Welcome to 5 Favorites. Each week, I will put together a list of my 5 favorites (films, performances, whatever strikes my fancy) along with commentary on a given topic each week, usually in relation to a specific film releasing that week.
Halloween is just over two weeks away and it falls on a Saturday night, a rare occurrence for the trick-or-treating holiday. The excitement over such an alignment is tempered by a pandemic that makes social interactions concerning and risky. As such, many kids (and probably college students) may struggle to enjoy this holiday, but it doesn’t have to be a total downer. There are plenty of horror films you can stream or rent or buy on DVD/Blu-ray. In honor of this extra creepy holiday, I want to take a special look at my favorite horror films. Over the next three weeks, we’ll look at some of my all-time faves, from the popular to the obscure. It was a tough trick to narrow these all down in only three weeks. Further, since this is 5 Favorites, I feel like a bit of a cheat, but there will ultimately be nothing but intervals of 5 at work here.
We start this off with ten films, mostly in black-and-white, that came to define several different eras of horror at the cinema. Early horror was more cerebral than visceral, which exemplifies the first half of today’s list of films. However, as the 1960s pressed on, things began shifting towards the gore quotient of modern horror films and will end at roughly the point where slasher films began taking over movieplexes.
Before moving on to the list, let’s look at four honorable mentions from this same period that were all stellar films, but which don’t quite fit what we think of as horror today. These are great films that were pulled from my list for one reason or another, but deserve some recognition.
Based on a novel by Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) tells the story of a healthy young man who hides a shocking secret. All the blemishes and blights of aging are transferred to a painting he keeps hidden in his home, allowing him to look perpetually hale and handsome. The character has been referenced countless times sense, but this film effortlessly presents the story with creative energy and a frightening color portrait inserted into the black-and-white framework of the film.
The Night of the Hunter (1955) was the only film celebrated actor Charles Laughton ever director and it’s a shame he never did more as this picture is one of the all-time greats. It’s a taut, tense thriller about an ex-convict who pursues his ex-partner’s widow in an effort to locate the spoils of a prior theft. Robert Mitchum as the “preacher” and Shelley Winters as the widow are absolutely brilliant while the film is a reminder of how musical cues, lighting, and editing can help raise tensions.
This honorable mention is a sci-fi thriller with horror elements titled Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) about an alien invasion where pods mature into exact duplicates of townsfolk, slowly killing and replacing everything with an alien doppelganger. It’s a great film that was equaled and perhaps even surpassed by its 1978 version, which will receive a mention of its own next week.
In Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), Bette Davis is a wealthy widow who asks her cousin Olivia de Havilland to help her convince the local highway commission not to demolish her home. Davis is subjected to several harrowing events that lead to her mental deterioration. Suspecting de Havilland, Davis struggles to prove the case and ultimately risks psychiatric confinement if she can’t uncover the truth. Well acted and directed, the film is an engaging psychological thriller.
Now that we’ve discussed those films, let’s take a look at this week’s ten offerings.
Nosferatu (1922 in Germany, 1929 in the United States)
There were countless reasons why the vast majority of early silent films have been lost, whether it be from the voluntary reclamation of the silver in the film stock, a belief that the content would have no future value, or pre-1952 films on nitrate spontaneously combusting. Nosferatu was almost lost for a completely different reason and we’re very lucky it survives today.
Directed by German expressionist F.W. Murnau, unquestionably one of the greatest filmmakers to ever emerge from the silent era, Nosferatu was an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s classic vampire novel Dracula. Although the producers did what they could to avoid copyright infringement, the Stoker family estate successfully sued and copies of the film were ordered to be destroyed. Thankfully, a small number of copies survived and we were able to watch this atmospheric vampire film still today as it helped established the definitions and aesthetics of horror we continue to enjoy.
Another early example of horror themes that have become ubiquitous, James Whale’s direction of Frankenstein, based on a play that was adapted from Mary Shelley’s literary classic, further helped cement what we’ve come to love about horror films.
The story is that of a mad scientist intent on being able to find a way to reanimate the dead. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) finally discovers the right ingredients necessary to bring his monster to life. That monster, played by Boris Karloff, has become an integral part of cinema’s horror identity, bridging the concepts of science fiction and horror with thrilling creative energy. Throw in a rich subtext and potent themes about the ethical limitations of science and Frankenstein, as well as its sequel Bride of Frankenstein, have left an indelible impression on all those who’ve seen either of them.
Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1932)
One of the most compelling literary works in horror is this adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s book Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The story remains one of history’s all-time most adapted works, surpassed only by several of William Shakespeare’s plays. What makes this story so involving is its depiction of the duality of human nature and the limits we place on morality both as an individual and as a society.
This adaptation, featuring a bravura performance by Frederic March as both the doctor and his violent alter ego, is easily the best I’ve seen. Apart from the superb leading performance, director Rouben Mamoulian’s film is filled with rich narrative, fascinating subtext, and bounteous symbolism. It’s a rare example of an adaptation surpassing the quality of its source material.
Jumping ahead almost three decades, horror had begun to stagnate with creature features dominating the big screen. It took cinema’s master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, to help redefine what was possible in a genre that had become better known for its populist schlock than its creative energy.
Hitchcock kills off his leading lady early in the film, giving audiences a new twist on how to craft a cinematic narrative. Janet Leigh stars as a real-estate secretary who absconds with a handsome cash payment, spending a night in a remote motel on the interstate. The creepy proprietor of the hotel, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), is horrified by his mother’s murder of the young woman and helps to hide the evidence. As the truth of the situation begins to unravel, audiences are treated to one of the all-time greatest twist endings.
Everything about Hitchcock’s film has informed and influenced horror filmmakers who came after him, with numerous now-classic slasher films owing a great deal to this bravura progenitor. Not only was his editing of the legendary shower sequence another forward leap for the genre, Bernard Herrmann’s terrific score had its own impact on future composers.
The Innocents (1961)
Based on the Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw, The Innocents helped define what a haunted house horror film could be in this Jack Clayton film. An exquisite Deborah Kerr stars as a governess who takes on the duty of looking after the two children of a wealthy bachelor. As she settles into her duties, strange occurrences throughout the house begin to unnerve her and the audience.
A dark, atmospheric sensation, The Innocents handily toys with our emotions and our fears as Kerr’s character descends into madness. The frightening locale, chiaroscuro lighting techniques, and terrifying building of suspense make for a most harrowing experience, but one which owes as much to our first film on our list, Nosferatu, as to the myriad films that came after it in this oft-produced subgenre.
The Birds (1963)
Alfred Hitchcock had been very well known for his thrillers, hence the aforementioned moniker the master of the suspense. The delicate line between suspense and horror enabled him to carefully tread that line throughout his career. After Psycho, his only other film that could be ostensibly defined as horror more than suspense is The Birds, a frightening look at a mysterious flocking of birds to a small New England community. This was also Hitchcock’s second adaptation of a Daphne Du Maurier story after 1940’s Best Picture Oscar winner Rebecca.
Tippi Hedron stars as a young socialite looking to impress attractive stranger Rod Taylor’s family, headed by a confrontational Jessica Tandy. As the film plays out, countless birds begin amassing in the town, threatening and attacking people everywhere. As Hedron and her desired paramour’s family take refuge in their seaside home, the terrifying collection of birds promise a horrifying assault should they be threatened.
Informed greatly by Hitchcock’s prior films, this re-working of a traditional natural horror narrative into something utterly scary is a haunting and nerve-wracking experience that you’ll want to see at least once.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
While zombies have been a part of film history for almost a century, having been first featured in Victor Halperin’s White Zombie in 1932, all that the popular horror subgenre now recognizes as central elements came with George A. Romero’s seminal 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead. Although it was filmed on a shoestring budget, compared to other films of that era, it looks like no expense was spared and that realism helped boost the film’s credibility going into a highly profitable series of sequels.
Having watched countless zombie flicks prior to watching Romero’s legendary achievement, it was fascinating to watch each scene unfold in a now-predictable methodology that is directly reflected in all that followed. Even the only-one-can-survive concept that’s a key part of numerous other horror films from Halloween to A Nightmare on Elm Street owes its existence to this important film.
The Exorcist (1973)
William Friedkin’s demonic possession classic was likewise a progenitor of a subgenre that has thrived in its wake, with numerous similar films finding release annually, though few can really hold a candle to this original. This horrifying and frightening picture gives Linda Blair the role she will forever be identified with, that of the possessed pre-teen Regan MacNeil. Ellen Burstyn appears as her mother while Jason Miller plays the young priest who eventually calls in old priest Max von Sydow for consultation and assistance.
With horror slowly starting to embrace the gory nature of the horrors it depicted, The Exorcist threw open the doors of propriety to create an almost-stomach churning series of events that viciously afflict a young girl barely old enough to understand what is happening to her. Blair’s performance was incredible, but Burstyn, Miller, and von Sydow are every bit as good, which makes this popular film stand out as all the more impressive.
The theme of this first article might well be “history’s most influential horror films.” That theme fits most importantly to Steven Spielberg’s Best Picture nominee about a small beach community plagued by a killer shark. With an assist from now-famous composer John Williams, whose minimalist score added spine-tingling depth to the feature, Spielberg’s film has cemented its place in cinema history as the first so-called Blockbuster of the now-four-decades-plus Blockbuster Era.
The film stars Roy Scheider as a cautious police chief who brings in a marine biologist played by Richard Dreyfuss in an effort to save the tourist town’s thriving economy. As the pair go in search of the dangerous great white, hoping to end its reign of terror, the small town tries to quell concern by keeping beaches open. While the film is a great example of tension in the horror space and remains one of the great creature features in history, it has now become a startling reminder that those who are slaves to economic stability would gladly trade a few deaths if it meant keeping things going. That this lesson was already keenly known in 1975 and prior goes to show how much we should have seen current events coming.
Wrapping up this week’s article of the best horror films of all time is the only representative of the Italian giallo horror subgenre to make my list. Director Dario Argento is most associated with this subgenre and his film Suspiria may well be the pinnacle of it.
It stars newcomer Jessica Harper as a young American ballet student who earns a spot at a prestigious German dance school. While there, she begins to uncover a sinister plot beneath the sterile veneer of the Academy that points to a dangerous cabal at work behind the scenes. Gory and visually daring, Suspiria is a seminal work in cinema horror featuring a harrowing score from Italian prog-rock band Goblin.
That’s all of our films for this week and while we have a lot of progenitors on this list, there are several more influencers to come next week as my look into my favorite horror films progresses.