If you managed to miss the first half of this list, or even why this list exists in the first place, here is where you’ll find it.
Now, let’s cut to the chase. The other half of the list.
Masque of the Red Death (1964) — Roger Corman
There were a slew of movies based on the stories of Edgar Allen Poe in the 60’s, some more faithful than others. For instance The Raven (1963) which was also directed by Corman from a Richard Matheson script had little, if anything, to do with the poem. But Masque of the Red Death was a beast of a different color.
With a script by the brilliant Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell, in addition to one of Vincent Price’s finest performances as the Satan-worshiping Prince Prospero, the real star of this movie is cinematographer Nicolas Roeg. Roeg would go on to be a director in his own right, making the classics Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth.
Masque of the Red Death managed to fold the great Poe short story “Hop-Frog” into the script and it’s a natural fit.
Not only is it an opulent-looking example of period piece horror, it’s a heck of a good movie. With over 400 production credits to his name, Roger Corman still considers this one of the two favorite movies he ever made. It’s easy to see why.
Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971) — Mario Bava
Made in Italy by genre master Mario Bava, it is also known as Blood Bath or A Bay of Blood. It was originally released in the states as Carnage then re-released as Twitch of the Death Nerve where it delighted drive-in and grindhouse audiences across the country. It is considered the grandfather of the slasher film genre, featuring thirteen incredibly gruesome murders. As for plot, don’t over-think it. Twitch of the Death Nerve makes Friday the 13th read like Thomas Pynchon.
Speaking of Friday the 13th, fans of that series should be especially interested in this movie, as the second Friday the 13th movie featured two murders that were virtual shot-by-shot remakes of ones found here.
When people look back at the high-body count horror movies that overtook American horror cinema starting with Halloween in 1978, they ultimately need to look back at this movie. Of all the directors on this list Bava may be the most important, so it’s a shame he’s not well known outside of die-hard horror junkies. He directed some of the first giallo films, helping define the thriller genre in Italy in the sixties. He pioneered a kind of sci-fi horror with Planet of the Vampires (1965) that bears a striking thematic similarity to Alien which followed fourteen years later. And many elements of his masterpiece Kill, Baby, Kill (1966) were hugely influential in the wave of Asian horror that followed decades later.
That said, I draw a distinction between influential and enjoyable. While I respect his amazing contributions to the genre, his movies, particularly the blood bath that is Twitch of the Death Nerve, are not easy watching.
Phantom of the Paradise (1974) — Brian de Palma
Combining the stories of Faust, Dorian Gray, and Phantom of the Opera into a musical epic with musician Paul Williams as the antagonist is, at best, a gamble. In fact, despite the Academy Award nomination for the music, it was an abysmal box-office failure everywhere except Winnipeg, Canada where it was an inexplicable hit.
So, why is it on this list?
For one, it’s incredibly fun. Paul Williams sells the hell out of the devilishly evil record producer, Swan. For two, the music is great, with this fascinating fusion of glam rock and classical/opera. In fact, Winslow Leach who goes on to become the Phantom is obsessed with his cantata which is not exactly a music form that was burning up the radio in the early seventies.
And it is from box office failures that cult movies are born. Clad in black leather with a face obscuring helmet, the look of the Phantom (as well as his recording studio) was a huge visual influence on Darth Vader, as well as Daft Punk, the pair having bonded over the movie as kids, seeing it together over twenty times. When he was gearing up to make Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Edgar Wright hosted screenings of the movie for his cast because he was such a huge fan. But perhaps best of all, Paul Williams tells a story of being approached at a concert in Mexico City to sign a copy of the soundtrack for a kid in the audience. At the time, he considered the film a flop, so the incident stood out for him. Years later, he would come to find out that the fan in Mexico City was Guillermo del Toro, which led to him working on a musical version of Pan’s Labyrinth.
You never know where someone is going to find their inspiration, it seems.
Alien (1979) — Ridley Scott
Unlike the films which followed this in the franchise, the original Alien was straight up horror. When it came out in 1979, people weren’t prepared for what they were going to get. I was a kid at the time, but still remember stories of people getting ill and having to flee the theater. The chest-burster scene in particular has burned itself upon our collective psyche, and is one of the most recognizable moments in American cinema of the past 50 years.
My favorite part about the chest-burster scene is that the cast had no idea what they were in for on the day of the shoot. Their reactions were pretty damn authentic. It’s not the first time horror directors got authentic terror by keeping the cast in the dark. There was a memorable scene in The Birds (1963) where real, live birds were used, much to the surprise and dismay of a terrified Tippi Hedren.
At it’s heart, Alien is a gothic haunted house story, just substitute a massive, dark spaceship for the haunted castle. A group of people meet their fates one by one as they seek some way to escape the death that lurks all about them in the shadows. Sci-fi horror had been done before, but never this well. And there were many imitators that followed, from Galaxy of Terror (1981) to Event Horizon (1997). And the xenomorph that H.R. Geiger designed for the movie went on to be one of the most iconic monsters in cinema.
Videodrome (1983) — David Cronenberg
No one does body horror quite like Cronenberg.
A disturbing and surreal critique on a media culture of sex and violence, Videodrome is, itself, a masterpiece of weird sex and violence. It gets difficult to distinguish what is real and what is hallucination, and ultimately questions if there’s really a distinction to be made between the two.
Like many of the films on this list, Videodrome did not fare well commercially but remains an important work. Andy Warhol considered it “A Clockwork Orange of the ’80’s.” Many critics hated it, either turned off by the weirdness, the violence, or the bleakness of the ending. Even so, it endures, finding its way onto multiple lists, including Total Film’s Weirdest Films of All Time and the Toronto International Film Festival named it as one of most essential films ever made.
But perhaps the best thing that can be said about Videodrom, comes from R. Barton Palmer in his book, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. “A groundbreaking film of the commercial/independent movement of the 1980s Hollywood, David Cronenberg’s story about the horrible transformations wrought by exposure to televised violence wittily thematizes the very problems that the director’s exploration of violent sexual imagery in his previous productions had caused with censors, Hollywood distributors and feminist groups… Videodrome remains one of Hollywood’s most unusual films, too shocking and idiosyncratic to be anything but a commercial failure.”