The horror, the horror!
Horror films may not be everyone’s cup of tea but for the connoisseur, there’s nothing quite like a fright night. Here are some of my favourites from the past four decades, in chronological order:
The Innocents (1961) Dir: Jack Clayton
“Apparitions? Evils? Corruptions?”
For stylish, black & white and supremely sinister gothic eeriness, this little-known chiller just about pips Robert Wise’s equally unnerving The Haunting (1963) to the post. Based on Henry James’ spine-tingling novella ‘The Turn of the Screw’, the film skillfully incorporates all the familiar elements of traditional gothic horror – the haunted labyrinthine mansion, evil apparitions, creepy kids, the innocent outsider who is slowly but surely getting very, very unhinged, and that much celebrated Victorian trait of repression. The title song ‘O Willow Waly’ will surely make the hairs on the back of your neck stand to attention. Deborah Kerr as the governess who must face the demons at work in her new place of employment, as well as the ones in her own mind, is brilliant, as are the two child actors Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin as the not-so-innocents of the title. But the film is really owned by the haunting cinematography by Freddie Francis and Wilfred Shingleton’s evocative art direction.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968) Dir: Roman Polanski
“Pray for Rosemary’s Baby”
Love thy neighbour, the Bible tells us, but what if your neighbours are a bunch of devil-worshipping baby snatchers? Thus spake the premise for what is one of the best in director Polanski’s already overflowing coffer of great films. Based on the book by Ira Levin, Rosemary’s Baby offers up the wholesome, sunny scenario of a loving couple, Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse – Mia Farrow and filmmaker John Cassavetes – who move into a new apartment building inhabited by quirky, friendly Roman and Minnie Castevet (Sidney Blackmer and Oscar-winner Ruth Gordon). But things quickly turn ominous when it turns out that the sweet old couple next door are really Lucifer’s minions with designs on Rosemary’s womb to hatch their master’s offspring. The myth of the unshakeable American family bond is also subverted when it dawns on our poor heroine that hubby dear may also have sold his soul to the devil. Director of Photography William Fraker uses a simple ochre palette to create an atmosphere so stifling, so drenched in paranoia that it leaves the special effects-laden, so-called horror fare of more recent years eating its dust.
The Exorcist (1973) Dir: William Friedkin
“Somewhere between science and superstition, there is another world… The world of darkness”
This is it, the one that has consistently topped just about any and every horror movie poll ever conducted. This is the one that reportedly sent moviegoers screaming in fright from theatres back in the day. And that ain’t just good PR. The anti-thesis of the schlock horror cinema that was so in vogue in the 70s, Friedkin’s unholy masterpiece serves up a quiet smorgasbord of cerebral terror that cleverly relies on the audience’s own sense of the forbidden to deliver its most shocking moments. And then there are moments that go more directly for the psychological jugular, like the truly terrifying blink-and-you-miss-it image of the demon Pazuzu, and the sight of 12-year-old Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) swearing and cussing and committing unspeakable acts with a crucifix. But a big part of The Exorcist’s longevity is thanks to its being a quasi-treatise on the notion of redemption, as exemplified in the side-story of the tortured Father Damien Karras, played by the remarkable Jason Miller. And once you’ve heard Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’ theme music, it’s guaranteed to never leave your head.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) Dir: Tobe Hooper
“Before Halloween…. Before Friday The 13th…. Before Scream…. There was the Saw”
If it’s sheer, relentless, visceral shocks your sick self craves, look no further than Tobe Hooper’s seminal slasher classic (even though, contrary to popular belief, it contains virtually no onscreen bloodletting). With its grimy, grungy visuals and sparse soundtrack, the film looks and feels like a documentary, a trait that came about largely due to a shoestring budget but which ultimately worked to the film’s advantage, making it seem all too real and therefore that more frightening. A bunch of dumb, uncharismatic American teens go off on a road trip into Bush country (go wild with political analogies here) only to end up as the second course on the dinner table of the sadistic, murderous and stark, raving mad Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) and family, the titular implement being the antagonist’s weapon of choice. Chainsaw of course became the inspiration for a bevy of lesser imitators, as well as some rather ill-advised sequels, prequels and remakes, but don’t be put off by the pretenders. This is the real deal, and it’ll knock your socks off.
The Shining (1980) Dir: Stanley Kubrick
“All work and no play make Jack a dull boy…”
With all due respect Mr. Stephen King, Kubrick’s film is scarier and less pretentious than your book, and the fact that you didn’t care for his adaptation just makes you look like a prat. Along with The Exorcist, this is the one that has scarred countless people for life, including yours truly, with its quasi-gothic setting (the unforgettable – and fictitious – Overlook Hotel), path-breaking steadicam work, and its view of a man’s descent into madness, and the resulting destruction of a family. There are some wonderfully unsettling performances on display here: Jack Nicholson, the underrated Shelley Duvall, Scatman Crothers, and especially young Danny Lloyd (“Redrum…”). But it is the individual moments – Danny’s ride through the quiet hotel corridors, the wall of blood gushing through the elevator doors, Jack’s axe crashing through the bathroom door (“Heeeere’s Johnny!”), the woman in room 237, and those ghastly Grady twins – that will stay with you, “forever, and ever, and ever…”
An American Werewolf in London (1981) Dir: John Landis
“Beware the moon”
“ I see a bad moon rising” sing CCR on the soundtrack as doomed American tourists David and Jack (David Naughton and Griffin Dunne) make their way across a dark English moor. Somewhere, a wolf howls. You know it can’t be good. A werewolf film that actually works, this horror-black comedy gets so many things so right that you just have to wonder what the hell happened to Landis’ talent after it. From the tongue-in-cheek humour to the genuine scares, from the tightly-woven narrative to the top-notch performances, from the phenomenal transformation scene (props to legendary effects creator Rick Baker) to that insanely enervated and nerve-wracking werewolf romp through London’s Piccadilly Circus during rush hour – Werewolf is 97 minutes of exhilarating entertainment that appeals to the lupine aficionado in all of us.
Scanners (1981) Dir: David Cronenberg
“10 Seconds: The Pain Begins. 15 Seconds: You Can’t Breathe. 20 Seconds: You Explode”
X-men is for jocks. When it comes to mutant vs. mutant action, it is Cronenberg’s genuinely disturbing horror/sci-fi masterpiece that is the final word. Another one of the director’s ‘body in revolt’ explorations, Scanners boasts his trademark ‘cold’ visual style to tell the tale of a bunch of human mutants with dangerously potent telepathic and telekinetic abilities. But you won’t see any matinee idols prancing about in leather bodysuits here. This is a cerebral study of the persecution and isolation of the Other, the misfit, the outsider, and how you must set a rat to catch a rat. Though the film certainly has its flaws, not least of which is the lackluster lead performance by the vapid and aptly named Stephen Lack, but they are more than made up for by some virtuoso camerawork and editing, a chilling turn from cult icon Michael Ironside as the rogue Scanner Darryl Revok, and of course that infamous scene of Revok using his mojo to make exploding mincemeat of a nemesis’ head. After all, you don’t get referenced by Wayne’s World for nothing.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) Dir: Wes Craven
“Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep”
“One, two, Freddy’s coming for you…” The film that finally explained why nails-on-chalkboard makes for such a disgusting, unholy sound, Nightmare gave us one of cinema’s most loved/hated über baddies – Freddy Krueger (the magnificent Robert Englund), he of the red-and-green striped sweater, felt hat, really unfortunate face-lift, and those rather forbidding knives-for-fingers. It seemed as though there was no safe haven in horror movie land, not even your precious slumber, for that is where the ‘bastard son of a hundred maniacs’ would come and get medieval on your ass. Though the blah sequels would turn Freddy into a kind of wisecracking, James-Bond-gone-over-to-the-dark-side, in this first outing he is never less than terrifying, stalking the dreams of the hapless Nancy Thompson (splendid Heather Langenkamp) and picking off her friends one by one, including debutant Johnny Depp. Audiences turned the low-budget shocker into box-office gold, saving New Line Cinema from bankruptcy and forever jokingly labeling it as the house that Freddy built.
Candyman (1992) Dir: Bernard Rose
“Candyman, Candyman, Candyman, Candyman… Don’t Say Again!”
Okay, so maybe artistically speaking this relatively minor entry is not exactly the bees’ knees. But the fact that there are countless people around the world who to this day cannot stand in front of a mirror and say ‘Candyman’ five times, is a testament to its enduring appeal as a terrific/horrific little guilty pleasure. The woefully underused Virginia Madsen plays a student researching small town myths and legends who stumbles upon the lore involving the Candyman, a spectre that’ll appear and slice you in two should you dare to stand before a mirror and… well, you know. The title character cuts a menacing yet strangely sympathetic figure (as played by the talented and statuesque Tony Todd) and is right up there with Leatherface, Freddy Krueger, and Pinhead as one of the most memorable villains of horrordom.
Ringu (1998) Dir: Hideo Nakata
“One curse, one cure, one week to find it”
For the last decade or so, Japan has been where it’s at as far as horror cinema is concerned, and Nakata’s ‘killer videotape’ saga is one of the finest examples. Though the premise might seem a tad preposterous, the treatment is so effective, so eerily somber, that you are sucked in despite yourself. Not only is Ringu a good old fashioned ghost story in mod packaging, it is also an engaging mystery waiting to be unravelled. Forget the flashy but anemic Hollywood remake, the original is the one that serves up the real goodies: that grey, grainy, rainy claustrophobic atmosphere, that enigmatic, haunting video footage, not to mention the ghostly well-dweller. Our girl Sadako can kick that sissy Samara’s skinny white butt any day.