Halloween is upon us again, and with that in mind, my compatriot in reviewing, Justin Souther, and I thought we’d offer up our picks for an unlucky 13 of the best. Since I’m more schooled in “classic” horror than Justin, I took that era (up through 1960), and he tackled the newer stuff. (My list would have included at least six of the same titles.) Feel free to provide lists of your own.
Classics of Horror
1. Night (Curse) of the Demon (1957). In reality this isn’t the best film on this list, but as a horror film and nothing but a horror film, you just can’t beat it. Made in Britain (but with a bankable America star, Dana Andrews) by Jacques Tourneur, the film has a troublesome history. Though released in Britain as Night of the Demon and running 95 minutes, the movie was rechristened Curse of the Demon and shorn of 12 minutes. It’s long since been restored to its 95 minute glory, though. It’s the perfect scare show — all about the evil Julian Karswell (a splendid Niall McGinnis), head of a devil-worship cult, who keeps order and protects the cult by summoning a demon from hell whenever the need arises. This is accomplished by passing a piece of parchment with the appropriate runic symbols on it, which will draw the demon to its victim. When nosy paranormal debunker Dana Andrews sets out to expose Karswell as a fake, he becomes the next recipient of the parchment. (Hence the lyrics in Rocky Horror‘s “Science Fiction Double Feature” — “Dana Andrews said prunes gave him the runes, and passing them used lots of skill”). A perfect blend of horror, suggestion, atmosphere, performances and one of the greatest scores of all time (by Clifton Parker).
2. The Black Cat (1934). The whole idea as far as Universal Pictures was concerned was a movie featuring their top stars, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, that could be marketed as a horror flick. Oh, and if it could somehow be connected to Edgar Allan Poe — he had a name and his works were in the public domain — so much the better. Director Edgar G. Ulmer gave them something more — a completely strange tale of revenge, dead souls, Satanism, necrophilia, a remarkable sense of dread and some pretty extreme horror (including the villain being skinned alive) — all of it wrapped in a brilliant musical tapestry comprised of classical works by Liszt, Schumann, Brahms, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Schubert and Bach. The studio was appalled (even more so when it turned out Ulmer was sleeping with the wife of a relative of Universal president Carl Laemmle). The censor was none too pleased, either. Horror fans have been delighted for 70-plus years by Ulmer’s explosively cinematic horror film. Lugosi gives his finest performance, Karloff gives his most sinister. What does any of it have to do with the Edgar Allan Poe short story that “suggested” it? Not much, but there is a black cat — more than one, in fact.
3. Bride of Frankenstein (1935). James Whale’s sequel to his own Frankenstein (1931) actually places in my top ten movies of all time, but for reasons having little to do with horror per se. It was a movie Whale hadn’t even wanted to make. After three genre pictures, he was wanting to move on. As a result, he only agreed to it if he could reimagine the concept as pitch-black comedy. Typically, Universal didn’t care, since it gave them a Frankenstein picture starring Karloff by James Whale, and that’s what they wanted to market. Whale didn’t stint on the horror (in fact, in its original cut there were so many killings that it had to be reworked to pass the censor), but he was obviously bored by the scare stuff. Instead he focused on weird humor and perhaps the largest dose of gay subtext of the era. (A good second feature would be Bill Condon’s 1999 release, Gods and Monsters, about the last days of Whale’s life.) He also piled on the cinematic style and had it topped off with a soaring musical score by Franz Waxman. Plus there’s Ernest Thesiger (known to his friends as “the stitchin’ bitch” for his needlework) as the campy, but sinister Dr. Pretorius.
4. Doctor X (1932). This was an attempt by Warner Bros. to outdo Universal, the then reigning studio for horror. In some ways they did. Not only did they shoot the film in two-strip Technicolor (a crude red and green based format that looks a little like a hand-painted postcard), but they upped the horror ante (“This is cannibalism!” proclaims Lionel Atwill on examining a fresh corpse). They also added something new to the genre — the wisecracking reporter hero (Lee Tracy), which would soon become a staple — and made the first truly modern-setting horror film in the bargain. It mayn’t be as scary as it was in 1932, but it’s still marvelously creepy. And there’s even a pre-King Kong Fay Wray proving she knew how to scream just swell without being pawed by a big monkey. Director Michael Curtiz went on to direct lesser fare like Casablanca (1942).
5. The Ghoul (1933). Long believed lost until a choppy, censored and very dark print turned up in the Czechoslovakian film archives in the 1970s, T. Hayes Hunter’s British picture The Ghoul got a new lease on life when an almost pristine print was later found in England. Seen in a print that looks like it was shot yesterday, The Ghoul goes from creepy curio to full-blown classic. Boris Karloff (in England because of a salary dispute with Universal) plays a dying (and, boy, does he look it) Egyptologist who believes an ancient jewel will bring him back from the dead and open the gates of immortality — a concept soon put to the test. Terrific atmosphere, surprising shock scenes, grim horror and a rational explanation that feels like it was insisted on by the censors and can be ignored. One of the earliest horror films with a musical score (attributed to Louis Levy, which, in one instance, would come as a great shock to Herr Wagner). A terrific cast that includes not just Karloff, but Ernest Thesiger, Cedric Hardwicke and a very young Ralph Richardson. The less said about leading man Anthony Bushell, the better, since he played every role he ever had as if someone had shoved a large stick up his bum (he later turned to directing with similar results).
6. The Old Dark House (1932). Old dark houses are a sub-genre in themselves, but James Whale’s The Old Dark House is the ne plus ultra, the bee’s knees, the lobster’s dinner shirt of the lot. Whale chose J.B. Priestley’s novel Benighted (called The Old Dark House in the States) as the basis for his horrific follow-up to Frankenstein, and actually went the book one better by giving it a third act it never had on the page. It’s essentially travelers — Melvyn Douglas, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Charles Laughton, Lillian Bond — stuck in the creepiest of creepy old houses due to a rainstorm. (The set was so good, Universal reused it several times and even rented it out to independent producers.) Weirder than the house are its inhabitants — morose Ernest Thesiger (“Now we shall be miserable all the evening”), religious loon Eva Moore (“No beds! They can’t have beds!”), lumbering mute brute Boris Karloff, wheezy ancient John (really Elspeth in drag) Dudgeon (“When you’re as old as I am, you might at any minute just die”), whiny little Brember Wills (“Morgan is a brute, he beats me”). Mayhem ensues. Rob Zombie liked it so much that he put clips from in his House of 1000 Corpses. And Turner Classic Movies is showing it late Halloween night.
7. Dracula (1931). Yes, Tod Browning’s Dracula creaks a little. Well, alright, it creaks a lot, but it’s the granddaddy of horror movies — the one that really started it all. At its best, it has a misty poetry that has rarely been equaled. At its worst, it still has Bela Lugosi in his signature role as Count Dracula, and it remains the definitive performance of the character. The first 20 minutes are among the eeriest in film history — and it comes complete with geographically challenged Transylvanian armadillos. That’s something you don’t see every day.
8. Island of Lost Souls (1932). The early 1930s were notable as the grimmest years of classic horror, and no film is grimmer than Erle C. Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls — Paramount’s boldest bid for horror supremacy. Based on H.G. Wells’ novel The Island of Dr. Moreau, the movie was banned outright in Great Britain (to the delight of Wells, who hated it) and generally considered altogether tasteless. Charles Laughton — in perhaps the gayest performance of all time — is Dr. Moreau, a mad doctor experimenting in evolution, turning animals into something like human beings. These grotesques are held in check by werewolfish Bela Lugosi as The Sayer of the Law. (His “What is the Law?” chant inspired the Oingo Boingo song, “No Spill Blood.”) The horrors are all surprisingly in-your-face and the ending still packs a wallop. There have been remakes, but accept no substitutes. Unfortunately, you’ll have to track this down on VHS or laserdisc, because no DVD has yet been released.
9. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932). Unavailable for years owing to MGM buying the rights so it couldn’t be compared with their inferior 1941 remake, and then showing up in the late 1960s in a severely censored reissue print, Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is the cinematic version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale. Unabashed in its sexuality and often incredibly brutal, the film is pure horror — and with the coolest Mr. Hyde you’ll ever see. Fredric March (who won an Oscar for the role) is a little stodgy as Jekyll, but mesmerizing and terrifying as Hyde. Miriam Hopkins is at her sexy best as Champagne Ivy, the object of his lust. And the innovative Mamoulian is at the height of his creative powers, pouring on all the cinematic bravura he can muster — and he can muster a lot.
10. Werewolf of London (1935). Sure, everybody thinks of Lon Chaney, Jr. in The Wolf Man (1941) when they think of classic lycanthropes, but Henry Hull got there first in Stuart Walker’s vastly superior Werewolf of London. To start with, Hull’s make-up is a lot scarier than Chaney’s teddy bear monster. When Warner Oland (yes, Charlie Chan himself) tells Hull, “The werewolf is neither man, nor wolf, but a Satanic creature with the worst qualities of both,” he’s describing exactly what the make-up suggests. It’s no wonder that near-miss victim (and comic relief) Spring Byington tells her rescuers, “The devil’s been in here! He had green eyes!” Better still, the film is wonderfully well made with a large dose of effective symbolism and a literate screenplay.
11. Night Monster (1942). One of the few 1940s horrors on this list — and the only film other than Island of Lost Souls not available on DVD — Ford Beebe’s Night Monster rarely gets its due, mostly because it’s said to waste top-billed Bela Lugosi in the thankless role of a butler. (Ironically, this is Lugosi’s only Universal film other than Dracula that gave him top-billing.) That’s even more of an insult because Nils Asther plays a role that ought to have gone to Lugosi. All that to one side, this is a singularly unsettling exercise in old dark house melodrama with enjoyably ripe performances (“Blood! The whole house reeks of it!”) and a genuine sense of claustrophobic horror creeping in. Yeah, it woulda been better with that casting shift, but it’s pretty darn neat as it stands.
12. The Devil Commands (1941). The end of Boris Karloff’s “Mad Doctor” cycle at Columbia was still one film away, but that film, The Boogie Man Will Get You, was wholly comedic in nature, so as a serious franchise things really conclude with Edward Dmytryk’s The Devil Commands. I’ve no idea what the devil commands, since this adaptation of William Sloane’s novel The Edge of Running Water (a more evocative, but less sensational, title) is all about an increasingly deranged (but perhaps not mad) doctor (Karloff) trying to communicate with his dead wife. That may not sound like much, but this is a pretty grim stuff. Just wait till you see Boris wire up some freshly exhumed corpses to use kind of like tubes in a radio set.
13. The Devil Bat (1940). You can’t be a real horror fan unless you love some cheese, and while there is cheesier cheese than Jean Yarborough’s The Devil Bat, it’s probably the best example for novices. Made (for what looks like $1.95) by PRC studios as a vehicle for Bela Lugosi (having a fine time) as a not only mad scientist, but a pissed-off one. He works for a cosmetics company that made a fortune off his cold cream “formoola,” and since he doesn’t have a piece of the pie he wants revenge. How? Well, he has this glandularly “stimoolated” bats (rubber in long shot, stock footage in closeshot) that will seek out an attack anyone wearing his latest after-shave. (Surely, there are easier methods, but no matter.) One by one, his enemies fall for his offer that they should “rub a little on the tender part of your neck,” sealing their dooms. But as hero Dave O’Brien (of Reefer Madness fame) tells him later, “It’s not so funny when it’s your own jugular vein.”
Since Ken has the historical aspect down (i.e. he’s seen a lot more movies than I have [What a nice way of saying I’m a lot older. — KH]) I’ve just put together a list of favorites, some based on the completely unscientific and ever changing (I’m sure I’ll want to rearrange this list tomorrow) criteria of personal preference and overall importance, at least as I see fit.
1. 28 Days Later… (2002). No, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later… is not a perfect film, but that doesn’t keep it from being easily the best horror movie to come out this decade. The term “instant classic” gets thrown around too often, but in this case, it’s true. It’s quintessential Boyle, taking genre standards and reworking them into something all his own. This is one of those movies that’ll remain influential for decades to come. If you want to see how prominent this movie already is, go on the Internet and see how many people can’t shut up about zombies (and yes, I’ve heard the argument that they’re technically not zombies, but they’re sure close enough), or how there’s about three trailers floating around out there that right now use composer John Murphy’s theme.
2. Videodrome (1983). Probably (along with Naked Lunch (1991)) the most purely Cronenberg-ian of all of Cronenberg’s film’s, Videodrome is only partially a horror movie. The other part is, well, I’m not sure what the other part is, but it’s damn weird. No other director would dare team Deborah Harry as a sadomasochist with James Woods, who grows a … well, I don’t want to tell you what James Woods grows in his stomach, since it’ll ruin the surprise. Violent, odd and obtuse in all the right ways, it’s an art film for people who hate art films.
3. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). I’m talking about the original, not that abomination Michael Bay carted out a few years ago (and I’m not one who usually complains about remakes or adaptations missing the point, so the fact that I hate that film should denote how bad of a remake it really is). Some guy I know once called Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre “One of the key movies of modern horror,” and it’s hard to argue that point. Sure, it set in motion a million cheap knock-offs — and it’s still is — but there’s a reason all those movies ripped it off.
4. Carrie (1976). Brian De Palma’s Carrie is one of those movies I wish I had been able to see when it originally came out, simply because I doubt I’ll ever truly realize how groundbreaking and original this film was when it was originally released. Two things are certain, however: Carrie gives you a look at De Palma at the top of his game (heck, he even makes John Travolta tolerable), and, second, no film, before or after, has used a potato peeler better.
5. Re-Animator (1985). The fact that Re-Animator director Stuart Gordon and star Jeffrey Combs aren’t household names is a travesty. Gorier than just about every horror movie and funnier than most comedies (in the most gloriously twisted ways imaginable), Gordon’s Re-Animator remains essential simply due to its constant need to revel in excess. Plus, it has a zombie cat and the most ridiculously absurd use of a re-animated severed head ever committed to film. What’s not to like?
6. The Tenant. Roman Polanski’s The Tenant — or Le Locataire for those of you who want to be snooty — is one of the most genuinely creepy films ever made, which is astonishing when you realize this is all accomplished with mood as opposed to gore or frights. It’s not a horror movie in the traditional sense of the term, since it lacks scares or any real violence for the most part, but Polanski’s examination of the nature of identity still remains a foreboding little work, with a performance by Polanski himself that most actors wouldn’t dare take on.
7. The Exorcist III (1990). Sure, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1974) gets all the attention, but it’s William Peter Blatty’s Exorcist III that’s easily the better film. Blatty (who wrote the original Exorcist novel and Legion, the book on which Exorcist III is based) manages to mix the religious concerns that had been absent from The Exorcist with some genuinely surprising shock effects — not to mention a final exorcism that is more horrific than anything in Friedkin’s film — and clever, top notch dialogue to create what amounts to the thinking man’s Exorcist. Not only does it feature a top flight performance by George C. Scott (who seems to have been made for this role), but it also establishes Brad Dourif as the creepiest man in Hollywood. Don’t be fooled by the Roman numerals, if you happen to find this movie in the $5.50 Wal-Mart dump bin (where it’s unfortunately — and criminally — been relegated) do not pass it up. You’ll never think of carp the same way again.
8. The Fly (1986). While I really, really, really want to put Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981) on this list — partly since its one of my personal favorites and partly because of the scene where that guy’s head explodes — I’ve decided Cronenberg’s The Fly should make the cut instead, for a few reasons. First off, it took Cronenberg’s body horror to new heights, as it’s pretty much just a buffet of gross outs (seriously, it has an exploded baboon). Second, it’s one of the reasons I will forever be a Jeff Goldblum fan (his “Cheeseburger!” line is my personal favorite of all time). Third, it shows that you can actually make a good remake of a horror film if your director actually knows what he’s doing (you hear that Michael Bay?). And lastly, I like the story my friend once told me about the time he cleared out his college’s entire dining hall during breakfast simply by turning on this movie.
9. Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986). How do you follow up one of the most popular and influential horror film’s of all-time? Well, if you’re Tobe Hooper, you make a movie the exact opposite of the original, and that’s exactly what you get with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Gorier, funnier and more over the top than the original ever even thought of being, Hooper’s film is a ridiculous attack on wholesome ‘80s values. Dennis Hopper gives a great blood and thunder performance as the maniacal Texas Ranger attempting to hunt down Leatherface, not to mention how it cemented Bill Moseley’s spot in horror cult-dom. But the real gem here is Jim Siedow as the homily-spouting eldest brother. If you go into this film expecting the original, you will be disappointed. If you go into this film looking for one of the most outlandish films in horror, then you’ve come to the right place.
10. The Shining (1980). Maybe the most deliberately deliberate film ever made, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is an exercise in pure atmosphere. A beautifully shot and expertly crafted film, it reminds you that there’s a reason that Kubrick has the reputation he does. Everyone always talks about the axe scene and, of course, the blood pouring out of the elevator, and rightfully so, but for me, it’s always been the small touches. Like the idea that someone had to type up page upon page of “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.”
11. Altered States (1980). Probably the best, and easily the most widely known, of Ken Russell’s American films, Altered States remains a horror film only Russell could make. The hallucination sequences are both stunning and amazingly horrific (think of the end to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), but actually interesting), and William Hurt’s role — as Professor (and occasional primate) Eddie Jessup — makes you wish the man would get more leading roles. Come for the hallucinations, stay for the simian value.
12. Dead Alive (1992). Before Peter Jackson was “Academy Award Winning Director Peter Jackson,” he was in New Zealand making low budget splatter flicks, which brings us to Braindead, or Dead Alive as it’s known here in the States. Rumored to have used an ungodly amount of fake blood — 5,000 gallons to be precise — the film is a nice little look at what Jackson was as a director, especially when you take into account the direction his career has taken. If only the Academy had awards for “Best Use of Clergy in a Fight Sequence,” or “Best Lawnmower Versus Zombie Hoard Scene in a Feature.”
13. Planet Terror (2007). OK, even though it’s only, technically half of Grindhouse (along with Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof), I’m using the loophole of the two separate DVD releases of each part of Grindhouse in order to sneak Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror onto this list. Sure, it’s only been in existence for the past six months, but it’s a film that is already getting better with age. Rodriguez had made horror films before with From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) and The Faculty (1998), which were good, but uneven. But it wasn’t until Planet Terror that he brought it all together, in one gloriously over-the-top, violent, splattery, insanely clever tribute to grindhouse cinema (that can also be seen as a compendium of Rodriguez’s filmography up to this point). It shows what a singular talent Rodriguez is, and it’s a film only he could — or would dare — make.