When I first started writing Final Girl- hell, maybe even a short time before I started this blog- I discovered and spent a lot of time with John Kenneth Muir's Horror Films of the 1970s. By "spent a lot of time with", I don't mean we frolicked through the fields together and did each other's hair...hmm, or maybe I do mean that. Just don't ask me how/where/why a book has hair.
Anyway, Muir's book and its successor Horror Films of the 1980s are terrific resources if, like me, you enjoy reading about horror movies as much as you enjoy watching them: his entries include plot summaries, production notes, and reviews. When he not writing one of his countless books or guides, you can catch Mr. Muir at his blog, Reflections on Film/TV. Surely there's some Ghost and Mrs. Muir joke he could have used somewhere in that title...
Return of the Living Dead (1985, Dan O'Bannon)
I love the irreverent humor and the underlying 1980s apocalypse mentality. For me, this movie is a perfect (and funny) storm of the punk rock aesthetic and political nihilism of the day (The Day After, etc). I particularly love the scene in which Frank and Freddy are diagnosed with rigor mortis. On retrospect, it seems obvious I suppose, but this was the first movie that derived so much humor out of the zombie life cycle.
Fright Night (1985, Tom Holland)
Okay, so 1985 was a big year for me. Fright Night was nostalgic and romantic, and Roddy McDowall gave a great, affectionate performance as washed-up horror movie host, Peter Vincent. Chris Sarandon was no slouch either as the vampire Dandridge, a perpetually-amused "modern" vamp who found it easy to hide in 1980s suburbia. And I really dug the brief, under-the-radar reference to the 1960s series The Invaders in one clever insert shot.
Poltergeist (1982, Tobe Hooper)
I still knows what scares me. This movie -- and that damned clown hiding under the bed -- terrorize me to this day, but I also love the "yuppie" dynamic of the "Freelings" in an American culture where nothing is really "free." You think you're getting a great real estate deal...but they just moved the goddamn head stones. Finally, the gonzo, balls-to-the-wall third act -- where all the narrative rules go out the window -- seems like characteristic Tobe Hooper to me...and I love it. Good Spielberg vibes are usurped by Hooper's more malevolent ones.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974, Tobe Hooper)
Tobe Hooper's finest effort, and every time I watch, I marvel at how unlikable Franklin is, and how indecorously Hooper treats this guy in the wheelchair (he gets rolled down a hill during a potty break, for goodness' sake). That kind of political incorrectness takes brass balls. But then the whole enterprise is a wondrous, artistically-realized slap in the face of established movie decorum, tradition and convention (not to mention a screed in favor of vegetarianism, I guess...) and I'm absolutely mesmerized every time I watch it.
Halloween (1978, John Carpenter)
91 minutes of pure horror perfection. I love this original Carpenter-ian incarnation of Michael Myers, wherein he is "The Shape" and not necessarily a long-lost brother to Laurie Strode. I appreciate how ambiguous the film is. Is Michael a developmentally-arrested kid playing trick or treat games? Laurie's unleashed Id? A supernatural force? Watching this film alone in the dark that white Shatner mask absorbs and then reflects all the viewers' fears right back at him or her, and the result is a classic horror movie, largely unsurpassed. This movie still scares me, and though I love it, I won't watch it when I'm alone in the house. I actually have nightmares about Michael Myers, all these years later.
The Haunting (1963, Robert Wise)
The best and still scariest haunted house movie ever made. I noted above that I appreciate ambiguity in horror, and Wise's film is an exercise in ambiguity. The film's characters are outcasts. The builder of the haunted house was an outcast. What's really going on inside? A legitimate haunting, or a paranoid, folie a famille? Wise's background in editing makes simple moments (like a door knob slowwwwwwly turning...) absolutely horrific.
Carrie (1976, Brian De Palma)
The late Pauline Kael described this disco-decade film as a teenager's dirty joke brilliantly stretched out to feature film length, and I certainly couldn't say it better. De Palma is at his devious, malicious, expressive best with this effort, and that final jolt with Amy Irving is still a kicker. Again, this is a movie that sucks me in every time, no matter how many times I see it.
Phantasm (1979, Don Coscarelli)
I'm probably alone in this, but I find Phantasm strangely (and wonderfully...) whimsical and emotionally powerful. It plays to me like the sad, lonely subconscious fantasy of an adolescent kid who is trying to make sense of all the death around him, in his town and in his immediate family. The film is surreal and creepy, yet I'm always sort of unexpectely moved by the tender power of the thing. We all build mythology around mortality don't we? In some deeply unsettling way, Phantasm gets at that notion.
Kingdom of the Spiders (1977, John "Bud" Cardos)
Again a favorite that perhaps isn't the greatest horror movie ever, speaking strictly as an objective (*ahem*) movie critic. But the Shat is in it front and center, delivering his special brand of wonderful. And the last, merciless act is absolutely go-for-broke, with spiders on a relentless march And the audacity (if not the execution...) of that final shot (a matte painting of a webbed town in Arizona) always floors me. To my wife's chagrin, I am driven to watch this movie at least twice a year.
Dawn of the Dead (1978, George Romero)
Zombies + shopping malls + social commentary on conspicuous consumerism = horror gold. How can you not love it? The action set pieces are still harrowing, and Ken Foree's Peter remains a terrific horror bad ass. I love the interlude during which life in the mall gets boring...and the characters start arguing over the TV (displaying only static). This was before "They are us" and "we are them" was an over-utilized, exhausted cliche. You don't really need to see any other George Romero Dead picture made after this one...Dawn gets the point across...gorily.
Evil Dead 2 (1987, Sam Raimi)
A flying, severed eyeball lands in a screaming mouth and gets swallowed by a redneck named Bobbie Jo. Who's laughing now? Sam Raimi, I love you.
Lifeforce (1985, Tobe Hooper)
Another off-kilter, totally wacky Tobe Hooper movie, with Mathilda May inhabiting Patrick Stewart's body and trying to lay a smooch on wigged-out Steve Railsback. The movie starts out like Quatermass and ends like Night of the Living Dead. A movie of great ups and downs, no doubt, but also possessing a stellar imagination.
The Blair Witch Project (1999, Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez)
...and cat-calls, complaints and recriminations begin...three, two, one...now. Despite the backlash, I still find this incredibly scary, especially that final set-piece in the isolated house. This is a movie about how we see and process media (including horror movies) and the artificial barriers we put up so we can believe we're okay, and that a malevolent witch isn't really going to swoop down, rip out our teeth and make us stand in the corner.
And Soon the Darkness (1970, Robert Fruest)
A great and underrated early slasher flick inventively set in broad daylight. Language, local customs and paranoia prove to be barriers to security and safety for a put-upon biker (Pamela Franklin) after her friend disappears. I still find this relentlessly involving, right up to the spectacular final overhead shot.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984, Wes Craven)
One, two, Freddy's coming for you. Surreal, scary and endlessly entertaining, this Craven flick, like Halloween, is an hour-and-a-half of pure nirvana for me. I love the schoolroom scene with Nancy and Hamlet, and how it echoes the classroom scene with Laurie in Halloween. In Halloween, the topic in English class is inescapable fate. In Elm Street, the topic is probing and digging to learn the truth. For me, this is the moment when horror's Final Girl (Stacie?) went from skillfully surviving a trauma in her life on luck to willfully re-shaping her own destiny and assuring a positive outcome, fate be damned.
And, finally, on any given day:
The Birds (1963, Alfred Hitchcock)
The Ninth Gate (1999, Roman Polanski)
Psycho (1960, Alfred Hitchcock)
The Fog (1980, John Carpenter)
Night of the Living Dead (1968, George Romero)
The Exorcist (1973, William Friedkin)
Other Special Guest Top 20(ish) lists: