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Thursday 28 October 2010

The Best Horror Through the Ages

Cropped screenshot of Bette Davis and Joan Cra...Image via Wikipedia
Seeing as we are getting close to Halloween I thought I would post up some suggestions for your viewing pleasure. These are what I regard to be some the greatest scary movies of all time. Debate, discuss, whatever...

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)

Filmed at the height of the German expressionist movement, this silent horror is the true stuff of nightmares. The lines of reality and fantasy blur, as we watch a story of an insane doctor who commands a sleepwalking slave to murder. As the film unfolds towards the end we discover all is not what it seems. It's a genuinely eerie piece of work from the misshapen scenery to the creepy Caligari and his murderous slave, Cesare.
Nosferatu (1922)

Luckily a print survived the forced destruction of F.W. Murnau's attempt at the Dracula story. Despite the film's obvious similarities with Bram Stoker's story the film took on a life and look of its own. The Count Orlock character, played by Max Shreck, would influence horror until the present day. The film is full of iconic moments from the creeping shadow ascending the stairs to the stiff upright body rising from the coffin; Orlock is the embodiment of the bogeyman. There are distinctly Freudian aspects to him as well. He was described by one critic as "A penis with teeth". The atmosphere of the film can really transport you back not just to the period world that Murnau was trying to recreate but the feel of the dark times of the Weimar Republic, a time and place that would spawn two infamous real life "vampire" serial killers and an environment where Adolph Hitler would be seen as the nation's saviour.
The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

This film is proof that good movie sequels did not start with the Godfather or Spider-Man, as some Empire magazine writers infer. I love the Universal period of horror movies of the '30s and '40s, but I restricted myself to choose just one. James Whale did a great job with his original Frankenstein, but with the sequel he introduced an underpinning of humour that ensures the film stands the test of time.
Psycho (1960)

Stephen King once said that the real art of horror was in how carefully a creator could stitch reality to fantasy. Psycho does not feature anything supernatural, but its genius is definitely in the way it focuses almost half the film on its first victim. Since Psycho few films have been able to replicate this or even really followed its lead, and yet it works brilliantly in installing fear in the viewer. You are suddenly thrust from one type of film into another, as your main sympathy is focused towards worrying about a thief getting caught and then suddenly matters get really crazy.
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962)

As much as I adore the 1930s and '40s, the best era for horror as far as I am concerned were the 1960s and '70s. I am being unfair on the '50s, as there are some absolute gems in there, but it is mainly the domain of the classic sci fi and the arrival of the B movie. The 1960s produced some fabulous examples of psychological horror movies. It was a time of change, but before George Romero would tip us over the edge with Night of the Living Dead in 1968 and Hammer could really let fly with the full colour sex and violence it was holding back in the '50s there was a time of slick black and white art. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane is a wonderful example of this.
By casting two real life feuding actresses, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, as antagonistic showbusiness sisters bonded by guilt, Robert Aldritch was able to do true cinematic justice to Henry Farrell's American gothic novel. The film works best with the restrained menace and violence just below the surface of Baby Jane Hudson as she descends into madness whilst looking after her crippled sister. Like Swimming with Sharks, it's almost a parable on the Faustian debt paid by people in the film industry. Davis and Crawford are superb playing off each other throughout the piece and towards the twist at the film's conclusion. There is a distinctively dark humour contained in the film, but this does nothing but underline the eerie horror of the film.
Jaws (1975)

Steven Spielberg crafted the shocks for this first summer blockbuster through a series of test screenings. The result is two shocks that continue to cause jumps in viewers three decades later and even upon repeat viewings. The primal suspense of the film is largely down to the superb and iconic score provided by John Williams accompanied by the shark's eye view style filming. The novel that the film is based on is also a very difficult to put down piece of pulp fiction.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Going by the film's title and its marketing you would expect a gruesome gore-fest. This is certainly the case with its sequels, its remake and the prequel to said remake, but the original TCM is not really that sort of film. This film speaks to the anarchic fear inside us. The villains, a family of redneck hillbillies, are like the children from Lord of the Flies grown up and hideously twisted. There is a cruel and bestial temperament to their actions that would go on to inspire the villains of Wes Craven's work and the torture horror of the 2000s. Tobe Hooper was a virtual film student when he made this film and it's this edgy low budget feel that helps create the disturbing atmosphere throughout. The conditions the actors worked in would never have been passed by any union. Marylin Burns apparently worked for 24 hours in the same clothes she wears during the end scenes under stifling heat and, so it is claimed, her finger was actually cut during one of the film's most disturbing scenes.
An American Werewolf in London (1980)

It is fair to say that most, although not all, good horror used humour to some degree. Comedy and horror are close cousins and I guess it is for the base reactions they evoke that they are criminally under-awarded at most major film festivals. However, both understand each other pretty well and both usually understand how far to go when using elements of their relative. John Landis directs for both and in An American Werewolf in London he achieves the perfect balance. The film is a horror film unlike Shaun of the Dead, which is a comedy with horror elements. An American Werewolf in London uses proper gory horror together with mounting suspense and non-comedic violence, and then brings in whole Ealing style comedy moments, one liners, oddball characters (check out Frank Oz's cameo) and funny juxtapositions (David's conversations with the living dead whilst watching a porno in a cinema). The film then doesn't even end on a light note.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Now this is an example of snobby film critics not wanting to play ball. The Silence of the Lambs is considered by most to be a thriller. I have had rather sad geekish arguments with people over this film and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane as to their place in the horror genre. This is in spite of Stephen King listing the latter as one of the best all time horror films ever made in his book "Danse Macabre". It's as if horror films are supposed to be low brow affairs featuring monsters or nothing. This just isn't the case. Some of our greatest writers, such as Robert Louis Stevenson, have written for the horror genre. The Silence of the Lambs fits the bill as it ticks all the criteria for classic horror.
It contains horrific elements. It incites terror in its viewers. It speaks to our darkest fears. The Silence of the Lambs harks back to the psychological horrors of the 1960s. However, when violence does arrive it delivers relentlessly and is all the more shocking with the restraint generally shown throughout. In fact, this is a great description for the film's most memorable character, Dr Hannibal Lector.

This is perhaps the last great horror film. Saw deserves an honouree mention, as does the TCM remake, but Ringu is proper classic horror. Like the expressionism of Caligari and Nosferatu, Ringu is all about creepy atmosphere, blurred images and nightmarish changes to reality. It takes Psycho's technique for changing a film's dynamic to an extreme by revealing the shocks towards the very end. The shock a la Jaws is perfectly timed, but it isn't a sudden jolt rather a relentless and inescapable horror.
Summary: Genuine horror is an art, but it may be a disappearing one for the moment
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