If you've ever visited Movie Morlocks, the blog for Turner Classic Movies, then you've seen some of Richard Harland Smith's handiwork. He's one of those irritating writers- you know the kind, the ones who really know their shit and manage to write smart stuff that's infused with humor, personality, and style. He's as funny as he is erudite and...wait, why am I featuring his Top 20? I hate this guy!
Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between horror movies you respect for their historical significance and those you like to watch again and again. When I began to put together this list, I noticed a common throughline of social significance… movies that widen their scope to encompass a shared horror experience over an intensely personal one. That’s not to say The Evil Dead or Repulsion lack social significance – they both deal with the individual’s place in society – but the ones I really like ask a certain population – a town, a country, the world - to draw lines to deal with the situation, to divide and subdivide in a frenzied attempt to preserve the fabric of society.
Night of the Living Dead (1968, George Romero)
Night of the Living Dead seems to me the king of social horror movies, depicting the breakdown from within due to an onslaught from without. But instead of a wave of red Indians or alien invaders, the attackers are us, reanimated, repurposed, the shuffling, dead-eyed rapaciousness of the ghouls a mockery of mid-20th Century complacency. I love a whole host of horror movies based on George Romero’s classic, including…
Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974, Jorge Grau)
...Jorge Grau’s direct rip-off, in which class issues (masquerading as the Generation Gap) inform the horror. I’m also a big fan of…
The People Who Own the Dark (1976, Leon Klimovsky)
... from Leon Klimovsky, with Paul Naschy and a villa full of swells surviving a nuclear incident that has blinded the provinces but left the hoi polloi sightless and resentful. A more hopeful cousin to these movies is…
Island of Terror (1966, Terence Fisher)
...from Terence Fisher on a vacation from Hammer. There’s a nice Big City vs. Small Town tension throughout, as egghead scientists Peter Cushing and Edward Judd try to slow the inchmeal progress of monsters spawned by cancer research gone awry. On a less sociological level, this is just one of those movies where I love everybody’s clothes, particularly the anorak jackets a lot of the characters wear. It’s got a nice chilly, autumnal palette.
Horror Express (1972, Eugenio Martin)
Horror Express is another strangers-in-bad-company siege scenario, with the reanimated dead advancing upon the unbelieving living through the pinched confines of a moving train. To get the full yield of this movie, it’s best to know a little about world history at the time of the film’s setting and the situation in pre-revolution Russia but it’s still a lot of fun even if you don’t.
Attack of the Mushroom People (1963, Ishiro Honda)
It's another progenitor of Night of the Living Dead but there’s something seductive and sexy blended in with the horror as a group of modern Japanese swells succumb to hunger, paranoia and the undying urge to propagate. This movie changed my DNA!
The House on Haunted Hill (1959, William Castle)
William Castle's House on Haunted Hill is a well-oiled shock machine that runs on the petrol of class consciousness, though the movie never wears that distinction on its sleeve. You just have to know where those lines fall between the characters and what makes Frederick Loren different from, say, Lance Schroeder. A more explicit class contretemps occurs in…
The Hills Have Eyes (1977, Wes Craven)
The best scene in the movie, and some of the best dialogue ever written for fright films, occurs when Papa Jupiter browbeats the dead body of urbanite “Big Bob” Carter, whom he tells “I’m gonna watch your car rust out.” What a brilliant thing to say – it’s like something that Dracula might have told Van Helsing if he were born in West Virginia. Class issues also lie at the dark heart of…
The Blood on Satan's Claw (1971, Piers Haggard)
...which is another one of those great cinematic exercises in British self-loathing. The ostensible hero of the piece, the magistrate played by the great Patrick Wymark, is nobody’s idea of a good guy and the stranglehold he and his peers keep on the peasants is the reason why the Devil has such a successful run for 90 odd minutes. Even with the film’s arguably happy ending, the survivors are still left in a place of crushing servitude.
The Seventh Victim (1943, Mark Robson)
From producer Val Lewton and director Mark Robson, this makes a lot of Top 10 lists but the reasons people seem to like this are different from why I do. I love stories about secret societies, which are microcosms of the general population that (as the story goes) invariably make the same mistakes of the larger demographic in their desire to break away from the norm. I actually sympathize with the Satanists in this movie, to a certain degree.
The Pyx (1973, Harvey Hart)
The Pyx is another secret society horror movie from Canada, with Christopher Plummer playing a middle class cop who investigates the death of provincial girl turned prostitute Karen Black, ultimately uncovering a nest of affluent Satanists in gleaming, modern Montreal. You tend to see Satanism associated these days with the aristocracy (as opposed to the hoi polloi in Hammer’s The Devils and Blood on Satan’s Claw) and that always reminds me of the line from Chinatown: “How much better can you eat?” The scary thing to my mind is that people who are always looking to be exalted somehow could go either way, to Heaven or to Hell, that it makes no difference and I think that’s where The Pyx is pointed.
The Brides of Dracula (1960, Terence Fisher)
Brides is a great, vivid horror movie, a superior sequel, and a cunningly crafted meditation on social ascendancy, with vampirism being the ultimate clique, the ultimate country club. The Technicolor photography is so gorgeous that you’re tempted to look more than listen but pay strict attention to what the characters say to one another, and what they say about themselves, and you’ll find a second movie hidden well inside the first.
Dracula's Daughter (1936, Lambert Hillyer)
Dracula's Daughter is another vampire story constructed around an absent title character that also has everything to do with class. The plot hangs between protagonist Marya Zaleska, an undead creature who hopes to attain humanity, and a cynical psychiatrist, Dr. Jeffrey Garth, who is all through with society, with social codes, with titles and the superstition of status. And yet he is charged with the task of curing Marya. But he fails, of course. The patient dies but Garth (it seems) regains his humanity. It’s actually a pretty neat story and boasts one of the greatest codependent couples in movie history. I’d like to see a prequel about Marya Zaleksa and her goony manservant Sandor.
Kill, Baby...Kill (1966, Mario Bava)
This belongs to a subset of horror movies that deal with communal responsibility for a past misdeed. In this case, the death of young Melissa Grapps is a sin of omission (much like the drowning death of Jason Voorhees in the Friday the 13th backstory), for which the townsfolk must continue to pay until the debt is repaid. The same sort of vibe runs through…
Silent Night, Bloody Night (1974, Theodore Gershuny)
...from Ted Gershuny, in which the whole fabric of society is called into question by the revelation that the founding fathers were all escapees from a lunatic asylum. I think I’m the only person in the world who loves his movie.
Don't Torture a Duckling (1972, Lucio Fulci)
This film is Lucio Fulci’s inversion of To Kill a Mockingbird, in which provincial small-mindedness informs our understanding of why someone could smother the life out of defenseless children. Too often fobbed off as merely anti-cleric, the movie is much more agonized and anguished than that, and in the final analysis no one comes out free of guilt.
Carnival of Souls (1962, Herk Harvey)
Carnival of Souls is Repulsion-like in its focus on a single woman who cannot find a place for herself in society but I like Candice Hilligoss’ plucky Mary Henry a lot more than Catherine Deneuve’s Carole Ledoux. Why? Because Mary’s not a victim… well, until she just is. But that’s how it is for us all, isn’t it?
Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971, John D. Hancock)
Jessica belongs in this company, too, as a more personal take on societal horror. By dint of her unorthodox behavior (coded by society as damaged, sick), Jessica is always on the outside looking in, a subtheme director John Hancock reflects by having Jessica constantly looking through windows, through glass, through water. If you’ve ever watched a community of friends overtaken one by one by drug use or some other caustic thing, you’ll take a lot from this movie.
Blood Feast (1963, Herschell Gordon Lewis)
Once you strip this movie of its Psychotronic baggage and everything everybody has said about it to date you’ll find a brilliant black comedy about an Egyptian jihad waged against complacent, antiseptic, empty middle America in the pre-Vietnam era. All the things that H. Gordon Lewis did to save money, like use motel rooms instead of sets for his characters’ homes, actually say something about the characters, all of whom look embalmed in life. This is a world so devoid of any intellectual or artistic depth that people need to belong to book clubs in order to read anything. Fuad Ramses cuts through this cultural inertia like a dose of salts, using the infidels as raw materials in the making of an offering to his god. He may be merciless, he may even be evil, but at least he’s about something. He’s really the hero of this movie.
Ringu (1998, Hideo Nakata)
As with Blood Feast, do yourself a favor and forget how Hideo Nakata’s visual tropes have been copied, both in Asia and America; if you can un-learn all that and focus on the story you’ll find a chilly cautionary tale of a modern society fooled into thinking it has broken with its superstitious past through the glory of technology… only to have ancient, undying evil delivered to them via microchip technology.
Other Special Guest Top 20(ish) lists: