are all over the picture. It takes place in suburbia, it involves a very normal family, and the events unfold with a steady bit of pacing and buildup; all aspects of Spielberg's better films. Poltergeist is less scary and more iconic, as we have all seen the image of young Carol Anne (the late Heather O'Rourke) with her hands on the snowy television set. Carol Anne is the focus of the events that transpire, as she is pulled into a sort of limbo by the ghosts that haunt the family home. JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson play the parents, and their believability as a unit is key to the story.

Of course there are a number of supernatural elements that unfold in Poltergeist, including flying toys, appliances with minds of their own, and things that go bump in the night. As it becomes clear that the house is haunted, the family must bring in outside help, and the influx of new eyes on the situation is where much of the interesting dialogue and events take place. And of course everyone remembers Tangina, the mystic doctor played by the elfin Zelda Rubenstein, who comes in to retrieve Carol Anne from limbo.

Of course the revelations that the home was built on an Indian burial ground, a problem that comes to fruition in the film's thrilling and nerve jangling climax. As I mentioned before Tobe Hooper was the director of Poltergeist, but this is very much a Steven Spielberg story. Hooper's first directorial effort will show up a bit higher on this list, and while this story is not his he still manages to employ some shocking moments and some consistent tension. Oh, and maybe he fits in a gross out moment or two...

Saturday, October 9, 2010

#23: The Wolf Man

The classic monsters of Universal Studios in the 30s and 40s were cursed creatures, men or monsters living with the burden of their lives. No other Universal monster exemplifies this theme more than The Wolf Man, what is often seen as the third member of the big three (the other two being Frankenstein and Dracula). The reason The Wolf Man takes his spot at number three is because those two aforementioned "leaders of the pack" existed in lore before cinema, living through classic novels. While The Wolf Man borrowed from legends itself, it was supremely a Hollywood creation. And even though it may find its spot at number 23 on this list, it will always be my own personal favorite.

Lon Chaney Jr. plays Lawrence Talbot, a wealthy young student returning to see his father (Claude Rains) in London. Lawrence falls for a girl, takes her and a friend to see local gypsies, and as you can imagine, with gypsies in the mix, things go poorly. Lawrence is bitten by a werewolf trying to save his girl's friend, and you know the series of events that unfold next. Lawrence transforms into the wolf man at the full moon and murders. He cannot help it, he is a tortured soul, and you can see the pain in Chaney's eyes. The best part of The Wolf Man is the creation of the werewolf. The transformation, which took hours of time and patience and freeze frames, was a technical revolution at the time, and The Wolf Man himself is one of the most iconic characters Universal ever created.

The Wolf Man was released in 1941, a decade after both Frankenstein and Dracula. Even though the technology is of course dated by today's standards, the ten years was beneficial for the transformation scene. The Wolf Man is steeped in gothic mood during the werewolf scenes, and the simplicity of the attacks and the dread of the transformation are the elements of horror here that will always be, well, Universal.

Friday, October 8, 2010

#24: The Thing

The Thing is a tale that has been told a million times in Hollywood. It is The Thing From Another Planet, it is Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but as it is told by John Carpenter, it takes on a sort of relevance and a style that makes it one of the better horror pictures of the 80s. A ship crash lands in Antarctica. Several years later, a group of scientists unearth the crash and the alien escapes. This alien survives by killing and mimicking living things, starting first with a dog, then moving its way into human form. Kurt Russell is the star of the picture, and once things begin to sour for the group of scientists he takes the initiative to try and fight the creature.

Members of the team disappear, are taken over, and reappear with a strange smile and unusual demeanor. The creature rips them apart and escapes to find another host. In the best sequence of the picture, Russell gets everyone seated in the same room to find out who has been taken over by the thing. The result of the sit in is one of the many gruesome scenes in the film, but what makes the scene work is the palpable tension. Carpenter has never been a director to create three-dimensional human characters. They serve as cogs to the story and the plot, as bit players to wander off into the darkness, and that aspect is no different here. What Carpenter succeeds at so well is creating tension. An isolated base in Antarctica is a great place for horrific things to unfold. Once the creature infiltrates the base, all bets are off as to who is and isn’t the thing. There are stark similarities to Ridley Scott’s Alien at play here and Carpenter uses the weather and the isolation to his advantage to create an exciting, gory, fun horror film.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

#25: Let The Right One In, by THE SKULLBASHER

My second contribution to the list happens to be another foreign film that might best be described as a dark fairytale. Let the Right One In is a Swedish film based on the novel by Swedish author, John Ajvide Lindqvist. While the film deals with many heavy themes such as bullying, drugs, pedophilia, prostitution and murder, much of the plot focuses on a developing love story between 12 year old Oskar and Eli. Eli is a vampire trapped in the body of a young girl. Oskar is a morbidly obsessed social outcast that is constantly being bullyed at school, and when Eli moves in next door he finds the companionship he longs for and the two become friends. They develop a bond built on the extreme loneliness that each of them feels in their chaotic worlds.

I have to admit that this is perhaps my favorite film of any genre in the last decade. It's just such a painfully poetic film that works on so many different levels. It's scattered with scenes of brutal violence, dark humor and tender moments. I can't think of too many serious films that rely on child actors so heavily and succeed so tremendously. As far as the vampire lore is concerned, Let The Right One In is the most original and compelling addition to the mythology in years.

Matt Reeves, director of Cloverfield, saw the film, read the book and decided he had to create the American version. I know many in the horror community groaned at the thought of another dumbed down ripoff that would tarnish the original, especially only two years after it was released. However, it seems Reeves has successfully produced a more than acceptable remake. Still, I implore everyone to see the original, subtitles and all, before going to see Let Me In.
*Another unfortunate sidenote. Don't rent the blu-ray version. When it was transferred to blu-ray someone decided to save a few bucks and the subtitles were poorly transcribed. As a result, the film loses much of it's dark humor in translation. Watch the normal DVD version or watch it on Netflix streaming.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Social Network

The Social Network: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake (120 min.)

The great irony that lies at the heart of The Social Network, David Fincher’s new film about Mark Zuckerberg the creator of facebook, is that Zuckerberg, who changed the way people all over the world socially interact with each other forever, is almost completely incapable of socially interacting himself. This is evidenced from the very first moment we see Zuckerberg, played marvelously by Jesse Eisenberg. Zuckerberg is at a bar with his girlfriend, Erica, waxing philosophical on seemingly a million different topics at once, most of which deal with getting into one of the coveted Final Clubs at Harvard. Mark is firing off topics so fast even he can’t keep up, let alone his helpless girlfriend. Finally, fed up with his arrogance, Erica breaks up with him, telling him that “dating you is like dating a stairmaster.” She calls him an asshole and walks out of the bar. Angry and confused, Mark goes home, drinks some more beer, blogs hatefully about Erica. He hacks into the Harvard dorm picture database and puts girls pictures up against each other for students to rank. The idea generates so much activity that the network shuts down. And the base idea for facebook is born from Mark’s head.

Mark’s closest (only) friend is Eduardo, and with his financial help the two create “,” a base model of the social site. But two rowing Olympians, the Winklevoss twins, and their friend Divya, claim that Zuckerberg stole the idea from them. They take him to court, where most of the action of the picture is told in a Roshomon-style narrative. This is a bold move by Fincher, as the information comes fast and furious, but unlike most Hollywood directors he gives the audience some credit that they will lineate the story on their own. Perhaps he understands that the audience is clever enough with computers, they can figure out the events of a film well enough to follow along.

Enter Sean Parker, played by Justin Timberlake. Parker, the founder of Napster, spots the website once it debuts on the Stanford campus in Northern California, and approaches Mark to discuss globalizing this thing and turning it into something beyond what he and Eduardo can do. “A million dollars isn’t cool” he says, a billion dollars is. The first meeting between the three is a marvelous and dizzying moment in the film, where Parker practically hypnotizes Mark with his energy and his ideas. Eduardo is a little more skeptical. It has been noted that Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay (a shoe in for Best Adapted this year) has taken certain liberties with Parker, making him a seedy, villainous character here. And Timberlake takes the role and runs with it better than anyone else I could imagine.

It isn’t long before Eduardo is marginalized and pushed out of the business by Sean and Mark (more so by Sean), and files a lawsuit against Mark. This second legal deposition serves as another starting point for a narrative thread. Meanwhile, watching facebook expand and mutate and grow into what it is now is the heart of the story. It becomes the phenomenon it is now, and Mark becomes the youngest billionaire in the world. But he doesn’t much care about the money side of things. As long as it’s cool, that is the most important aspect.

With a film like The Social Network, one that relies on dialogue and the furious punching of keyboards in order to create tension, the players involved are the most important aspect. These young actors all fill out their characters completely. Jesse Eisenberg plays Zuckerberg as an almost robotic, emotionless computer programmer so consumed with being popular that his tunnel vision isolates him from those around him. And the Winklevoss twins, played by two separate actors (thanks to some amazingly seamless CGI) are solid foes to Mark. They are the children of privelage, and when things do not go their way they wilt. But I feel like the performance most vital to the success of the picture is Andrew Garfield’s portrayal of Eduardo. Eduardo is Mark’s only true friend, with him from the beginning, and he is the emotional epicenter of the picture. Without his warmth and his caring and his eventual hurt, the film would flounder in a sea of unlikeable characters. With Garfield’s Oscar-worthy performance, everything falls into place perfectly.

While the film does deal exclusively with facebook, it is also a testament to the times, to the college students out there looking to become overnight billionaires. One line in the film practically sums up a generation: “Students see creating a career as easier than getting a career.” The Social Network has drawn comparisons to films like Citizen Kane and Network, given its timeliness and subject matter. While I do see these similarities, and I feel like it may forever be a film as important as those in the grand scheme of things, The Social Network is its own film. It is a picture that, in a few decades, other films will be compared to.

Everything works in The Social Network, from Fincher’s seamless direction to Sorkin’s rapid-fire script, to the energized score by Trent Reznor, to each and every performance; the result is a picture that may very well sweep the Oscars this year. Maybe it isn’t my personal favorite this year, maybe it is, but what I am sure of is that it is the testament film of a generation and something everyone who has even logged on to facebook would have an interest in, and even to those who haven't. After seeing the film, I went home, and within an hour of watching television there were two references to facebook on commercials. That is the power of the website, and to see how it became what it is – however fictionalized certain aspects of the story may be – is worth the price of admission. That, and every other part of the picture.


#26: The Descent

The Descent is one of the best-named horror films on this list, a true and apt description of the action in the film as well as an explanation of the psychological journey these characters embark on. The Descent also taps into different fears; fear of tight spaces, claustrophobia, fear of the unknown, and of course the fear of things that go bump in the darkness. The story focuses on a group of women who are spending a weekend exploring a cave deep in the Appalachians. One of the women, Sarah, is a year removed from losing her husband and daughter in a car accident, and perhaps she needs the weekend with friends to get back into her life. Aside from Sarah’s back story little is divulged about the other women, except that they are good friends. That is all you need from these women, however, as we are thrust into the darkness of the cave. And once inside the cave, it is discovered that the only way out is through. There is no turning back.

Thus, The Descent becomes a descent into madness for these women. There are creatures deep down in these caves, pale beasts that look like some prehistoric creatures that would have lived deep inside a cave for centuries. And these creatures appear gradually, as director Neil Marshall employs the Jaws technique, and the tension builds and builds until things eventually unravel for these women. Seen through mostly pink lights and slivers of sun early on, the cave itself is very ominous and becomes a character all its own.

The end is a twist in the traditional sense, but it is also a psychological realization for the survivor(s). Marshall’s influences were Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Deliverance, and you can see hints of both here while he makes his own masterwork of horror. If one moment in The Descent isn’t making your palms sweaty or clenched, it is making you jump or hide your eyes. The horror is spread evenly, so to speak, and perhaps with a few more years and a few more in depth deconstructions, The Descent may climb up a list like this and be recognized as one of the best horror movies of all.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

#27: The Fly (1986)

David Cronenberg’s horror films sometimes take Kafka to a whole new level. Cronenberg, always one to examine the transformations of physicality and nature of science, has made some of the most shocking and gruesome horror pictures over the last thirty years. From Scanners to Dead Zone, his work has been influential on so many directors of the macabre and the disgusting. Perhaps none of his works have been as grotesque or, frankly, as memorable as his remake of The Fly in 1986. Jeff Goldblum stars as Seth Brundle, an egocentric scientist obsessed with teleportation. He meets a young impressionable girl, Veronica (Geena Davis), who falls madly in love with his passion and his brain. After a few drinks one evening he decides to try the teleportation device alone… If it weren’t for that pesky housefly that managed to land in the device alongside him. Eventually, you can guess that things begin to go poorly for Brundle until he has transformed into a giant, monstrous fly.

Although this was a remake of a 1958 film starring Vincent Price, the original Fly might as well have not existed. The transformation in the original has the good doctor becoming something resembling your typical housefly, nothing too frightening. But Cronenberg opts to really look at a fly and imagine the hairs coming out of Brundle’s back, antennae replacing ears that fall off, teeth dropping out to make way for feelers, legs sprouting from all over. Brundle’s transformation is gradual, beginning as something quite invigorating for Seth. But before long, the transformation becomes something horrifying, and Cronenberg captures these events through the eyes of the Davis character. The Fly is a modern classic thanks to the performance of Goldblum and the direction of Cronenberg. And it is, at times, an effectively disturbing tale of science gone awry. Always a welcome sight in the horror genre.

Monday, October 4, 2010

#28: Near Dark

Near Dark is definitely a horror film, but it is also Western in look, feel, and mood at times. A Band of outlaws are our focus here, outlaws who just happen to be vampires (although they are never called that in the film). A young man falls for a young woman who is part of this traveling family of bloodsuckers, and he gets tangled up in their web as he tries to find a cure for the young girl. Led by Jesse (Lance Henriksen), the vampires roam the Western landscape avoiding the law and trying to avoid conflict. But of course, there is a wild card in the group; in this case, that wild card is Severen, the most memorable of the vampires played by Bill Paxton. Severen is sociopathic, violent, and in the most famous scene in the picture he displays his tendency for psychotic outbursts against humans. Paxton’s character is also responsible for the most iconic shot in the film.

Many may not remember, but Near Dark was director Kathryn Bigelow’s first major release. The Oscar-winning director wanted to tell a Western tale, but she wanted to flip the genre inside out and shed the images of John Ford and John Wayne at the time. And what better way than to incorporate vampirism into the Western genre to make people forget about John Wayne? Near Dark was met with little fanfare and low box office numbers, but has definitely gathered a loyal cult following over the years. Bigelow does an excellent job with the story and utilizes both elements of horror and Western themes to create a truly original piece of work.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

#29: Suspiria, by THE SKULLBASHER

I feel like I need to begin my portion of this list by including one of the few foreign films that us wankers deem worthy of earning a spot on our American influenced catalogue. In the 1970's the Italians were cranking out horror films faster than they could make pasta. They produced several masterpieces but none were more beautiful than Dario Argento's Suspiria. Now going into an Italian horror film you must realize that continuity is usually secondary to haunting atmosphere and imagery. What Argento creates with this film is an opera of suspense which is enhanced by one of the greatest musical scores in horror history.

The film opens upon a young American girl that is arriving at a prestigious European ballet school to foster her talents. She experiences all manner of strange and horrific happenings that lead her into dark dealings with the occult. I won't say anymore about the plot but an interesting fact about the film is that it was actually the last to ever be produced in Technicolor. The unique color saturation adds a dramatic and surreal element to the film. To sum up, Suspiria is a stylized and macabre classic that combines artistic expression and shocking gore with skill that few horror films have achieved.

*If you go to Netflix to see this film on instant streaming you may unfortunately come away a bit disappointed. The sound of the film is completely out of wack and some scenes are actually missing from the film. If you are really into horror and want to experience this gem properly you should get your hands on the Blue Underground DVD available at Amazon.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

#30: The Ring

The Ring is what you might call a “horror procedural.” There is a set up – a tape that brings certain death in seven days to those who watch it – and an example of the set up to begin the film. There is a hero, or in this case a heroine played by Naomi Watts, Rachel, a news reporter who comes into possession of the tape. There is the hero/heroine’s child, drawing disturbing images and having some sort of connection to the events that unfold on the tape. There is a jilted romance that is rekindled; in this case, the father of Aidan, Noah. And then there is a ticking clock, one that begins after Rachel watches the tape and receives a mysterious phone call warning her that she only has seven days.

The Ring also has a twist and a series of false endings, much like you would expect from a horror procedural. This remake of the Asian film, Ringu, also has its fair amount of jump-out-of-your-seat moments, some solid imagery, and adequate tension. But this is – aside from being a horror procedural – a horror movie that could be considered “date safe.” There is nothing in The Ring that is deeply disturbing beyond typical genre conventions, thus making it safe for a night out with a date. This opposed to something like Last House on the Left, for example.

Unfortunately, The Ring was a bit tarnished a few years later when an absurd, almost unwatchable sequel was shot out without much regard for the elements that made the original successful. The cast is solid, the frights are valid, and any film with Brian Cox in it surely cannot be all bad…

Friday, October 1, 2010

#31: Bram Stoker's Dracula

Ambition is the key word when discussing Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula. That and excess. Never before had anyone attempted such a comprehensive re-telling of Bram Stoker’s classic novel, even employing some of the epistolary techniques in which the novel is written. Coppola clearly tackled the subject matter with all the ambition and dedication one would need to tell such a tale, and despite the flaws throughout his story the heart of the film is intact. That heart being the marvelous performance of one Gary Oldman.

Yes, without Oldman playing the prince of darkness, Coppola’s film would not have survived. The two best parts of the picture are Oldman’s daring performance and the beauty of Coppola’s camerawork. The structure of the film, however, meanders as storylines unfold one after another. Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker is seemingly outmatched by Oldman as The Count, but I suppose that is the idea. Winona Ryder plays Mina, the young fiancé of Harker who bears a great resemblance to Dracula’s lost love from centuries prior. The very sight of Mina awakens Dracula’s soul and he is off to London. But in London awaits Van Helsing, played with an operatic excess by Anthony Hopkins. Everything is excessive in Coppola’s grandiose story; sometimes the excess works, other times it does not.

There are great gothic and horror elements at play in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The Count transforms from old man (the best and most frightening of his characters) to young and debonair, to horrific bat creature, to wolf. There is a sexuality at the core of the story that soaks everything in a lustful energy, and the production values and excess of the design are all quite fantastic. For all of its warts, Coppola’s vision is compelling on a number of different levels.