With the newest load of horror schlock hitting theaters in the coming weeks (The Stepfather, Saw VI, This Is It), I would like to encourage you to choose your horror wisely in order to relish each scream and each squirm. My first tip? Rent Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell (2009, reviewed here), not only one of the best horror films I’ve seen since The Descent (2005) but one of the best films of the year. It’s a hell of a ride.
Best Sci-Fi Horror Film:
I’ve already reviewed my pick for this category, Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979, reviewed here). The film blended the haunted house and monster movie but instead of a lightning-lit castle and Frankenstein, Scott gave us the dark catacombs of a space craft whose crew is being picked off one by one by one of the freakiest creatures in cinema: H. R. Giger’s alien.
Best Faux Documentary:
With the release of the recent Paranormal Activity (2009, reviewed here), this sub-genre of horror has experienced a boost in popularity not seen since The Blair Witch Project (1999). Yet, top prize for this category goes to the original innovator of the technique, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), a film that still holds a great deal of horrifying potency. The film follows a group of hippies who travel to rural Texas and fall pray to the cannibalistic Leatherface (based loosely upon Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein) and his demented family. Beware that this family, however, does not follow a key horror convention: they’ll attack you in broad daylight.
Best Zombie Film:
While I enjoy the Resident Evil games, you will never find the film adaptations on this list. Why? Because, like the terror found in George Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead (1968, reviewed here), it’s not so much that the monsters are scary, it’s humanity’s response to them that’s truly terrifying. Carrying this sentiment, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) follows a group of survivors fleeing from the undead, but finds its main source of horror when the film starts to veer into a scenario taken from William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.
Best Slasher Film:
John Carpenter’s classic Halloween (1978, reviewed here) may be the predictable choice, but it remains one of the best. Owing much of its effect to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) (an eerie score, superb manipulation of framing and camera movement) and the villain’s expressionless mask (actually a William Shatner mask spray painted white), Halloween is, hands down, one of the best horror films ever produced.
Best Vampire Film:
One of the first horror films ever made, F.W. Murnau’s loose adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula entitled Nosferatu (1922) gave the role of the infamous count to the incredibly rat-like Max Schreck. Murnau’s images of the vampire creeping out of the bowels of a ship and up a shadowed staircase will remain timeless moments in cinema history and still hold the power to chill a viewer, nearly 90 years later. I can’t resist throwing out an honorable mention here, to Guy Maddin’s Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002), which I hope to review for the site before the 31st.
Best Monster Film:
While my earlier list praised the merits of Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) and Stephen King’s IT (1990), I’ve found that I cannot resist the fun-house, feminist appeal of Neil Marshall’s The Descent (2005). Want to see a bunch of female spelunkers flee from monsters reminiscent of the Weekly World News Batboy before kicking some serious ass? Accept no substitute.
Best Serial Killer Film:
This is probably the category with the strongest competition. Hitchcock’s Psycho? Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs (1991)? Personally, I’d give the throne to David Fincher’s Se7en (1995, reviewed here), the tale of two detectives in pursuit of a serial killer who uses the seven deadly sins as his criteria. Bleak, dark (literally and figuratively), and a horrifying examination of modern day morality.
Best Ghost Film:
Directed by Herk Harvey, Carnival of Souls (1962) may be a slightly cheesy, little-known B-movie but it also includes some of the most surreal and nightmare-inducing imagery I’ve ever seen. The film follows a woman who is left for dead following a car accident and finds herself trailed by a mysterious ghost who beckons her to an abandoned amusement park. While I went for obscurity over quality here, those looking for the latter can stop at Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980).
Best Satan Film:
I’m not a huge fan of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) and I already shot my analytical wad on Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968, reviewed here). Can I make a controversial suggestion? How about David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001). I know it’s a stretch, but if you take a look behind Winkie’s, you’ll find the cloven one. Plus, who doesn’t get nightmares from apparitions of small, elderly people or a guy calling himself “The Cowboy?”
Best Psychological Film:
Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1955), a tale of a man who is murdered by his wife and mistress but continues to haunt them is a true treat, rivaling even Hitchcock’s best (Hitchcock wanted the rights to the novel, but ultimately had to settle for the novelist’s other project, which would become Vertigo).
Updated and abridged from an article which ran in the UWM Post.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.