The people, and when I say people I mean Adam Rowland at work, say “What, Jim, are your favourite horror movies?” and I usually ramble on about pretty much anything that comes to mind, often either a film I’ve just seen, or a film I might not even like. It’s a tricky question to be hit with on the spot. So I figured I’d do some proper soul searching, ignore the crap coming out of my mouth, be honest with myself: What are my ten favourite films? Well I still don’t know. I’ve whittled it down to seventeen, and that’s only because I’ve a terrible memory and have probably forgotten half the films I love.
Well never mind. Let’s just go with it. Here in alphabetical order are my favourite horror films… for now:
It’s an obvious one, but what choice do I have! This film is the prime example of how to make a horror movie. Everything works so well. The incredibly creepy set up as our doomed crew arrive at the isolated spaceship wreck. The sudden, violent twist as the movie, and the Alien, leaps into life over a dinner table. The horrific bleakness of the future for humanity, working in a cold, unknown outer space, with nothing but sleep, death and bonuses to look forward to. I won’t go on, it’s all been said before. This film is perfect.
An American Werewolf in London
I saw this on pirate VHS at Lawrence Molloy’s house when I was ten years old. I’d never been on the London tube, I’d never walked across the moors late at night, I’d never seen a girl naked in a shower. Even if this film hadn’t have been hilarious and terrifying in equal measure, it still would have been a fascinating glimpse into a new world coming around the corner to me. Fortunately it was also a hugely entertaining film, and an early one for me that showed that even amongst all the flesh ripping and talking corpses, horror films could still be fun. And I like fun.
Dawn of the Dead
I went to the cinema a lot when I was a kid. But being in England with its tough ratings system meant that seeing horror film was a tricky feat. Mum used to sneak me in occasionally but until the advent of the video, most of my horror intake involved staring at the photos of X certificate monster movies in the foyer. Dawn of the Dead’s photos hit me the hardest. I was convinced there were zombies amongst us after seeing a still of two zombies in a shopping mall, lying in a bed together. The mundaneness of it all, the normality of the undead in our shops, on our furniture. It freaked me out before I’d even seen the film. It still freaks me out now.
Dead of night
I love old British movies, and I love old British horror movies even more. This incredibly creepy (although admittedly a bit creaky now too) anthology from Ealing Studios really helped set the tone for many films to come, including the Hammer horror ones, even if it lacked the blood, boobs and Technicolor. It had a serious, dark tone throughout most of the stories that unnerved the viewers then, and would still unnerve you now, especially the classic tale about Michael Redgrave and his sinister ventriloquist dummy. If you’ve never seen this, please do, I implore you. I knew lots of people who loved this film when I was younger (I believe it was a big hit at the box office in its day) but now it seems to be semi forgotten. Please don’t forget it people, else it might come back to get you…
Rule number one when watching Dario Argento movies: don’t do it by yourself while tripping your nuts off on LSD. I did it with this one, I’m still a bit worried.
The Devil Rides Out
Most Hammer horror movies follow a similar pattern, usually involving a bunch of Edwardian’s coming across a town or village in some made up eastern European country and meeting Dracula, or Frankenstein’s monster, or a gorgon, or a reptile or some such. The Devil Rides Out skips all this set up. Essentially a back and forth chase movie, it stars Christopher Lee in one of his best roles as the hero, the man of action, and the chap who will stay up all night to save his bezzie mates from satanic worshippers. The final confrontation as Lee and chums try to survive a night of demonic torment within a pentagram is a little bit silly occasionally and at one point borderline racist but its such a rip roaring adventure that these small issues can be ignored. Okay maybe not the racist bit.
I hope the world is not at the point that we as a whole have started taking John Carpenter’s seminal classic for granted. There are few films this well made, and its influence goes far beyond the slasher genre it helped create. The use of Steadicam throughout is incredible, at no point being just a pretty camera move but helping set up the eerie tone, as well as filling in the character of the murderous Michael Myers. Plus there is all the perfect composition and lighting with The Shape always just out of view or hidden in the shadows. It’s so tense and scary, when the film is over you know that something this evil can never die, as the rubbish sequels proved!
Not the Robert Wise original but the Jan de Bont remake… I am kidding! Jesus, did you see that piece of shit? Anyway, between er, West Side Story and The Sound of Music, Wise directed a ghost story and what brilliant restraint he showed. I implore you do not watch this by yourself as a ten-year-old kid unless you want to scare yourself close to death. Better yet, watch this by yourself as a ten-year-old kid and scare yourself to death.
Coming out at about the same time as An American Werewolf in London, this werewolf movie is both outrageously serious and seriously outrageous. It’s the film that made me realise that, other than Jenny Agutter in a shower, my ideal woman was one who could turn into a werewolf while we made love by an open fire. And despite covering topics as diverse as serial killers, adult retreats, orgies and women’s role in the work place, it still can tell a good story with a tragic ending. And then finish on a shot of bloody meat cooking on a grill.
From another director of more mainstream movies, this time it’s Jack Clayton, director of such fair as Room at the Top and The Great Gatsby. Deborah Kerr amazes as the governess haunted by the ghost of the woman she’s replaced and her evil lover, both determined to drive Kerr completely mad. Unless she already is… Ghost stories don’t get any better than this. Watch this in a double bill with The Haunting if you want your hair to turn white.
Okay, I’m not even going to pretend that this is a great movie, or even, you know… good. But it’s just the kind of bonkers, over blown, big budget folly that I love. Every time I watch it I wonder: “what, in all that is holy, were they thinking!?!” The tale of the British space shuttle Churchill’s ill-fated investigation of Haley’s comet, where they find a sinister spaceship contains lots of dead alien bats, plus three super hot naked people. Upon returning with the three bodies London is reduced to life-sucking-zomies as the three sexy vampires steal everyone’s souls and send them off into outer space. It’s completely nuts, the prime minister sucks on his secretary, Patrick Stewart is possessed by an alien, St Paul’s cathedral is the venue for a sex-and-death frenzy and the lead female, Mathilda May (possibly the bravest actress in mainstream cinema ever) spends the entire film very, very naked. It’s all completely ridiculous but supremely entertaining, and I get a funny feeling when I finally get to make my own horror movies they will probably be just like this, only, you know, good.
A modern masterpiece, this French horror starts off like a torture-porn-revenge flick then rapidly goes of on its own tangent. Fiercely violent and intelligent in equal measure, it’s the kind of film I shouldn’t talk about too much so as not to ruin its many surprises. If you’ve the stomach for such gruelling horror, you need to see this.
Night of the Demon
The prime example of the kind of film I used to watch from behind my parents bed without their knowledge, this adaptation or M.R. James’ Casting The Runes gets everything right, and I’m including the big studio-enforced demon, both scary and kind of daft at the same time. Jaques Tourner delivers a near perfect film, the building suspense emphasised by some rattling, unnerving sound effects. Plus there’s a lovely small role for Brian Wilde who would go onto be Mr Barrowclough in TV’s Porridge. It’s the kind of role that reminds you how many great and versatile character actors we’ve produced over the years.
Night of the Hunter
There is some debate as to whether this is a horror movie at all. Indeed the first half is more of a film noir as Robert Mitchem’s preacher man tricks Shelly Winter’s into taking him in, in persuit of her ex husband’s stolen fortune. However by the time Mitchem is hunting the two small children downriver in the American countryside the film has taken on the mood and look of a dark fantasy, with the preacher a devil incarnate, willing to sacrifice the lives of innocents in order to get what he desires. Truly a horrific tale.
Maybe it was because I knew nothing about this when I first saw it, or maybe it was because the friend who lent it to me did so on a boxless VHS, but this for me is one of the scariest modern horrors I’ve seen. The unnerving feeling of inevitable dread builds towards one of the best climaxes in modern history and, unlike the American remake, doesn’t feel the need to explain the whole background to the mystery which only adds to the unsettling tone and points towards the main moral of this tale: there are some things that are best left unknown.
Proving once and for all that style over substance sometimes is enough; Dario Argento’s outrageously colourful, bombastic best film is the perfect representation of a nightmare on the silver screen. The simple story of an American girl arriving at a European ballet school on the night of some seriously crazy and violent goings on, the plot is merely something to hang the glorious and gory set pieces on. Murder has never been so beautifully poetic. And then there’s the absolutely bonkers soundtrack which frequently get’s so loud with its screams of “Witch! Witch!” you can’t hear yourself think, not that it matters: we’re here for the visual and aural feast not for what’s actually going on.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Back in 1988 I went on my first holiday without any family to Majorca, with my buddies Greg Byrnes and Aldo Breda, I had saved up a big chunk of money to spend while out there. Enough essentially to last for two weeks of boozing and partying in the sun. However, the morning before I flew off I had to pop out to the shops and happened to wander past an old video rental shop. In the window was a beaten up copy of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Now, back in the late 80′s the film was completely unavailable, having been caught up in the stupid “video nasties” controversy. I couldn’t believe it, and after some terrible bartering on my part I owned one of the few copies still in the UK (most had been destroyed by the police: Thatcher’s fascist state eh?) and only now had only half the money I needed for a two week holiday in Majorca. I still had a great time abroad and I also had a great time in front of the TV, watching one of the most visceral, crazy movies ever committed to film.
The Thing optimises all that is great about the horror genre, while at the same time writes its own rules on how to tell a damned fine story. On the one hand it has fantastic jumps, scares and an impending sense of doom, on the other it deals with topics such as paranoia, isolation and what it means to be human. Ultimately though it is a rip roaring blast, where you never know who next is going to have a tentacle or a weird Venus fly trap thingamajig tearing out of them. And it has Kurt Russell. And Ennio Morricone. And Keith David. And Rob Bottin. And everything… sigh… happy days.
Other films that probably should be on the list, or probably shouldn’t