A measure of any good horror film is if it still instinctively affects a fan of the genre many years past its initial viewing; if the visceral impact is still there, and what that impact is. A fine horror film needn’t be thought-provoking, just reliably fright-inducing: horror films for me have always been about poking and prodding at something deep inside the psyche, stirring up some base response at the reptillian core of the brain. Hopefully, that response radiates cold shards of fear and dread, and leaves me wanting for more. For this Halloween, I present a modest but well-thought-out catalogue of frightening fear flicks, spanning over eighty years and a broad spectrum of themes.
It’s been seventeen years since I donned a costume and ventured out into the dreary, drizzly late October Seattle evening, visiting the doorsteps of participating neighbors to build a stockpile of sugar bombs. I don’t remember what cheap, uninspired outfit I wore on Hallow’s Eve of 1987, but by that age I didn’t really care about my costume; this was my last hurrah, I just wanted to cause some socially acceptable mischief and get strung out on high fructose corn syrup. Next year would be my first in high school and trick-or-treating was something high schoolers (at least boys) didn’t do lest they be ridiculed.
So for most of the past sixteen Halloweens, I’ve filled the late evening hours engrossed in a variety of horror flicks to satiate my inherent desire to be scared witless. That includes films on network and commercial cable TV, which are usually edited to the point of redundancy, pay movie channels, and countless video rentals. I don’t know how many horror films I’ve seen over the years, but I do fondly remember most of them, including the good, the bad and the so-bad-it’s-not-even-so-bad-it’s-good, and have compiled here a Halloween viewing guide that includes some classic oldies, some landmarks of the genre, and some newer works that surely belong in the annals of horror notoriety. These are movies I feel offer the most essential elements of terror, so even though the classic Draculas and Frankensteins are fine films, they lack the requisite creepiness and fright value for inclusion.
Nosferatu (1922) has seen something of a revival the past few years, as prior to its release on DVD (and a few select showings on Turner Classic Movies) few people I’d talked to were even familiar with the title. Though based on Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, the producers of Nosferatu had no rights to the story and tried to bypass copyright law by developing an alternate-yet-similar set of characters. The production wasn’t altered enough apparently, and a court ruled in favor of Florence Stoker, Bram’s widow, and she and her lawyers set out to have every copy of Nosferatu destroyed. Fortunately for us that didn’t happen (clearly a few copies did survive the hunt) and the creative schism between the original story and F.W. Murnau’s film worked out for the best, as Nosferatu dispenses with the charismatic, seductive Count and opts for a much more frightening persona. Max Schreck is mesmerizing as the disfigured, outcast, even sympathetic Count Orlok, who remains one of the most sinister and ghastly creatures to grace the silver screen. Worth noting is while Count Dracula’s usual association is with the wolf and the bat, Count Orlok has his rats, and Orlok himself resembles a gaunt, hairless humanoid rodent. While silent classics such as Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), and Phantom of the Opera (1925) are trendy picks and make horror fans appear somewhat cultured, all three are excellent films in their own right and feature macabre, unsettling atmospheres and exceptional make-up that more than make up for the lack of sound and modern effects. If you like Nosferatu—and even if you aren’t terribly excited about it—be sure and check out Shadow of the Vampire (2000), an interesting account of what might have happened during the filming of Nosferatu, which included many bizarre goings-on. Willem Dafoe is unforgettable as Schreck (is Schreck indeed an actor playing a vampire, or a vampire playing an actor?) and John Malkovich is a splendid, controlling Murnau. If you do indeed enjoy vampire-related stories and Nosferatu in particular, Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu: The Vampire (1979) is an interesting rendition, combining thematic elements of the original Nosferatu with a more pathetic, ostracized creature. Of note is in Herzog’s creation all the characters bear the original names from Stoker’s novel.
Psycho (1960) is an easy pick, a horror classic that left many an early 1960s audience in a state of paralysis by the final scene and wary of finding lodging at any remote, nameless motel. Alfred Hitchcock was able in his restricted use of violence and blood to craft a film that stands up against some of today’s more gruesome features, mostly thanks to Anthony Perkins’ flawless portrayal of a socially inept, cross-dressing psychopath. Norman Bates shows that an otherworldly beast isn’t always the most fearsome of antagonists. You may as well skip the remake of Psycho (1998), which is a miserable waste compared to the original—I have to believe that Gus Van Sant, an otherwise respectable filmmaker, was just out of his element. Psycho II (1983) is a surprisingly viable sequel and is more mystery than slasher flick. It follows up on Norman Bates’ release from a mental hospital some twenty years after being admitted, and features an intriguing plot with its share of twists. On the other hand, Psycho III (1986) is pointless and thoroughly unfrightening, a must-see only for diehard Jeff Fahey fans, which I am not.
George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) is, like Psycho, a horror classic that warrants repeated viewings. Whether you find zombies frightening or simply stupid shuffling meatbags it’s tough to dispute the impact this film has had, and it’s a fine treat for the whole family. Though I don’t find the film as scary as when I first watched it some twenty years ago, I still get a kick out of watching a group of people fend for their lives against dearly departed ones in search of human hors d’oeuvres. Dawn of the Dead (1978) continues in effect where Night left off, as the zombies have continued to grow in number and now encroach upon a massive shopping mall where a select few humans have found tedious sanctuary. (Surprisingly, I have not yet seen the remake of Dawn of the Dead and therefore cannot comment on it.) While Dawn has more blood ‘n’ gore than its prequel, it’s not excessive and suits the story. Day of the Dead (1985) is an disappointingly inferior third installment, with enough carnage to fulfill the needs of the most bloodlusty among us but lacking the suspense and sheer terror of the first two films. While Romero likes to wax philosophical on the Dead series’ deeper sociological implications, I just like the visceral experience of seeing how the living cope as the undead try to breach their strongholds and pull them into their mindless ranks (or just eat them). Return of the Living Dead (1985), though not part of the Romero franchise, is an engrossingly droll horror comedy and in effect a parody of said franchise. It does offer some frightening moments, and should not be missed by fans that appreciate a blend of humor and horror, or just dark humor.
The Exorcist (1973) broke new ground as a mainstream horror film, replete with scenes that have lost little shock value some three decades later. I wish I could’ve seen the looks on faces of moviegoers in 1973 as Regan MacNeil stabs herself in the crotch with a crucifix repeatedly while yelling “Fuck me Jesus!” and later when she spews demonic green vomit all over a priest. It’s not just the shock value that endears The Exorcist to myself and other fans, it’s how the story builds around an innocent girl who horrifically loses her own self; it’s how something so fantastic (demon possession) can seem frighteningly realistic; it’s about a mother’s fear and desperation over losing her only daughter. Above all, The Exorcist would not have worked so well without such believable, riveting performances from the whole cast, namely by Ellen Burstyn and Jason Miller. Be sure and see the director’s cut, which includes the incredibly eerie “spider walk” scene and a vastly improved remixed soundtrack. While you shouldn’t bother with Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), a shamefully inept retread, The Exorcist III (1990) has enough reliably scary moments and a solid performance by George C. Scott to count as a worthy successor to the original. Part three features Scott as a grizzled old detective on the trail of a seemingly preternatural serial killer, as he discovers clues (and people) that bear a direct link to a supposed case of demonic possession fifteen years prior.
Halloween (1978) doesn’t just make this list of seasonal movie favorites because of its title, but because it’s one of the finest horror efforts of the past thirty years. John Carpenter, who despite his share of stinkers is one of my favorite filmmakers, unleashed upon tame, content
Poltergeist (1982) remains one of the most satisfying of supernatural tales, and like most successful horror flicks spawned decidedly mediocre sequels, so don’t bother with parts two and three. The original Poltergeist (which, by the way, is German for “noisy ghost”) is one of the first horror films I saw in the theater, and I can’t say I regret being exposed to it as such a tender age despite the nightmares that followed. A man ripping his own face off in sinewy chunks, a muddy swimming pool brimming with rotting corpses, and, my personal favorite, a possessed toy clown attacking its owner are but a sample of reasons why Poltergeist deserves a spot in the Horror Hall of Fame. Backed by Steven Spielberg’s original script, director Tobe Hooper endowed the characters with a depth and purpose that the audience can identify with. In addition, the special effects are pretty good for the early 1980s.
A Nightmare on
Ringu (1998) tops my list of worthwhile Japanese horror films. Though I realize Ringu is meant to be watched as a trilogy, the first installment works just fine as a stand-alone offering, and is a fine introduction to the realm of the
The Devil’s Backbone (2001) has been referred to as a Spanish version of The Sixth Sense (1999), but that’s a silly comparison, and for some reason people love making silly comparisons. Sure there are similarities (a boy who sees a ghost), but Guillermo del Toro’s Backbone is a wholly original film and pays homage primarily to Spanish folk tales rather than previously released films with similar themes. It takes place at an orphanage in
The Grudge (2004) is an entry I’m happy to add to this list, because I’ve seen few truly frightening films lately (as in the last half-decade), and this one infected me with a serious case of the willies that still lingers. (I continue to avoid looking out the window late at night. And I won’t be checking out any strange noises in the attic, ever.) It’s a remake of the Japanese horror film Ju-On: The Grudge (2003) and coincidentally is directed and written by the same talented young filmmaker, Takashi Shimizu, whom I look forward to being entertained (and hopefully scared) by many more times. In The Grudge, erstwhile female action heroine Sarah Michelle Gellar is an American nurse who is to temporarily care for an elderly and mentally incapacitated fellow countrywoman. The poor lady, who appears to be literally scared witless, seems to be all alone in a creepy and desolate house. What’s caused her state, we wonder? Where’s her family? What happened to the previous nurse? And what’s with all the noise in the attic? Like Ringu, the story of the film is secondary to the pervading eeriness and trepidation; unlike Ringu there are enough frightening moments in The Grudge for three horror films. However