Halloween is all kinds of wonderful. When we were kids, we used to go trick or treating. Then we had about ten years of dressing up as sexy witch/cat/scientist/aliens and doing horrible things to our livers. Now we just want to go trick or treating again. But until society says that's not creepy, we'll bide our time by watching scary movies.
Our Friday Five guest this week is Solaris & Abaddon's Jonathan Oliver, who edited the recently released House of Fear anthology, one of the scariest collections we've read in years. As the hottest name in horror, we thought we'd get Mr. Oliver's recommendations on some scary movies to watch in the dark.
Silence of the Lambs (1991). Although the series eventually jumped the shark ("HANNIBAL GOES FISHING"), how great was this film? Still the only horror film to win Best Picture and deservedly so (Hmm. Rebecca won in 1940, does that count?). Anthony Hopkins stole the show, but Jodie Foster and Ted Levine weren't far behind. A spooky, haunting film that demonstrated how strong dialogue (and some fairly disgusting sound effects) could be scarier than all the gore in the world.
Them! (1954). Sometimes you just want big monsters. And the giant ants of Them! are quite large indeed. Caused by radioactive testing in New Mexico, something something giant ants. The whole thing is one of those complicated anti-intellectual Cold War parables that leaves the audience with the vague sense that Communist scientists will ruin our picnics. Also, giant ants. Or as the original poster put it, "a horror-horde of crush-and-crawl giants"!
Alien 3 (1992). This is where I lose all our readers for good. BUT, of all the Alien films, Alien 3 is the one that I find gets better and better with repeat viewing (unlike, say, Aliens, which just gets goofier and goofier). Director David Fincher creates an atmosphere of oppressive claustrophobia. Even before the actual chest-bursting face-eating goo-bug gets involved, the viewer is already feeling the tension of Ripley - isolated, alone and trapped in a prison of hardened criminals. The final, horrible chase scene down the endless corridors is one of the best sequences in horror history, a terrible inverted trope with victim after victim luring the killer in a terrible relay.
The Granny (1995). A greedy family eagerly awaits Granny's death so they can have her insurance money (and, presumably, whatever sale value they can get from her humongous creepy old mansion). INSTEAD, Granny takes an eeeeevil potion of eternal life and hacks them all to pieces with various kitchen implements. The whole thing is a tongue in cheek look at greed and familial infighting. Were the cast not entirely composed of blood-spattered bikini models, it could almost be a Tim Burton flick. But not really. (Fun fact! I was convinced this film had Neve Campbell in it. It doesn't.)
The Crush (1993). There's no defending this one. Alicia Silverstone plays a 14 year old (she was only 17 at the time) obsessed with her parents' hunky lodger, Cary Elwes. It sets up as a trashy mid-nineties anti-feminist thriller. Elwes can't get Silverstone to leave him alone, but, of course, society blames him and thinks she's a sweetheart. Around halfway through, the movie jumps the shark. Silverstone, who was doing a credible job as a poisonous little femme fatale, is suddenly recast as a physical menace - attacking people with bees and eventually engaging in one of the most lopsided fight scenes in cinema history. Worth it for the sheer stupidity of it all.
I don't generally identify as a horror fan, because I don't like gross stuff. I especially don't like torture-porn or slasher films. But I fucking love monster movies.
The Thing (1982). I've written about this one for Pornokitsch in the past. My dad brought it home right after we got our first VCR, and I watched it with him. (I was six.) And was equal parts delighted by and terrified of it - so much so, in fact, that I couldn't bring myself to watch it again until just last year. And it's great. Really, honestly, a brilliant, icky, claustrophobic monster-movie.
Arachnophobia (1990). The best spider-horror movie ever. With respect, I think Peter Jackson got She-Lob wrong. One big spider is all kinds of frightening, yes. But much, much worse? Billions of tiny spiders. And Arachnaphobia has 'em all - big ones and little ones and everything in between. It's scary and it's funny and the monster effects are great.
The Mummy (1932). I used to argue with myself, as a kid, about whether I counted King Kong (1933) or The Mummy (1932) as my favorite film. Seriously, this was the most important question of my young life. Now King Kong? Has dinosaurs. But The Mummy has Boris Karlof, all cadaverous and leather-skinned and terrifying. Or Christopher Lee, sepulchral and over-sexed. There's even the wonderful, terrible 1998 version, with naked beefcake Arnold Vosloo filling in as Imhotep. Sorry, Kong. Looks like I've gone firmly into the undead camp.
Tremors (1990). At one end of my extremes: Tremors is about as low-fi as monster-movies get. But the dialogue sparkles, the chemistry between the actors is palpabale, everyone's likable, the movie's fun, interesting, and has gross bits. (Funny-gross, not gross-gross.) And then there's monster-cam. Not just one of my favorite horror movies, Tremors is actually just flat-out a favorite film. And I had the great good fortune to introduce Jared, king of the late-night B-movie, to this one. Also, when overmatched in an argument, I like to bust out "well fuuu-uuuuuuuuu-uck yew!"
The Shining (1980). Kubric's spare, cold, carefully composed, intellectual horror film about magic and madness. I find it so compelling I could watch it on mute. Honorable mention: The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror classic "The Shining."
Anne, your list is splendid and I agree with much of it. Apart from The Shining. Ali and I re-watched this recently and while it's beautifully shot and technically brilliantly made, there's one big problem with this film and his name is Jack Nicholson. King's novel is about a character's descent into madness. The problem Kubrick has is that Nicholson is clearly already barkingly insane. There's no tone shift or build up in this movie that makes for a good haunted house atmosphere. Right from the start Nicholson is gurning and Duvall is wigging out at everything. Danny and the twins are scary as fuck and the haunted ballroom is brilliant, but the film just doesn't work for me as a haunted house movie because of the actors cast in it.
Jared... Alien 3... Hang your head in shame! Aliens is the best Alien film bar none and probably Cameron's finest moment. Fincher it took me a long long time to like and it was only with Zodiac that I really started to like him. I do seem to be the only human male in the world who hates Fight Club.
Anyway, enough of that rambling....
Horror films that work for me are the ones that play on your emotions. Hence I don't like torture porn and extreme violence in movies often leaves me cold. But....
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). I first watched this before the ban, on a dodgy VHS copy. This film had been talked about in hushed tones all through my childhood as a dangerous film that was rumoured to be an actual snuff movie. I didn't buy into any of the snuff movie stuff, but it did feel dangerous watching the film for the first time. It's one of the most intense horror movies ever made. From the opening shot of the corpse propped atop a tombstone to the last shot of Leatherface spinning round and round in the setting sun as Sally laughs hysterically from the back of a flatbed truck, this film just never lets up. When the ban was lifted I took a friend to see the movie at the cinema, and it's even better with a good sound system. I was stunned by Tobe Hooper's film all over again. Texas Chainsaw Massacre is gruesome, sure, but very little is shown of the actual killings. Hooper manages to make a film feel like a massacre without really showing you one. In fact, as one critic pointed out, there's more blood in the Harry Potter movies than there is in this so-called video nasty.
The Haunting (1963). I love Shirley Jackson's novel, The Haunting of Hill House, to bits. It's beautiful and frightening and so psychologically rich that you can return to it again and again. And I love Robert Wise's film adaptation almost as much. This has all the trappings of your classic haunted house movie: spooky old mansion, an intrepid team of researchers, a history of horrible happenings in the gothic manse and nightly visitations of troubled spirits. But what makes this movie is absolutely the performance of Julie Harris as Eleanor. Eleanor clearly comes from a history of familial abuse and she jumps at the chance to come to Hill House, seeing it as a getaway, a mini-holiday. She says on several occasions that she never wants to leave Hill House. Well... She gets her wish. The haunting here, it could be argued, is as much about Eleanor as a haunted person as it is about the manifestations in Hill House itself. The atmosphere of the movie is brilliant. From the scary caretaker, Mrs Dudley ("In the night. In the dark."), to Markway's statement "Look, I know the supernatural is something that isn't supposed to happen, but it does happen," to that brilliant ending "And we who walk there... Walk alone," The Haunting really is at the pinnacle of the cinema of the supernatural.
Let The Right One In (2008). As near to perfect as any horror movie has got. It's a slow burn of a story, but once the supernatural elements become clear, my god but does this pack a punch. There's a wonderful fairy tale feel to the film, exacerbated by the wintry, snowy setting but this otherworldly thread to the film is balanced by some moments of true horror. The first time you see Eli crawling down the side of the hospital (Dracula-style) is truly chilling and the revelation that she really isn't a little girl totally changes the direction of the movie. Shame, then, that they got rid of that thread for the very competent re-make. But best of all is that swimming pool scene where Eli returns to wreak vengeance. A brilliant, beautiful movie that still proves there is mileage in the vampire genre.
Near Dark (1987). Way before Kathryn Bigelow won an Oscar for the Hurt Locker, she made perhaps the greatest horror film of the 80s, Near Dark. There are so many cool things about this movie that it's sort of hard to list them all. But, firstly, let us just acknowledge the fact that the vampires are played, pretty much, by the marines from Aliens. This tells you the sort of movie Near Dark is. It's an action-thriller vampire movie. Now that shouldn't work, but it so does. And it's all down to the cast of vampires. Lance Henriksen has never been better as Jesse, leader of the vampires. The scene where Caleb tries to find out how old he is, is brilliantly written: "How old are you?" "Let's put it this way: I fought for the South?" "South?" "We Lost." But the best thing about this movie, is the bar scene in which our vampire cast take over a redneck bar and proceed to kill everybody in it, one by one. Note how each vampire gets their own theme music (courtesy of the juke box). Bill Paxton's stalking of a victim to the tune of "Fever" is one of my favourite moments in cinema. And there's that great line as he drinks from a redneck: "I hate it when they ain't been shaved." Near Dark is the finest vampire Western there is and a film I can re-visit again and again. This is what vampires should be: mean, feral and all for the savage joy of the kill.
Dracula (1958). I adore Hammer Horror and this may seem a bit of an obvious choice, but if you had to show just one Hammer film to somebody this would be the one. Dracula displays what Hammer does best, using the best production values within their budget and telling a horror story as economically as possible. Lee is iconic as the count and Cushing is the Van Helsing (fuck Anthony Hopkins and his godawul scenery chewing ways in the pile of shit that is Bram Stoker's Dracula... And... Relax) and the scene at the end where Cushing faces off against the ancient vampire is breathtaking. Leaping on the table, tearing down the curtains, two candlesticks in the sign of the cross... Just brilliant. Also, this is the film that is responsible for Ali (my wife) and I hitting it off so well on our first meeting. We both quoted that scene to each other when talking about favourite movie moments. Hammer has always had a special place in my heart, for fan reasons and some more romantic ones.
So, what about you? What are your favourite horror movies?