Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Halloween Hootenanny - Top Ten Tuesday: My Top Ten Horror Movies

To kick off this year's month long celebration of my favourite film genre I decided I'd be uncharacteristically cruel to myself and attempt to draw up a list of my top ten favourite horror films of all time. Needless to say, this was the most agonisingly difficult list I've had to put together so far, and furthermore, it will no doubt also be the one most prone to revision in the future. Hell, a top twenty would still be fiendishly difficult to decide on, so narrowing it down to a top ten seemed almost impossible. To make this somewhat easier I made one rule and one only... that is, I'm only allowing directors to have one entry in this list; frankly, if I hadn't, it really would have been impossible to come up with this top ten. 

No doubt I'll soon end up kicking myself when I realise about films I've omitted (though I've tried to operate mainly on instinct with this one, jotting down the first titles that came to mind and then narrowing them down, so hopefully this won't be an issue), but anyway, here goes nothing....

10 - Dawn of the Dead aka Zombi (George A. Romero, 1978)

Featuring as appropriate a title as I could possibly conceive of to begin a list of horror favourites, Romero's film was a watershed movie for me in several ways. First and foremost, it was probably the first truly gory horror flick I ever experienced during my formative years. Secondly, it was, in an indirect sense, my introduction to the world of Italian horror, being produced by Argento (Claudio that is, at least according to credits on IMDb and Wikipedia; I'd always assumed it was Dario, though he did edit together the European version) and featuring music by Goblin. This is also still a favourite due to having a bit of something for everyone (apart from the squeamish of course): rollicking action and adventure, humour and biting satire, plenty of heart and pathos, and of course, plenty of splatter and suspense. And perhaps most importantly, whilst it's view of how humanity might fare in such cataclysmic circumstances is quite bleak for the most part, it is, thankfully, not without its glimmers of hope, however uncertain the end of the film may present things. 

9 - Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Arguably one of the most underrated genre films of the last quarter of a century, this was, perhaps unsurprisingly, frankly mauled to pieces by critics upon its initial release, perhaps due to its occasional extreme gear shifts between horror and humour, and seemingly anything-goes, surreal dreamlike imagery. Furthermore, seeing as Lynch was pretty much at the zenith of his career at the time, after winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1990 for Wild at Heart and then enjoying the critical and commercial success caused by the cultural phenomenon that was Twin Peaks the TV series, he was probably an obvious target for those who like to "take people down a peg or two". And finally, seeing as with this film prequel Lynch took the network friendly gloves off, so to speak, and finally showed in full blood-curdling, horrific detail, what was only alluded to during the series, it was, I suppose to be expected that people would be shocked and more than a little confused by what they saw. But really, anyone paying attention should really have seen Lynch putting his cards on the table with this one straight away; the first image we see in the movie, as the title sequence comes to an end, is that of a TV set being smashed by an axe. As you might guess from the above, I could go on and on about this movie, but I've rambled enough already, so all I'll say is this: if you want a film that is heartbreaking, nightmarish and beautiful in equal measure, then I'd say you can't go wrong here. Sheryl Lee turns in an absolute tour de force of a performance, that is almost kabuki like at times in its sheer feverish intensity. There's scenes in this that frankly scare the shit out of me every time I see them (e.g. as someone else - Kim Newman, I think - said, only Lynch can make rounding a corner or entering a room so damn terrifying). And, both visually and aurally, this is absolutely sumptuous, with special mention due to Angelo Badalamenti, who provides one of my favourite film scores, period.  

8 - Candyman (Bernard Rose, 1992)

This film featured quite highly in my relatively recent Top Ten Slashers list, so I'll try to avoid repeating myself here. The first thing that springs to mind that I didn't say at the time is how strangely romantic this film is, featuring one of the most unusual love stories ever committed to celluloid this side of King Kong (which, come to think of it, is actually an apt companion piece in some ways). As I suggested last time I brought this movie up, it has brains to spare, but, I should add here, also some serious guts, both literally and figuratively. There's a few genuinely horrifying sequences and also some ballsy social commentary going on. And speaking of ballsy, Virginia Madsen, like Sheryl Lee in our previous film (also from '92), turns in a brave, powerhouse performance here; I especially love the sequences where she hears about and then later actually encounters the titular hook-handed apparition, as she appears genuinely mesmerised, as she should, seeing that she let director Bernard Rose actually hypnotise her. Also adding to the film's sharp edge of believability is the the fact that they shot all of the scenes based around the Cabrini-Green housing project on location, after making a deal to use local gang members as extras. And furthermore, that bit where Tony Todd has bees in his mouth (and this may be stating the self-evidently obvious)... that shit was for real y'all. Finally, I'd have to commit harakiri with a hook from sheer shame if I didn't briefly mention the sublime score from Philip Glass, which makes frequent use of more typically religious instrumentation such as an organ and a choir, to frequently awe inspiring effect. 

7 - Hardware (Richard Stanley, 1990)

Like Candyman, this is another atypical early-90's slasher flick, and if I'd actually been compos mentis at the time, it would have been high up on my Top Ten list. Also, this another one I've posted about in the past, so I'll try to be as concise as humanly possible here. As I've said before, what particularly impresses me about this film is the sense of production value that the creative team behind it managed to suggest with such modest means. And also, it's the only British made horror movie I've seen so far that has an aesthetic that is heavily influenced by such Italian horror greats as Argento and Fulci. Furthermore, and functioning as a six-degrees-of-separation like link to the world of spaghetti splatter, we have composer Simon Boswell (who has also scored films by Argento, Lamberto Bava and Michele Soavi, among many others) providing the film's soundtrack. As I've probably said before, I highly recommend this underrated gem, especially to fans of slashers and Euro horror.

6 - Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978) and Halloween II (Rick Rosenthal, 1981)

I've posted about both of these films fairly recently, in my Top Ten Slashers and Top Ten Slasher Sequels lists, and also as part of my Halloween triple bill last Halloween, so I'm currently at a bit of a loss as to what else I can say on the subject without running the risk of repeating myself. Firstly I should point out (and I know I've said this before), to those who might accuse me of cheating here, that these two movies are inseparable in my brain, so more often than not, I'll watch them back to back. Secondly, they should probably be higher up on my list, but I'm going from instinct here, and furthermore, on the basis of what I'd rather watch at this current moment in time. But I'll be putting a pre-order in for the 35th anniversary Blu-Ray of the original film tomorrow, and probably ordering the Blu-Ray of Halloween II as well while I'm at it, so watch this space, as when I get round to watching them both they'll probably climb further up the list, to where they probably should be. But for now I make no more apologies people, as after all, this is my list. But what can I say about the films themselves that hasn't already been repeatedly endlessly? Nothing for now I'm afraid, apart from that, as with most of the films on this list, I find them endlessly, compulsively watchable, and furthermore, practically flawless.

Disclaimer: From here on in, it gets very hard to call, so most of these are pretty much interchangeable... but I've attempted (that being the operative word) to rank them nonetheless... 

5 - Phantasm (Don Coscarelli, 1979)

It's been twelve months to the day since I posted my review of this cult gem. Now, I'm sure some of you may be thinking "He's ranked Phantasm above Halloween?!?! WTF?!?!" and to be fair to you, I'm sort of thinking the same thing myself. But this is a list of favourites and not of "The Greatest Horror Movies Ever Made", so there. But seriously though, I think the reason for this is probably that Coscarelli's film, much more so than Carpenter's, captures that thick, juicy dreamlike atmosphere that I'm always craving, and that horror films so frequently and generously provide. Also, (and I'm not saying Halloween isn't in parts), this is such great fun throughout that I find it endlessly entertaining. And I'll tell you something else... if I'd first encountered this as a kid rather than my early twenties, it would probably be even higher on this list as, if I was say, twelve years old watching this, I'd probably think it was just about the coolest thing I'd ever seen, as our young protaganist Mike (played by Michael Baldwin) gets to ride a motorbike through a graveyard, drive a muscle car, break windows, make improvised explosive devices, you name it. And if I'm ever in a bad mood, that mini porch guitar jam that two of the characters have near the start of the film never fails to put a smile on my face. It's just occurred to me that Bubba Ho-Tep is probably Coscarelli's "best" film (though I haven't seen all of his work yet), but this is still easily my favourite. 

4 - Phenomena (Dario Argento, 1985)

Oh how the times they do a change! This used to be my favourite Italian horror film, but as you'll soon see, it's been usurped by a couple of others. I could probably still watch this just about any time and never be bored, but I'll admit I do think it's perhaps a tad too long (and this is a criticism one could probably level at many of Argento's movies). Now some of you out there may be thinking I'm mental for putting this in my top ten instead of the more celebrated Suspiria or Inferno, and I can sort of see where you're coming from. But honestly, as much as I love those two films, I find myself sort of tuning out of both of them after a certain point, due to some arguable pacing issues. Specifically, I mean that both movies are essentially front loaded, with the best bits being, for the most part, in the first half of the films, and for some reason, I find personally that neither contains a climax that actually lives up to what those initial scenes seem to promise. With Phenomena, on the other hand, I don't have this problem at all, as it features both a superlative opening sequence, and more importantly as far as this discussion is concerned, an absolutely jaw-dropping, bat-shit insane final fifteen minutes or so. For more thoughts on this underrated, sublimely bonkers film, click here and scroll towards the bottom of the page.   

3 - Kill, Baby...Kill! (Mario Bava, 1966)

The oldest film on this list by quite a few years and my favourite Bava movie by a very slim margin (i.e. Lisa and the Devil is threatening to supplant it with every re-watch), this is arguably the director's greatest achievement in terms of sheer sustained atmospherics, and hence why it's the reigning champion in my book. As always, the maestro's use of colour is absolutely extraordinary, adding to the hallucinatory, hypnotic power of the film's nightmarish imagery. In fact, the movie is so mesmerising that for many (including no less than Martin Scorsese), it's hard to get a foot hold narrative wise during one's initial viewing. Furthermore, as Bava's films are actually much more subtle (and almost literary at times) than their predominantly visual nature would suggest, the director is something of an acquired taste, and even more so than the other big two Italian horror directors (for the uninitiated, that's Argento and Fulci). "Movies are a magicians forge..." Bava once suggested, and thanks to the combined power of his phantasmagorical imagery , virtuoso camera-work and special effects wizardry, the results are certainly never less than spellbinding. Finally, kudos to Carlo Rustichelli for providing a frequently creepy score, that makes appropriate use of what sounds like a music box; and to the best of my current knowledge, this seems to be the earliest recorded use of such an instrument in an Italian horror film score (it would later be used most famously in both Deep Red and Suspiria), and maybe even in horror music period (if you know of any earlier precedents, please drop me a line). 

2 - The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)

Something unexpected has happened here.... I'd originally figured, when I first compiled this list that The Shining would be the sure fire number one. But when I went to bed last night it struck me that this might not actually be the case anymore. The main reason it's got knocked off its perch is, I think, mainly to do with over-exposure. Now, don't get me wrong, Kubrick's film is quite possibly the richest horror film ever made, if we are to go off the myriad and extremely varied interpretations it has received over the years (to see a vivid illustration of this, simply watch the recent documentary Room 237). But honestly I've seen it that many times (and I mean the shorter UK cut here... I've still not seen the longer US version, which is frankly shameful seeing how much I love this movie) that I know every single beat, both aesthetically and narratively, so it doesn't quite have the same exotic allure it once did. However, having said that, whenever I do sit down to watch the movie these days (which I try and do more infrequently to avoid draining the blood out of it too much) it still often surprises me with new suggestions and possible readings I hadn't noticed previously, so it is very much a movie that keeps on giving. On another note, I'd say that along with Halloween, this is probably one of the most technically perfect horror films ever made, and like Carpenter's classic, is another masterclass for budding film-makers to study. And finally, like most of the movies in this top ten, it is thoroughly, compulsively hypnotic, so much so that if I'm flicking through TV channels and I see that it's on, I get completely entranced by it and continue watching, no matter which part of the film is currently playing.

1 - The House by the Cemetery (Lucio Fulci, 1981)

As I implied above, I never anticipated this would turn out to be my current number one, but there it is. And now that it's occurred to me, I'm actually not at all surprised. Now some of you may be thinking I've gone completely off the deep end ranking this over The Shining, but to reiterate again, this list is based on what I find most compulsively re-watchable and what hits my horror sweet spot, so to speak, at this moment in time, and Fulci's flick is currently the one that does it for me the most. And it's interesting that it should end up right next to Kubrick's film, as the two share some interesting similarities but also some dramatic differences. Most obviously, both feature families who are, for work related reasons, sent to the slaughter house, so to speak, having to take up residence in houses cursed by the horrific events of their respective pasts.  And secondly, in both stories it seems that children have the most acute perception/acceptance of the supernatural. Beyond that point though, the two movies become wildly divergent, both in their eventual narrative trajectories, and their execution (i.e. in terms of style/general aesthetics). **SPOILER ALERT** Whilst much of the ending of The Shining is undeniably bleak, it has to be admitted that at least two of the main characters get away (as far as we know at least), even if they will no doubt be completely traumatised by their ordeal. Fulci however, pulls no such punches, and his finale is arguably both darker, and, if this is possible, even more ambiguous than Kubrick's. In fact, the more that I watch it, the harder it seems to say what has truly transpired within the final few minutes of The House by the Cemetery, though one can surely theorise. And finally, whilst The Shining features some undeniably nightmarish images at times, it is, I would say, for the most part, more hyper-real than particularly surreal or dreamlike, where as Fulci's film is suffused with thick, oneiric atmosphere for pretty much its entire running time. And last but not least, kudos to Walter Rizzati for providing an appropriately doom-laden score that's simply dripping with gothic goodness. We'll be returning to The House by the Cemetery sometime this October... and chances are we may never leave, if we aren't trapped there for all time already of course! 


  1. Hardware wouldn't be anywhere near my top 10, top 50, or top 250, but I like that it's on here. Controversial!

  2. Thanks Jeffrey :) There's no doubt many many genre films that would be much more deserving of a place in anyone's top ten than Hardware (hell, Stanley's Dust Devil is probably a "better" film, come to think of it) but this was something of a gateway movie for me, so I've got a huge soft spot for it.

    Prior to this movie, I think the extent of my exposure to Italian horror had been Suspiria and Tenebre, and maybe a tiny bit of Inferno caught on TV late one night. But one day I read a top ten (I think) that Stanley did of his favourite Italian horror films and his descriptions compelled me to seek out pretty much every film on the list, some of which are now firm favourites, including Kill, Baby...Kill!, Lisa and the Devil, Don't Torture a Duckling and Four Flies on Grey Velvet.

    And speaking of controversial, I love the fact that pot sort of indirectly saves the day here; the government issue cannabis cigarettes Jill smokes providing the fuse to the improvised bomb that blows the shit out of the rampaging robot at one point.