Monday, October 27, 2003

Top Thirteen Horror Films, Novels and Short Stories, part III

Here is Lynda E. Rucker's top thirteen horror film list.


It’s kind of surprising to me that this was a harder category to narrow down than the books or short stories, as I am a reader before I am a film lover. But there’s an awful lot to choose from. I have an intense and shameless love of horror films. I will watch reams of crap, whereas I am intolerant of crap reading (well, except for my pulp weakness discussed on the novel list). I am forgiving of schlock and cheese and lousy acting. Having said that, most of these films feature superior acting, scripts, and production values, as well as scares all round.

This is the list which am most likely to regret in the morning, the one in which I feel I was forced to make the most arbitrary cuts to get it down to thirteen. I have not limited myself to one film per director, but I have tried to avoid listing any film I’ve only seen in the last couple of years. (Check back with me at some future Halloween and see if, say, The Ring or Donnie Darko survived the test of time.)

Also, in compiling this list I discovered that, apparently, I kind of think the 1970s were a golden age for horror cinema.

All films available on DVD and VHS in the United States unless otherwise noted.

1. The Seventh Victim (1943)—Watch this on a double bill with Rosemary’s Baby for an earlier look at the unlikely urban Satanist. A moody, striking film about a young woman’s (Kim Hunter, in her film debut) search for her beautiful and enigmatic older sister through a shadowy underworld. (Available only on VHS.)

2. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)—A paranoid, unsettling film which owes much to the source material—it is very faithful to the Ira Levin novel, down to the dialogue—but the acting and Polanski’s directing are fine as well. Ruth Gordon’s performance is hilariously and memorably crass. I also find this an interesting (and horrifying) film for what it reveals of the gender politics of the time: the men in Rosemary’s world (doctors, husband) treat her with a sickening paternal condescension. The gorgeous Dakota apartment building is a character much like the Overlook Hotel of The Shining. Welcome to the Year One! Hail Satan!

3. The Exorcist (1973)—An automatic choice for this list, an all-around brilliant, frightening, sad film about the problem of evil and the problem of faith, and ironically Friedkin the unbeliever conveyed these themes more effectively in film than the devout William Peter Blatty did in his novel (or his own preferred cut of the movie). Also, the origins of my unseemly priest fetish probably began here. What I love best about it, though, is that for all its flamboyant trappings, it’s a grown-up horror movie at its very best.

4. The Wicker Man (1973)—It’s a musical! No, it’s a horror movie! Another movie about faith, albeit of a very different sort, as straight-laced Christian policeman Sgt. Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) visits a remote Scottish island where paganism continues to flourish under the aegis of the mysterious Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee). A weird and haunting film that owes a great deal to Woodward’s convincing and even sympathetic performance. Get the soundtrack as well!

5. The Tenant (Le Locataire) (1976)—Roman Polanski directed several fine horror movies, and this is perhaps the strangest of the lot, a tale about an ill-adjusted Eastern European immigrant in Paris who becomes obsessed with or possessed by a former tenant in his rented apartment. Extremely creepy, with a strong subtext of alienation.

6. Suspiria (1977)—My favorite Dario Argento film keeps changing; for a while it was Tenebre (1982) and then it was Phenomena (1985) but lately it’s been this twisted Gothic fairy tale. If Dario adapted a short story by Angela Carter it might turn out like this film. Gory and stylish like all of Argento, this tale of a young American dance student who discovers her school hides a coven of witches was purportedly much-influenced by Argento’s now ex-wife, Daria Nicolodi.

7. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)—I like all three of the body snatcher movies—yes, that includes the 1993 Abel Ferrara remake Body Snatchers that everyone hated. I am a sucker for body snatchers in the same way I am a sucker for zombies: because body snatchers usually bring on the apocalypse! This version is the best of the bunch, paranoid, and almost unbearably suspenseful.

8. Dawn of the Dead (1978)-The middle film in Romero’s Living Dead trilogy. I suspect that Night of the Living Dead might actually be a better horror film, but again we have a more full-on apocalypse underway here. Also, a satire of consumerist culture in the mix. Why do all the zombies end up at the mall. “It reminds them of something that comforted them when they were living.” Ooooh.

9. The Shining (1980)—Stephen King said Stanley Kubrick didn’t understand the horror genre. I see King’s point in one objection to this film: that Jack Nicholson’s character is supposed to deteriorate over the course of the story as opposed to being over-the-top wacked out from the opening scenes. But, really. That was the book, and this is the movie, and Stephen King should be so lucky as to get so fine an adapatation of one of his books again. Shots of long, empty corridors have never been so foreboding, and Kubrick captures the palpable evil of the Overlook Hotel in every scene.

10. Prince of Darkness (1987)—I championed this movie for years when everybody else, critics and regular viewers alike, said it sucked, and over time it has come to be much more well-regarded than on its initial release. Make no mistake—this is one of the exceptions to the superior qualities I noted above. I know this is a rickety film. I know that a lot of the acting is lousy, and I’ve heard it described as “too talky” although I never noticed. It is not John Carpenter’s best by any objective standard, but it is my favorite, wildly entertaining, and it contains one of my all-time most frightening images: the mysterious staticky transmission, about which I will say no more.

11. Dark Waters (1994)—Chosen because it gave me nightmares, and no supernatural horror film has given me nightmares for longer than I can remember. A young woman travels to a remote and spooky island where her now-deceased father funded a mysterious monastery, only to discover demonic nuns and more! (Released on VHS and DVD in the US as Dead Waters.)

12. The Kingdom I and II-(Riget I and II, 1994 and 1997) My beloved Lars von Trier filmed these tales of a haunted hospital as mini-series for Danish television and they had a limited theatrical release in the United States. Funny and moving, frightening and outlandish, replete with zombies, bizarre births, ghosts, haunted ambulances, murder attempts, soap opera intrigue, and my favorite, the Dane-hating Swedish doctor Stig Helmer (Ernst-Hugo Jaregard, now sadly deceased). (The first series is available only on VHS in the US; the second is unavailable in the US.)

13. Lost Highway (1997)—Much of Lynch’s work is in the horrific vein and his imagery every bit as nightmarish as anything I’ve seen in a straight horror film. Lost Highway, an intriguing, reality-bending nightmare (or, if you prefer Lynch’s description, “a twenty-first century horror-noir”) was unfairly drubbed by both critics and audiences. Who is Renee/Alice? What does the Mystery Man have to do with it all? And most importantly, what really happened in the front yard of Pete Dayton’s house that fateful night?

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