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.
This week, I continue my look into my favorite horror films of all time. The second part covers a cinematic period from 1978 through 1994. During these years, horror took a hard turn towards gory details. It also covered a period where not only did slashers rule the box office, but their excessive numbers of sequels did as well. Between Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street alone, 18 sequels were generated and that’s not including sequel-heavy series such as Child’s Play, Hellraiser, and Puppet Master.
Granted, some series like Scary Movie, Scream, Paranormal Activity, and Saw all emerged largely after this era, but it was this almost 20-year period that seemed to generate the most frequent and popular series.
In the midst of all of these sequels, some inventive horror films managed to get lost in the shuffle and never secured sequels. Some of them may not have even deserved them, but films like House, House II (which was a sequel in name only, not plot), April Fool’s Day, Creepshow, Prom Night, Return to Horror High, Deadtime Stories, and several other films gave this period not just a distinctive visceral appeal, but it generated some very lovely, cheesy horror films that may not have been great, but were certainly memorable.
Creepshow led the way in terms of launching a small number of anthology horror films, such as its sequel and Tales from the Darkside: The Movie as well as a few other small films, but it was also part of another string of successful horror films in this period, namely movies made from Stephen King books. Among the best were Carrie, Cujo, Salem’s Lot, Misery, Dolores Claiborne, and my person favorite of these films, The Shining. It and Misery both feature in my all-time best list this week, while Dolores Claiborne sits just on the other side of this list and will be highlighted next week. And while King’s adaptations weren’t always great (see Needful Things), they were incredibly popular. He also made a brief ’90s run of television miniseries, which aren’t included in this list, but It and The Shining might well have made the list if they were.
Before we dig into this week’s set of ten films, I’d like to highlight a group of pictures from this period that didn’t make the list, but deserve some measure of recognition.
When I put together my list, I may have haphazardly run through the list of films I’ve seen as it’s an extensive list, but I tried my best to highlight everything possible. Yet, as I started working on this week’s article and began discussing Stephen King adaptations, I realized that Carrie, which I mentioned above, didn’t get a write up anywhere and I would be remiss if I didn’t recognize Brian De Palma’s superb film. The film’s two best performances were head-and-shoulders above the rest of the cast with Sissy Spacek as the psychokinetic teen picked on by her classmates and her demented hyper-religious mother played by Piper Laurie. They were rightfully nominated for Oscars for their performances with Laurie a better option to win than at least winner Beatrice Straight.
Last week, I highlighted the incredible sci-fi horror feature Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In 1978, a sort of remake of that film was made with Donald Sutherland in the lead role. Moving from a small town to a global landscape, the film ultimately was only barely inferior to that 1956 original.
If you were to compare the various franchises that dominated the 1980s, the Friday the 13th films would easily be the worst. Yet, if you look at the very first film, Sean S. Cunningham’s 1980 original, you would ultimately find an inventive premise that belies expectations. Friday the 13th doesn’t hold a candle to the first films in the Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street franchises, but it’s a stellar opener with a fun twist and a solid score.
On a quality scale, April Fool’s Day has too many issues to be considered great. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a fun film to sit down and watch. This 1986 Fred Walton film boasted a cast of nobodies, much like many other horror films of the period. While some of them managed to go on to other acting jobs, including a few TV performers, only one of them could possibly lay claim to fame. Thomas F. Wilson, the villain Biff in the Back to the Future series, takes on a supporting role here as many do. What’s most enjoyable about this film is the twist ending. The lead up to it is most fascinating and marks one of the more inventive of the period. The reference to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None was just an added bonus.
Considering the popularity of Anne Rice’s vampire literary universe, it’s surprising that the popular Interview with the Vampire from 1994 never managed to linger long enough to generate popular sequels. Perhaps it was stars Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt, who had big careers around them or ahead of them, that didn’t want to continue. Regardless, this sudsy vampire drama did a lot of things incredibly well, but it’s biggest gift to cinema history was the boost it gave Kirsten Dunst’s career. Hers was one of the best young performances captured on film and while her career since has been a mixed bag, she’s more than proven herself to be an incredibly capable actress.
John Carpenter, like many young directors in the period, found his biggest success in horror films. Like Steven Spielberg three years earlier, Carpenter delivered Halloween, a quintessential classic in the horror universe.
Starring Donald Pleasance as a police detective and Jamie Lee Curtis as a terrorized young woman, Halloween introduced the world to serial killer Michael Myers whose William Shatner Halloween mask has since become iconic. His brooding pursuer established a standard for stalking mass murderers and helped bring to attention Curtis, who has developed into one of that generation’s greatest actresses.
What’s most notable about this introduction to Michael Myers is that the gore quotient is largely suggested rather than overt. Unlike its predecessor The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and many of its sequels, most of the frights were delivered via jump scares accentuated by Carpenter’s own legendary musical score.
When putting together this list, I largely ignored sci-fi horror films, not because they weren’t great, but because while they had horror elements, they fit better within the horror subgenre of science fiction. Like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Alien is enough of a borderline film, that I decided to go ahead and include it.
Ridley Scott’s seminal 1979 sci-fi classic is an incredible movie and it would be at home in a Best Of list for either genre, sci-fi or horror, but being futuristic is only a set piece for the film’s horrific encounters with an alien species more keen on using its victims as hosts than simply as casualties of war. Atmospheric, tense, and filmed on a limited budget, Scott has only two other films on his filmography worth declaring classics, Blade Runner and Thelma & Louise, and none of them can really claim to be better than the others because they are all three so different. It also gave Sigourney Weaver an iconic role that gave new definition to what it meant to be a female lead in either genre, horror or science-fiction.
The Shining (1980)
There wasn’t a genre that iconic filmmaker Stanley Kubrick didn’t either excel at or improve simply by making a film in it. The Shining is just such a film, redefining the genre in unique ways and giving audiences a trippy, gory, sublime experience. Sure, original author Stephen King didn’t care for it, but The Shining manages to stand on its own apart from the source material.
Jack Nicholson starred as Jack Torrance an out-of-work father who takes his wife (Shelley Duvall) and young son (Danny Lloyd) with him to a remote hotel where he would act as caretaker through the winter months. As his sanity and alcoholism begin to take their toll on his psyche, the horrific remnants of the hotel’s past start haunting his family while he embraces their calls to violence.
There are numerous legendary scenes in the film from walls of blood pouring from elevators, to a young child wheeling around the empty corridors (using innovative Steadicams technology), to a hatch-wielding forced intruder, to a snow-laden maze, to a pair of butchered twins. These images have become integral examples of the Kubrickian style and even those who aren’t impressed with the film itself recognize the significance of the filming techniques and the cinematography employed.
With a beautiful score by Jerry Goldsmith, Poltergeist overcomes the turmoil surrounding the film’s authorship to impress and frighten the audience in ways that horror had infrequently done prior. Filled with superb imagery and terrific effects, the film is a testament to the creative collaboration between director Tobe Hooper and hands-on writer/producer Steven Spielberg.
While much credit can be given to adult actors JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Beatrice Straight, and James Karen, it was seven-year-old Heather O’Rourke as tormented child Carol Anne around whom the entire film’s hauntings revolved. Special mention goes to Zelda Rubinstein playing a psychic who tries to resolve the conflict where the assembled doctors and psychiatrists have failed. She adds more gravitas and energy to the film than we could have ever hoped for.
Exploring the supernatural in such a vivid and sometimes grotesque way allows the film to live vibrantly in the memory. Goldsmith’s childlike score acts as a stunning counterpoint to the horrific events taking place on film. This is a film that deserves as much recognition in the annals of horror history as any other film.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
As far as serial killers go, Freddy Krueger goes well beyond the standard stalk-em and kill-em type. Burned to death by parents angry that he got away with child molestation, the killer haunts the kids of his murderers in their nightmares, forcing them to stay awake or die. While the adults around them don’t believe what’s going on, the kids must band together to try and stop the dream stalker before he kills them all.
In the first film, Freddy was more bogeyman than serial killer, yet over the course of the subsequent films, he dialed up the personality and became one of the quintessential movie monsters of all time, keen to throw out clever puns and gruesome commentaries on the kills he’s about to perform. Robert Englund deserves immense credit for that, but the mastermind of the whole affair was Wes Craven, who not only rewrote the book on horror in the 1970s, then again with this film in 1984, but he did it again in 1994 with his meta-horror pseudo-sequel New Nightmare. That film, in turn, was a trial run for his even more successful genre-redefining meta-horror classic Scream. You can count on one hand the most influential and important horror filmmakers. Craven, Carpenter, and George A. Romero would likely jockey for positioning on any such list.
While the acting was good or serviceable, the film is noted for being Johnny Depp’s cinematic breakthrough and giving John Saxon perhaps one of his biggest achievements in his voluminous career. As with all monumental horror achievements, much of the heavy lifting is done by a stellar score and some clever and inventive effects that helped sell this low-budget horror classic.
The penultimate hurrah for this era’s series of Stephen King adaptations was this Kathy Bates starrer that became the only King adaptation to win an Academy Award, not even his more popular films, Shawshank Redemption or The Green Mile, can claim that and both were Best Picture contenders. That Oscar was for Kathy Bates’ batshit crazy performance as Annie Wilkes, the #1 fan of author Paul Sheldon (James Caan) whose plans to kill off her favorite character do not go over well with his psycho fan.
Bates is phenomenal in a role that she will be forever linked with. She’s a great actress in everything she does, but this was an iconic, unbeatable performance. Caan as Sheldon is no slouch either and Rob Reiner’s skilled direction helps William Goldman’s terrific adaptation of King’s novel soar. Along with The Shining, this may be one of the pinnacles of achievement in the King adaptation landscape and certainly within the horror genre.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Jonathan Demme’s classic adaptation of the Thomas Harris novel about a serial killer held in police captivity (Anthony Hopkins) who assists an FBI agent (Jodie Foster) as she investigates the disappearances and killings of several girls she believes to have been flayed by another serial killer. As she tries to unravel the mystery, Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter uses his knowledge of psychology to dig into Clarice Starling’s psyche both to understand what makes her tick and to villainously toughen her against the battle ahead.
Foster and Hopkins were delightful with a skillful tete-a-tete that evocatively mirrored a tango, a dance of creepy seduction where each partner gives and takes, pushes and retreats. It’s a testament to Demme’s directorial skill and their acting prowess. This was one of the more difficult choices I made when putting together this list as it is more of a psychological thriller than a horror film, but as it is frequently classified as the latter. It’s that kind of genre that can go either way and it was a very tough decision to include this.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
One of the last batch of truly stylish horror films made to date, and also the last great film Francis Ford Coppola ever made, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a sumptuous visual feast of period splendor. From Stoker’s classic vampire novel, Gary Oldman gives vibrant life to the charismatic bloodsucker as he maneuvers and manipulates his barrister Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) into bringing his fiancée Mina Murray (Winona Ryder) to his Romanian estate.
Richly deserving of the three Oscars it won for Costume Design, Sound Effects Editing, and Makeup, it should also have won the Art Direction award and been nominated for and won Best Original Score. It also should have at least been nominated for Best Actor (Oldman). This is one of those gorgeously mounted films that seldom gets made inside the horror genre and for that we should be perpetually grateful. There’s a gritty aesthetic to most horror films, even those in the haunted house subgenre, which could very easily be set in period times, which makes Dracula all the more a standout.
Jurassic Park (1993)
Once again, Steven Spielberg redefined what could be done with visual effects after his successes with Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. Jurassic Park combined science fiction and attrition horror in a glorious and monumental way. If John Williams’ soaring score at the first reveal of dinosaurs to the audience doesn’t make you weep for its beauty, then perhaps you’re too young or too miserable to appreciate it.
That said, Spielberg couldn’t have asked for a better cast with Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough, and Wayne Knight delivering superb performances while young actors Joseph Mazzello and Ariana Richards do fine work. Spielberg has long been appreciated for his ability to coax strong performances out of his child actors as E.T. and this film, among others, can attest. With genuine frights and edge-of-your-seat excitement, Jurassic Park is a dying breed of blockbuster, something families can enjoy together without feeling like they are being overtly manipulated.
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)
Rounding out this era of horror features, and my top ten from this period, is a natural finisher for this week. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare took Craven back to his original film and brought back star Heather Langenkamp in what could be considered a trial run for his meta-horror picture Scream. Langenkamp stars as herself as an actress in Hollywood coping with nightmares featuring Freddy Kreuger, the fictional character that tormented her character’s dreams in the 1984 feature. John Saxon, Robert Englund, Craven, producers Robert Shaye and Sara Risher, and entertainment industry reporter Sam Rubin all have brief roles in the film as themselves while Lin Shaye, who had a bit part in the original, also appears in a bit part here. Throw in Tuesday Knight from the fourth film in the franchise and you have a pseudo-reunion for the team as real life and fiction intertwine as the nightmare stalker attempts to use Langenkamp’s nightmares to emerge into reality and claim all new victims.
This film is not just a twist on every horror trope Craven ever tackled, but it features plenty of nice homages to the original film, including ceiling-crawling death. This meta horror was a fun bit of nostalgia while redefining what is possible within the genre. Although the film didn’t perform nearly as well at the box office as it should have, it was a touching capstone to the franchise up to that point. The character has returned twice since then. The first was in a long-awaited match up between Freddy and Friday the 13th‘s Jason Voorhees, which was a fun romp, but which missed so many golden opportunities. The second was an attempted reboot that was unbelievably bad, having cast off every member of the original roster and replaced the actor behind the iconic baddie (Englund, who incidentally plays both himself and his fictional villain) with a creepy, but supremely inferior Jackie Earle Haley.
That brings us to a close on this week’s top ten. I have much more to say about all of these films and, where possible, a review does exist for them. Having said that, next week will bring this series to a close with another ten films that cover a bountiful period of horror from the mid-1990s to the present day. Some genre-redefining films await as well as a much larger list of also-rans and honorable mentions to go over. See you next week.