Monday, October 11, 2010

Horror Movies

Since Halloween is approaching I thought it would be fun to compile a list of the best horror movies of all time. First of all let's lay a couple of ground rules.

One, the movies must involve the supernatural. A movie about a serial killer stalking his victim or a subway car full of innocent citizens at the mercy psycho gang members can be scary indeed but those are primarily crime movies while the Halloween season requires the participation of something beyond ordinary human evil.

Two, we can stipulate that the old black and white horror movies starring actors like Bella Lugosi, Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff playing Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster and the werewolf were all great films. Many people, me included, think they are more enjoyable than almost everything calling itself a "horror movie" that comes out of Hollywood today. But to be honest most of them were products of the "if people will pay to see it once they will pay to see it again and again so make a sequel" mentality. They were hastily written and hastily produced with little in the way of special effects (even by the standards of the times).

What makes these films classics are the dignity and class infused every part of the creative process which produced them. Their underlying attitude was that there is such a thing as good and evil and that good inherently deserves to win. This is why tormented Larry Talbot was willing to end his life if it would break the curse that turned him into a werewolf, why Dracula always ended up with a wooden stake through his heart and why at the end of the movie we realized that the true monster was Dr. Frankenstein himself.

Another aspect of why these old movies are superior to most of the blood and gore slash-fests which pass for modern horror movies is the fact that the standards which Hollywood was forced to conform to in the past did not allow for the graphic violence which modern directors rely upon instead of good writing, good acting and good direction.

But all that these pictures have going for them cannot save them from the fact that they were formulaic cookie-cutter productions intended for children and teenagers. In other words they occupied the same market niche as Friday the 13th part 29 and so do not really qualify for a list of pictures which are not only fun to watch but actually advance the art of movie making.

With that out of the way here is the beginning of my list of the greatest horror movies of all time.

1. The Exorcist. A beautiful little girl is possessed by a demon. The evil creature uses her to preform acts of evil from the symbolic (desecrating a statue of the Virgin Mary in a local Catholic church) to the concrete (committing cold blooded murder). It strips her of her innocence and attacks everyone around her in ways designed to create terror and confusion to challenge faith and create despair. The only flaw in the movie was that in the end the demon was vanquished not by the power of God but by the compassion of the priest who offered himself in exchange for the child and committed suicide before the beast could assert full control over his body.

2. The Exorcist III. Forget the others in the series. Exorcist III is the true sequel to the original, written by William Peter Blatty it manages to create the same atmosphere of suspense and invoke the same sense of oppressive evil.

3. Rosemary's Baby. I thought strongly about making this no. 1. Roman Polanski is certainly a low life dirtbag rapist who deserves to die behind bars, but he did manage to make of the the best horror movies of all time. The way the situation is set up lets the audience know that something evil is afoot even while young Rosemary Woodhouse is only beginning to realize that something isn't exactly right. Everything about this movie works together perfectly to create the desired effect. The photography, the location, the music and above all the acting.

4. Halloween. This was the first of its kind and must be judged on that basis. It was genuinly creative rather than copycat. Even though the rules for this list require that the evil be supernatural it is strongly suggested that Michael Myers is more (or is it less) than merely human.

To be honest this is all I can come up with. What emerges from Hollywood in the current era is almost universally garbage. Directors imagine that special effects, an ocean of fake blood and a giant helping of hipster nihilism are the only things required to make a "scary" movie.

Some pictures deserve an honorable mention however.

Phantasm. This was an excellent movie but is doesn't make the list for two reasons. One, the villains were aliens not supernatural beings and two, it wasn't so much scary as it was wicked cool and funny in a twisted and perverse way.

Alien. Magnificent film, but again it was about an alien not a supernatural horror.

Rawhead Rex. Good concept but suffers from hokey special effects and an ending that's a little too pat. Still it gets points for having the first openly gay demonic monster. Also the movie reinforces an important lesson. Standing stones are standing where they are for a reason. Don't knock them down!

Halloween III: Season of the Witch. If this film had been trying to be funny it would be a work of genius. As it is it is little more than schlock intended to cash in on the Halloween franchise, but if you want a laugh sit down with this DVD and a six-pack.