|Michael Powell's Peeping Tom -- obsession and damage.
Last year, when I wrote a list of old-school horror filmfaves for Westword, I made a note to myself to continue that list, starting at the pivot from the ‘50s into the ‘60s when Peeping Tom and Psycho changed the horror film forever.
If the list looks odd (why In the Mouth of Madness and not Halloween? Where is Psycho and Last House on the Left, Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chain-Saw Massacre, The Exorcist, Re-Animator, Dead Alive, Aliens, Scream, Evil Dead, etc.?), it’s because I restricted it to my personal favorites instead of hitting the points of general consensus and historical significance.
In this I am guided largely by my aversion to gore and hyperviolence onscreen. It is what it is, and I have soldiered manfully through many films even though they turned my stomach because they were brilliant – Dead Ringers and Society come to mind – but it’s not stuff I would run through again if I had the chance. I have little use for giallo, and much of Miike, Argento, Fulci, Roth and the like is lost on me.
A pretty odd dilemma for a horror-film fan, so perhaps these suggestions will help if, like me, you are a confirmed between-finger-peeker. Whether you might term some of these thrillers, or fantasies, or sci-fi, it’s all the same in result. These films scare the beejeesus out of me.
The Incredible Shrinking Man
Dir: Jack Arnold
It all begins here for me – the first first-person monster movie, and in that a major step forward. Typical guy Scott Carey (the underrated Grant Williams) is exposed to some kind of radioactive cloud while out on his boat – and he starts shrinking. He’s our narrator as well, and the story ties the viewer’s empathy squarely to Carey, who becomes a heroic figure even as his ability to register in “our” world vanishes. His final statement of self-affirmation, too, is remarkable.
Horror of Dracula (Dracula)
Dir: Terence Fisher
The first and to date only successful reboot of the Universal monster cycles begins here, in the beautiful Bray Studios of Hammer Films, in London. (The Curse of Frankenstein precedes it, but this film has a lot more resonance to it, doesn’t seem like a forced remake, as Curse sometimes does.) Three of Hammer’s horror stars, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and Michael Gough are here in a Technicolor reimaging of the Count as a rather more suave and commanding figure, with plenty of toothsome young actresses to bite. Soon the studio would churn out dozens of outlandish, scary titles we loved to watch.
Dir: Michael Powell
A mind-bending experience, very similar to Hitchcock’s Psycho, and released just before it. Something was in the air. For my money, Peeping Tom is vastly more frightening. Photographer Mark Lewis likes to take pictures of attractive women – as they watch while he kills them. The multilayered tale was so disturbing that it derailed Powell’s (Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes) career. The key is that the villain is portrayed as a victim, and the examination between desire and aggression, control and submission, the confused complicities of the audience, and the very nature of “making a picture” as an art form are all put into play here. Still an extremely uncomfortable movie to sit through.
Dir: Jack Clayton
The best adaptation of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw is a point-of-view tour de force. Is the governess (Deborah Kerr) nuts, or are perverse ghosts infecting her charges’ minds? After watching a dozen times, I still can’t decide. “It was only the wind, my dear.” WAAAH!
Dir: Robert Wise
Another great am-I-losing-it-or-did-I-just-see-something movie. (Robert Wise could make a great film in any genre, and almost did them all.) A psychic investigation goes wrong – a simple premise, but it’s played out with a patient sense of menace, with a rhythm that imperceptibly pulls you into the feelings and mental distortions of the protagonists.
The Masque of the Red Death
Dir: Roger Corman
Corman’s Poe adaptation cycle is wonderful, even given the lack of budget and time spent on them. He and screenwriter Richard Matheson (who also gave us I Am Legend, The Shrinking Man, and other seminal sci-fi and horror texts) created an exciting, odd, claustrophobic world usually presided over by the inimitable Vincent Price, that transmits the spirit if not the precise sense of Poe’s works. Here, as an out-and-out Satan worshipper, Price is at his most unrepentantly sadistic.
Dir: Masaki Kobayashi
A stylistically vibrant quartet of ghost stories. The horror anthology film originated with Dead of Night in 1945, and studios such as Britain’s Amicus made a ton of money from them – but this is the best. As beautiful as it is terrifying.
Planet of the Vampires
Ridiculous, campy fun from the inventive Italian director. The title says it all, and an all-star cast (who reportedly couldn’t understand each other) fight the bloodsuckers in extremely stylized costumes and surroundings that proved influential for films such as Alien.
Dir: John Frankenheimer
Don’t Look Now
Dir: Nicolas Roeg
1973It’s a harrowing film about loss, memory, identity, fate, and communication. Set in a wildly edited world of flashback and flashforwards, a couple grieving the death of their child try to put their lives back together. It’s a heart-rending view, and Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland are great in it.
The Wicker Man
Dir: Robin Hardy
The idea that there is an older, more powerful religion underneath the trappings and niceties of current theologies is a constant in fantastic fiction. It’s the vision of it out in the open, relaxed and unashamed of its realities – and necessities – that’s so disturbing here. Everybody on Summerisle is in on what’s happening save for the crusading Sergeant Howie and the audience. That calm progression towards the unthinkable at the film’s end is a soul-crushing experience.
The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane
Dir: Nicolas Gessner
Rynn Jacobs is 13, and lives with her father. But nobody seems to have met him. Is everything all right? In the hands of Jodie Foster, Rynn is just fine – until a snooping neighbor and her pedophile son (an impossibly creepy Martin Sheen) start poking around. This horror classic is also an introvert’s fantasy – everything’s fine, just leave me alone!
Dir: Joe Dante
The Lair of the White Worm
Dir: Ken Russell
There is a tinge of horror underlying every movie the flamboyant and provocative Russell made, a disconnect with reality that defines all his main characters. In truth his The Devils, a film still largely unfindable in the United States in its original cut, is more disturbing. Still, this Bram Stoker adaptation is blasphemous, ridiculous, gratuitously gory, and very enjoyable.
Lady in White
Dir: Frank LaLoggia
Death and disaster invade Norman Rockwell country, as an old murder comes to light and sympathetic characters are found to have disturbing pasts. This beautifully filmed ghost story is balanced between poles of light and darkness.
In the Mouth of Madness
Dir: John Carpenter
Carpenter’s contributions to horror are limitless, having created the template of the slasher film with Halloween, and gems such as They Live and Escape from New York. His ‘apocalypse trilogy’ of The Thing, Prince of Darkness, and this film created an imaginary universe in which doom was unavoidable, nothing was trustworthy, and meaning drained away into a sinkhole of despair and annihilation. Sounds like a hoot, no? Madness goes furthest in asserting the transience of the veneer of consensual reality, and the fragility of the human mind.
Dir: Tim Burton
Though Tim Burton is seen as the natural inheritor of the Gothic sensibilities of American cinema, he’s made surprisingly few straight horror films. This comes closest. Though it’s an adaptation of the classic Washington Irving tale, it’s full of Burton’s steampunk sensibilities, and references to other horror greats such as Bava and Fisher. The control of the in-studio shooting makes this one of the best art-directed modern horror films.
Dir: David Cronenberg
Cronenberg has done more for modern horror than anyone on this list. The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome, The Dead Zone, The Fly . . . and on and on. Centered firmly on body horror, Cronenberg manifests all the cultural dislocations of our time in the bodies of his protagonists, literally pulling them into strange new shapes, obliterating their consciousnesses, submitting them to the will of a brutal new order. Here, he mixes the unreal and real so thoroughly that the film is a nightmare in itself, a deadly locked room from which no one can escape.
Dir: Terry Gilliam
Death and madness are the high points of this jarring exploration of abandonment. A young girl loses her father and mother and, trapped in the middle of nowhere, falls into relationships with more damaged souls. A terrifying, dark poem set in bleached Texas sunlight.
Dir: Guillermo del Toro
The present master of horror has many great movies to his credit, but this is his most magical. It’s a fatalistic fairy tale, and connects to the horrors of everyday life – Spain in 1944 – strongly enough to make its meanings clear. Del Toro’s vision gives palpable heft and believability to his most extreme imaginings – as though he were showing us real species heretofore undescribed.