The Greatest Horror Films

Today is the 76th anniversary of when Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater performed War of the Worlds on CBS radio, touching off some level of panic (though likely not as much as is often reported) and providing the greatest piece of radio drama in history. I listen to it every year, and even in the digital age Welles’s radio drama remains compelling.

However, to most, this date is more importantly Hallowe’en, a day celebrated with grizzly costumes and horror films. Since the current film landscape is quite barren (for those of us who cannot yet see Birdman anyway), I thought I would do something terribly trite and write a list of the greatest horror films I have ever seen. Note that, like any list that I make, it’s going to be English-language and modern-centric, because I am after all an American under 30 and so I tend to have seen more English-language and more recent films. However, I am not intentionally so limiting the films.

To be technical, the horror genre is essentially defined as a monster movie. But that is most definitely not how it is used in common vernacular. I’m trying to be closer to the common usage, basing it on the IMDb’s classifications but not following them blindly.

11. Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, USA 1968)

Zombies have become an incredibly overused monster in modern media, be it video games, films, or even novels. And part of the problem is that these newer  entries into the zombie canon never seem to realize what George Romero knew from the start: the zombies themselves are not the point. The people are the point. The zombies themselves are just a MacGuffin. Romero’s film about racial intolerance sets the stage for what zombie fiction can do when done right, which he continued to do through most of the film’s sequels. It’s just unfortunate that now the concept of zombies has overwhelmed everything he said about racism, consumerism (Dawn of the Dead), militarism (Day of the Dead), or the media (Diary of the Dead). His films stand out as a powerful outlier to a terribly disappointing genre, but his original still works far better than logic would suggest.

10. The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, USA 2012)

I reviewed this one already (see the title link), but I still think it’s a brilliant spoof of horror films. It does everything you can want a satire to do.

9. Halloween (John Carpenter, USA 1978)

This film modernized the monster movie in a way that even Jaws had not, because this monsters was bigger, more powerful, indefatigable, and seemingly immortal. And it was a monster that wasn’t here to enforce traditional economics–it was here to enforce traditional morals. It feels trite now because of the copycatting, but there is a reason that so many films since have repeated its pattern: Carpenter’s film is nothing short of brilliant. It’s a masterclass on cinematic composition that understands how to make violence most effective: build to it.

8. Vargtimmen (Ingmar Bergman, Sweden 1968)

It doesn’t have a plot. It doesn’t have a point. But god does it have an incredible atmosphere and the absolute scariest visuals in history. If you have questioned Bergman’s status as a cinematic genius (I don’t know why anyone would, but in case), this film will show you why he has it: he did himself no favors as a writer, but this is the scariest film I’ve ever seen, because the former playwright has that great of an eye.

7. The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, USA 1963)

The Birds is all about tension. Much like The War of the Worlds that I mentioned in the introduction, its best moments are often moments of quiet dread and terror. Where The War of the Worlds has “Is anybody out there?,” this film has that silent drive into oblivion as its defining moment as an ode to mankind’s greatest fear: being alone. Interestingly, it’s a far less formalistic, manipulative film than much of Hitchcock’s work. It lets the audience create its own terror, and it works.

6. Jaws (Steven Spielberg, USA 1975)

For some bizarre reason, when this film shows up on these lists, people try to insist it’s not a horror film. Not only is it a horror film, but Jaws is about as traditional a horror film as you can find. It gives us a monster, characters who are clear allegories for particular aspects of society (Brody is the government, Hooper is science, and Quint is the working class), and a clear (and conservative) political message. It even uses its monster in much the same way George Romero has always used his zombies: as a method to isolate the lead characters because the story is ultimately about them and not the monsters. And it does all of this very skillfully. Spielberg does very little to indulge his typical predilection for turning all of his films into allegories for divorce, and the result is a wonderful, tightly-focused film about the perceived dangers of immigration.

5. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, USA 1960)

If The Birds is about silence, Psycho is a testament to how powerful a score can be. Bernard Herrman’s incredible score has as much power and tension as just about any film, and–unpopular opinion alert–Hitchcock knows what he’s doing behind the camera. The simplicity of The Birds can be contrasted with Psycho, a film that never leaves “well enough” alone–it’s full of bizarre angles, manipulative cutting, strikingly unnatural lighting, and every other trick that could possibly be in a filmmaker’s bag. In addition, Anthony Perkins gives one of the finest performances in film history, giving a shockingly deep and sensitive portrayal of a decidedly disturbed and monstrous man. The film also stands as a monument against Robert Redford’s famous statement that the last 15 minutes are the most important of any film: the last 10-15 minutes or so really should have ended up on the cutting room floor–they’re present as a result of a pretentious writer wanting to show off his “edgy” intelligence by talking about hermaphroditism in then-current psychological language. However, the film is just so damn good before then that it just doesn’t matter.

4. Lost Highway (David Lynch, France/USA 1997)

If any film has ever been as visually terrifying as Vargtimmen, it’s Lost Highway. And Lynch actually has a story to tell. He tells it in such a bizarre, Lynchian manner that it’s difficult to tell that it is a coherent story, but Lost Highway does make sense. It’s a film essentially set entirely in the mind of an insane person as he deals with his own confusion, anger, and guilt over murdering his wife, but you could be forgiven for not being able to tell–it’s that bizarre a narrative. I have said before that the later Mulholland Dr. (France/USA 2001) was essentially “Lost Highway for dummies” and while that’s something of an exaggeration, I don’t think it’s invalid–everything that’s good about Mulholland Dr. (except for Naomi Watts, who is absolutely and utterly brilliant in the later film while no one is even good in the earlier one)—is even better in Lost Highway.

3. Barton Fink (Joel Coen/Ethan Coen, USA 1991)

Never has a descent into hell felt so . . . hellish. It’s a film that has a lot in common in Mulholland Dr., but it keeps its focus better and isn’t quite so caught up in its own narrative cleverness. The Coens at their best are special, and this is them at their best.

2. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, UK/USA 1980)

Stephen King famously complained that the atheist Kubrick couldn’t make a horror film, and this one was a failure because it was made by someone who “thought too much and felt too little.” If reading The Shining hadn’t already made me think King didn’t really know anything about his own genre, that statement would have (in spite of how great his giant bug statement is). Kubrick’s film is loaded with layer upon layer of complexity, with its intricate details working together to make a film about letting go of the past. The message of the film is appropriately simple–don’t hold on to the past too much lest you be consumed by it–and Kubrick focuses all of his energy on making that point, making his film an achievement that few have matched.

1. Les Diaboliques (Henri-Georges Clouzot, France 1955)

When Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac published their novel Celle qui n’était plus in 1952, they received interest from a certain British-American filmmaker: Alfred Hitchcock. Unfortunately for Hitchcock, Henri-Georges Clouzot, a man he would consider his greatest rival until Clouzot’s ill health forced him into only sporadic work, beat him to the punch. Supposedly, Hitchcock’s call arrived within hours of the agreement with Clouzot. Hitchcock and the authors were so enthralled with one another that they would later write D’entre les morts specially for Hitchcock, and he would use it as the basis for his film Vertigo (USA 1958).

And it’s easy to see what Hitchcock was so interested in–it’s a twisting, turning script that begins with a brooding melancholy that turns into a nightmarish tension and never lets up. That it ends with one of the great endings in the history of cinema is only a small part of the puzzle: this film is a masterpiece.

Honorable Mentions: Mulholland Dr., The Omen (Richard Donner, USA 1976), Kwaidan (Masaki Kobayashi, Japan 1964), Ringu 2 (Hideo Nakata, Japan 1999), Diary of the Dead (George A. Romero, USA 2007), Day of the Dead (George A. Romero, USA 1985), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Kenneth Branagh, USA/Japan 1994), Låt den rätte komma in (Tomas Alfredson, Sweden 2008)

Films that would have made it but I didn’t think they were “horror” enough but they are arguable: Gaslight (George Cukor, USA 1944), All about Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, USA 1950), Heavenly Creatures (Peter Jackson, New Zealand/Germany 1994), Persona (Ingmar Bergman, Sweden 1966), Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, USA 2011), Contagion (Steven Soderbergh, USA 2011), El labertino del Fauno (Guillermo del Toro, Spain/Mexico/USA 2006)

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Movie Review: “Caché (Hidden)” (Michael Haneke, France/Austria/Germany/Italy/USA 2005)

One of the great unnoticed jewels of the last 20 years of cinema history is Lost Highway (David Lynch, France/USA 1997), a complex and difficult journey into the mind of a psychotic that opens with a bizarre and unnerving sequence of events: a man awakens to hear a message on his home’s intercom system of himself saying, “Dick Laurent is dead” and then he and his wife begin receiving video tapes in the mail that show their home with a camera slowly panning back and forth across it, moving closer to the house with each tape until finally they begin to show the inside of the home. Caché (Hidden) begins with a couple, the Laurents, receiving long video tapes showing the front of their home but they are unable to find the videographer, even when they walk within inches of the camera looking directly at it. It’s clear that Michael Haneke is intentionally evoking Lost Highway—the similarities are just too unlikely not to be intentional—and it’s because he has decided to make a similarly difficult, nigh impenetrable thriller that instead of examining a fractured mind examines the relationship between entertainment and reality, using that reality-bending nightmare of a film as a touchstone.

The plot of this film, unlike Lost Highway, is simple enough: the aforementioned tapes start appearing and the couple tries to figure out why, with the husband convinced it is related to someone he wronged horribly during his childhood but unwilling to admit his past actions to his wife. Where this film becomes difficult is in (a) the lack of resolution to the central mystery of the tapes and (b) finding a meaning. If you want a typical thriller, slowly unraveling who left the tapes and why before finally revealing the full truth in the finale, you’re simply going to be disappointed. However, the film’s interesting examination of the relationship between entertainment and reality is worth paying attention to.

The film’s central character, Georges Laurent, is a television show host, hosting a book chat show. Every step of the way, we hear references to how odd his fans are and the strange actions that they would undertake, leading everyone to think that they are likely to be responsible for the tapes. There are layers of interest just in this simple fact. His job is to help facilitate discussion among other people about books, another type of media. Even the discussion he provides to the public is not entirely honest—we see him working to edit the show, making an extreme change to the point one of his guests is making, in order to keep the show from becoming “too theoretical.” It’s a cynical point about the realities of entertainment, but it’s also an important part of the theme of the film. As the plot unfolds, we learn that Georges grew up in privilege and—in a rather oblique plot point—got a servant boy his parents had adopted sent away out of only child jealousy and that boy is now a man living nearby. Georges is convinced that this man, Majid, is seeking a noticeably theatrical sort of revenge against him, and unraveling with the strain of his own past. Haneke includes nothing in the film that doesn’t somehow comment on the nature of the relationship between entertainment and reality, crafting a wonderfully focused film even if its meaning is not too readily apparent.

Visually, Haneke doesn’t take the kinds of chances a filmmaker like Lynch or David Cronenberg does. He and cinematographer Christian Berger provide a look that is simple and coolly-colored for the most part, only providing any real dynamics when using carefully placed shadows and high-contrast lighting in flashbacks to Georges’s past. However, they also place great emphasis on camera placement and composition. The film begins with a very long shot of the front of the Laurents’ home that does nothing to draw our attention to the off-center entrance, keeping us disconnected from the home and its inhabitants and reminding us that we are voyeurs into their lives and still not really seeing their lives and also setting up for the rest of the film a constant disconcerting feeling that every long, immobile shot might be a tape rather than “reality.” They continue to defy traditional composition rules for the remainder of the film, most memorably on the closing shot that might provide an answer to the mystery but doesn’t draw any attention to it. It’s a startling comment about how much is spoon-fed to the audience in traditional filmmaking that is only heightened by the narrative.

The acting is good across the board, though few have much to do. Daniel Auteuil has some weak moments but is generally fine in a lead role that hides most of its complexities underneath the surface. Juliette Binoche is a real standout as his wife, imbuing a character who could have been lifeless and one-note with an incredible depth and feeling. Her growing exasperation with Georges throughout the film is played with enough subtlety as to befit a film that is so filled with comments about the nature of film, but is definitely noticeable. The real scene-stealer in the film, though, is Annie Girardot, who only has one scene as Georges’s mother, but is absolutely riveting in a scene that could have been painful to watch but for her simply mesmerizing performance. It’s difficult to be noticeable in such a small part that seemingly has so little to do, but Girardot gives us a beautiful picture of who she is and exactly how she feels about Georges and much else in her past.

A note about the score: There isn’t one. It’s a perfect disconcerting fit for the film’s themes. Too often, filmmakers use a score as a crutch. Going without one can be extraordinarily effective when done for the right reason, and Haneke did that perfectly with this film.

All in all, this was an exemplary film. There’s hardly anything bad to say about it and its layers of complexity will continue to intrigue long after viewing. If Haneke’s most recent film, Amour (France/Germany/Austria 2012), is anywhere near this good, it deserved the remarkable amount of praise it received last year.