My Top Ten Horror Films

The Arts

Some while back the London Film School invited me to select a film for their club night. After, the invited audience had dinner together and discussed what they had seen (this month Rita Tushingham is introducing ‘The Innocents’) On that occasion I chose ‘Witchfinder General’, Michael Reeves’ astonishing examination of the breakdown of law and order in civil war-torn England.

But was it ever right to be billed as a horror film? I really don’t think so. It caused outrage for its violence at the time but now looks tame indeed, and was made by a company seeking to make easy money from the horror genre, at that point riding high (1968). It had been intended to star Donald Pleasance in the title role, which would have created an entirely different tone for the film, one of the banality of evil, and would have felt more realistic, less epic. Vincent Price, as a horror star, brands the film wrongly, even though he gives his most (some would say his only) controlled performance. Now, I think we have a very different set of parameters for horror films. So, from the list I’ve carried in my head for years, this would also rule out ‘Spoorloos’ and ‘The Wicker Man’, a crime film and a pastoral fantasy respectively.

Choices fluctuate but these are currently mine.

The Exorcist
Interesting to go back to this now and see how very realistic it appears against other films – the first twenty minutes, in particular, feels like a National Geographic documentary. Paul Schrader’s alternative cut to the fourth part, ‘Dominion’, is entirely different to the released version and is almost its equal.

The Innocents
No finer ghost story has ever been filmed, or is more psychologically ambiguous. It repays visits, and has the most unnerving kiss in cinema history, a moment which may well not be filmed in these over-cautious days. When I first saw it, I failed to read Deborah Kerr as sexually frustrated and overly imaginative. Looking at it a third or fourth time, the cracks appear in her psyche. I particularly love the sound, which falls to silence prior to the disturbing moments – the opposite of modern cinema bombast.

Rosemary’s Baby
It strikes me now that this is as much about the rise of the so-called Me Generation as it is about the Devil. Again, evil is banal, in the form of a comically interfering neighbour, but the real horror lies in Guy’s decision to abandon his wife for success. It’s breathtakingly concise filmmaking, with not one word or scene unnecessary to the plot.

La Comunidad
A lurid homage to Hitchcock, yes, but what a tribute! Carmen Maura, avaricious, loud, awful, seeking a better life in the form of a decent apartment, finds a lottery win and can’t remove it from the house because of the neighbours. Death, mayhem and real estate ensue in blackly comic style, ending in an amazing rooftop chase across Madrid.

The Orphanage
This moving fable of lost innocence (the Peter Pan motif) is also an unstoppable tragedy, destined to play out from the moment Laura moves back to the home where she was raised and sees a child walking the corridors. The twist is heart-wrenching as well as awful, and like all great tragedies, could have been so easily avoided before setting a terrible chain of events in motion.

The Others
Grace moves into a house with her photosensitive child to await her husband’s return, but there are ghosts afoot. Perhaps it does telegraph its twist too early, but that doesn’t prevent the climax from possessing immense power. Old houses should have locked rooms, missing keys, strange servants, and this piles them all on to beautiful effect.

Julia’s Eyes
It’s an outrageous premise, but cleverly presented. Julia’s twin sister is murdered by a serial killer, but Julia has her own troubles – she saw the murderer and now she’s going blind. Worse, he may be someone she knows. A brilliant sleight-of-hand hides what she sees, and forces us to side with her (fading) visions.

Suspiria
There had to be one film from Italy’s Mr Noisy, possibly the only really great film he made, a string of insane set pieces painted in reds and blues that almost make sense. Susy Banyon arrives to study ballet in the world’s creepiest academy, and gets rained on, peppered with maggots and chased by witches. Favourite line: ‘The director doesn’t go home at night – she’s here, right…behind…that…curtain!’

Let Me In
A controversial choice over the original version, I know, but the additions to the remake feel like improvements and allow for better modulation through the film. The only disappointment here is that the ferocity of earlier attacks, underplayed in the original, reduce the effect of the swimming pool scene a little. But there’s a clearer sense here that our young hero has been duped into his Renfield role by the power of evil masquerading as innocence.

Kill List
In with a rocket, the more I think about this film the more nightmarish it becomes, suggesting a deeply cynical society that only consists of those who make money from cruelty and those who perpetuate it. The clever thing about ‘Kill List’ is the political implication behind the obvious story – that, and the profound sense of unease that builds throughout.

Depending on how the third [Rec] movie turns out, the quarantined-building series may displace something else on the list after the sudden twist its first sequel took. I would also have liked to include ‘Day Of The Beast’, ‘Ferpect Crime’ and ‘Agnosia’. What surprises me most is that there are only two Hollywood films on the list, and Spain predominates with what is becoming an astonishing body of work.

30 comments on “My Top Ten Horror Films”

  1. Cid says:

    Oh my word, you didn’t. Tell me you didn’t.

    I saw Kill List a few weeks ago, and I can’t remember being as angry at the end of a film in years. Why do reviewers insist on seeing the hidden messages behind this film rather than the tedious-then-ludicrous story, culminating in that atrocity of a final third? “In with a rocket” indeed, right into my most hated films of all time, up there with Gattaca and Bruce Almighty.

    Yeah, still angry.

  2. admin says:

    Oh Cid, Gattacca is my favourite SF movie. Although I did hate Bruce Almighty.

    Kill List is very divisive, but having seen it a few times now, I can see that the whole film is driven by the ending – we argued in the pub about it for hours!

  3. BangBang!! says:

    My favourite is Takashi Miike’s Audition. A film that starts out almost as a romantic melodrama with the male lead desperately lonely and searching for a partner. After his friend’s crazy idea to meet the woman of his dreams the film starts to turn in a very different direction building nail-bitingly to a teeth-gritting, eyes half closed finale.

    I have to say that I hated Kill List too. Everyone in it was so thoroughly unlikeable that I simply didn’t care what happened to them. Not even in a ‘he’s so horrible I hope he dies’ kind of way. I realise that was part of the premise but just a sliver of humanity might have helped me. It’s mysterious dialogue and never explained occult practices grated on me and I personally thought the ending was weak. I knew who that was!

  4. johnny mains says:

    Kill List was magnificent. That’s all I have to say on it really 🙂

  5. Cid says:

    Don’t make me come over there.

  6. Matthew Davis says:

    I saw the world’s most poorly masked screening of “The Others”. It became this film about a woman in a large country house being stalked by terrifying boom mics.

  7. Dan Terrell says:

    Let me drop the artistic standard level and say, in addition to several on your list, I liked the original versions of these two b/w films: The Thing and The Fly. Saw them when they were first played; but I’ll lower the things further, since I really liked the comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The last scared my younger brother and sister, who went with me, and I nearly got “grounded” for taking them. There’s three American films for consideration.

  8. James Cameron says:

    Great list. Haven’t seen La Comunidad so I’ll take its inclusion as a recommendation and Kill List, although an unbearably tense and creepy watch had a bit of a flat ending I thought, ‘divisive’ definitely. Everything else I agree with though I’d personally have to crowbar The Thing and The Haunting in there

  9. Rumsy4 says:

    I would definitely include The Shining in my list. 🙂

  10. Dan Terrell says:

    Can’t think of it? What was the name of the creepy French film, where the man is “drowned” in the bath, and then comes back. It was good.

  11. BangBang!! says:

    Was that Les Diaboliques, Dan? great movie!

  12. Dan Terrell says:

    Thanks, that it was. Great movie. That contorted face in the bath blowing a stream of bubbles… excellent Gaslightesque stuff.

  13. Slayed says:

    No, sorry, Kill List is a lazy mess of a script that descends into daftness.

    Saw Lucky McKee’s The Woman recently – now there’s a recent horror to stir a well-earned debate! I felt it made quite an impression.

  14. Gretta says:

    How did I know Horror would be your first genre choice, admin? I will exempt myself here, I think. I did try, during my teens, to get into horror movies, but decided after three successive weeks(TVNZ’s Sunday nights had Radio With Pictures followed by the Sunday Horrors) of being scared crapless and getting no sleep, that it just wasn’t for me. I think I saw The Omen, The Exorcist and The Changeling before I gave up.

    Is The Innocents the one with the children? If yes, I loved that, too, but wouldn’t have thought it qualified as ‘Horror’.

  15. Roger says:

    Dead of Night, surely should be in: not just the terrifying ventriloquist’s episode, but the contrasts among the stories as they loop round and finally catch Mervyn John in his nightmare.
    It’s a travesty of the book, but what about ‘Hangover Square’? Notable as Bernard Hermann’s first film score.
    Two films which depend almost entirely on atmosphere and no effects: Val Lewton’s ‘Cat People’ and’ ‘Curse of the Cat People’- what about Lewton’s other films, too?
    The interesting thing about ‘Witchfinder General’ is that it isn’t a horror film at all, any more than ‘The Seventh Seal’ is: it’s a horrifying historical narrative, but Price’s presencs makes audiences look at it in a differsnt way.

  16. Roger says:

    …and Georges Franju’s ‘Les yeux sans Visages’

    Not to mention his documentaries Le sang des bêtes & Hôtel des Invalides

  17. Roger says:

    …and Georges Franju’s ‘Les yeux sans Visages’

    Not to mention his documentaries Le sang des bêtes & Hôtel des Invalides

  18. Daniel says:

    Some excellent choices, admin, as expected, although there’s a couple there I’ve yet to catch up with (Kill List and Let Me In).

    For my own choices, I’m with Roger above in adding Cat People and a personal favourite of mine, the lurid and rarely seen The Blood on Satan’s Claw, although the latter could easily be classified as pastoral fantasy (dystopia?) using your criteria. I’m also a sucker for portmanteau films; whether it’s Dead of Night or Creepshow 2, I’m sold on it.

  19. mel says:

    Thanks I must now hunt down the ones I haven’t seen. Love Suspiria! It was one of the frist things i hunted down from the video store when away at college as I saw bits of it as a kid and wasn’t allowed to watch it.

  20. mel says:

    Also the best place to see the Exorcist is in one of the fancy halls on the Georgetown campus at Halloween followed by a trip to the stairs.

  21. admin says:

    Hands up who said they liked Lucky McKee’s ‘The Woman’? No lunch for you! God, I really hated that movie!

  22. Jez Winship says:

    There was a good play on radio 4 by Matthew Broughton a while back about the clash between Michael Reeves and Vincent Price on the set of Witchfinder General – Price was definitely not who Reeves had in mind.
    Spanish directors have definitely brought new life to the classic supernatural tale recently, as have the Japanese. No one’s mentioned any Hammer films. Personal Hammer favourites include Frankenstein Created Woman, the Mummy, The Gorgon, Plague of Zombies, Taste the Blood of Dracula, Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter (an element of nostalgia at play here), and the strange, dreamlike Demons of the Mind. Which pretty much covers the whole bestiary of classic (and classical) monsters.
    Val Lewton’s films with Boris Karloff – Isle of the Dead, The Body Snatcher and Bedlam – are all great, as is the noirish The Seventh Victim. Anything that he was behind, in fact.

  23. Helen Martin says:

    It’s astounding how attitudes change. Back in the Dark Ages when I was young I was aware of a feeling that horror (or ‘scary’)films were made for teenage boys who apparently liked to be creeped out. The older teens took their girl friends to The Fly for the opportunity to get their arms around the girl. Science fiction was also for teen boys and was ‘just silly stuff about big breasted women from outer space’. Those boys are now older men and it’s good they persisted so that those females who didn’t take part now can. Don’t think I’ll get much past good science fiction, though.
    How different today with the vampire movies and the Hunger Games. I have a feeling they’re aimed first at the girls but with lots for the boys as well. Total inclusion.

  24. Dan Terrell says:

    It seems to me that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s action movie The Running Man, where criminals played for freedom in a game show and fought each other to the death, was an inspiration for the author of the Hunger Games books. Maybe with a bit of other books shaken in. Skipping that and all the vampire books. For those I prefer the older stuff, Blackwater, or Terry Pratchett.

  25. Steve says:

    You really need to include “The Haunting” with Julie Harris and Claire Bloom. I can’t believe no one’s mentioned it!

  26. BangBang!! says:

    Dan, The Hunger Games is obviously, how can I put it, ‘heavily influenced’ by Koushun Takami’s novel and Fukasaku’s film Battle Royale which also has a group of school children being made to battle to the death by a totalitarian government. Battle Royale is one of myfavorite films and I’m reluctant to see Hunger Games which I admit is quite childish of me!

  27. Anne Fernie says:

    Have been indulging in a giallo-fest recently as it is a genre I wasn’t aware of until recently. A lot of it leaves me slack-jawed with disbelief at how god-awful they are but after one or two including ‘The Devil’s Men’ (1976) by Kostas Karagiannis and Dario Argento’s ‘Tenebrae’ (1982) you start seeing the ‘guilty pleasure’ appeal of the things…..

  28. Dan Terrell says:

    It’s been long, but would Lord of the Flies sort of wedge in there, too?

  29. Helen Martin says:

    Yes it would, Dan.
    I am on the edge of this Hunger Games thing because several of my book crowd have been in on the vampire books/films and are now into Hunger Games, which opened here last weekend to much acclaim. In a slightly different locale there is a gigantic throne of swords on display and people could have their photos taken with it. They discussed what appropriate attire would be and in the one result I have seen choice does make a difference. They were disgusted that people were there in jeans and running shoes! I mean, I ask you?! I’m glad I can watch this from a distance.

  30. Steve says:

    Can i mention nigel kneales version of woman in black? Since the harry potter version, it seems to have 1984-like written out of history!

    Thanks So Much for the blog always so many interesting ideas, facts, things to read, places to go, every time i visit here.

    Steve

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