My good friend and author John Kenneth Muir has come up with another of his superb Reader Top Ten collaborations on his blog. A timely one at that for Halloween is just right around the corner. This time, John looked back at the critical 40 years for the horror genre that preceded the arrival of the new millennium.
“For me, this was a difficult list to compile, and it certainly reflects my bias towards the 1970s as the golden age of horror.”
How true. Seven of his ten were from this crises-filled, maligned decade — I say with first-hand knowledge, by the way. Yet, it was indeed a dynamic era for cinema, especially in the horror genre. Shouldn’t surprise that a number of them I saw first-run — now that surely ages me. A few of the same films made my list below, in fact. I’ll compare some of John’s thoughts with my own on my tensome. Drumroll please…
1. The Exorcist (1973) – likely the most memorable, spiritual film on my list. William Friedkin bringing William Peter Blatty’s iconic novel to life. John, who had the film at #5, explained its allure/repulsion quite well, I think:
“If the Devil exists, then so must God. Remembered for its climactic pyrotechnics and green pea soup, The Exorcist thrives on a documentary-style approach that makes visits to an archaeological site in Iraq and a Georgetown hospital as fearsome as any encounter with the supernatural.”
2. Alien (1979) – John’s #6 selection remains my close second, with good reason. As JKM highlighted, it featured “…a monster like no other; one always changing shape, and always out-thinking its unlucky human prey.” Ridley Scott’s film, care of H.R. Giger’s surreal biomechanical art/visuals, also freaked many (especially some men) with its penile imagery. Now, read John’s quote again and think how it still works in that context. Along with the veiled threat of male rape, to go its with well-earned scares, the film worked on multiple insidious levels.
3. Night of the Living Dead (1968) – While my friend went with the film’s well-regarded 70s sequel for his list, I’ll stick with the original shocker by George Romero. It singlehandedly transformed those voodoo-witchcraftian oddities, and the hypnotized, mindless zombies of the pre-Vietnam War era to something else altogether. The reanimated cannibalistic dead. Reaping supreme havoc, in droves, upon the living, the thought of family and friends dying was forever changed from this moment forward.
4. The Evil Dead (1981) – Continuing on with the game-changing theme of the first few here, Sam Raimi’s accomplishment with this low-budget and uniquely styled, frenetic sensation surely fits. I saw this in ’83, in one of the handful of theaters in the nation willing to run it. As John said in a reply to my comment to this year’s Evil Dead remake and his cult film review:
“…Raimi’s film is still a punch to the face, while this remake is more light slap!”
How very true.
5. The Changeling (1980) – As much as those listed above are quite visually visceral (and a bit grisly) in their scares, the next two achieve their truly creepy fright without any need of it. Peter Medak’s undervalued ghost story just gets better with each re-screening. It wretches the audience on a personal-level as the haunted story was slowly uncovered by the lone inhabitant (George C. Scott) staying at a secluded historical mansion. You’ll not look at a wheelchair, a rolling ball, or a decrepit child sitting in a tub ever the same afterward.
6. The Haunting (1963) – Robert Wise’s splendid movie adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ novel was one of the important films of the issue-filled 60s. Jackson’s evocative and figurative look at how women were locked into and strapped down in a male-dominated world was given a frank, haunting look in Wise’s film. Atmospheric and psychologically oft-putting, Julie Harris and Claire Bloom (as the tormented Eleanor and Theodora) alone against the dark were simply memorable.
7. Ringu (1998) – Japanese horror has long been influential and disconcerting. Ask any kid from my era after they watched Matango (aka, Attack of the Mushroom People) on Saturday afternoon TV, if they had bad dreams because of it. The concept of watching a VHS tape, with terrible things following, is almost a caricature these days. But, this pivotal film was its birthplace. The slow-burn and dread built ever methodically in Hideo Nakata’s milestone film, so that its payoff delivered well-deserved nightmares.
8. The Thing (1982) – Speaking of dread… John nailed it for his #3 pick:
“Once derided by film critics and audiences, John Carpenter’s The Thing is an ahead-of-its time masterpiece, one that pits alienated humankind against a cunning alien in a constant state of flux. Where man is fragile, the Thing is strong, able to re-shape its flesh and very tissue to fool its enemies. Bolstered by pioneering special effects and Carpenter’s brilliant presentation of a claustrophobic, bleak setting, The Thing is one of the greatest horror films ever made.”
9. Halloween (1978) – The film that put horror auteur John Carpenter on the map was John’s #1 list topper. Though I have it lower, can’t argue against any of his reasoning:
“Behind that white, blank, Rorschach Test mask, this “Shape” could reflect any audience or societal fear. Michael might be a developmentally-arrested kid, an embodiment of the out-of-control Id, or…The Boogeyman. A meditation on un-classifiable “Evil” in a modern society that believes it can diagnose everything, Halloween remains unmatched in terms of slasher films.”
10. Exorcist III (1990) – Might as well bookend my catalog with what started it, The Exorcist. I daresay the only sequel to this notable (some say infamous) work that is worth a damn, is also the most undervalued in my Top Ten. A film John said, was “…criminally-underrated, and which features one of the most effective jump scares in horror history.” Adapted from his Legion novel by the author himself, serving as screenwriter/director (though messed with via studio interference). Like the original, the film* remains impressive, intelligent, and yet highly spiritual amid this underestimated genre.
* Yay, Amanda Davis for also picking these two film in her Reader Top Ten.