Halloween is rearing its mostly ludicrous head once again. As a kid I loved this time of year – not because everyone was dressing up and it was an excuse to cover up the mess I never cleaned in my bedroom with cobwebs and call it an art project – but because various TV stations of yore would play horror movies in a frenzied marathon. I used to love horror movies, and all their ridiculousness, their frights, but mostly I loved the ones that did not play up the monster but instead focused on the main characters, those people who were just like me, and the monsters were abstracts of their own recognizable fears, the paranoia and fiends that I recognized, miserably, on screen.
Here’s a list of horror films I think you should see. As is somewhat par for the course with lists like this, it does feature a lot of the typical ones. You can’t escape that: they’re so good because they touch on something we would rather not name, and to even glimpse them is so glimpse a part of ourselves we would rather leave in the dark.
My Top Three Horror Films:
Salo; or 120 Days of Sodom (1975)
Not technically classified as a horror film, but it is human cruelty at its finest. Based loosely around De Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom and the end of Mussolini’s reign of terror, a group of lascivious libertines invite four old prostitutes to tell them stories to arouse both their sexuality and their violence, which they take out in increasingly perverted and disturbing ways on a group of kidnapped youths. There are many scenes of complete devastation – the famous shit eating scene, the moments when the captives turn on one another hoping for better treatment when we know it’s all for nothing, and the ending orgy of brutality, brilliantly scored with Carl Orff’s music. But of all the horrors, it is the final, tender, absurd moments that are the worst. In the face of all this brutality and misery, two guards who helped the libertines and witnessed the violence dance a little waltz, immune to everything they’ve seen. What is worse; the violence, or the people who so can casually rationalize and forget it in their delighted, banal evil?
The Shining (1980)
Probably the best horror film of all time, not only because it’s so re-watchable. A typical haunted house drama, it takes even greater purpose than haunting space; it indicates that the real horror is actually waiting deep within you, ready to escape at any moment. Kubrick is hailed as a genius, and rightfully so. Beyond the excellent performances from all the actors, the film is so good because it treats its audience like intelligent, critical individuals. It knows you don’t have to be told a damn thing to understand what is happening, and on subsequent re-viewings you notice something new, and frankly have to wonder just how many stories are actually being told. Is it just a man slowly going mad due to paranoia and alienation? Is it the white man dealing with the after affects of his fall from colonial power? Are the ghosts real or are they psychic anxieties trembled alive from the subconscious? The layering of narratives, the stark music, the long hallways of strange patterns, and of course who can forget those twins, always begging us to play with them?
A beautifully stunning film of a psychiatrist and his wife escaping to Eden, a secluded cabin in the woods, trying to make sense of the unnecessary death of their son while they were boning in the shower. Both of the characters are incredibly unlikeable; the husband is overbearing and condescending, and the woman seems more connected to the wild than to anything resembling humanity. It weaves in myth and magic with a subtle hand, and when it decides to get violent it does not hold back. There is a certain desperation that is relatable here, and the end scene is both beautiful and haunting; there is no escape from the sort of monster woman has been demented into, you can only stand and wait for her to rise up.
And the rest, in no particular order:
Let’s face it, it’s not really the monster in the movie that is frightening, though certainly it made me feel a bit uncomfortable about sex for a few years. While most subsequent films feature scientists or the intellectual elite roaming about the stars, Alien features a group of hard-around-the-edges trucker types, much like cool uncle Sal you see at Thanksgiving. When they are besieged by the monster there really isn’t anywhere to go from them, and you can feel the claustrophobia sucking the air out. And let’s face it, Ripley is a damn badass.
The Descent (2005)
This is one of the best representations of feminine horror. In this, there is no hero to save the princesses who, honestly, are as much princesses as your mother is the last emperor of Japan. What begins as what should be a typical spelunking adventure deep into the earths bowels – and how quickly we see that the earth, our supposed mother, is no more warm and welcoming than the characters – turns into a gruesome, frightening story of betrayal and redemption. This movie does not forgive, and rightfully it should not. Women, too often in this genre, are victim, the token final girl, or occasionally a monster; little better than a figure to tremble male anxiety. Yet here they are our mothers and our sisters and our lovers, and they are just as capable and cruel as any man.
This is the movie that ruined showering for everyone, so much so that it’s somewhat surprising we haven’t been thrust into a second dark ages because of it. Hitchcock weaves sound, image, and weirdly sympathetic characters in what is perhaps the best slasher and psychological horror film ever. It takes a giant set of balls to kill off your main character halfway through the film and hope that your audience will care about everyone else, but Anthony Perkin’s Norman Bates manages to be so magnetic that you cannot stop watching him, even at the end when he can do little more than creepily smile at the camera.
The Exorcist (1973)
Sometimes considered the greatest western horror of all time, it’s guaranteed to scare you if you have a fear of either your body turned against you, or you grew up Catholic like this kid and were told to fear Satan as much as communism. While is gave us the annoyingly lovely Tubular Bells, it also capitalized on what would eventually be a running theme in horror: terrifying little girls. While Linda Blair may have been traumatized by this film, it went a long way towards traumatizing its audience as well. Split Pea Soup For-Never.
If you were a kid in the nineties then you were guaranteed to be scared of clowns. If it wasn’t John Wayne Gacy haunting your nightmares, than Tim Curry in all his demented whimsy did you in. Like most Stephen King adaptations, they never quite manage to capture what it’s like to be enmeshed in one of his stories, but since the novel this was adapted from included a kiddy orgy I can see why they may have wanted to go with the PG-13 version. It’s the story of a group of outcast children who are plagued, as if they didn’t have enough problems, by an alien monster that feeds every thirty years. Not only do they have to defeat it as children, but later they must revisit their hometown as adults and defeat it again, with no insignificant damage done to their lives in the process. It’s a little campy, a little overdone, but so is childhood.
The Thing (1982)
It’s not really the monster here that is so great, though certainly if you’re into being grossed out this is the perfect film for you. Rather, it’s the quickness that friendship and loyalty spiral into paranoia that makes this film pretty awesome. In isolated Antarctica, a group of scientists discover an alien that can take the form of any living creature, mimicking them so well that you don’t know they’re the monster until it’s too late. How well, actually, can we really know anyone else, and how well can we know ourselves? Often, the characters deny their the alien so vehemently, you kind of believe they don’t actually know they’re not who they think they are.
The Fly (1986)
Cronenberg’s body horror film is a love story, a tale of hubris, and obsession. Jeff Goldblum wants to impress Geena Davis and so invites her to his apartment for her to write about his teleportation machine. Their relationship develops, and it’s tender and sweet. But when a fly and Goldbloom enter the teleportation machine at the same time and their bodies merge, we slowly watch a man fall apart while desperately attempting to cling to whatever kind of humanity he can, all the while painstakingly taking note of his transformations. It borders on funny at times, but there’s never really a moment to ha-ha, because let’s face it, that fly is disease (often cited as AIDS), and eventually our bodies will fall apart too.
Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
On the surface it’s a story about PTSD and Vietnam and how out of place the men who went are when they come home. The title references the biblical story from Genesis, about a ladder that leads the Jewish Patriarch to heaven, but this story twists it sinister, as all comforting stories, post Vietnam, must be looked at as a fantasy, something unreal, made grotesque after the horrors there. The whole movie is one long drawn out second, a hallucination before death, and by the time the final scene occurs you too pray for the protagonists death, because that seems kinder than remaining.
28 Days Later (2002)
For the record I think most zombie movies are awful. There is no reasoning with a zombie. The animated dead was better done in Frankenstein, when the creature could talk and fling your delusions in your face. Boyle, however, moves beyond the slow-moving dead and gives them a purpose: this is what your rage looks like. Perhaps, with the news highlighting random acts of drug induced violence and pseudo-cannibalism, this movie is more important now than when it was first made. Plus who could deny that it was finally nice to see full frontal male nudity for a change?
Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
I saw this movie in high school with my then boyfriend who thought a horror double feature was the height of romance. Unfortunately, after all the animal vivisection and overt themes of colonial horror, the last thing I wanted to do was suck his face. While the ending is extremely heavy handed in it’s message (one of those that explains it to you as if you were masturbating in the bathroom for the entire film) its success works not only in its gritty sexual and animal violence (note: they actually did kill the animals you see on screen, a special kind of suburban horror for a world that is so distant from the food it consumes) but because of its musical selection. When people are murdered it’s upbeat and charming, almost mocking. When those animals are slaughtered it’s the kind of music that makes you squirm.
Honestly, I have no real idea what the heck was happening here for the most part, but I do know I never, ever want to have children. David Lynch’s strange masterpiece is about alienation and disconnection, and the imagery is incredibly grotesque the whole way through. Yes, people act weird, but it’s not so weird that you can’t relate it to someone you know.
Sleepaway Camp (1983)
That end scene really ruined it for transsexuals for awhile.
Ah, high school, what a miserable time you were. This film, another of Stephen King’s, and the novel that launched his career, is about downtrodden Carrie White who can’t catch a break. If it isn’t the kids in school making fun of her for her awkwardness, it’s her overbearing, psychotically religious mother who is mentally and physically degrading her. What works here is that Carrie is kind of sympathetic, but you also kind of want to make fun of her with everyone else. And even if you were Carrie in high school, then the horror is double: not only is everyone against you, but there is a rage inside yourself that you cannot control.
I figured I should put one modern franchise on this. The original is head and shoulders above all it’s sequels, if only because when it came out it was new, fresh, and the idea of going through torture for salvation works so well with the cancer theme of this and its subsequent films. And let’s face it, it actually managed to have an unexpected twist.
The Last Horror Movie (2004)
One of the earlier mockumentaries, it’s not scary in the typical sense; the violence is over the top and the message hits you right in the face like a library of hammers falling on your head, but it does attempt, perhaps too strongly, to deconstruct the audience of the horror film. In it, a psychotic man and his over-eager but increasingly weary photographer video tape the formers violent rampage, all the while breaking the fourth wall and asking: why are you still watching? These are the acts you condemn, so why do you want to see it again and again and again? Is there nothing that can be done that will make you turn away in disgust? In some ways, it’s like watching the news.
Other great horror films: Halloween, Hellraiser, Jaws, They Live, Night of the Living Dead, The House on Haunted Hill, The Birds, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Audition, Opera, Suspiria, Poltergeist, Freaks, Let the Right One In, The Omen, Nosferatu, Phantasm, American Werewolf in London, Don’t Torture a Duckling, Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, The Orphanage, The Bad Seed, Re-Animator, and many people have recommended [rec] to me, but I haven’t seen it. Might be pretty good, ya’ll.
I ask apologies for the lack of Asian horror on the list. They’re good fun, you should check them out.