Halloween, my favorite holiday, is next week, and so media outlets are offering their annual “scariest films of all time” lists, and I have to ask if any of the people who compiled these lists are consuming significant quantities of controlled substances that perhaps alter their perceptions of what is makes a scary, or at least a good horror film.
To wit: the Cape Cod Times’ “scariest movies” top 10 list is, starting with #15 (yes, you read that correctly): The Exorcist, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (original), Salem’s Lot (original), Rosemary’s Baby, Psycho (original), Jaws, The Wizard of Oz, Last House on the Left (original), House of 1,000 Corpses, Dawn of the Dead (original), The Hills Have Eyes (original), Halloween (original), When A Stranger Calls (original), The Shining (original), and The Blair Witch Project.
Was this a popular vote thing, or did the editors simply pluck some of the more well-written reader comments out of the blue with no thought to the many, many superior fright flicks that should have appeared on the list? I mean, okay, I can grudgingly allow The Wizard of Oz because, if you saw it as a small child, there were some scary moments, but hell, you could say the same thing about Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (tell me the boat ride sequence didn’t freak you out). When A Stranger Calls? Terrifying for the first 10 minutes, and a crashing bore after that.
And House of 1,000 Corpses? Jeez, don’t get me started. Rob Zombie’s debut movie was perhaps the most over-hyped horror flick of the last decade or so — the movie that was allegedly was too extreme for most distributors turned out to be almost entirely scare-free.
(You might have noticed that I had to note that these choices were the originals and not their, by and large, inferior remakes. With very rare exceptions — John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing comes to mind — the originals are always better, and I’m appalled at how lazy Hollywood has become. But that’s a rant for another time.)
Then we have the Boston Herald’s list of the best horror movies of all time, starting with #1: The Bride of Frankenstein, The Corpse Bride, The Blair Witch Project, Black Sunday, Black Sabbath, Kwaidan (a Japanese entry), A Tale of Two Sisters (a Korean flick), The Shining (original), Ringu (remade in America as The Ring), and The Exorcist.
The Corpse Bride? Tim Burton’s animated film? Really? One of the 10 best horror movies? And two old Mario Bava jobs? Points for thinking outside the box, I guess, but come on. This list comes from one of my least-favorite critics ever, James Verniere, who has a notorious habit of spoiling endings and plot twists in his reviews, and going off on bizarre asides about how filmmakers “blew” golden opportunities (he once wondered why Sam Raimi didn’t have Peter Parker eating flies and engaging in other decidedly spider-like behavior in the first “Spider-Man” film. Really).
The Boston Globe is a little more on the money, in my opinion. Their top 10 scariest horror movies, starting with #1: The Thing (remake), Ju-On (Japanese, remade as The Grudge), REC. (Spanish, remade as Quarantine), The Ring, Alien, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (remake), Dawn of the Dead (original), Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn, Halloween, Audition (Japanese).
The one film I have to question on the Globe list is Dawn of the Dead. It is a classic of the genre and is still entertaining, but I will speak what might be considered blasphemy among horror fans: it hasn’t aged that well, and parts of it are laughably low-rent (a very obvious fake head gets blown off early in the movie. It looks like something a first grader made out of papier-mache in art class).
So, time to step up and offer my own perhaps controversial list of the “best” horror movies, and for me, one of my standards is how much a movie stuck with me — by which I mean, was I still thinking about this movie long after I finished watching it? Does it continue to creep me out/make me jump, despite many repeated viewings?
My top movies in terms of staying power:
Halloween — the movie that made me afraid of the dark until my early adult years. The movie is tame by today’s standards — remarkably low in violence and virtually bloodless — but I say that as a compliment. Too many modern horror flicks replace tension, suspense, and well-set-up jump-scares with brutal, graphic violence and cartoonish levels of gore. The one downside: this is the movie that is widely credited with sparking the invincible-masked-killer-of-teens subgenre.
The Blair Witch Project — the infamous faux documentary that showed Hollywood that you don’t need a big budget, big stars, buckets of blood, or the weary cliches of the genre to scare the crap out of people. Old-school in its scare-you-with-what-you-don’t-see approach, BWP keeps the setting grounded in reality to give it that extra edge (although, in fairness, I know people who saw it and said, “Three people got lost in the woods. So what?” You either get it or you don’t).
Ju-On — Plotwise, this Japanese ghost story is a bit incoherent and the internal logic conveniently turns off for the sake of a good scare, but the scares are indeed very good. Chilling visuals propel this one, so watch it with the lights out and don’t think too hard about the story (and avoid the more coherent but less atmospheric American remake The Grudge).
John Carpenter’s The Thing — the first time you see this tale of an Antarctic research team hunted by a bizarre alien creature, the tension will kill you. I’ve seen it multiple times and I still flinch in certain scenes, even though I know very well what’s coming.
The Mist — a pleasant surprise in that it’s a later adaptation of a Stephen King novel that doesn’t completely suck. Based on the novella, the terror in this story — about a group of Maine residents trapped in a supermarket by an otherworldly mist and the nightmarish creatures lurking within — is generated more by the characters dealing with each other in an increasingly stressful situation. Bonus: it has one of the most powerful sucker-punch endings I’ve ever seen. I’ve had many energetic conversations over this one.
Other major favorites:
The Evil Dead trilogy — Sam Raimi’s trilogy about Ashley Williams (Bruce Campbell), the hapless everyman who battles the forces of darkness. The original is cheap, gory fun; the second ups the gore and the humor; and the third is more an action-adventure film but brings the whole thing to a fun conclusion.
Alien — writer Dan O’Bannon accurately described this movie as a “haunted house in outer space” story. Watch it back-to-back with Aliens (and forget any of the subsequent sequels).
In The Mouth of Madness and The Fog — John Carpenter’s other excellent horror films. The former is an atmospheric Lovecraftian outing, the latter one of the last great ghost story films.
Night of the Living Dead — George Romero’s first and best zombie movie, which set the standards for the genre. The sequels are mostly worth the time, but be warned: Dawn of the Dead is fun but dated, Day of the Dead is nihilistic and joyless, Land of the Dead is flat, and Diary of the Dead never hits any kind of high.
Dawn of the Dead (remake) — Zack Snyder launched his directing career with this surprisingly effective remake. Aside from one absurd scene (involving a ridiculous childbirth) it’s an exciting and thrilling movie.
Shaun of the Dead — If you’ve never seen any of Romero’s Living Dead films, take care of that first, then check out Simon Pegg as a well-meaning but clueless dope who suddenly finds himself fighting zombies in this hysterical horror-comedy.
The Strangers — I dare say, a Halloween for modern times. It’s bloodier than its spiritual predecessor, but creepy, tense, and legitimately scary.
Dog Soldiers and The Descent — two from Neil Marshall. Dog Soldiers is a wild soldiers vs. werewolves action-horror fusion, and The Descent is a nail-biting story about a sextet of women whose spelunking expedition goes very wrong.
Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein — the best of the classic Universal monster movies. The two films lift elements from Mary Shelley’s original novel, and watched together form one story that still looks fantastic after nearly 80 years.
King Kong — the original, and while I do loves me a good rubbery monster stomping on Tokyo, this is in all ways superior to even the best Godzilla movie. Following Peter Jackson’s remake, the original was fully restored for a DVD re-release, so even if you’ve seen this one on TV, you haven’t seen the whole movie (several scenes were, over the years, edited out for theatrical re-releases for content reasons).
Nosferatu and Shadow of the Vampire — another great double-feature. The first is F.W. Murnau’s unauthorized adaptation of Dracula (Bram Stoker’s widow sued for copyright infringement and almost every copy of the movie was destroyed). The second is a fictionalized take on the making of Nosferatu, in which “actor” Max Schreck — who played “Count Orlock” in the movie — is an actual vampire.
The Shining — some complain about director Stanley Kubrick’s leisurely pace, but I think it only serves to build the tension in this, the best adaptation of a Stephen King novel.
The views and opinions in the Enterprise blogs are those of the author and are not neccessarily shared by Falmouth Publishing.