Welcome to Part 4 of my countdown of the 100 Greatest Horror films! You can reads Parts 1, 2, and 3 right here. Once again, the numbers are basically arbitrary until we get to the top twenty or unless otherwise stated. These are simply the 100 horror films that have had the most profound effect on me. Below, you’ll find films about demons and gypsy curses, houses that are alive, experiments gone horribly awry, ancient vampires, sinister intruders, slimy monsters, and one very scary ventriloquist’s dummy. Enjoy!
70. Drag Me to Hell
I’m sure I’m going to take a few hits for this choice. Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell is as universally loved by horror fans as it is loathed. Those who loathe it say it’s over reliant on CGI, lacks the spirit and energy of the Evil Dead films, and is watered town PG-13 fare. Let’s take those arguments down one by one. First, CGI is here to stay for better or worse. Yes, it lacks practicality, can look unconvincing, and is overused. Raimi uses it to fine effect here though. He doesn’t rely on it solely but uses it sparingly to achieve gruesome images that simply would be too complicated for practical effects to handle. If you’re going to use CGI, this is how it should be done. Second, the idea that it lacks the spirit and energy of the Evil Dead films is simply false. If anything, this is even more of a zany Warner Brothers Cartoon than Evil Dead 2. At one point, a goddamn anvil is used to knock the villain’s eyes out of her head and send them shooting onto the heroine’s face. Using CGI to make the exploding eyes adds to the feeling that we’re watching a very gory segment of Wile E. Coyote and The Road Runner. Is Alison Lohman as amusing as Bruce Campbell? No, but who the fuck is? She’s game for anything Raimi throws at her (or in her) and makes for a plucky lead, despite her character being somewhat reprehensible. Finally, Drag Me to Hell may be PG-13 but that’s due to a lack of nudity and cursing rather than a lack of over the top gore. As far as I’m concerned, this is in the exact same spirit as Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive and is slightly more successful because it knows when to show a little restraint.
69. House (Hausu)
While we’re on the subject of zany cartoons, let’s talk about House shall we? This is a film that doesn’t know the meaning of the word ‘restraint’ and calling it ‘batshit crazy’ would be a grotesque understatement. Seven teenage girls head to Grandmother’s house for a vacation only to discover that the house itself is a demon that consumes virgins. Everything in the house comes alive to devour them and I do mean everything, from a piano to a lampshade to a cat. There’s nary a shot that doesn’t contain some bizarre image that horrifies, confuses, or astounds. Matte paintings are used effectively as is animation. On a purely aesthetic level, this is a gorgeous film. Trying to decipher what it’s all supposed to add up to is a fool’s errand. Some have called it a satire, which prompts me to ask, “of what?” House is as unique an experience you can ever have at the movies, mixing comedy, horror, and surrealism to create something unforgettable. Oh, and if you’re sitting there thinking, “well, I’d only be into it if a creepy guy gets turned into a pile of bananas”, don’t worry, you’ll be into it.
68. The Fly
For anyone who says that remakes are always inferior, I give you David Cronenberg’s The Fly, a film that not only equals but improves upon the original by injecting it with much more pathos and amping up the horror to 11. This is what every body-horror film should attempt to achieve. Grotesque effects are used to convey Jeff Goldblum’s transformation from human to insect without forgetting the man underneath. We feel his pain as much as he does and mourn the loss of his humanity right along with Geena Davis, who is key to the film’s success. Without her there to ground things during the final act and remind us of who Goldblum once was, we’d merely be watching a geek show. She also brings us into this strange scientist’s world, acting as a proxy audience member by sharing our admiration and fear for him. The Fly is as much a touching romance as a creepy horror film and that is not an easy balancing act to pull off.
67. Them (Ils)
Have you seen The Strangers? Good. Then you already know much of the plot of the French film Them, which came out a year prior and is infinitely more terrifying. There are several reasons for this but the biggest reason comes from the fact that we never see the intruders until the very last shot. Them understands that the idea of the monster under the bed is far more terrifying than the monster itself. By never showing the invaders, Co-directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud are able to put us that much more on edge because, just like the characters, we don’t even know who (or what) we’re supposed to be looking for. We’re plunged headfirst into that isolated home and feel as trapped as our heroes. No time at all is wasted–the film runs a scant hour and fifteen minutes–which allows suspense to build and build until we feel like we’re going to explode.
66. Daughters of Darkness
Unfairly maligned as one of the many ‘sexy vampire flicks’ from the 70’s, Harry Kummel’s Daughters of Darkness is a lyrical, beautiful horror film that oozes eroticism instead of sleaze. A troubled young couple arrive at a resort hotel in Belgium and befriend the seductive Countess Bathory. Horror historians will note the significance of that name and the film does not take long to reveal her vampiric nature. A love triangle of sorts begins to bloom and it’s here that the movie makes a hard left turn by placing our sympathies with Bathory and the young woman while turning the young man into the deeply disturbed antagonist. He’s an abuser and a deviant in every sense of the words and Bathory represents a way for his put-upon young wife to assert herself and step out from behind his shadow. Like all great vampire stories, there’s also the exploration of what a lonely existence it must be for a creature of the night. It’s a serious film that deals with adult subjects like sex, orientation, and misogyny without exploiting any of them.
65. Lady in White
Sometimes atmosphere, mood, and a sense of place can make up for a by the numbers story. Such is the case with writer-director Frank LaLoggia’s Lady in White. Lukas Haas stars as a young boy who gets trapped in his school building on Halloween night. Right away, the film taps into an essential childhood fear. Who wasn’t afraid of being stuck in those awful, lonely buildings as a child? It’s there he sees the spirit of a young girl being brutally murdered. The vision prompts him and his older brother to solve the mystery of who killed her and what she has to do with the mysterious lady in white who lives on the hill. Anyone who has ever seen a thriller will figure out the identity of the killer instantly but, as I said, this is not about the mystery. It’s about tapping into the sense of wonder from everyone’s youth, about evoking that time when it seemed not only possible but likely to encounter spirits and go on noble quests for truth. Laloggia captures small town life knowingly and makes excellent use of the fall season to remind us of Halloween’s gone by.
There’s nothing quite like a B-monster movie when it’s done right. I had hoped Pacific Rim and the most recent Godzilla would be as much fun as watching Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward jump around on rocks in the desert to avoid giant, underground worms, but alas, that was not to be. Both films took themselves way too seriously which is something no one is ever going to accuse Tremors of. When you have a premise that absurd, you need to be willing to have a little fun with it and Tremors is a blast from beginning to end. Bacon and Ward’s characters have a natural rapport reminiscent of Riggs and Murtaugh, the monster effects are terrific, and Michael Gross and Reba McEntire are hilarious as the two gun nuts who find themselves woefully outmatched by these subterranean creatures. It’s a celebration of 50’s monsters movies that manages to also be better than all of them.
Speaking of B-movies, James Gunn’s Slither shares much of the same spirit of Tremors while being slightly more irreverent, humorous, and creepy. Gunn started out as a writer and producer for Troma films and you can definitely see their influence on him here. But this is a far smarter, more engaging outing than the best Troma films that keeps the same ‘go for broke’ spirit. Nathan Fillion is expertly cast as the wise-cracking sheriff who has to deal with an invasion of alien parasites taking over his small town. It’s Michael Rooker and Gregg Henry who steal the film though. Rooker’s portrayal of a man possessed by an alien rivals Vincent D’Nofrio’s from Men in Black (the scene where he goes into the supermarket and mutters ‘meat’ over and over again gets me every time) while Henry makes every word that comes out of his hilariously un-PC character’s mouth sting. If Tremors is a celebration and improvement of 50’s monster movies, Slither is a celebration and improvement of 80’s alien invasion movies. However, there are a few alien invasion movies from the 80s that are better than Slither and will undoubtedly pop up later on this list.
62. Interview with the Vampire
I’ve never read the Ann Rice novel so I can’t say if Neil Jordan’s adaptation is faithful or not but I can say that Interview with the Vampire is a visually sumptuous affair that treats vampires as mournful, dark reflections of ourselves. Pitt and Cruise dive into their roles with the utmost sincerity. Cruise’s Lestat is a charming devil, one we can’t help but like despite his malicious nature while Pitt’s Louie is a more sympathetic creature even though his constant whining does get on everyone’s nerves. The most fascinating and tragic character however, is Kirsten Dunst’s Claudia. Trapped in a body that does not even come close to conveying her age and intelligence, her existence is by far the most tortured. This character concept is explored to a greater and more effective degree in a certain other vampire movie that has a chance of cracking the top ten, but we’ll get to that later.
Before he won an Oscar for playing the screen’s most infamous cannibal, Anthony Hopkins starred in a very different kind of horror film. Ostensibly a story of a magician and his creepy dummy (and it is a very creepy dummy), Richard Attenborough’s Magic digs deep into the tortured lives of performers. Anyone who has ever been on stage will find the opening scene, with Hopkins shouting everything he ever wanted to say to an ungrateful audience, very cathartic. After using his dummy, Fats, to achieve a modicum of success, his grip on sanity loosens. He begins to speak through Fats and only through Fats. The most harrowing, devastating sequence occurs when his agent (a terrific Burgess Meredith) begs him to get the dummy to “shut up for five minutes”. We watch with growing unease as it becomes clear he can barely last five seconds. The film wisely never makes it clear if Fats is truly alive or an outlet for a damaged psyche. Either way, Magic is absorbing, terrifying, and heartbreaking.
Stay tuned for Part 5!