I'm going to use this page to bring you some of my favorite horror movies, counting down my top ten throughout October, with my number one being revealed on Halloween. As always any critiques, opinions and thoughts are welcome, just drop me a line on the "contact me" page.
When a young woman is killed by a shark while skinny-dipping near the New England tourist town of Amity Island, police chief Martin Brody wants to close the beaches, but mayor Larry Vaughn overrules him, fearing that the loss of tourist revenue will cripple the town. Ichthyologist Matt Hooper and grizzled ship captain Quint offer to help Brody capture the killer beast, and the trio engage in an epic battle of man vs. nature.
When it comes to this kind of thriller, no movie has been able to top Jaws, although many have tried. And, as the years go by, it seems increasingly unlikely that anything will come close. It is engrossing, scary and, subsequently, endlessly influential. The film is paced so beautifully that one is always on edge, tensed for those scary moments that turn out to be false alarms, and left somehow totally unprepared for the real shocks. The music for Jaws is one of the most recognizable cues in movie music history. The reason is simple - it is singularly effective. Combined with the "shark's perspective" camera shots, Williams' music is enough to evoke the approach of the creature, even when we don't see it.
Is the plot a bit thin? Yes. Over forty years later are the effects a bit outdated? Of course. Is Jaws a hybrid, floundering somewhere between horror, thriller and a campy creature feature? Sure. But in the end, and the main reason why it is my top horror film of all time, is because there isn’t one person who, even years after seeing this film, wasn’t petrified of being in the ocean. That is what the essence of horror is...something so frighteningly real that it bleeds over from the silver screen and invades our lives, and Jaws successfully achieves that, far better than any other film.
At first, young Regan just seems ill. But when she begins to levitate and speak in evil tongues, her mother is forced to call in a team of priests to do battle with an evil force straight from the pits of Hell.
The Exorcist is a very slow movie that actually features a full blown plot, its characters, and their associated arcs. The original ambition of The Exorcist was to scare the world with imagery and concepts never before seen in cinema, shocking moments that the audience of 1973 could not believe they would ever see on the silver screen. Today, The Exorcist is still one of the most ambitious horror films ever made, because it dares to tell a story. It has class and purpose. It takes the audience into the darkest recesses of humankind and then brings them back through a message of hope and self-sacrifice. Is Regan possessed? Is she insane? And most importantly, is there a God? I ponder the existence of God and include this subject often in my writings, so this angle immediately caught my attention in this film. In the course of two hours, we see a sweet and innocent young girl become a cross masturbating, head spinning, evil creature. We see a successful actress overcome skepticism to save her daughter, and we see a brilliant psychiatrist struggle with his devotion to God as a priest. It is the areas between the black and white where this film lives, in all the different shades of grey.
THE EXORCIST presents to us the mystery of faith in its most raw form--the battle of good and evil. It is an incomparable masterpiece of film, done without the aid of computers and special effects. It relies on story and performances to give us a marvelous and terrifying piece of work. In the end, it makes us ask ourselves what we believe, and keeps us wondering and shuddering at exactly what might be out there. Is there a God, and if there is, is there also a possibility of a contradictory, opposing being?
Jack Torrance becomes winter caretaker at the isolated Overlook Hotel in Colorado, hoping to cure his writer's block. He settles in along with his wife, Wendy, and his son, Danny, who is plagued by psychic premonitions. As Jack's writing goes nowhere and Danny's visions become more disturbing, Jack discovers the hotel's dark secrets and begins to unravel into a homicidal maniac hell-bent on terrorizing his family.
It's hard to describe a film like The Shining. Best way I can put it is if you like cinema and understand what build up is, then you're more than likely going to be absolutely unsettled by this insane movie that grabs you and slowly walks into pure madness all while making you think about what the hell is going on in the background. The movie is not about ghosts but about madness and the energies it sets loose in an isolated situation primed to magnify them.
The Shining is an atmospheric, slow-burning horror film that charts a man's descent into madness. It is a scary and thrilling horror masterpiece filled with quotable lines and iconic scenes. The maze, redrum, the twins, jack with an axe, the blood flowing from the elevator, the ballroom, room 237…all these scenes remain seared into our memory as we progress through this eerie, unsettling film. The pacing is perfect, the acting superb, sound, visuals and overall feel are spot on and very disturbing.
The frightening tone and psychological barrage is memorable and, to this day, The Shining is held up as one of the most outstanding horror films ever made.
Stressed and under pressure because of stealing a large amount of money from her employer and running away, a partly poor office worker who's committed theft in order to be able to marry the man she loves, gets lost and decides to stay at a motel for the night, regretting what she's done. But on her single night at the motel, she finds out it was a mistake to choose this motel; as she finds its young depressed manager's mother an unrelenting psycho.
No special effects. No color. No huge budget. You will not find these attributes when you watch Psycho. What you will find is a believable, well written plot, perfect directing and acting, superb cinematography and a perfect soundtrack. It is wholly unlike the overblown, over-budget, overlong fluff spewing all-too-often out of Hollywood today. "Psycho" is simple, well-crafted and just the right length.
When Psycho came out, the horror industry of movies was merely monsters, zombies, werewolves, and vampires. So when Psycho hit screens, the audience was finally introduced to psychological thrillers. It hit with such a huge bang that the audience was shocked...with fear and suspense. Psycho created what the thriller genre is today.
Janet Leigh got much-deserved accolades for this film, but it is Perkins who gives what remains the single best performance by an actor in a horror movie. He is so understated that his brilliance passes you by. He becomes the character.
It's hard to find anything wrong with Psycho. Perhaps the only imperfection I can find with it is the inability to stand the test of time. One of the reasons the shower scene has become so notorious is that it's not only filmed to perfection, but because the elements of sexuality and murder are so surreal. In 1960, seeing a nude women being murdered in a shower was something that no-one had experienced yet, and was quite shocking. In today’s world of instant gratification and the desire for constant stimulation, the pace of Psycho may be off putting to some. But sometimes less can be more. The suspenseful build up, the tense scenes, and the perfect cinematography and sound accomplishes much more than the costly, pompous special effects, hyper pacing and the pretentious acting of today’s Hollywood films.
Nightmare on Elm street
In the early 1980's, a psychopath named Fred Krueger - known as the Springwood Slasher - murdered several children with a glove outfitted with straight razor blades attached to the fingers. When a foolish decision by a judge sets Krueger free, an angry mob of parents, whose children he terrorized and murdered, burn Kruger alive in the boiler room where he worked. Years after his death, the living children of the parents responsible for Krueger's death (including Nancy Thompson, daughter of the police officer who arrested Krueger) experience terrifying nightmares involving a burned man wearing a glove with razor blades on the fingers. The ghost of Fred Krueger haunts their dreams, and when Nancy's best friend Tina dies violently in her sleep during a dream confrontation with Krueger, Nancy realizes she must find a way to stop the evil psychopath's reign of terror - or never sleep again.
There's a longstanding theory which dictates that if you dream you die, you actually do die, hence you always wake up at the critical moment. Subscribers to this theory believe it has something to do with inherent, subconscious defense mechanisms which prevent you succumbing to the reaper. It's a notion which preys uncomfortably on deep-seated fears, fears that are used in this chilling, disturbingly original film.
"A Nightmare on Elm Street" masterfully blends authentic teen life and experiences—relationships with the opposite sex, the demands of school, and, for the lead character, dealing with a mother who is slipping deeper and deeper into alcoholism. The dream sequences, which require memorable special effects, are the horror centerpieces. Tina's final sleep, where she is called out of her house and into the dark alleyways by a long-armed, finger-slicing Krueger, is freakishly riveting, as is another scene where Nancy dozes off in her English class and follows a body-bagged Tina into the school's basement boiler room. An aspect I find uniquely terrifying is not being aware if the characters are awake or sleeping in each scene, which gives the viewer a constant feeling of unease and distress.
The burned, disfigured face, the hat, the blades he wears on his fingers, the sweater, the children’s song he turns into his anthem, and lastly the fact that he interrupts our dreams and stalks us when we are at our most vulnerable, are all reasons why to me, Freddy Krueger is the most unforgettable horror movie villain ever. Knowing his back story, the bastard son of countless maniacs, burned beyond recognition in an abandoned factory, completes the character’s role in our imaginations and nightmares.
A Nightmare on Elm Street is, for so many reasons, one of the classics of horror that shall outlive us all. This movie broke many “rules” of horror, and demonstrated to everyone that no place is safe, not even dreamland.
The year is 1963, the night: Halloween. Police are called to 43 Lampkin Lane. only to discover that 15 year old Judith Myers has been stabbed to death, by her 6 year-old brother, Michael. After being institutionalized for 15 years, Myers breaks out on the night before Halloween. No one knows, nor wants to find out, what will happen on October 31st 1978 besides Myers' psychiatrist, Dr. Loomis. He knows Michael is coming back to Haddonfield, but by the time the town realizes it, it may be too late.
I have purposely limited my choices of slasher films in this countdown, but Halloween was so unique and groundbreaking that I felt it should be included. From the breathtaking, chilling music, the design and creation of the killer, Mike Meyers, and the innovative method of filming it in first person from the killer’s perspective, Halloween paved the way for how slasher horror films would be created for years to come.
Halloween is expertly plotted, beginning in broad daylight and building to a series of horrorfying crescendos as licentious babysitters and boyfriends are picked off as the evening roles in. This terrifying and ruthless classic of the 1970s has become a major influence on the modern horror genre, building its tension and constant sense of menace to a nerve-wracking degree.
Director John Carpenter has an innate sense of exactly where to put the camera, how to light a scene, and what to have going on in the frame to make you shudder and jump. His use of careful silences and the sudden bursts of his now-famous pulsating electronic musical score are especially unnerving and effective.
Halloween certainly has its place among the genre and is quite possibly the most influential of all horror movies. It has spawned countless clones, sequels and remakes and is, understandably, still revered by many.
Silence of the lambs
A psychopath known as Buffalo Bill is kidnapping and murdering young women across the Midwest. Believing it takes one to know one, the F.B.I. sends Agent Clarice Starling to interview a demented prisoner who may provide psychological insight and clues to the killer's actions. The prisoner is psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a brilliant, murderous cannibal who will only help Starling if she feeds his morbid curiosity with details of her own complicated life. This twisted relationship forces Starling to not only confront her psychological demons, but leads her face to face with a demented, heinous killer; an incarnation of evil so powerful, that she may not have the courage, or strength, to stop him.
Though some may consider this film a thriller, I will explain why, to me, it is not only a horror movie, but also one of the greatest ever.
When first released, the film was seen as one of the scariest movies of its time. Silence of the Lambs is a perfect balance of a beautiful horror show and an intelligent crime drama. Dr. Hannibal Lecter is the villain you hate to love, and sometimes can't bring yourself to call him a villain and more a vigilante. He brought a certain sense of justice to his crimes. However they were still exactly that - crimes. His cannibalistic tendencies made him all the more creepy. Some of the scenes, sounds and dialogue will stay with you for awhile and may even haunt your dreams.
The film still stands as a testament to incredibly high quality film making. It’s a subtle mix of bombastic characters, beautiful cinematography, and honest acting. If handled another way, the character of Hannibal could have either been a cartoon or simply one-dimensional. But thanks to the screenplay and directing, the characters feel fleshed-out, like they’re living, breathing people. They feel honest, even in their operatic natures.
Silence of the Lambs is a rare example of a film that transcended its genre, developed a cult following, and enjoyed mainstream success. It’s one of the few pure examples of what can happen when you take an original idea and don’t try to make it overly commercial. On the surface, a film about a serial killer, cannibalistic doctor, and FBI upstart probably wouldn’t set the world on fire. However, the creative team endeavored to create a picture that stayed true to its core idea, and they were rewarded for it. Even today, Silence of the Lambs is one of the films that people talk about in terms of an uncompromising vision, direct and truthful acting, and its visceral palpable atmosphere.
A young wife comes to believe that her offspring is not of this world. Waifish Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) and her struggling actor husband Guy (John Cassavetes) move to a New York City apartment building with an ominous reputation and odd neighbors Roman and Minnie Castavet (Sidney Blackmer, Ruth Gordon). When Rosemary becomes pregnant she becomes increasingly isolated, and the diabolical truth is revealed only after Rosemary gives birth.
I honestly struggled with whether this classic would be included in my top ten. With a lower budget, minimal special effects, and a story based more on imagination than something tangible, I wasn’t sure this should have been included over more contemporary, mainstream films. In the end, I decided to include it for the horrific immersion in that universe and the thrilling psychological innovation and viewer imagination it creates.
Rosemary’s Baby works on multiple levels – as a supernatural thriller (though explicit paranormal elements are limited to a hallucinatory dream sequence and the final shot of the baby's eyes), as a psychological thriller about a paranoid pregnant woman who imagines herself at the center of a conspiracy, and as the last word in marital betrayal, since the most despicable villain here is surely Guy, who allows his wife to be raped by the devil in exchange for an acting role.
This film’s achievement is in immersing us so completely in Rosemary's point of view that we share her doubts, confusion and suspicions as she becomes increasingly cut off from former friends and begins to believe her husband is in cahoots with the Castavets in a diabolical plan to harm her baby. This is horror rooted not in misty Carpathian castles, but in typical modern life, with the satanists depicted not as outlandish fiends but the sort of everyday folk you might encounter on any urban street.
How the story turns out, and who (or what) Rosemary's baby really is, hardly matters. The film doesn't depend on a shock ending for its impact. This is a serious effort that gradually and carefully constructs a mounting sense of paranoia that climaxes in a horrible final-scene revelation which carries a wonderfully twisted sense of triumphant evil that is genuinely disturbing. The crib shrouded in black, with an upside-down cross dangling from it, is a memorable image, and not actually showing the title character is a brilliant stroke of subtlety that allows the audience to conjure its own mental images. For those of you who have read my book, Dark Musings, (if you haven’t, I will pause for a moment so you can go purchase it)…
All set? Great, I will continue… For those of you who have read dark musings know that I am more driven by psychological horror than just your typical slasher/gore/monster horror. The fact that we never actually see the baby results in our own imaginations to soar and create our own visions. What we fabricate in our own minds can be far more terrifying than any sight from a horror flick.
Photographer Adam Stanheight (Leigh Whannell) and oncologist Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) regain consciousness while chained to pipes at either end of a filthy bathroom in an unknown bulding. As the two men realize they've been trapped by a sadistic serial killer nicknamed "Jigsaw" and must complete his perverse puzzle to live, flashbacks relate the fates of his previous victims. Meanwhile, Dr. Gordon's wife (Monica Potter) and young daughter (Makenzie Vega) are forced to watch his torture via closed-circuit video. Both Adam and Gordon are hiding secrets. They must trust each other, admit their sins and work together to get out ...can they survive jigsaw's game or die trying?
The people who know the Saw movies only from the advertisements assume their appeal is the twisted traps. But for me, it’s the twisted PLOTLINES that set Saw apart. This is far and away the most plot-heavy, convoluted horror film series ever. The concept of forcing the morally-questionable to partake in these twisted games makes Jigsaw a not-entirely-unsympathetic antagonist. In a morbid way, we can sort-of understand his motives.
The film appeared from out of nowhere and it shocked anyone who dared to watch it. It was a breath of fresh air, bringing to us a simple, yet effective, story that was violent, disturbing and twisted and filled with characters that were explored at great depth. Remember the old Road Runner cartoons, where Wile E. Coyote tries to come up with creative ways to kill his prey, only it never works out in his favor? The Saw movies are kind-of like that, except Wile E. Coyote’s traps never work and Jigsaw’s always do with a chilling, horrific result.
When you combine the moral questions, the ingenious variety of death traps, and the whole creepy feel and atmosphere of not only the setting, but Jigsaw himself, not only in human form (Tobin Bell), but also as Billy, the eerie, sinister puppet that rides the tricycle, this is a series that cannot be missed for horror fans who enjoy something a bit different.
"In space, no one can hear you scream." A close encounter of the third kind becomes a Jaws-style nightmare when an alien invades a spacecraft in Ridley Scott's sci-fi horror classic. On the way home from a mission for the Company, the Nostromo's crew is woken up from hibernation by the ship's Mother computer to answer a distress signal from a nearby planet. Capt. Dallas's (Tom Skerritt) rescue team discovers a bizarre pod field, but things get even stranger when a face-hugging creature bursts out of a pod and attaches itself to Kane (John Hurt). Over the objections of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), science officer Ash (Ian Holm) lets Kane back on the ship. The acid-blooded incubus detaches itself from an apparently recovered Kane, but an alien erupts from Kane's stomach and escapes. The alien starts stalking the humans, pitting Dallas and his crew (and cat) against a malevolent killing machine that also has a protector in the nefarious Company.
No other movie has misdirected the audience as cleverly as the first Alien did. It's part of the reason it had such an impact. I'm not talking about jump scares, but about playing and subverting the audience's expectations. Think about it. Who's the biggest star in the cast in 1979? Up to the true climax of the movie, Ripley has been painted as the VILLAIN. She's relatively cold, doesn't get along well with anyone, and refuses to let the crew in when they're at the airlock. When she goes to get Jones, this is the classic horror movie setup for her to get killed, right down to the fake scare when Jones jumps and freaks her out. But Ripley isn’t the villain, on the contrary, she is the hero. Along with the plentiful startling scares this film provides, the incredible graphics for its time, and the clever choice of character development and progression, Alien was a revolutionary film, and it has influenced countless scifi/horror films first.
OTHER HORROR FILMS THAT ARE EITHER NEW OR JUST MISSED THE TOP TEN:
THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE
En route to visit their grandfather's grave (which has apparently been ritualistically desecrated), five teenagers drive past a slaughterhouse, pick up (and quickly drop) a sinister hitch-hiker, eat some delicious home-cured meat at a roadside gas station, before ending up at the old family home... where they're plunged into a never-ending nightmare as they meet a family of cannibals who more than make up in power tools what they lack in social skills...
“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is as violent and gruesome and blood-soaked as the title promises, but it’s also without any apparent purpose, unless the creation of disgust and fright is a purpose. And yet in its own way, the movie is a thrilling, weird, off-the-wall achievement. There wasn't enough of a plot and story line to be included in my top ten, but with the amount of chilling visuals of Leatherface chasing people with a chainsaw and straight up horror it creates, I have included it here.