The List of the Greatest Horror Movies Continues…
Special Mention: Seconds
John Frankenheimer’s ultimately terrifying Twilight Zone-like, futuristic thriller Seconds, received mixed reviews and was critically panned at the Cannes Film Festival. But what do they know? This provocative film underscores the Faustian theme – the yearning for youth and desire to live life over again – and the price to pay for everything gained. Seconds is a chilling character study and a distressing examination of happiness, loneliness, consumerism, and the American dream. Thankfully, repeated showings on late-night television helped the film find a much-deserved cult following. Seconds features dazzling, disorienting, rich, black-and-white cinematography from the legendary James Wong Howe, whose use of long takes, wide-angle lenses, and skewed framing gives Seconds the feel of a Kafkaesque nightmare. Saul Bass contributes a spectacularly haunting title sequence that immediately sets the mood along with the edgy jangle of Jerry Goldsmith’s excoriating score. John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, Ronin) directs Seconds as a nightmare, heightening every shot to maximum discomfort. The unbroken hand-held camerawork on many angst-ridden sequences, including an outdoor orgy, gives Seconds a unique, rough feel of the ‘60s and ‘70s underground. And the echoing sound effect of a drill near the end will make you scream.
Frankenheimer’s claustrophobic hellish vision of an unhappy man examining his life to see what went wrong is essential viewing. Rock Hudson’s portrayal of a tortured soul (now an abstract painter) struggling to fill in the blank canvas of what he calls life, is a tour de force performance. Seconds is a masterpiece and one of the greatest psychological horror films ever made.
140. The Long Weekend
The Long Weekend marked the beginning of a solid run of good Australian horror films penned by Everett De Roche, who also wrote Patrick (1978), Roadgames (1981) and Razorback (1984). The Long Weekend is an extremely tense thriller that doesn’t rely on the usual standard shock strategy to deliver its scares. A well-executed and innovative film (for the time), The Long Weekendranks as one of the best “nature vs.man” films – steeped in the mid-70s statements of environmentalism, and hinting at a broader ecological agenda with mention of nuclear testing and oil exploration. The small cast all pull in great performances and the sound design is carefully layered gradually escalating to increase the tension. But the best thing about The Long Weekend is the camera work by cinematographer Vincent Monton which gives the pic a realistic feel with voyeuristic documentary-quality shots of the outback surroundings. Not a typical horror film in the standard sense but this small masterpiece is a must-see for its slow, eerie pacing and atmosphere.
139. Tetsuo: The Ironman
This 1989 Japanese cyberpunk film by cult-film director Shinya Tsukamoto combines Eraserhead’s monochrome industrial landscapes with David Cronenberg’s obsession with body horror. Tetsuo established Tsukamoto internationally and garnered him a worldwide cult following. Shot on 16 mm and on a shoestring budget, the underground experimental pic is unquestionably a feat of imagination with its creative imagery, homoerotic, nutty visuals, frenetic stop-motion, sharp editing, and strong industrial musical score. Tetsuo: The Iron Man is completely surreal and off-kilter and quite unlike any sci-fi/horror film you’ll ever see.
From genre director Pete Walker (The Flesh, Blood Show, House Of Whipcord, and The Confessional) comes Frightmare, one of my personal favorite British horror films ever made. Apart from border-lining the slasher genre, Frightmare displays an overwhelming distrust of psychiatry and related professions and examines the idea of nature vs. nurture. There’s an artistry to Peter Walker’s work — his fluid studied camera movements and intentionally abrupt edits, project the gore and provides a disarming atmosphere. The entire cast delivers superb performances, but this is Sheila Keith’s show. Her Dorothy is the epitome of the passive-aggressive mother, alternating between smart and feeble-minded, attentive and disoriented and so on. But don’t be easily fooled, as she eventually makes it very clear that she is always two steps ahead of everyone else. Frightmare is a marvel, a genuinely shocking film that features a fabulous ending.
Patrick was not only a pivotal film and a commercial success but it was nominated in three categories, including Best Film, at the 1978 AFI Awards and director Richard Franklin took home the Best Director prize at the prestigious Sitges Fantasy Film Festival in Spain. Patrick is a truly original film in that its villain remains in a comatose for the entire film. Everett De Roche’s script is surprisingly vivid and punchy; developing its characters well beyond your usual fright-flick archetypes and Richard Franklin’s direction is elegant and suspenseful, relying on mood and atmosphere rather than blood and gore. The strong cast includes some of Australia’s finest actors, from Julia Blake as the mastiff of a matron to Robert Helpmann as the dangerous doctor. As the titular character, Robert Thompson is utterly mesmerizing on screen despite the fact that he doesn’t utter a single word and Susan Penhaligon who plays the feisty nurse pulls off a rather difficult act of looking convincing while having a conversation with a man in a coma.
For the uninitiated, Zombi 2 is a 1979 horror film directed by Lucio Fulci. It is perhaps the best-known of Fulci’s films, banned in some countries, censored in others and is, in my opinion, one of the best zombie films ever made. Fulci’s direction is confident, the makeup and special effects were done by Giannetto De Rossi and Maurizio Trani are fantastic (especially for the time) and the pulsating electronic score courtesy of Fabio Frizzi and Giorgio Tucci is one of the best in horror history. The movie also features two very famous scenes: One features an eyeball-popping out of the socket and the other has an underwater sequence in which a shark battles a zombie.
135. Next of Kin
The slow, measured pacing may be too much for mainstream moviegoers but if you have the patience to sit it out, Next of Kin offers one of the best payoffs of any film mentioned on this list. Next of Kin starts as a gothic style mystery-thriller with a hint of the supernatural and then jumps to a full-on Giallo-style third act – culminating with an unforgettable final shot. While it may be influenced by Robert Wise’s The Haunting, Next of Kin is the closest I have seen to matching the atmosphere of The Shining. Along with an absolutely breathtaking distinctive musical score by Klaus Schulze (drummer of Tangerine Dream) and incredible, stylish visual imagery, Next of Kin is a must-see.
Narciso Ibañez Serrador’s 1976 cult classic Who Can Kill a Child?, which was adapted from Juan Jose Plans’ novel, is arguably one of the best Spanish horror films ever made. Due to haphazard distribution and the studio constantly changing the title (including Island of the Damned and Death is Child’s Play), Serrador’s film barely surfaced but despite the limited exposure, the film eventually found a devoted following. Horror aficionados passed around bootleg VHS copies and occasionally the film would appear on late night television until it would receive an uncut release on DVD in 2007. Working from the template established by George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Who Can Kill A Child takes place in a remote Spanish island where children who are afflicted by a kind of supernatural plague begin to kill the entire adult population. Replace the flesh-eating walking dead with killer kids, and the result is genuinely unsettling.
133. Tenebrae / Unsane
Tenebrae was a return to the classic Giallo formula for Dario Argento, who had previously directed two films with supernatural themes back to back (Suspiria and Inferno). The film is filled with the director’s trademarks and the over-the-top stylish motifs you’d expect from Giallo: homicidal maniacs, black leather gloves, a killer’s point of view, convoluted plot twists, pulse-pounding music, colorful cinematography with garish, bright reds, greens, and yellows and even a twist ending. It is said to be Argento’s most personal film (Tenebrae was reportedly inspired after Argento was stalked by a fan) – but more importantly, Tenebrae is his most self-reflexive work and sees Argento responding to the numerous critics who found the violence in his film to be problematic. Unfortunately, as with many of his movies, it seems Argento wrote Tenebrae keeping each set-piece in mind and wasn’t too concerned with whether or not the plot made any logical sense. Regardless, the set pieces are incredible, specifically, the long crane shot which reportedly took three days to film. (Fans of Argento’s work might be interested to know that Tenebrae was shot by Luciano Tovoli who was also the director of photography on Suspiria).
Adapted from a play written by Maisie Mosco titled Happy Family, Girly is an offbeat, low-key horror melodrama about a family of psychos who lure strangers into their home and plays twisted mind games with their playmates before murdering them. One man who has been drawn in realizes his precarious situation and decides to beat them at their own game and turn the various members of the family against each other. Girly (also known as Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly) was directed by Freddie Francis, who first became famous for his work as the cinematographer on The Innocents, The Elephant Man, Dune and Cape Fear before directing such notable films as The Skull and Tales from the Crypt. Girly is one of the best and most bizarre films of the early ’70s Brit psycho-horror entries, stuffed with clever dialogue (that often rhymes), great performances, and confident direction. But Vanessa Howard steals the show as the titular character, alternating between childlike simplicity, teasing sexuality and downright crazy. Sadly she would retire from acting a few after starring in Girly. Watch for the “axe through the door scene” which predates The Shining.
When a Stranger Calls originally started out as The Sitter, a short film made by director Fred Walton, but because of the massive success of John Carpenter’s Halloween, it was expanded to form the basis of a feature. The slow-burn approach is book-ended by some truly excellent classic horror movie moments – the opening alone serves as the entire basis for Wes Craven’s Scream — andWalton does an incredible job of mounting the tension almost entirely using sound. Everything from the constant phone ringing to the killer’s creepy voice to the powerhouse score keeps viewers at the edge of their seats. Charles Durning gives a more than capable performance – virtually stealing the show when he breaks down, completely nude, in front of his reflection in the washroom mirror. Highly recommended!
Special Mention: The Last Wave
The tagline reads, “The Occult Forces. The Ritual Murder. The Sinister Storms. The Prophetic Dreams. The Last Wave.”
Peter Weir follows up on his critically acclaimed masterpiece Picnic at Hanging Rock with this visually striking and totally engrossing surrealist psychological thriller. Much like Picnic, The Last Wave is built around a mystery that may have a supernatural explanation. And like many Peter Weir movies, The Last Wave explores the conflict between two radically different cultures; in this case, that of Aboriginal Australians and the white Europeans.
It is about a white lawyer, David Burton (Richard Chamberlain), whose seemingly normal life is rattled after he takes on a pro bono legal aid case to defend a group of Aborigines from a murder charge in Sydney. The mystery within the mystery surrounding the death leads the story down a rainstorm of apocalyptic proportions. Neither Picnic at Hanging Rock nor The Last Wave feature a conventional ending and truth be told, The Last Wave’s ending can be a dealbreaker for some. Unlike Picnic, which lends itself to multiple interpretations, The Last Wave seems to offer only one possible explanation in the end. Still, the film is an interesting mixture of dreams and reality – of occult tribal rituals and of modern-day society – and of mental telepathy.
130. My Bloody Valentine
My Bloody Valentine was made at the height of the slasher/holiday trend and is noteworthy as one of the most distinctly Canadian horror films ever made. Produced by Happy Birthday To Me gurus John Dunning and André Link, and directed by George Mihalka, My Bloody Valentine is one of the best in the slasher genre for several reasons: Mihalka’s direction is first-rate; the score by Paul Zaza is effectively creepy; the small-town location and mining mill makes for a refreshingly unique setting; the film features a decent body count (though not much blood); and finally, the killer has bragging rights on wearing the best costume of all slasher villains (the unstoppable miner’s identity is hidden by a gas mask and he has a construction helmet complete with its own headlight). My Bloody Valentine is competently made, well shot, expertly paced and features a great cast along with some creative ways to kill them off one by one.
Lucio Fulci’s stylish, modern-day murder mystery about a child killer on a rampage in a remote southern Italian village is a clever and complex social commentary on the effects of mob mentality on vigilante justice, pedophilia, traditional values, and the ignorance of modern thinking. Not only does Fulci toss around themes of Catholic guilt, sexual repression, psychological trauma, small-town narrow-mindedness, and hypocrisy, but Don’t Torture a Duckling also features some of the best directed scenes in the filmmaker’s canon (which is saying a lot). The most powerful scene follows the local townsmen who stalk Maciara, a local woman who is rumored to be a witch and just released from police custody after having been deemed innocent and harmless. When the men catch up to her, they each take turns beating her viciously with chains and whatever else is within their reach. Don’t Torture A Duckling is unforgiving at times as a few scenes are crude, bloody and extremely unsettling. Nevertheless, it acts as a powerful social commentary and might just be Fulci’s best, and most underrated film.
Bernard Rose had already impressed horror audiences with his little-seen 1988 film Paperhouse, but in 1992, the writer/director took everyone by surprise with Candyman, a dark horse hit that had critics and audiences talking for months. Based on Clive Barker’s short story The Forbidden, Candyman is one of the few horror films released in the early ’90s that was not only original but truly terrifying. The pic examines the power of myth and the role of imagination in fear while using the Chicago projects as a backdrop for racial injustice. The titular legend involves the son of a slave who was tortured and murdered for impregnating a white woman. Out for revenge, the townspeople cut off Candyman’s hand and covered his entire body with honey before leaving him to the bees. He has since haunted the bedtime stories and nightmares of his Chicago burial ground, shedding innocent blood when his name is spoken five times into a mirror. Candyman works on so many levels. Not only is it a sophisticated, engaging story but it also gave the horror world a tragic new boogeyman to fear in Tony Todd’s ominous portrayal of Candyman. Tony Todd’s work as Candyman is one of the best of modern horror. Rose produces a number of startling shocks and scares, but what makes Candyman send shivers down your spine is the brooding atmosphere that drips through every frame. Candyman also features a haunting and depressing soundtrack by Phillip Glass, which perfectly mirrors the film’s boogeyman, and the top-notch make-up and practical effects are considered remarkable for the day.
127. Just Before Dawn
Just Before Dawn doesn’t do anything new in terms of backwoods horror slashers, but fuck is it ever good. The film is beautifully shot, competently acted — and it features great locations, a brooding atmosphere, and early work from music composer Brad Fiedel, who wrote and performed the film’s eerie minimalist score. It’s also deeply unsettling, and the twist ending is surprisingly effective. Just Before Dawn carefully plays with gender roles and queer stereotypes and by the time the climax rolls along, the passive, quiet good-girl-next-door type (played by Deborah Benson) is kicking ass and taking names. Lieberman cites the 1972 filmDeliverance as the main influence and calls Just Before Dawn his personal favorite of his works.
After a strong debut with the paranoid thriller Shivers (1975), David Cronenberg crafted Rabid starring former adult film star Marilyn Chambers as Rose, an attractive young woman who becomes horribly injured in a motorcycle accident and is rushed to a clinic where a pair of experimental plastic surgeons make Rose an unwitting guinea pig in an operation that grafts genetically modified tissue into her body. The tissue is grafted to fire-damaged areas in the hope that it will differentiate and replace the damaged skin and organs only there are unusual side effects: Rose unexpectedly develops an orifice under her armpit and a thirst for human blood. Vampire-like, she roams the city of Montreal, using her beauty to attract victims who fall prey to an incurable, highly contagious disease that turns them into rabid zombies. The disease spreads at an alarming rate and soon, the city is under martial law. David Cronenberg’s second film continues to develop his fascination with bodily horror and explores the relationships between sex and violence, and the slow corrosion of modern society. Rabid is an unconventional vampire film, but it showcased Cronenberg’s distinct aesthetic signature and is the movie that really launched his career. It’s dark, twisted, ugly and includes some disturbing visuals and a plethora of symbolic sexual imagery. There’s no glamour to be found here – even the beautiful Marilyn Chambers spends most of her screentime covered in blood.
The House With Laughing Windows opens and ends as a meditation on suffering and art. The film begins with a series of highly disturbing images juxtaposed with the opening title cards. The first scene (which plays out in sepia tones) features a man chained, tortured and repeatedly stabbed by two hooded figures. We hear his tormented cries of pain amidst the blurry imagery, and a grating voiceover speaks: “colours, my colours, they run from my veins, colours, sweet colours.” Right from the start, it becomes clear that The House With Laughing Windows isn’t your typical Giallo. While it does feature a familiar meta-narrative with a mystery homicidal maniac stalking in the night and a half dozen or so suspects at large, the premise borrows from H.G. Lewis’s Bloodfeast and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, and follows a killer who is obsessed with capturing on canvas the reactions of people at the precise moment of their death. The House With Laughing Windows suffers from a middle section rooted too deeply in an unconvincing love interest, but it’s the bookends that make this picture great. The intricate plot will keep you guessing until the very end, and the shocking conclusion (and I do mean shocking), will burn in your memory for a very, very, long time.
After the success of Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, the Italian film industry set out to produce a slate of thrillers with animal-related titles. One of the first was Lucio Fulci’s A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin. Despite its Giallo status, Fulci’s film is a different beast from those made by his colleagues, and earned a reputation as one of Fulci’s finest works, though its climax falls somewhat short. The strength of the movie (as with most Giallos) lies in the visuals. Fulci’s innovative camera work helps reinforce the sense of illusion throughout, and Ennio Morricone’s score complements the picture’s strange mood perfectly. The highlight of the film is an 11-minute nerve-wracking chase sequence through the catacombs of a church, ending with a bloody rooftop encounter. At times it’s a bit slow, but Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is a unique and wild experience. Keep an eye out for the obvious ripoff/homage of Hitchcock’s The Birds.
British director Stephen Norrington helmed this David S. Goyer adaptation of the Marvel Comics character created in 1973 by writer Marv Wolfman and artist Gene Colan. Though some may find the plot a bit lacking, Blade is a dark, edgy, thoroughly watchable action movie featuring jaw-dropping fight sequences, a hip techno soundtrack and perfect casting for its titular character. The production design and cinematography are worth special attention and I especially love the blood-drenched nightclub sequence. Blade is not only one of the most enjoyable vampire films but one of the best comic book movie adaptations yet.
122. The Devil Rides Out
Often cited as the best film that Terence Fisher and Hammer ever made together, The Devil Rides Out is my personal favorite from the legendary studio. Released in 1968, The Devil Rides Out was one of a number of British films during the 60’s that touched upon occult matters and is crammed with a half dozen or so memorable set pieces, and a series of great scenes, including a car chase that is interrupted by the use of black magic – and the rescue of a young couple who become victims to an outdoor Satanic orgy. There is also a superb scene in where Charles Gray’s Mocata comes to visit the house and uses hypnosis on Sarah Lawson’s Marie Eaton. With the tranquility of his voice, he puts her in a trance; meanwhile, his influence is felt upstairs as he urges two sleeping victims to commit murder. This long sequence, wherein he gradually puts his victim under his spell, is superbly, acted and directed – culminating with the best line of the film: “I won’t be returning – but something else will.” Fisher gets the most mileage from his small budget, creating some wonderful scenes involving the powers of black magic and the occult. The finest sequence is the suspenseful extended climax, set around a protective pentacle drawn on the floor. In order to protect themselves, the group of friends must stay within the diagram throughout the entire night. Meanwhile, Mocata tries to break in by preying on them psychologically. The scene is pure cinematic gold as we watch Christopher Lee’s brave duke do battle with a coven of Satanists out to disrupt the balance between good and evil. Truthfully, the manifestations of evil are a bit dated, but the storytelling does a fine job of setting the stakes high, and Fisher has a lot of fun with this slice of black magic. With a screenplay adapted by the great Richard Matheson — and with Fisher (arguably the best auteur of Hammer Studios) behind the camera — along with Christopher Lee in front of it — the film is indeed essential viewing for fans of Horror. In his long career, Lee has appeared in over 300 films, but this is one of the few roles where he plays the good guy. It is a masterful performance and one of his best.
Considered one of Spain’s hottest directors in the late 1990s, Alex de la Iglesia hasn’t slowed down one bit over time. He’s continuously directed genre-bending, imaginative films, laced with black humour and often sharp satire for over two decades. His tongue-in-cheek sci-fi thriller The Day of the Beast won no fewer than six of the Oscar equivalent, the Goyas. Best described as a comic precursor to End of Days, The Day of the Beast follows a Catholic priest and professor of theology (Alex Angulo) who tries to thwart the coming of Satan on Christmas Eve. In a rather slapdash manner, he befriends a metalhead record store clerk (Santiago Segura) and the host of a paranormal-themed TV talk show (Armando DeRazza) to help him on his quest. Convinced that Satan’s spawn will be born somewhere in Madrid, Father Angel sets out into the streets, conducting acts of evil, to earn his way into the Devil’s inner circle, and to destroy Satan himself. This ambitious horror film has garnered a sizeable cult following over the years, and with good reason. Comprised of equal parts high-concept horror and scathing social satire, The Day of the Beast remains the director’s finest work to date – and the best holiday horror film ever made. It was a box office smash in Spain and earned de la Iglesia the gig to direct the sequel to Wild At Heart, titled Perdita Durango. Much like the director’s peer and former collaborator Pedro Almodovar, de la Iglesia throws in a tidal wave of black comedy. While the film is rife with violence and profanity, Day is fuelled by de la Iglesia’s fast-paced slapstick sensibilities – and brought to life by the incredible performances from his cast. De la Iglesia borrows from Russ Meyer, The Exorcist, Network, H.P. Lovecraft, Larry Cohen, and Sam Raimi, to name a few, but his style isn’t all homage; the genre of Biblical prophecies concerning themselves with The Book of Revelations, the Anti-Christ, The Rapture and the Number of the Beast, has never looked so fresh. The Day of the Beast is one of the most original horror films made in the past 30 years and after 104 minutes of de la Iglesia’s mayhem, you’ll be wishing for more. Day moves at a fast pace, and every frame is used to maximum effect – every character, gag, line of dialogue, prop, and location serves to move the plot forward. And boy does de la Iglesia push forward, despite the limited budget. Delirious, demented and diabolically funny, The Day of the Beast is essential viewing.
Special Mention: Wait Until Dark
Directed by Terence Young, this well-made thriller is based on the hit play by Frederick Knott (who also wrote Dial M for Murder). Wait Until Dark stars Audrey Hepburn as a young blind woman who is terrorized in her apartment by two men (Alan Arkin and Richard Crenna) searching for heroin that made its way into a doll given to her as a gift. Hepburn is mesmerizing in the lead and earned her fifth (and last) Best Actress nomination, losing to her mother, Katharine Hepburn. The film is filled with spell-binding tension, and its climax is ranked tenth on Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments. Wait Until Dark is innovative, highly entertaining, and full of suspense. It may be best classified as a thriller but it receives a special mention on this list for literally giving birth to the term “jump scare.”