Friday, November 21, 2003

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

Scott McMillan is like a rabid dog. That's one reason why he had to flee the East Coast and move out West. He gave the place too much static. There are other reasons, as well, but I'm not inclined to talk about why in polite company. And also, I don't want Mr. McMillan on my ass either. He currently resides somewhere in Washington state, in a cabin, and he's been known to wave his shotgun filled with rock salt at whoever's stupid enough to come his way. In his freetime, Mr. McMillan likes to keep his great web site running,, and search for Big Foot. No, I'm not kidding. If you don't believe me, go ahead and drop him a line. Ask him. I dare you.

Top 13 Horror Films

Thirteen horror films to pick out of a cornucopia of fine cinematic fare. Hmmm... how to face the trauma of choosing between Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter and Friday the 13th: A New Beginning? Like science fiction and fantasy, the horror genre seems to be capable of producing mountains of crap. Yet, where there are mountains there are usually gems. All films are available in DVD and VHS format.

1. The Ring (2002) -- I’m going out on a limb and, despite its newness, say this film is destined to be a classic. Beautifully made and at heart a classic ghost story, it also scared the freaking crap out of me. Any movie that has me frantically scrabbling for the light switch when I get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom makes the list, regardless of vintage. Stand up performances by everyone involved, eerily beautiful cinematography, and solid production.

2. Bride of Frankenstein (1935) -- James Whale’s followup to 1931's Frankenstein is by far the superior beast of the two. The film is superior in all respects, but it is the actors who really breath life into it. Boris Karloff as The Monster shows a humanity that didn’t exist in his original performance, transforming a mute golem into a sympathetic anti-hero – his final line is epically tragic. With no more than expression, gesture, and bird-like screeching, Elsa Lanchester as The Bride, gives a performance that is nothing less than iconic. Ernest Thesiger is perfect as the reptilian Dr. Pretorius, and Una O’Connor provides some Shakespearean comic relief as Minnie, Dr. Frankenstein’s Maid.

3. Alien (1979) -- Hey, you got your science fiction in my gothic horror! Often imitated, but never equaled, Alien broke the mold for the scifi-horror subgenre while at the same time reviving horror films, which were suffering under the ponderous weight of loads of bad slasher flicks riding the coattails of John Carpenter’s 1978 Halloween. This film wouldn’t be what it is if not for the script of Dan O’Bannon, and manic vision and attention to detail of Ridley Scott (plus a fortuitous encounter with the work of that creepy Swiss bastard, H.R. Giger), but the ensemble cast of Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Tom Skerrit, Harry Dean Stanton, Ian Holm, Yaphet Koto, and John Hurt give the film something special that was never recaptured in any of its numerous spawn.

4. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) -- This tale of lost young people being stalked and killed off is fairly typical of the slasher movies it is the grandpappy of, but director Tobe Hooper’s use of atmosphere is what makes it different than most. Through his camera eye, the sun-ravaged, dustbowl-like environment of Texas is as terror inducing as any pitch black tomb ever was.

5. Prince of Darkness (1987) – I tried not to duplicate any of the films listed by my fellow reviewers, but couldn’t stay away from this tale of a misfit group trying to decipher clues as to an imminent satanic rebirth from beyond. Even with all the cheesy (but loveable) crap typically found in Carpenter’s films, it manages to be really frightening. And oh yes, the staticky dream image transmission mentioned by Lynda E. Rucker will haunt you for the rest of your life.

6. The Return of the Living Dead (1985) – Mall-punks, zombies, a loveable bumbling duo, and a crypto-Nazi mortician – what’s not to love in this directorial debut of scriptmeister Dan O’Bannon. It’s a roller coaster ride of gore, genuine scares, and cheap one liners.

7. Kwaidan (1964) – Director Masaki Kobayashi’s interpretation of four classic Japanese ghost stories from the book of the same name by the late 19th century author Lafcadio Hearn. All four tales stand well on their own, but the best are Black Hair – the story of a samurai who abandons his wife and is literally haunted by his decision, and Hoichi the Earless – the story of a blind novice monk whose talent at singing the ballad of the Battle of Dan-no-Ura brings the unwelcome attention of the ghosts who died in that conflict. The effects are crude and many of the scenes were obviously shot on a sound stage, but in many ways this ads to the appeal of the film.

8. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) – Anti-commie propaganda or not? Who cares, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, while somewhat tame and slow by modern standards is nevertheless an intelligent, paranoid tale of invasion from within. The “escape” scene on the back of the truck is a classic in cinema history.

9. Dead Alive (1992) – This early Peter Jackson zombie flick is considered (and rightly so) more comedy than horror, but horror is more than just scaring the crap out of people. Like Little Shop of Horrors on extremely bad acid. Great characters, a fun story, zombie sex, gushing stumps, and gallon upon gallon of fake blood. Oh yeah, you’ll never eat custard again.

10. Jaws (1975) – Despite living over 70 miles away from the ocean -- the thought of a huge, relentless, man (and child) eating machine scared the hell out of me as a child. Now, as an adult I can appreciate the subtle nuances that make this one of the best films ever made, but it still scares the crap out of me. Even with all the great scary moments, for me the creepiest is when Quint (Robert Shaw) is telling of surviving the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in World War II.

11. Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) – This is a beautiful production of one of my favorite Ray Bradbury novels. A traveling carnival with a dark and sinister secret comes to town, and young Jim Nightshade is determined to find out what it is. The central characters of Jim and his best friend, Will are very well played and supported by a cast including Jason Robards, Jonathan Pryce, Dianne Ladd, Pam Grier, and the great character actor, Royal Dano.

12. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) – Many silent films are difficult to watch, given our modern expectations, but this one is a visual feast. The story centers around the character of Cesare, a sleep-walking servant and carnival attraction, kept in a coffin-like box by the diabolical Dr. Caligari. The dreamlike theme is continued in the extremely stylized set design – whose influence you can see in the modern works of Tim Burton.

13. Evil Dead II (1987) – Many will tell you that this rewritten, bigger budget remake/sequel of 1981's splatter-comedy epic, The Evil Dead is not as good as the original. I say watch them back to back and decide for yourself. What do you have to lose, except your lunch?

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