You know, I’m going to miss putting these posts together when I’m done. It’s been a cathartic experience writing about all the horror movies that effected me most deeply. Makes me want to go back and watch them all again. I’ve actually already done that with a few already and one particular viewing greatly enhanced my appreciation of a certain film listed below. This concludes the the first half of the top twenty! Below you’ll find a couple classics, one absurdly funny hero, and two entries that some people claim belong in the Science Fiction section! I disagree with those people, obviously. Enjoy and stay tuned for tomorrow as I begin counting down the top ten!
There was never any question that Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was going to make an appearance on this list, but I did debate its exact placement for quite some time. Psycho is obviously a classic but it’s far from Hitchcock’s best movie (that would be Vertigo, thank you very much) and I actually think The Birds is a more frightening picture. The final scene of the film, with Simon Oakland’s psychiatrist explaining the entire movie to us as if we’re all idiots, has never sat well with me. I hadn’t seen the film in a very long time so I decided to watch it again in order to figure out where it belongs. I’m so glad I did. Any doubts I had about it were instantly kicked aside once I allowed myself to get sucked into the utterly absorbing, measured, and creepy narrative.
It’s easy to forget how shocking it must have been for audiences to see the lead actress killed off halfway through the movie. Hitchcock does an incredible job convincing us that the entire film is going to be about Janet Leigh. We’re wondering what’s going to happen with money she stole and that seems like too important a plot point to cast aside. The scene between her and the cop is a masterclass in quiet tension. If she says one wrong thing, the entire jig is up. We breathe a sigh of relief when she makes it to the motel. Then Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates enters the scene and the whole dynamic of the movie changes.
Bates is the role Perkins was born to play. The character, with his stuffed birds and proud declarations of love for his mommy, is utterly peculiar but not without his charms. We don’t instantly want to scream, “Watch out Janet! That man’s a raving lunatic” the second he walks on screen. He makes her and us uneasy but not in an overdone, obvious way. We’re more perplexed by him than anything else. The initial conversation he has with Leigh is perfectly timed and played by both actors. Then comes the shower scene, which still jolts me even though I know it’s coming and have viewed countless parodies of it (Mel Brook’s High Anxiety contains the best one). The sudden switch in perspective from Leigh to Perkins sets us on edge while allowing us to sympathize with his plight a bit. We worry too that the private investigator played by Martin Balsam will discover his secret and we cringe for a second when that car threatens to not sink. Hitchcock would pull this off later in his career to even more intense effect in Frenzy.
The reveal of the mother’s corpse is as shocking as the shower scene and that mad look on Perkin’s face when he enters the basement wearing her clothes is profoundly chilling. If the speech by Oakland is a bit rote, that’s only to give us a few moments to calm down after holding our breath for the previous half hour. It also does clear up any lingering questions we may have had and leads beautifully into the final moment where we get inside Norman’s twisted head for a few seconds. Hitchcock always said he liked to play the audience like a piano. Psycho, while not his most complex or interesting film, may be the finest example of what he meant by that.
Picture this: it’s 1932 and you’re at the movies. You’re seeing the new film from the director of Dracula. That movie scared the hell out of you, as did Frankenstein, and you’re looking forward to being spooked again. The lights dim, the curtain opens, and a nightmare unlike anything you’ve seen before unfolds right in front of your eyes. That’s what it must have been like for patrons of Tod Browning’s Freaks. In Pre-Code Hollywood, it disturbed people in ways they were woefully unprepared for. Even critics didn’t know what to make of it. Was it offensive? Exploitative? Scary? Successful? All of the above? No one knew and, as a result, the film tanked and basically ruined Browning’s career.
To say that Freaks was ahead of its time is a grotesque understatement. Even though many people found them repulsive, the ‘freaks’ of the film are portrayed as kind, well-meaning folks with wants and needs similar to the so-called ‘normal’ population. That was an idea many were unable to accept. They’re freaks right?! How can they be normal?! But they are and that’s one of the many points Browning was successful in getting across, despite viewers unwillingness to believe it. The villains of the film are the more naturally attractive side show performers and they’re rotten to the core. Still, this didn’t stop Browning from putting us firmly in the vile Cleopatra’s perspective when the other performers chase her down at the end. Her ultimate fate is one of the finest and most horrifying moments of poetic justice.
The happy ending of Freaks has always bothered me a bit. It feels out of tune with the rest of the movie, which plays out like a Shakespearean tragedy for the most part. The actions the heroes take at the end are somewhat justified but still terrifying and depraved. No one deserves a happy ending. That didn’t stop MGM from inserting one though. Still, it can’t take away from the raw power of Freaks. It’s a film that disturbs and unsettles me every time I think about it. And it’s an awful shame that we’ll never be able to see Browning’s original, uncensored version.
13. Evil Dead 2
Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2 is that very rare example of a sequel improving on the original film. Everything that works is still there–the manic energy, the insane gore, the isolated setting, the POV shots of the evil entity–while all the elements that didn’t work—weak dialogue, dull patches—is completely excised. Evil Dead 2 starts with guns blazing and somehow manages to only get more and more exciting as it goes on. This is the role that defined Bruce Campbell’s career and it’s easy to see why. He has a natural comic energy and stretchable face that makes his reactions to the chaos around him so damn funny and memorable. This is one of the few horror franchises based around the hero rather than the villain. And Ash is the horror hero we deserve: vain, stupid, cowardly, and shockingly resourceful.
While the screwball comedy and sight gags are the most successful parts of the film, let’s not forget that Evil Dead 2 has genuinely creepy moments. That grotesque dance Linda’s corpse performs for Ash is funny but also weirdly unsettling. Ditto to Henrietta, the dead wife buried in the fruit cellar. Hell, even that possessed dear head gets under my skin a little bit! It’s a tightrope walk Raimi navigates with ease. We’re laughing one moment and jumping out of our seats the next or vice versa. It’s scary when the evil entity pushes Ash out of the house, until it spins him around like a roulette wheel and we start cracking up.
The other thing I adore about Evil Dead 2 is its spirt. So many horror films, good and bad, are depressing experiences. They mire themselves in despair and suffering in a way that can be exhausting to sit through even if it’s ultimately rewarding. Evil Dead 2 is an upbeat, joyous film even when it’s covering its characters in blood or shooting demon eyes into their mouths. There’s never a dull moment and everything that happens is wild and exuberant. Sitting through a movie like this fills you with untapped energy of your own and makes you glad to be alive. I can’t think of a higher compliment.
Confession: I didn’t like Ridley Scott’s Alien when I first saw it. I thought it was boring. What can I say? I was twelve years old and I was expecting more of the wall-to-wall action from Aliens, which I had seen a year prior. It wasn’t until years later when I gave the film a second look that I realized what an absolute masterpiece it was. You want to know why Halloween didn’t make the top twenty? Because of Alien. Both films share a similar premise albeit in vastly different environments. You’ve got a superhuman monster stalking a series of characters and taking them out one by one. Halloween is great and all but Alien provides more jolts, more tension, and stronger characters.
About the characters: Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley is the standout of course—she’s also probably the entire horror genre’s most kickass hero—but the whole crew is strong. Ian Holm is chilling as the doctor with more than a few secrets, John Hurt brings genuine pathos to his death scene, and Tom Skerritt is appropriately bewildered as the captain way out of his depth. Then you’ve got Yaphet Kotto and Hary Dean Stanton basically being Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton, which is just fine. Stanton’s death scene is probably the most memorable, with that face coming out of nowhere to drag him upwards.
The design on the creature itself is detailed in such a way that you can sort of see it coming but are never quite sure, which adds to the fear. It could be above you, behind you, or around the corner, and you won’t see it until it’s too late. Alien is a perfect monster movie. The setting is claustrophobic and intimidating, the monster is terrifying, the music by Jerry Goldsmith is haunting, the camera movements are brilliantly orchestrated, the acting is above par, the atmosphere is creepy, and the suspense level keeps rising right up until that showdown at the very end. There’s not much more to say other than to tell you to watch it again.
11. Altered States
Some may be annoyed by my categorizing of Ken Russell’s Altered States as a horror film. It’s considered a seminal Science Fiction film by many but I definitely think it’s more in line with the horror genre. Granted, saying that a Ken Russell film is ‘in line’ with any genre suggests a traditional narrative approach that none of his films have. Russell’s films are unique to his own vision and, whether you love them or hate them, it cannot be denied that there is nothing else like them in all of cinema. Altered States is no exception, even if it’s slightly more accessible than a lot of his work.
With a script by Paddy Chayefsky, based on his own novel, Altered States is overflowing with ideas. It’s been widely reported that Russell and Chayefsky didn’t get along but I think their animosity and creative differences made for a more successful film. Each one inadvertently curbed the other’s worst instincts. An overly talky script is made more palatable by Russell’s forward momentum as a director while Russell’s loony ideas are made more understandable through Chayefsky’s distinct and clear explanations. Said ideas focus on the nature of religion, the death of God, the origins of love, the evolution of the human mind, and the savage nature inherent in all people, just to name a few. What’s stunning is that they all form a cohesive whole. Even though the movie jumps from trippy nightmare sequences to pseudo-science at the drop of a dime, everything still manages to feel connected.
One of the reasons for this is due to the committed performances. William Hurt is fiery and passionate as the somewhat mad scientist who believes he can unlock the secrets of consciousness. We admire his conviction but fear it at the same time. A smart contrast to the character is provided by Blair Brown, who is warm, intelligent, and more grounded in human emotions than Hurt is. Their relationship serves as the focal point of the movie with their differing philosophies acting as the main conflict and grounding the action to something relatable. Bob Balaban and Charles Haid provide excellent support as the two scientist friends with ideas of their own. One of the film’s best moments occurs after the two of them are forced to accept that the outlandish claims Hurt is making are true. Neither of them can handle it and shout different explanations over each other at a fever pitch. It’s a wonderful depiction of two rational men struggling to justify the impossible. Robert Altman’s work is often credited as having the most realistic dialogue because his characters frequently talk over each other. I think it comes off as more of a gimmick in his films but in Altered States, it feels like exactly how these people would speak.
Then there’s the horrifying and magical images Russell creates. He’s always desecrating religious icons but this is one case where it feels more than appropriate. It complements the film’s ideas about God rather than hitting you over the head with them. He pulls out all the stops in the finale when Hurt is literally slipping in and out of reality. This sequence is a stunner on a pure visual level—as most of Russell’s work is—but for once, he allows human emotions to take center stage, making the film’s conclusion touching and heartfelt. Some may say it uses a simple idea as an answer to many complex questions but I like that. It drives home the point that humans are simple creatures and searching for answers about existence is not nearly as important as forming an honest human connection in the brief time we have on this planet…or in this form of consciousness.