I love a good list. In true High Fidelity style I’ve decided to make top ten lists a semi regular feature on the site, and to kick off, here is my inaugural top ten horror films.
The criteria for making the cut was that the film had to have had an immediate visceral impact on first viewing and stamped themselves indelibly on my febrile young consciousness.
Let’s dive in…
Jaws (1975) Dir: Steven Spielberg
“Mr. Vaughn, what we are dealing with here is a perfect engine, an eating machine. It’s really a miracle of evolution. All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks, and that’s all.”
There’s a lot of waffle talked about Spielberg’s finest hour, namely that it’s a ‘thriller’, an ‘action adventure’ etcetera. Codswallop. Jaws is an out and out horror movie par excellence. Sit through the opening ten minutes again and tell me I’m wrong.
With a story structure lifted straight from a golden age western by way of a classic fairytale (a small frontier town is threatened by a malevolent exterior force, three champions set out to confront and defeat it at high noon), Jaws easily transcends its b movie creature feature progenitors.
Spielberg wisely dropped the soap opera melodrama elements of Peter Benchley’s source novel and presents the audience with a lean man vs nature thrill ride. It’s only in the third act that the shark finally makes an appearance (mainly due to the fact that the mechanical contraption never worked properly in the open sea), and as every sensible person knows, the film is all the stronger for it.
Michael Cimino’s Heavens Gate (1980) is often touted as the film that ended the 70’s auteur period in Hollywood that began with Easy Rider in 1969, but in truth it was Jaws that sounded the death knell, helping to usher in the era of the high concept summer blockbuster. For better or worse Hollywood was changed forever, as was an entire generation’s attitude to the seaside.
The Omen (1976) Dir: Richard Donner
“Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast; for it is the number of a man; and his number is 666.”
The story of the coming of the Antichrist could have been pure hokum in the wrong hands, fortunately we got a pure measure of distilled terror in this seventies classic. One of the secrets to The Omen’s scare factor is the marrying of the satanic themes of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist to the conspiracy sub genre popular at the time in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Except that this time it’s Old Nick himself and his demons in human form directing events rather than evil corporations or shadowy star chambers.
An original spec script called The Birthmark had apparently been doing the rounds in Hollywood since the early years of the decade. Once optioned, screenwriter David Seltzer reportedly excised all of the more explicitly supernatural elements, coming up with a lean psychological thriller that could be innocently interpreted as the worst day of someone’s life. All of the deaths in the film can be explained away as accidental or self inflicted (the satanic rugrat Damien actually does very little), but a series of warnings about his adopted son’s true origins prompts Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck, lending the necessary gravitas) to begin uncovering the truth. Boasting pitch perfect turns from the cast and a memorably ice cold atmosphere, The Omen is the best of the triumvirate of Satan movies that began with Rosemary’s Baby. It also features what is for me, easily the most disturbing death in horror cinema, the ‘suicide’ of Damien’s nanny (Holly Palance, daughter of Jack).
Three progressively mediocre sequels followed and a superfluous remake was released on 2006. A tv series following directly on from this first film and ignoring the sequels was also made in 2015 by US cable channel A&E but cancelled after one season.
Director Richard Donner also got his big break here, and never looked back, going on to direct Superman (1978) and the Lethal Weapon series (we shouldn’t hold that against him though).
Halloween (1978) Dir: John Carpenter
“I met this… six-year-old child with this blank, pale, emotionless face, and… the blackest eyes – the Devil’s eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up, because I realized that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply… evil.”
Much imitated, never bettered it’s easy to forget what a masterful nerve shredder John Carpenter crafted on a budget of only $300,000 (the film went on to gross $47m making it one of the most successful independent films of all time, hence the relentless cash ins).
The simple tale of escaped killer Michael Myers returning to his hometown to relive his crime on the neighbourhood’s unsuspecting teens simultaneously spawned the stalk and slash sub genre, launched Jamie Lee Curtis’ career and put Carpenter firmly on the map. Veteran actor Donald Pleasance nearly walks away with the whole thing as the obsessed Dr Loomis, hot on the trail of his deranged patient.
Threads (1984) Dir: Mick Jackson
“Jesus Christ! They’ve done it… They’ve done it!”
The Cold War was nearing its denouement in the 80’s, not that we were to know that, and fear of a nuclear war was always in the back of people’s minds. Step forward the BBC then with this utterly harrowing public information style drama documentary showing in unremitting detail the effects of a nuclear strike on the UK through the experiences of two working class Sheffield families. Much of the horror is by implication, as the film really makes you really think about the consequences of such a nightmarish event. As many an 80’s kid will tell you, many local education authorities thought it appropriate to screen this in schools. They’d almost certainly be running for the safe spaces today. The past is a foreign country as someone once said. My advice is to make sure you are in a ridiculously happy mood on a bright sunny day before you settle down to watch this one.
Interestingly, director Mick Jackson went on the Hollywood where he made the somewhat more tonally upbeat The Bodyguard (1992) and Volcano (1997).
The Thing (1982) Dir: John Carpenter
“I know I’m human. And if you were all these things, then you’d just attack me right now, so some of you are still human. This thing doesn’t want to show itself, it wants to hide inside an imitation. It’ll fight if it has to, but it’s vulnerable out in the open. If it takes us over, then it has no more enemies, nobody left to kill it. And then it’s won.”
Buoyed by his success with 1978’s Halloween, The Fog (1980) and Escape from New York (1981), Carpenter chose an adaptation of John W Campbell’s 1938 short story Who Goes There? As his next project. The tale of a shape shifting alien terrorising a group of scientists at an isolated Antarctic research station had been filmed one before as Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World (1951). Carpenter’s version sticks much closer to the original story though, shot through as it is with mounting paranoia, and some truly memorable practical effects from Rob Bottin (who would go on to work on Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop (1987). The blood test sequence is all time favourite horror movie scene ever.
The film famously bombed on release, going up against a much more cuddly alien in Spielberg’s E.T. (1982). Carpenter thought the film a failure for many years, but like many initial box office bombs the dawn of VHS gave it new life and audience reach, and it is now rightfully regarded as the stone cold classic it always was.
The Dead Zone (1983) Dir: David Cronenberg
“The ICE… is gonna BREAK!”
Still the best Stephen King adaptation for my money. Growing out of the moral conundrum posed by the question; ‘is political assassination ever justified?’ the source novel takes place across the tumultuous decade of the 1970’s as the central protagonist, everyman Johnny Smith wakes from a coma with the power to see into people’s future.
In the hands of David Cronenberg (directing his first non original material), the film version deftly condenses the vignette structure of the novel and is topped off by brilliant performances by Christopher Walken as Smith, and Martin Sheen playing demagogic local politico Greg Stillson, who Smith foresees will rise to the highest office and trigger nuclear Armageddon. A tv series starring Anthony Michael Hall of The Breakfast Club and Weird Science fame aired in the early 2000’s.
Race with the Devil (1975) Dir: Jack Starrett
“I don’t drive too well when I’m asleep.”
A fantastic down and dirty drive in b-picture that marries the car chase action movie with a folk horror devil worship plot, this sees two middle class couples (Peter Fonda, Loretta Swit, Warren Oates and Lara Parker) on the run after witnessing a satanic sacrifice in rural redneck country. Almost a forgotten movie now, I remember catching this late night in the mid nineties, and I’ve always fondly remembered it as a kind of American Wicker Man, with it’s isolated rural setting and dark religious element. Happily there’s a DVD release that can be picked up on Amazon for a few quid. Get it for the trademark 70’s nihilistic climax (and Warren Oates of course).
Witchfinder General aka The Conqueror Worm (1968) Dir: Michael Reeves
“They swim… the mark of Satan is upon them. They must hang.”
In a crowded field, possibly one of the bleakest British horror films ever made. Set during the English Civil War, its a study of how malign individuals can rise to power and incite their fellow men to acts of depravity when the ties that bind society break down. Vincent Price puts in a career best performance, dropping any hint of campy theatrics, as the misogynistic, ice cold sadist Matthew Hopkins, a real life historical character who preyed upon the superstitions of the time and instigated a reign of terror across 17th century East Anglia.
Critically reviled in some quarters upon its release, director Reeves in was only his fourth feature crafts a disturbing portrait of the barbarism lurking just under the surface of civilisation. Tragically he was to die of an accidental overdose of barbiturates just a year after the film’s release.
The Vanishing (1988) Dir: George Sluizer
“The best plans can be wiped out at any moment by what we call fate. I confess, that saddens me.”
Adapted from Tim Krabbe’s 1984 novel The Golden Egg, this tale of obsession is most famous for its shock ending, but is equally notable for its superbly written character study of two men Rex Hofman (Gene Bervoets) and Raymond Lemorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu). Hofman is obsessed with discovering what happened to his girlfriend Saskia, who went missing at a motorway services, and after three years of fruitless searching is contacted by Lemorne, a well off family man who claims to know the truth behind her disappearance.
The Vanishing is probably most famous for Donnadieu’s performance of the highly intelligent, yet totally amoral socioopath, Raymond Lemorne. The second half of the film follows Lemorne about his daily life as we learn more of his past, his thoughts and feelings. Most disturbing is Lemorne’s lack of discernible motive, his obvious love of his family and general all round sheer normalness. The viewer is left in no doubt that Saskia’s disappearance could happen to anyone, in fact, Lemorne could be anyone, and by the time such a person were to reveal their true nature it would be far too late…
Sluizer inexplicably remade his own film for Hollywood in 1993 with a disgraceful tacked on happy ending. Avoid this at all costs and seek out the Dutch language original. And don’t have nightmares…
The Masque of the Red Death (1964) Dir: Roger Corman
“Why should you be afraid to die? Your soul has been dead for a long long time.”
Like Witchfinder General, this is another period horror (this time set in Renaissance Italy), and the penultimate film in American International Pictures’ Edgar Allen Poe adaptations. Corman regular Price as hedonistic satanist Prince Prospero throwing a big party in his castle while the peasantry outside suffer the ravages of the mysterious plague known as the Red Death.
Poe’s original story is oft though to be a metaphor about human mortality (Prospero hopes to achieve a sort of immortality as one of Satan’s lieutenants in hell), but Corman avoids the rabbit hole of literary pretension and instead crafts a splendidly sinister tapestry pitting the innocence of the captive Francesca (Jane Asher, before the cakes) against Prospero’s waspish depravity. Combining a portentous tone with the trademark lush visuals and rich colours of the previous Poe adaptations, and a great supporting cast in horror regular Hazel Court and Patrick Magee, Masque is probably one of Corman’s best films, and certainly my favourite among his Poe adaptations.
I confess, it’s been a difficult task trying to whittle this list down to just ten films, and there are a lot of excellent scare fests that only narrowly missed out. The great thing about this kind of exercise is that it inevitably stokes (light hearted) disagreement and debate. Let me know your views on my choices and feel free to post your own, either in the comments below or feel free to join The Stricken Land’s very own Facebook group, Movie Babylon. I’m also on Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram (links on the sidebar) if any of those platforms are more your thing.
Till the next time…