Friday, October 25, 2013

Reader Top Ten Greatest Horror Films (1960 - 2000): Jeffrey Siniard of A Beachfront Cineaste

Jeffrey Siniard, writer and blogger extraordinaire at A Beachfront Cineaste contributes our next Reader Top Ten list.

Jeffrey writes:

“In my opinion, any great horror must subscribe to what I'd call the Craven Commandment: "The first monster that an audience should be scared of is the filmmaker."

Here's the Honorable Mentions

Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971)
Jaws (1975)
Carrie (1976)
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Dressed to Kill (1980)
The Fly (1986)
Aliens (1986)
Hellraiser (1988)
Se7en (1995)
Scream (1996)

The Top 10

10The Hitcher (1986) Robert Harmon's road trip featuring C. Thomas Howell's Jim Halsey and Rutger Hauer's iconic John Ryder in a duel of violent (and unspoken) sexual dominance. What I like best about this film is the creepy unspoken attraction that Ryder has for Halsey, the desolate desert roadscapes, and the lack of obvious motivation which forces the viewer to seek out subtext. This film is also a textbook example of how suggesting the unthinkable is often more terrible than seeing it (such as Halsey's discovery of the abandoned station wagon, or the horrific fate of Jennifer Jason Leigh's Nash). The Hitcher is one of the absolute best at letting your mind do the work for you.

9. The Last House on the Left (1972) Wes Craven's terrible reimagining of Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring is a rebuke to the notion that violence can be a fully justified and cathartic experience. Craven shows us the barbaric torture, rape, humiliation, and murder of two young women by a gang of thugs, who then have the misfortune of spending the night with the parents of one of the victims. Instead of allowing the audience to take pleasure in the parent's revenge, against monsters who absolutely deserve what's coming, Craven rubs your face in the awful messy squalor of death with no retreat, no compromise, and no happy ending.

8Event Horizon (1997) Paul W.S. Anderson's finest moment is one of the most criminally underrated horror films of the last 20 years. The experimental spacecraft 'Event Horizon' disappears in 2040, only to reappear in 2047 in orbit around Neptune. The rescue ship 'Lewis and Clark' is dispatched to investigate, and literally all Hell breaks loose. Event Horizon features marvelous cinematography, stunning set design, tremendous visual effects, and a marvelous ensemble cast who never camp up or deaden the material. And in response to those who dismiss the film as bastard child of Alien, The Shining, and Hellraiser (that's a bad thing?); thematically the film is like a Bosch triptych of the dangers of forbidden knowledge, man's technology attaining sentience and turning against him, and an examination of how guilt tortures and destroys the soul.

7A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) Wes Craven's deeply unsettling dream film is about the sins of the parents visited upon the children. Under the guise of Robert Englund's great Freddy Kreuger, a child murderer burned and killed by vengeful parents, who now seeks revenge by torturing and murdering the teenaged children of his killers in their sleep. In addition to carrying forward his themes of unjustifiable violence from The Last House on the Left, Craven's great achievement is in the blurring of the real world and nightmare world, which disorients the viewer and establishes a reality which has no discernible rules. Also, the film features a strong social critique of family life in the 1980s, with children left to their own devices by parents distracting themselves with work, booze, and sex.

6. The Shining (1980) Stanley Kubrick's labyrinthine film about the Torrance family's unfortunate term as caretakers of the Overlook Hotel is a masterwork of set design, music, and camera work. As many others have noted, the Hotel itself is an ever changing maze, which causes the viewer to become disoriented. The immediately established sense of isolation and loneliness, which makes the viewer feel completely cut off. The horrific images that Danny Torrance's "shining" produce. The slowly building suspense, which reaches a sustained fever pitch for the last 45 minutes. And of course, four great performances by Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd and Scatman Crothers. Best of all, the movie remains ambiguous to the end; Is the film the delusion of a snowbound and alcoholic Jack Torrance? Is the Overlook Hotel truly haunted? Has Jack always been the caretaker?

5. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) Tobe Hooper's low budget shocker is a master class in black humor and horror. What's amazing is how he manages to make you interested in a group of relatively uninteresting teenagers, how he takes the character in a wheelchair and makes him the most annoying person in the film, as well as the butt of every joke. And how he makes you almost feel sympathy for a family of butchers who maintain the family trade, even when there's humans to slaughter in place of livestock. Hooper has a fine eye for details, like the nest of daddy longlegs, the scattering of bones in the house, and the masks the family wears. Of course, he also is a master of pitching an audience to the edge of panic, as he does with Leatherface's arrival, Sally's flight following her brother's death, and with the infamous dinner scene-which manages to be deeply disturbing and hysterically funny at once.

4. The Evil Dead (1981) Sam Raimi broke through with one simple idea. To assault his audience non-stop for 90 minutes. This film never lets up. The opening moments of the friends arriving at a remote cabin in the woods, the discovery of the Sumerian Book of the Dead, and the quick sprint to nightfall are all the suspense Raimi needs. What follows may still be the single greatest sustained stretch of horror ever committed to film. We have girls being raped by trees, a camera which glides and zooms all over the forest attacking the characters, the continual bloody dismembering of virtually every single character we've come do know. Lastly, Raimi introduced audiences to one of the great cult actors and characters of the last 40 years: Bruce Campbell as Ash.

3. The Thing (1982) John Carpenter's version of John W. Campbell's classic story is one of the best depictions of paranoia and mistrust ever committed to celluloid. It features Carpenter's typically assured (and underrated) command of craft, a wonderfully desolate snowbound location, and ground breaking make-up effects from Rob Bottin. What makes this alien different is it's ability to imitate any organism it comes into contact with, and it's reluctance to show itself. Thus, we have long teasing sequences of suspense and paranoia which are turned upside down into set-pieces of pure madness. The essential questions of what makes us human, how to tell friend from foe, and how to battle an (essentially) unseen foe serve as rich subtext. Finally, there's no sense of victory, as Kurt Russell's MacReady battles the creature to nothing more than a draw, in the freezing Antarctic night.

2. Halloween (1978) Speaking of command of craft, John Carpenter's boogeyman classic may be the finest example of what a great director can do with a small cast and limited budget. Halloween opens with one of the great reversals in cinema, as the audience experiences the commission of murder through the eyes of a child. Then, Carpenter's camera showing Michael Myers lurking on the edge of the frame, behind bushes, and around the corner generates plenty of suspense. Carpenter gleefully spends the entire film showing exactly where Myers isn't, so that you jump out of your seat when he shows up out of nowhere. Further, the lack of motivation for Myers' actions allows the audience plenty of room for questions which have no answers, and the film is made all the more terrifying for it. Lastly, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Halloween stands nearly alone as an influence on three decades worth of sequels, imitators, and rip-offs. None, however, match the precision and artistry of this effort.

1. Alien (1979) Ridley Scott's film may have a hard science fiction sheen, but at its heart, it’s a monster movie. For me, no film ever has succeeded as quickly and completely at conveying the sense of total isolation and loneliness. The extremely believable design of the 'Nostromo' and her extremely believable crew eliminate any sense of artifice. Then there's the decent to LV-426, and the discovery of an alien ship that is truly alien. Then the discovery of a dead creature, and then the eggs. The creature in this film may still be the most terrifying monster ever committed to film. There's the subliminal fear of sexual attack, the constant feeling of being trapped in some sort of biological maze, the numbing claustropobia, corporate malfeasance, the evolving creature - all combining perfectly to leave the viewer shocked and terrified. The tremendous camerawork, set design, art direction, music, and editing. A phenomenal group of character actors bringing texture and wit to what would otherwise be cardboard roles. Sigourney Weaver's first portrayal of Ellen Ripley. Maybe the greatest shock scene in movie history, and for 25+ years, still the standard by which I judge all efforts to scare me witless.

Jeffrey: Allow me to gush all over your list.  I loved it.  I totally loved it.  I adore your descriptions of the Craven films -- Last House on the Left, and A Nightmare on Elm Street -- and what they mean on a sub-textual level.  And I completely agree with your analysis of both films.

I was also thrilled to see The Hitcher on the list, and read your description of the thinly-veiled sexual themes.  That’s my feeling about the film too.  There’s a strong, subversive sexual undercurrent to the film, and involving the two lead characters.  Too often, reviewers seem to miss that fact, and thus misunderstand the film. 

Finally, I would like to say that, like you, I deeply admire Event Horizon (1997), and feel that it is much better than many critics said.  Again, you absolutely nailed the reasons why.

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