|Holiday greetings from the Hub Review!|
Yes, it's that time of year again - the time when "Scariest Movies of All Time" lists proliferate in all manner of media (the Globe just posted a particularly lame one - scariest thing about it was the idea that Globe readers have actually sat through schlock like Pet Sematary).
So far, however, I've never seen a "Scariest Élitist Movies of All Time" list, so a year or two ago I decided to leap into the gap, with a list of movies that not only make you jump but make you think, too. Because the thing is, horror movies have often been about intellectual challenge and fearless experimentation. So don't worry, you won't find any multiplex cheese on this list - no Amityville Horror or The Blob - and of course you won't find any bad American remakes of foreign classics. (When in doubt with horror, always see the foreign original!)
So without further ado, here's that original list, with a few added attractions at the end:
Cat People (1942) - recently released on DVD, this thriller (produced by Val Lewton and directed by Jacques Tourneur) is devoted entirely to indirection and poetic mood. Simone Simone is some sort of lesbian/were-woman who's transformed into a panther when aroused - and hubby is an all-American innocent who can't understand why she's afraid to do the nasty. I know, I know - killer pussy; it sounds ridiculous (and it is), but the panther attacks - particularly the one in which the beast slinks through the shimmering shadows around a swimming pool - are masterpieces of menace. The first of a short run of Lewton classics, including I Walked with a Zombie and Bedlam. (Warning: be sure to avoid the laughable 80's remake.)
Dead of Night (1945) - the scares found here feel prim today (and there's one weak attempt at "comic relief"), but the format - a kind of omnibus of tales of terror - was very influential, and its circular dream structure was both the first, and perhaps the best, of its kind. Two Twilight Zone episodes - as well as the Final Destination movies - were drawn from its (superior) vignettes, but it's the final episode, about a dummy that slowly drives its ventriloquist mad (Michael Redgrave, in YouTube above), that remains hauntingly effective.
The Night of the Hunter (1955) - Charles Laughton's only directorial effort, this very strange thriller-melodrama isn't so much scary as ominously hypnotic. Robert Mitchum makes a convincingly murderous "preacher" who's after some buried treasure - and his night-time pursuit of the children (above) who know its secret is probably the longest, and most dreamily beautiful, piece of surrealism in American cinema.
Les Diaboliques (1955) - Leave it to the French to work out the logic of the thriller to the nth degree; Henri-Georges Clouzot's gritty shocker introduced the "double twist" ending that would eventually become cinema's standard dénouement. But even before that final scene, the movie is compelling in its sordid way, with little digressions into melodrama and even (seemingly) the supernatural. Other notable films by Clouzot: the grimly cynical Le Corbeau and Le Salaire de la Peur.
Eyes Without a Face (1960) - did we mention surrealism? This macabre classic by Georges Franju (above) all but defines it. The repellent story is about a mad doctor (Pierre Brasseur) who surgically removes the faces of captured girls to replace the ravaged one of his daughter (Edith Scob); the visuals, however, are all about haunting juxtapositions and dream logic. The image of Scob's glittering eyes moving behind their inexpressive mask is unforgettable (as are the calmly-gruesome surgical sequences, it's only fair to warn you).
Psycho (1960) - yes, I know you've seen it, but it's the source of an incredible number of pop tropes; the psychotic slasher, the out-of-the-blue murder (above), the twistedly "innocent" (and probably gay) villain, the cheap-o production design and even such touches as Bernard Herrmann's "slashing" strings have all become embedded in the culture. But the movie also, believe it or not, has bizarrely tragic undercurrents, and formally, it fascinates for the way in which Hitchcock sets up one of his standard templates, then rips away its surface to reveal the frightening impulses raging beneath. Related: Vertigo, The Birds, the weirdly comic Frenzy, and Michael Powell's florid companion piece, Peeping Tom.
The Innocents (1961) - Jack Clayton's take on Henry James's The Turn of the Screw is not just the most literate horror movie ever made, but perhaps the most literate movie ever made, period. Deborah Kerr is perfection as the repressed governess who may (or may not) be seeing ghosts, with weirdly mature charges who may (or may not) be possessed. The movie lacks suspense, but makes up for it with sheer beauty, the subtle craft of its dialogue, and the fact that every appearance of the ghosts (above) is an imaginative tour de force.
Don't Look Now (1973) - Nicolas Roeg's fragmented film can feel very self-indulgent - especially during some of its fractured improvisations. But stick with it: the final sequence makes up for everything with both a satisfying scare and a strangely persuasive suggestion regarding the interpolation of past and present. Plus the movie features Julie Christie naked (alas, it features Donald Sutherland naked, too).
The Shining (1980) - The Divine Stanley's one foray into pure horror sags in the middle, and never really manages to beef up Stephen King's blandly superficial novel with any real depth. But its banal, brightly-lit look, its atmosphere of floating dread, and especially its many chase sequences remain indelible. True, Jack Nicholson's over-the-top performance can seem either genuinely, or artistically, horrifying, depending on the day I see it. But once Kubrick drops his pretensions and gets down to business in the last act, he shows he's still got his mass-market chops.
The Vanishing (1988) - George Sluizer's deeply disturbing "thriller" follows both a young man obsessed with solving his girlfriend's disappearance and a local magistrate who has become similarly obsessed with his freedom to do evil. Sluizer's real theme, however, is the inevitability of death, and our poignant denial of same - a theme which his climax drives relentlessly home. WARNING - do not see the American remake (even though it was helmed by Sluizer!).
Cube (1997) - Far from perfect, this chilling Canadian cheapie (above) nevertheless operates as both a visually elegant shocker and a genuine brainteaser. Seven strangers awaken to find themselves trapped in a maze of cubes, each filled with deadly booby-traps, and slowly realize they're human guinea pigs in some enormous survival experiment. Which means there must be a means of escape. One of those satisfying movies in which plot secrets are revealed just as you, too, figure them out.
Funny Games (1997 and 2007) - Michael Haneke's doubly-filmed provocation (this time the "American remake" is a shot-by-shot reproduction; trailer for the original above) may be the most gruelingly horrific movie ever made, even though none of its violence ever appears on the screen. It's essentially the standard psychos-torture-victims-in-a-lonely-place set-up, only reversed to turn all the punishment on the audience itself. All thrills, indeed every form of catharsis is deliberately frustrated in one brilliant gambit after another - and weirdly, even when the movie goes all meta on us, it doesn't lose its overwhelming sense of dread. Horror movies are sometimes the most intellectual films around, and this is among the most brilliant of the last two decades; it basically launched Haneke's international career.
Cure (1997) - much has been made of "Japanese horror" in recent years (Ring, The Grudge, and especially the skin-crawling Audition), but Cure, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's hauntingly oblique meditation on a kind of viral psychosis, remains the subtle avatar of the form. The final scene alone is a masterpiece of offhand horrific suggestion. Related films: Pulse, Bright Future.
Irréversible (2002) - Gaspar Noe's X-rated reversed-time narrative feels like Memento gone to hell; at times it's as unwatchable as Saw, but it's never merely torture porn. Instead, it's got quite the stern intellectual spine. Not for the sexually faint-of-heart, however; this film pushes horror's conventional obsession with sexual disgust to its limit - it even opens with a brutal murder in the depths of a sex club called "Rectum." At least there won't be an American remake.
Other notables, in case you've seen all these:
Ring - Japanese original only! A case in which the crude, cheap-o production design does wonders for the content.
The Exorcist - preferably not the Director's Cut, but if you must, you must; still memorable for its general intensity and freezing climax.
Scream - a horror movie that morphs into a teen comedy; still, it's witty and smartly acted, and the opening sequence kicks serious horror ass.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers - Philip Kaufman's 70's remake is definitely worth seeing, but the 1956 original (above) is the real classic.
Rosemary's Baby - more a study in isolation - or maybe a black comedy! - than a genuine horror film, this Roman Polanski classic defines insinuated menace. Related: the more violent, hallucinatory Repulsion.
The Fearless Vampire Killers - another Polanski oddity, this weird piece of whimsy has its longeurs, but is also lavishly produced, features the suavest bloodsucker ever (Ferdy Mayne, above), and concludes with a dazzling "dance of the vampires." Somehow Sharon Tate's presence gives it all an added resonance.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes (above) - this minor classic from the early 70's has proved incredibly influential, from its tongue-in-cheek tone to its gorgeous production design. With its concept of serial killing as a sad performance art, Phibes would influence everything from Silence of the Lambs to Saw. Weirdly enough, the movie may also count as a musical. Related: the equally witty, if conceptually less-interesting, Bad-Shakespeare version, Theatre of Blood.
Alien - Ridley Scott's breakthrough, this subtly-acted creature feature is made compelling (like Phibes, and the forgotten Black Sunday) via its unforgettable production design. Related: John Carpenter's best picture (and #1 on the Globe list), the grotesque and memorably paranoid The Thing.
The James Whale-directed trio of The Old Dark House, Frankenstein, and Bride of Frankenstein - Now that The Old Dark House is available on DVD, there's no better time to re-assess Whale's brilliantly witty, deeply dark achievement.