The Halloween of my childhood's delighted memory is an autumnal 1985 when I, then twelve, cowered my way through a VHS screening of A Nightmare on Elm Street with pals before hitting the cool Colorado evening for the last trick-or-treating uncoloured by neighbourhood razored-apple/poisoned-cookie paranoia. Too old to be afraid of scary movies yet too young not to be terrified of a certain burned, sweater-clad bogey crouching behind the next hedge, I was fresh into junior high school and feeling exactly centred in a way that I had seldom felt before--and have seldom felt again since. In the spirit of the season, I'm going to do this list as a trick--batches of flicks that share a theme or a thought and evoke that most infernal of pagan holidays (Christmas a close second, of course). Happy Halloween!
5. Deathdream (1972), Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things (1972), Black Christmas (1974)
The three Bob Clark horror films from the 1970s occupy the fifth slot of my five; together they form a trilogy of unease seldom equalled in the annals of genre filmmaking. Deathdream updates the "Monkey's Paw" into a melancholy, terrifying Vietnam allegory as a boy murdered on distant battlefields comes home, while Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things offers a generational horror slant touched upon in the child-betrayal of Night of the Living Dead. The most important film of the three, however, may be Black Christmas, which not only identifies the source of Scream's telephone paranoia, but also locates itself at the start of the slasher film sub-genre, complete with the child killer and the killer P.O.V. shot.
4. Night of the Living Dead (1968), Repulsion (1965)
George Romero's still-gruelling, zero-budget zombie opera remains among the best and most-imitated horror films ever made. Politically-minded and possessed of a relentless, visceral energy, it opens with an inexplicable bang and never relents until its conclusion, one of the most ironic and heartbreaking in all of filmdom. Married to it temporally and by its catatonic villain/protagonists, Roman Polanski's English-language debut Repulsion makes Grand Guignol use of a dead rabbit and a straight-razor in its telling of a woman so terrified of sex that she becomes predatory.
3. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), John Carpenter's The Thing (1982)
Two remakes of 1950s Red-Scare classics, both Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers--with its '70s paranoia--and Carpenter's The Thing--with its Reagan-era Red-Baiting--have been refashioned as creatures of their time. Serving as political allegory and platforms for character actors at the tops of their games (Sutherland in the former, Kurt Russell and Wilford Brimley in the latter), these two films boast of the best special effects of their time (and they hold up remarkably well) and an undeniable creepiness that gets under the skin and festers there.
2. The Exorcist (1973), Rosemary's Baby (1968)
Even better in its original form, William Friedkin's mad look at one Georgetown family's dance with the devil is a revolution in aural trickery and subliminal crosscut. It pulls no stops in offending the senses--from a possessed child mutilating herself with a crucifix to Ellen Burstyn in bell-bottoms, The Exorcist, along with Polanski's classic of spousal betrayal Rosemary's Baby, are the ultimate examples of the mistrust that erupts between every generation but particularly the one post-JFK and intra-Vietnam. Both demonstrate a remarkable technical proficiency, and both, like the others on this list, hold up under the ravages of time and repeated viewing.
1. Don't Look Now (1973), Suspiria (1977)
Nicholas Roeg's dark Venice squats in the middle of this tale of generational mistrust. A brilliant character study starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie at their respective peaks, Don't Look Now is home to one of the most realistic love scenes in all of cinema and one of the most shocking endings as well. Beautifully balanced between the minutia of the mundane and the incomprehensibility of the supernatural, the picture is among the most horrific in history, joining Dario Argento's mad homage to insanity and Hitchcock, 1977's Suspiria, as my favourite horror films for rental this 2002 season. Both lurid and colour-saturated, both possessed of a kind of dream logic and displacement, watch each of them at your own risk...and preferably while sober.
In compiling this list of my five (technically six) favourite horror movies, I took two factors into account. The first is whether it scared me, but that criterion is too broad; Mariah Carey movies leave scars, yet I felt that my selections should also be steeped in more genre traditions than just the screaming banshee. (This also led to omitting Seconds, which is indeed frightening but mostly for its honest treatment of the human condition.) Note that I feel somewhat disadvantaged by my ignorance of the giallo and Euro-horror, for which I blame poor video transfers that made these correlated sub-genres unappetizing t o me as a youth. (Just missed my list, in no specific order: Rosemary's Baby, The Blair Witch Project, Don't Look Now, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Psycho.)
5. Scream 2 (1997)
Yes, Scream 2. This sequel to the po-mo slasher pic pretended to deconstruct the inevitable second instalment in any horror franchise when really it just wants to sever any attachment we have to its predecessor. Scream 2, in fact, is so misanthropic as to become vital--it's got a big, black chasm where its heart should be, and that's a massively welcome reprieve from the majority of modern fright flicks.
4. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990)
What Jaws and Psycho did for H20, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer does for mankind. It's not a safe movie even with the lights on, yet in many ways, the violence comes second in memory to the miraculous melancholy achieved by director John McNaughton and actor Michael Rooker, playing real-life homicidal maniac Henry Lee Lucas. The movie's horrific because you start to feel comfortable around the title creature.
3. Night of the Living Dead (1968)/Dawn of the Dead (1978)
I'm cheating here because the first two official Dead movies are inseparable companion pieces in my mind. A pair of radically different siege pictures from the same director, George Romero, the former is without question scarier, but the latter encourages a more active viewership--we've all, in essence, been trapped in a mall with zombies.
2. The Exorcist (1973)
Ironically the most optimistic movie on my list, the visceral and cerebral levels of The Exorcist pack the same intense wallop. Aside: avoid "The Version You've Never Seen" and stick with the classic 1973 incarnation, or be subjected to some cheeseball CGI and an atonal denouement.
1. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Conscience does make insomniacs of us all. Philip Kaufman's remake of the 1956 original is filled with unrelenting dread; to wit: a character discovers the path to freedom, a joyous moment underscored by the bagpipe rendition of "Amazing Grace." But in no time flat, his hopes are cruelly dashed, and "Amazing Grace" gives way to the fuzz of a radio tuning into another station. It's not just everything you want in a horror movie (i.e., it reflects a certain nihilism), but also a great piece of cinema, one of the greatest.
What would go on your lists?