Saturday, October 23, 2010

Some Thoughts On The Guardian's 25 Best Horror Films

Generally, I think these contrived lists are a waste of time, but seeing as I have a longstanding interest in macabre cinema I thought I'd have a quick read through what The Guardian considers to be the 25 best horror films ever. (Can you believe that, in their opinion, the best film ever, in any category, was Chinatown? To use a vulgar acronym: WTF? Even ignoring the fact that the director raped a 13-year-old, it's baffling to me that this film would be chosen over so many more worthy options!) 
But on to horror! What follows is their list, and my thoughts on each one.
25) Les Vampires (1915): I haven't seen this one, so I can't comment.
24) Carrie (1976): I hated Carrie on the first and only time I ever watched it: it's a mean-spirited, nasty piece of exploitative junk, showcasing more than anything else its director's callousness and unpleasantness, with a silly shock ending that makes no sense, and De Palma seems to take far too much pleasure in killing off his cast. The only thing that redeems this film is Sissy Spacek. 
23) The Evil Dead I and II (1981/1987): I'd agree on the second one, easily the funniest slapstick horror ever made, but the first film is pretty weak.
22) The Blair Witch Project (1999): I really liked this when I saw it in the cinema, and admire greatly both the directors and the actors for creating such a convincing ghost story out of practically nothing, but I still can't get over the feeling that it was a little too low-key to work effectively.
21) Audition (1999): I saw this again recently and can agree that not only is it pretty stomach turning at times, it's probably one of the most troubling and intelligent gore movies you're likely to see. Highly recommended.
20) Dracula (1958): In terms of influence and audaciousness alone (for the time), you can't argue with this one (although I think Hammer made better films). If we're going for 1960s Gothic, though, I'd have included Mario Bava's Black Sunday instead.
19) Les Diaboliques (1955): I haven't seen this one, so I can't comment.
18) Bride of Frankenstein (1935): I'm one of the rare people who doesn't care for this film as much as I do for the original, which I feel should have got the nod (and why not include both). This film is deeper and more complex in some ways, but is hurt by unfunny comedy and sentimentality, as well as the feeling that James Whale didn't really care for the material. 
17) Halloween (1978): Again, you can't knock it for influence (although its influence has been entirely negative) but I really don't like Halloween. It's very well done, and if you're only going to watch one slasher film, make it either this or the first Nightmare on Elm Street. But if you've seen Halloween once, watching it again becomes a chore as you sit around waiting for likeable characters to take their turn to die. 
16) The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920): No arguments here! A classic.
15) Dead of Night (1945): This film's popularity baffles me. It's the dullest, most uninteresting anthology of ghost stories I've ever seen, with only its bizarre ending rousing me out of a bored reverie. Despite what The Guardian says, it's not creepy; there's never the slightest frisson of either fear or mystery. Yawn...
14) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974): No arguments here. The TCM is an assault on the senses that's pretty well unforgettable. One might object to the misogynistic nature of the violence (a distressingly common complaint of 1970s horror films) but it still deserves a place on this list.
13) The Haunting (1963): The best haunted house film ever! Should be higher on the list too.
12) Ring (1998): An innovative and damned creepy contemporary ghost story from Japan. Well worth watching.
11) The Innocents (1961): Up there with The Haunting as the best ghost story ever.
10) Peeping Tom (1960): I saw this years ago, and don't remember much about it except that I thought that it's one of those films that is more interesting to write a thesis about than to actually watch. And at this stage of my life I'm not too keen on watching yet another film about a predatory male murdering women.
9) Vampyr (1932): The Guardian says: " This really is a film that exemplifies the idea of dreaming with our eyes open". And they're right. A great film.
8) Let The Right One In (2008): I haven't seen it, but seeing as teenagers and vampires are two things that, by and large, bore me rigid, I probably won't either.
7) Nosferatu (1922): The exception to the rule above!
6) The Exorcist (1973): Definitely the most overrated horror movie ever! A friend and I rented this on video when it first became available in the late 1990s, expecting to be scared witless. Instead, we were bored out of our minds by the pretentious, exploitative stupidity of it all, and by the end were laughing hysterically and shouting "the power of shite compels you!" every time the priests appeared. Nasty, conservative nonsense. I remember The Exorcist III as being excellent, though (of John Boorman's Exorcist II: The Heretic, let us not speak.)
5) The Shining (1980): Definitely the second most overrated horror movie ever! It has a budget and a look most horror films can only dream of, but is emotionally frigid, full of things that are supposed to be scary but end up being ridiculous (the elevator full of blood), and in the later half degenerates into the Crazy Jack Psycho Pantomime. Watch The Haunting instead, or 'The Shinning', a hilariously accurate parody by The Simpsons.
4) The Wicker Man (1973): I really liked this the first time I saw it, and it's head and shoulders above most of its contemporaries, but I've never been able to watch it again. The inevitability of Edward Woodward's demise (from the moment he lands on the island, he's a dead man), combined with the film's slow pace, seem both sadistic and tiresome to me now, without any deeper philosophical resonance that would make the unpleasantness bearable. From that era, I'd have gone with Michael Reeves' Witchfinder General.
3) Don't Look Now (1973): It's an awfully long time since I've seen this film, but I remember it as being excellent. Shame on The Guardian, though, for printing a picture along with their review which gives away the twist ending! Not everyone has seen these films, you know!
2) Rosemary's Baby (1968): Ignoring the whole "raping a 13-year-old and then fleeing to Europe rather than face the consequences" aspect of Polanski's career, I guess that Rosemary's Baby is an important enough film to warrant inclusion. I'd have gone for Repulsion myself, though.
1) Psycho (1960): It's hard to ignore Psycho's importance and it definitely warrants a place here;  however, I have a big problem with the film's structure. The first 45 minutes or so - up to the scene with Norman Bates and the car - are absolutely incredible, and the notorious shower scene remains one of the most disturbing things I've ever seen, primarily because, unlike in so many horror films where characters are expendable meat whose deaths mean nothing, one gets the sense of a real person being killed. However, the film has built to this horrifying climax as Norman watches the car sink into the swamp, and this viewer is left drained and shaking, but there's another hour and a bit to go. Essentially it starts again! But it never reaches the same heights as before, and the rest of the film I've always found a bit anti-climactic. Also, if you're a person who objects to films in which beautiful young women are killed horribly with household implements, this film is pretty hard to tolerate. I much prefer The Birds.
So that's the list. It's rendered worthless, though, by the exclusion of one film, one of the most influential and important horror films ever made. Can you guess what it is? Hint: It's included in a post I wrote last Halloween which recommended some good 'orror. 


jams o donnell said...

How could they have left out Saw IV!

I jest of curse. An interesting list but I do agree with you on most of the entries. Glad to see Audition and Ringu are on the list abd I would love to have seen Witchfinder General there too,though I can watch the Wicker Man over and over.

Never cared for Blair Witch though/ It just did not grave me at all.

I would recommend Let the right one in. It is most definitely NOT an typical teen vampire thing - the sort of crap they do in the States. It is a damned fine film.

Do you Get BBC4 in your neck of the woods? Mark Gatiss of the League of Gentlemen is doing a good series on horror films

jams o donnell said...

The not-wife who is a horror lover would like to have seen the Uninvited on the list

A Doubtful Egg said...

I haven't seen The Uninvited, but I've heard good things about it. Another one to add to the list...
Between the jigs and the reels, I've not seen the BBC 4 horror series. My standard reference guide is Kim Newman's brilliant Nightmare Movies, an incredibly exhaustive guide to horror cinema from 1969 to about 1989. I've been meaning to watch them but then just forget...
I'm not knocking Wicker Man by a long shot - I recently got the director's cut in a charity shop for a euro, so I'll definitely be watching that, but I just find it hard to watch once I know what's going to happen...
I feel they should have included Carnival of Souls, for one, and the essential film they seemed to forget about was Night of the Living Dead! They want us to believe that The Blair Witch Project is better than Romero's classic?

stancarey said...

Like you, I don't usually bother with such lists, because they inevitably antagonise me. Hard to credit some of the more glaring omissions from this selection. And some of the inclusions wouldn't make my top 200.

Of the ones you haven't seen (or haven't seen in ages)... Don't Look Now would be a definite in my (forever-hypothetical) top 10 of all time in any genre, it's that good. Let The Right One In is better than it sounds, though it doesn't match up to the hype. Les Diaboliques is superb. It's not really a horror film, but it has elements/moments of horror. And Les Vampires is excellent dreamy silent crime fare (I wrote a short piece about it here).

If you're a fan of spooky old haunted house films – and you seem to be – I'll recommend The Old Dark House and The Spiral Staircase. Happy Halloween!

A Doubtful Egg said...

I always thought Les Diaboliques was a thriller rather than a horror film, which makes its inclusion a bit odd. I read your piece on Les Vampires and would love to watch it (on DVD rather than in blurry YouTube). Some films I watched recently that are worth a look if you haven't already seen them: Dracula's Daughter, the sequel to Lugosi's original Dracula; Death Line, a very unusual 70s horror film about cannibals living in the London Underground; The Stepfather, a well-made horror/thriller from the eighties; the original Nightmare on Elm Street and The Hills Have Eyes from Wes Craven; and if you can find them, the very odd Let's Scare Jessica To Death from the seventies and Lo Spettro with Barbara Steele from the 1960s. All worth a look, I think.

stancarey said...

Death Line sounds interesting — I'll look into it. Likewise Let's Scare Jessica To Death and Lo Spettro... thanks for the suggestions! The Hills Have Eyes is one that somehow passed me by until fairly recently. It was pretty good, though no Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

I meant to say before that I enjoyed reading your thoughts on these films. They made me wonder about a couple — Carrie, for example, is one I haven't seen in a long time; and while I wouldn't ever have rated it very highly, I wonder now if it's any good at all. Spacek was superb; I remember that much.

Before I disappear again, here's one recommendation for you: Pontypool, a recent Canadian film. If you come across it, don't hesitate to give it a look. The less you know about it beforehand, the better!

A Doubtful Egg said...

Thanks for the recommendations, Stan.
I'd agree with your comment about The Hills Have Eyes, in that it comes off second-best to Texas Chainsaw, and the things it adds (the family fighting back, the dog) seem to strain rather than increase its plausibility! What's interesting about Death Line, compared to these films, is that it's far more sympathetic to its cannibal family than Texas and Hills are, where they are little more than sadistic monsters.
I have no intention of watching Craven's earlier Last House On The Left; where horror is concerned, rape-revenge movies and torture films like Saw don't interest me, as they rarely have any redeeming qualities to offset their sheer nastiness.
Why I dislike Carrie so much, as I said in the review, is that the film's callousness and sheer nastiness is not, I feel, an accurate reflection of humanity's dark side, but a reflection of the director's own cruel, unpleasant personality (something that comes through in most De Palma films that I've seen). It doesn't ring true, for me.
At the moment I'm taking a break from horror and watching Kieślowski's Dekalog, as I picked up the complete set in a charity shop for E2! I like them a lot so far. I also picked up a copy of Ralph Bakshi's animated Lord of the Rings, which should be good for a chuckle...

stancarey said...

Dekalog has its own kind of horror! But it's a very good collection, and a steal at €2. You might be interested to know that David Lynch recently picked what is possibly Bergman's only horror film – Hour of the Wolf – for a film festival in America.

You're right about the plausibility problems with Hills, and in those kinds of films it can be the difference between a good horror and a great one (or a lousy one and an adequate one). Last House on the Left is another Craven I put off for a long time, but I eventually caved a couple of years ago. Like Cannibal Holocaust, it's undeniably effective, but it left a rotten taste in my mouth.