Cinema of Scare: (My) Big 10

Happy Halloween, everyone! If you’re wondering why I’m saying this today, it’s because every day is Halloween. Or should be. Just think about it: the potential for the world to become a neverending buffet of candy corn, dollar-store cobwebs and glow-in-the-dark skeleton earrings.

Of course, this would increase the possibility that more people would show up to work in clown costumes on idle Tuesday mornings. Hmm. Better give this some more thought.

No more talk of clowns, though. Let’s talk about Bill over at Bill’s Movie Emporium. Connoisseur of scare that he is, he dreamed up something called the Splatter Time Fun Fest Awards (love the title, Bill), and that got me inspired. Well, maybe that’s overstating things a bit, since I’m not sure creating a list of great Halloween movies the day before Halloween is inspired. But I’ve been known to make some noise about being a fan of the cliche, so I will press on with my own collection of movies that ruined me for entering darkened houses, babysitting a child sporting a blonde braids-n-bangs combo, or going camping:

1. “Halloween”

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A miniscule budget, no-name actors, almost no blood or gore and a killer who never utters so much as one syllable? Only a genius frightmaster like John Carpenter could take all the reasons why a horror movie should not work and transform them into clear-cut advantages. He mines the bleakest parts of our collective consciousness to bring humanity’s biggest fear — that evil is everywhere, and it’s unstoppable — to heart-stopping life. Brilliant. 

 

2. “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer”

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Henry (Michael Rooker, who’s blank-eyed perfection) has a pretty practical theory about killing. “It’s always the same and it’s always different,” he tells his buddy Otis. And here he reveals the dark, twisted purpose of John McNaughton’s “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer”: to remind us that pure, inexplicable evil wears a human face, and one we never seem to notice until it’s too late to scream for help.

 

3. “M”

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When horror movie chatter turns to accomplished serial killer films (see above), Fritz Lang’s distressing “M” is nowhere to be found. Pity that, because it’s a grim, dank, chilly and thoroughly unnerving exploration of a killer stalking Berlin’s children. Peter Lorre makes Hans Beckert (who closely resembles German serial murderer/pedophile Peter Kürten) the kind of soulless villain who’d haunt Hannibal Lecter’s dreams.

 

4. “Nosferatu”

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With vampire books and movies and TV shows overwhelming our senses, it’s all too easy to forget about F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu,” the film that turned these blood-lapping mythological creatures into pop-culture staples. Without benefit of technicolor, special effects or even sound, Max Schreck’s otherworldly Count Dracula creeps into our dreams and stays there, waiting for the chance to lunge. 

 

5. “The Evil Dead”

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Before the ultra-campy “Army of Darkness,” with Bruce Campbell cloning himself and playing, well, Bruce Campbell, there was “The Evil Dead,” headed for cult classic status with its no-budget effects. But the original rates highly as a horror staple because of its opening credits — the finest and creepiest ever filmed — and the no-holds-barred performance of Campbell, who makes his terror palpable. And don’t forget that tarty tree branch.

 

6. “Carrie”

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“Carrie,” based on Stephen King’s first published novel, is at its heart a pre-“Surviving Ophelia” look at the crushing effects of bullying and how, in the right setting, constant torment can produce murderous rage in the meekest people. Herein lie the chills in “Carrie”: There’s violence aplenty, all of it rained down on fairly deserving and cruel parties, but we’d never see it coming from a girl like Carrie (Sissy Spacek). How profoundly disturbing.

 

7. “Dawn of the Dead”

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Horror movies that scare us are in hefty supply, but the ones that squeeze in pointed commentary about mass consumerism and America’s shopping mall mentality are not. George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” is proof positive that scares don’t have to be mindless and blood-soaked; they can spring from the realization that we’ve scaled the roof to escape our problems (or zombies), and now there’s nowhere to go but down. 

 

8. “The Bad Seed”

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Kids — it’s all sweetness and innocence, all fun and games until one of them sets a janitor on fire. At least, that’s the image of youth we get in “The Bad Seed,” with Patty McCormack using her blonde braids and sweet smile to disarm her prey. But she’s hiding a whole mess of devilment behind those patent-leather shoes, and the movie’s hiding an ominous warning: Don’t think you know what lurks in a person’s heart.

 

9. “The Shining”

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That Jack Nicholson, always with the Cheshire Cat-that-gulped-the-canary grin. He plays bad better than most anyone, but he’s at his baddest (and creepiest) in “The Shining,” a ghoulish thriller that blows the “happy families stay together” concept to smithereens. Jack’s googly-eyed overacting works OK here, but what really shivers the timbers is the inspired camera work and a foreboding, oppressive score that pierces your brain. 

 

10. “The Blair Witch Project”

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“The Blair Witch Project” is not a movie that inspires lukewarm reactions. No, this documentary-style thriller, with its queasy footage, unknown actors and largely ad-libbed script, is a love-it-or-hate it kind of movie. Still, there’s no denying this film’s directors accomplish a startling feat: They never show us the villain. And the not knowing what’s threading sticks and piling rocks out there in the dark? That’s the part that’s purely petrifying.

Honorable mentions: “Identity,” “The Omen,” “The Stepfather” (1987 version), “Poltergeist,” “28 Days Later…”

16 Responses

  1. Wow – great list! Two of these likewise gave me the heebie-jeebies (SHINING and BLAIR WITCH), and the rest of them read like a true best-of.

    High marks for including “M”! That’s a movie I never think of when considering creep factor…but now that you mention it, it IS in fact quite chilling.

    • “M” is one of those random movies I saw with a friend during my formative years (no idea where SHE got it from) … then years later it came back to me.

      • Well however you came across it – good call. It’s a brilliant flick that doesn’t get enough credit for its “ick” factor.

        Oh, and I agree with Bill – glad you could focus on what BLAIR WITCH is, rather than what haters would have you believe it isn’t.

  2. All the movies you listed that I’ve seen I liked, good list. Bonus points for recognizing how good Blair Witch is, that movie has taken an unfair drubbing over the years because of ridiculous hype backlash.

    • Oh yeah, thanks for the mention. :)

    • I have tried and tried, but I cannot see why some people hate “The Blair Witch Project” so much! There are so many things that movie gets right, and the writers really understand that it’s what you DON’T SEE that’s scary; what you do see almost always (exception: “Halloween”) lets you down.

      • I think there are three reasons. It was so popular and had such good word of mouth when it first came out that there was a backlash against it. It was sooooo hyped that it couldn’t live up to it (nothing could!). And the final most important reason it does lose its impact on repeated viewings, a common problem with scary films. Having said all of that it still stands up as a good film and a seminal one in the genre. [REC] one of the films in my top ten horrors of the decade owes a lot to Blair Witch.

      • I’m not entirely sure I agree that “Blair Witch” loses its impact on successive viewings — I think that might depend on the viewer. I’ve watched it the past four Halloweens since I saw it in theaters and it still terrifies me. I would agree, though, that it’s a movie best seen on the big screen. Nothing beats that feeling of being in a dark theater watching a movie that leans so heavily on the “what’s there in the dark isn’t there in the light” tactic.

  3. I love how you included “M” on the list! It really is something of a “horror film” isn’t it? Though it also so much more. I love Lang’s film but I would’ve never thought to have put in on a list like this.

    I reviewed “M” awhile back:

    http://davethenovelist.wordpress.com/2008/04/21/a-review-of-fritz-langs-m/

    Though I take exception to Blair Witch which didn’t offer anything beyond its gimmick in my mind, this is a fantastic list!

    And naturally, as any film blogger worth their salt would’ve done at this time of year, I, too posted a list of horror films for readers:

    http://davethenovelist.wordpress.com/2009/10/26/halloween-horror-film-festival/

  4. Great list. I think I agree with all of them. I had a similar idea but was struggling to restrict myself to ten so went for a top ten of the decade. Kudos for including M, a true classic and Fritz Lang’s second best film.

  5. Your lists are great. I’m compiling mine right now and I could pretty much link to yours instead. :) I liked seeing Nosferatu on here. It gets ignored quite a bit because it’s a silent film, but it’s genuinely creepy.

    • I can only bring myself to watch “Nosferatu” once every few years. And then I have visions of those creepy fingers curling around every door frame. Eek.

  6. Interesting list. I like your inclusion of M and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer….that last one always got under my skin but it is all too often omitted as a horror film (maybe it’s too real?). Well done on that.

    I still take Hertzog’s 1979 Nosferatu over the 1922 silent, but it is hardly a defensible stance. Great list!

    Kasey

    http://kaseydriscoll.wordpress.com/

    • “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” is one of the most disturbing films I’ve ever seen. The videotaping of the family slaughter has stayed with me for years…

  7. I finally watched Halloween for the first time ever (i know, its shameful) last night and i can exclusively reveal it scared the bejaysis out of me!

    • Scares the bejaysis outta me every time I watch it … and I’ve probably seen it 20 times at this point!

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