Wednesday, October 08, 2003

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In an attempt to get in on Sean Collins' "Where The Monsters Go" blogfest, here's a list of ten of my favorite horror films.

A disclaimer first: I tried to narrow this down to what I consider "horror" films, which means I leave off films dealing with A-bomb-spawned giant monsters, or menaces from outer space. These often get lumped in with the horror genre, even though they're more like Science Fiction films. Also, you'll notice that there's not a lot of recent movies on this list; and it's not because there haven't been any good horror films in the last two decades. Far from it. But what I've tried to do is cite flicks that have made a lasting impression on me, not to mention the first ones I think of without too much trouble (or lots of minutes spent flipping through my Psychotronic books)- and most of those are from my formative years, i.e. ages oh, 4 to 17, when I subsisted on a steady diet of The Big Show, Famous Monsters of Filmland, Creature Features and The Monster Times. I've written about this before, so I'll spare you now.

So here we go, and these are in no particular order:

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)
Clever, stylish, and somewhat campy flick that ushered in a brief "imaginative death movie starring Vincent Price" phase, others being the inferior sequel Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972), the sublime Theatre of Blood (1973), and the lackluster Madhouse (1974). Price stars as the title character, a concert organist thought dead in a car crash that blames the team of surgeons who failed to save his wife on the operating table. Badly burned and seeking revenge, he murders each of the surgical team in a fashion based on the plagues that Moses inflicted on Pharoah in the Bible. Bats, bees, boils, etc. One doctor (Terry-Thomas) has all his blood drained from his body...Phibes leaves the jars on his mantle. You get the picture. He uses makeup to reconstruct his burned away face, and has to plug into an old Victrola in order to bypass his crushed throat and speak. He's assisted by a mysterious, beautiful mute female named Vulnavia. Believe it or not, this movie gave me the creeps when I first saw it at age 13, simply because the Doctor thwarted all efforts to stop his murder spree, and my overactive imagination had me identifying with his intended victims. I was quite obsessed with this film for a long long time- it appealed to my visual proclivities (it's full of cool-looking art deco-period sets and flavor) and by its witty, lean script. Still never miss it when I have the opportunity to see it.

Curse of the Demon (1958)
Another Big Show favorite, full of mood, atmosphere and vivid characters and shot in gloriously oppressive black and white. Dana Andrews is a clinical psychologist/professional skeptic who, while on a book tour in jolly old England, runs afoul of a leader of a pagan cult, played by Niall McGinnis with just the right amount of detached menace and droll wit, who sics a fearsome demon on those who cross his path via a small parchment on which runes have been written. The director, Jacques (Cat People) Tourneur, was on record as not wanting to show the actual demon; but this was the 50s and right in the middle of the giant monster movie craze so the producers won out. He's probably right in hindsight- the demon itself is a pretty obvious puppet. Tourneur piled on the atmosphere and his effects crew came up with a very imaginative way to depict the demon's coming and going, so it turned out mostly OK, and the creature has gone on to become an easily recognized monster icon of days gone by. The final confrontation between Andrews and McGinnis on a train (shades of Hitchcock!) is worth the price of admission. Never miss this one, either, when I get an opportunity.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
One of the most entertaining horror films ever, this one walks a fine line between satire and seriousness, thanks to the playful script by John Balderston and William Hurlbut (no, I don't know what else they ever did) and direction by everyone's favorite gay filmmaker James Whale. I find it hard to believe that those of you out there reading this haven't seen it at least once, so I won't go into details, but I will say that besides the direction I'm always amazed by the flat out excellent cast, especially Ernest Thesiger as the brittily deranged Doctor Praetorius. It's not necessary- and if you love this film you've probably already seen it- but if not I highly recommend viewing the 1998 Whale-centric film Gods and Monsters, which features Ian (Gandalf) McKellen in an absolutely outstanding performance as the director in the last years of his life.

The Black Cat (1934)
Visually striking, with all its art deco touches (think I like that period?) and full of creepy atmosphere, The Black Cat is not only the first screen teaming of Karloff and Lugosi but also a weird psychological thriller, more inspired by Alastair Crowley than Edgar Allan Poe. It's also surprisingly violent, since it was filmed before the Hays Code came along. Doctor Vitus Verdegast (Lugosi), left for dead by Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff) engineer (and devil cult leader) when they were both in the war, has returned to the European scene of the conflict seeking his wife, who was stolen by Poelzig, who led her to believe her husband was dead, and a young American couple gets mixed up in their vendetta. And then it gets even stranger. Karloff is cool as hell all dressed in black from head to toe, with a pronounced widow's peak and made up in a pallor. Sometimes he ever appears to have pointed ears! With John Carradine in a cameo as Poelzig's butler (he appeared briefly in Bride of Frankenstein, too) and the famous Lugosi line: "Superstitious perhaps...baloney, perhaps not!". I also love how Bela spits out the line at the end "Do you know what I'm going to do to you now, Hjalmar?"...

Panic on the Trans-Siberian Express (1972), also known as Horror Express
In fact, it's usually always known as Horror Express, but Panic was the original release title and it's far, far cooler. This is one of those movies that defies categorization, and is always worth a look on those infrequent occasions when it pops up on TV, if nothing else but for the nutball ending. In this one, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing appear together for the umpteenth time as rival archaeoligists in 1906...Lee has discovered a frozen Yeti-like creature which just happens to be inhabited by an alien lifeforce. Of course, the creature thaws out and kills people, first absorbing all their knowledge and then causing their eyes bleed and turn white. It has the ability to posess people as well, further causing The Thing-style terror among the passengers. Eventually, they are revived by the creature as glowing-eyed zombies, completely under its control. The titular panic ensues, eventually climaxing with a great, intense scene with the frightened survivors cowering in the front of the train, which is hurtling across the arctic wastes of Siberia, awaiting the zombies who slowly advance towards them... Express also features Telly Savalas, who hams it up as the leader of a group of Cossacks who board the train. Good choice, Telly. The script kinda defies logic, and except for Cushing and Lee (and scenery-chewing Savalas), nobody much can act, but I still love this movie.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
This film first came to my attention when it was featured in (and my memory is spotty here) the first issue of Modern Monsters magazine. They had lots of pictures and a synopsis of the film, and I couldn't wait until I saw it. Luckily, not long after it was shown on the Big Show one weekday afternoon, and it made a huge impression on 6 year old me. I'm sure most you are familiar with the story, which involves Kevin McCarthy's doctor character discovering an alien plot to replace Earth people with "pod people". There are so many scenes which stay in my memory, such as the discovery of the pods in the greenhouse, the exhausted McCarthy and his girlfriend hiding out from pursuing pod people in a cave on the outskirts of town, and of course the unforgettable scene where McCarthy tries to flag down passing motorists and get someone, anyone to believe his story. Unfortunately, someone decided to tack on a chickenshit ending, in which the military saves the day. Still, this is a riveting and highly effective film. The 1978 remake, with Donald Sutherland, Karen Black, and Leonard Nimoy (and Kevin McCarthy, still running around in traffic in a clever cameo) has its moments as well.

Re-Animator (1985)
The first time I watched this, in 1986, I remember being simply slack-jawed in amazement. I had seen gore films before, and I had seen humorous horror films as well, but never one as audacious and over-the-top as this one. Again, I'm sure many of you are very familiar with this story of a renegade med student, Herbert West by name, played with prissy intensity by Jeffrey Combs (who'll always be remembered for this film, no matter what else he does) who discovers a serum (which looks like the stuff inside glow sticks- or perhaps fortified Mountain Dew...hmm...) which reanimates dead tissue, in effect bringing the dead back to life. Problem is, the dead don't seem to like it very much, because they invariably come back all pissed off and in some cases downright evil. And Dr. West doesn't care- he doggedly pursues his experimentation regardless of the consequences. Featuring the head placed on a bill stacker because it won't sit up on its own, and a scene which gives an all-new meaning to the phrase "giving head". I've seen gorier films, and I've seen funnier, but I've never seen one which manages to balance all the right tones like this film does. Adapted from an H.P. Lovecraft story, in case ya didn't know. This is one of those films everyone who has an interest in horror or fantasy should see at least once.

Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1968)
"...And Boy Does He Give a Hickey" read the US poster copy. Sheesh. Anyway, this Hammer horror was frequently aired on CBS's Late Movie in the 70s, like many of my other fave films such as Dr. Phibes (above), The Circus of Dr. Lao and The Valley of Gwangi. And please note that this is a list of my fave horror films, not what I think are the best horror films. Big difference, and here's a case in point. Early Hammer horror flicks like Horror of Dracula and Curse of Frankenstein are much better than the flock of sequels that followed in their wake, but I've always had a soft spot for this looney tunes vampire pitcher which is quite entertaining and action packed if you don't think about it too hard. The scriptwriters were trying to see what they could get away with, and this one played very fast and loose with vampire lore- sometimes imaginatively: the athiest hero stakes Drac, only to see the Count pull the stake back out because he wouldn't pray as he did so; and sometimes head-slapping stupidly: Lee's Dracula further refines his "feral, uncerebral and unthinking, yet suave and seductive when necessary" persona as he wastes most of the film on an illogical and somewhat beneath him revenge plot against the Monsignor who has nailed a cross to the door of his castle. Also, there's a scene which I've always assumed was a flashback about the discovery of a body in a church bell- cool imagery, but unless it was a flashback, there was no way Drac could have done it, because he was still supposed to be out of commission, even if he could figure out how to enter a church! Still, logic gaps notwithstanding it's a rousingly good adventure story with good performances and nice atmosphere, especially in the rooftop scenes about halfway in. Also, this one features a bravura death scene for the Count. Another one I never miss when it airs.

White Zombie (1932)
No, not Rob Zombie's former band but the picture he named it after, a creaky and dated, but still eerie and effective vehicle for Lugosi, in his first film since Dracula. I read somewhere where he only got $800 bucks for this. Poor Bela. Anyway, the sets are great, atmosphere is laid on thick and heavy, and there are lots of the living dead shuffling around all over the place, especially one big hairy bruiser with bug eyes who functions as Bela's flunky. Honestly, this is a very static and poorly acted (with the exception of Lugosi and perhaps Madge Bellamy, the damsel in distress) film, but the visuals will stay with you for a long time, and since (as I'm sure you all are aware of by now) visuals are very important to me that's the main reason I cite this movie. Another zombie flick I've always had a soft spot for: Zombies of Mora Tau, a low budget 50s obscurity with sexy Allison Hayes (that's right, the original 50 Foot Woman) that was regularly shown on the Big Show.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)
The grandaddy of modern horror movies, it was so groundbreaking then and is still amazingly effective after all these years, especially when one considers the miniscule budget it had. One memorable scene after the other, with laffs, chills, and shocks and a refreshing lack of pretension or scientific explanations. As with so many on this list, I'd be surprised if you haven't seen this at least once and know exactly what I mean, but if you haven't then what the heck are you waiting for? This was pointlessly remade in color a few years ago and while it wasn't terrible it still couldn't hold a candle to the original. Also worth checking out, besides the sequels Day and Dawn of the Dead, is the great, funny semi-sequel Return of the Living Dead (1985), from whence came that notion of zombies staggering around looking to eat "...braaiiins...".

Wheeeew. That's it. Here are some honorable mentions: Halloween (1978), Innocent Blood (1992), An American Werewolf in London (1981), Masque of the Red Death (1964), The Return of Dracula (1957), Curse of the Undead (1959), Fright Night (1985) ("Oh, you're so cool, Brewster!") The Devil's Backbone (2001), The Sixth Sense (1999) and Psycho (1960).

Thanks for bearing with me while I finished this darn thing!