Fear is subjective - and a first cousin to humour. Some people fear the supernatural. Others fear the natural, from sharks to psychopaths.
And since none of your favourite Original Cin critics can afford psychotherapy, we thought we'd share with you the ultimate Rorschach test, each of our five most memorable horror movies, on the occasion of Halloween. (Except for Karen Gordon, who is one movie more scared than the rest of us).
Horrors Of The Black Museum (Dir. Arthur Crabtree 1959) The first movie that completely freaked me out as a kid – aged 7 - was this sadistic British feature with sexual overtones (what did I know?) that aired on Saturday night’s Chiller Thriller Theatre from KCND Pembina, North Dakota, which we could get over-the-air in Winnipeg. It opens with a woman receiving a gift in the mail, a pair of binoculars. When she put them to her eyes, blades popped out, directly into her sockets. I remember not sleeping that night. Never trusted binoculars much either.
Werewolf of London (Dir. Stuart Walker 1935) Not just a Warren Zevon song. I’ve never understood why Lon Chaney Jr.’s Wolfman became the prototype for all future lycanthropy. Henry Hull’s werewolf makeup was simpler and scarier. With Warner Oland (yes, the future Charlie Chan) as the Tibetan botanist who infects him.
Nosferatu (Dir. F.W. Murnau 1922) The Murnau silent version, not the Werner Herzog (although Klaus Kinski was pretty scary in any context). Murnau dreamed up so many creepy effects that haunt dreams, not least of which was Count Orlock rising from the coffin by his heels.
The Wicker Man (Dir. Robin Hardy 1973) Not the Nicolas Cage movie (though that was one of the unintentionally funniest movies ever). This one, called “the Citizen Kane of horror movies” by Cinefantastique, is all atmosphere (save for the famous ending). Edward Woodward (later TV’s Equalizer) is a police inspector traveling to the remote Hebrides to investigate a girl’s disappearance. Paganism seems involved. The film pushes buttons of paranoia, small-town secrets, etc. Also boasts one of the late Christopher Lee’s greatest performances.
The Exorcist (Dir. William Friedkin 1973) Really more scared by the book than the movie, but the famous “spider-crawl” scene of Regan crawling down the stairs on her back – which was not included in the original cut of the film – makes it all worth it. Scarier than the 360 head-turning, but maybe because I knew that one was coming.
Psycho (Dir. Alfred Hitchcock 1960) Bernard Hermann's music, the extraordinary editing of the shower scene murder and a wealth of Freudian puns and suggestions (screenwriter Joseph Stefano was in psychoanalysis at the time) have made this a favourite of Cinema 101 courses but the ingenious craft and perverse humor mostly serve to make the sexual violence barely tolerable: Marion Crane (Janet Leigh)'s frozen eye staring up from the floor of the shower remains one of the most disturbing images in cinema.
Repulsion (Dir. Roman Polanski 1965) Roman Polanski’s second feature is about going crazy, in an alarmingly convincing way. This was the first of his Apartment trilogy, before the more conventional, Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Tenant (1976). Catherine Deneuve plays a young Belgian woman who is left alone in a London apartment by her vacationing sister at their apartment, and begins reliving her past traumas, accompanied by a skinned rotting rabbit. Although Polanski was subsequently convicted for statutory rape, both Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby are seen as feminist horror films. Polanski's masterpiece influenced David Lynch (Eraserhead) and, especially, Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, with its living walls, hair-raising soundscape, even the baby.
Cat People (Dir Jacques Tourneur 1942) Because of an inherited curse, whenever Serbian-born fashion arist Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) gets aroused, she turns into a large panther and kills, which puts a strain on her marriage to regular Joe husband, New York engineer, Oliver Reed (Kent Smith).. He confesses his troubles to his attracive assistant, Alice (Jane Randolph) which makes Irena jealous. Two stalking scenes — a walk through Central Park, and a visit to basement swimming pool at night — remain unannily chilling and widely imitated.
The Fly (Dir. David Cronenberg 1986) The best of Cronenberg’s body-horror films stars an appropriately bug-eyed Jeff Goldblum as Seth Brundle, a scientist who, after one of his teleporting experiments goes wrong, slowly turns into a human-fly hybrid. At first, the hairy energetic Seth has a hot relationship with lanky science journalist, Veronica (Geena Davis) until she realizes he’s kind of disgusting. Gruesomely humorous — the peeling fingernails and the vomiting on the food bit are hard to forget — it’s clinical attention to the body changes of aging and disease make it haunting.
Don’t Look Now (Dir. Nicholas Roeg 1973) If you’re sick of watching teen-agers in their underwear getting chased by a knife-wielding maniac, why not try a truly adult horror movie. Nicholas Roeg’s sensual and tormenting film, based on Daphne Du Maurier's novel, follows a married couple relocating to Venice, while grieving the loss of a child. The couple’s psychological suffering seems to distort time. Grief, sex, and birth are interwoven and despite a famous shock ending, it’s a film that is enriched with repeated viewings.
Only Lovers Left Alive (Dir. Jim Jarmusch 2013) American Indie god Jim Jarmusch of all people, wrote and directed one of the most absorbing vampire movies I’ve ever seen. And what a cast! Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston star as Eve and Adam, married for centuries. She lives in Tangiers, where she hangs out with fellow vampire Christopher Marlowe (yes, THAT Marlowe, played by John Hurt). He lives in Detroit in an isolated house where he writes and records music, invents his own electrical equipment and gloomily watches the insufferable human species screw the environment and other things up. Adam and Eve have been part of the artsy crowd for centuries and knew a who's-who of classics, adding to the fun. Also stars the late Anton Yelchin, Mia Wasikowska and Jeffrey Wright. Magical!
What We Do In The Shadows (Dirs .Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi 2014) This mockumentary about four vampires who are flatmates in small town New Zealand and the werewolf pack they love to taunt is pure joy. Brilliant writing with lines you’ll be quoting forever afterwards. They also cleave to vampire lore, which makes it even better. Co-writers and co-directors Jemaine Clement and Taika Watiti also co-star as two of the vampires.
Let The Right One In (Dir. Tomas Alfredson 2008) Pale, pale Oskar is a bullied boy who feels out of place in the world until he gets to know his new neighbour, Eli a strange and slightly feral girl about his own age who has a different value system and seems not to be bothered by the winter’s cold and snow. I love the way this film deals with both the boredom of being a vampire and the heartlessness of the needs of survival. This is a quiet and unsettling movie. Go for the original Swedish film, not the 2010 English Language remake.
Wolf (Dir. Mike Nichols 1994) Mike Nichols' gem is less a genre film and more a nineties style drama (with bite!) And what a cast! Jack Nicholson plays Will Randal, a respected veteran New York book editor who is on the way out because of some corporate manoueverings by owner, Raymond Alden, played by Christopher Plummer and an ambitious and deceitful underling, played by James Spader. Fortunately he gets bitten by a wolf in just the nick of time. Michelle Pfeiffer and Kate Nelligan are the female leads in a strong cast.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Dir. Ana Lily Amirpour 2014) A young woman in a chador walks the dangerous streets of the fictional Iranian town Bad City at night. Bad news for the bad guys: She’s a vampire. This first movie by British-Iranian writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour is shot in black and white, and it’s low budget and slightly out of time look suits the film’s dark and troubling mood. There is, of course, the delicious subtext of female empowerment in a town, or a country or a world that believes a girl walking home alone at night is asking to be a victim.
A Christmas Carol (Dir. Brian Desmond Hurst 1951) My gateway to the horror genre. I grew up watching this black and white classic on a black and white tv. I still shiver when Ebenezer (Alastair Sim) returns to his apartment on Christmas eve after being too miserly to spend an extra ha’penny on a piece of bread with his dinner, and momentarily thinks he sees the ghostly face of his late partner Jacob Marley on the door knocker. The anxious look on the Marley’s face at that moment still gives me the heebee jeebees.
Open Water (Dir. Chris Kentis 2003) A married couple scuba diving on holiday are accidentally left behind in shark-filled waters by their negligent tour boat operator who couldn’t manage a proper head count before motoring back to shore. Terrifying because it could happen — and, dear Lord, actually did — to an American couple vacationing in Australia. This docudrama, set in the Caribbean, literally shook me for days afterward.
Trilogy of Terror (Dir. Dan Curtis 1975) Apparently, there were three separate stories in this entry. But like most others of the era — whose peaceful childhood was derailed by this sinister TV movie starring the exquisitely creepy Karen Black — only one held: Amelia, about an unkillable Zuni fetish doll with huge teeth and a knife running loose in an apartment. I lived in an apartment, ugh. On the plus side, there was matricide which seemed reasonable to anyone allowed to stay up past bedtime to view this exceptionally twisted thing.
Cape Fear (Dir. Martin Scorsese 1991) Scorsese’s remake of the excellent 1962 original underscores just how squarely this film hits the mark, with Robert De Niro as the menacing human doodle pad Max Cady, for whom sexual violence is a mere appetizer in a disturbing revenge plot.
The Shining (Dir. Stanley Kubrick 1980) An obvious choice maybe, but Kubrick’s audacious adaptation of what is arguably Stephen King’s masterwork towers still. It’s also interesting to note that fans of the source material balked mightily over Jack Nicholson’s casting as Jack Torrance. In King’s book, Torrance started out sane but devolved as the evil of the Overlook Hotel took hold. Nicholson’s twitchy, manic protagonist seemed to show up that way. In hindsight, though, Kubrick was right… so totally, terrifyingly right.
Dead Calm (Dir. Phillip Noyce 1989) Another from the “scary because it could happen” file gave North America its first glimpse of Nicole Kidman as the grieving wife who sets out with her husband to heal, only to face evil incarnate in the form of a real-life man (albeit played by Billy Zane, so the terror seems pretty legit).
The Exorcist (Dir. William Friedkin 1973) One of the most profitable horror movies ever made, this tale of an exorcism scared the crap out of me and will forever be embedded in my brain. I was 16 years old when I first saw it on the big screen. From the first moment when young Regan (Linda Blair) starts acting odd -- levitating, speaking in tongues, I started feeling chills down my spine. It got worse from there. To this day I still can't look at a picture of Blair in Exorcist makeup without silently freaking out.
Weird personal note: I'd just got my license and drove a few girlfriends to the theatre that night. My dad's Buick didn't start up after the movie and started spewing out GREEN liquid (ok – it was anti-freeze – but heck, I didn't know that at the time).
Carrie (Dir. Brian DePalma 1976) This chilling adaptation of Stephen King's horror novel about a withdrawn and sensitive teen Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) who faces taunting from classmates at school and abuse from her fanatically pious mother (Piper Laurie) at home is enough to scare the pants off anyone. The bucket of blood scene is one of the most indelible scenes in cinematic history and when Carrie unleashes her powers: horror mayhem at its best!
Warm Bodies (Dir. Jonathan Levine 2013) Wasn't sure how I was going to feel about this one when I first saw it – but Warm Bodies is a little gem of a film that might very well become a cult favourite. Nicholas Hoult is “R” - a zombie who, after a terrible plague, has left the planet's population divided between zombies and humans. He, of course, falls for a pretty blond human (Teresa Palmer).
Warm Bodies holds a very special place in my heart. I have a small cameo role in it as a zombie - one of the most fun and memorable experiences of my life!
Poltergeist (Dir. Tobe Hooper 1982) For a gal who has always watched far too much TV, something about Poltergeist really resonated with me. This average family visited by ghosts who communicate with them through the television set turned me off of TV for a few weeks and anything that can do that, deserves a mention as far as I'm concerned.
Saw (Dir. James Wan 2004) What scares me most about a good Halloween movie is not so much the blood and gore, but the psychological aspect to the story. Saw is masterful when it comes to to giving you an intense, edge-of-your-seat ride. Photographer Adam Stanheight (Leigh Whannell) and oncologist Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) regain consciousness while chained to pipes at either end of a filthy bathroom. As the two men realise they've been trapped by a sadistic serial killer nicknamed "Jigsaw" and must complete his perverse puzzle to live, flashbacks relate the fates of his previous victims. Meanwhile, Dr. Gordon's wife (Monica Potter) and young daughter (Makenzie Vega) are forced to watch his torture via closed-circuit video. The premise, the games, is what sells Saw. Intense, graphic and ghoulish.