These Are A Few Of My Favorite Frights

Settling into a chilly Friday October evening at the Walter household, we put on a random horror flick, available from Netflix’s instant viewing feature, entitled Timber Falls (2007). The description promised something about creepy backwoods folk with a religious agenda terrorizing hikers—nothing to get all hot and bothered over, but we thought it might provide some mild thrills and, I must admit, I was curious about the religious bent. Within minutes we had declared the film less than sub-par, but stuck with it, stubbornly, for another twenty minutes or so before tossing it aside and putting on an old favorite, The Amityville Horror (1979), a film which, after countless viewings, continues to deliver the creeps and the heebie jeebies and all those other Friday night fright delights. Sadly, this experience—being sorely underwhelmed by the efforts of the modern horror genre and looking to the past for comfort—is an all too familiar one. As Halloween looms near, the subject of this post, then, will be a listing of some of my favorite films of the season. I only hope it can be a sort of guide, a helpmeet, if you will, to make this most ghoulish time of year even more special for you and your loved ones. Making a list is always a tricky affair, and I have a hard time ascribing “all-time-favorite-totally-awesome-number-1” status to anything, so what follows is simply a list of films, in no particular order of preference.

Halloween (1978). Ok, ok, if I was forced to pick a favorite, I think this would be the one. I watch this film a couple of times a year, and I never tire of it. Much like The Amityville Horror, it shows us that less is more, and that so much of film rests in the storytelling. Halloween was made on a shoestring budget, but it doesn’t really show because there aren’t many things in the film that call for a big budget—there is simply a simple story with a few characters that unfolds over the course of one afternoon and evening in a small town and yet manages to concern itself with, well, Pure Evil! Well acted, sublimely paced, and full of inspired cinematography, I absolutely love this film! There are scenes that still make me jump, even after all these viewings. Part of what I adore about Halloween is that so much of it takes place in the daylight, where the perfectly mundane becomes perfectly terrifying. My favorite example of this is when Jamie Lee Curtis, looking out the window, thinks she sees a man standing amongst the laundry hanging on the line. Doing a double-take, she decides there is no one there, but then the camera cuts back and we see that it is indeed Michael Myers, the dreaded escaped mental patient, simply standing there plain as day. My heart skips a beat every time, and I know it’s coming! Watch the Halloween Trailer.

A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984). This is one of those films I saw as a young child that scared the crap out of me! For one thing, Freddy Krueger is a monster’s monster, to be sure, complete with burned-up face and razor blade fingers. And something about that red and green striped sweater is so freakin’ sinister! Unlike Halloween’s daytime haunts, Elm Street’s terrors truly go bump in the night, as Freddy preys on the fears running rampant through children’s nightmares. Pretty frightening stuff, even now that I’m all grown up. This was Johnny Depp’s first role, in case you were wondering. I’m a big fan of Wes Craven in general, and find most of his films to be a good bit smarter than a lot of their contemporaries. He’s always concerned with psychology and the interplay between what is real and not real, or real and perceived. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) is a fascinating continuation of the Nightmare story, where Freddy begins infiltrating both the dreams and reality of the actor who played the girl in the first film. Craven plays himself in the film, revealing that Krueger plagues his dreams as well, and that the only way to attempt to control Krueger and the evil he represents is by capturing him/it in a story—a technique as old as time itself. See Wes Craven discussing the film New Nightmare. Other favorites by Wes Craven: Scream (1996), The Serpent And The Rainbow (1988), Shocker (1989).

Just about everything by Dario Argento. Really, just about everything! Argento’s films are full of a particular ambience, flamboyance even, that helps set them apart from a lot of other similar Italian films I’ve seen. His recent efforts have not been as memorable as the films he’s most famous for from the 70’s, but they’re still fun. At their best, his films are full of rich and vibrant colors, elaborate sets, kitsch, fantastical music (much of which is composed and recorded by Argento’s own band, the Goblins), and plots as twisted and twisty as they come. Argento does gruesome torture and grisly death really, really well! All are done, however, in the context of the film and are often quite artsy, so that the point of viewing the horrific event becomes not so much the viewing of the horror, nor the horror itself, but more so the almost magic-show nature of the staged technique. My chief complaint with so much contemporary horror is its inherent torture-porn quality. This is not that. My favorite Argento: Suspiria (1977), Deep Red (1975), (these first two are likely available at most video rental stores, should you wish to check out this Italian icon), The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970), Opera (1987, featuring my favorite Aregento terror—sewing needles taped to the lower eyelids, forcing the victim to keep their eyes open or else endure much pain upon closing them… wicked!!), Tenebre (1982). I should note that I saw Tenebre some years ago on television, and it was this introduction to Dario Argento that caused me to begin a quick slide down a steep and slippery slope. I had watched horror movies as a kid, but the discovery of Argento and Italian giallos opened up a whole new can o’ worms, so to speak. If you’re looking for a good Halloween night movie, I highly recommend any of the above! Catch a clip of Argento’s classic Suspiria here.

Another director I’m fascinated with is George Romero. He has shunned Hollywood and success in order to make his films his way in his hometown of Pittsburgh, often employing friends and family members along the way. His zombie films offer fine social commentary, interesting special effects (it’s nice to watch a film and think, ok, with five gallons of corn syrup, red food coloring, carrots, a pot roast or two, some ground beef, chicken bones, and string, I could do that!), and enough post-apocalyptic warning that they ought to be shown in schools ‘round the country! It is interesting to see a theme carried across a body of work—Romero has made five zombie films to date: Night Of The Living Dead (1968), Dawn Of The Dead (1978), Day Of The Dead (1985), Land Of The Dead (2005), and Diary Of The Dead (2007). All are fine films, but my favorites are Dawn and Land. Dawn takes place in a shopping mall and is at times truly funny. It is worth noting that Dario Argento shares a production credit on this film, and edited the Italian release of the film. Land Of The Dead, set much later, sees the effects of widespread zombism and the government’s self-preservation methods of walling-off their remaining cities, protecting those who can afford to stay within the walls. The film also shows some humanization and socialization of a group of zombies, as they begin to work together to break down the walls surrounding the city. While chiefly known for Night Of The Living Dead, Romero has written and directed some other fine films as well which deal not at all with the undead. My favorites of his non-zombie fare: The Crazies (1973) and Bruiser (2000). The Crazies may be my favorite Romero film, actually. None of Romero’s films are particularly scary or horrific, but zombies eatin’ brains is enough for the genre, I suppose.

The Last Broadcast (1998) is a mockumentary about the Jersey Devil. The film is a “documentary” attempting to solve the bizarre events that occurred when the hosts of Fact Or Fiction, a cable-access investigative journalism show, ventured into the New Jersey Pine Barrens to do a report on the fabled Jersey Devil. They had employed the aid of a psychic who may or may not have been a charlatan, things went horribly wrong, people died, and now our filmmaker is trying to sort out the “facts” through interviews and recreations. This is a really fun film that is also, at times, pretty spooky! It predates The Blair Witch Project by a year.

Rosemary’s Baby (1968) pretty well sets the tone for Spawn-of-Satan films. More thriller than horror movie, perhaps, it’s still a good supernatural tale that’s a real nail-biter, full of twists and turns that’ll have you second-guessing everybody and everything. Exquisitely paced, you can’t help but get caught up in Rosemary’s plight!

I could go on for pages and pages, but I’ll leave off with some honorable mentions:
Jaws (1975–one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen!), They Live (1988), Candyman (1992), The Shining (1980), It (1990), The Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954), The Wicker Man (1973), The Exorcist (1973), and, because it’s a list of favorites and not greats, Killer Klowns From Outer Space (1988).

What’s the scariest movie you’ve ever seen?

4 Responses to “These Are A Few Of My Favorite Frights”

  1. teambuildingexercise99 Says:

    I never really watched scary movies until I met Walter. And I have to say, I enjoy them now- but some of my reasons might be a bit different than Walter’s.

    I like it when the backstory is psychological, it features a strong heroine, the sets are beautiful or artistic, it has historical or religious underpinnings, or the actors are favorites. See suggestions below. I think what I like best about a scary movie is when it makes you jump or makes you think. Either way, those made before 1987 or so are usually better bets for a Friday night than most of the sub-par dramas or comedies available on Netflix.

    To be fair, there are some sub-categories that I really dislike. I can do without the slime, macho protagonists, and clowns (which excludes Troma movies, Shocker, and obviously Killer Klowns). I don’t like those that are about back woods Deliverence-esque characters (so no Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or The Hills Have Eyes). And if the violence is to the extreme, I’ll stop watching (Last House on the Left, or Snuff). In general, I don’t really like any modern horror, with the exception of the Scream movies, and that was more because I thought they were funny.

    I haven’t seen enough of Romero to comment either way, but the idea of consumers in a shopping mall being much like their zombie counterparts is pretty clever, and he also dealt with a number of racial stereotypes in Night of the Living Dead.

    With that said, here are some of my favorites, not necessarily in order (some mirror those Walter mentioned above)…

    Psychological Backstory
    -Secret Window*
    -New Nightmare
    -Batman 2 (Tim Burton’s)
    -The Dark Half
    -Suspect Zero
    -Wire in the Blood (TV)
    -A Nightmare on Elm Street*
    -Night of the Hunter
    -Rear Window

    Strong Heroine
    -Rosemary’s Baby
    -Silence of the Lambs
    -Kiss the Girls
    -Most of Argento’s movies
    -Scream, and sequels

    Beautiful/Artistic Sets
    -Everything Argento has ever done
    -Tim Burton’s might not be beautiful, but are certainly interesting

    Historical/Religious Underpinnings
    -Salem’s Lot
    -Seventh Seal
    -Seventh Sign
    -Serpent and the Rainbow
    -Black Orpheus
    -Sleepy Hollow (Tim Burton’s)*
    -The Ninth Gate*
    -From Hell*

    Haunted House
    -Amityville Horror, and sequels
    -The Shining
    -Burnt Offerings
    -Rose Red

    Cheesy but Good
    -Cat’s Eye
    -Ghostbusters 1 and 2
    -The Stand

    * Features Johnny Depp. :)

    Some of these might not be counted as traditional horror movies, but are still pretty scary in my book. Enjoy!

  2. Conan Says:

    Don’t go in too much for scary movies myself. But for the occasional awful horror flick watched solely as a vehicle for chaste groping in high school, I got nothin’. Never even seen the classic characters of Jason or Freddy on big or little screen.

    Shame on me I suppose, though I will say I enjoy any and all Hitchcock that has crossed my field of vision. Scary, no but suspenseful and damned well done. So we’ll go with Psycho and leave it at that.

  3. Katie Says:

    Thank goodness someone mentioned Psycho!

    I have this problem where I apparently cannot separate fiction and reality, so scary movies…well, scare me. And I mean really scare me. There was a period of time in high school where my friends would watch scary movies every time we had a sleepover. It was like hell for me. I hated taking a shower after I saw Psycho. And I’m pretty sure I spent the night on my parents’ bedroom floor after I saw the Exorcist reading Jane Austen’s Emma. And by “saw the Exorcist” I mean watched the first half hour and then tried to get everyone else to play cards with me at the other end of the room while ignoring the movie. Oh and Texas Chainsaw Massacre? I’ve not actually seen the movie but I have listened to the entire thing. That’s right, I had my eyes closed THE ENTIRE TIME. Don’t ask me why I continued to go to these stupid sleepovers…
    So now I don’t even watch them. Because I know what will happen. I will believe that whatever has happened to the characters in the movie will happen to me now that I have seen it which will make it impossible for me to sleep, go outside by myself, stay indoors by myself, and bathe.
    If I could see any horror movie and not get scared, I’m sure I would watch one of Walter’s suggestions :)

  4. Rainey Says:

    Katie, you spent the night after watching The Exorcist sleeping on the futon with me in the guest room…you begged me to not leave you alone.
    And I am totally with you on hating scary movies, being unable to draw a line between fiction and reality, hating stupid scary-movie sleepovers, and listening to movies with my head buried in a pillow.
    Must be genetic.

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