Halloween (1978), Dir. John Carpenter
I have been watching reaction videos of young movie fans. Watching something I know almost verbatim over the shoulder of a millennial is awkward and wonderful and weird all the same. Its also a surprise that many of the films I grew up on 30, 40 years ago still work, despite elements some may dismiss as ‘cringe’ or ‘corny’. After all these years, Halloween still rocks and, please note, is fairly bloodless. Its not gory. Its a study in tension. A small cast, small budget, big thrills and a life so long there was a remake/sequel released just last week. That makes a lucky 13 movies and I’ll leave it up to you to argue if any are worth as much as the original.
The Exorcist (1973) Dir. William Friedkin
Its a challenge of credibility to dare make any kind of horror movie list and not acknowledge the Grandfather’s Cadillac of them all. I was born in 1968 and saw this on cable tv in the mid-70’s. But as I grew into a movie fan, I’ve longed to travel back in time and see this with a packed audience. I saw the re-release of the director’s cut in 2000, but still. It worked people pretty hard when it premiered in the early 70’s and it still garners shock and awe from folks staring into their computer screen. An incredible film that soars on the performance of a child, the 12 year old Linda Blair. Turns out one of the most frightening scenes for many people is the brain scan sequence in the hospital. But it was accurate for the time and on the blu-ray audio commentary, Friedkin said they used that clip as a mini-training film for lab techs. And its interesting that Max Von Sydow, who portrayed Father Merrin, the title character, was in his mid-30s when this film was made. Consider how accurate his make up was aging him into a 70-something priest. I don’t think Exorcist II: The Heretic is worth watching stoned or as a drinking game. But Exorcist III works. And of the two sequels made simultaneously: Exorcist: The Beginning and Exorcist: Dominion, Dominion fares a little better. But every sequel gives diminishing returns.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) Dir. Tobe Hooper
A drive in movie legend from back in the day. It, too, isn’t gory per se — the amount of flowing blood shown on screen could be served in a shot-glass, if that’s your thing. Much of the gore remains off camera and, despite the rating, the film could probably be shown uncut on tv tonight. But there’s still plenty of bones and reasons to run screaming. And like any near death experience, its not easily forgotten. Is it crass to say this is ‘gorgeously filmed’ and that tracking shot of a hot-pants wearing Pam (Teri McMinn) entering the house from a white swing in the yard has to be counted as one of the greatest in movie history? I honor this film for its lack of music, for its sheer magnificent terror, and here’s another that would have been incredible to watch in a crowded theater on a Friday night.
The Thing (1982) Dir. John Carpenter
Between his legendary double feature of Halloween and The Thing, John Carpenter could have retired or just focused on music the rest of his career. But here stands a monumental masterpiece and breakthrough of practical effects for effects artist Rob Bottin. Carpenter’s The Thing updates 1951’s The Thing From Another World. Both films share a basic conceit of isolated arctic scientists confronting…um, something. But Carpenter digs much deeper beneath the skin than Howard Hawks’ original. A great beard and performance from Kurt Russell and a superb exploration of paranoia. Not an easy watch if you’re a devoted dog lover. And despite the grace note of that final scene, I was never a huge fan of the film’s ‘final boss fight’, if you will. I won’t disrespect myself by watching the 2011 remake. But for my money, bad cgi is still worse than bad practical effects magic. Rob Bottin’s work here is unimpeachable and has been for 30 years standing. I’m not f**king kidding.
The Fly (1958) Dir. Kurt Neumann
The Fly (1986) Dir. David Cronenberg
Its rare for both an original film and its remake to stand side by side holding fore-legs. Both films deal with the same idea and vary the outcome in wildly different and unsettling ways; a scientist testing a matter transporter on himself misses one minor detail, and things go haywire. In truth, both films are deeply disturbing, especially the 1958 version despite it’s age and not being so sticky and nausea-inducing. I’m still bothered by 1958’s ending. And 1986 hits deeper because it dares to engage the love story at its center.
The Conjuring (2013) Dir. James Wan
One can’t make an effective ghost story if one doesn’t believe in ghosts. The Conjuring takes hauntings seriously and bases itself on a true story of the legendary demonology team of Ed and Lorraine Warren. Maybe it doesn’t matter if you believe or not; The Conjuring still has enough muscle to make you jump and offers some incredible scares that movies do best. The ending gives Hollywood thrill ride more than true story terror, but still- between the performances of Vera Farmiga, Lili Taylor and Patrick Wilson, it totally rocks.
Hereditary (2018) Dir. Ari Aster
Like Ordinary People cross-cut with The Exorcist. I was just as stunned by how seriously the film explores grief and family disfunction as I was by its horror elements. Toni Collette is a force of nature in this film. Without the horror, it’d still be a great film just from her commitment and concentration. But don’t neglect Ann Dowd as Joan, also an incredible actress. Hereditary is a solid machine for discomfort and dread, beautifully executed like a well-seasoned head served at the family dinner table.
The Descent (2005) Dir. Neil Marshall
I was already creeped out by the claustrophobic spelunking and satisfied enough following a confident group of women through this adventure– I almost didn’t need the plot twist. I guess its enough that I’ve seen this film once and felt too uneasy (and relieved to be free!) to go back down in
that damn hole that cave. Uh-uh. I’m not ‘woman’ enough. But damn, what a great movie.
Possession (1981) Dir. Andrzej Zulawski
First heard of this film last year when a director’s cut was restored and it was sent back into theaters for a limited run. It sounded mysterious and I was surprised to’ve never heard of it, and you haven’t either– because once you do see it, it’ll be all you ever think about. Mark (Played by Sam Neil, from Jurassic Park) plays a man who returns home after a long mission to discover his wife, Anna, (truly stunning Isabelle Adjani) has taken a lover and wants out of their marriage. Sam’s character discovers not only has his wife been unfaithful, but she’s been neglectful of their young son, Bob (Michael Hogben). After a lost weekend of grief, Mark takes over as primary parent and is contacted by Anna’s lover Heinrich (Heinz Bennent) who informs him that they’ve been living together, but she’s recently abandoned him, too. The performances are electrifying, especially from Adjani– and I was engaged and fascinated by how seriously it took the relationship disintegrating at its center. But I can’t recall feeling more stunned by a film’s revelations, once it zooms out to reveal its true nature. I was thrilled by the distinctly odd performances and, for the first 30 minutes, the film felt choreographed like a dance. So much movement, deeply theatrical gestures– from aggressive rocking chairs to a character literally dancing through their monologue. It’s as nasty and intense as Marriage Story (2019) and you’ll forget the movie’s title until it turns on its heels. Deeply disturbing and utterly unforgettable. Here’s my new favorite film and I just saw it the first time last weekend. Holy mother.
Carrie (1976) Dir. Brian DePalma
“Red! I always knew it’d be red!” Well, Carrie doesn’t ‘scare me’, really. There are plenty of good horror films that don’t. A good jump scare here, another great fright there… But ultimately I will never forget the feeling of first seeing Carrie, I can’t forget the ending, and it remains endlessly watchable for the stellar work of Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie whom, depending on your perspective, may have performed like she was in a comedy. But the film is one of director DePalma’s best, from the editing and camera work in the last 20 minutes. Terrifying? No. High favored and highly rated? Yup.
Paranormal Activity (2007, foreign poster) Dir. Oren Peli
Although buried and easily dismissed by the cumulative weight of its lesser sequels, this film takes ghosts seriously and is worth watching in the dark. I saw it mid-day at a movie theater and felt creeped out going home in broad daylight. And hey– the sequels are hit or miss, but the rotating fan sequence in Paranormal Activity 3 is genius.
Evil Dead 2 (1987) Dir. Sam Raimi
This original Cabin In The Woods film was more funny in hindsight, but I remember laughing while hiding behind a pillow, almost suffocating myself.
Get Out (2017) Dir. Jordan Peele
Umm, Get Out isn’t scary to me. But I honor it for breaking new ground, for centering on African American storytelling, and having a great reveal. Its a great film. No jumps or surprises from me, but I bow deep and respectfully.
There’s a ton of movies I haven’t seen yet. Nope? Hopefully next week. The Babadook– I know, I’ve heard! But I’ve missed its streaming dates on my platforms. Loved Barbarian, which I saw a couple weeks ago. Respect to The VVitch and shoutout to Black Phillip. It should have made my honorable mentions, as well any number of zombie movies, but isn’t this list long enough? Maybe I’ll update and remix next year.
2 Replies to “Halloween Top Ten”
james making a list of favorite horror movies in some preferred order is hard enough. but to ‘soundbite’ each one with an invitation to ‘be scared’ is the magnificent! like a blurb for good book, you share the arc of the horror story without giving away ‘the tell’. bien hecho!
ive seen several of these movies and your description is ‘right on’ creepy. im also tempted to watch some of these movies based on your sampling.
ps- 10Q for not including ‘hocus pocus’ on the honorable mention list. credibility woulda been shot!
On everything Norm, if nothing else, you must try to watch Possession, if you can find it streaming. I got the Blu Ray out of curiosity and then watched it twice. And truth told— haven’t seen Hocus Pocus— either of them