Monday, November 23, 2015

Book Review - The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King (from 2015)

Stephen King's latest is a collection of short fiction that may represent some of the author's best writing.  Stirring and insightful, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams is a rich offering that arrives complete with a profound assortment of chills, thrills, and chuckles.  Having said that, calling this collection a bit morbid is surely an understatement, and the supernatural elements at play are slight in comparison to many of King's most entertaining tales.  I really liked The Bazaar of Bad Dreams and I can't say that I disliked any of the short stories contained therein, though the 2 poems inserted in the mix provide little in the way of conflict with the author's assertion that he isn't much of a poet.  My favorite story was probably "The Little Green God of Agony" and "Morality" was surely my least favorite, but every piece of short fiction contained in the book had something to offer.  The prose was top notch and the strong characterizations and the depth that define King's incredible talent were on full display throughout.  With that in mind, I can't really complain about The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, though it must be noted that it isn't nearly as fun or as robust as either of his earliest collections, Night Shift and Skeleton Crew, a pair of treasure chests overflowing with dreadful horrors and fiendish delights.  In closing, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams is a fine collection that mostly favors contemplation over excitement and provides far more in the way of subdued reflection than stark raving terror.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Short Attention Span Review - Curse of the Demon (1957)

Atmospheric and tense, this notable chiller with a potent noir vibe is a delightful picture that remains engrossing.  Dana Andrews does a nice job as a skeptical leading man who has come to England to expose a satanic cult leader as a fraud.  Unfortunately, this endeavor goes awry when our wooden hero is cursed by the charismatic but twisted Doctor Karswell, who is expertly played here by Niall MacGinnis.  MacGinnis steals the show and his performance would surely stand as the biggest strength of Curse of the Demon if not for Jacques Tourneur's splendid direction.  The paranoia and the suspense that he generates throughout this twisted shocker are palpable, and despite a few hokey shots* of the titular menace, Tourneur's film is still a spooky outing that boasts several imaginative and frightening sequences.  The parchment that dances in the wind and the grand finale are perhaps my favorite elements of this beloved cult classic, but there are other sequences of merit generously sprinkled throughout the picture.  While it is treasured by many horror fans, it probably doesn't get the love that it deserves, and with that in mind I'm here to heartily recommend this creative tale of terror from 1957 to my readers.

*Allegedly, the shots of the demon were added by the producer against Tourneur's wishes.  Tourneur reportedly wanted to allow the audience to imagine the fearsome fiend instead of showing it, and the overall tone of the picture lends this theory credence.    

Final Grade: B

There are a few laughable shots in the mix, but much of the imagery presented in Curse of the Demon is still rather creepy.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Top 20 Horror Movies

This October, I celebrated Halloween all month long by ranking my Top 20 Horror Movies and my Top 20 Horror Novels.  These were difficult endeavors and I spent a lot of time narrowing my choices down.  It was also a lot of fun, and I'm pleased to share the results with my readers.

I want to be clear that I'm basing these choices on my own humble opinion.  I'm not trying to rank these movies in accordance with their place in pop culture, but I'm offering up my take on the best horror films that I have ever watched and enjoyed.  There are some familiar candidates that I consider to be great pictures that didn't make the cut because there wasn't room, and there are some films that are widely regarded as great pictures that didn't make the cut because I feel that they are overrated.  There are also a few instances where it was difficult to determine whether or not a movie belonged to the horror genre (I said "no" to Aliens but "yes" to Jaws), and it may also be worth noting that this is largely a modern list (as long as you're okay with my classification of modern as anything after 1960) that only features one lonely creature from the so-called "Classic Monsters" films produced by Universal Studios.

. . .

Okay, let's get things started with one of the most disturbing horror films out there, a stellar trip into gruesome terror from the one and only David Cronenberg.

#20) The Fly (1986)

The first entry on my list is one of three remakes to be included.  This one is surely the wildest departure from the original, as this somber tale bears little or no resemblance to the cheeky Vincent Price vehicle from 1958.  This 1986 version of the The Fly is directed by David Cronenberg, one of the most visionary directors of them all.  Cronenberg's intense and often perverse work has largely originated within either the horror genre or the science fiction genre, and I think this deliberate terror yarn stands as his grandest achievement.  It's also the best work that Jeff Goldblum has ever done, and his total immersion into the part of Seth Brundle, a daring and strangely charismatic scientist, is amazing to behold.  Throw in some fabulous effects work and an eerie score by Howard Shore and you have the makings of a classic.   This version of The Fly is a slow burn that works magnificently.  The first two acts are largely about meeting the characters and witnessing a failed experiment and the subsequent transformation as Goldblum's wacky but lovable scientist becomes one of the most grotesque monsters ever put on film.  These portions of the film are ripe with suspense and dread, while the third and final act is where most of the gruesome action takes place.  The film is potent; the combination of disturbing visuals and difficult content make it every bit as emotional and dramatic as it is frightening.  Yes, this version of The Fly is everything that I'm looking for in a great horror film, and viewing it remains a riveting experience that I highly recommend.

Jeff Goldblum's work in Cronenberg's remake of The Fly is absolutely amazing.
. . .

Hey look, it's another spectacular horror movie from the 80s!

#19) The Howling (1981)

One of two werewolf movies to make the list, The Howling is a twisted frightfest that I have a lot of affection for.  It has all the necessary ingredients for a quality horror flick, to include a worthy cast, an excellent setting, some creepy visuals, and an ominous mood.  The script by John Sayles varies greatly from the novel by Gary Brandner, but brings an engaging and fearsome story to the screen to superb effect.  Director Joe Dante does a tremendous job, and while I'm a big fan of Joe's other genre efforts (most notably Gremlins and Piranha) I believe that this is his best feature film.  It's tightly paced, brimming with atmosphere, and loaded with shocking sequences.  I'm awarding some serious bonus points for the unnerving opening and the equally disturbing conclusion.  There's also a nifty scene midway through the picture that surely ranks as one of the most frightening horror scenes out there that takes place in broad daylight.  The cast is stellar, with Dee Wallace slaying it in the lead role with quality support from players like Patrick MacNee, Kevin McCarthy, Slim Pickens, and the one and only John Carradine.  Pino Donaggio gave the film an eerie score that is a splendid fit for all the spooky shenanigans unfolding on the screen.  The Howling is equal parts engrossing, entertaining, and terrifying.  It is somewhat amazing to me that both this picture and that other werewolf movie released in 1981 (a superior effort that is ranked much higher on my list) remain the finest attempts to bring lycanthropy to the cinema.

Chief among the strengths of The Howling are
an ominous mood and some nightmarish visuals.
. . .

Now it's time to talk about the zombie film that started it all.  Seriously, I'm not in the mood for any of that White Zombie shit.  I love me some Bela Lugosi, but George Romero gave us the zombie sub-genre as we know it today.

#18) Night of the Living Dead (1968)

This is one of two zombie movies from the legendary George Romero to make my list, and while Night of the Living Dead may not be his masterpiece, it remains eerie and effective all these years after its initial release.  Yes, we had seen zombies on the screen before, but never quite like this.  The shock and dismay that this bleak low-budget affair inspired gave birth to a sub-genre that has never been more popular that it is now, some 47 years after Night of the Living Dead hit the scene.  It remains potent because it was so raw, so stark, and because the man at the helm proved to be a genius.  The horror of the undead laying siege to a remote farmhouse where a few scrappy survivors have holed up also proved to be a terrific premise for exploring serious themes.  The very presence of Duane Jones in the lead role, not to mention his serious performance and the ultimate fate of his character--all of these things speak volumes about the period when the movie was made.  In fact, many of these notions still hold a great deal of relevance in this day and age.  Besides, despite the weight of these themes, the movie never suffers.  It is entirely possible that many viewers are oblivious to the commentary, for the picture quickly descends into a grim nightmare and it never fails to function as a gruesome chiller.   I'm a big fan of the zombie sub-genre (there are three* such pictures on my list, including this black and white gem, the best zombie film of them all, and Romero's epic improvement upon the formula he created) and this tense and relentless horror film is where the zombie as we know it was born.  Beyond that, it's a fantastic flick that surely warrants a spot on my list.

*Just so we're clear, deadites are NOT zombies.  

Board up the windows!  George Romero gave the zombie sub-genre life way back in 1968.
. . .

Now, we turn our attention to space as I unveil the next movie on my list.

#17) Alien (1979)

First off, I want to say that I do believe that Alien is a stellar horror film.  Secondly, I will acknowledge that I think that this film's sequel, Aliens, is a much better picture.  However, Alien made my list and Aliens will not.  Why?  Well, Alien is a horror film, but I think Aliens is a bit more like Predator.  Is it a science fiction movie?  Is it an action movie?  I'm not sure, but despite the presence of some horrifying content, Aliens just doesn't feel like a horror movie to me.  Alien, on the other hand, is most certainly worthy of a spot on this list.  It's not a thrill ride with guns blazing, it's a subdued tale of terror that relies more on escalating tension and big scares than escalating machismo and big explosions.  The mood and the sets are incredible, the effects are totally convincing, and the cast is superb.  Sigourney Weaver's work here made her a star, and she is backed by talented performers like Tom Skerrit, John Hurt, and Yaphet Kotto, among others.  There isn't a wealth of gore, but the scene where the alien bursts out of John Hurt's chest is one of the most disturbing sequences that the horror genre has ever produced.  The design work by H. R. Giger is one of the picture's biggest assets and Ridley Scott's direction is splendid.  Alien is bolstered by one of Jerry Goldsmith's finest scores and the sceenplay from Dan O-Bannon is terrific.  In short, Alien is a gripping horror film that fires on all cylinders thanks to the presence and the efforts of a first-rate cast and crew.  It remains the best horror film set in space (though Event Horizon is pretty damn scary too) and I am pleased to include it on my list.

In addition to being a great flick, Alien also boasts one of the most
gut-wrenching scenes in the history of horror movies.
. . .

For my last selection, we journeyed to outer space.  This time, alien spores designed for global domination are going to save us the trip.

#16) Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

The second of three remakes to grace my list is a creepy sci-fi/horror hybrid that greatly improves upon the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers from 1956, which was a damn good movie itself.  This creepy affair has a stellar cast and impressive effects, and Phillip Kaufman showed a deft touch with his direction.  In particular, Kaufman did a great job of utilizing the city of San Francisco as the setting and capturing some really wonderful images of the alien spores that threaten our heroes.  The plot is obviously a real winner; we've seen a couple of different versions of the same story since this remake was released, and there are a number of other films that are clearly imitations of this sinister saga as envisioned by the author of the source novel, Jack Finney.  Things start slowly, but soon paranoia gives way to outright terror as our weary players struggle to survive, wondering who they can trust and who has already been replaced.  Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams are outstanding in the lead roles.  The supporting cast includes Leonard Nimoy, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright, and Art Hindle, and Kevin McCarthy (the star of the 1956 version) briefly pops up in a significant cameo.  I like the score from Denny Zeitlin and I really like the way that this Invasion of the Body Snatchers slowly builds to a terrifying crescendo.  The last scene is a genuine shocker, and as many times as this tale has been brought to the screen, there can be no doubt that this is the best version.  It remains one of my favorite horror films, and it is certainly deserving of the #16 spot on my list.   

This stellar remake benefits from groovy effects, a sinister mood, and an awesome cast.
. . .

So far, we've been hanging with monsters, werewolves, zombies, and aliens.  Today, we keep the late 70s motif that started at #17 alive and invite some witches to the party.

#15) Suspiria (1977)

Suspiria, a gruesome nightmare that many consider the finest example of Italian horror, is one of two such pictures to make my list.  The other is also directed by Dario Argento, a gifted filmmaker who spent much of the 70s and 80s churning out stunning motion pictures before descending into mediocrity in the 90s and beyond.  This inventive yarn is a dark fairy tale of sorts, with a roving camera and a bold color palette which give the picture a surreal tone that is positively enchanting.  The score by Goblin is one of the most striking scores that the horror genre has ever been blessed with, and the bloody effects work is top-notch.  The script is simple but effective; Jessica Harper's Suzy Bannion travels to a prestigious dance school where something is seriously amiss.  After a number of grisly murders occur and our heroine starts to investigate some spooky shenanigans taking place, Suzy discovers that the academy is merely a front for a coven of witches.  Argento was at his peak here, and the ominous atmosphere and the outright terror that he is able to conjure up throughout this fascinating picture is damn impressive.  Some of the kills in this movie are incredibly disturbing, and there are a handful of less violent sequences in the mix that are ridiculously creepy.  The cast performs well, with Harper giving her best performance and genre vet Udo Kier popping up in a brief but welcome part.  Despite his recent misfires, of which there are many, I still consider Dario Argento a legend in the realm of horror cinema for his incredible body of work--and Suspiria undoubtedly ranks among his very best.  In fact, while I favor another picture (those who follow my blog closely are already aware of this, but the rest of you will have to wait and see), most probably consider this to be his greatest achievement.

I'm not sure which of Suspiria's potent assets is more impressive, Dario's deft camera work or the surreal color palette.
. . .

Yes, Suspiria was a strange one, but this next one may be even stranger.  We're sticking with the late 70s theme we've got going, and the time has come to throw down with sinister dwarfs and a ghastly mortician armed with deadly spheres that suck people's brains out.  That's right, peeps, it's time we got our Phantasm on.

#14) Phantasm (1979)

Phantasm isn't just one of the strangest horror films out there, it's also one of the coolest.  How often do you get to see a movie where a gutsy ice cream man who plays a mean guitar goes toe to toe with a terrifying mortician from another dimension?  Delightful, right?  Our main characters are an exuberant teenage boy whose brother may or may not be dead, said brother/ghost/I'm-not-sure-what, and Reggie the ice cream vendor, one of the horror genre's most beloved heroes.  While Reggie Bannister absolutely kills it as Reggie (all of the leads in this flick have the same first name as their character), Angus Scrimm dominates the proceedings as the villainous mortician, known simply as "The Tall Man."  Scrimm's work here is so unique and so totally on point that he grounds this delirious flick and keeps audiences riveted throughout all the strange twists and turns that Phantasm takes on the way to a wonderfully bizarre conclusion.  The effects are solid, the score is epic, I treasure the performances, and the script and the direction c/o Don Coscarelli are extremely exciting and expertly realized.   This movie has everything going for it, and it delivers the goods--Phantasm is an awesome blend of scares, chuckles, and crazy shit.  That gonzo finale gives way to one last big scare, cementing Phantasm's status as an iconic horror film that has inspired several sequels aimed to please a rabid fanbase that is still clamoring for more.  I have been a big fan of this film (and Coscarelli's output in general) for most of my life, and I can't imagine putting together a list like this without including Phantasm.

Wildly inventive and incredibly entertaining, Phantasm is a groovy cult classic like no other.
. . .

I'm going to put our late 70s theme on hold so we can turn our attention to the only true sequel to make my list, Sam Raimi's maniacal return to the the cabin in the worlds where Ash and his friends unwittingly unleashed deadites on the world.

#13) Evil Dead 2 (1985)

When Sam Raimi made a name for himself in the horror genre, he did so with The Evil Dead, a grim affair that was dark, dreadful, and brimming with bodily dismemberment.  It was a bit of a shock when he followed that picture up with this sequel, a delirious effort that mixes demonic possession and severed limbs with heavy doses of slapstick humor that would have garnered applause from The Three Stooges.  Yet Raimi's high-energy direction and Bruce Campbell's immaculate chin made this mash-up an astounding success.  Three decades later, fans are eagerly awaiting the latest from this franchise, the Showtime series Ash Vs. Evil Dead, which is set to debut on October 31, 2015.  If that show is half as good as Evil Dead 2 (and based on what I've seen, I'm pretty damn optimistic), we're in for a real treat this Halloween.  Fast-paced, funny, and utterly ridiculous, this is surely one of the most purely entertaining movies to be featured on my list.  Everything about this cult classic is aimed at being so over-the-top that it makes William Shatner's work seem like method acting.  The effects, the performances, the score, and Raimi's wild camera work are all designed to wring every drop of fun out of a kooky script that allows for an abundance of gore and some of the silliest bits you'll ever see in a horror flick.  In short, Evil Dead 2 is a zany descent into horror and comedy that works to sheer perfection.  While I'm not at all surprised that it made the cut, I am a little surprised that I didn't wind up ranking it much higher on my list.

The first Evil Dead is grim and disgusting, but the sequel is gleefully absurd--and 100% awesome!
. . .

Let's take a stroll down memory lane.  Let's head all the way back to the days when Universal Studios sat atop the mountain so far as horrific cinema was concerned.

#12) Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

I love all of the "Classic Monsters" and I'm not here to throw shade at Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, or any other ghoulish menace who ran with that Universal Studios crew.  I am here to anoint the scaly fiend who terrorized the crew of the good ship Rita as my personal favorite of the bunch.  I also feel that his movie is the coolest, and I think it's a bit odd that he's the only representative of that era who hasn't seen his saga officially updated for modern audiences.  Of course, given the strength of this picture, maybe it's better that way.  The Creature from the Black Lagoon is a whimsical and exciting horror film that boasts stellar cinematography, giving genuine meaning to the phrase "in glorious black and white."  The creature design is incredible, and the meticulous application of the costume yields one of the best-looking monsters of all time.  The creature's presence on screen is still rather breath-taking more than sixty years after The Creature from the Black Lagoon was released.  A strong cast that includes Richard Carlson and Julie Adams helped director Jack Arnold breathe life into this fascinating classic that features some of the best underwater photography that you'll ever see.  More so than any of the other beloved horror films that Universal produced, I think there's something magical about The Creature from the Black Lagoon that extends beyond the unique look of the titular menace and the technical prowess on display.  The themes concerning the environment and science that run just beneath the surface never distract us from the wonder that the picture inspires.   The creature is both fearsome and sympathetic, giving the film additional depth and conflict.  Creature from the Black Lagoon is a rich and rewarding motion picture that is still impressive to behold, and there's no way I could make a list like this without including it. 

Man, oh man, do I love that creature design!  It still looks great in this dazzling era of modern effects.
. . .

We just turned the clock way back to 1954, where we discussed the oldest film to make my list.  Now, we're heading to 2005 so we can break down the most recent film to make the cut.

#11) The Descent (2005)

This claustrophobic feature from 2005 delivers the goods so far as both internal and external fright is concerned.  The Descent is a movie that is willing to do anything to destroy your comfort zone and subject you to absolute terror.  The plot follows a group of adventurous women who enjoy extreme sports.  Hoping to offset the grief one of their members is dealing with as she struggles with the loss of her husband and daughter in a tragic accident, they prepare for an expedition into a pedestrian cave.  Unfortunately, this attempt at social therapy goes badly awry when their leader elects to forego the novice grotto and instead leads her peers into an uncharted system.  Early on, a passage becomes blocked, and these unlucky ladies know there is no hope of rescue as the proper authorities believe they are in another cave altogether.  Now, these feisty females must find a way out before their batteries go dead and they are lost in the darkest recesses of the Appalachians.  This is a terrifying premise, but things get worse when writer and director Neil Marshall injects cannibalistic humanoid monstrosities into the mix.  Expertly plotted, well-acted, and bolstered by sensational cinematography and effects, The Descent is a relentless horror film that is packed with tension and fright.  It is one of the most terrifying films to make this list, and I will add that I really dig all the girl power on display throughout this riveting gem.  If I was making a list of the scariest horror movies ever, this incredibly dark motion picture that doesn't pull any punches would rank even higher.

Coming hot on the heels of Dog Soldiers, The Descent seemed to herald the arrival of a new horror maestro.  Even if Neil Marshall has failed to live up to the hype since then, The Descent is still a fantastic movie that is truly terrifying.
. . .

I bet some of you are wondering when we're going to invite a vampire to this party.  Well, today is the day, but I should warn you: as much as I dig vampires, Jerry Dandrige is going to be pretty lonely.

#10) Fright Night (1985)

 A neat blend of comedy and horror, Fright Night is my favorite vampire movie and one of my favorite horror movies in general.  I have always been a big fan of Roddy McDowall's work, and the role of genre actor Peter Vincent (who is famous for playing a fearless vampire slayer) may have been the best part Roddy ever got to play.  Likewise, the vastly underrated Chris Sarandon is splendid as Jerry Dandrige, a suave vampire who deftly veers from seductive charmer to frightening monster whenever the script calls for it.  The plot concerns a teenager named Charlie Brewster (William Ragsdale) who is rather intrigued by his new neighbor.  One night, he's spying on this recent addition to the neighborhood when he sees Jerry sprout fangs and realizes that he is living next door to a vampire.  This is very problematic, for Jerry notices Charlie looking on and decides that he has to deal with this curious youngster.  Charlie is a big fan of Peter Vincent's hokey vampire films, so no one is willing to believe him, least of all the timid star himself.  Yet Vincent reluctantly agrees to help Charlie, and thus a teenager and a horror film vet must enter the vampire's lair at night and do battle with the undead.  The effects are splendid and Tom Holland did a fantastic job with the direction.  There are lots of laughs, an abundance of suspense, and some serious scares in the mix.  I like the score a lot, and the supporting cast (including Amanda Bearse, Stephen Geoffreys, and Jeffrey Stark) is solid.  Everything works to perfection throughout Fright Night, and it is truly rare to find a horror film that is so damn enjoyable.  The humor never veers toward parody and the fright factor is strong with this one.  It may be the only vampire movie to make my Top 20, but Fright Night is a great representative for that beloved sub-genre.

One has to wonder why a talented guy like Chris Sarandon never got more love from Hollywood.

Of course, the real star of Fright Night is the wonderful Roddy McDowall, who made the most out of what may have been his best part.

. . .

My favorite director finally hits the scene with the perfect film for the spooky season, Halloween.   

#9) Halloween (1978)

Simple but highly effective, John Carpenter's Halloween is a fantastic film that remains at the forefront of the slasher sub-genre.  This smash hit produced on a shoestring budget heralded the emergence of one of the genre's most celebrated directors and also signified the arrival of Jamie Lee Curtis, scream queen extraordinaire.  In addition to putting a spotlight on Carpenter's talent as a director and Jamie Lee's acting chops, Halloween gave us the perfect boogeyman in Michael Myers and laid the groundwork for one of the genre's most frightening franchises.  Donald Pleasance is also in the mix, and he shines in one of his signature roles as Dr. Loomis, the determined but panic-stricken shrink who couldn't keep Michael locked away and is thereby determined to shoot him dead.  Good luck with that.  The mood and the atmosphere are incredible; in addition to creating a wealth of suspense and dread with ample foreshadowing that makes the most of Michael's unnerving presence, Halloween also perfectly captures the essence of the spooky season.  The kills are shocking, the tension is almost unbearable at times, and I think this film benefits from one of the best endings the genre has produced.  It may not be all that complex and the deliberate pace and the lack of gore may disappoint some horror fans, but Halloween does everything right.  It's a classic film from a gifted director and it should be mandatory viewing for any respectable horror fan as the end of October draws nigh.

Carpenter scored big with this tense chiller that put Jamie Lee Curtis on the map.
How did it all go so wrong?  Little Mikey seemed like such a nice kid.
. . .

It's time to add some more zombies to the list, and their second appearance here comes via my favorite zombie flick.  Having said that, there will be a third zombie movie in this Top 20, and that one made it into the Top 5.  If you're confused, don't worry, I'll sort things out for you in just a second.

#8) Return of the Living Dead (1985)

So, this is one of these weird situations where I'm comparing things and I come to the realization that one of them is my favorite while I recognize another as being superior.  It doesn't happen often, but it does happen.  That makes sense to me, so hopefully it makes sense to you too.  Anyway, there is another zombie movie featured on this list that I find to be a better motion picture, but Return of the Living Dead makes up for any flaws it has with a major dose of entertainment value.  It is the definitive take on the subject?  No.  Is it the most enjoyable take on the subject?  Absolutely.  This movie has it all: laughs, scares, a soundtrack for the ages, and a fabulous cast.  There isn't a true star in the mix, but everyone involved makes the most of their part, and the stellar script by director Dan O'Bannon gives every character some quality material to work with.  The effects are great and there is an abundance of gore.  Most importantly, as I've stated on numerous occasions, I do not believe that there is a movie out there with better dialogue.  As shit gets real, the characters verbally spar with one another, and their exchanges are charged with energy and fear.  O'Bannon's direction is fabulous, and I give him an abundance of credit for putting together this invigorating and fresh take on a beloved sub-genre that produces a lot of really solid movies that seldom deviate from the formula.  Dan did his own thing with Return of the Living Dead, and the end result is a real asskicker of a movie that is equal parts hilarious and horrifying.

For more on Return of the Living Dead, be sure to check out this Cult Classics from Dimension X piece I wrote about it that contains a more detailed examination of the picture and some really cool trivia.  You can also check out this blog I wrote about the movie's totally gnarly punk rock soundtrack while you're at it.

ROTLD features Tarman, one of the most memorable zombies of all time.

It also boasts a terrific cast.  Clu Galager (far left) may be the biggest name, but everyone involved does an excellent job.  The movie doesn't really anoint anyone as the hero or heroine, so everyone involved gets lots of cool things to say and do.

. . .

And now for that other werewolf tale from 1981, the best film that particular sub-genre has given us.

#7) An American Werewolf in London (1981)

The finest werewolf movie ever filmed is quite the absurdity.  Director John Landis takes several familiar staples from this particular sub-genre and employs them to tremendous effect, yet he also runs wild with the concept.  Thus, there are big laughs, horrifying nightmare sequences, and dead friends who still drop by from time to time to hang out and encourage our main character to kill himself.  The transformation sequence is the stuff of legend, and the soundtrack that Landis put together (every song refers to the moon) is positively delightful.  The cast, led by David Naughton and Griffin Dunne as a pair of American backpackers, is splendid, and the script is lively and inventive.  Like the other movies to make my list that include a bit of humor, the film never becomes a parody, and the chuckles are offset by some chilling material that greatly benefits from stellar effects work and an obvious affection for gore.  The movie does a great job of developing a sinister mood that is frequently interrupted by gruesome hijinks and those devilish nightmares.  The end result is a special picture that is truly unique.  While offering up a sound and gripping yarn about the tragic curse of the werewolf, An American Werewolf in London takes lots and lots of left turns along the way, keeping the audience on their toes.  It's a joy to behold and calling it the finest werewolf movie ever filmed seems like a bit of an understatement.  No other film of this ilk has ever come close to challenging An American Werewolf in London for that title, and it's hard to believe that such a film will ever be produced.  This wild and hairy ride is a delirious smorgasbord of delights that should thrill any red-blooded fan of the horror genre. 

An American Werewolf in London is definitely not a movie that adheres to any sort of formula.
All these years after this one-of-a-kind frightfest hit the scne, it still boasts the best effects ever seen in a movie about werewolves.

. . .

Dario Argento strikes again!  Seriously, these days the dude can't make a decent movie to save his life, but there was a time when he was a force to be reckoned with.  This is his finest achievement, a robust offering that is well-loved by many and yet vastly underrated.

#6) Deep Red (1975)

Dario Argento used to make top-notch horror films; he was known for his deft use of a moving camera and his lively color palettes which served to inject a surreal element into his work.  Dario was no stranger to gore either, and he had a serious jones for twisted plots.  Though he has completely lost his ability to make a quality film in this day and age, Argento was lighting up the screen with sensational chillers and gruesome thrillers in the 70s and 80s.  In my personal opinion, while Suspiria will always be more popular, this is his finest film.  Suspiria was #15 on my list and it is surely a top-shelf horror film, but for my money, Deep Red is more exciting and far more fulfilling.  While Suspiria is a fairy tale of sorts, Deep Red is a blood-curdling mystery that is equal parts slasher flick and ghost story, though to label it as either would be inaccurate.  David Hemmings stars as a pianist who witnesses a horrific murder without being able to identify the killer.  Soon, he and an intrepid reporter (the wonderful Daria Nicolodi as Gianna Brezzi) are trying to solve a vicious mystery that reaches into the past.  As they work to uncover the truth, the death toll rises and it becomes quite clear that they are in great danger.  Stellar cinematography, an amazing score by Goblin, and one of Argento's most inventive plots come together in Deep Red, an elaborate whodunit that is full of scares and twists.  Finally, while there can be no doubt that the death scenes in Suspiria are sick and demented, the murders that occur in Deep Red may be even more disturbing. 

The moral of the story?  If you witness a brutal murder, do yourself a favor and leave the subsequent investigation to the police.

A spectacular score, gruesome kills, and creepy imagery are among Deep Red's many highlights.
. . .

And now, ladies and gentlemen, here's Jack!  Don't worry, he's not here to hurt you.  He just wants to bash your brains in. 

#5) The Shining (1980)

More akin to a different vision of Stephen King's terrifying book than a faithful adaptation of that titan's work, this Stanley Kubrick venture is definitely one of the most striking horror films of them all.  Jack Nicholson is front and center throughout, and he wrings every drop of entertainment out of an iconic part.  True, Nicholson's Jack Torrance lacks the depth and the warmth that makes his literary counterpart's sinister downfall a tragic affair.  Yet his take on the character yields one of the most sensational villains in the history of the cinema, as Jack's work in The Shining is both horrifying and a joy to behold.  It is most certainly a performance for the ages, and thought it towers over the motion picture itself, Kubrick's peerless direction and Shelley Duvall's emotionally charged acting are also superb assets that are integral to the success of this beloved classic.  While some may chafe at the way Kubrick disregards many aspects of the source material, the movie has an irresistible appeal and it is clearly a horror film of the highest order.  The technical merits of The Shining are beyond reproach, and while there can be no doubt that Stanely Kubrick was both immensely talented and incredibly prolific, I think that this terrifying journey into insanity and violence is his most remarkable film.  Furthermore, though his career is littered with fabulous star turns, this is probably my favorite example of Jack's magnificent talent as well.  The Shining is both legitimately creepy and totally fascinating, and it greatly benefits from the presence of a gifted cast and one of the finest directors in the history of the cinema.

Shelley Duvall had a great time working with Stanley Kubrick on The Shining.
Nicholson exudes both charisma and menace as he chews scenery and positively owns the screen.
. . .

Two zombie movies have made the list thus far, and now it's time for the third and final entry from that particular sub-genre to rise from the dead.

#4) Dawn of the Dead (1978)

George Romero invented the zombie genre as we know it with Night of the Living Dead, and he perfected this ever-popular sub-genre with his insightful and provocative follow-up.  Seldom has social commentary been so entertaining, and few horror films offer as much in the way of a character study.  Some may complain about the lengthy running time, but Romero made great use of every minute.  Dawn of the Dead is never dull, and the bonds that we forge with the four leads only serve to enhance the emotional undercurrent running through this captivating yarn.  At times, the picture is grim and utterly terrifying, but it also contains moments that are downright hilarious.  Then there are several thrilling sequences that give way to gory mayhem on a massive scale.  Tom Savini's effects work is wicked cool, and Romero clearly got everything that he could get out of this riveting tale.  Ken Foree, Gaylen Ross, David Emge, and Scott H. Reiniger are totally invested in their roles, and each player has a nice arc that defines their character as this weary quartet struggles to survive a blood-soaked nightmare.  Dripping with gore, peppered with subversive humor, and exceptionally well-made, I think that declaring Dawn of the Dead to be the best zombie movie of all time is an easy decision.  Yes, I enjoy Return of the Living Dead a bit more, but there can be no doubt that Dawn of the Dead is a far richer movie.  

Fact: Dawn of the Dead is the best zombie movie of them all.
This is the face I make when someone asks me if I thought that the remake was better.
. . .

My favorite director strikes again!  That's right, John Carpenter's back in the mix with his best horror flick, a picture that was savaged by critics and labelled a failure after it struck out at the box office.

#3) The Thing (1982)

John Carpenter is directly responsible for so many awesome movies.  Many were major hits, but he has also produced his fair share of cult classics.  That's why it should probably come as no surprise that his best horror film was so poorly regarded upon its initial release.  Arriving hot on the heels of E.T., this grim and gory monster movie was too dark for mainstream success in 1982, but over time more and more people have warmed up to it.  Kurt Russell is the star, and though this part is far more somber than the roles he played in his other pairings with Carpenter, he delivers another riveting performance.  The effects courtesy of Rob Bottin are outrageous and the main theme from Ennio Morricone (this is the rare instance where Carpenter passed the baton on that front) is a truly magnificent symphony of doom.  The locations give the movie the stark realism that it needs to draw audiences into a tense and horrific struggle that leads to a bleak conclusion with apocalyptic implications.  Carpenter's shot selection is superb and his dynamic vision yields a fantastic vision of isolation and desperation unlike any other.  Technically a remake, this epic creature greatly improves upon The Thing From Another World, a nifty gem from 1951.  Despite the downer nature of the piece, it remains one of my favorite horror films to watch.  The movie I have at #1 on this list is so damn disturbing that I rarely view it, but The Thing is a great movie to revisit whenever you want to see Kurt Russell rock cinema's gnarliest beard in John Carpenter's mindbending trip to Antarctica.  It's an immersive experience that slowly draws the viewer into a paranoia-fueled nightmare where brave men battle a wretched invader from beyond the stars.  It's The Thing, the biggest and baddest monster movie of them all, and I'm thrilled to include it here.

According to John Carpenter, Rob Bottin got the job on the basis of his kooky storyboards.  Once they got on set, John asked him how he was going to pull all this crazy stuff off and Rob basically said, "Shit, man.  I don't know."  In the end, he delivered in a big way, and his effects are a big reason why fans continue to flip out over The Thing.
Obviously, I've got mad love for Carpenter, and I'm also a huge Kurt Russell fan, so I should note that their work together may represent the best that each of these supremely talented individuals had to offer.
. . .

As we near the end of this list, it's time to break down a pair of exceptional movies based on novels that I hold near and dear to my heart.  First up, we've got my favorite movie of all time.

#2) Jaws (1975)

Steven Spielberg's efforts as a filmmaker have yielded an amazing filmography, but the thrilling motion picture that put him on the map remains his finest offering.  Working from Peter Benchley's stellar novel, Spielberg fashioned a tale of terror that continues to scare moviegoers away from the beach better than 40 years after it gave birth to the summer blockbuster.  At the end of the day, this is a horror movie that nearly matches Benchley's ability to convey the might and fury of a great white shark, driving home the terror that encountering such a creature in its natural environment would generate.  There are some brutal moments in this vibrant shocker, and yet the warmth and drama that propels the film toward a grand finale do make it seem a bit too adventurous for the genre at times.  The three leads take a fabulous script and run wild with it, with Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss both doing a tremendous job while Robert Shaw dominates the screen with one of the richest performances in the history of the cinema.  The score from John Williams is as simple as it is iconic, the effects are far better than the mechanical sharks' place in film history would have you believe, and Spielberg's gifts have never been so evident.  There are big scares, big laughs, and even when things settle down, Jaws is ten times more enchanting than most movies.  This is my favorite movie, and if we were talking about movies in general, I would surely put it atop my list.  Yet I did elect to place it at #2 on my list because I cannot fathom putting anything other than the scariest movie ever made at #1.  Having said that, second place here is no small prize, and I hope I have made my affection for this grand voyage into horror on the high seas evident. 

Jaws has inspired numerous imitations, yet 40 years later it still reigns supreme.
Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss shine only to be blown away by Robert Shaw as Quint.
. . .

I had a hard time putting this list together, but determining which movie belonged at the top of the charts was rather easy.  There can be no doubt that The Exorcist is the crown jewel of horror cinema.

#1) The Exorcist (1973)

Believe the hype.  The Exorcist is the most frightening movie ever made.  William Friedkin did a flawless job of bringing William Peter Blatty's novel to the screen.  His efforts were greatly enhanced by legendary effects work from the great Dick Smith and a fantastic cast that nailed the difficult material.  Ellen Burstyn is unbelievably good and it is her work here that truly defines the experience, though Linda Blair, Jason Miller, and the one and only Max Von Sydow (who plays the title role) all brought their A-game to the table.  The score is haunting, the script is razor-sharp, and most importantly, Friedkin (a superb director with a considerable legacy who still doesn't get the love he so richly deserves) was at his very best when he made the greatest horror movie of them all.  The subject matter is extremely disturbing and equally frightening, largely due to Burstyn's bravura performance as she plays the character that viewers relate to throughout the picture.  The Exorcist is as daring as it is horrifying; I am positive that you couldn't make this movie in this day and age without significant alterations to some of the more explicit portions of this grim journey into demonic possession and despair.  I treasure both this film and the book it was based upon, but I’ve only read the book a couple of times and I’ve only watched the movie four times.  When I’m looking for a horror film to watch, I frequently grab this Blu-Ray only to pause long enough to wonder if I really want to spend another night with Reagan and Father Karras.  If you have never experienced The Exorcist, there could be no better time than Halloween to do so.  Please don’t invite me over, however, because I’m not ready for another descent into the devil’s domain just yet.

Note: The original theatrical release is awesome but I prefer the updated version from 2001.  The "spider walk" is one of my favorite scenes in the movie.

Friedkin used every trick at his disposal to bring William Peter Blatty's terrifying novel to life in spectacular fashion.
They say it's the scariest movie ever made, and this time they are right.