As promised, I’m continuing with the horror-themed series of columns that I began last week (here), and will keep doing throughout October.
For more years than I’d like to admit, I’ve spent Halloween night watching a marathon of horror movies—sometimes with friends, sometimes solo. This year will be no different. Some of the films I intend to watch this time around are included in the list below—a list that ranks, in ascending order, my 10 favorite fright flicks. Each one of these films is highly recommended, and makes for perfect viewing on October 31.
10) CANDYMAN (1992)
I found this film, which is based on a Clive Barker story, to be a breath of fresh air when it first came out. It was gripping, well acted, well directed, and mostly free of the clichés of the genre. I watched it again within the last couple of years and was surprised by how well it holds up. Virginia Madsen delivers a strong performance as the protagonist, a grad student who ends up paying a terrible price for not taking an urban legend seriously. Tony Todd stars as the title character and manages to make the audience feel some degree of sympathy for him while being repulsed by his hideous actions.
9) THE FLY (1986)
Directed by David Cronenberg, this remake of the 1958 classic does the near impossible, especially when it comes to the horror genre: It manages to equal the original, and in some ways, to even improve upon it. Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis rank up there as one of the great couples in horror-film history—they were really wonderful together here.
8) NEAR DARK (1987)
This is a really good vampire film that creates its own mythology and rules for the Undead—something I don’t always approve of, but it works for me here. It stars a young Adrian Pasdar (most recently a regular cast member on Heroes) and seemingly half the cast of Aliens (specifically Lance Henriksen, Jenette Goldstein, and the always fun to watch Bill Paxton). Pasdar plays Caleb, a young man in Oklahoma who thinks he’s just met his dream girl, Mae (played by Jenny Wright)—but when she introduces him to her “family,” he finds himself caught up in a nightmarish existence. It was directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who won the Oscar last year for The Hurt Locker.
7) THE OMEN (1976)
It’s unlikely that anyone isn’t aware of this dark, disturbing tale about prophecy, conspiracy, betrayal, and the coming of the Antichrist in the form of a seemingly innocent, adorable little boy. A huge hit at the box office, it has cast a long shadow over pop culture since its release, and deservedly so. An impressive cast led by Gregory Peck and top-notch direction by Richard Donner, who, based on the success of this film, would be hired to direct 1978’s Superman: The Movie.
6) PSYCHO (1960)
The granddaddy of the slasher film, and my favorite Hitchcock movie. Tame by today’s standards, but it still packs a wallop, with a compelling story, dark wit, and a landmark twist ending (which got spoiled for me years before I ever saw the film, thanks to an episode of Happy Days). Janet Leigh leaves an indelible mark as the ill-fated Marion Crane, and in his performance as Norman Bates, Anthony Perkins establishes himself as a cinematic icon. It was a role that would overshadow everything else he would ever do in his long acting career, and apparently he was not always comfortable with that fact, but it would seem that in his later years, he made peace with it, spoofing the character on Saturday Night Live and even agreeing to return to the role for three decades-later sequels. Speaking of which—they’re actually pretty good, especially Psycho II.
5) THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935)
Far as I can tell, this is the very first example of a movie sequel that is as good as—I would even say superior to—the original. The 1931 Frankenstein is, of course, a bona fide classic, having long since achieved iconic status. It made a star out of Boris Karloff, and in his makeup as the Monster, his image is familiar to pretty much every single person across the world. But with Bride, returning director James Whale is allowed to let his creativity, his sense of humor, his slyness, and his irreverence run wild. The film also displays an impressive attention to detail—having been trapped in a burning windmill at the end of the original film, Karloff’s makeup in Bride reflects the injuries that the Monster sustained, with most of the hair on the top of his head burned off and his arms and clothes properly singed. Much like The Empire Strikes Back, this first Frankenstein sequel deepens the original characters and adds some memorable new ones. Henry Frankenstein, once again played by Colin Clive, shows newfound maturity as he expresses regret over his actions in the previous film, and the Monster makes a friend and even learns to speak—a development that Karloff reportedly disliked greatly, but it’s one of the real highlights of the film and I’m glad that Whale brushed off Karloff’s objections. As for the new characters, Ernest Thesiger as the wonderfully demented Dr. Septimus Pretorius and Una O’Connor as the shrill busybody Minnie pretty much steal every scene they’re in. And of course, Elsa Lanchester gives a very memorable performance as the intended bride of the Monster, without ever uttering a single word.
4) DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978)
Here’s another great horror sequel. It took ten years, but director George A. Romero finally followed up on his classic Night of the Living Dead with this intelligent, gory, disturbing, and even fun epic about the world succumbing to a plague of flesh-eating zombies. You probably know the gist: four friends hole up in a shopping mall while society falls apart due to the ever-rising number of the walking dead. But there’s a lot more to it than that. It’s a commentary on our materialistic culture, on the fragility of civilization, on gender equality, and even, to some degree, on blowhard talking-head know-it-all pundits—and this was decades before the likes of Limbaugh, Hannity, O’Reilly, and Olbermann. The 2004 remake—with which Romero had no involvement— is very good, but it lacks the original version’s substance.
3) HALLOWEEN (1978)
As far as I’m concerned, this is a damn-near perfectly executed film. Not a second is wasted. It sets an ominous mood right from the start and maintains it all the way to the end. The characters are well developed and contrast against each other nicely, and their dialogue is realistic and believable. The music itself almost becomes a main character. And perhaps most impressively, while masked killer Michael Myers never utters a single word, and for the most part is kept off-screen or placed in the shadows or seen from a distance, he is nonetheless a strong presence throughout the movie, even in the scenes in which he doesn’t appear at all, or that seem to have nothing to do with him. Masterful work by director John Carpenter, who also co-wrote the screenplay with producer Debra Hill and even composed the music. As Laurie Strode, Jamie Lee Curtis is a heroine you can really root for—likable, vulnerable, intelligent, and resourceful, even against a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. And Donald Pleasance is marvelous as the obsessed, slightly off-kilter Dr. Sam Loomis. Of the many sequels, all of which were totally unnecessary, the only ones that could be considered worth watching are Halloween II (1981), Halloween IV: The Return of Michael Myers (1988), and Halloween H20 (1998). The rest should just be ignored, as should Rob Zombie’s ill-conceived remakes of the first two films.
2) NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)
George A. Romero’s first film, and it is dark, disturbing, shocking, and bleak. It’s even humorous at times (though not always intentionally). You probably know the premise: A group of strangers barricade themselves in a farmhouse and try to fend off growing hordes of the recently dead, whose bodies have somehow been reactivated and who now feast upon the living. The film is groundbreaking not only for its then-innovative depiction of zombies as flesh-eating ghouls, but also for having an African-American as the lead protagonist (Duane Jones, excellent in the role of Ben)—and this was at a time when racial tensions in America ran high. From its opening moments, there is a sense of dread, that doom is coming. Once it arrives, it never lets up. No one is safe—not the good, not the bad, not the innocent, not the guilty, not the likable, not the annoying, not even the children. Truly, a great horror film.
1) THE EXORCIST (1973)
This gets the top spot because it is, in my estimation, the scariest movie ever made. My wife refuses to watch it—and I’ve offered her money to do so. Hell, she doesn’t even want it in the house! Last time I watched it on DVD, a few years ago with my pal Weird Pete, the holiday decorations in my living room fell off the wall spontaneously the moment when the demon’s voice is heard for the first time. I nearly had to be pried off the ceiling. A horror film has to be pretty damned effective to make me that jittery. The Director’s Cut, which is the version that I own, adds some nice character bits, along with the infamous moment in which Linda Blair’s character, young Regan MacNeil, crawls down a staircase on her back like a spider. The movie is by no means perfect—I’ve long had some problems with its plotting and its story structure—but the things that work far outweigh the relatively minor flaws. Just pretend that the sequels and prequels never happened—though admittedly, there are many, MANY laughs to be had from watching 1977's Exorcist II: The Heretic, surely one of the biggest cinematic misfires of all time.
So those are my picks. What are yours?