I was asked by some readers to write about favourite horror films – so here goes; Just what is a horror film is difficult to define as there are several sub-genres I was able to identify: The Undead – vampires, werewolves, mummies laboratory made monsters and zombies; Post-Apocalypse – nuclear wasteland, mutants; Supernatural – the Devil, ghosts and spirits, possession; Sci-fi – aliens, creatures and doomsday; Slasher – teen murders, revenge and psychopaths; Psychological – inner demons, the unexplained and metaphysics. There are also the franchises, such as Hammer, Roger Corman, Dario Argento and so on – and these often contain several elements of these sub-genres.
There are probably other examples, but these will do for now. The point is that one woman’s horror movie may well be another man’s comedy – Nicholas Cage’s Vampire’s Kiss, for example, could be either – or both. So, here’s the first batch of sphinctre-expanding shockers.
Seconds (1966) is director John Frankenheimer’s take on David Ely’s novel of identity crisis. A shadowy organisation known only as ‘The Company’ arranges for the bored and wealthy not only to assume new identities – but new bodies and minds.
Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson) is the product of one such exchange – and what happens to him when he wants out is a salutary and horrifying commentary on materialism and the quest for eternal beauty. The film provided Hudson with an opportunity to use his screen idol image to savage effect. An opportunity that produced, I believe, the performance of his career.
Near Dark (1987) is my favourite vampire movie. Director, Kathryn Bigelow has taken the traditional genre and fused it with elements of the Western and Road movie genres to achieve a gripping and satisfying account of terror and mayhem in the mid-west of America. The film stars Adrian Pasdar, Jenny Wright – and Lance Henricksen as the head of the nomadic vampire family. (Interestingly, Bigelow went on to direct Strange Days (1995) which gives more than a nod in the direction of Peeping Tom – of which, more later)
Repulsion (1965) is Roman Polanski’s first English language film and stars the extraordinary Catherine Deneuve as Carol, a manicurist, living in west London with her sister, Helen (Yvonne Furneaux).
When Helen takes a holiday with her boyfriend, Carol is left alone in the flat and , already deeply neurotic, her anxieties and inner demons, now unchecked, rapidly plunge her into a living nightmare of hallucinations and paranoia. Repulsion is a truly unsettling film whose menace will sit on your shoulder for many hours after the final frame has flickered into nothing.
Se7en (1995) is undoubtedly a horror film. Following a serial murderer whose theme is the seven deadly sins, the audience is left to surmise about how each murder is achieved, rather than why. The ceaseless rain and urban decay that provide the backdrop for Detectives Mills (Brad Pitt) and Somerset (Morgan Freeman) to hunt down the killer, create a similar atmosphere to Blade Runner. But director David Fincher is not about to let any light into Se7en’s world and that refusal is the film’s triumph. There are no easy outs and all that remains is the horror.
Psycho (1960 Alfred Hitchcock)
One of the most famous films in the history of cinema and the most frightening film I’ve ever seen. To put that into context, I was 14 when it turned up at the Ritz, Stockwell in Southwest London. I ‘bunked in’ to see it at a mid-week afternoon session when I should have been at school. I say ‘bunked in’, first because it was an X-rated film (16 and over) and second, because I was broke.
Even though I fancied myself as the toughest kid on the block, the truth is the combination of the shower scene and the cellar scene – Tony Perkins in drag, a skyline knife and those bloody violins screeching like demented harpies – served to give me nightmares for weeks. I was well into my 30s before I was game to assay the film again. (There is a pointless 1998 frame-for-frame remake which I do not recommend, unless you’re a completist)
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Roman Polanski’s second entry on this page is based on Ira Levin’s novel and stars Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes as Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse. Rosemary becomes pregnant as actor husband, Guy, finds sudden success which is somehow tied to eccentric neighbours Roman and Minnie Castavet (Sidney Blackmer – and Ruth Gordon in a small miracle of a performance) Rosemary soon suspects that they are Satanists and have designs on her unborn child.
The central performances give the film its strength and allow the viewer to buy the contract. Farrow is achingly vulnerable whilst fighting for her sanity in an insane situation. Cassavetes is all smiling, venal assurances as he honours his pact and is cuckolded by the horned one. The film also sports a brilliant score by Polish jazz pianist Krzystzof Komeda and you also get to see Ms Farrow’s famous Vidal Sasoon hairdo.
Well, that’s it for now. I’ll return with another six movies very soon. In the meantime, you might try and identify the movie that the still above comes from.