Twenty one hours and twenty six minutes of the best of Movie Horror…
Break out the popcorn, nail a crucifix to the wall and make absolutely certain the door is locked;- it’s time to spend Halloween the only sensible way, in the company of the greatest horror movies known to man. They’ve defined our nightmares for decades- so join us, as we cower behind the sofa, dispense important trivia and do our best to survive the ultimate Horror DVD All-nighter….
Cheerfully ripping off DRACULA by Bram Stoker without asking permission (and almost getting sued into the Stone Age by Stoker’s widow), German Expressionist director F.W. Murnau decided horror was the way to go- and jump started a genre in the process. With daft fast-motion sequences and over-expressive acting, this classic 1922 silent chiller may have moments of unintentional comedy- but it’s also got a haunting, lyrical atmosphere, and one of Horror’s most impossibly spooky villains in the rat-like, taloned bloodsucker Count Orlok (Max Schreck).
1.34pm: Practice walking up and down the stairs with your hands outstretched in funky NOSFERATU-style talons.
1.43pm: Realise you’re being rather silly, and go start the next movie.
Stalk-and-Slash thrillers have been big business for decades- and it’s all thanks to director John Carpenter, an unforgettable theme tune and a spray-painted William Shatner mask. The original (and best) appearance of silent psychotic Michael Myers, Carpenter’s classic is all the more remarkable for spending its first half quietly building up atmosphere before unleashing a nerve-shredding barrage of scares. It made a “Scream Queen” out of Jamie Lee Curtis, and an appearance from Donald Pleasence was just the icing on the cake…
3.25pm: BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN
“To a new world of gods and monsters!” One of the first horror sequels, this follow up to the 1931 classic is also one of the most jaw-droppingly camp horror movies ever made. Dripping with surreal double-entendres and sly humour (mainly thanks to director James Whale’s background as a closeted homosexual in Hollywood), it’s both hilarious and genuinely haunting. Boris Karloff delivers another soulful turn as the Creature- and Elsa Lanchester’s fright-wigged Bride steals the attention in one of Cinematic Horror’s classic moments.
4.40pm: Attempt to order a pizza over the phone in the manner of Karloff’s Monster. Get as far as “Anchovies, BAD!! Stuffed Crust, GOOD!!” and then give up…
4.50pm: THE EXORCIST
Proving there’s nothing like possessed young girls spewing gallons of pea soup for getting people upset, director William Friedkin broke new cinematic ground while making his actors feel as uncomfortable as possible in this brilliantly harrowing 1973 horror classic. The tale of a twelve-year old girl and the decidedly potty-mouthed demon inhabiting her body, the full-on performances and dazzling mechanical effects mean that this landmark chiller is still as devastating as ever. Just remember- the power of Christ compels you!!
For sheer style and gentlemanly vampire panache, you still can’t top Christopher Lee. Terrence Fisher’s 1958 movie injected heaving bosoms and lashings of blood into the previously starchy English Horror film, while turning his two stars into icons. Peter Cushing’s righteous, monster-bashing Van Helsing makes Hugh Jackman look like a big girls blouse in need of a haircut- but all the focus is on Lee, who steps into Horror legend, going from devilishly sexy to monstrous in the blink of an eye.
8.30pm: THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE
The plot of Tobe Hooper’s transgressive masterpiece might sound like a SCOOBY DOO episode- a group of kids in a van investigate a creepy house, and then there’s lots of running and screaming- but despite never showing the titular piece of garden machinery slicing or dicing human flesh, it’s still a ferocious cinematic nightmare. Pitching hippie-style flower children against the monstrous chainsaw-wielding Leatherface and his nightmarish cannibal in-laws, this is full-blooded, screaming horror turned up to eleven.
9.53pm: You realise that choosing a non-vegetarian pizza may have been a mistake- and the side order of tomato soup was definitely unwise…
10.05pm: THE SIXTH SENSE
Forget about the twist. Even ignoring the now long-blown surprise ending, M. Night Shyamalan’s breakthrough movie as a director is a perfectly pitched exercise in subtle scares, building up a shatteringly terrifying atmosphere at its own gentle pace. It’s also one of the few films to feature a genuine performance from Bruce Willis, playing a troubled psychologist trying to help Haley Joel Osment cope with the fact that he sees dead people- and they’re not going away…
11.52pm: Take at least five minutes to work out how THE SIXTH SENSE’s final twist works. And then write “Punch M. Night Shyamalan” on your list of priorities…
MIDNIGHT!!!: THE SHINING
Stephen King disliked Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of his novel so intensely, he had it remade as a dull TV miniseries- proving there’s no accounting for taste. In everywhere but the King household, Kubrick’s blankly terrifying odyssey into one man’s fractured mind is a masterclass in sustained dread, featuring possibly the most OTT Jack Nicholson performance in history, as a hotel caretaker going stark, staring mad. Is it due to ghosts? Is it all just his demented subconscious? Who cares? “Heeeeeeeeeeres Johnny!!!”
For kids in the 1980s, a haunted house story co-written (and allegedly co-directed) by Steven Spielberg sounded like an unthreatening choice. Instead, this barnstorming supernatural terror-thon helmed by TEXAS CHAINSAW director Tobe Hooper features all manner of brown-trouser experiences;- a demonic living tree, a swimming pool full of rotting corpses and a man pulling his own face off. As the Freeling family battle the evil forces infesting their home, Spielberg’s dark side turns out to be somewhere you want to steer clear of…
4.04am: There’s a scratching outside your door. Spend ten minutes convinced that it’s a demonic creature of the night, before realising it’s actually the neighbour’s cat.
The Naomi Watts-starring US remix of RING might have been more audience-friendly and lacked subtitles, but the Asian original has one small advantage- it’s pant-wettingly scary. The tale of a journalist racing to unlock the secrets of a cursed videotape before it’s mysterious powers claim the lives of her family, it’s an ambiguous, atmospheric experience that mixes folklore with technology, and turns something as simple as picking up the phone or switching on the TV into a potentially lethal experience.
5.51am: Spend the next five minutes hiding in the bathroom. Once you’ve convinced yourself that no long-haired Japanese women are going to climb out of the TV screen to steal your soul, sit back down and break out the Twiglets.
With the help of a pounding prog-rock score (augmented with occasional shouts of “WITCH!!”), SUSPIRIA is a blistering assault on the senses, and about as demented as the horror movie can get. A tale of supernatural shenanigans at a Ballet school, the nonsensical plot is just an excuse for director Dario Argento to indulge in audacious, full-on violence. From a guide dog hungrily turning on its owner, to a young woman encountering a room full of barbed wire, this is dark, dream-like and beautifully scary.
7.50am: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD
The low-budget horror classic that gave birth to a groaning, shambling sub-genre, George A. Romero’s 1968 Black-and-White debut movie pushed the envelope with ground-breaking gore (most of which involved lots of butchers left-overs and chocolate sauce) and an adventurously bleak tone. Showing that being trapped in a house under attack from Zombie hordes isn’t a healthy lifestyle to consider, this hugely influential horror flick laid the groundwork for the edgier chillers of the Seventies, as well as delivering one of the bleakest ever movie endings.
9.26am: Congratulations. You’ve made it through the Ultimate Horror All-Nighter intact- but whether you’re now up to scaling the heights of the Ultimate Olsen Twins All-Nighter remains to be seen…
IN THE BEGINNING
Cinema arrived in the 1890s- and audiences didn’t have to wait long for the chance to be scared. The world’s first horror movie was a three-minute production in 1896 by legendary cinema fantasist George Melies, called THE DEVIL’S CASTLE- but it took a little longer for filmmakers to truly catch on. The next phase came in 1919, with the spectacularly eerie German expressionist classic THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI telling of a sleepwalking killer prowling a small town- and soon movies like NOSFERATU and THE GOLEM were showing exactly what horror could do. In 1926, Horror’s first superstar arrived in the form of actor Lon Chaney Sr. and his unforgettable appearance as the villain in the epic 1926 version of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. Scary movies were an official sensation- and with Universal Studios producing versions of DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN, the age of the Movie Monster had truly begun…
They’re quiet, they’re restrained, and they’re here to scare the living crap out of you. Thanks to RING opening the floodgates, there’s an onslaught of Asian-made horror waiting to shatter nerves, and any upcoming Hollywood remakes are unlikely to equal the terrifying originals. Coming from a culture where vengeful spirits and ghosts are counted as part of everyday life, Asian Horror shows the otherworldly carefully insinuating its way into the ordinary world, often in the form of a long-haired female spectre with payback in mind. It’s also a genre prepared to ignore US horror film conventions and head in unexpected directions, killing off innocent characters and throwing in horribly disturbing plot twists or downbeat endings. The genre’s been around ever since creepy anthology KWAIDAN in 1968, and recently the number of Asian shockers has skyrocketed- with titles like THE PHONE, AUDITION and THE GRUDGE finding all new ways of freaking out international audiences.
Some filmmakers believe in the power of the imagination- but then others will cheerfully show you your worst nightmare in extreme close-up. Blood and gore was the realm of B-movies and exploitation flicks until the massive independent success of George A. Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, who went onto even bloodier heights with 1978 sequel DAWN OF THE DEAD. Ever since then, gore has been an extra ingredient in the horror film mix- whether it’s the body-wrenching transformations of THE THING, the full-on comedy splatter of THE EVIL DEAD or the low-budget ketchup-fest of CABIN FEVER. However, when it comes to gory body horror, nobody can beat David Cronenberg, the Canadian filmmaker behind chilling masterworks like THE BROOD, THE FLY and VIDEODROME. With films that are devastating, intelligent and stomach-churning, Cronenberg is the crown prince of modern Horror- and nobody’s likely to challenge him for a long time…
Horror has had a rocky relationship with the Ratings Boards, ever since Hammer movies started getting British censors hot under the collar- but it was during the 1960s, as cinematic taboos were shattered at regular intervals, that Horror started breaking rules and treading on dangerous ground. New “X” ratings were created to handle the latest ultra-gory Horror movies, and protests to ban films like THE EXORCIST became more common- but the problems didn’t truly explode until the arrival of Home Video. Suddenly, Italian splatterfests and hyperviolent slasher flicks were easily available for viewing- sparking off a moral panic about “Video Nasties” that only quietened down with the 1984 Video Recordings Act, introducing tougher classifications and banning many films altogether (Many of which were later de-restricted and are currently available on DVD…). Even now, Horror films are just as likely to inflame the “moral majority” as they are to scare their audience…
A world where black-gloved killers stalk attractive, badly dubbed women and zombies wander the landscape tearing peoples arms off, Italian Horror is a paradise for those seeking the kind of taboo-busting movies Hollywood doesn’t have the nerve to make. The greatest examples are those helmed by director Dario Argento- and before making gleefully insane masterpieces like SUSPIRIA and OPERA, he invented the modern slasher movie with a set of classic “Giallo” mysteries including DEEP RED and THE BIRD WITH CRYSTAL PLUMAGE. An Italian word meaning Yellow, “Giallo” films are usually pulp whodunnits concerned with mysterious psychopaths on a trail of murder- often involving beautiful women meeting messy ends. The other Italian horror favourite is pushing the Zombie sub-genre in an insanely gory direction, and Lucio Fulci is the name to pay close attention to, thanks to his hilariously bloodthirsty carnage-epics such as THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY and ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS.
For all the gore, violence and gallons of blood that horror movies throw at the screen… sometimes what’s most scary is what you can’t see. Back in the 1940s, a set of cheaply made B-movies supervised by producer Val Lewton laid down the blueprint, making the most of their resources by concentrating on unseen terrors- and movies like CAT PEOPLE and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE managed some truly insidious scares. From the original 1958 version of THE HAUNTING to Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING, the Unseen in Horror Films has generated some of our worst fears- and after a long time in stasis, it made a colossal comeback in 1998’s THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. A zero-budget production, all BLAIR WITCH’s scares were in the shadows- and Hollywood soon cottoned on when quiet, subtle horror movies like THE SIXTH SENSE beat the more spectacular, bombastic fright flicks at their own game.
From the moment Boris Karloff first shambled onscreen as the Monster in 1931’s FRANKENSTEIN, there’s always been a place in Horror films for iconic performers. Make-up effects may play their part in creating classic creatures- but they always require a haunting performance behind the mask, and the actors behind Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, the Wolfman and the Phantom of the Opera have entered into cinematic legend. Every phase of cinema has had its horror icons- from Lon Chaney Sr. to Max Schrek, from Vincent Price to Christopher Lee, from Gunnar Hanson to Robert Englund- but it’s a burden that can also lead to excessive typecasting and a tragic end. For the best example, there’s Bela Lugosi, who shot to fame in 1931’s DRACULA thanks to his suave vamp style and diamond-eyed stare, but ended his career as a penniless drug addict, making hysterically awful films for legendary Z-grade director Ed Wood.
The most famous name in British Movie Horror started life as a quiet little production company making mysteries and war movies in the late 1930s and 1940s. It wasn’t until 1955, and their massively successful remake of classic TV sci-fi series THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT that Hammer Films started thinking that moving into Horror might be a good idea- and their mix of gothic melodrama and lurid colour turned out to be an ideal combination. New takes on classic horror with DRACULA and THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN turned Hammer into the ultimate scare factory, generating a slate of hugely successful horror and fantasy movies throughout the Sixties and Early Seventies. Their colourful, slightly camp style might now seem dated- but the truly great Hammer films like THE DEVIL RIDES OUT or CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF have a sense of dream-like lyricism that most right-thinking horror directors would kill for.
Originally published in DVD Review magazine
© Highbury Entertainment 2004