Wednesday, July 30, 2008

My Favorite Horror Movies

What is the difference between Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror, you may well ask. To be honest, there are big differences, though I must say that when it comes down to it, all movies are fantasies - stories that simply aren't true (except, of course documentaries - and you can't count "based on" or "inspired by" a true story movies, all of which are fictionalized for dramatic purposes). But the Fantasy genre of films is very specific and the term really should only be applied to films that deal with the fantastic. These are movies about fairies, elves, sorcerers, unicorns and other mythological creatures.
Horror, on the other hand, can deal with all of those elements and more. A horror movie, more than anything should inspire fear, so while movies like Alien and Aliens, while technically Sci-Fi, might also be considered horror movies, too. Both feature horrible monsters, dark-ride suspense and a goodly amount of gory bloodshed. Likewise, Se7en and The Silence of the Lambs, while technically Crime Thrillers, also feature terrific suspense and horrific visuals. But for our purposes, I'm going to consider a Horror movie as one that has some supernatural elements. I'm talking vampires; werewolves; zombies; ghosts; demons and the occasional unstoppable mass-murderer. So without further ado, my favorite horror movies:
Dead Alive - Peter Jackson, best known for The Lord of the Rings trilogy and an excellent, reverential King Kong remake, started out making low-budget horror comedies. This 1992 zombie comedy was titled Braindead in Jackson's native New Zealand, and is quite possibly the most outrageous horror movie, ever. Lionel (Timothy Balme) is a young milquetoast who lives with his overbearing mum, Vera (the hilarious Elizabeth Moody). Young Paquita (Diana Penalver) works in her families' local groceria. After Paquita's grandmother reads her tarot cards and predicts her true love is on the way, all signs point to Lionel and Paquita sets out to win his heart, literally tricking him into taking her on a date to the zoo. Mum follows, of course, and while spying on the couple, is bitten by a vicious "Sumatran Rat-monkey." The bite soon becomes infected and before you can say 'Bob's yer uncle,' Mum is turned into a voracious, flesh-eating zombie. In an effort to hide her condition, Lionel locks Mum in the basement, but it's a bit too late and soon several members of the town are turned, including a couple of street toughs and a horny vicar and nurse, who have hilarious zombie sex which results in the birth of a zombie baby. Lionel tries to keep them all sedated with veterinary tranquilizers, but when his perverted uncle Les moves in and throws a wild party, all hell breaks loose. The climax involves a re-animated set of farting intestines; a lawn mower and the biggest, baddest zombie (Mum, again) ever to grace the silver screen. Hilariously over-the-top, Dead Alive reportedly used more fake blood than any horror movie before or since. I finally replaced my imported VHS copy of Dead Alive with a DVD a few years ago, because it was simply worn out.
Night of the Living Dead - Director George Romero invented a whole new genre of horror movie with this low-budget story about a group of strangers trapped in a remote Pennsylvania farmhouse, fighting off hordes of mysteriously re-animated corpses out to feed on living flesh. Shot in black and white in 1968, at the height of the civil rights movement, NoLD is both terrifying horror and social commentary, featuring a black hero fighting to save not only his own life, but those of the people trapped with him, as well. Romero and co-writer John Russo re-wrote the rules of the horror film while making one of the most influential movies of the late '60's. Even after forty years, it still has the power to shock audiences while making them think.
Dawn of the Dead - Romero returned to zombies eleven years later, with this 1979 follow-up, shot in color and utilizing the skills of make-up FX artist Tom Savini for an even gorier sequel. The world is still under siege by the flesh-eaters, and a group of survivors thinks they've found the perfect hiding place in a suburban shopping mall. That is, until a crazy band of bikers breaks in, letting hordes of zombies in behind them. The social commentary this time takes jabs at mindless consumerism, while shocking audiences with visceral images of beheadings, shootings and other gory mayhem. A 2004 remake from director Zack Snyder (300 and the upcoming The Watchmen), while a terrific horror movie in and of itself, loses the social commentary and replaces the shuffling, stumbling zombies with super-speedy ghouls. But it doesn't have the same impact as the original.
Halloween - In 1979, this low-budget thriller started the careers of writer/director John Carpenter and actress Jamie Lee Curtis, and created a horror sub-genre that would flourish for more than a decade: the slasher film. It also introduced audiences to the concept of the unstoppable psychopath. Driven to kill by pure evil and seemingly immortal himself, Michael Myers served as the inspiration for Jason Voorhees in the Friday the 13th movies and Freddy Kruger in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. Actually rather bloodless, Halloween relies on suspense for it's thrills and delivers on every level. Rob Zombie's 2007 remake gives Michael more of a back-story, but can't hold a candle to the original.
Evil Dead II - Director Sam Raimi (the Spider-Man franchise) essentially remade his original movie about a group of college kids who unwittingly release a horde of "Candarian" demons while partying in a remote cabin in the woods, this time playing it for laughs. If the Three Stooges had made horror movies, they would have been like Evil Dead II. It put Raimi on the directorial map and turned actor Bruce Campbell into a cult icon. A third film, Army of Darkness, tries too hard to be funny and as result, falls a bit flat. Evil Dead and Evil Dead II were combined into one story for an hilarious Off-Broadway musical which features songs like "Cabin in the Woods," "What the F**k Was That?" and "Do the Necronomicon!"
The Haunting (1963) - Robert Wise directs this absolutely chilling adaptation of the Shirley Jackson novel "The Haunting of Hill House," about a team of psychics investigating the spooky goings on in a mysterious mansion. Using only creepy sound effects and the acting skills of his excellent cast (including a truly heart-breaking performance by the amazing Julie Harris), Wise's film is terrifying, all without the audience seeing anything more than a bending door. Truly the most frightening movie ever made. The horrendously crappy 1999 remake from action director Jan de Bont is hardly worth the the celluloid it's filmed on.
An American Werewolf in London - John Landis brings us this funny, scary and touching movie about a young American on a walking tour of Great Britain, who is attacked on the Scottish moors and soon finds himself transformed into a werewolf. David Naughton (best known for a series of Dr. Pepper commercials) is the werewolf, Jenny Agutter (Logan's Run) is the pretty British nurse he falls in love with and Griffin Dunne is the increasingly rotten ghost of his friend who was killed in the initial attack. Featuring then state-of-the-art FX by Rick Baker, American Werewolf was the first werewolf movie in which audiences got to see the visceral (and painful) transformation without the use of replacement photography. A lame sequel, 1997's An American Werewolf in Paris, replaces the physical FX with CGI, much to its detraction.
Kairo (Pulse) The only "J-Horror" movie on my list, Kiyoshi Kurosowa's creepy techno-ghost tale had me trying to see around the corners, hoping there'd be nothing there. When a series of suicides appear to be linked to a bizarre website, a group of college students investigate, only to find that there is something truly awful happening. Literally a "ghost in the machine" film, Kairo's inevitable 2006 American remake is a snore-inducing bore.

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