I know that Halloween was a few of days ago, but some of us actually have kids and families and actually spend Halloween doing Halloween things. As I was doing all of those Halloween things and as I’ve been stuffing myself with left over candy for the past couple of days, I started thinking about ghouls and ghosts and goblins and all things scary, and it got me to thinking about horror movies. Now, I am not a fan of the horror genre. In fact, it’s probably my least favorite genre. You can make the case that horror is similar in many ways to comedy or action, but instead of the narrative simply filling the gaps between laughs or explosions, it rather serves as a mechanism to get you to the next thrill or disembowelment. I suppose I just prefer the stimulation of a good laugh or a good action sequence over that of a good scare. Even with that said, there are some films in the genre that, if they didn’t make the story the most important component of the film, it was at least right up there. So I do have some very definite opinions on the matter, and while I am admittedly not an expert on the subject, I still thought it would be apropos to list off my favorite horror films.
5) Dracula (1931)
This may be more of a sentimental pick than anything. It’s actually not a very well developed story, especially when you compare it to the book. There are a lot of important story components that are left out that Francis Ford Coppola did include in his remake in the early 90’s. While it’s not nearly a perfect film, Bela Legosi’s performance as Count Dracula is an iconic performance, and many of his mannerisms from this film remain a part of our popular lexicon to this very day. The fact that this is probably the first great horror film to come out of the Hollywood studio system (Nosferatu was a German film), and would staple Universal Studios as the kingpins of the monster genre, makes this a film that is worthy to be on any list of this kind. It’s probably also the single most influential horror movie of all time, and I would dare say that almost every horror film that has come out since, is standing on this film’s mighty and broad shoulders.
4) Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Roman Polanski’s first American film remains one of his most iconic. And this is the director who brought us Chinatown and The Pianist. Certainly by today’s standards, this film doesn’t really hold up in terms of its “scary” factor, but it remains a very creepy film, and it’s a film that has a strong story and compelling characters. In fact, Polanski made it a point of emphasis to make sure that Rosemary’s Baby didn’t fall into the traps of horror motifs. There would be nothing jumping out at us. There would be no cheap tricks in order to get cheap thrills. This would be a thoughtful movie with a character that has a real problem, and real obstacles continue to get in her way throughout. Every person that can help her is either killed or betrays her. In the tradition of any great protagonist, Rosemary makes several attempts to solve her problems, but all of those attempts are thwarted in plausible ways. This film actually has a screenplay that’s worth studying for just those reasons. Finally, Rosemary’s Baby has one of the most disturbing and unsettling endings of any film that I’ve seen. In fact, the ending is where the real horror in this film lies.
3) The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
The first and only horror film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, I’ve actually written extensively about this film here. I don’t think I’m being hyperbolic when I say that it’s probably also one of the most influential films of all time. However, I would also say that its influence is primarily seen on television rather than in the cinema. As I mentioned in my previous blog post about this film, TV shows like NYPD Blue and CSI and Law and Order and any other number of modern day cop/detective television shows wouldn’t exist without The Silence of the Lambs. Their collective style and tone were pulled right from The Silence of the Lambs, and much of the film’s shock value has been muted over time by those shows showing material that’s just as graphic, if not more so than what we saw in the film in 1991. I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the acting in The Silence of the Lambs. One thing that horror films are generally known for is their sub par acting. That is not the case in The Silence of the Lambs, as Anthony Hopkins (Hannibal Lecter) and Jody Foster (Clarice Starling) would both win Best Leading Role Oscars for their respective performances in this remarkable film.
2) The Exorcist (1973)
The Exorcist was actually the first horror film to be nominated for Best Picture. It would lose to The Sting. In its day this was one of the most shocking films ever released. No one had ever seen anything like it to that point, and there were stories of people running out of the theaters, vomiting and in terror over what they were witnessing. More than 4 decades later, it has certainly lost some of its edge. In fact, I re-watched it with a group of people fairly recently, and we all came away feeling that it’s more of a cop/detective story now. Yes, there are some genuinely terrifying and suspenseful moments at various points throughout the film, but watching Lt. William Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) trying to figure out what’s going on is the driving plot line of the story. It’s also an emotional journey as Father Karras (Jason Miller) confronts his own doubts in his faith, as he remains skeptical of Regan’s possession until Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) has made it very clear what’s happening. Ultimately Father Karras finds his redemption, but like in many great dramatic stories, it comes at a great cost. To me, that’s what The Exorcist is at its base level: a great dramatic story.
1) The Shining (1980)
This is the first horror movie that I actually forced myself to sit thought, and I’ve now seen it many times, and it still creeps me out. Stanley Kubrick is my favorite director of all time, and he was in the proverbial Zone when making this film. This is really a psychological thriller in that it’s never entirely clear if the supernatural things that are happening are really happening or just happening inside the heads of the characters. Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is about as unlikable a protagonist as has ever graced the screen, and yet we’re compelled to watch and root for him not to go completely insane. What keeps us rooting for him is our affection for his son Danny and his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall), because we know that the more Jack slips into madness, the more dangerous life becomes for Danny and Wendy. Like other films on this list this film has an intricately woven plot and there strong thematic elements, like how the modern world was creating a strain on the American family, and how fathers were losing their way as they struggle to balance work and family to the point where the mounting pressure to accommodate both becomes unbearable. The Shining is one of the scariest movies ever made because underneath the visions of a haunted hotel, there is the feeling that this is a parable for something that your own family could go through, and that makes this horror movie feel all too real.
Friday the 13th (1980)
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
What do you think? What films did I miss? Feel free to comment.