Well, Halloween is once again upon us. I guess I could crank out a horror themed review for this, but that just seems so stock and boring. Why don't I raise my game a little bit? Being a horror fan, I've been exposed to some of the best and absolute worst of cinema, some of the most distressing and some of the most pitiful. But what's the point on focusing on the bad stuff? So, for your delectation I bring you...
Fargo's Top 10 Horror Films!
Now, I'm going to be playing fast and loose with what constitutes 'horror'. Some of the films on the list are going to be in the horror category in the broadest sense possible, but then again the genre is flexible enough to accommodate films of all types, whether they are filled with gore or the complete opposite. Also, this is a list of my personal favourite films, based on how many times I've watched them or how much I enjoy them. If this was a list of which horror films I think are the best, it would probably be completely different.
First of all, let's get some honourable mentions out of the way.
Suspiria: An excellent film, and certainly the strongest film in Dario Argentos filmography, with maybe the exception of Deep Red. Some brilliant lighting, set design and cinematography make Suspiria one of the most surreal, expressive horror films ever made.
Why it's not on the list:The films narrative is a mess. While it works as a visual piece of horror, it fails at any kind of story telling or character building, which makes the suspense less impactful than it should have been.
George A Romero's Dawn of the Dead: In my opinion, Dawn of the Dead is the definitive zombie film, even more so than Night of the Living Dead. It's more fun than it has any right to be, given the bleak tone the film is attempting to set, and is far more clever than people will ever give it credit for.
Why it's not on the list: It's simply not as strong as other films on the list. The script has its weak points, and it drags a little in the middle.
Braindead (aka Dead Alive): The goriest film ever made, by a country mile, Braindead revels in its complete and utter insanity. Whether it be a lawnmower taken to a horde of zombies, a zombie priest engaging in some rather precarious activities with a zombie nurse on a dining table, or an intestinal tract chasing our hero through the attic of his house, Braindead is brilliant in its madness, and needs to be seen just for the sheer glory that is Peter Jacksons splatter masterpiece.
Why it's not on the list: It's not scary. There is very little actual tension to the film, and the gore is so ridiculously over the top it's never disturbing. There is also no meat to the story or characters, despite their likeability, so there is a lack of any emotional connection.
Now that's done, let's start the list!
Coming from French newcomer Alexandre Aja, Haute Tension is his first film to have found an audience outside of his home country. The film is very evocative of older slasher films, relying on a great deal of suspense and blood to work as a horror film. The protagonist is a girl named Marie, who is visiting the house of her best friend's parents for a weekend away from college. The night they arrive, a mysterious truck driver bursts into the house and kills the family, kidnaps Marie's friend and vanishes in his truck. Marie gives chase in a bid to save her friend, while the truck driver slaughters any and all who get in his way.
What works about Haute Tension is that it is pretty much the epitome of how a suspenseful horror film should be done. The plot is simple and the pace is fast. Once the butchering starts, there really isn't a moment that the film slackens. It is pretty much edge-of-your seat stuff from then on in and while I'm not a massive gore fan, the way it is used in Haute Tension is excellent. It's a film that's brutally effective in pace, direction and even acting. What especially helps the movie is how stark it is: at no point is there even the slightest inclination the killer has a true motivation; he's just presented to us as a sadist, with no real goal other than to kill or maim. This makes him all the more terrifying, and evocative of classic monsters such as Michael Myers.
The only serious flaw would be the 'twist' in the film, which some people will have a serious problem with. While I'm certainly more on the side of condemnation when it comes to discussing, I must raise the point of 'Unreliable narrator'. If this was the intention of the film-makers, then it does work, although I don't think it's as clever as they probably think it was. However, the weak twist doesn't spoil what is an intensely paced, suspenseful and just plain brutal horror film.
Number 9: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
With a budget of only $140,000, Tobe Hooper created one of the most lasting and bizarrely infamous creations in horror cinema, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Taking inspiration from real-life serial killer Ed Gein and falsely proclaiming the story to be based on true events, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre hit a chord with audiences, grossing $30 million at the box office and to this day it is still considered one of most influential films in the genre. Shot in just under a month on location in Texas, the film revolves around a group of teenagers on their way to visit a cemetery. On the way, they come across a creepy, deserted house, and while exploring the area they are hunted by a lumbering beast with a chainsaw who wears the skin of a human as a mask.
Despite the title and premise, the most interesting aspect of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is that the film is just about bloodless. The only real scene of blood is self-inflicted and fleeting, so anyone expecting gory chainsaw deaths will probably be disappointed. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is simply a pure horror film, an utterly terrifying descent into hell itself. It manages to be punishing, disturbing and horrifying without a single scene of gore. This is undoubtedly the films biggest accomplishment, in that it relies totally on the direction of Hooper and the actors, and succeeds incredibly well. This is a film that manages to frighten even when the scenes are set in broad daylight.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre series fell flat on its face after the first film, with a completely over-the-top sequel that lost the succinct brand immersive horror the original had, and the sequels only went downhill from there, plus an utterly disastrous remake and prequel that followed in 2003 and 2006 respectively. The original still stands as a perfect example of a pure horror film; it's just a shame the series was spoiled by every other entry.
Perhaps the only truly 'good' film Takashi Miike has ever made (perhaps with the exception of Imprint), Audition is sort of like what would happen if you crossed Misery with... Well, Takashi Miike. Shigeharu Aoyama is a 42-year old widower who decides to search for another wife. He is hoping to find a more 'traditional' bride, one who is talented in the arts, and both reserved yet confident. He takes to a 24-year old woman called Asami Yamakazi, who fits the bill almost perfectly. However, Asami is certainly a very troubled woman, and what follows is some of the most horrifyingly tense scenes of torture ever put on film.
The reason Audition works so well is that, while it is certainly grisly, the first half of the film functions more as a mystery more than anything else, as Shigeharu attempts to discover the true intentions behind Asami, and who she really is. This build up is what makes the scenes of brutal and unforgiving torture so damn effective. Rather than throwing the audience into a world of blood and gore from the very start, Miike lets fear and dread build up around the character of Asami, so when her true nature is reveal it is all the more terrifying.
While Audition isn't the most disturbing film ever made (for me, Irreversible will always hold that spot) it is certainly near the top. It's a surprisingly stylish film too, which just makes the torture scenes so much more hard to watch; one expects scenes like that to be filmed stark and bare, with emphasis on the torture, but Miike instead chooses to keep the films presentation high rather than cutting it down when it comes to the brutal scenes. This makes for a slick and immersive flick that, while not for everyone, is probably the best J-Horror film to date, which is interesting as it is rarely thrown in with the rest of its kind.
What do you get when you mix 28 Days Later, The Blair Witch Project and add a dash of The Thing? You get Spanish POV horror [REC]. Set almost entirely in a claustrophobic apartment building, [REC] is shot through the camera of a news cameraman and details the events of a group of residents who find themselves trapped inside said apartment building after a quarantine locks them inside due to the spread of a virus. This virus, of course, is turning people into mindless monsters who rip and tear through anyone they can catch.
So far, so 28 Days Later. What sets [REC] apart is that the POV style is used incredibly effectively. Without it in place, the film would undoubtedly be far less intense than it actually is. Using stock cinematography would be the downfall of this film, so the transition to POV was an incredibly wise directorial decision. The use of POV in this film is incredibly impressive, with some shots lasting never breaking for upwards of ten minutes, which includes an immaculate closing scene which may very well be one of the most brilliantly terrifying scenes in any film I've ever seen.
Now, [REC] does not have great writing or characters. In fact, on that front it is almost completely lacking. The reason it's on this list is because it is freaking terrifying. Every scare is well-timed, and when the whole situation begins to fall apart in the last 25 minutes of the film it is pure intensity right to the very final frame. [REC] is easily the scariest film of the last decade: a brilliant cocktail of great directing, smart scares and clever set-ups.
This is more a choice based on nostalgia than anything else and it's also probably the film that's the most debatable in term of horror credibility, but screw it, it's on mah list. So, Steven Spielberg has directed powerful films about the holocaust, humanity and racism, so who would have thought that my favourite film of his was the one about the giant shark that eats people? Amity Island is a small resort that relies on the tourist trade to get by, so when a shark begins to munch on swimmers at the beach, it's up to police chief Martin Brody, ichthyologist Matt Hooper and shark hunter Quint to stop the beast.
Critically acclaimed on its release and ever since, Jaws is often heralded as a landmark achievement in cinema, and I would have to agree. The film is wonderfully acted, impeccably directed and is just so much fun to watch, with surprisingly developed characters, great dialogue and effects that still look impressive to this day. While the shark only actually kills five people in the entire film, it doesn't really matter; there is just as much fun to be had watching the characters interact.
I'm not going to say too much about this one, as I'm almost positive everyone must have seen Jaws. If not, do yourself a favour and pick up a copy to bask in a genuine landmark achievement in films. Even standing by itself, Jaws is a great film to this day, and thoroughly deserves its place on my list.
Number 5: The Hills Have Eyes (2006)
We're in the top five now, so let's start it off with another Alexandre Aja flick. The original Hills Have Eyes was made on a shoe-string budget in 1977 by cult director Wes Craven, and wasn't very good. Craven is a man whose ambition is normally made or broken by his budget, which is why higher budget films like A Nightmare on Elm Street are considered classics, but I find his lower budget productions generally poor, and this was certainly the case with The Hills Have Eyes. However, Dune Entertainment handed the remake to the capable hands of Alexandre Aja. His first production outside of his native France, Aja's remake is something of a strange anomaly in the film business. It's a remake that far surpasses the original in every single way.
The film opens with a family travelling from Ohio to San Diego. Stopping off at a petrol station, the solitary attendant tells them about a shortcut through the mountain range. Unfortunately, this leads them directly into a trap set up by cannibalistic mutants who live in the hills, who attack them during the night. Trapped and terrified, the remaining members of the family decide to strike back against the creatures. While the premise is generally the same as Wes Craven's original, the remake takes it a step further, exploring the reasons behind the deformed creatures living in the hills, and while this certainly isn't going to win it any Oscars, the film has surprisingly solid writing and genuinely likeable characters.
On top of this, the film is wonderfully brutal. In terms of gore, it far surpasses the original and even was given the kiss of death by the MPAA, being granted an NC-17 rating before the film was edited down to an R. It's a vicious film, but at the same time is very human and stunningly well-made. Aja does not use the gore as a shock device, but uses it to craft more intense and at times epic action scenes, and while some scenes overstep their mark, the brutal nature is generally deftly handled. It's a surprisingly thrilling experience, but at the same time it never forgets that it's supposed to be a gory, tense horror film.
Number 4: John Carpenter's Halloween
This is probably the most cliched thing to put on any list that involves horror films, but I really don't care. Halloween is a damn creepy film that created my personal favourite horror villain of all time: Michael Myers. When he was six years old, Myers murdered his sister on the night of Halloween and was placed in a mental institute. Fifteen years later, Michael Myers escapes and returns to his hometown to enact a new killing spree. Why? Well that's the reason Halloween is so brilliant; Michael Myers has no reason to kill, for he is pure evil.
This isn't something that's overly debatable or subjective either. The film constantly drops hints that Michael Myers is the embodiment of evil, and that he can't be defeated. Writer and director John Carpenter took inspiration from the Gaelic festival of Samhain, a celebration in which the souls of the dead are believed to return to earth to wreck havoc about the living. Samhain is where the majority of our traditional Halloween elements hail from, and as such the title and setting are more than just simple gimmicks. The character of Michael Myers is fantastic for this reason; he is just evil incarnate, with no motivation but to kill. What's more terrifying is that Carpenter continually drops hints he simply can't die, making him all the more frightful. This is something that Rob Zombie completely failed to grasp when he remade Halloween, but we won't speak about that waste of film reel.
This hidden depth of Halloween and Michael Myers is why I think Halloween is such a great movie, but it stands up as a pure horror film too. John Carpenter is, in my opinion, one of the most talented and yet unheralded directors to ever man a camera, and nowhere is this more apparent than Halloween. A brilliant use of composition and cinematography, with some deftly handled foreground work. Halloween is certainly an eerie, creepy movie, and the lack of cheap scares makes it all the more powerful. Almost certainly a seminal horror flick, and it deserves all the recognition it gets.
Number 3: John Carpenter's The Thing
Yes, it's another John Carpenter film. Problem, people? I thought not. The Thing is a different breed of horror film to Halloween, and while I can't say its better, I can say it is my personal favourite out of the two. Set in a remote Antarctic station, a team of American researchers come across a desolate Norwegian base which appears to have been ravaged by some kind of creature that emerged from a block of ice that was recovered from a nearby crash site. Soon, the research team is under threat from a mysterious being who can imitate the form of any of the team members, leaving everyone unsure of who is The Thing and who is still human.
The Thing was Carpenters first foray into studio based film-making, but it still doesn't pull any punches as a horror film. What The Thing succeeds at most is how it uses both its setting and characters in correlation to produce a tense atmosphere, filled with paranoia. The audience never knows who is or who The Thing isn't, and so anyone could be taken at any moment by another faux team member. Most of the time, those who are actually The Thing is completely unobvious with many reveals being completely shocking in nature.
What makes these reveals even more shocking is the fantastic special effects work by Rob Bottin. Using a mixture of stop-motion techniques and applied make-up, Bottin conjures up some of the most horrific depictions and deformed creatures in Sci-Fi history. The Thing has no solid shape, so when it decides to emerge from its faux human form it does so in the most bloody, twisted fashion possible. And it is glorious. The atmosphere, paranoia and awesome special effects is why The Thing sits proudly at number three.
Number 2: Let the Right One In
This and the number one film are so painfully close in terms of quality that the only reason Let the Right One In takes second place rather than joint first is because it's not really that much of a horror film, in that it isn't really all that scary. However, it is probably one of the most beautiful films ever made. Let the Right One In tells the story of Oskar, a twelve-year old loner who is frequently bullied, and who struggles with his naive mother and alcoholic father. However, one day he meets a mysterious girl his own age named Eli, who teaches him to fight back. They form a tender friendship, isolated from the world, but Eli isn't all she seems to be...
Directed by Thomas Alfredson, Let the Right One In has two of the most fantastic screen performances in Kare Hedebrant as Oskar and Lina Leandersson as Eli. Not only are they amazing for child-actors, they're amazing as actors period. It's these performances that drive the film, and give it the majority of heart and soul. And that is really what Let the Right One In is all about: heart and soul. It's such a tender, sweet film for what it portrays, with some genuine tearjerker moments.
Added onto these fantastic performances is some great cinematography and directing. Alfredson hits every beat precisely, whether it be emotional or horrific, and his use of generally muted colours give the film a distinctive feel. But even without all the great technical aspects on show, Let the Right One In would deserve a place on this list simply for its emotional value. Out of every horror film ever made, not a single one has come close to capturing the beautiful nature of Let the Right One In.
And my Number 1 Horror Film Is..
Brutal, unforgiving and disquietingly beautiful, Pascal Laugier's Martyrs is the pinnacle of horror movie storytelling. Opening with the startling image of an abused girl limping away from her captors, Martyrs tells the story of Lucie and her best friend Anna. As a child, Lucie was kidnapped and tortured by a mysterious group of individuals, but when she grows up she tracks them down to enact her revenge. I don't want to spoil anything more, as what makes Martyrs such a brilliant film is the story and narrative.
I don't think I've seen a horror film with more depth than Martyrs, and none of it is superficial in the slightest. With every shocking revelation and plot twist that blindsides the audience, Martyrs shows itself to be a film that not only transcends the boundaries of horror storytelling, but the narrative is a fantastic cinematic achievement in its own right. The film is so bleak, so sparse and yet so hopeful and beautiful at the same time. For an almost pure horror film to be so brutal and yet so hauntingly emotionally affecting at the same time speaks to Pascal Laugier as a director and writer, and the two leads as actresses.
The bad news is Martyrs is probably one of the most divisive films you may ever see. It's a truly punishing watch; Laugier pulls no punches in delivery some of the most brutal and hard to watch scenes in horror history, but at the same time it's done with a minimal amount of actual blood and gore. There are no elaborate torture devices like Hostel and Saw. Everything is kept simple, relying on our empathy with the characters and the stark pain inflected upon them to drive home the emotional nail. Whether you like Martyrs or not will purely come down to how much you're willing to look beyond the nihilism, the brutality and see instead what lies beneath.
Happy Halloween everyone! :)