Well Halloween is almost upon us, pumpkins, and I hope you’re tingling about it as much as I am. Preparations all in order . . . candy purchased . . . parties planned.
You and I have spent quite a bit of time this month discussing Horror films, and I must confess I’ve been enjoying the dialogue. Of course this is obviously a favorite subject of mine so the effort expended has actually been easy (one of these days someone will develop a holiday devoted to those fifteen minute educational films we used to get in grade school . . . or informercials . . . and that’s when the authorities will find Uncle Mikey gibbering in a corner).
I particularly enjoyed running down the list of my personal (and, once again, I stress personal) selections of what I considered the Top Five Horror Films. If you hadn’t seen any on my list then I certainly hope you’ll someday take the trouble to track them down and watch them. As I mentioned, the process of making my choices was extremely strenuous and, to come up with five titles, I had to overlook quite a number of worthy films. And, as I also mentioned, I said I’d end this series with a look at some of the films which almost made the Top Five. Even though they didn’t make the final cut they are, none the less, considerably watchable, and anyone who’s programming a night of visual horror can (in my opinion) do far less.
“The Wicker Man” (1973) — Robin Hardy’s classic production of Anthony Shaffer’s adaptation of David Pinner’s “Ritual”. In the course of investigating a missing child, a Scottish police officer (played by Edward Woodward) uncovers a modern-day pagan society on a remote island. One of those films where everything starts out looking normal, but the horror slowly closes in from all sides. Avoid the 2006 remake and concentrate on this masterpiece.
“Ringu/The Ring” (1998/2002) — In the past few decades there’s been a renaissance in horror films occurring in Japan. Visually and thematically, this country has been producing material to rival (or surpass) the Universal efforts of the 30s and 40s, as well as the Hammer films of the 50s and 60s. Hideo Nakata’s 1998 adaptation of Koji Suzuki’s novel is a particularly effective example. An investigative reporter becomes involved in a story surrounding a videotape containing bizarre footage that, when viewed, inevitably leads to the viewer’s death. Nakata’s original Japanese film is outright nerve-wracking . . . Gore Verbinski’s 2002 remake accomplishes the impossible by managing to be just as atmospheric and as terrifying as the original.
“The Silence of the Lambs/Manhunter” (1991/1986) — Thomas Harris deserves praise for creating the character of Hannibal Lecter: a monster iconic enough to stand alongside the Universal Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolf Man and Creature from the Black Lagoon. Many people consider Anthony Hopkins’ performance in Jonathan Demme’s 1991 “The Silence of the Lambs” to be the definitive depiction. Whereas I’m certainly not going to downplay Sir Anthony’s considerable talents (and especially in regards to his portrayal of Lecter), I am one of a select few fans who genuinely appreciate the take on the character made by Brian Cox in Michael Mann’s 1986 film “Manhunter”. In both instances horror audiences are in for a treat as two excellent actors depict genuine human monsters demonstrating almost preternatural intelligence from within the confines of asylum cells. Even trapped and caged, Hannibal Lecter still has the power to spread horror, and both Hopkins and Cox act this out to the lasting satisfaction of audiences.
“The Pit and the Pendulum” (1961) — Nothing overly artistic or sophisticated here. Just a juicy, old-fashioned scenery-chewer courtesy of Roger Corman. Your Correspondent considers this to be the best of Corman’s Poe adaptations, and a good part of this opinion is due to Vincent Price’s unchained performance as a 16th century Spanish nobleman who lets the death of his beloved wife push his mind over the edge (admittedly not too much of a trip). Here Coman gives Price carte blanche to go over the top, and Price doesn’t disappoint him (or the audience).
“The Legend of Hell House” (1973) — Purists would argue that Robert Wise’s “The Haunting” is the better take on this subject (and I would grant them the distinction), but I personally prefer this piece from John Hough. A team of scientific investigators (including Clive Revill, Pamela Franklin and Roddy McDowall) explore a famous “haunted house” as a means of determining the reality of life after death. All too soon it’s realized that not only is the house REALLY HAUNTED, but that it’s also out to kill them. As with Tourneur’s “Night of the Demon”, it’s a nice attempt to treat spiritual phenomena seriously, and the ending truly makes the story. Plus it’s based on a Richard Matheson novel, so you know it’s good.
“Prince of Darkness” (1987) — Speaking of spiritual phenomena being treated seriously, here we have my all-time favorite John Carpenter film. The Catholic Church locates a large container of Swirling Whatever in the basement of an abandoned Los Angeles church, and a team of scientists is called in to help determine what it is. Pretty soon the Swirling Whatever begins to possess the team members, and the church is gradually being surrounded by semi-zombie street people. As if that wasn’t enough, the team members are also beginning to receive disturbing psychic messages from the future. The signs couldn’t be clearer if someone had hung a big blinking neon sign saying DON’T GO IN THE CREEPY CHURCH. But, since no one behaves rationally in a John Carpenter film, the audience settles in for a scary time.
“Peeping Tom” (1960) — Here’s a really disturbing little number from England courtesy of Michael Powell. Carl Boehm plays Mark Lewis: an aspiring filmmaker who is working on a documentary. Meanwhile the bodies of murdered women are beginning to pop up here and there (you know in my day a dead body stayed conveniently out of the way). Besides being female, the victims have one other common factor: they died with looks of intense fear on their faces. Yikes! Could there be a connection between the murders and our boy the filmmaker? The initial reaction to this movie was so intense it hurt Powell’s directing career. But “Peeping Tom” would go on to gain a considerable cult following (and be championed by none other than Martin Scorsese). For horror fans this is definitely worth a peep.
“Noroi” (2005) — Earlier I had mentioned Japanese horror films, and here we have another example. This is one of those “lost footage” productions (e.g. “The Blair Witch Project”, “Cloverfield”, etc.) and takes the form of a documentary made by a paranormal expert who is exploring details of a series of deaths and freak occurrences all centering around an entity known as Kagutaba. Unlike other movies of this type (where the filmmaker feels all he or she has to do is throw a few odd items or double exposures into scenes made by jerkily holding a camera), Koji Shiraishi actually gets off the pot and delivers some genuine chills.
“It’s Alive” (1974) — The poster for this film states that you shouldn’t see it alone. Well I saw it with Child Bride during its 1977 re-release and we both ended up being spooked out of the theater. Larry Cohen’s a director who specializes in B-films (some filmmakers actually relish the distinction) and, every so often, he manages to push the buttons in an audience. This particular story . . . an Ordinary Suburban Couple who manage to give birth to a REALLY strange child . . . managed to get in under the skin. Not particularly brilliant, but rather the cinematic equivalent of fingernails being scraped on a blackboard. If Cohen possessed just a schoche more talent he’d be ramrodding his way through Horror Cinema History.
(And yes, Child Bride and I eventually managed to sit through the entire film.)
“Horror Express” (1972) — My love for well-done low-budget genre films is thoroughly documented, and this is a honey. In 1906 Christopher Lee and his assistants dig up Something Interesting while on a scientific expedition in China. Closely pursued by Peter Cushing, Lee takes the Something Interesting on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Sure as God made Little Green Horror Movies, the Something Interesting starts causing Something Nasty to happen on the train, and all Heck breaks loose. Eugenio Martin filmed this on a budget of $300,000, and this definitely needs to be in the dictionary next to the term “a silk purse out of a sow’s ear”. Telly Savalas’ hamming it up as a Cossack official alone makes this especially watchable,
“Hardware” (1990) — A low-budget “The Terminator”, directed by Richard Stanley (and loosely based on a comic book story by Steve MacManus and Kevin O’Neill). In an apocalyptic future, a man presents his sculptor girlfriend with a neat gift: robot remains which were found in a radioactive desert. BAD MOVE! It’s figured that the robot parts are inactive and safe to use as raw material for a sculpture. WRONG-O, MARY LOU! Filmed in one of those hellish future environments where everyone sweats a lot. On the plus side, however, Iggy Pop is on the soundtrack!
“Freaks” (1932) — People thought Tod Browning couldn’t top himself with 1931’s “Dracula”. WRONG-O, MARY LOU! In a decade ripe with horror movie immortality, this was a particular shocker: a story about murder and mayhem among the members of a circus sideshow. Browning upped the ante on this film by using actual circus sideshow performers as actors: microcephalics, cojoined twins, armless/legless people, “human skeletons”. This is what truly disturbed audiences at the time (and, to be honest, it still packs a wallop to this day). The scene where the members of the sideshow “family” hold a “wedding reception” for a new member has become the stuff of horror movie legend (enough, in fact, to have “Freaks” included on the United States National Film Registry).
“Cult of the Cobra” (1955) — You’ll remember my mentioning how I used to be disturbed by scorpions. I used to have the same reaction to snakes, and films like this didn’t help my childhood any. A group of American G.I.s (including David Janssen in an early role) desecrate a foreign temple (and you’d think by now people in movies would know better than to do that). The worse news (especially for Yours Truly) is that the temple is sanctified to a cult where the high priestess can transform herself into a cobra. Yeah, that’s it! Under the covers we go, pumpkins. Women changing into poisonous snakes and murdering people. Nope! Uh uh! Don’t want that. Why did it have to be snakes? Directed by Francis Lyon.
“Cat People” (1942) — Thought I was going to forget this one, huh? Nope. I prefer Tourneur’s “Night of the Demon”, but just barely over this. Here Tourneur wasn’t disposed to display a hellish monster and could, instead, play a lot with shadows and sounds. Model work and process shots are nowhere to be seen. Instead the horror is brought on with growls in a darkened swimming pool, or a pet shop full of disturbed animals, or a bus stop at night. Tourneur wants to work on the audience’s mind in this story of a strange woman who seems to possess some sort of connection with panthers. One of the finest horror films of the 20th century, featuring an excellent performance by Simone Simon as Irena. The 1982 remake isn’t too bad, but is really only of interest to fans of Malcolm McDowell and David Bowie (admittedly a nice combination).
“Blink” (“Doctor Who”/2007) — The 2005 rebirth of the “Doctor Who” television series has been underlined not only by higher production values, but by better than average writing. Case in point has been this episode: winning numerous BAFTA Awards for writer Stephen Moffat, as well as a Nebula nomination for Best Script and the 2008 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form). Nimbly mixing time-travel with horror, the episode introduced viewers to one of the more visually effective monsters in television history: the Weeping Angels. The Angels have made subsequent appearances in the series, but this initial story (nimbly directed by Hettie MacDonald) stands out as an icy little delight.
“AM1200” (2008) — A short film which has been gathering a considerable bit of buzz since its release. Directed by David Prior (who also wrote the story) the film tells the story of Sam Larson (Eric Lange), a white-collar drone who embezzles the crummy company he works for and splits for Parts Unknown. Unfortunately for him, the Parts get far more Unknown than he probably wanted. In the middle of the night he picks up a distress call on his car radio and (throwing all logic out the window) decides to head for the isolated AM station where the call’s coming from. Once he gets there he finds that Something Not Very Nice Is Waiting For Him! As the intruiguing teaser line goes: “Get ready for the live feed”. In not too long a period of time Prior manages to build up quite an effective head of horrific steam, and even the most jaded of genre fans nod in appreciation (as well as maybe produce a shiver or two) by the time the film ends.
And speaking of short films . . .
“Chow Hound” (1951) and “Say Ah, Jasper” (1944) — Perhaps two of the most ALMIGHTY CREEPIEST cartoon shorts ever produced. “Chow Hound” is a Warner Bros. classic from the fertile mind of Chuck Jones, and it’s a direct cousin to the most terrifying EC Comics stories. A dog obsessed with eating meat bullies a cat and a mouse into stealing and/or scamming steaks and similar goodies for the benefit of his insatiable appetite. Not only do his successes fail to satisfy him, but the cat and mouse continually “forget the gravy”. When the cartoon reaches its conclusion . . . and the gravy is finally “remembered” . . . the denouement is enough to make even the most hardened carnivore consider becoming a vegetarian. As for the second feature, it is one of the famous (or infamous) “Puppetoons” made by George Pal back before he segued into feature films. In it his characters of Jasper and Professor Scarecrow deal with Jasper having to go visit a dentist. Jasper does so, only to be exposed to a mechanical horror which make the Torture Droids of the “Star Wars” films look like Nerf dolls by comparison. Political correctness has unfortunately kept this feature out of the public eye for decades, but it has haunted Your Correspondent’s dreams (nightmares rather) since he saw it in the early 1960s.
“Alien” (1979) — An admittedly obvious choice, but what can I say? I certainly wasn’t the only person impressed by Ridley Scott’s “haunted house story in space”, and the film still stands up today. The collection of talents among the production team (Dan O’Bannon, Ron Cobb, H.R. Giger, Jerry Goldsmith, etc.), along with the underplayed performances of Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver and the other actors (and Scott’s talent for turning locations into characters) resulted in one of the undeniable chills of the 70s, and arguably the best installment of an ongoing franchise.
“Mister Frost” (1990) — A little-known and underrated feature by Philippe Setbon, starring Jeff Goldblum as the titular character: a serial killer who is institutionalized after his arrest and trial. Kathy Baker plays the psychologist who receives the opportunity to study him, and both she and the asylum staff are eventually confronted with the possibility that Mister Frost could actually be the Devil. But is he, or is he just a clever madman? Depending on mood (and a few low-key special effects . . . including Goldblum’s enigmatically expressive face) to move the story along, Setbon manufactures a nice little psychological thriller which deserves more of a following than it enjoys.
And there we are! In the future I may go back and discuss some of these titles in greater detail but, for now, simply consider these to be Uncle Mikey’s Guide to the Well-Stocked Horror Film Library. Some treats for your Halloween candy bag.