Archive for Top-20 lists

My Top-20 Horror Movies Of All Time — Finale

Posted in Entertainment, Movies with tags , , , on October 30, 2010 by thelasthonestman

We’re made it here to the end — my top-5 horror movies of all time.  If you missed the first three parts, you can find them here, here, and here.

5.   Alien  (1979)

I almost didn’t list this movie at all, as I wasn’t sure if it really fit the definition of horror.  I left out Silence of the Lambs and Jaws because I didn’t think they fit the genre neatly enough, but Alien I thought did.  Does that make sense?  Of course not — but it’s my list, and I get to make those judgments, right?

That said, Alien is a tremendous movie, no matter what genre you want to stick it in.  The cast is brilliant, headed by Sigourney Weaver in her first major movie role, the always entertaining Tom Skerritt, and a host of other excellent actors;  how many movies in general — not just horror movies — have casts that are even half as talented as this one, a group that also included Harry Dean Stanton, Ian Holm,  Yaphet Kotto, Veronica Cartright, and John Hurt?

And Alien is downright frightening.  The scene where Dallas (Tom Skerritt’s character) encounters the Alien in the ventilation shaft is enough to make your heart stopand we don’t even need to get into the chestburster scene (too well known now to surprise, but a shock to those seeing the film during its release).  The Alien special effects are incredible, the idea of Ripley’s character emerging as the sole survivor and the heroine was groundbreaking for a science fiction/action film (though less so for a horror entry — see, there’s that genre thing again).  The atmosphere of the Nostromo is claustrophobic and depressing.  I could go on and on — there’s nothing I dislike about this film at all.

4.   Nightmare on Elm Street  (1984)

Wes Craven had already made low-budget horror films The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes prior, but it was this film that put the director on the map as one of the biggest names in terror.  Nightmare follows the story of a deceased child murderer who finds a way to stalk the children of the adults who killed him — by invading their very dreams and striking at them when they’re the most helpless.

Craven’s masterpiece introduced us to Freddy Krueger, an enduring icon of horror that took his place alongside the greatest movie killers and monsters of all time.  But it also introduced us to the terror of being trapped in a world of dreams where things aren’t what they always seem, and the monster — Freddy — is always in control.  This was a theme explored in a number of films and stories over the years that followed (the Matrix, anyone?), but the surreal dreamworld portrayed in Nightmare was unlike one audiences had ever seen before.

The sequels would make Freddy a caricature of himself, but in this original film, he’s at his best: serious, deadly, and terrifying.  Add in great acting performances all around, bloody special effects, and a haunting score and it all adds up to a winner.  Just remember — once you’ve seen it, don’t fall asleep.

3.  The Exorcist (1973)

The top-3 films on my list are pretty much interchangeable in that any of them could have been ranked in the number one slot (even if all three films couldn’t be more different in their composition).   I’ve seen William Friedkin’s classic (based on the best selling book by William Peter Blatty) in the top spot in any number of horror lists — and for good reason.

There’s not a high body count in this film, there’s no maniacal killer for the protagonists to hide from as they’re stalked, and the heroes at the end of the film are a pair of priests — how’s all of that for atypical for a horror film?  The story revolves around a 12 year-old girl (played by Linda Blair, in an incredible performance) who undergoes a dramatic, disturbing change in her personality.  When medical causes are ruled out, her mother (Ellen Burstyn) begins to believe that her daughter is possessed, and she calls in the priests to perform an exorcism.

The performances are all tremendous, and the final exorcism scene is one of the most chilling, disturbing events put on film.  The special effects are outstanding as well — who will ever forget Blair’s head spinning around?  And the idea of a demonic possession, to me at least, is a thousand times more frightening that some random guy running around with a knife and trying to kill me.

The film was nominated for ten Academy Awards (winning two), and it’s well deserving of its critical acclaim, as well as its spot on my list here.

2.  Halloween  (1978)

This is the low-budget production that revolutionized the way we looked at horror films, and even thirty-plus years later, it still stands up as one of the best that the much maligned genre has to offer.

The story is incredibly simple:  as a child, a boy murders his sister on Halloween and is committed to a mental institution — then as an adult, he escapes the institution and returns to his hometown to kill again.  But in Halloween’s case, it’s not the story that makes the film, but the tremendous way that everything else in the movie works so well — a tribute to horror master John Carpenter’s magic touch.

Carpenter hits a home run in almost every way imaginable.  The casting choices are brilliant, whether it was Jamie Lee Curtis (in her debut) as the innocent heroine Laurie Strode, or the underrated Nancy Loomis and P.J. Soles as her not-so-innocent friends, or the most important casting choice, veteran actor Donald Pleasence as the psychiatrist hunting his former patient down.  The female leads are authentic and believable, and Pleasence’s Dr. Loomis is our window to the madness that is Michael Myers, The Shape who stalks them.

There’s surprisingly little blood in Halloween, and the violence is tame compared to horror movies today.  But there’s tension in nearly every scene;  you can’t help but feel unease as you see Michael standing outside Laruie’s house amidst the laundry — then vanishing, or outside of Annie’s door, or across the street for little Tommy Doyle to see him.  He’s a real-world Bogeyman who’s everywhere and then nowhere at the same time, unstoppable, unfeeling, and utterly frightening.

I could rave about the film all day — from the perfection of Michael Myers’ look (who ever thought a William Shatner mask could be so creepy?) to the brilliance of the now-instantly-recognizable score — but the best thing I can say is to see it for yourself if, unbelievably, you haven’t already.  Forget the sequels (which ranged from mediocre to absolute garbage) and the Rob Zombie remake (which is instantly forgettable) — the original was — and is — still one of the best that horror movies have to offer.

1.  The Shining  (1980)

My first introduction to the great Stanley Kubrick’s “Masterpiece of Modern Horror” was a television commercial I saw for The Shining when the film was just getting released into theaters.  I distinctly remember creepy music and the visual of Jack Nicholson driving an axe through a bathroom door while Shelley Duvall screamed in absolute horror.  The scene scared the hell out of me then (as a ten year-old), and while I might have gotten a lot older since then, the film’s ability to scare it’s audience hasn’t lessened one bit with time.

The story is of a writer serving as the caretaker of a mountain hotel over the winter.  He brings his wife and their son with him to this isolated abode — but the young boy has a special gift of his own, and the hotel that they’ll be staying in is an evil place with a life of its own.

Based on the best-selling novel by Stephen King, the movie deviates greatly from the book (King was extremely dissatisfied to many of the changes that Kubrick made).  After having read the book, I was at first disappointed in a number of Kubirck’s alterations — particularly in Jack Nicholson’s character — but the end result is still a triumph, not just in horror films, but in film making in general.  Indeed, Kubrick took king’s story and made something else out of it altogether — but what he made was something spectacular.

Nicholson’s performance as a tortured soul slowly going insane (or was he that way from the very beginning?) carries the film, but it’s Kubrick’s hand behind the camera that makes The Shining a hypnotic, spellbinding work of art that, three decades after, still has no secrets to reveal to the viewer watching it.  It’s a movie that makes the perfect film for a Halloween night viewing, and it’s my choice for the number one horror movie of all time.


My Top-20 Horror Movies Of All Time — Part 3

Posted in Entertainment, Movies with tags , , , on October 27, 2010 by thelasthonestman

We’ve made it alive to our top-10!  Today, it’s numbers 10-6 as we count down to my number one favorite later in the week.  For parts one and two, click here and here.

10.  Hellraiser  (1987)

It’s the film that introduced us to the horrifying Pinhead and the Cenobites, though — much like Jason in the first Friday the 13th movie — we don’t really see much of them until the end of the film.  But having Pinhead in small doses makes his appearance at the movie’s climax that much more effective.

The story is about a puzzle box — a Rubik’s Cube that opens a gateway to Hell.  But more than that, it’s a movie about flawed human beings and their relationships with one another.  It’s a story about a decent man, Larry Cotton (played by Andrew Robinson), his daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), and his unfaithful, scheming wife (Claire Higgins) — who had once had an affair with Larry’s brother, Frank — who’d found himself sucked into the Hell of the box.  But with Claire’s help, Frank has found a way to escape the Cenobites who torture him endlessly — until Kirsty unwittingly summons Pinhead and his minions herself.

The movie’s theme revolve around sex and sadomasochism, the violence is disturbing and graphic, and there’s no shortage of blood spilled throughout.  Hellraiser is frightening and suspenseful, and the scenes with the Cenobites are nightmarish.  Doug Bradley’s work as Pinhead is masterful — as a force not necessarily of evil, but of nature — his character is fittingly:  scary as hell.

9.  The Fly (1986)

Even more surprising than seeing a John Landis-directed film on this list yesterday is seeing a Mel Brooks — yes, that Mel Brooks — produced film on today’s list.  And as the story goes, when this remake of the 1958 original was first screened, the studio executives present apparently thought they were seeing another wacky Brooks comedy like Blazing Saddles.  Oops.

But it wasn’t Brooks behind the camera, but David Cronenberg — which should have been a tip-off that the laughs were going to be few and far between.  What the audience would get would be a tragic story of an eccentric inventor’s misstep that leaves him slowly transforming into something no longer human.

Where can I begin in gushing over this film?  I nearly ranked it higher on this list, except that while I think it’s a better film than some of the entries ahead of it, it’s not necessarily a scarier one, which had to be weighed.  But the acting of the leads, Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis, is incredible — Goldblum was jobbed out of an Academy Award nomination (and Siskel and Ebert agreed with me at the time).  The special effects and makeup are astounding.  The story is rich in symbolism.  And the ending is one of the most heart-wrenching finales I’ve ever seen in any film, not just a horror film.  This is a film you owe it to yourself to see if you haven’t.

8.  Night of the Living Dead (1968)

George Romero’s classic that introduced the cinematic world to zombies introduces today’s offerings, and it’s a groundbreaking film in more ways than you might imagine.  One of only two black-and-white films that made this list, Night of the Living Dead was a low-budget independent movie that was Romero’s first work as a director (the low budget was the reason the film wasn’t made in color).  The black-and-white lends a gritty realism to the movie, as well as providing a nod back to classic horror cinema.  The plot is straight-forward — the dead have come back to life and are coming to get a group of disparate people hiding out in a rural home — and the cast is unknown.

The casting of African-American actor Duane Jones, who played the male lead Ben, as the hero in an otherwise all-white cast in 1968 was groundbreaking.  The movie builds up tension throughout, as the zombies effectiveness isn’t in their speed or ferocity, but in their sheer numbers that are increasing as the area of safety for the protagonists continues to shrink.  The violence and the gore are effective and disturbing, and unlike most movies of the time, there was no happy ending to send audiences home with.

Night of the Living Dead spawned a number of sequels, remakes, and copycats, and it’s the reason we have zombie cinema (like the excellent 28 Days Later and the upcoming AMC series The Walking Dead) today.  It’s a classic of the big screen, and if you’ve never seen the original — what are you waiting for?

7.  Psycho  (1960)

This entry stands out from the rest of the film on this list for a number of reasons.  It’s one of only two black and white films on the list.  It’s also the oldest film of the bunch, and the least violent, as there’s almost no blood and no gore to be seen anywhere.  And of course, it’s directed by the Master of Suspense himself, the legendary Alfred Hitchcock.

If there’s a problem for modern audiences in viewing Psycho, it’s that the surprises are long since gone, and it’s impossible for anyone today to replicate what viewers back in 1960 went through went they first saw the film.  Thankfully, my first viewing — when I was still just a kid many years ago — saw me unaware of the twists that today’s audiences are privy to, and I was just as stunned as they were back then when Janet Leigh took her shower — and never came out.

The film is a true masterpiece.  Anthony Perkins’ performance is brilliant, and the musical score is a classic that is instantly identifiable when you hear it.  It’s arguably Hitchcock’s finest film, and it’s a testament to the fact that you don’t need to show everything on film in order to get a reaction from the audience — or to scare them.

6.   The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Upon it’s initial release, Tobe Hooper’s film — presented as a true story (it wasn’t) of a group of friends ambushed and slaughtered by a family of cannibals while traveling through the sparsely populated regions of Texas — quickly became one of the most controversial movie releases of all time.

The film’s main killer, Leatherface, was modeled after real-life serial killer Ed Gein (as had been Norman Bates beforehand and Silence of the Lambs killer Buffalo Bill afterward).  And it was easy to see why many people believed that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a true story — the film itself had a grainy quality to it that many have commented make watching it akin to viewing a snuff film.

The sadistic violence and the gore, while at the time unlike what most audiences had even seen in a theater, are frankly nothing compared to what’s on the screen in the current “torture porn” movies (like Eli Roth’s Hostel, for example).  But the sense of terror that comes through on the screen is no less effective now than it was almost forty years ago.  Famous film critic Rex Reed once described it as “the most terrifying film he had ever seen”.   It’s also the film that in many ways — for better or for worse — started the slasher film sub-genre.

And finally — keep checking back as we recap our final top-5!

My Top-20 Horror Movies Of All Time — Part 2

Posted in Entertainment, Movies with tags , , , on October 26, 2010 by thelasthonestman

Like any good horror movie franchise, here’s my sequel to yesterday’s list of horror movies that put a scare into me.  Today, I’m looking at numbers 15-11 on my list, counting down to my number one favorite later in the week.

15.   Suspiria (1977)

If there’s a movie in my top-20 that someone reading this hasn’t seen yet, then it’s probably this one.  From the mind of Italian filmmaker Dario Argento, Suspiria was a film I had never seen until recent years, when it appeared in its uncut form on one of the myriad satellite channels I get (I believe, I saw it on IFC, though I can’t remember for certain).  I heard about it originally from the Bravo special running a few years back, the 100 Scariest Movie Moments — and I’m glad I did and wish I’d seen it sooner.

The hallmarks of the movie — a tale of a American ballet student attending a dance school in Germany where terrible things are happening — are the vivid colors used throughout, giving a nightmarish quality to the the story, and the music — a powerful soundtrack unlike anything I’ve ever heard in a horror film before.   Also, the violent deaths in the movie are brutally graphic and over-the-top in their depictions of blood and gore — it’s definitely worth catching the film in as close to an uncut state as possible if you can in order to get the full effect.

If you think that all horror films are nothing more than some masked killer preying on a bunch of horny teenagers, then this movie will change your perception dramatically.  There’s nothing really out there like it, and that’s a sign of what a horror masterpiece this movie is.

14.   An American Werewolf in London  (1981)

One of the more underrated movies on this list, it was directed by John Landis — yeah, that John Landis who directed Animal House, The Blues Brothers, and Trading Places.  But don’t be fooled into thinking this a comedy by any stretch of the imagination, even though there are definitely comedy elements mixed in with the horror.

The plot follows two American students traveling in England, and their encounter with a werewolf on the darkened, fog-shrouded moors.  One of the students, played by Griffin Dunne, is killed while the other, played by David Naughton, survives — though he finds that he may have been better off if he hadn’t.

The English settings and the largely English cast give the film a tremendous atmosphere, as do the great sets.  The special effects at the time (the centerpiece being the main characters transformation into a werewolf) were groundbreaking at the time, and they still hold up strongly today.  I had a soft spot at the time for the nurse played by Jenny Agutter (at age 57, she’s still gorgeous today), and the story isn’t just a horror film — it’s a tragic love story as well.  But there’s no shortage of scares — the  nightmares suffered by the protagonist, for example, are as frightening as anything you’ll see on this list.

13.   The Evil Dead  (1981)

When I watched the scene in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 where Dr. Octopus’ tentacled arms come to life and brutally kill the medical staff trying to attend to him, my first thought was, “It’s moments like this where you can see Raimi’s horror movie roots shining through.”

This horror classic follows the story of five students who travel to an isolated cabin in the Tennessee mountains to spend a weekend.  While there, they discover “The Book of the Dead” and accidentally use it to summon a host of demons and evil spirits, which then begin to possess them.  Needless to say, the weekend goes pretty much all downhill from there.

The sequels that followed the exploits of the main character Ash (portrayed by the brilliant, underrated Bruce Campbell) were far lighter in tone than the original film.   Like a number of films on this list, the violence is graphic and disturbing, but the film isn’t just a sequence of violent deaths repeated ad nauseum.  It does beg the question, however — are there any films where people go to an isolated cabin in the woods and don’t end up dead?  Certainly, that’s not the case in our next film on the list …

12.  Friday the 13th  (1980)

The original that kick-started the long-running franchise of horror films, this is also the one that’s known as “The One without Jason”.  While the hockey-masked, unstoppable killer Jason Voorhees would become the face of the series, the first only features him as a boy (and possibly only as a hallucination) at the end of the film.  This movie does follow the standard series plot, though, of having a host of hot-blooded young teenage counselors going to Camp Crystal Lake — and slowly getting picked off one by one.

What sets this film apart from the others in the series — and why it’s on this list — is that, for one — it’s genuinely scary.   With the exception of one early death, the first half of the movie is mostly about building suspense — you know someone’s stalking the doomed counselors, and half the scares are in waiting for the shoe (or axe) to drop.  Unlike many of the other Friday installments, while there’s gore and violent deaths, there’s also plenty things you don’t see but have to imagine instead (this is probably the least gory of all of the movies in the series).

In addition, there’s actually attempts made to develop the characters, and the ending where the killer is revealed is a great twist the first time you see it (though, by now, everyone knows who the killer is — it’s iconic enough to have been used in the opening of Scream).  And as a bonus — it has Kevin Bacon in it for crying out loud.   Enough said.

11.   The Blair Witch Project (1999)

This entry will almost certainly be the most controversial on my list;  it’s definitely one of those, “You either love it or you hate it” entries there’s absolutely no in between with nearly everyone who’s seen the film.

Presented as found footage discovered a year after three student filmmakers vanish in the woods in Maryland, the movie was a triumph in independent film making, Blair Witch becoming the most profitable film independent movie ever released.  So convincing was the film-s unique set-up, that many viewers initially thought that what they were watching was a real documentary (and even today there are still people who think the events of the movie actually happened).

Unlike almost every movie on this list, there’s nearly no violence, no gore, and nobody dies (presumably) until the end.  So why is it on my list?  Well, it’s what you don’t see — and what your imagination tells you is out there — that makes the story scary.

My biggest complaints is a lack of much going on for the first two thirds of the film — stop arguing about the map already! — and the nausea-inducing movements of the hand-held camera (a necessity for the film’s premise, though).  But all faults are forgiven in the spine-tingling ending in the abandoned house, which left me more than unnerved when I left the theater and kept me that way the entire drive home.

Now up for your entertainment — click here for numbers 10-6!

Halloween’s Coming, So It’s Time For A Good Scare — My Top 20 Horror Movies Of All Time, Part 1

Posted in Entertainment, Movies with tags , , , on October 25, 2010 by thelasthonestman

We’re less than a week away from Halloween, so what better time to crack out a list of movies that are some of my favorites in the horror genre?

Horror movies — and scary stories — have always been a favorite of mine, even since I was a little kid.  As a writer, a number of my fiction projects have used horror and suspense as their backbone as a result.  And even today, I’m a sucker for a good scare on the big screen.

Which movies are my favorite?  Probably not the one that are yours;  like any list, this one is completely subjective — your mileage may (and will) vary, and everyone’s welcome to chime in on their own favorites in the comments.  Besides, there’s not a whole lot of difference between most of the films in the bottom half of my top 20 anyway.

What you won’t see in this list:  With one exception, nothing made more than 40 years ago.  I’ve got nothing against the classics that started it all, but it’s difficult to rank movies like Frankenstein against modern-day fare like Hostel — it’s definitely a case of apples and oranges.  In addition, most of the classics are movies I haven’t seen in an eternity, and certainly not as many times as I’ve seen some of the movies on this list, so I don’t think I’d be doing them justice.  You also won’t see Jaws (a great movie, but just not that scary, at least to me), Seven (again a incredible movie and unnerving at times, but it doesn’t feel like a film that fits the genre, and Silence of the Lambs (see: Seven) — all of which I’ve seen on a number of top-whatever lists.

So without further delay, here’s Part 1 of my Top 20 Horror Movies Of All Time.  Look for Parts 2, 3, and 4 coming later this week!  But for now, here’s numbers 20-16!

20.  Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

The first time I saw this movie, I didn’t understand it.   And I definitely wasn’t sure what I thought about it, and whether I liked it or not — and I wasn’t alone, as the critics (and audiences) were equally divided.  The movie follows a Vietnam veteran and his increasingly disturbing hallucinations.

Further viewing made me appreciate the film more and more, and it’s definitely a movie that will disturb you at a deeper level, in addition to giving you a couple of good-old-fashioned scares.  Jacob’s Ladder features a top-notch cast, headed by Tim Robbins — not a guy I’d think would make a good horror movie lead, but he does a great job here as a man whose sanity is quickly slipping away.

19.    The Wicker Man (1973)

No, no — not the godawful remake with Nicholas Cage.  I’m talking about the original, starring Edward Woodward (The Equalizer!) and Christopher Lee.  We’re just going to pretend that remake never happened, okay?

The plot revolves around a British police sergeant (Woodward) investigating the disappearance of a young girl on a remote island.  What our helpless hero finds is an island with a populace participating in a cult, engaging in pagan rituals, and seemingly oblivious to the investigation at hand.

The movie is unusual in that its hero is a devout Christian who is — gasp — celibate, and who finds his own beliefs challenged by the acts around him.  The movie takes a while to build, but the tremendous ending makes up for it in spades.

18.   Paranormal Activity (2009)

An entry that may be controversial, this movie follows a young couple seemingly haunted in their suburban home.  The film is shown in the format of  “found footage”a technique that’s come into greater use in recent years as a storytelling device.  It’s a technique I have mixed feelings about — some of the films employing it have done so with great effect, while others (like Cloverfield) simply made me feel motion sick.

The acting isn’t great –in some places, frankly, it’s downright awful — but that adds to the films realism, as it makes it easier to believe that what we’re seeing is something real and not just a movie.  And it’s difficult to get past the stupidity of the protagonists — particularly the male lead — at points in the film to maintain the suspension of disbelief that’s necessary.

So why is it on the list?  Simply put, it uses a less-is-more approach that’s very effective, and sometimes, it’s the waiting for the littlest things to happen that makes for the most effective scares.  And it was one of the few movies on this list that made me want to leave a light on somewhere when I went to sleep the night I saw it, well after I’d left the theater.  That’s worth something right there.

17.   The Descent (2005)

Another entry from our British filmmakers across the pond, this follows five women who get together for a weekend in the Appalachian Mountains and look to do some spelunking.  Bad idea.

The women soon are lost in the caves following a collapse — and if that’s not bad enough, there’s something else underground with them.  What follows is a tense, claustrophobic movie experience that was one of my favorite surprises when I first saw it.  It’s also a film with a number of unique, well-developed female characters who carry the film — and that alone makes it a rarity.  Highly recommended.

16.  The Thing (1982)

John Carpenter’s underrated classic is something you almost never see — a remake that exceeds the original movie it was based on.  It’s a movie that didn’t do well during its initial release at the box office, but which has gained a cult following in the years since.

As for me — well, I love me some John Carpenter movies.  You won’t see some of his other fare on this list — the underrated The Fog, They Live, or Escape from New York (though you will see another of his films, no surprise which one though you’ll have to wait until the reveal) — but there wasn’t much that Carpenter did in the decade that was the late 1970’s through the late 1980’s that I didn’t like (his more recent offerings — eh, not so much).

Every one of Carpenter’s films has a style that set it apart, and The Thing is no exception.  The cast is outstanding, headed by Kurt Russell but featuring great turns by half a dozen other outstanding actors.  The plot involving an alien that can mimic the appearance of anyone — including those stranded at this distant Antarctic base — keeps the viewer continuously guessing that who can be trusted and who can’t.  It’s currently being remade/homaged — but I’m thinking whatever we see will be a disappointment compared to this classic.

That’s 20-16 — check out numbers 15-11 right here!