Well, it’s that time of year, folks, where the horror genre comes to the fore as we all go a little Halloween crazy. Actually, I can’t say Halloween has ever bothered me a great deal (and the original film even less so), but it is a damn fine opportunity to wheel out another in my occasional series of “ten favourite” blogposts. As with the entries on 1910s and 1920s films, these are favourite films and I make no pretence that they are or might be the ten “best” horror films.
It’s true to say that Dr Caligari leaves me a little cold, and so if I’m looking for a German expressionist horror film it is Waxworks that I normally turn to. This is a great little portmanteau feature which includes three stories within a framing device in which a writer is employed to write stories about the various exhibits in a waxworks museum. The most famous sequence is by far the shortest, and involves the coming to life of the Jack-the-Ripper type figure. The sequence only lasts six minutes, and seems like a bit of an afterthought compared to the other stories lasting nearly forty minutes each. However, there are reasons for this. Firstly, there was originally going to be a fourth story, although this was never filmed and, secondly, the order of the stories was changed due to the censors in Germany. It is the resequenced version we have on DVD from Kino. However, the film was shown in its original sequence at its USA premiere in 1926 – so perhaps a version with the pre-censor sequencing is hiding in a vault somewhere, waiting to be rediscovered.
The Mummy (1932)
For me this is the most chilling of all films in the first cycle of Universal horror films. Dracula feels stage-bound and Frankenstein, though a brilliant film, is not one that ever unnerved me. The Mummy, on the other hand, does just that. Karl Freund’s direction is remarkably creepy, Karloff is superb, and the flashback sequence is as horrifying now as when it was filmed.
I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
I have always felt this was a most unfortunate title, as it is one that makes the film sound like a trashy drive-in type move from the 1960s. It is instead a brilliantly executed horror movie inspired by Jane Eyre. In all of the current crop of zombie movies, there is nothing quite as terrifying as the zombies portrayed here in what is probably the best of all the Val Lewton-produced horror cycle from the early 1940s. It wasn’t an instant classic, however. The New York Times review didn’t have much positive to say: ‘To this spectator, at least, it proved to be a dull, disgusting exaggeration of an unhealthy, abnormal concept of life. If the Hays office feels it has a duty to protect the morals of movie-goers by protesting the use of such expressions as “hell” and “damn” in purposeful dramas like “In Which We Serve” and “We Are the Marines,” then how much more important is its duty to safeguard the youth of the land from the sort of stuff and nonsense that their minds will absorb from viewing “I Walked With a Zombie”?’
The Uninvited (1944)
I recently re-watched The Uninvited and was a little disappointed in that it didn’t live up to the distant memory I had of it from when the UK’s Channel Four showed it when I was but a nipper. That said, this is still an engrossing mystery/ghost story that has achieved both classic and cult status over the years. Ray Milland’s character might be a little too chipper and bright, often breaking the atmosphere the film tries so hard to achieve, but otherwise this is one of the best ghost stories of the 1940s.
The Innocents (1961)
Another film I remember watching when I was younger, and one that is still totally entrancing today. Jack Clayton’s direction provides a spooky atmosphere from the opening credits and never lets up throughout the entire film. Based on Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw, arguments still continue as to whether the narrative is a straightforward ghost story or the delusions of the governess. In the end it doesn’t matter, for the film delivers no matter which reading you happen to favour. The film is actually based on the stage adaptation of the novel with the same name (The Innocents), the 1950s production of which starred British child actor Jeremy Spenser (It’s Great to Be Young, Ferry to Hong Kong) as Miles.
The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)
One of the best entries in Roger Corman’s series of horror films based on the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Like most of the other films, Poe’s story is used as the third act of the film, with the rest of the narrative built around it. Others might favour others in the series as better films, and they might be right, but nothing beats the brilliant, disturbing climax of this film.
The Changeling (1980)
One of the great unsung horror classics, this stars George C Scott as a recently-bereaved composer who finds that the house he has moved into is haunted. This is stunning stuff, with Scott in great form, and the atmosphere built-up superbly throughout the film. One of the few horror films I saw as a teenager and still find as unnerving now as I did then – and a good example of how atmosphere is what makes a horror film scary, not buckets of blood!
A Nightmare on Elm Street III: Dream Warriors (1987)
Perhaps an unlikely choice, but I still feel that this is the best of the wonderful Nightmare on Elm Street series. It sees the return of Heather Langenkamp as Nancy, the main character of the first film. By this point she has become a dream therapist and joins a hospital where some kids are being treated for their nightmares (of Freddy Kreuger, of course). For once, the kids are all likeable (who didn’t fall in love with Rodney Eastman as Joey? I know I did), Langenkamp finally shows signs that she might be learning how to act, and there are some brilliant set pieces. Sadly it was mostly downhill for the series after this one.
Idle Hands (1999)
I feel sorry for Idle Hands. It’s one of those films that came along at the worst possible time: a fun, irreverant horror comedy about a kid who unwillingly goes on a killing spree when his “idle hands” are taken over by an evil spirit or demon or…something. And released ten days after the Columbine shootings. It’s actually a fun teen horror comedy, with great performances from Devon Sawa and Seth Green, but this was not what American audiences were clamouring to see at that point in time.
Dead Silence (2007)
Ok, I admit it. I was possibly the only person in the world who saw Dead Silence and really liked it. It’s an old-fashioned horror film with ghosts, spooky ventriloquist’s dummies and a ridiculously good looking leading man. But what I really liked about it was that it showed there was life in the horror genre beyond the torture porn which had almost taken over the market over the previous few years. Dead Silence might not have been seen by many at the cinema, but it is good entertainment and helped to pave the way for the return of the traditional horror movie which has blossomed over the last few years with Dark Skies, Sinister, The Conjuring and Insidious.
The Old Dark House
The Seventh Victim
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare