Sunday, October 3, 2010

13 Horror Movies in 13 Minutes

So my intention to post a Halloween-related post every day in October will be getting sidetracked for a few days. I had a house fire earlier tonight, and it's going to take a while to clean up the mess. No one was hurt, thankfully, and the damage wound up not being too bad. But the clean-up's going to take a lot of my concentration for the next little bit. I had just finished writing today's entry when I smelled the smoke, though, and since I can't do any more cleaning tonight, I figured I might as well drown my sorrows by getting at least one thing taken care of. So here goes...


Based on a Facebook trope I’ve been tagged with more than once… It’s 13 Horror Movies in 13 Minutes! I’ve taken just 13 minutes (I promise!) to make a list of my 13 favorite horror flicks. Or at least the best ones I could think of within the time limit. The benefit of a list like this is that it’s quick and fun to construct. The drawback, of course, is that you’re always going to forget something. But that’s the way the casket crumbles.

Working well outside the 13-minute time limit, I’m also saying a few words about why each movie is on my list, and suggesting further viewing options for each. Because if there’s anything I love more than listing things, it’s listing things with annotations! (Sadly, I’m not really joking there.) I doubt there will be many surprises for the hard-core horror dorks among you, but maybe you’ll stumble across something you’ve never seen before. Or at least be reminded to screen an old favorite this year. So without further ado, and in no particular order, here’s my list of…

13 Horror Movies in 13 Minutes

1. Evil Dead II

The best of the Evil Dead series, one of the best horror movies made in the 80s, and by far my favorite zombie movie. What puts this one over the top for me is that it’s simultaneously funny (often hysterically so) and at times genuinely scary. Sure, all the stuff with the hand is comedy gold. But, man. Henrietta in the trap door? The monster cam? Ash’s mirror image reaching out to grab him? That’s some scary shit!

If you want more: All three Evil Dead movies are Required Dork Viewing, of course, but you could also check out Peter Jackson’s excellent (and insanely gory) Dead Alive, Stuart Gordon’s Reanimator, or a Japanese rock n roll zombie flick called Wild Zero.

2. The Abominable Dr. Phibes

Vincent Price plays a doctor who seeks colorful revenge on the surgical team who lost his wife on the operating table. This is another horror-comedy, part of the 1960s camp craze, and I can’t say that anything in it is actually scary. What it’s got going for it primarily is style. Style, a pitch-black sense of humor, and of course Mr. Vincent Price. I love almost all of the cheapie horror flicks Price made in the 50s and 60s, but this one’s the king. If you only ever see one Vincent Price movie (god forbid!), it should be this one.

If you want more: Honorable mention in the category of Vincent Price films must also go to Theatre of Blood, which is essentially this movie with less style but a more refined sense of humor (or at least a metric ton of Shakespeare gags). Also Masque of the Red Death, The Haunted Palace (actually an adaptation of HP Lovecraft‘s “Case of Charles Dexter Ward“), and the ultra-cheap (but intelligent and haunting) Last Man on Earth.

3. Bride of Frankenstein

As big a fan as I am of the Universal Studios Dracula, it pains me to admit that the Frankenstein movies are better. And this slyly campy entry in that series is the best of them. James Whale turns his schlocky sequel into a sublimated tale of homosexual seduction. Plus, on a more obvious level, you get Karloff adding layers to his already-powerful portrayal of the Monster, Elsa Lanchester’s truly bizarre performance as the Bride, and endless fantastic sets. Universal horror at its best.

If you want more: Seek out Universal’s Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, and The Invisible Man (also directed by Whale, and an often-overlooked classic). Even Son of Frankenstein is good, honestly. After that, you get into the “Monster Rally” films of the 40s, and I can’t in good conscience recommend those to anybody who doesn’t truly love the Universal Monsters vibe. And if you wanna get some insight into James Whale and why he inserted a gay subtext into Bride, check out the semi-fictional biopic Gods and Monsters, starring Sir Ian McKellan as the great director.

4. The Rocky Horror Picture Show

I know this film is generally remembered only for the midnight movie culture that sprang up around it (a culture I wholeheartedly endorse; everybody should “do Rocky” at least once). But I think the film itself often gets sold short. It’s a social satire seen through the lens of classic horror movies, and it’s a really nice-looking film to boot; lots of gorgeous colors, and interesting sets filled to bursting with cool things to look at. Plus, there are some pretty horrific moments stuck in between the songs and stockings. When Frank goes after Eddie with the fire axe? Gruesome. The “Meatloaf for dinner” scene? Creepy. Barry Bostwick in lingerie? Egads!

If you want more: You don’t. I know there’s a sequel (called Shock Treatment), but… No. Avoid it. Trust me on this…

5. Bride of the Monster

There had to be an Ed Wood movie on my list, and I very nearly went with the standard Plan 9 From Outer Space. But everybody’s seen that, and Bride of the Monster is a better film anyway. It’s got juicier roles for both Bela Lugosi and Tor Johnson, and it features the amazing “race of atomic supermen” speech that Wood wrote for Lugosi as a thinly-veiled rant against the totalitarian regime that had taken over his native country. Like most Ed Wood movies, it‘s a very serious film executed with such a black hole of talent that it becomes laughable. God love it.

If you want more: Definitely watch Plan 9; it‘s a vastly entertaining train wreck of a film. In the same vein of astoundingly bad 50s schlock, you could also check out Robot Monster (that’s the one with the monster costume that’s a gorilla suit with a diving helmet for a head) or The Astro Zombies (which was made in the 60s, but has its cheap-o heart in the same place).

6. Halloween

The first genuinely scary film on my list. I’m not a huge fan of slasher flicks, but Halloween is different. Sure, it’s the film that defined the genre, but it did so by being clever and absolutely terrifying. It’s also a movie I almost didn‘t include, because everybody’s seen it. But if you’ve only seen it once, do yourself a favor and watch it again. If you pay attention, you’ll see the killer lurking in the background of scenes you had no idea he was in on first viewing. It’s a movie that actually gets scarier the more you watch it. Plus, it’s always worth it to see Donald Pleasance chewing up every bit of scenery he can fit in his mouth. Brilliant!

If you want more: Halloween 2 isn’t bad. The first Friday the 13th is kind of a fun romp, too. But the only other slasher flick I’ve got much use for is the first Nightmare on Elm Street. That’s a fun and inventive piece of supernatural horror, though it‘s light years away from Halloween in tone.

7. The Thing

Another one that’s scary as hell. I hold a special fondness in my heart for the original 1950s version of this movie, but the remake from the 80s is, I must admit, a better film. John Carpenter directs Kurt Russell in a paranoid nightmare about an expedition that finds a shape-shifting alien menace in the Arctic. If you’ve never seen it, you really really should.

If you want more: Check out the original. It’s a very different film made in a very different time, but it’s a damn fine little movie regardless. And if you dig on the paranoia, watch Invasion of the Body Snatchers, either the 1950s original or the 70s remake.

8. Hellraiser

Clive Barker reinvents supernatural horror for the splatterpunk generation. And it’s a nice package. You get weird-ass S&M demons, a creepy body-snatching uncle, a stone-cold murderous bitch, blasphemy, some of the more painful-looking special effects I’ve seen on film (fish hooks! Gah!), and a plot that closes back in on itself like the puzzle box at the heart of the story. It’s a great little low-budget horror film.

If you want more: Avoid the sequels. Once you explain the Cenobites, they’re no longer scary. Try Candyman instead.

9. The Call of Cthulhu

A silent film adaptation of HP Lovecraft’s most famous story, made in 2005 by the fine folks at the HP Lovecraft Historical Society. Why make a silent film in the 21st Century? Insanity? Perversion? Sheer period verisimilitude? I think all three probably came into play in the production of this zero-budget gem, and they did so beautifully. It’s the single most faithful Lovecraft adaptation yet made, something Lovecraft fans such as myself should be most grateful for. And it looks fantastic! Very much authentic to the period, and to the movie-making techniques of the time. The “making of” documentary included on the DVD is fascinating viewing.

If you want more: Lots of great silent horror out there: Phantom of the Opera, the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, etc. I just saw The Golem recently, and it blew me away. And if you want more Lovecraft… Read a book! Seriously, good ol’ HP hasn’t been treated very well on the screen. I’ve suggested a couple of Lovecraft films above, but not because they’re good adaptations of Lovecraft. The closest you’ll get, I think, is the un-credited Lovecraft pastiche Mouth of Madness. But hope is on the horizon! The Historical Society guys are currently making an adaptation of The Whisperer in Darkness (a talkie this time!), and Guillermo del Toro is prepping At the Mountains of Madness.

10. Alien

Great sci-fi horror, and just a fine bit of movie-making besides. Whether you’re dealing with the childbirth fears this film brings to bear, the creepy biology of the Alien itself, or just being scared by the awesome stalk-and-pounce horror that’s on the surface of it all, Alien is the real deal. This is another one everybody’s seen, but it’s also a good one to revisit. The action movie tone of the later films makes it easy to forget how scary this one is. It’s also fun going back to this movie after learning that most of the dialogue was ad-libbed. That doesn’t make it any scarier, but it does make it more impressive.

If you want more: Too bad. The sequels are fun and all, but none of them are really scary. Some of them aren’t even trying to be. And I’ve already mentioned The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, so… That pretty much uses up all the truly classic horror sci-fi I can think of right now.

11. The Haunting

Proof that less is more. I’m talking about the 1963 original here, understand; the remake is garbage. But that original film, man… I’ve seldom been more scared by a movie, and its only special effects are some loud noises and a swelling door. Based on the novel The Haunting of Hill House, this is as fine an example of psychological horror as you’re going to find. It may also be the best haunted house movie ever made (well, there is The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, but…).

If you want more: You can see this story rendered as schlock in William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill, and that film’s surprisingly good remake with Geoffrey Rush in the Vincent Price role. For something more along these lines tonally, though, I’d point you toward Carnival of Souls (which is super low-budget, but haunting), some of the 70s horror flicks like Rosemary’s Baby or the Exorcist, or my next pick…

12. The Blair Witch Project

This movie scared the total holy hell out of me. Another great example of a filmmaker generating terror solely through suggestion, I think Blair Witch is probably the best American horror film made in the last 20 years. For maximum effect, watch it in the dark, as late at night as you can manage.

If you want more: You could maybe watch that fake Blair Witch documentary that ran on the Sci-Fi channel? Because I can’t think of anything else quite like this. Cloverfield was Blair Witch meets Godzilla, and it has its scary moments, but it‘s not quite the same.

13. Three Extremes

A really nice little Asian horror anthology I got to see at a film festival a few years ago. It’s comprised of three short films of differing tones and subject matter from three different directors: Takashi Miike directs the haunting and dream-like “Box,” Chan-Wook Park delivers a gory movie-industry revenge piece called “Cut,” and Fruit Chan brings us my favorite of the shorts, the black-comedy-tinged “Dumplings.” Taken as one piece, Three Extremes is a complete horror package, and one of the most satisfying horror movie experiences I’ve had in the last decade.

If you want more: Three Extremes is a sequel to another horror anthology called simply Three, which I suddenly realize I own, but haven’t watched yet. Good time to fix that. Fruit Chan also released a feature-length version of Dumplings, which I also suddenly realize is included with my DVD of Three Extremes, but which I also haven’t watched. Ooo. But then there’s the whole world of modern Asian horror to dig into: The Ring, Audition, Happiness of the Katakuras, and etc. That’s a world I started digging into a few years ago, then got side-tracked by something else and never went back to. Hmm. Might be time for that now…

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