(*Editor’s Note – This is a reprint from a piece I posted two years ago today. I’ll have a Halloween post up next week with pics of the kids Trick r’ Treating. Also, that creepy cool pumpkin shot in the header is not from a film. It is courtesy of my main man Sean O’Brien who really has the eye.)
This past summer, I blew away the pesky summer doldrums with a few entries in my continuing series – My Favorite Things. As a movie lover, I am often asked to name my favorite flick. That is a feat on equal standing with choosing your favorite child. If you love movies, it’s impossible to pick just one. My quick fix to this conundrum was to skinny the question down to particular genres. Therefore, we had The Top 5 Guilty Pleasure Flicks, The Top 5 Film Endings, The Top 5 Movies that Made this Grown Man Weep, and so on.
In the spirit of Halloween, I decided to offer up my Top 5 Scary Movies. First, a disclaimer. I don’t scare easily – especially with the knowledge that this is all just make believe. Therefore, my list may not feature traditional ‘Boo’ flicks. Also, I’ve found that the horror and thriller genres often spill into other genres (most notably sci-fi) so some of these selections could be categorized in a number of areas. For me, they exist in one category only.
These are my Top 5 Scary Movies. As always, let us know your thoughts and give us your 5.
John Carpenter’s Halloween is the original American slasher flick. I guess one could argue that Psycho trumps them all – and I’m sure there are a number of flicks that pre-date this one – but Halloween is the flick that introduced the multiplex to the undying boogeyman who would rise ad nauseum to punish frisky teens. I say American, because the genre was actually born of the Italian giallo movement of the late 60’s/early 70’s – of which later slasher flicks like the Friday the 13th series cribbed from wholesale.
Being first doesn’t always guarantee best – but Halloween is the one slasher film that truly rises above the rest. For starters, there’s precious little slashing going on. Carpenter is more interested in building suspense – telling his own little ghost story about a very disturbed little boy who carved his family up one fateful Halloween who escapes from confinement and returns to his hometown looking to reacquaint himself with his sister (Jamie Lee Curtis) and finish the job. Working on a miniscule budget, Carpenter keeps a much of the mayhem off screen and precious little blood flows (after all – the ketchup was needed for craft services).
Without the ability to shock via viscera, Carpenter uses a number of subliminal effects. Of course, there’s the iconic Halloween theme which Carpenter composed himself. Although his compositions have dated horrible (with his proclivity for heavy synth-pop) – his Halloween theme remains timeless.
Also, Carpenter aimed to unnerve the viewer by placing his cipher, Michael Myers, in the backdrop of almost every scene. Throughout the film there are a number of instances where Myers can be spotted off in the distance looking out a window, standing in bushes, reclining against a tree. Often two characters are speaking and are the focal point while Myers is somewhere in the background doing his best to mimic Waldo. Carpenter never zeroes in on Myers whereabouts and it’s unknown whether Myers is actually supposed to be standing where he is – but the effect is subliminal in nature. The brain catches something the eye missed, leading to a genuine feeling of uneasiness.
Halloween is a true classic.
I’m sure if I sat down and watched Poltergeist now – at the ripe age of 34 – its effects would diminish through the gauze of time. Still, this is one flick that scared the pants off me in the early 80’s.
Part of the trick here is Stephen Spielberg’s involvement as Executive Producer. Poltergeist was released during the summer of 1982 – the same year that Spielberg introduced us to ET – and the two films share a similar backdrop – with tales of the supernatural set against the mundane sprawl of suburbia. Spielberg had built his name as a purveyor of family friendly entertainment (even JAWS values the nuclear family) and thus Poltergeist, with its rock-solid Freeling foundation, felt like it would be a nice extension of Spielberg’s suburban fantasy mythos.
Then came that steak scene – with the crawling and the maggots and the guy ripping his face off in the mirror. And then there was the clown under the bed – who tried to pull little Robbie to his doom but not before the Freeling’s whomping willow laid the smackdown on Carol Anne. This is hand’s down the most intense PG-rated flick you’ll ever see – and while 1984’s Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom may have birthed the PG-13 rating – Spielberg had obviously conceived it two years prior.
Someone should have noticed something amiss when Spielberg hired Tobe Hooper to direct his script. That guy gave us Leatherface.
Like the best scary movies, Poltergeist gives you a real charge, encourages you to grab your seat or your date or your date’s seat – and then just when all looks hopeless, offers a glimmer of sunshine in the end. The closing shot of the Freelings at their motel – wheeling their television to the outside patio gave us all a good laugh – if only to assuage the nightmares that Tangina Barrows would coax hours later.
3. Dawn of the Dead (2004)
And with that selection, I’ve immediately scared the purists to the exits. Yes, I know it’s sacrilege to choose a remake over its source – especially something as beloved as George Romero’s masterwork, but for my money, Zack Snyder’s retelling of Dawn of the Dead is the superior film.
Romero deserves mad props for his ingenious premise. Following a mysterious plague of the undead, a group of survivors find themselves holed up in a mall, which quickly becomes their sanctuary. As the zombie hordes march en masse upon the mall (driven by their ingrained instinct for commerce), this group is left to fend off this mysterious affliction while guarding against the evils of human nature. At least, the dead are predictable.
Snyder’s flick works so well because it is revenant to its source (we never do learn what caused the outbreak) while adding his own touch to the proceedings. Most notably – he has swift moving zombies. Usually the purists scoff at this notion, as rigor mortis would prevent a corpse from running the 100 meter dash in 3.8 seconds. Of course, if you’re going to apply logic to the situation, why not start with this central concern – the undead don’t walk the Earth. Besides, fast zombies are scary as hell.
Snyder’s version also boast one helluva gripping prologue. In several brief anecdotes, Snyder paints a suburban utopia’s overnight descent into madness. A happy couple goes to sleep in their bed and wakes to a world changed – with the apocalypse staring down their abode. Snyder uses his heroine Ana (Sarah Polley) as a tour guide through the developing chaos – as Ana bursts from the comforts of her home only to find the world has moved on overnight. As she flees her little hamlet, we get a sense of the devastation wrought by this mysterious ailment. Eventually, she finds her way to the mall, where she bands together with a number of survivors. In anecdotal style, Snyder traces the groups efforts to survive in this new world order.
I’ve got to mention the inventive opening titles – which play out over ‘news feeds’ depicting the spreading global crisis. Snyder scores this sequence to Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around” which nicely underscores the apocalyptic images. The sequence concludes with a cameo by Ken Foree who delivers his iconic line:
“When there’s no more room in Hell, the Dead will walk the Earth.”
Also – stay tuned through the credits, which feature an epilogue that plays throughout in little burst transmissions. The hopelessness of the situation – underscored through these sequences – remind me of John Carpenter in his glory days.
I wrote about Seven for my Top 5 Film Endings so I won’t go into too much detail here. Suffice it to say, what Seven lacks in outright scares, it more then makes up for in an oppressive, claustrophobic mood that is unrelenting. David Fincher drenches this flick in stifling downpours, imparting a feeling of impending doom and gloom that just soaks every inch of you.
Similar to the feeling I had while watching Silence of the Lambs, I experienced Seven with a great deal of unease. I felt that Morgan Freeman’s Somerset spoke great truths when he cautioned Detective Mills:
“This isn’t going to have a happy ending.”
That feeling is magnified by Fincher’s decision to depict the aftermath of John Doe’s murders rather than the actual act. We’re discovering these cryptic crime scenes along with the detectives – trying to piece the puzzle together ourselves – and by showing the viewer the tragic results – and keeping Doe’s horrific acts off screen – the viewer is left to imagine what happened. Sometimes, it’s what we imagine that is more terrifying than what we actually see. That’s a page straight out of Hitchcock which Fincher uses to magnificent effect.
And then there’s that ending. Once again, the mind whirls. Seven is one that truly haunts you.
1. John Carpenter’s The Thing
Yes, once upon a time I thought John Carpenter was the ‘man’. Escape from New York. Halloween. Big Trouble in Little China. The man could do no wrong. But time moved on and Carpenter grew lazy – continuing to lay down cheesy synth tracks over aimless genre schlock (Prince of Darkness, Vampires) and he lost me.
John Carpenter’s The Thing is the master at the top of his game. This is his magnum opus – and like another title on my list – this is a remake superior in every facet to the original. I don’t know if Carpenter would say the same – as the film he remade The Thing From Another World was directed by his hero, Howard Hawkes. Carpenter even tips his cap in Halloween, as Laurie Strode whiles away a scary Halloween night viewing Hawkes original version.
Carpenter’s version is timeless. For starters, he laid off the Casio and turned the reigns over to veteran composer Ennio Morricone (The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, The Untouchables) who contributes a moody, evocative score that amplifies the loneliness of the surrounding Arctic environs that isolate a group of researchers and their alien quarry.
That Arctic setting – a barren, alien environment in our own backyard, contributes to the film immeasurably – by escalating the claustrophobia that envelopes the researchers (and the viewer) as well as locking the film into a place that doesn’t belong to any specific time. Catch this flick on DVD and you’d be hard pressed to deduce it was released in 1982. The imagery is so crisp.
Without spoiling too much – there are a handful of sequences that get under your skin (no pun intended). The ‘blood test’ sequence – with the survivors applying a hot needle to vials of their blood in order to flush out the ‘imposter’ is one of those sequences that has you grabbing your cushions and giggling nervously as it escalates. Also, the Thing’s first ‘transformation’ is an image of grisly beauty that will thrill you gore hounds.
And then there’s the ending. Carpenter is a fan of the open ended denouement – often leaving viewers to intuit what happens next. Here he closes out The Thing with one of two possibilities – equally tragic. It’s a quiet moment between two great character actors (Kurt Russell, Keith David) that truly haunts.
The Thing transcends all genres – sci-fi, horror, action adventure – to become that rare breed.
A film for all time.