I love Horror films. A lot. A lot, a lot. More than anything I like being scared. Don't ask me why. I'll go to a scary movie by myself, then go out of my way to walk around at night listening to scary music in order to feel that adrenaline. It's fun.
I can get on board with all types of Horror films. Monster movies, psychological, gore fest, campy fun, etc. etc. forever and ever. My favorite sub-genre, because you didn't ask, is the "Slasher" genre. Though arguments are made for its origin as far back as Thirteen Women (1932), which we'll get into, Halloween takes the cake, for me, as being the mother of all Slashers, at least as we've come to define them today.
That being said, I think Horror film fans get a bad rap for being weirdies and closeted psychopaths. As if having a penchant for terror, blood, and screams translates into the real world. I think the same argument is and can be made for video games. But the most important thing about Horror films is, thematically, they seek to capture the part of our psyche we're too afraid to let be exposed. I love suspense most of all. And although I love, respect, and honor special effects makeup artists and some of the things people figure out how to do to make us go "Eeeewwwww!!!", for me what separates a good Horror film from a GREAT one is one simple thing; if you take it home with you.
If I watch The Human Centipede, which I haven't as of yet (and am a little nervous about attempting), I can almost guarantee that I will be disgusted. The gore effects may be solid, but when the credits roll and the film is finished, I don't have a new found fear that a psychotic German surgeon is going to break into my home and sew me, ass to mouth, with a couple of other folks. That's irrational. Which is why it's hard to legitimately scare me. But if I see a great slasher flick, about a normal man who breaks into homes and starts racking up a body count, that becomes more real to me. Something like that could actually happen. And that's pretty terrifying. That's something you take home with you.
My love for classic cinema stretches into all genres, and I think early (even through the 80's) horror was doing new and inventive things with the genre that, hopefully some day, we'll be able to come back to. Many of you (if you're a Horror fan) may not consider these films as strictly "Horror", but I use that term here in a broad sense to encompass all of its sub-genres, suspense, thriller, slasher, monster, psychological, gore, etc.
So, if you've ever wondered why I love them so much, and which I would most recommend (that I can almost guarantee most other people haven't already), here they be. These are some terrifying films that you will most definitely take home with you.
13. Thirteen Women (1932)
Have you seen any of The Thin Man pictures? Starring William Powell and Myrna Loy? That babe who plays Nora Charles is Myrna Loy. With such a unique and distinct look, she spent a lot of her early career playing ethnic women. (Remember this was an era in which white people often donned makeup to look like foreigners.) And Thirteen Women is no different. Here she plays a half Asian women who, after being mistreated in her college years by a group of sorority girls, sets out to take her revenge. One by one they start to disappear...
As I mentioned at the top, some people consider Thirteen Women the first to kickstart what would become the Slasher genre. To sum that up without getting to film-y; a crazy person who goes on a murder spree.
The film is very brief, with a run time of only 60 minutes, but uses every moment precisely. It wastes no time and delivers on some solid, chilling moments as Loy gives a great performance as the crazy Ursula Georgi. Driven to a madness that goes beyond reason, she even attempts to take the life of a young child (the son of one of the women), it's exactly this beyond the norm craziness that drives the film to a greatly entertaining place. It takes a special kind of crazy to decide that, because you experienced racism as a college student, all the girls who wronged you deserve to die. A little overblown? Sure. But Loy's performance gives thematic resonance in communicating the films core message; don't be a racist. What goes around comes around, and sometimes in a big way.
What's really wonderful is that the film is pre-code, meaning pre-The Motion Picture Production Code (or Hays Code) which was enforced starting in 1934. Because of this, the film is allowed to get away with themes and scenes that a film post-Hays likely couldn't. For a true study in the birth of psychological horror, Thirteen Women is easily the best jumping off point.
12. Peeping Tom (1960)
Released the same year as Psycho, this psuedo-slasher/psychological thriller is about a man with a penchant for capturing the death of his victims through the lens of his movie camera. Much the same as in Psycho, voyeurism plays a big, big role. It was so controversial upon its release in fact that it essentially ruined the career of its director, Michael Powell.
But what makes Peeing Tom so great is its ability to remain relevant. Sure we may have cell phone cameras these days, but voyeurism is a terrifying thing that will exist forever. There will always be peeping Toms and they will always, always, always be creepy.
I think most effectively communicated in Peeping Tom however is a message often lacking from Horror films in general. Campy fun aside, what dictates not just a good Horror film but a good film in general, is theme. The message the story is trying to convey to its audience. Here in Peeping Tom, that message is influence. We do unto others as has been done unto us. Because the film's central character, Mark Lewis, was exposed to awful things from his father when he was a child, he is doomed to repeat them, to live in the shadow of his already dark and sinister parent.
What's more is that Peeping Tom does what I think the Slasher genre has been longing for in recent years, a different perspective in which to tell the narrative. As opposed to a group of girls or young people being used as our prism in which to view a mad man, the mad man himself is the prism here. For once, the antagonist is our central character and we are asked to watch him travel down the path of madness without reprieve.
11. The Lodger (1944)
Actor Laird Cregar is a creepy dude. And in The Lodger he plays Jack the Ripper. Oh joy. You may be familiar with George Sanders, playing Inspector John Warwick, who has also been in famous films like All About Eve and Hichcock's Rebecca. (Which we'll discuss shortly.) But those two leads really deliver solid performances throughout, and Cregar's depiction of the Ripper is so strong that, without him and Sanders together, I think the movie wouldn't be worth much of anything.
Part of what drives the film so well, and drives most all films based on the notorious Ripper, is that not much is known about who he was. There are so many theories that to this day I think it's all still such a mystery and will remain one for the rest of time. And that makes the notion of who he was still very frightening.
Cregar's version is an, obviously, very troubled psychopath. He becomes the new lodger (a tennant) at a home near the famous Whitechapel, where the Ripper murders took place. As he moves in, landlady Mrs. Burton begins to have her suspicions about him as he is behaving very strangely. He's out late at night, is always performing his scientific experiments alone in their attic and, as time continues to pass, begins baring strong similarities to the description of the Ripper.
It's a film based on suspense and identity. What's a very moving and equally disturbing scene, is one in which some of the Ripper's (Mr. Slade), motivations are revealed to be his strong fondness for his brother. And when I saw fondness for, I mean love for. And when I say love for, I mean...like "that" kind of love for.
Though love amongst siblings is forbidden, Cregar gives a powerful performance of suggestion. That's something that, because of censors, couldn't be said outright, but is so strongly implied in the scene that, because of a film's requirement of compliance to the code, forced it to be a beautifully written one based entirely in subtext and emotion.
Slade's brother was driven to drink and susequent madness because of his love for a woman. It was a woman who ruined his brother, his perfect, beautiful, wonderful brother, and because of that, it is women who must pay the price. Slade develops a strong fascination for another lodger at the house, dancer and singer Kitty Langley (Merle Oberon) who becomes the object of his desire and the reason for his eventual downfall.
The film finds ways to still play into the Ripper lore while defining and justifying their own version of the madman. And though it is not the first film based on the famous killer and was obviously not the last, I think it will go down as being remembered as one of the best.
10. Nightmare (1964)
Famous Horror studio "Hammer Pictures" produced, and continues to do so after their recent revival, countless films. It's where actor Christopher Lee got his first big breaks (playing all three iconic monsters Dracula, The Mummy, and Frankenstein's monster) in the studio's monster movie revivals. Often times they featured a rotating cast of character actors and often were headlined by amazing actor Peter Cushing. (You probably know him as this guy from Star Wars.) The studio produced countless works of art as well as a big pile of duds, which is inevitable for a company that churns out as many pictures as they did.
Though I really enjoy their monster movies, their psychological thrillers were the ones that stuck with me the most. Both Nightmare and the soon to be discussed Paranoiac are brilliant mind melting psychological horror and drama. In Nightmare, the young Janet is having, you guessed it, nightmares. After witnessing her mother murder her father on her birthday she spends much of her young life in a boarding school. But as the nightmares escalate she is released to stay at home under the care of her guardian and a nurse. But the nightmares don't go away, in fact, they're only just beginning.
There's a lot of fun twists and turns in this one. Just as you assume the film takes one direction, they take you in another. It keeps you on the edge of your seat guessing the whole time and I think serves as one of the better examples of what suspense and psychological horror can do and for untapped inspiration for the genre as a whole.
9. Mad Love (1935)
You guys know who Peter Lorre is, right? Right? RIGHT!? Even if you don't recognize his name, Google him. I better hear you say, "Oh yeah, I know that guy." If, instead, that reaction is, "I have no idea who this is." Then what have you been doing with your life?
I'm a huge Peter Lorre fan. Granted, not as big a fan as what I call my trinity of inspiration (Jimmy Stewart, Jack Lemmon, Henry Fonda), but everything Lorre is in is usually a fun time. And Mad Love is no different.
In short, the film is about a mad doctor who helps a well known piano player, Stephen Orlac (Colin Clive), whom has just lost his hands in a terrible accident. Part of his desire to help the man is also because Doctor Gogol (Lorre) is in love with his wife, Yvonne Orlac (Frances Drake). But unbeknownst to the happy couple, Gogol has used the hands of a now executed murderer to replace Orlac's destroyed ones. Soon, as Orlac begins to recover, he starts to notice his hands behaving in a very strange and dangerous manner...
I'm a sucker for simple, sometimes even silly, setups like this. Originally the film was to be titled The Hands of Orlac, but was later changed to reflect the real horror of the story, not Orlac's dangerous hands, but Gogol's psychotic ambition and desire for the man's wife. I love the title The Hands of Orlac, and I hope one day I can make a movie and just steal that, but it definitely reflects the idea of a monster movie, of a man who's hands are possessed by evil and cause him to commit terrible deeds. This isn't really the case in Mad Love. What is, however, is Gogol's obsession and unrequited love which drive him into, you guessed it, madness.
I think what's really wonderful about this film is it's attention to detail and mise-en-scene. (Never thought I'd use that term again after film school. Alas...) There are a lot of really great visual references and foreshadowing of things to come which help communicate the films story and themes non-verbally. And I think, in more unconscious ways than any, the film reflects the stories of both Frankenstein and Beauty and the Beast. It's unintentional I think, but impossible to miss. Unfortunately the "beast" here is not one to be redeemed, as Gogol's undying love for Yvonne is rebuked, but it doesn't change the fact that what makes this movie truly great, in my opinion, is Lorre's commitment to his character.
Peter Lorre was a short and, to be frank, a weird looking dude. When he met Frances Drake he wanted to make sure she knew what he looked like before he shaved his head for the role, just so she knew he wasn't truly the character he was about to become. I think he didn't want to dissuade anyone from liking him, and I think growing up and spending a career as the creepy little weird dude (let's be honest, that's how most people describe him) really hurt him. But regardless, he was committed to his characters completely and because of that always gave really great performances. As Doctor Gogol it's no different, and though he goes mad in his obsession for his unrequited love, he does it convincingly and in a way that you begin to feel sorry for him.
Lorre creates and I think inspired for decades to come (and to this day even) the sympathetic villain. Horror villains can be tough to do. Often times they get out of hand because people believe that all they want to portray is evil and terror and gore and "scary". But what gets lost is the villain's humanity. I think what makes a villain the most memorable and effective is that small shred of humanity left that just barely tethers them to reality, and as the story progresses we watch their descent into madness a little regrettably, only because, at one point in time, we sympathized with them and actually wanted them to succeed or triumph over evil. When they don't, and they become evil itself, it's hard to watch and is effectively more terrifying because we used to care for that person. And now there is nothing left of them but madness and horror. Mad Love communicates those things brilliantly and, though the supporting cast lends important helping hands, it's Lorre that really carries this film into legendary status.
8. Rebecca (1940)
Having just discussed George Sanders, here he is again, this time in a lesser seen Hitchcock thriller. Lesser know? Maybe not. But if I say Hitchcock, you think Psycho, Rear Window, and North by Northwest. So if you're thinking, "Hitchcock made a movie about some gal named Rebecca?" You need to check this film out.
Laurence Olivier's title character Maximilian de Winter marries Joan Fontaine's character (who goes unnamed in the film aside from being Mrs. de Winter) after they meet in Monte Carlo. Come to find out, Maxim has been married once before, to a woman named Rebecca, whom the house keeper Mrs. Danvers is still crazy (literally) about, and whom has a cousin (George Sanders again) that she, much like Laird Cregar's lodger, shares a special "fondness" for. Over time the young Mrs. de Winter is slowly driven toward madness by the ever present memory of the former; Rebecca.
It's a classic Hitchcockian masterpiece with too many wonderful twists and turns to be spoiled in a summary. But it's precisely all these moments that make the film such a wonderful work of art. It's a bit of a glimpse into the minds of madness and the circles that the rich and powerful find themselves in. Whereas many psychological films can find themselves up a creek without a paddle when dealing with the revelations that Rebecca does, Hitchcock, like the master he is, navigates his way around them perfectly. The motivations revealed, the family secrets, lies, and deceit all build to a wonderful peak, ending with the films iconic scene that ties it all back around to its beginning.
Again, I think it's a film that is really so wonderful that not too much should be said about it because, like most Hitchcock, it must be seen to be fully appreciated.
7. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
I don't really like alien movies. They're always kind of silly to me. I always find them implausible and impossible. Because logic invading my ability to suspend disbelief, it's difficult for alien based films to truly scare me. Case in point, Ridley Scott's Alien. Great film, great suspense, but I don't take it home with me as something that "scares" me.
That being said, I can easily say that the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is, hands down, next to M. Night Shyamalan's Signs (gasp!) my favorite alien themed film ever and probably the greatest alien invasion film I've ever seen.
What makes it so scary is it's realism. We're not dealing with War of the Worlds or Independence Day sized monsters in giant robot suits turning people into dust with lasers. Slowly, one by one, the people of Earth are beginning to behave strangely, robotic almost, without emotion or care. And the only people who know the truth are labeled heretics. But when biologist Matthew Bennell, played by Donald Sutherland, starts to believe the heretics, that's when you know something is wrong. And a lot of wonderful performances by now mega-famous actors also help round the film out, specifically Leonard Nimoy and a very young Jeff Goldblum.
Again, it's the theme that makes this film so scary. That, when you break if down and think logically, these aliens have a point. They take over the bodies of humans in order to destroy them and re-grow them in a pod. When they are reborn, these people are more efficient, better human beings. There is no emotion, nothing to get in the way of securing a successful homeworld. The only way to have world peace, to have Universal success, is to make everyone just like everybody else. Uniqueness is obsolete. Free will is obliterated.
A key scene (without spoiling anything) that gripped me the most is one in which the alien leaders are preparing to take over the bodies of our protagonists. Brooke Adams' character says to them, "I hate you." To which the leader responds, "We don't hate you. There's no need for hate now. Or love." And in blatant defiance of living a meaningless life, she turns to Donald Sutherland and immediately says, "I love you Matthew."
Just absolutely gorgeous storytelling here, showing us that the message of the story is most important. That, though logically it may be a "better, more perfect world" if we were devoid of emotion, no matter how successful or proficient it is, it would still be a meaningless one.
6. The Night of the Hunter (1955)
If you'r familiar with this film, you probably wouldn't normally put it in a top 10 (or 13) horror films list...ever. A lot of people have pegged horror as something more about blood and death than about suspense, mood, and tone, but I, for one, believe the best horror is that which you can't get out of your mind.
Growing up in church my Dad led, and still leads, songs for the congregation to sing. One of those, which I remember very well and still am quite fond of is "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms". I can still let it be a beautiful hymn that inspires me, but now, because I've seen Night of the Hunter, I'll never get the low, eerie tone of Robert Mitchum's voice out of my head. I saw this film on a recommendation from a friend and because he both introduced me to a masterpiece and helped destroy one of the most important songs of my childhood, I say thanks. Jerk.
Mitchum's character is a man, Henry Powell, who marries and murders widows for their money. But after spending a small stint in prison he learns that his cell mate has hidden away $10k. But only his children know of its whereabouts. So upon his release, and the execution of his cell mate, Powell marries the widow in an attempt to get at her money. But to pose as a seemingly harmless, kind man, he assumes the profession of a preacher. Unfortunately for him, and the children, getting at the money is harder than it should be, and the children spend much of the film on the run from a murdering psychopath.
The way the film plays out is so slow and even in its progression that I lose my mind about how beautiful and truly haunting it is. Mitchum's singing of "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" ruins that song in a good way. It's chilling and creepy and the entire film you find yourself praying and fearing for these poor kids who have to escape the clutches of the man who not only wants to kill their mother but also kill them.
I think what the film does for me that classifies it under the broad horror genre is it shows how dangerous "Religion" can be. A film being critical of religion in 1955 is rare but I think when it happened it was truthful and spot on. Hunter is the gold standard of that. A Preacher is someone who, even if you yourself are not religious, you should be able to trust. He is a man of God who believes in love, peace, and is out to serve others. But we all know that often times this couldn't be further from the truth. Many church leaders are greedy, selfish, careless, and dangerous. And Hunter proves how easy it is to fool an entire town full of people into believe you're a good, kind man simply by telling them that you're a "preacher". It carries a weight with it automatically and because of that weight is terribly easy to manipulate.
Hunter tells us that though preachers encourage us to be trustful of our fellow man, how do we know they can be trusted when the person encouraging that trust is a psychopathic killer? It brings into question humanity and Religion and God's place in it all, and is successfully critical of the notion that organized Religion is more valuable than simple faith alone. But the heroes of the story are two innocent children, the only people in the story you feel you can trust and often times in life the only people you feel aren't out to get you. And even then sometimes it feels not even they can be trusted.
I don't necessarily agree that we should be wary of all our neighbors and scared to trust, I like to have faith that mankind is good and just, but simply because the film brings all of those hopes and dreams into question and leaves you with a hollow, empty, unsure feeling of all those around you, to me it is effectively one of the scariest movies that could ever be.
5. Cat People (1942)
Producer Val Lewton is known, more than anything, for his low budget, high profit Horror films. He was notorious for cranking out suspenseful films with very little money. And as a result of the studios being so cheap, it forced him to think critically about the films he was going to make. Another difficult factor for him was that the studios would audience test titles, and then make movies based off the titles that audiences responded positively to. When they tested the title of the, as of yet, non-existent Cat People, it tested very well. And so they decided to make it. So often times Lewton was forced to make and deliver good films around strict budgets and silly titles. But he did. Over and over.
Because there was no money for effects, the films relied heavily on the fear of the unseen. To this day, I still attest that this is the best type of horror, and why Halloween (my all time favorite horror film) is so wonderful. Rather than show non-stop, over the top violent kills, the films focused on building tension and suspense, with an eventual payoff.
Director Don Sharp (who directed both Nightmare and the soon to be discussed Paranoiac) quoted Robert Louis Stevenson on how he liked to tell the story of his horror films, "To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive." And I think it's true to this day. To experience Horror on a subconscious level with a gradual, eventual payoff is more terrifying than to show severed heads and intestines for ninety minutes.
Cat People is the perfect example of this. Irena, played by French actress Simone Simon, is afraid that, if she becomes intimate with a man, she may turn into a large cat, which is the folklore of her home country.
The film, not so obviously, isn't really about a lady who turns into a cat. In fact, spoiler alert but you should've already known, you never see her "become" the cat. You may see it in the shadows, but never up front and it's never clear. Why? Because that didn't (and still doesn't) matter. Without any money and dated special effects, the transformation would've looked God awful. It wouldn't ruined the entire film. So they never show it. And that is why it's brilliant. Rather than cater to what they knew people wanted, they found a way to make their audience cater to them.
Instead the movie is about repressed sexuality and gender issues. It's nature versus nurture. If Irena marries and becomes intimate, will she turn into a savage beast? Or is her real love enough to keep her safe? Or will all of it drive her to madness?
It may seem terribly sexist on the surface, considering the film was made in 1942, but I think the film is a great early example of the power of women in film. Because of Irena's conflict and her eventual terror, she creates in her co-star (along with Irene Dunn's character in Thirteen Women) the start of the survivor girl, that of course being the only character capable of escaping and surviving a maniacal killer.
4. Paranoiac (1963)
Paranoiac landed on me fairly late in the film. To be honest I had put it on in the background a bit and started to work on some writing projects. About 45 minutes into the film, there's a scene that stopped me in my tracks. Out loud I said, I believe, "What the f*#$", then I rewound the film and re-watched it from the beginning to make up for what I'd lost. What resulted was the film making it into the top 5.
It's another Hammer studios psychological horror picture, much like Nightmare, but where it differs is in it's, let's not lie, piracy of Hitchcock's Psycho. I say piracy because it's hard not to see how Hitchcock's masterpiece inspired psychological horror for the remainder of forever. But Paranoiac covers some ground Psycho did not, and that's the psychological problems of an entire family and how that dynamic affects those around them.
Without giving away too much, the Ashby's are a wealthy family that have been dealing with trauma and death since the youngest sibling Tony committed suicide years ago. But when "Tony" shows up claiming to be alive and well and reveals many of the family's terrible secrets, his identity is doubted and it would seem a plot against his life, and his sister's, is hatched.
Like Nightmare, Paranoiac took turns in directions I never expected. Part of what I love about it, that built upon Psycho's foundation, is the introduction of a masked killer. That mask is terrifying and I'm going to steal that design for a film in the future. But the specter who wears the mask and wields the hook is meant to represent the dead ghost of Tony. But if Tony is back, and he is who he says he is, who's under the mask and why?
Again, it's another film I don't want to get too involved in because I want you to see it for yourself. Though thematically I can say it paints a terribly unsympathetic picture of a family full of crazy people who are willing to go to great lengths in order to maintain their lavish lifestyles. But unsympathetic in a good way. Tony is the hero, and as he investigates his own family's secrets, we're praying he gets out alive. It's a really wonderful depiction of the horror that often accompanies the greed, envy, jealousy, and spite that can motivate family members into, not just backstabbing and betrayal, but even murder.
3. The Body Snatcher (1945)
Don't be confused, this film has nothing to do with the previously mentioned Invasion of the Body Snatchers, nor it's original, and it has nothing to do with aliens.
Famous creature feature actor Boris Karloff credited producer Val Lewton for helping to revive his career and be one of the few who saw in him his acting potential, giving him roles in horror films that allowed him to perform as he was meant to, rather than simply wear Frankenstein prosthetics. And it's a great service to us that he did.
The Body Snatcher is one of the most chilling classic Horror films I have ever seen. It's overall tone is utterly breathtaking. And I know the precise moment that it hit, when the reality of the situation they presented became a very real one.
Based on a story by Robert Louis Stevenson, Dr. Wolfe 'Toddy' MacFarlane (which made me wonder if this is where comic book writer/artist Todd MacFarlane's parents got the inspiration for his name. Though I doubt it. Sorry, nerd distraction! Anyway -) runs a medical school. One of his primary students, Donald Fettes has the hope of helping a wheelchair bound young girl to walk again. But Dr. MacFarlane's research is not complete, in order to fully understand the biology, he must experiment on human cadavers, despite it being outlawed. So the good Dr. enlists the help of a Cabbie, John Gray (Karloff) to provide him with already deceased corpses from the local graveyard. And the deal seems fairly straightforward, albeit dark, until Gray begins taking lives...
There's a scene that I'd love to spoil but won't because I want you to see this film. It's the moment that when, for me, as I said, the film became very real. When enlisting a man to act as a grave robber, you're not exactly doing something legal, but technically no one is getting hurt. But what if that grave robber is a psychopath? What if you've only brought out a penchant for blood that has since been dormant? And are you prepared to deal with the consequences?
The film is a bit of a period piece, but the second Gray takes his first victim, there's a moment where the sound (which is key to this character) just cuts out abruptly. The crime is committed brilliantly off screen. And I think that's what makes it all the more chilling. If we'd seen the horrific murders Gray commits, it wouldn't be special, we've seen that done a million times. But when we're allowed to build our characters and give them real motivation and a need for something which becomes the cause for their terror, the tension and the results are much more impactful.
It also features a fun cameo by fellow monster man Bela Lugosi. Seeing those two on screen again together is pretty special, and though Lugosi's role is small, it's still very significant, as he allows for Karloff's true decent into madness. And when Dr. MacFarlane is forced to confront the monster he's created, he too begins to suffer from his own psychosis. In a way, it presents a thematically alternate version to Frankenstein. Though Karloff was desperate to escape that legacy, in a way, it seems it would never leave him. Though, in my opinion, The Body Snatcher delivers more chills than Frankenstein ever could.
2. Rope (1948)
A Hitchcock masterpiece, and the first of four pairings with he and (my all time favorite) actor James Stewart. If you're a Hitchcock fan or a film buff, of course you know about Rope, but I'm always shocked at how many people haven't even heard of it.
It's reputation in what accomplishes in its run time is probably more well known than what the film is even about. But, being the master of suspense, Hitchcock uses Rope as a medium for trying to tell a complete thriller in real time without cutting. In total there are only 9 cuts in the film, and it runs from beginning to end in real time without a change of scenery, establishing, pursuing, and resolving the story all from beginning to end. It's really a work of art in that, more than anything, the actors are allowed to breathe as actors should, in the moment.
Because of it's often nearly ten minute cuts, the performances here are much like they would be in a play. (The film is also based on a play of the same name.) I'm a huge proponent of long takes because I think a lot of value comes from an actor living in the moment, meaning emotionally they get to begin in one place and live realistically in the environment despite the content being, technically, unreal. Jimmy Stewart is the best at this. His "Aww shucks" demeanor, which he never can seem to shake, makes him the greatest of sleuths here.
When two students believe they're wits are sharp enough to commit the perfect murder, they take the life of a former classmate prior to hosting a dinner party. They hide his body somewhere it could easily be found, knowing full well that their house guests will never be too far from where it's hidden...in the chest being used as the buffet table.
One of these guests is the two students prep-school housemaster and publisher, Rupert Cadell (Stewart), who is soon on to the boys' schemes.
Rope is a masterpiece all around, and being told in real time builds such unbelievable tension that it's hard not to feel antsy and uncomfortable. Because it does not let up from beginning to end, it's impossible to pause the film, even if you've got to get up to use the bathroom. It's hard for a film to hold a modern audiences attention without rapid fire cutting, action, and booming sound effects, but Rope proves that some masterpieces will remain as such, regardless of the passage of time.
1. Halloween III: The Season of the Witch (1982)
I know what you're thinking. "That's the one without Michael Meyers, isn't it?"
Do you know what I'm thinking? "Yeah, but I bet you've never seen it."
And you've probably never seen it because of that reason. What kind of Halloween movie DOESN'T have Michael Meyers as its central killer? Well I'll tell you, the kind that John Carpenter originally intended. Sort of. And because it's #1 on the countdown here, I ask you to bear with my preface to the film itself. I think the world owes it to a movie most of them regard as bad without even having seen.
Carpenter's first Halloween, which featured Meyers as the killer was so successful on such a low budget that a sequel was inevitable. (Though he's gone on record saying he would've liked it to conclude after the first.) Because of the original film's cliffhanger ending, with Meyers escaping in the end, alive, its sequel Halloween II sought to conclude his story. And it did. He died.
So Carpenter and co-producer/co-writer, on the first three Halloween films, Debra Hill sought to make the third installment simply about the Holiday itself. Their thinking was that they would release a new Halloween themed film each year, telling a brand new story with brand new characters, the only one of which that would make a constant reprisal would be the Holiday itself.
Carpenter, of course, directed the first, Rick Rosenthal would direct the second, and Tommy Lee Wallace (who was also production designer on the first, as well as one of the film's editors) would tackle the third. Because of that, what is nice is, for the most part, coherent visions that fit into Carpenter's larger plan. As a result Halloween III is often considered a silly franchise breaking movie, but in my opinion is a brilliant and unappreciated vision which was unpopular with audiences. They wanted Michael Meyers. And because of its non success, eventually the franchise continued with Meyers returning as the maniac slasher, though Carpenter and Hill would step down from story and producing duties.
Don't get me wrong, the Halloween franchise is my favorite Horror franchise of all time. Excluding Halloween Resurrection (shamefully directed by Halloween II director Rick Rosenthal) and Rob Zombie's remakes (his second installment is so incoherent I personally consider it one of the worst movies ever made), I re-watch the franchise annually. I love all 7, that's right 7, of those first films (ending with H2O), but hold a special place in my heart for part III because it's considered the ugly duckling.
Alllllllll that preface being given, Halloween III is about on-call Doctor Daniel Challis' discovery of something awful going on in the peaceful town of Santa Mira, which houses a now down on its luck toy manufacturing company called Silver Shamrock. But the head of Silver Shamrock still has one trick left up his sleeve and it's hidden inside the Halloween masks his company has been selling to children like wildfire.
Many times I think people don't focus on what's being communicated sub-textually and through a story's theme as opposed to what they can simply see on screen. If people aren't being murdered in cold blood and ghosts aren't possessing people and chapping their lips, people say something isn't "scary". But, to me, an idea can often be more horrific than an act, especially if that idea is carried out and even more so when you see the method behind the madness. The madness of Conal Chochran's (the toy manufacturer) plan in Halloween III is that his masks are to be worn by millions upon millions of children on Halloween night. These aren't masks made for parents or adults, they're for innocent kids who simply want to have a few laughs and get some candy. And ultimately we discover that his real plot is about his desire to commit mass murder on children.
That isn't just terrifying or horrific, but disgusting, sadistic, and evil. Here is a man going after the lives of innocents simply to perpetuate the necessary sacrifices of some Satanic ritual. I'd say that's scarier than the ideas behind all the plots of all the films listed above combined. And because of this, if you can allow yourself to let go of the issue that Michael Meyers isn't in the film and of the fact that it was made in 1982 (and feels very much like 1982) you'll find a really nice gem of a horror film here that communicates a terrifying notion and leaves you feeling very uneasy and unsettled when the credits roll. Tom Atkins' last moments on screen always leave me with chills, more so than most horror films I've ever seen, simply because we are hanging on his every word in the hopes that this terrible deed can be stopped.
If you've seen any of these films, you're awesome. You're probably in the minority of the rest of the world these days because often times really great films are forgotten for the wrong reasons (like Halloween III). But if you haven't, and somehow you managed to read through this entire self gratification essay on horror films I've written for you like a film school essay, then I highly recommend all of them. If you've always wondered why I love horror films so much, hopefully this gives some insight as to why and some insight into the films that truly inspire and frighten me which, as I'm finding out more and more lately, is very hard to do.
Much thanks to the friends who helped me discover some of these films, you know who you are.
Did I miss your favorite lesser (or unknown) horror picture? Post it in the comments below!