Evil Robot Liz makes her Phantom Sway debut with a rundown of her top five horror films of all time. Post your top five in the comments. – Ed.
5. The Shining
Admittedly, this one will probably not earn me any good-guy points from Stephen King but “The Shining” still makes this list. Is it horror? Is it art house? Hard to say. A grinding, suffocating film that practically vibrates with dis-ease, from the opening scenes of the small family touring the Overlook Hotel to the final scenes of stark terror in a snow-bound maze. At its core, it is essentially an examination of how addiction destroys families. The ghosts are merely manifestations of the addict, his codependent spouse and their small, terrorized child, willing to devour themselves before admitting the truth of the addiction.
The main character, the haunted hotel, has long corridors with sick-making patterned carpeting, and cavernous ballrooms that compound our disorientation. Every shot is designed to make the viewer feel small and to identify with five-year-old Danny.
The film is decidedly restrained and low tech. With the exception of the bathtub ghost and her bloated, distended blue skin — there are virtually no special effects. The supernatural is implied by camera angles, music flourishes and story. What little we do see — Lloyd the bartender, the blue girls, elevator blood, drunks covered in confetti, and a guy in a dog costume (the most epic WTF? moment in film history) make for one hell of a party.
4. Night of the Living Dead
They’re coming to get you, Barbara… the mommy, literally, of all zombie films. Previous zombie fare did not feature carnivorous corpses treating humanity as if were nothing more than the local Golden Corral. Prior zombies were glassy eyed drones hopped up on curare and toad oil. Nothing to see here folks, oh – is that Bela Lugosi? Move along, move along.
Romero’s groundbreaking film started the genre. A nightmarish vision of the future shot in grainy black and white, it is stark, cold and gruesome. Where would Rick and Corral! be without this film? Nowhere, that’s where. Best moment – teenage angst- ridden zombie hacking her mother to death in basement.
Released at the end of the seventies, Alien was a refreshing antidote to the glitzy disco atmosphere of “Star Wars” and “Battlestar Galactica”. Finally, we had gritty science fiction instead of space opera.
The Nostromo is an interstellar garbage truck held together with duct tape. Giant air conditioner units drip murky rain. Members of the crew are neither elite space soldiers nor the noble egalitarians of a Roddenberry universe. Instead, they’re blue collar guys who complain about money during smoke breaks.
They respond to an emergency beacon on a remote planetoid and bring back one nifty souvenir – an alien creature. The chest bursting scene terrified and shocked audiences, and was considered one of the goriest film effects in years. People remember seeing the alien coming out of a hapless character’s chest, with a spray of entrails and gouts of blood and bone — but the actual scene is less graphic – the suggestion is what people remember. All you really see is a bloody shirt tearing and a slimy little silver grilled alien baby squealing in irritation and defiance.
While a tiny little grub when it bursts from John Hurt’s stomach and into our collective hearts, it soon grows to a stately eight feet tall, with acid blood, an intricate set of alien teeth, and the annoying habit of laying eggs inside a living host. The Xenomorph is indeed a creation of terrifying beauty.
Heroine Ripley is a ferocious modern day virago who drops f-bombs, just wants to do her job and get home, and cries when she gets really angry. “Alien” is not about space heroes, but average Joes and Josephines, forced to act heroically.
The late seventies and early eighties were a heady time for fans of low budget slasher films. Every weekend a glorious new monstrosity dripping with Karo syrup and red food coloring would hit the cineplex. Forgettable plots, held together by Band-Aids, glue and the thinnest of strings, these films sucked—and that was okay.
One, however, stood out — and while being the best slasher film is a little like saying amoebic dysentery is the most enjoyable gastro intestinal disorder – “Halloween” IS a good film. A masterful film, actually.
Equal parts urban legend and cautionary tale, it begins in 1963 in Haddonfield, Indiana – sort of an Anytown, USA. A teenage girl has just put out for her delinquent boyfriend and is hacked to death by an unseen assailant. When the authorities apprehend the killer, he is revealed to be her little brother Michael — a mere lad of six and still dressed in his fluffy silk Pierrot costume and clown mask. Fast forward fifteen years.
Laurie Strode is the good girl in a trio of modern teens. Unbeknownst to them, an inmate has escaped from the local insane asylum.
The inmate is none other than Knife Boy from the prologue. However, now he’s discarded the clown gear for a sensible, and no doubt sturdy, pair of blue mechanic’s coveralls and a white spray painted Bill Shatner mask. He’s got a lot of catching up to do, after having being in the loony bin for most of his formative years, so he wastes no time getting down to business. His first rule of order is to take refuge in his childhood home, which is now the creepy old abandoned neighborhood eyesore, eat a dog, and then start killing high schoolers. Acting as an avenging angel of sorts, he dispatches victims in creative, and somewhat belabored ways. He doesn’t like the kids having sex, smoking pot, listening to rock music and generally misbehaving. One thing’s for certain – he’s back to finish what he started, and for some reason, that means dispatching good girl Laurie Strode. Cue big plot point that will be revealed in the less than thrilling sequel, “Halloween 2.”
The final act, as Laurie fights to outwit her predator, is breathtaking and terrifying. The iconic closet scene, where she is cornered in an upstairs bedroom by her crazed stalker, is a subtle nod to the shower scene in “Psycho”, and is equally as heart- stopping.
Jamie Lee Curtis cemented her role as filmdom’s “Scream Queen” with this tight, edgy film. Twenty years of sequels would result, none of which matched the original.
1. The Exorcist
William Friedkin’s masterpiece caused quite the outrage after its theatrical release the day after Christmas, 1973. The film so terrified audiences, it was reported, that people suffered seizures, heart attacks, and psychotic breaks during showings. Urban legend, of course, but it wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility with this one. A faithful retelling of the Blatty novel, this gem hits the ground running and not a second is wasted.
With its opening shots of the Iraqi desert just outside of Mosul, we are first introduced to Father Merrin. He presides over an archeological dig that has uncovered a number of antiquities. All of them seemingly benig, save for one — a crude stone figure of a winged demon which begins to ragefully igniting the world around it, causing chaos and destruction almost immediately.
A world away, Chris McNeil is a single mother raising her pre-teen daughter, Regan. Having taken a rental property in Georgetown for a film shoot, she is desperate to revive a flagging film career. As she gets to know her temporary city, she is drawn to a priest she keeps seeing at the local Catholic parish, Father Damian Karras, who has lost faith. His pleas to leave the order go unanswered and he is exhausted from being the sole caretaker of his aging mother. We have in place all these players teetering at the edges of their respective abysses, just waiting for the right push.
When Regan befriends a seemingly benign spook who calls himself Captain Howdy through a Ouija board she’s found in the attic, shit gets real, as the kids say. This innocent young girl’s body and soul are taken over by the Devil. When all else fails, her horrified and desperate mother appeals to Father Karras for help.
Fathers Merrin and Karras battle for Regan’s soul. No cheap CGI gimicks, just the power of story and character. While the practical effects seem hokey by today’s standards, I’d wager audiences remember the pea-soup vomit, 360˚ head swivel, and the raised letters spelling “I am in hell” over any modern, computer generated jump scare.