Kudos to Joseph B. and It's a Mad Mad Blog, who had the ghoulish idea to host a blog-a-thon for your Top 15 Horror Movies. Since DVD Panache's inclusion in Dennis Cozzalio's bloody successful Robert Aldrich blog-a-thon brought in so many new readers, I say why not to another blog-a-thon (and besides, I was running low on ideas for Horror Month). I usually don't like to rank movies, but in this genre I definitely have a top 5, so here goes:
15. Jeepers Creepers
Before you raise the back of your hand in my general direction, allow me to explain the story that goes with this selection -- which is admittedly a troubled, uneven movie that fails to live up to the promise of its first act.
It was the summer of 2001, I was in the midst of a carefree summer job as an ice cream man in Portland. It was August and my interest in the job was waning, and I found myself loafing more than usual, and this day would be my ultimate loaf. A naive mother had given me a crisp $5 bill in hopes that I could find her daughter at a nearby block party and give her some ice cream. This was definitely not going to happen, but I took her money just the same, and figured what better destination for a lazy, greedy ice cream man than Lloyd Cinemas, and what better lazy summer day movie to see than 'Jeepers Creepers'? I sheepisly parked my three-wheeled ice cream cart in the parking lot and went to the movie, which strangely had me scared absolutely shitless for the first half, then eventually tailed off. Anyway, what was memorable about this outing is that afterward I headed for the exits with the 10 or so other people that were in the theater, and they all watched in somewhat amusement as I casually sauntered over to my three-wheeled ice cream cart, sped off and quickly shifted into my third and final gear. For so many reasons I felt more like a genuine jackass than most days, and that's my 'Jeepers Creepers' story.
14. Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives
Of the three horror sequel machine franchises from the 1980s (Friday the 13th, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street), you have to at least admire the Friday the 13th sequels for trying to mix things up. The killer starts out of course as Jason's mother in the original, then in the sequel Jason is simply a woods-living, burlap sack-wearing hermit killer before finally donning the mask in the third one, seemingly killed for good by Corey Feldman in the fourth (and for a brief time, the 'final chapter'), stupidly copy-catted in the fifth ('A New Beginning' = a new stream of cash), before he is awesomely brought back to his bad self in my favorite sequel. This one has a lot going for it, starting with the name, it's so perfect. Then you have the tacky-yet-fun way Jason is resurrected: two teens want to 'make sure' he's dead, so of course they pick a night heavy on the lightning to visit his grave; after diggin and opening up his coffin, one of the boys (despite obviously seeing that he's dead) plants a rod into Jason, only to have said rod struck by lightning and have Jason rise out of his grave like Frankenstein. Jason doesn't waste any time in literally ripping the heart out of one of the boys, then we're treated to a James Bond-style credits intro with Jason walking onto a black background and slashing the screen open. Everything works well and I could watch this opening every day and still be entertained.
13. Prince of Darkness
John Carpenter's most underrated horror entry, 'Prince of Darkness' is a great entry into the brains vs. evil series with our gang of intellectuals battling satan with nary a 2 x 4 (okay, I think there's one 2 x 4) to defend themselves. There's a lot to like here, starting with Victor Wong (!) as a professor who leads his team of students into an abandoned ghetto church where an ancient canister of green goo may hold the devil himself. Outside the church, a gang of hypnotized homeless people start to gather (led by Alice Cooper) as satan's powers start to take control of the area. Making matters interesting is that our heroes are experiencing the same dreams: an apparent video transmission from the future. You can tell Carpenter had a blast making this and there aren't any cop-outs with the story and climax.
12. Village of the Damned (1960)
The idea of children overwhelming adults is a great horror device, especially since the grownups seemingly can't fight back since . . . they're just children. Even though the budget was dirt thin, the production values in this British thriller are high and the special effects (rather, effect of the children's hypnotizing eyes) really work. What makes this one stand the test of time is just the acting of the kids, they always look terrifying.
11. The Blair Witch Project
Don't laugh. Or stop reading. I'll admit that viewed on its own today, this movie is ineffective, but when I saw it (first week it was released), everyone in the theater (including me) was genuinely frightened. It might have something to do that it was simply more of an experience at a theater, when its low-res, jarring camera work had a dizzying effect. I saw it with two girls who had no knowledge at all of the movie, and they thought it was a straight-up documentary. For them it was without a doubt the scariest thing they had ever seen. I knew that it was fiction, but really had not read much about it. Years later I watched it again on video with a group of people who hated it, and even I admitted that much of the charm was lost, but for me on that one summer day in Ketchum, Idaho it was worthy of this stature in my book.
10. Blue Velvet
David Lynch's classic is hard to put into just one genre, but its horror elements permeate the whole film and it contains one of the all-time most terrifying scenes. After Kyle MacLachlan's character first meets Frank Booth (No. 1 on my list of the Five Characters You Meet in Hell), he is taken to Ben's house, where he endures the worst 20 minutes of his life. In front of Frank's friends, he is emasculated and thoroughly humiliated, though Frank makes it feel like it's how he treats anybody. You get the feeling through the whole scene that Frank is just teetering on and off the edge of homicidal rage, and when he can't take the weight of Roy Orbison's 'In Dreams' (which Ben sings in a bizarre karoake moment), he snaps. Frank is my favorite cinematic monster, and this is his movie.
9. Demon Knight
Outside of Troll 2, maybe the most fun you can have watching a bad horror movie. Billy Zane is given no leash as he plays a demon out for souls, Dick Miller is Dick Miller, and you even get Thomas Hayden Church and Jada Pinkett-Smith. A sort of Zulu-meets-The Exorcist thrill ride, here's a sampling of what you get: demonic Billy Zane, Christ's blood can keep demons out if it's dripped on a doorway (check that: makes demons explode), a road house full of miscreants and all sorts of weapons, demons getting shot in the eyes (that's how you kill 'em) and Dick Miller in a room full of topless, beer-drinking women. It's best when watched with a group.
8. Return of the Living Dead III
Take a look at the above picture, that's our heroine in this surprisingly original zombie movie. After his girlfriend is killed in a motorcycle accident, she is brought back to life through some nifty military technology. But the two lovebirds didn't count on her insatiable appetite for brains, or the fact that only pain can temprarily ease her hunger. Julie gets proactive and creates this new look for herself (see above), but she's still got the munchies (oh does she!). We're also given way too many lost limbs and quarts of blood, a couple cyber-zombies and an oddly touching (Shakespearean . . . almost) climax. The original in this series is also worth a look (skip the sequel), but the zombie queen character really does it for me, it's rare that you get much originality with zombie movies.
The murders in this classic isn't what makes it one of my favorite horror movies, it's the lines Norman Bates gets, and how he delivers them. I always get a chill when I hear him say 'a boy's best friend is his mother' -- there's so many things wrong with it, and the timing is so perfect. The scariest part may be when Vera Miles wanders into Norman's mother's room -- nothing really happens, but you're on the edge of your seat the whole time . . . and then you see the bed.
6. The Thing
Carpenter not only creates a superior remake of the classic The Thing From Another World! (the movie Jamie Lee Curtis puts on while Michael Meyers is on the loose in Carpenter's Halloween), but he also set a benchmark of special effects terror which has rarely been equaled. Far ahead of its time, who can forget the severed head sprouting legs and crawling off like a spider? With equal parts claustrophobia and mystery, the tension is boiling throughout most of the movie. Filled with so many memorable scares (the blood testing scene still gives me trembles), 'The Thing' was perhaps the highpoint for 80s horror.
Tod Browning really was the Wes Craven or John Carpenter of his era, doing monster movies such as 'Dracula,' 'Mark of the Vampire,' and other freak-fests like 'The Unknown' and 'The Devil Doll.' But 'Freaks' remains his best. Visions of The Living Torso lighting his cigarette or the hideous pinhead siblings remain shocking to this day. Best of all, 'Freaks' never comes off as exploitation, the movie never judges the freaks, showing that it's us 'normal' people who are the most troublesome creatures. Though the freaks are respected, they're responsible for the biggest scares of the movie: the 'gooble gobble' welcoming feast, stalking their tormentor in the rain and the shot of The Human Torso writhing in the mud with a knife in his mouth.
4. Rosemary's Baby
Entrapment is an emotion utilized by the best thrillers (see: almost all Hitchcock movies), and Roman Polansky took it a step further by having Mia Farrow's character feel completely trapped even though she lived in New York. No matter who she turned to, it seemed they were also involved in the horrible plot to impregnate her with the anti-christ. It speaks to Farrow and Polansky that the most twisted and frightening element of the movie is just a slight twinkle in the actress' eye at the very end. You know when she approaches the baby carriage there's two ways she can react, and when you see that twinkle in her eye and the roots of a smile, you feel sick to your stomach
3. Bride of Frankenstein
The best sequel in horror history, and right up there with The Godfather Part II as the best of any genre. 'Bride' takes the Frankenstein story further, introducing us to a monster who has grown and mad scientists who aren't ready to stop their work. The emotions of love, birth and homoeroticism help this go beyond being just a monster movie. Filled with strange and deep characters (I actually prefer Dr. Pretorious to Dr. Frankenstein), the movie slowly builds to the inevitable meeting between bride and groom before they resort to the one thing that brought them together: death.
What would horror be without this movie? It jump-started a string of slasher flicks that continued into the 90s and perhaps actually furthered the culture of Halloween as well. Beyond all the hype, 'Halloween' is genius from start to finish -- slightly amazing considering it was made on a tiny budget and was the first real effort from Carpenter. Camera tricks such as young Michael donning a mask while we are seeing through his eyes and garnering many scares in broad daylight (that walk home of Lauie's just kills me) is what made this stand out from other gore fests. But that's one thing that 'Halloween' thankfully lacks -- excessive gore. Grindhouse pictures in the 70s gained audiences through shock-value, but there's really not much of that in 'Halloween,' the scares come from expert filmmaking and acting. Carpenter plays it close to the vest for most of the movie, letting his scares slowly build and then inserting seminal moments of fright -- Laurie discovering all the bodies of her friends, Michael Meyers' (err, The Shape) mask briefly being removed, Laurie watching the murder unfold across the street.
1. The Night of the Hunter
If there's a movie more important to today's horror genre than 'Halloween,' it's 'The Night of the Hunter,' which introduced many horror canons and did it with timeless, revolutionary images and one of the scariest villains of all-time. Faithful DVD Panache readers (I know you're out there) will know that I reference this movie often, and I have to admit it's one of my all-time favorites. In an era when horror movies meant monsters and aliens, Charles Laughton gave us Rev. Harry Powell, a man with 'LOVE' and 'HATE' tattooed on his knuckles, who believed he was serving God with his many killings. Powell carries with him the powers of persuasion and a deep hatred for the sinful temptations that only women can provide man.
Our heroes are John and Pearl, who watched their father be dragged away after he robbed a bank. His cellmate was Powell, who learned that somewhere in that river town was the buried money. In an endless series of unforgettable images, Powell enters the lives of John and Pearl when his silhouette is projected on their bedroom wall from a street light. Powell aims to find the loot by marrying their mother, thus introducing the movie's trademark horror element. Since the movie is told (and sometimes shot) through the eyes of the children, we feel the youthful helplessness they experience with Powell as their step-father. John's calls of foul go unheeded by adults in the community, and it's not until their mother is murdered that they take action into their own hands. After luring Powell into the basement, the kids unleash their trap on the killer, escaping and locking him in. It's then when 'Night of the Hunter' changes from a psychological horror to a straight-up slasher movie, with Powell playing the role of the tireless stalker, who seemingly travels at a leisurely pace, but is able to keep up with his prey.
Elements such as having John and Pearl escape just out of the killer's grasp would be used again and again in horror movies, but Laughton's impossible images could never be replicated: an overhead reveal of one of Powell's victims -- only her arm visible to a group of kids, Pearl's dollar bill doll floating to the feet of an unsuspecting Powell, and the movie's trademark scene -- Willa's body waving in the weeds underwater.