My Top 5 Horror Films
#1: The Omen (1976)
One of my first R-rated films, Richard Donner's Omen was incredibly tense and enjoyable. The themes it dealt with at the time were fairly popular, with The Exorcist having come out several years earlier and Amityville Horror coming out in '76 itself. It was still groundbreaking in the horror genre and explored the psychological torture a man must endure when he finds out his son may not actually ever be his (or his wife's) son at all.
The film stars Gregory Peck as Robert Thorn and Lee Remick as his wife Katherine Thorn. Robert has just received information that he is the new American ambassador to Great Britain almost immediately following the birth of his son. The only thing is, his son died at birth and he secretly made an agreement with a priest to switch his dead child for another, hoping his wife wouldn't notice.
As the years pass, little Damien (played perfectly by Harvey Stephenson) eventually has his sixth birthday, where a tragedy sets off a series of more unexplained deaths, all seeming to involve those who know about Damien's real identity. Robert grows increasingly insane, finding out that his son may in fact be the Antichrist, but can he kill a child? Or is it really a human child at all?
The film always manages to hold my attention, and the score by Jerry Goldsmith is today my favorite horror film soundtrack. It's understandable why he won an Oscar for it, as it pretty much made the film's tone.
One of the things I love most about this film is the ending. It's one of the first films made where good doesn't necessarily triumph in the end. Followed by two sequels, a bland, unnecessary 2006 remake (but in all honesty, what else would they do for 6/6/06?), and even a fourth, atrocious made-for-TV movie, The Omen legacy holds up today in classic cinema and remains my favorite. And who can forget the symbolism of the rottweilers? This film made me want one.
The film's notorious for its production nightmare, with some of the crew quite possibly having ended up killed in a plane crash had they been on their scheduled plane, whose engine collided with a flock of birds, causing it to crash into a van that contained the pilot's family. Everyone on board died. If you don't believe me, this is what the crew testifies to on the DVD featurette about production. Another incident involved the decapitation of the special effects artist's wife, which is eery considering what the artist created special effects for.
I also believe this film heavily inspired the Final Destination movies, with death being able to cause “accidents” to occur, or in this case, Damien and his supernatural guardians.
It's an excellent film, and a unique experience to enjoy if you appreciate a great story, great tension, with great acting to top it off.
#2: The Thing (1982)
This is almost tied with The Omen for me. Not one horror film I've seen has captured isolation and paranoia so creepily and effectively. Roger Ebert believed this film wouldn't have worked without Rob Bottin's incredibly gory special effects (which still hold up today, in my opinion), effects he worked on so hard--seven days a week, living on candy bars--that eventually it put him in the hospital for a short time. Personally, I believe the film would have worked just as well without the effects in terms of capturing pure paranoia. The effects make it all that much creepier and add to the bio-horror element.
If you aren't wowed by the effects (who can ever forget the Norris-thing sequence involving the spider head?) you can at least find enjoyment in the mood and the story itself.
Technically, the film is a remake of 1951's The Thing from Another World,but the film is closer to the adapted material, the short story Who Goes There? Set in 1982 Antarctica, the film's John Carpenter-style title sequence starts off by revealing a flying saucer crashing to earth, fifty thousand or so years earlier. A team of American researchers involved in the geological study of the terrain around them (though it's not really discussed what they're doing there exactly) has taken up a small research base called Outpost #31. One day, out of the blue, they're faced with a Norwegian helicopter flying through the snowy deserts of Antarctica, shooting at a rogue wolfdog below, and missing terribly. The dog runs into the American base while the Norwegians wind up being killed out of fear on the Americans' part. The dog is kindly placed in the kennel with the rest of one of the character's, Clark's, dogs. The terror just starts there, and it only grows weirder and more unsettling from that point on.
It's eventually made clear that the Thing works in two ways: 1. It can assimilate other organisms by literally devouring them and shaping itself to reproduce and imitate to perfection however many organisms it's near at the time. 2. Any particle of the thing is an infectious organism that can gradually replace every cell in whatever creature it infects with imitation cells, effectively making it a Thing. The paranoid question becomes: Who's a Thing? How can we know? And would anyone inadvertently infected know they're a Thing by the time they're taken over? Not every question is answered, but the mystery is fun to explore and every time I watch I look for something I couldn't catch before, regarding who I know is a thing and trying to notice any changes in their behavior.
The soundtrack in this film by, ironically, spaghetti western master Ennio Morricone is great and creates a perfect tone of biological terror in the low frequency and repetitious synth. Strange enough, it wasn't appreciated at the time of the film's release in '82 and received a Razzie for Worst Original Score. The film itself didn't do well in the box office or necessarily the reviews, most of it blamed on Spielberg's E.T. being released just several weeks earlier, a “good alien” film, one the public was more interested in seeing. On a side note: Blade Runner, another classic sci-fi film noir from the same year, also performed poorly in the box office, with the public wanting an action-star Harrison Ford, ultimately finding him disappointing.
The acting in The Thing is believable and well-performed, an all-male cast with an exceptional Kurt Russell at the center as the content-loner-turned-reluctant-leader. Originally, there was supposed to be one woman in the cast, but the actress wound up pregnant before filming and her character was removed. The lead character in the mediocre prequel, however, is a woman. Personally, I think the all-male cast brings out the alpha male persona and simultaneously how that alpha team can ultimately become powerless next to this Thing.
The suspense is fantastic, the effects still valid today, and the overall nuance the film takes is unsettling and unpleasant to experience, but in the most fascinating way possible. The film also stars “pre-diabeetus” Wilford Brimley as Blair and Keith David as Childs, who later went on to be Roddy Piper's bestie in Carpenter's They Live (1988).
#3: The Fly (1986)
I love 1980's David Cronenberg. He was all about biological horror and how it manifested itself, even up to parts of 1999's Existenz. The idea of the human body deteriorating or metamorphosing into something else is a process I find more terrifying and real to imagine than any supernatural terror, which is also one of the reasons I love The Thing as well. With supernatural horror at least you know there's an afterlife. With bio-horror, all you know is that death is very tangible and the body can be permanently marred in the worst ways.
The Fly is another 80s remake, this time of 1958's The Fly, but this remake, like The Thing, is another fresh beast entirely (unlike what I can say about today's remakes). It stars Jeff Goldblum in what I still consider to be his best role as Seth Brundle, a man who's found a way to teleport objects from one telepod to another. The only problem is, he feels the need to talk about it, and uses it as a pickup line on starving journalist Veronica Quaife (played by a really hot 80s Geena Davis). Sure, she doesn't believe the teleportation is real at first, a “nightclub act” as cynically referred to by Veronica's jealous ex and boss Stathis Borans (John Getz). But later the two find out that indeed Brundle is on to something, a revolution in the world of physics. The one problem is: He can't transfer living things. He soon tests his experiment on a couple baboons, one with disastrous results, but he manages to sort out his mistakes and then goes in the telepod himself. Little does he know, until all too late, that he wasn't alone in the pod that first time through.
The transformation Brundle goes through in the movie is not only physically terrifying for him, but also psychologically for both he and Veronica. Brundle becomes delusional in his transformation, having convoluted thoughts about what he's becoming, with a sad and desperate scene involving a monologue about “insect politics”. It's by no means a film with an uplifting end, but it leaves me satisfied as a repeated viewer every time I watch it.
#4: Jacob's Ladder (1990)
More of a psychological and supernatural thriller, Jacob's Ladder really did go on to inspire true horror in the concepts for the Silent Hill video game series.
The film starred Tim Robbins as Jacob Singer, a vietnam vet returning home to New York City to be with his girlfriend Jezzie (Another talented hottie, Elizabeth Peña). He meets with his chiropractor (Danny Aiello) regularly and things seem to be relatively normal...until Jacob begins hallucinating horrible things, people with faceless twitching heads, a surgeon with no eyes, among many other disturbing things, eventually involving his girlfriend and even his dead son.
Several old war friends are found and met up with, equally terrified and all experiencing the same visions. A scientist later confronts Jacob, explaining that an experimental hallucinogen called “The Ladder” was used on his troop in Vietnam to aid their aggression, unintentionally causing the soldiers to go insane and murder each other, the drug itself being a ladder down to the core fears of those who use it.
But the question raised at the end of the film, one which I won't spoil, changes the entire perception of what has happened throughout the entire film, one which still leaves me breathless at the end.
This film is truly a gem and I consider it to be my favorite psychological thriller.
#5: Videodrome (1983)
The first real biological horror film that David Cronenberg did only came right after 1980's cult film Scanners. I kind of enjoyed Scanners, but the stilted dialogue scattered throughout the film, and most of all the horrible acting of the main lead (no wonder he never went on to do anything after that) ruined the experience for me. I wanted to love Scanners, and Michael Ironside as the main baddie was very well-acted and enjoyable (as he always is), but that lead...damn.
Videodrome was a film I had high expectations for on hearing about it a few years ago. It sounded bizarre, just the title to me brings to mind a horrifying psychological nightmare where the TV can influence the brain and perhaps the body.
James Woods (in one of the only films where I've seen him play a sympathetic protagonist) is Max Renn, a relatively slimy but still decent programmer for cable TV looking for the ultimate show to broadcast. A friend of his introduces him to a new show he's intercepted on accident, one broadcast only at times where it's undetectable, a show called “Videodrome”. Max becomes intrigued by its violent content and S&M material, with most of it consisting of rape scenes and torture that Max believes looks real. The thing is, he doesn't believe it can be, yet he runs it by his boss who in turn rejects it.
Max becomes obsessed with “Videodrome”, even beginning to hallucinate some of the strangest things you'll ever see on screen...ever. At the same time, he develops a mildly sadomasochistic romance with radio show host Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry). As Max furthers his adventure into discovering “Videodrome”'s origins, he only digs himself deeper into hypnosis, psychosis, and even the audience is left questioning what is real and what is in Max's head. A mysterious, creepy man named Barry Convex (Leslie Carlson) winds up stepping in to offer to correct Max's brain, but even his motives and true intentions for Max are unsettling and questionable, and Max himself could very well be a brainwashed tool for “Videodrome”.
This is one of the most bizarre and open-ended films I've seen, and every time I watch it I'm aware that Max gets sucked into a world where flesh and mind become one, where hallucination can become reality. The question is: What is it that forms reality? I have yet to see a film this strange.
“Long live the new flesh!”
Clive Barker showed that he is a competent director with 1987's Hellraiser. Though an enormously flawed film, the story is gripping and both the makeup and acting by Doug Bradley playing the Lead Cenobite (called Pinhead in the later films) are incredibly convincing. The story is very comparable to 1999's The Mummy, where a man named Frank who's returned from hell can only regenerate by means of stripping the various tissues off of others. The film is a very dark love story at its core, about what depths some will go to restore lost love, but it's also an intense exploration of the limits of the line between pain and pleasure. Based on Barker's even better novella The Hellbound Heart, Hellraiser is an enjoyable and original cult film that could have been a classic if it had more time and ease of production. The one thing that made this film feel big-budget was the beautiful high quality soundtrack produced by Christopher Young. I even enjoyed the second film to a degree and even the third a tad for the Pinhead character (who's hardly seen in the first film despite his iconic status), but I feel, as with almost all horror film legacies, the sequels deteriorate with every one.
Child's Play (1988)
Set in my hometown of Chicago, Illinois, this horror film is a cult classic in itself, and somewhat of a guilty pleasure considering it's not exactly the best technical horror film in the world. Surprisingly, Roger Ebert gave it praise while Gene Siskel loathed it. The film follows a child named Andy (Alex Vincent) and his single mother (Catherine Hicks) as Christmas approaches, with Andy wanting a Good Guy doll more than anything. His mother buys him one out of desperation from a hobo, but what she doesn't know is that the doll comes from an abandoned toy factory where serial killer Charles Lee Ray was murdered by a police officer (Chris Sarandon). When taken home and speaking for the first time, the doll introduces itself in its electronic voice as Chucky. What I love about this film is the way the doll is portrayed, chillingly innocent in the beginning (you can even suspect that Andy could be the killer early on) and then the film takes a humorous yet still cool turn when Chucky transforms for the first time, voiced both hilariously and creepily by Brad Dourif, who's played Chucky/Charles Lee Ray in every Child's Play film. When I first caught the end of this film at a friend's house on cable at ten years old, I became fascinated and at the same time frightened by Chucky. The film remains a horror favorite of mine, and I even somewhat enjoyed the second and third movies for their humorous moments, when the series drifted from the straight horror that Child's Play was. Chucky had a sense of humor in the first film still, but in a way that made him even more chilling rather than completely laughable. And he possesses a clever enough personality(no pun intended)to pull off his murders without simply being tossed or kicked away (at least until the later movies).