I tend to be Obsessive Compulsive, so I write a lot of lists to keep myself organized (and to keep my demons at bay). My bend toward horror movies began in middle school (the late 70’s) when as a latch-key kid, my brother and I had marathons where we gorged ourselves on video offerings and our neighborhood movie theater. I figured that in order to get to know my sensibilities you might want to take a gander at my Top Ten list of Horror Movies. So, listen, I know we fans love to argue about genre classification and what constitutes scary. I’m not going to make that argument. This is MY top ten. Horror is extremely subjective. I’ve watched very low-brow cinema that I haven’t found impressive; whereas I’ve found the Child-catcher in Chitty Chitty, Bang Bang inhabit my nightmares more often than any other monster.
OK, laugh it up. Get it out of your system. I know that this scene is supposed to play as silly and cartoonish. I watched the kidnapping scene in that movie as an adult and it still scares me in a whole new way, as a Dad. We tell our kids, “Don’t open the door to strangers,” hoping and praying that they will listen and sometimes the temptation is overwhelming, because that stuff can’t happen to ME! I have embedded a clip here for your perusal. The fact that there are people that at the risk of their own lives try to stop those kids from being drawn to their possible deaths or worse is astounding. Think about Truly, how she must feel at that moment when she sees those children in that cage. Yeah! Go ahead and laugh, but as I give you my list, I will share the context and what I find scary about these movies and I have NO doubt, some of you will be able to relate.
#10 : The Exorcist (1973)
My first watch of this movie was on a small screen, black and white Sony that my brother and I received from our cousins. We were 12 and 13 respectively. It was on late-night television and even though the most horrifying bits were sanitized for network television, the musical score still penetrated our fragile psyches. Linda Blair was cute as Reagan McNeil. Just a kid like us, our age, and the first time you see the bed shaking (we were lying in bed, sharing covers) I almost wet the bed. That movie has a whole lot of scares, and when I rented the video a few years later, it was more horrifying for the bits we’d missed. You know what I’m talking about, especially what happens to that cross. Yikes! I’m a person of faith so I believe in the plausibility of the subject matter. In church, we witnessed a supposed exorcism and I can tell you multiple stories where the supernatural has rubbed up against me in very real and overt ways, but I digress. We’ll get to those stories once you get to know us better. I know a modern audience may not find this scary, but back then and still today, within my scope of experience, it still creeps me out.
#9 : 28 Days Later (2002)
I’m a lover of slow-shambling, Night of the Living Dead, Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things zombies. So why does this movie affect me so much? It’s all about that Rage virus, which is such a compelling plot contrivance. Within seconds of being exposed, you’re a zombie, seconds!!! Hardly enough time to say good-bye passes and you are beyond rational thought. Those people that have become your surrogate family must act quickly, lest they too become infected. The movie begins with a memorable social commentary on vivisection (an attempt to free the monkeys that were experimented on) which is critical of our cultural norms and is then divided into two major parts that are typical of the zombie sub-genre. The gathering of survivors occurs with some excessively horrific horror beats and then intensifies in the second part with a siege narrative involving a fragmenting military squad reminiscent of Day of the Dead. The social commentary alone elevates this cinematic experience, but even further, the scares are rapid-fire, real, and shocking. “I promised that there would be women,” must freeze the marrow of your bones, when considering the full implications of that confession. She’s a little girl, damn it!
#8 : Halloween (1978)
This is a classic horror movie that is a simple slasher made on a shoe-string budget that should not work for all its simplicity. Michael Myers wears a mask that might as well be called a tabula rasa, blank slate, and bland workman overalls. His murder device is an ordinary butcher knife. In one spot he wears a bed sheet costume with goofy glasses. It should be silly, almost laughable, but we didn’t laugh. The score is just Carpenter messing around with atonal chords on a piano. A “real” musician would have never fixated on dissonant chords. Again, it shouldn’t work, but it does because there’s a mood that pervades every musical note, every word of dialogue, every frame of film where Myers is barely present in the corner of the shot and suddenly appears out of the darkness like a luminescent specter. Donald Pleasance plays Dr. Loomis, our Harbinger of Doom. He works with psychologically damaged individuals and after working with Michael for fifteen years he has given up on Myers. His diagnosis is that Myers is “pure evil.” He carries a gun because he believes that it is his responsibility to take out Myers. Laurie Strode is a babysitter that goes above and beyond to protect the children. She also becomes the prototypical Final Girl that faces off against the masked killer. Their confrontation is brutal, but not very bloody. Myers walks through the movie like an unstoppable force, never in a hurry, as if he is confident that he will get you. Like a juggernaut Boogeyman, as silent as a wispy zephyr, as present as a giant tidal wave that leaves you gasping for breath.
#7 : The Shining (1980)
The Shining is a haunted house narrative with supernatural elements. There are ghosts in this place, and they do not like the living. The movie is a cinematic masterpiece with nuance and subtext yet, the writer of the novel (Stephen King) HATED the director, Stanley Kubrick’s vision. According to King, this movie is cold whereas his novel is warm, about a relationship between a father and a son. Clearly, it’s about more than that, but King felt that his novel had been eviscerated. Listen, King is the creator of the work. He is entitled to feel the way he feels. I love the book and understand the necessity for deviations. The cinema is a reductive medium. Kubrick took licenses that serve to create suspense in ways that are distinct from the novel. Those deviations are so intrinsic that the movie is still considered a master work among aficionados of the cinema.
The movie begins with a slow aerial shot that lasts a full three minutes showing the family inside a car that is traveling through the mountains and demonstrates the complete isolation of this hotel. Already the audience is uncomfortable, and you don’t know why. John Torrance, the father ably played by Jack Nicholson, is a recovering alcoholic who has a history of physically abusing his son, Danny; he can’t find a regular job because of his history of not just hurting his son, but also beating on one of his students. He is going to be caretaker of the Overlook hotel during the winter months. The previous caretaker killed his family, we learn. The claustrophobic dichotomy of such a spacious hotel feeling so cloistered is a stroke of brilliance. The woman that arouses Jack in Room 237, and switches to a horrific ghost is a dirty trick to all of us who were salaciously thinking we were going to get a “good part.” The revenant of the caretaker who advises Jack to “correct” his family the way the caretaker corrected his family, is another story beat that adds to the mood and tone of this movie. Finally, the idea that a father, the person a family is supposed to depend upon, is the most predatory monster in the Overlook, is frightening at the most visceral level, because there but for the grace of God go we.
#6 : The Thing (1982)
This movie flopped at the box office, but when it arrived at the video store, it immediately established a cult following despite its nihilistic overtones. Here, the story involves a group of Arctic scientists who are isolated by the elements. They are so isolated that they are raggedly annoyed with each other and frustrated by their situation. Kurt Russell’s character is playing chess with his computer, and when the computer beats him, he pours his alcoholic beverage into the CPU. The creature effects are so innovative that they astound and mesmerize and shock us into thinking, “Oh, you gotta be f**king kidding me!” A dog is running through the terrain pursued by a helicopter, the passenger shooting at the dog. The audience instinctively situates on the side of the dog. Who is this bad man? Slowly, the story unravels with this body snatcher element pervading, and exacerbating the paranoia. This movie is way cool with music and practical effects that hold up well. Despite its nihilism, it provides a scary, claustrophobic, horror experience that is still fun, resonating, long after the credits roll.
Tomorrow, I will finish my Top Ten List with the Top Five. Please, subscribe, and comment. Most important of all, don’t forget to hit that LIKE button, to show us you care.