I received numerous- and I do mean numerous as in "consisting of great numbers", from the Latin "numerosus"- lite complaints about how got-danged difficult it was to come up with a Top 20 favorites list. 20 seems like a large enough number, but you're talking about your favorite genre, 20 ain't nothin'. It was part of my plan all along to include a list of my Top 20 and let me tell you, my friends- I feel your pain. I wrote down a whole bunch of titles without thinking much about it- basically, whatever favorites popped into my head immediately- and found that I had written over 30 of them. Then came the culling and man...it was tough.
I didn't want to put any parameters on my selections; I didn't want to leave a movie out because it's a typical Top 20 choice. I didn't want to include something simply because it's a "classic" and it's "good". If my list consisted of 11 Friday the 13th films and 9 Nightmare on Elm Streets, so be it (it doesn't). When narrowing it down, I eventually took to comparing titles in pairs in a head-to-head cage match for a place on the list- which do I like better, this...or that? The winner made the list, the loser stuck in runner-up land. It really was not easy, and on paper my list is a mess of scribbles and crossings-outs and writes and re-writes. I look at it here and I feel pretty good about it, but then I can hear Let the Right One in banging on my door, crying "Let Me In!"...SEE WHAT I DID THERE.
These aren't in any particular order. I've written about most of these movies before- some so many times I really don't have anything groundbreaking to say about them here. Click the links if you want to know more, whether it's a review or my willies list or scenes I love or some such.
The Exorcist (1973, William Friedkin)
This is one of those "Well, it's such a typical list choice, I shouldn't choose to list it" movies, but you know...fuck that. It's a masterful study of religion and man's place in the universe as well as a parable about puberty.
Oh yeah...and it's terrifying.
For me, it remains one of the very few movies I'd rather not watch alone with the lights off. It still gets under my skin, after all these years; I never seem to get desensitized to it, and that's a very good thing.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974, Tobe Hooper)
This move is so damn powerful and so damn important to the genre that it's still regularly ripped-off more than 30 years since it was made (seriously, if I never see another "crazy family dinner scene" again, I'll be happy).
It was made with little money under excruciating circumstances for the cast...and it's in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, which...I don't know. Proves something or other, I'm sure. The low budget quality gives the film its infamous verité feel- countless people have wondered if what they're watching is real. Yes, those people are gullible to the point of stupidity, perhaps, but there's no denying the snuff-like, almost forbidden quality of TCM. Leatherface remains one of the scariest, most fucked-up movie monsters ever to grace the screen, and Sally Hardesty remains one of the most resolute final girls. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre remains a slice of cinematic perfection.
The Shining (1980, Stanley Kubrick)
For me, The Shining is a gift that keeps on giving. When I was but a wee bonny lass, the more obvious hallmarks were the things that kept me up at night: the Grady sisters, the axe through the door, the water-logged dead woman. Over the years, those scenes and images remain some of my favorites, sure, but every time I watch the film I have a new favorite thing, a new favorite scene or moment- why, right now, I'm all about the symmetry and Shelley Duvall. Oh, and the poster above Dick Halloran's bed. And the score. And Danny's sweaters. And...
Friday the 13th: Part II (1981, Steve Miner)
Even among horror fans, the Friday the 13th films have the reputation of being a bit scuzzy, a little sleazy, and the generally the least that the genre has to offer. They're pretty stupid, the characters are paper-thin at best, and they amount to little more than teenagers and assorted weirdos getting butchered in increasingly ludicrous ways by a maniac who shouldn't even exist. You know, I can't really disagree with any of that, but it doesn't prevent me from having a Friday the 13th-shaped place in my heart. Perhaps it's largely due to nostalgia, having grown up with a few years' worth of Fridays; perhaps I don't care. Part II, wherein a sack-wearing Jason Voorhees takes up the machete to avenge his mother's death is, to my mind, a quintessential slasher flick.
Martyrs (2008, Pascal Laugier)
I know- I keep talking about this film without ever really saying anything substantial. One of these days I swear I'll give Martyrs the write-up it deserves (or, I suppose I should say: the best write-up I can give it), but now is not the time. Thought-provoking, horrifying, moving, astounding- this movie knocked me on my ass the first time I saw it and while I was sure I'd never want to watch it again, I couldn't stop thinking about it. The next thing I know, I was watching it again. The second time around, it knocked me on my ass again for reasons far beyond the violence and brutality...but that's all for some future post. Ha!
The Descent (2005, Neil Marshall)
Lawdamighty, how I've gone on and on about this movie. What else is left for me to say? I fucking love it, so here it is in my Top 20 favorites. End of story.
The Blair Witch Project (1999, Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez)
From my review: "All my gushing isn't to say the film is perfect- it's far from it. There are "plot holes", if you will, that you can fly a broomstick through (hi, the map incident, anyone?). But ultimately, I'm a big fat scaredy baby when it comes to things that go bump in the night- and in The Blair Witch Project, they're making noise right outside your door. And I don't care what you say- you know the last 10 minutes of this movie...the 10 minutes in the fucking house- rock your face off."
Yup. Still feel that way.
Day of the Dead (1985, George Romero)
Wait...what? I'm listing Day? Day of the Dead, when Dawn and Night are out there? Yes. That's exactly what I'm doing. Of Romero's original undead trilogy, Day gets the least amount of love from fans and dammit...I think it deserves more. It's got humor, but it never really sinks into outright silliness the way Dawn does. Sarah makes for an interesting- if not always likable- heroine. There are the director's patented Bigger Ideas at Play going on, of course, with all those "who are the real monsters here?" Army a-holes. The film predates CGI core and features some of Tom Savini's best FX work- of particular note is the shot of a gut full of guts sliding out and falling to the ground with a nauseating splash. Then there's Bub, and the shot of all the zombies descending on that massive cargo elevator- bitchin'. Yeah, everyone yells a lot and that's irritating, but big deal! Maybe I love Day so much because it was the first zombie movie I was really allowed to see. Big deal! This is my list, not yours, so choke on 'em! Wow, why am I getting so touchy about this? Must be all that yelling. It...affects a person.
The Evil Dead (1981, Sam Raimi)
I don't worship at the altar of Bruce Campbell and I've never even seen Army of Darkness- but goldurnit, I fucking love The Evil Dead. I originally saw it Once Upon a Time, and let me tell you- the absurdity and humor of it were completely lost on me. None of it was funny to me, not one bit, and it scared the hell out of me. A possessed Cheryl trying to break out of the cellar, pencils stabbed through ankles, the dead not staying dead, claymation faces melting away...what's not to love? Well, maybe the raped-by-a-tree scene, but still.
Halloween (1978, John Carpenter)
Halloween is also a quintessential slasher flick, if not THE quintessential slasher flick. It rises so far above all of its subgenre siblings, though, thanks to the sublime direction of John Carpenter, the entirely believable performance by Jamie Lee Curtis, the timeless, terrifying score, the faceless evil of Michael Myers, the--eh, I could go on and on, but why bother? If you've never seen Halloween, I'm not sure what you're doing here. I mean, welcome and all, but you've never seen Halloween? Really?
The Silence of the Lambs (1991, Jonathan Demme)
Plenty of people say this is not a horror movie. I think it is, and it's also one of my favorites, so voila. You know, I'm totally the type of person who says the Academy Awards are worthless when I find they're not bestowed on the films or actors I think they should be in a given year (I'll never stop bitching about Ellen Burstyn losing to Julia Roberts- never! I'll be complaining about that on my deathbed)...but man, Silence sweeping the Oscars was so very, very right. So right. In every respect, this film is a masterpiece- and I'll be damned if you can find a more feminist piece of filmmaking in all of horrorland. In related news, I've seen this movie a zillion times, but it wasn't until my most recent viewing that I noticed George Romero in his cameo role.
The Thing (1982, John Carpenter)
THE monster movie. THE. THEEEEE. Seriously, the creature FX work of Rob Bottin blew my little mind and continue to do such to my larger mind. Let's face it, it's gross. The horror goes deeper than that, however, as The Thing becomes less about The Thing and more about isolation and paranoia. And beards. The minimal cast is impeccable, the locations stark, the humor black, and the hero undeniably cool and oh-so-Carpenter. There's a prequel in the works and while I'll reserve judgment until I see it, at night the wind whispers "C...G...I...creeeeaaaturessssss" and I cry.
The Haunting (1963, Robert Wise)
There are many, many fantastic ghost stories out there, but The Haunting is simply my favorite. I summed it up as such in my review: "Four people, each in their own way wanting desperately to be accepted and to belong, staying in one very, very bad house." That's it. The film taps into that primal fear of childhood- the fear of the dark, of the things you can't see that go bump in the night. Besides being a terrific pull the covers up to your chin kind of movie, The Haunting is also a compelling character study of loneliness. Heartstopping and heartbreaking. I love love love this movie.
Salem's Lot (1979, Tobe Hooper)
THIS WAS MADE FOR TV. That statement, once and for all, proves that the old days were better. Seriously. Social networking, hybrid cars, iPods, microwaveable macaroni and cheese...fuck 'em. There were horror movies made for TV 30 years ago that are leagues better than theatrically-released horror movies of The Now. What's going on in made for TV horror today? Syfy bullshit. Yes, we all get a chuckle, perhaps, out of Sharktoface vs Octosaurus, but come on. In the old days, we had Salem's Lot. The end.
I love the melodrama and the slo-oo-ooow build of Salem's Lot. I love that Mr. Barlow descends upon the town like a plague, infecting it long before we ever see him. I love how GD scary it all is, for vampires are so very often not scary at all- from Mrs. Glick's resurrection in the morgue to Ralphie floating and scratching in the fog outside the window to Barlow himself (only Nosferatu looks more horrifying), it's simply a big pile of fang-riddled greatness.
[REC] (2007, Jaume Balaguero, Paco Plaza)
I was not expecting [REC] to come out of nowhere like that and punch me in the face with two big fists of awesome. I was not expecting a film to come along 10 years after The Blair Witch Project and make P.O.V. horror fresh again- fresh, and maybe better than it ever was. It's fast and bloody and startling and a relentless, extended jump-scare...then Balaguero and Plaza slam on the brakes with a finale that had me holding my breath and gave me nightmares. Yup, unexpected. Yup, awesome. Yup, a favorite.
28 Days Later (2002, Danny Boyle)
This Romero-zombie-trilogy-in-1 film has more heart, really, than all three Romero zombie flicks combined. Yes, 28 Days Later revitalized the zombie genre (it did, whether you think the rage-infected folk are actually "zombies" or not); it sparked the "running zombies" controversy that continues even to this day in the hearts, minds, and mouths of horror fans everywhere (it did, whether you think the rage-infected folk are actually "zombies" or not); it's a top-notch scary movie, straight-up. What sets it apart, though, is, as I mentioned, the heart of it all. There are countless touches throughout that put some meat on the bones of this thriller- from the goodbye note left by Jim's parents to the echoes of 9/11 in the countless "LOST" postings to the first time Selena smiles to Frank blowing a kiss to the horses running free, the movie draws you in and you suddenly find yourself invested and caring without knowing much about anybody.
Here's something, though- whenever a list of "kick-ass horror chicks" or something equally inane comes along, why is it that Selena is so often overlooked? Hmm? What a great character. Remember her, won't you, and put her alongside your Ripleys and your Ginnys.
The Fog (1980, John Carpenter)
Fog is scary. The Fog is scary. Now that the deep, philosophical ruminations are out of the way...
I heart this movie so much that I hearted it in the I Heart...series. The list of reasons why I love is too long to go into here, so you'll have to click if you want to read 'em. Or maybe the fact that it's here is good enough for you and you don't want or need to read more. I don't know. I don't live your life.
Creepshow (1982, George Romero)
Hey remember when I was just talking about Creepshow recently? Uh huh. I talk about Creepshow quite often. I can't help it. I want to be buried with a copy of Creepshow. Then I want to claw my way out of the ground, clutching it. Then I want to watch it again.
Adrienne Barbeau and Tom Atkins in the same movie. All the other awesomeness of Creepshow aside, those two people guarantee it a place on my favorites list.
Session 9 (2001, Brad Anderson)
This movie about the evil that lurks within all of us is also a damn scary psychological haunted house flick. Chilling and atmospheric, Session 9 seems spare on the surface but rewards repeat viewings.
Candyman (1992, Bernard Rose)
This movie is just so damn good. It's gory. It's terrifying. And, as I said in my review, "More than sheer visceral thrills, however, Candyman works so well because it's a film that's got something to say: it's a meditation on racism, classism, fame, inner city economics, crime, and the power of myth. It's a very smart movie." So there.
PHEW! There they are, my GD top 20. No one in the history of ever has struggled as greatly as I struggled to produce this list. EVER. As I said (and as you'd expect), this list came out with scars. Some dear movies were lost along the way, and I'd like to pay tribute to those casualties right now- those movies that I love but crossed out, those that bubbled under the surface, begging me to make a list of 21 or 31 or any number greater than 20 so they could stand up here alongside their GD brethren. Let's take a moment, shall we?
- The Ring
- Don't Look Now
- A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors
- Night of the Living Dead (1968)
- Black Christmas
- Let the Right One In
- Wrong Turn