It’s not just that I enjoy horror movies. I know a lot of people who like horror movies whose eyes glaze over when I start talking about favorite films and why they’re favorite films. And that’s fine. Everyone is free to enjoy art at the level of their choosing. If you like the scares and that’s it, great. If you like the technical aspects of the special effects, that’s excellent. To each their own. For me, I enjoy their history, their influences, the whole meta aspect of the medium.
To that end, I’ve been interested in running a salon series for a while: a viewing of a film followed by discussion. Heck, make it a class in the history of horror cinema. Impractical, I know. But it’s the dream.
So in lieu of that, here’s the first half of a list of what I consider to be Ten Essential Horror Movies (and why). The second part of the list will follow tomorrow as I felt it a good idea to break it up into bite-sized pieces. Feel free to watch on your own time. Most of these movies are fairly old and should be available easily. And if you ever want to discuss them, or your own list of essentials, I’m game.
Freaks (1932) – Tod Browning
There’s a good chance you’ve heard about this movie. There’s a reason for that. Some people may know director Tod Browning for Dracula which he directed a few years earlier. It made Universal a lot of money and launched Bela Lugosi into stardom. It also gave Browning some freedom as a director/producer. He used that freedom to make Freaks, in some ways inspired by his experiences with a travelling circus.
Yeah. He ran away to join a traveling circus when he was 16.
Apparently people did that.
Anyway, Browning’s star had been on the rise, but this film pretty much killed his career. The studio cut it from the original 90 minute run time (removing much of the film’s climax), and tacking on prologue and epilogue for a total run time of 64 minutes. The movie was a financial failure, and even recut by the studio it was banned in the UK for three decades. Sadly, most of that cut footage was lost forever. The movie was finally re-released in the sixties where it got the counter-culture adoration it deserved, influencing Frank Zappa, the Ramones, and whole generations of outcasts who were drawn to the story of the most unlikely of protagonists–and what they’re capable of when pushed.
I Walked With a Zombie (1943) — Jacques Tourneur
However the zombie has deeper cultural roots that are even more terrifying. The old-school voodun zombie of the Caribbean represents the double-edged fear of plantations who could work people to death and even beyond and of a unstoppable workforce and group of people that greatly outnumbered the “masters.” Old-school zombies were a narrative in class and race, the horrors of slavery and it’s echoes translated through a lens of the supernatural.
I Walked with a Zombie was the second film produced by Val Lewton, master of the B-movie horror. It’s not without violence, but it’s primarily a thinking person’s zombie film. Stylus Magazine named it the 5th best zombie movie of all time in 2007, but I’d rank it higher, personally. Like much of Lewton’s work, this movie is deliberately ambiguous on the supernatural, which lets it work on more levels than a straight-up horror film. What’s worse, really: the threat of magic or the idea that you can naturally become so worn down that you become less than human?
As a meditation on the conflict between cultures/classes/religions in the Caribbean, it’s excellent. As an example of smart horror from before zombies were gore-dripping things looking for their next meal, it’s a must see.
Peeping Tom (1960) — Michael Powell
No conversation on the subject of tragic career-ending films would be complete without a nod to the 1960 classic Peeping Tom. Released in the UK two months before Hitchcock’s Psycho was released in the US, both movies have a somewhat familiar footprint with one jarring difference. The film’s POV, which jarred audiences and critics so badly that Peeping Tom was doomed right out of the gate.
The movie follows a voyeur and young film-maker who devises a special camera with a spike on the tripod for the sole purpose of filming people at their moment of death. But because the movie put the audience in the head of the killer, it made them voyeurs as well, and gave them a sense of culpability. It was an unforgivable sin at the time, a violation of the compact between film-makers and audience.
It’s also a brilliant film. Martin Scorsese had been hearing about it since film school and finally saw it in 1970 and became a ardent fan, saying, “I have always felt that Peeping Tom and 8½ say everything that can be said about film-making…”
Reviled upon release, it is now considered a masterpiece of British horror. Total Film ranked it as the 24th British film of all time (2004) and 18th greatest horror film of all time (2005). And a British Film Institute poll ranked it as one of the best British films of all time. Honored with a Criterion Collection re-release it’s now easy to find, 55 years after Len Mosley of the Daily Express called it “…more nauseating and depressing than the leper colonies of East Pakistan, the back streets of Bombay, and the gutters of Calcutta.”
The Haunting (1963) — Robert Wise
Based on the Shirley Jackson novel The Haunting of Hill House, this is the grandmother of “group of occultists/psychics go investigate haunted house” films. It might not have been the first (honestly, I have to assume someone did this kind of trope prior to 1960), but like Jimi Hendrix covering Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” this trope belonged to The Haunting as of 1963. Over 50 years later and I don’t feel it’s been equaled.
Now, that’s not saying they haven’t tried. This kind of formula is rote for horror movies these days. And why not? It’s a story everyone recognizes now. It’s cinematic shorthand: put a group of people in a spooky location and hijinks ensue, usually chock full of gore and spooky visuals. Whether it’s an old brownstone in the ghetto (Bones – 2001) or a run down mental hospital (Session 9 – 2001), we know this set up. Of course in any movie made with this model since the 80’s, most of the cast will be dead at the end, because scary.
I call bullshit. I mean, I sincerely enjoyed Bones and absolutely love Session 9.
But you know what’s scary? The Haunting from 1963. And that’s because it doesn’t show anything! That’s a lesson that the shit-tornado of a remake from 1999 could have stood to learn. Nothing is as scary as the human imagination when it’s all wound up and ready to go.
Kwaidan (1964) — Masaki Kobyashi
In the sixties, anthology horror was all the rage. Some were amazing. Most were less so. But none of them came close to reaching the art house style horror of Kwaidan. Case in point, none of them were nominated for Academy Awards like this one (Best Foreign Language Film). Based on folktales collected by Lafcadio Hearn around the turn of the century and directed by Masaki Kobyashi, this is a collection of slow-burn and atmospheric ghost stories.
One of the things that sets Kwaidan apart is the visual language of the film. Owing a debt to stage and German expressionist film from decades earlier, much of Kwaidan features large, colorful backdrops or are filmed on obviously artificial sets to lend an otherworldly, almost fairy-tale quality.
If any of the four stories feel familiar, it could be due to the influence they’ve had on Japanese horror cinema that followed. The visual style even influenced some of Akira Kurosawa’s later works, like Dreams, and . Or maybe you saw the Tales from the Darkside movie in which “The Woman of the Snow” segment was remade as “Lover’s Vow.” And that scene in Conan the Barbarian where his body his painted over with words to protect him from spirits? Kwaidan did it first. And better.
Come back tomorrow for the second half of the list where I take you the rest of the way to 1983 with films from David Cronenberg, Brian de Palma, Ridley Scott, Mario Bava, and Roger Corman.