Tag Archives: Horror Movies

The Horror! The Horror! – Part II

Since posting Part I of this blog, I’ve realised that I omitted Comedy-Horror as a sub-genre from the list I gave in the genre outline. As far as I can tell, movies of this type go back as far as the 1940s, when Abbott and Costello appeared in their ‘meet ….‘ series – which included Dracula, Frankenstein and The Wolfman. The tradition continued in the 60s with Carry On Screaming and more recently with Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland. None of these is included in Part II but my first movie has been described by some reviewers as Comedy-Horror.

An American Werewolf in London (1981) – directed by John Landis, stars David Naughton and Jenny Agutter. The movie is, justly, renowned for Rick Baker’s make up that achieves the transformation from human to werewolf. The prosthetics and robotics were indeed groundbreaking and earned the Oscar for make-up that year.

But the film is genuinely frightening, especially in Naughton’s bizarre dream sequences and his reaction to them. The viewer is sympathetic to his truly horrific plight and the hopelessness of it. A modern classic.

Night of the Demon (1957) is director Jacques Tourneur’s account of the M R James story, ‘Casting the Runes’. It stars Dana Andrews (best known as the obsessive detective in ‘Laura‘) and Niall MacGinnis.

Tourneur was expert at creating taut, atmospheric films that hinted at impending menace. Here, the rationalist Holden (Andrews) is sceptical about Karswell’s (MacGinnis) druidical powers. But the audience already knows what Karswell is capable of – and we fear for Holden. The playing of both actors is perfectly pitched to carry the story to its chilling conclusion.

Trivia gatherers may like to know that a clip of dialogue from this film was used by Kate Bush in the introduction to ‘Hounds of Love’. A nice gothic connection.

Halloween (1978)  John Carpenter’s genre-defining slasher movie was independently made on a $320,000 budget and grossed $70 million, worldwide. I do believe that its debt to Psycho is plain to see – but this film proved hugely influential in spawning a host of (lesser) imitators and genre clichés.

What’s interesting about the movie is that it contains very little graphic violence or gore. Yet it managed to shock and thrill audiences in the most compelling way. I will certainly bear testament to that and admit to nearly falling off my seat on several occasions at Wellington’s Lido Cinema, such was the tension created by the skillful editing. One of the greats.

The Innocents (1961) is director Jack Clayton’s adaptation of the Henry James novella, The Turn of the Screw. Deborah Kerr is Miss Giddens, the governess to brother and sister, Miles and Flora, who are orphaned and in the care of their absentee uncle (Michael Redgrave) at his country estate.

Giddens learns that her predecessor, Miss Jessel, had committed suicide following the death of her lover, Quint, who had been employed as a valet on the estate. Quint, now dead, had a hold over both Miss Jessel and the boy Miles, Giddens learns – and she believes that he still exerts a malignant influence over the house and its occupants. Using lighting, deep focus camerawork and precise editing, Clayton creates  an insidious, sinister atmosphere that only ever suggests – but never tells. The Innocents is a masterful, psychological thriller that clings to you like moorland mist.

Christine (1983) is the mother of all ‘bad influence’ movies. Except it’s a Plymouth Fury, ‘Christine’, that’s the bad influence. John Carpenter does Stephen King’s novel proud and has made a movie that is a true, timeless classic.

When nerdy teen Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon) buys the run-down Christine with a view to restoring her, she lets him know how grateful she is by playing Johnny Ace’s ‘Pledging My Love’ on the radio for him. From that moment on, we know that this is undying love and that no one had better come between Arnie and Christine. Of course, they do – and the results are memorable.

Peeping Tom (1960) I should say straightaway that not only do I believe Michael Powell’s film to be the greatest Horror Film ever made, but that it must be accorded the status of one of the 20 most important films in the history of cinema. I cannot do justice to its complexities and influence here, except to say that the great Martin Scorcese considers that this film ‘says everything that can be said about film-making….’

When you watch this film, you may like to consider the idea that the film , itself, reflects your act of watching – that cinema audiences are voyeurs. As mentioned in Part I, Kathryn Bigelow also explores this idea in ‘Strange Days’ to stunning effect. Powell was virtually hounded out of the industry when this film was first released. Fortunately both he and the film have been reassessed by critics and movie-goers and Peeping Tom now stands as a masterpiece of cinema.

Well, that’s the dozen. If you haven’t seen them, track them down and give them a go. Probably not a great idea to watch them by yourself though.

The Horror! The Horror! – Part 1

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.