Halloween and the Best Horror Films

October 8, 2008

Halloween is fast approaching. I think the start of fall and the month of October is a great time to re-watch the horror classics and catch up on the latest the horror genre has to offer. In honor of the Halloween season I’m going to list my top ten Horror Films.
Horror is a unique genre–it has the potential to produce greatness, films and novels that rank with the best of any genre. Horror also quite often produces a slew of throw-away celluloid. Stephen King wrote an excellent non-fiction book fairly early in his career, “Danse Macabre,” which details his history with the horror genre from a fan’s perspective–the films and books that work for him and which ones appealed to him at different periods of his life. The book does a great job at providing a “history of horror” and offers many reasons for the genre’s appeal. One good point King makes is that horror fans become used to being disappointed– they often make their way through a lot of garbage before finding a gem. Meaning both that the field is full of sub-par output and you wade through much of it to find that one great film or novel, but also that any one particular film or novel in the horror genre can be bogged down in bad qualities and just when you are about to write it off as trash, one moment of greatness and effectivess may emerge. I’ve thought about what I feel are the best horror films of all time, so here goes.

10) Scream— This one may cause you to roll your eyes. After all, it’s a pop film in that it cast the young WB type of crowd that would draw in the teenagers in droves. It’s helmed by Wes Craven who’s very hit and miss and often maligned by horror critics, and it’s very polished. Regardless of these criticisms the original “Scream” (ignore the sequels) is great in that it turns the horror film on its ear. Craven has done three excellent films and scores of terrible ones. For excellence, the original “Nightmare on Elm Street,” although it had its faults was truly original and frightening, and “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare,” is his other great film. “New Nightmare” is like the flip side of the coin of Scream in that it focuses on the horror genre; it’s pure meta-fiction: Craven and the original cast of “Elm Street” play themselves in the “real world” where the creation of Freddy Krueger has actually come to life. Well, where “New Nightmare” cast its camera on the actors and crew behind a horror film, “Scream” focuses on the fans of horror films. It’s filled with references to other horror films and visual homages to some of them; it provides a genuine mystery as to who the killer actually is, and it has some very scary moments. The opening sequence with Drew Barrymore is very frightening, easily ranking with other great horror moments. Although “Scream” caused the unfortunate reaction of inspiring a slew of copycat films which aimed to help rake in some of the cash, taken in its own light the original film was pretty much flawless from direction to acting, lighting, special effects and score.

9) The Devil’s Rejects–Here’s another more recent film some may question being on here. I can’t help but not put it here–it’s easily one of the most terrifying films in recent history. There are moments of intense violence, but the terror comes primarily from its focus on the killers as its protagonists. Director Rob Zombie wants to hone in on the psychological aspects of terror and as a filmmaker and a writer it’s an exercise in which he tries to see if he can make characters who do unrepentantly bad things into protagonists that you begin to root for in their efforts to get away. He tries to humanize deplorable people and put them up against ‘heroes’ that aren’t that heroic and who may be just as bad as the villains. It’s an action packed film that meshes horror with old-style Western “outlaw” pictures. As brutal as it is at times it never becomes exploitive…it’s unlike any film you’ve probably ever seen.

8. Seven– David Fincher is one of the few director’s today that I would claim has any chance of ever being considered as being in the same vein as Hitchcock. He needs at least one huge success and a lot more output before it would be fair to truly weigh in on this though. “Seven” is his scariest film. Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey and Gwyneth Paltrow all deliver terrific performances. “What’s in the box?” may be what’s most remembered about this movie but it deserves credit for much more than just that. There are plenty of “Hitchcockian” camera shots to study, plot twists and surprises, terrifying moments, great detective work moments and an excellent yet troubling twist ending. It’s a dark film, yet a popular film and at many times a borderline art film that could stand its own in any film class. If you enjoy “Seven” check out Fincher’s other notable work: “Panic Room,” “Fight Club” and “Zodiac.”

7)WaitUntil Dark – This is Audrey Hepburn’s finest performance. It’s a pleasure to watch her play a blind woman who goes up against a heartless killer and thief and outsmarts him. The final 15 minutes of the film, primarily dark with very little lighting, is a textbook example of suspense done right.

6)Silence of the Lambs– Another film notably remembered for one specific line- “ I ate his liver with a nice Chianti.” Hannibal Lector is one of the realest and scariest movie villains of all time, perfectly portrayed by Anthony Hopkins. Ignore the sequels and just rewatch the original to remind yourself how great and scary it is.

5)Night of the Living Dead— The original “Dead” film by Romero is the ultimate zombie film. It’s also the ultimate Romero film. All of his films strove to terrify as well as display cultural commentary, but where his anti-consumer culture and mall attacks in “Dawn of the Dead” were okay, the anti-racism moments in “Night of the Living Dead” are much more powerful. The grainy black and white film fools you into thinking your watching an older, “safer” film–thus making moments like when a certain child awakes as a zombie in a cellar only to be beheaded by a parent all the more terrifying.

4)The Birds– Hitchcock made a lot of amazing films. Great spy and action films, suspense thrillers, but only a few strictly “horror” films. Most of his films had at least one great scary moment and most of his films attempt techniques or concepts that are wholly unique and original. “The Birds” is disarming because in theory it sounds very silly. In execution, however, it becomes Hitchcock’s simultaneous version of a monster movie and an apocalyptic vision–both which are done to perfection. Beautifully shot, wonderfully acted with more than a few scream-worthy moments (such as the scene in which we discover the man with his eyes pecked out).
3)Rosemary’s Baby– For my money, “Rosemary’s Baby” is the best truly scary “satanic threat” film of all time. Most will point to “The Exorcist” but what makes “Rosemary” the more frightening for me is that whether or not the actual Satan events are going on its equally frightening. Does Rosemary really share an apartment building with elderly Satanists or is she losing her mind? Does her husband really offer her up to birth the antichrist in exchange for career success or is Rosemary simply feeling the psychological effects of a rushed and new marriage gone wrong? Is this antichrist business real or are the elderly couples in the apartment just evil and crazy? This film is frightening regardless of what view you take away from it and it does leave a bit to your interpretation. Roman Polanski makes one of the ultimate films of all time with this one, full of frightening moments, excellent pacing and perfect scenes.
2)Psycho– This is the other great horror film by Hitchcock. “Psycho” birthed the modern horror era, taking horror out of the grandiose and mythic trappings of Gothic horror (castles, ghosts, cape wearing vampires and the like) and placed it firmly in the area of everyday modern life. A roadside motel run by an odd and unbalanced young man with “mother” issues. The shower scene is the ultimate horror scene; the case study of Norman Bates is the first truly psychological horror experience. The score is an ultimate horror score with perhaps only one other in close contention (see number 1).
1)Halloween– John Carpenter’s original “Halloween” is a triumph in understated independent filmmaking achievement. The main musical theme in the score to this film may very well be the best and most effective in film history. Lighting and pacing do their part to establish mood, but whenever the main instrumental piece sets in signifying Michael Myers prescence, the mood closes in perfectly set. In this original film, Myers is presented almost as a primal force of evil– unknowable, indefinable, un-understandable. In a cast of young unknown’s it’s still a bit surprising that John Carpenter managed to snag an actor of such caliber as Donald Pleasance to play Dr. Sam Loomis. His portrayal of Loomis would be hokey by almost anyone else, but he nails it–in the world of “Halloween” things are pretty much black and white so Loomis’s steadfast conviction that “that boy is pure evil” is only fitting. “Halloween” is to blame for the slew of eighties slasher pics with rip-off Michael Myers villains, but although the rip offs dump buckets of blood at every opportunity, “Halloween” pretty much foregoes the gore. We see the knife in Myer’s hand but the terror is in our mind; the camera cuts as the slash goes, continually flashing back to the knife but it’s never really shown entering a victim. Instead we see Myers pin a victim to the wall and then the camera zooms out to display Myers studying his work, cocking his head to the side and looking at the person like he’s some new type of species. “Halloween” is a film I appreciate with each yearly viewing I give it. I love the characters, the camera-work, the score, the town and the time it captures. The late seventies are the perfect setting for a horror movie, director Rob Zombie, who directed the remake of this film, has noted–it’s a time in the recent past which feels like a world ago. No cell phones, no internet, no constant connection between people. Many horror movie threats seem all the more difficult of a scenario when you remove the character’s ability to instantly call, page or email someone for help. “Halloween” was filmed during that time and inspired most horror movies that would follow it. Most of the sequels are skip-worthy, but the 2007 remake by Rob Zombie is a great film in its own right. It ups the gore and switches the focus to a psychological one–Zombie tries to detail what happened to young Michael to make him into the monster he became and his film is a much more troubling one as a result. Side by side though, as a beacon of the genre I stand by and prefer the original. In a culture in which everything has to up everything that came before it to be noticed as most things seem to be these days, the remake may very well effect and terrify people more. I guess I have to admit that my list is geared more to what I feel are the best films the genre has to offer, not always just the scariest.
Horror films work like the flip side of the Comedy film. These two genres are the hardest to do effectively and appeal to the widest range of people…after all, what scares someone and what makes someone laugh is often different for every person. Both genres produce a few excellent films for every hundred terrible ones, and both genres effect you on a physical level. You laugh when you watch a great comedy, but when you watch a truly great horror film your pulse may race, your eyes may widen and your heart rate may increase. Where the comedy film works by causing you to laugh out and forget your worries, the horror film often exercises those worries, channels them, places them on a “monster” or event and leads you to “defeat’ that monster. Plus they make you feel something, which is what all good art aims to do.

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6 Responses to “Halloween and the Best Horror Films”

  1. Chris said

    You have a great top 10 list, Scream is a bit questionable because it was the beginning of the bubblegum horror craze (I know what you did, the factuality) But I look at these films as “gateway” films they are simple and easy to swallow and will hopefully open up a larger world of horror cinema to those who would not normally see the more hardcore films. I also touch on this a bit on my page with “DVD’s everyone should own” I have found real gems in obscure films here is a quick list of films that should be part of you catalogue

    Shutter (original)
    The eye (both original and remake are great)
    Dark water (same as above)
    The mist (the monster is NOT what makes this film scary)
    Night of the living dead (1990 re-make)
    Dawn of the dead (remake)
    Texas chain saw massacre (original, however the remake is fun)
    The Exorcist
    The Omen
    The shining
    Teeth

    There have been a lot of great western made “new slasher” films i.e. Saw, Hostel and Touristas. These Gore fest films seem to be the new trend in horror cinema and harkens back to the classic Friday the 13th films. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE those films but the CREEP factor you get in a ghost film will last a lot longer than seeing someone get the toe nails pulled out one by one.

    This is a fun blog, I’ll be back

    Chris Zenga
    Thedayafterart.blogspot.com

  2. Thanks for visiting The Day After, I have added you to my “Friends,Fiends and other attractions list”
    I hope it helps generate some more traffic to this page.

    Later Days,
    Christopher Zenga

  3. DenzelWE said

    Good morning, HAPPY HALOWEEN! A little late..!

  4. […] few years ago at Halloweentime, I posted a blog with my 10 Favorite Horror Films. This year I have 2 new posts for the season, starting with this, 10 (of the) best horror novels. […]

  5. […] 17, 2010 To complement my Halloween posts on Horror Novels and Horror Films, here’s the official RATDOTL Halloween Mixtape liner […]

  6. Thanks for your effort for writing “Halloween and the Best Horror Films
    Raging Against the Dying Light aka Cultural Observations of the Lost Generation”.
    I actuallywill certainly be returning for more
    reading and commenting soon. Thanks a lot, Vickey

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