It’s the most fearful time of the year
With kids in scary costumes
And Hollywood filling you up with much fear
It’s the most fearful time of the year.
It’s the scar-scariest season of all
With those Satanist readings and de
When pagans come to call
It’s the scar-scariest season of all.
(apologies to Andy Williams for tweaking/butchering his widely loved Xmas song)
Obviously, this post is a Halloween-themed post. I don’t really think this time of year is particularly frightening (no more so than any other time of year). I was just channeling the whining of far-right fundie whackaloons. We all know how whiny and double-extra irrational they get around this time of year. I’m sure we’ll hear something from Pat Robertson about the dangers of dressing kids up or demonic energies (or other such nonsense). Me, I figured I’d take this time to list 5 of my favorite horror movies. Note that I said 5 of my favorite, rather than Top 5. The reason for this? Most of the movies I would even think to list in a Top 5 are ones I haven’t seen in a very long time. It’s hard for me to rate one movie over another when I haven’t viewed it in a while and don’t remember enough details. The only caveat here is that I *do* have a favorite movie, which I’ll be counting down to (it’s a movie I’ve seen repeatedly and it left an indelible mark in my mind, so I remember a lot about it). Here are four of my favorites, in no particular order:
#5- A Nightmare on Elm Street
Wes Craven’s 1984 horror movie about a child murderer who is killed by angry townsfolk only to return as a supernatural boogeyman who terrorizes and kills the children of those townsfolk in their dreams was (and still is) one of my favorites. I can’t recall exactly what my thoughts were upon first seeing the movie, but I do remember some scenes that stood out in my mind:
- The death of Tina (Freddy dragging her up the ceiling is creepy as fuck)
- Freddy’s iconic glove appearing in the water when Nancy falls asleep during a bath
- The death-by-being-pulled-into-his-mattress of Glen
- Freddy terrorizing a sleeping Nancy by pushing through the wall above her bed as if it were made of rubber
- Nancy pulling Freddy out of her dream
- The final image of Nancy’s mother being pulled through the window of the front door by Freddy
Sleep is an essential activity all humans need for survival. It is also a time when we’re quite defenseless. Wes Craven capitalized on that and created a movie that blurred the lines between fantasy and reality in a horrific (and financially lucrative) way. I can imagine moviegoers on opening day walking away from the movie not wanting to sleep that night.
#4- Night of the Living Dead
George Romero’s 1968 filmed-on-a-shoestring-budget cult classic is more eerie and spooky than scary, per se. After all, the shambling hordes of zombies are only a threat if they can catch you (he says before remembering that unlike humans, zombies don’t tire). Of course, in sufficient numbers, they don’t need to catch you to pose a problem. With enough of them, they can cut you off from friends and family and prevent you from acquiring supplies or finding help-which is exactly what happened in this movie. Things I liked about the movie:
- Like the above image points out, there was no love story. I’ve come to hate movies that shoehorn a love story into the plot, bc far too often it’s meaningless to the story being told.
- An African-American is one of the lead characters in the story and actually survives (until the end, of course). This was fairly unheard of at the time. I don’t know Romero’s thoughts on the matter, but I wonder if this was his way of showing viewers that black people could be heroes and protagonists. IOW, bucking the trend of treating black people in movies as one-note supporting characters at best (walking racial stereotypes at worst). Given Romero’s tendency to infuse his Living Dead movies with social commentary, I suspect there is some truth to my speculation. I also appreciate that Romero cast Duane Jones as Ben bc he felt Jones gave the best audition.
- In addition to the social commentary noted above, I also wonder if the ending of the movie was meant to make a point as well. After all, where have we heard of roving bands of white male vigilantes who, operating under the pretense of maintaining law and order, murdered those they deemed less than human (i.e. African-Americans)?
- The ending of the movie was a downer. I’ve long since grown tired of the tendency of Hollywood to end movies on an upbeat note. It’s fine sometimes, but other times, it simply would be nice to not have everything end “happily ever after”. Not every movie needs a fairy-tale ending.
- The film works really well in black-and-white for me. I don’t think it would seem to claustrophobic in color.
- “They’re coming to get you Barbra!” as voiced by the late Vincent Price.
Speaking of zombies…
#3- 28 Days Later
Danny Boyle’s 2002 post-apocalyptic depiction of the breakdown of society in the wake of a “zombie apocalypse” was riveting. I know they weren’t zombies in name (nor did they share the same traits as zombies), but the aggressive, rage-filled destructive monsters that people quickly turned into following infection was clearly modeled after zombies (perhaps in an attempt at more “realistic” zombies?). One thing I really appreciate from this film is that it’s not about the apocalypse. From pretty much the beginning of the film, the movie details what happens *after* the apocalypse has hit. How do we cope with the utter collapse of society? Is it possible to retain our humanity in the face of this world-changing event? Will we descend into barbarism and return to pre-Enlightened times? I like the exploration of these themes offered by the movie.
This film. THIS FILM. While it is effectively “haunted house in space”, Ridley Scott took that idea in a wicked new direction, made more effective than a simple haunted house because the crew of the Nostromo couldn’t go anywhere else. At least in a haunted house, you can theoretically escape and go outside. In space? Not so much with the going outside. The xenomorphs (whose design originated in a lithograph by H.R. Giger) are Creepy. As. Fuck. Just imagine seeing one of those in real life. Much shitting and peeing of pants would most likely happen (if you lived long enough). The idea of having a facehugger wrapped around your neck implanting its larvae into you is another unsettling thought, but not as unsettling as the idea of dying by chestburster. Because that is a paaaaaaaaaaaaainful way to go. The scene where the crew of the Nostromo are sitting around having dinner and a chestburster erupts from Kane’s chest HAD to have freaked out audiences in the theater when the movie first debuted. As with Night of the Living Dead, a pervasive feeling of claustrophobia is felt throughout the movie and that’s a significant reason why the movie is so creepy to me. And of course, part of the magic of this movie is the stellar (I punned!) performance of Sigourney Weaver.
Just seeing Michael Myers’ William Shatner-based mask while looking for the above image was spooky. I first saw this movie as a kid and it stuck with me since then. I’ve seen it probably a half-dozen more times over my life. Even though I know what’s going to happen and that Michael Myers isn’t real, the thought of watching this movie at night, by myself…I won’t lie-I have chosen not to do that before (yes, I am a supposedly rational adult). Michael is terrifying in this movie (a quality that quickly disappeared in the various sequels, though Part 2 was still good). Thanks to the direction of John Carpenter, Michael Myers was the creepy boogeyman who would appear and disappear in a flash always lurking just outside your view (y’know, except when he’d strike and you’d be dead). Whether it was his appearance in a car outside Laurie’s school or behind a hedge of bushes, his appearing/disappearing act helps enhance the tension in the movie. So too was the fact that he wasn’t just trying to kill Laurie. He was terrorizing and isolating her by killing off her friends. His terrorizing didn’t begin and end with Laurie Strode either. One of the scenes that stands out to me the most is Michael, having just killed Bob, appears before Lynda wearing a white sheet over his body (which made her think it was Bob). He seemed to derive a perverse sense of enjoyment out of wearing a costume and fooling Lynda. into thinking he was her dead boyfriend.
Another scary facet to his character was the fact that nothing seemed to stop him. As I said, my first viewing of this movie was as a kid (I might have been 10 or so) and I hadn’t seen many horror movies, so I had no experience with monsters or killers, nor was I aware of many tropes of horror movies, such as the killer not staying dead. Yeah, one of the scariest scenes in the movie is Michael rising up from beside the bed after having been stabbed in the eye by Laurie (who thought he was dead) and slowly shambling up-silently-behind her. This scene was further made scary bc it was filmed in such low-level lighting. When Laurie walks out of the room, all we see is shadow and then Michael’s white mask appears and he attacks *again*. Brrrr. Chilling. Another frightening scene occurs when Laurie first encounters Michael. She was babysitting two kids (who were asleep) and decided to check on Bob and Lynda (who were in the house across the street), not knowing what the audience knows-that both of them are dead and there’s a serial killing madman in the house waiting on her. After encountering Michael for the first time, she falls down the stairs and runs out of the house, screaming for help. But of course this is Halloween night, when screaming is *expected* and tricking people into thinking you’re in trouble is part of the fun. So she isn’t taken seriously. To make matters worse, when she gets back to the home of the kids she is babysitting, she realizes she forgot the keys, and off in the not-too-far distance, Michael approaches. The tension mounts as she pounds on the door, screaming for the kids to wake up. Finally the kids come downstairs and let Laurie in-at virtually the last possible instant. Phew! Danger averted, right? Nope. Because right after Laurie sends the kids upstairs to their room, she discovers curtains in the living room blowing gently in the night wind and the patio door is open! The tension in this scene could have been cut with a spork! All of this is aided by some excellent, stupendous, fantastic pacing.
Another thing I really appreciate about this film is the lack of blood and gore (which was made up for in the various sequels, sadly). I think many horror movies of the modern era rely too heavily on showing images of gore and lots of blood. While I’m not going to refrain from watching movies that show such (I *won’t*, however, watch any “torture porn” movies as they disgust me), I prefer the fact that most of Michael’s kills in this film are bloodless. I can just imagine how this movie would be filmed today (like the scene where Michael kills Bob in the kitchen).
Seems like there’s one other thing that I really liked about this movie. Can’t seem to remember what it…oh yeah!
Gives me goosebumps every time I hear it. Created by director John Carpenter, the piano score frightens the dickens out of me and raises all the hair on my neck. And it is used to amazing effect as a way to ramp up the tension in the film. The John Williams score for the Christopher Reeve Superman movies is the only other score that evokes a strong emotional reaction from me (obviously quite a different emotional reaction than the Halloween score).
There you have it-5 of my favorite horror movies. While part of me wants to rank them, I’m thinking I would be hard pressed to do so. They’re all fantastic and impress me in their own way which is really all that matters, IMO. From Wes Craven to John Carpenter, the directors of each of these movies used fantastical elements (whether supernatural or science fiction) to turn very real fears into cinematic masterpieces. For all the jumps, frights, and kills however, no zombie, wanna-be zombie, xenomorph, or boogeymen can fill me with fear and dread like some of the horrors present in the real world. Horrors such as the destructive fury of nature.