Just in time for Halloween, AVForums brings you their ten favourite scary movies since 1968
It’s that spooky time of year again, folks. So here’s a little list of chilling treats that I’d recommend for a suitably ghoulish Halloween.But, just to spice things up a bit, and to cater for those with a more classical taste, I’ve decided to provide a top ten for horror movies pre-1968, and a top ten for horror movies post-1968. The reason for this is because 1968 was the breakthrough year for practically every genre. It was when tastes changed, societal acceptability altered and cinematic trends and styles irrevocably veered into darker, more controversial territory, and this most specifically affected the horror film. Here’s my selection for a spine-tingling time in the more modern vein, post-1968.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Here’s the bloody catalyst, and the one that broke the mould. The one that changed the borders and ushered-in the new brood of altogether more graphic, more insidious, more genuinely nightmarish terrors. George Romero’s cult classic of an outlandish and unexplained zombie plague was shot on a shoestring and in black-and-white, yet in one fell swoop it deconstructed the social, racial and moral disciplines of a North America struggling to understand its own hellish involvement in Vietnam. Its cultural impact is colossal, and its depiction of civilisation collapsing and turning to feast upon its own still retains a nasty, all-too-real resonance. The zombies are slow and pathetic, but their strength is in their numbers, and in our inability to hide. The legacy of such a simple conceit is phenomenal and still going strong today. Our own friends and family rising from the dead to devour us. You can’t get more fundamentally terrifying and symbolic than that.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Another scratchy, ultra-low-budget excavation of the deep-set fears and prejudices we all have. Tobe Hooper’s insanely intense tour de force of one group of friends stumbling into a rural Texan farmstead of savage inbred cannibals is the stuff of legend. Oft-copied, sequalised and remade, the original “Nasty” is still the greatest and most devastatingly effective, even with scarcely any blood on show! The cleverest and most shocking element of this grisly warning about stopping off in isolated backwater enclaves is the matter-of-fact manner in which we are immersed in the customs, attitudes and behaviour of Leatherface and his clan of deranged bad-bloods. With the hammer-killing of Kirk, the girl left writhing on a meat-hook and the endless torture of poor Marilyn Burns jolting the nerves with a merciless and unforgiving grip, Hooper brewed-up some of the grimmest moments in searing redneck horror.
Giallo maestro Dario Argento slashed his way into a new sphere of terror when he revisited the tale of Snow White in the guise of an occult super-shocker with kaleidoscopic imagery and a nerve-shredding soundtrack from hell. A German dance academy becomes a labyrinth of death and diabolism as a young American student discovers its macabre and infernal secret. Boasting mesmerising and hypnotic colours, fantastic production design and utterly ferocious set-piece murders, Argento’s soul-shredding exercise in sheer bloody panic is an experience like no other. A room of billowing razor-wire, a maggot storm, a throat ripped out, an exposed and beating heart stabbed-through, and a cackling reanimated corpse – Argento’s flamboyant voyage into violent oblivion is like falling into an art-deco abattoir. Warped, illogical madness it may be, but this is one of the greatest depictions of the grotesque absurdity of a nightmare. Argento would never soar to these heights again.
Although stalk ‘n’ slash had existed before John Carpenter prowled the haunted town of Haddonfield, it was this pivotal babysitter massacre that created an entire sub-genre out of it. Exploiting the entire supernatural allure of Halloween with a deceptively simple plot of an unkillable madman hunting down his teenage prey with a large butcher knife, the cult director unleashed a new and iconic bogeyman upon unsuspecting audiences. Sinuous, gliding photography from Dean Cundey and a haunting synthesised score become the hallmarks of The Shape as he embarks on homecoming killing-spree. Carpenter tapped into something dark and primal and relentless behind the commercialisation of the seasonal holiday, evoking an essence akin to a race memory of Celtic sacrifice and a dark time when the dead returned to relive their atrocities. Who would have thought that a William Shatner mask could be so implacably terrifying? Halloween spawned a thousand imitations and a rash of thrill-less sequels, but the original remains one of the essential modern-day nightmares, plus it created the first of the heroic female protagonists in Jamie Lee Curtis’ virginal survivor, Laurie Strode.
Whether you like to think of Ridley Scott’s deep-space shocker of biomechanical body-horror thrills and xenomorphic chills as Science Fiction or Monster Movie, there is no denying that it serves up a galactic stew of the most supremely gruesome gothic - aboard the most isolated haunted house you can imagine. The beleaguered crew of the Nostromo make every mistake possible when they answer a mysterious distress beacon on an alien planet and soon they have been infiltrated, impregnated and annihilated by one of the most scientifically perfect organisms ever to lunge from the celluloid shadows. After Halloween’s resilient Laurie set the benchmark, Sigourney Weaver assumed the mantle of the premier fight-back scream-queen as the resourceful Ripley, but it is H.R. Giger’s eerily graceful, unusually designed and profoundly savage Alien that steals the show and stalks the corridors of the mind for long after the ship goes supernova. Aiding the inordinately creepy mood is the lyrical and ferocious score from Jerry Goldsmith.
The Shining (1980)
Stephen King’s bestselling novel about the harrowing influence that a haunted hotel exerts over the winter caretaker and his family got the meticulous, multi-layered Kubrick treatment with Jack Nicholson going nutso in fine iconic form. King wasn’t happy with the result, but Kubrick’s film is a towering work of intense psychological terror, with the Overlook Hotel becoming a labyrinth of the mind as well as an ensnaring province of the supernatural. Awesome performances from Nicholson and Shelley Duvall as his tortured wife provide the yin and yang of insanity, but the incredible photography, amazing central location and senses-rattling sound design fold around you like the arms of the long-dead hauling you into a spider-web trap of doomed inevitability. Jack’s axe-attack on an innocent door, the frozen hedge-maze that he pursues his psychic son through, the ghostly dance-hall and its deceitful revelations, and the shell-shock discovery that 'All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy' are just some of the superb chills that Kubrick serves up. The Shining is an extremely powerful film, but you should make every effort to see the full 144-minute cut. Although slower, its nightmarish and unrelenting build-up provides infinitely more atmosphere, and a denser texture of rich Kubrickian subtext and emotional menace.
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
In the great Year of the Werewolf Movie – 1981 - when audiences became inundated with folks turning into furious fur-balls, John Landis wrote and directed the perfect combination of humour and horror, giggles and gore with this shaggy dog’s tale of a young American backpacker bitten by a lycanthrope on the North Yorkshire moors and then transforming into a beast, himself, and causing moonlit carnage in an unsuspecting capital of yuppies, punks, un-amused accountants and dunderheaded (and beheaded) Bobbies. Making amazingly astute observations upon British culture at the same time as crafting a relentless homage to both the lupine legends of folklore and the classic Universal interpretations, Landis and makeup FX supremo, Rick Baker, updated the myth with a revolutionary, Oscar-winning transformation that, although pipped to the scratch-post by Rob Bottin and his eight-foot variation in Joe Dante’s The Howling, still stands as one of the rawest, most impressive and most eye-popping visual set-pieces to ever contort its way across the silver screen. With Jenny Agutter’s sexy nurse mucking around with audience hormones and creating yet more horny beasts, and David Naughton’s hairy howler greedily chewing-up most of the cast, it is possibly the disturbed village enclave of East Proctor, and its unwelcoming tavern, The Slaughtered Lamb, that provides the film’s most enduring aspect. It is also worth mentioning that Landis concocted some severely traumatising dream sequences way before Freddy Kruger rampaged through the REMs.
The Thing (1982)
Going back to John W. Campbell’s original novella, John Carpenter created the modern-day classic of alien body-horror and all-too-human paranoia. Kurt Russell tries to hide behind a mountain-man’s beard as a shape-shifting cosmic entity defrosted from millennia-old ice causes havoc in an Antarctic research base and assumes the identity of one or more of the team. At the height of the gooey latex period of complex practical FX work, Rob Bottin’s hideous and almost surreal transformations here are the absolute pinnacle of the in-camera gross-out. A husky turns inside-out, a head tears itself from its shoulders, sprouts spider-legs and scuttles across the floor, a human chest opens-up into a gaping, fang-ringed maw and bodies mutate and stretch until they become a parade of grotesque monstrosities. And yet the film is a painstakingly crafted and well-acted ensemble piece that perfectly chronicles the collapse of society in the microcosm of an enclosed and hostile environment. Italian maestro Ennio Morricone emulates Carpenter’s own minimalist style of scoring with a disturbingly metronomic and icy heartbeat theme that superbly depicts the alienation of a situation in which you can trust no-one. The blood-test sequence remains one of the tautest and suspenseful, yet blackly comic set-pieces ever filmed, and the finale offers up one of Cinema’s most unique and memorable Mexican standoffs. The film’s genius took a long time to germinate, but it is now justifiably hailed as a masterpiece.
Spielbergian suburbia gets invaded by something nasty from the Other Side. Little Carol-Ann gets sucked into the TV and calls for help from a ghastly limbo presided-over by what pixie-like psychic Zelda Rubinstein accurately asserts is “The Beast”. The stage is set for a desperate rescue attempt and a horrific and FX-strewn showdown with a powerfully malevolent supernatural entity. Tobe Hooper gets directorial credit, but we all know who was really calling the shots on this exciting big budget ghost-train ride. Some describe it as being cosy – a sort of “My First Horror Film” – but the spiritual elements, the theme of home invasion and child-abduction, and the unrelenting, hair-rising attacks ensure that its glacial tendrils still get under the skin, and its foreboding atmosphere lingers. Great performances and a knockout Jerry Goldsmith seal the deal.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Former enfant-terrible Wes Craven goes mainstream with his tale of a burn-scarred bogeyman terrorising and murdering the teenage kids of the lynch-mob who sent him to his grave in the surreal realm of their dreams. Robert Englund’s pizza-faced gargoyle, Freddy Kruger, became a cult icon to match Michael Myers, Jason Vorhees and Norman Bates with his finger-knives, distinctive stripy jersey, battered fedora and wicked line in sick gallows-humour, and Craven realised that he could break all the rules once his victims drifted off into the land of nod. Heather Langenkamp and a young Johnny Depp try to outwit the flambéed avenger, but Freddy’s cunning is bestial, savage and utterly ruthless. He plays with his prey like a transdimensional cat with a mouse, and Craven’s deliciously tactical direction delivers an unstoppable succession of heart-stopping, seat-soiling stingers and a true sense that all bets are off and that anything could happen. Although Freddy, like Jason and that Myers kid, would go on to become more snooze-inducing than nightmare-crafting, the original movie is incredibly potent and still simply terrifying. How a murderous paedophile ever became a cult figure is beyond me, but Wes Craven is on top form with this outrageously imaginative mash-up of Lovecraft, Freud, Cocteau… and the slaughterhouse.
John Carpenter gets two titles in the top ten! There was, indeed, a time when he was a genre-god.
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