And here's more...
20. The Descent (D: Neil Marshall, 2005)
Brit director Neil Marshall's second film is a super tense claustrophobic underground scarefest which sees a band of six female friends go exploring an unmapped cave system, getting lost, surviving a cave-in, only to then have to deal with hideous underground cannibalistic monsters called Crawlers. The Descent of the title not only refers to the descent underground but also to the psychological descent in to guilt, terror and madness by the main character Sarah after her husband and child are both killed in a car accident that she survived. All the actresses are excellent, especially Shauna Macdonald as Sarah, and the script by Marshall is character driven and intelligent. His direction is fantastic too, piling on the tension, atmosphere and scares. Marshall is helped no end by inspired set designs (all of the caves are interchangeable studio sets, which you'd never guess watching the film) and stunning cinematography from his regular DP Sam McCurdy, one of the best DPs currently working. To note, Marshall’s werewolf flick Dog Soldiers remains my fave of his films but I’ve left it out of this list as it’s more of a monsters vs. soldiers action movie than a horror movie, in the same way Aliens isn’t in this list either but Alien for sure will be.
19. The Eye (D: The Pang Bros., 2002)
The Pang Brothers pan-Asian chiller is a brilliantly creepy and imaginative tale which sees blind twenty year old Hong Kong classical violinist Mun getting an eye transplant which allows her to see for the first time since she was two. Unfortunately her new eyes also let her see angry spirits and ghostly apparitions of terrible tragedies which have already happened and which may yet happen. The Eye is simply a great story filled with atmosphere, strong performances, visual creativity, pant wettingly scary moments (the ghost in the elevator springs to mind) and an ending which is nothing short of horrifically spectacular. Brilliant film. Just don't bother with the lame US remake.
18. Bram Stoker's Dracula (D: Francis Ford Coppola, 1992)
Coppola's lush, bloody, romantic, erotic, grandly theatrical and wonderfully overblown take on Stoker's classic novel is my favourite film version of the story for exactly those reasons. And for Gary Oldman's startlingly original and utterly compelling take on the titular character, recast here as a tragic, romantic antihero. Simply, Oldman is amazing! His performance as either creepy wizened old man or elegant romantic lead or bloodthirsty bat demon or sex hungry Wolfman is jaw dropingly awesome. Alongside him Anthony Hopkins makes for a gloriously mad Van Helsing. Winona Ryder is lovely and full of repressed eroticism as Mina, the object of Drac's affections. Sadie Frost is adorable and sexy as flirty Lucy. And Tom Waits, Richard E Grant, Carey Elwes and Bill Campbell all provide solid support. The only duff link in the acting chain is poor old Keanu Reeves, atrociously miscast as Jonathan Harker, his being one of cinema's most embarrassingly awful performances of all time. But not even the terribleness of Keanu can sink this movie. Bram Stoker's Dracula is a visual and storytelling tour de force that harks back to old style movie making on grand sets with imaginative camera work, make-up and in-camera FX rather than snazzy editing farts and glossy CGI. It looks like a wondrously produced stage play with the actors going big as if they are indeed performing to a live audience. And it works. Also, the film doesn't skimp on the blood and the horror. The sequence where Van Helsing and co. track down and kill vampire Lucy in her tomb is stunningly shot and edited and gloriously gory. A special call out goes to the thunderously dramatic and doomladen score by Polish composer Wojciech Kilar. It's one of my all time faves. I know that this film has as many critics as it does fans. And I do understand why many don't go for it. But I do. Big time. For me, Coppola’s film is the most all round enjoyable, visually arresting and compulsively watchable version of Dracula yet made.
17. Interview with the Vampire (D: Neil Jordan, 1994)
Neil Jordan's film of Anne Rice's classic 1976 novel is a classy and beautifully mounted production. That it stays hugely faithful to Rice's text is down to Jordan and to producer David Geffen who employed Rice herself to write the screenplay with help from Jordan. It was only when Tom Cruise was cast as the inimitable Vampire Lestat, the brat prince anti-hero of many of Rice's vampire novels that Rice and much of her fandom balked. However, after seeing Cruise's work, Rice admitted she was wrong and took out a public ad in Variety saying as much and praising Cruise's performance. As well she might. For though the story of Interview is really that of morose vampire Louis who Lestat turns back in 18th century Louisiana, it is Cruise as Lestat, a part-time presence in the film, who electrifies. He is pure savage charisma, a selfish, cruel and utterly amoral monster that enjoys inflicting pain and suffering for his own amusement. He is elegant and charming, then feral and furious. He is pure swaggering ego with fangs and an endless lust for blood. The scene where he toys with and tortures a young prostitute before killing her all to make a point to Louis is cruel and ghastly. But as we follow the undead existence of vampire Louis as he recounts his tale to a writer in a dingy contemporary San Francisco room, it is one other character and actor who comes to truly steal the film. Kirsten Dunst in her screen debut is Claudia, an orphan child who Lestat and Louis turn in to a vampire, taking as their immortal daughter. She is a child who over the decades will mature in mind, but will never grow up in body. The then twelve-year-old Dunst is fabulous as this tragic and ultimately doomed woman child. Her scenes with Brad Pitt's Louis are as touching as her scenes with Cruise's Lestat are tense and combative. Rices' script is rich and thoughtful, pondering often on the nature of life and death, of good and evil, while being filled with such tangible despair (Rice wrote the original book in order to deal with the loss of her young child). On a technical level Dante Farretti's sets are beautifully designed, being often exaggerated versions for their period. Phillippe Rousselot's photography is both lush and gloomy as needed. And the mournful choral score by Elliot Goldenthal is highly effective. Also worth noting is the FX. Digital Domain provided many subtle digital FX along with matte paintings and set extensions. The subtle CG morphing as both Louis and then Claudia become vampires is a lesson in how to do great unobtrusive CGI. And the make-up and animatronics by the late Stan Winston are some of the best he ever did. The sequence where Claudia cuts Lestat's throat and he slowly bleeds to death on the floor is a marvel of FX work combining Cruise's performance and gory make-up merged with an amazingly life like animatronic of Cruise as he writhes, bleeds, desiccates and dies in front of our eyes. As a long time fan of Rice's first tranche of Vampire Chronicles books (from Interview up to Memnoch: The Devil) I couldn't have wished for a better film version of her original beloved text. Sympathy for the Devil indeed.
16. The Company of Wolves (D: Neil Jordan, 1984)
Neil Jordan's other horror movie (at least until his new one Byzantium comes out) was partly what got him the gig for Interview with the Vampire. The Company of Wolves is a strange, lyrical, dreamlike fable based upon Little Red Riding Hood and adapted by Jordan together with the late author Angela Carter from short stories by Carter in her book The Bloody Chamber. Carter's book is a reworking of several famous (and some not so famous) fairytales such as Little Red Riding Hood and Beauty and the Beast, but with a strong feminist slant, as tales of burgeoning womanhood and sexual awakening. In the movie, in contemporary times, a young girl, 14 or 15, takes to her bed and falls asleep. In her dreams now we are in a small village in a deep dark forest in long ago times. Here, the same young girl, now called Rosaleen, is being constantly warned by her parents and her granny to beware the wolves who prowl the forest and also nefarious men who will try to take her virtue. Granny tells her too that some wolves can disguise themselves as men, making them doubly dangerous. What follows are several tales told by granny of men who become wolves and all the terrible things that then happen. But Rosaleen’s sexual awakening is more powerful than any scary old tales. And she soon ignores granny’s warnings when she meets a handsome huntsman out in the woods who charms her and challenges her to a race to granny’s cottage. Of course, we all know what happens next. “Oh granny, what big eyes you have...” I'm a huge fan of fairytales and of how they can be reinvented and reinterpreted. I've read The Bloody Chamber and it is a beautifully written, hugely evocative and deeply intelligent text. Jordan's film keeps the same feel as the book and plays like a beautiful nightmare filled with classic fairytale imagery and added blood and gore and some very, very icky werewolf transformations. The film looks gorgeous with the intricate sets and lush photography making it appear far more expensive than it actually was (a budget of only £410,000.) But it is Jordan's overall style of direction – the dreamlike quality – and the thematic depth that makes this something so very special. It is the best, most fully realised, most intelligent adult fairytale ever put on screen. The cast is uniformly excellent including such luminaries as Angela Landsbury, Stephen Rea and David Warner. And George Fenton's score is darkly melodic and quite lovely. A beautiful, lyrical, scary film, The Company of Wolves stays with you, especially in your dreams...and nightmares.
15. Candyman (D: Bernard Rose, 1992)
Bernard Rose’s film adaptation of Clive Barker’s short story The Forbidden transplants Barker’s tale of horrific urban legends from England to the US, specifically to the run down public housing estate of Cabrini Green in Chicago. Virginia Madsen is Helen, a graduate student doing a thesis on urban legends, who is investigating the legend of the Candyman, a slave who fell in love with a white woman only to be tortured and murdered for doing so. Apparently if you say his name five times in to a mirror he appears and splits you open with his hook for a hand. Several murders have happened on the Green, which the locals attribute to the Candyman. Fascinated, Helen delves deeper in to the legend and in to the world of Cabrini Green…only to find more than she ever bargained for - a bloodbath with herself as the number one murder suspect. Rose’s film is a grim, poetic, scare and blood filled nightmare of murder and possible madness. Is Candyman real? Is Helen really mad? Candyman is all about the power of legends, of folklore, of combined belief where what is real and what is believed to be real becomes blurred. It is also damn scary with several sequences that will make you jump out of your skin and cringe in horror. Madsen, always a good actress, is perhaps at her best ever here. And as Candyman himself, Tony Todd creates one of cinema’s finest and most iconic scaremongers. Also worth noting is Philip Glass’s odd, jarring and brilliantly haunting score. Be my victim!
14. The Omen (D: Richard Donner, 1976)
Not much needs to be said about Richard Donner’s classic 1976 tale of the antichrist coming to earth in the form of a little boy called Damien. We all know the story. We all know it is brilliant! Gregory Peck and Lee Remick are both splendid as the child’s unwitting adoptive parents Robert and Katherine Thorne, Robert being the current US ambassador to the UK. Donner’s film is a classy production, which follows the mystery of who and what young Damien really is, the evil that happens around him, and his adoptive father’s own investigations and eventual horrific discovery of the truth. The film is chock full of classic sequences and unforgettable moments that chill the blood to this day. It is helped enormously too by Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar winning score which is utterly foreboding in its choral grandeur and chilling Latin chants. By far the best of all the Omen films and a million times better than the dull and pointless 2006 remake.
13. The Fog (D: John Carpenter, 1980)
John Carpenter’s 1980 follow up to Halloween is an oft-overlooked classic. A gloriously atmospheric ghost story that , like Halloween, relies on mood, atmosphere and tension over gore and cheap shocks (though it does have a couple of very good shocks). The small coastal town of Antonio bay is celebrating its centenary when a creepy fog rolls in at night from the sea, sending things around town a little crazy. Soon, the ghosts of drowned lepers, betrayed by the original towns folk, return to exact their gruesome revenge on the descendants. Tom Atkins, Jamie Lee Curtis, Adrienne Barbeau and Hal Holbrook lead the cast and do strong work. But the true star of the film is Carpenter along with his DP Dean Cundey who together create a film dripping with atmosphere and slow creeping dread. A simple but great ghost story, I never get tired of watching The Fog and always get a chill when I see a real life fog bank. Ghost lepers…brrr!
12. Evil Dead 2 (D: Sam Raimi, 1987)
Well, what can one say about Sam Raimi’s madcap surreal loony tunes horror/comedy? It’s pure bonkers genius, being a quasi remake and sequel to the first movie while utterly changing the tone from seriously grim and gruelling horror to utterly un-serious and hilarious comic book monster mash. Bruce Campbell is back as poor hapless demon fighter Ash, still stuck in that darn cabin fighting those pesky deadites as some new human arrivals turn up to make his already hard life even harder. This time, Campbell gets to unleash his inner Buster Keaton as a madcap physical comedian, beating himself up, sawing off his own hand, chasing his own possessed hand around with a shotgun… He’s brilliant! So, so funny. The monsters and gore are so cartoonish and rubbery that scares are pretty much non-existent. But when a film is this bonkers, this creative, this out and out zany, who cares about scares? Evil Dead 2 is a riot. I like the first movie but have never loved it. With Evil Dead 2 Raimi found his groove, his horror style. And knocked it outta the park. Evil Dead 2 is pure insane fun from start to end.
“WHO’S LAUGHING NOW?”
11. Day of the Dead (D: George A. Romero, 1985)
George A. Romero’s third zombie film is possibly his darkest, most nihilistic of them all. After the comic book styling of Dawn, Day is a grey, grim, dour look at a ruined world and its last few ruined people. A small band of scientists and military are holed up in an underground bunker apparently searching for a cure to the zombie epidemic which now seems to have claimed the world above. The scientists, led by Sarah (Lori Cardile) and the eccentric but brilliant Dr Logan (Richard Liberty) are experimenting on ‘live’ zombies with Logan thinking they can be tamed and made harmless, as demonstrated by his prize pupil Bub, the ‘smart’ zombie he’s helping learn. Meanwhile, the military types, led by the aggressive and increasingly unhinged Rhodes (Joe Pilato), are getting increasingly frustrated with the scientists and what it is they are doing. Tensions rise between the two groups and when Rhodes discovers something awful that Logan has done he loses it and things in the bunker quickly go to hell. Day of the Dead is an unrelentingly grim look at humanity and how communication between people can break down so easily and lead to terrible things. The humans ironically do not learn from their mistakes and their violent impulses, whereas the zombie Bub is the only one who is learning and controlling his horrid impulses as the humans around him descend in to violence and idiocy. Everything about Day is fabulous. The grim look of the film, the score by John Harrison, the intelligent script, and the acting – specifically Howard Sherman as Bub, the most loveable zombie ever. But above all else, Tom Savini’s make-up and gore FX reach new heights in realism and pure grossness. Real offal was used in the film. And it looks like it too. A great film filled with social commentary, great scares (the opening hands through the wall is genius) and gore by the bucket load. Just avoid the shit 2008 remake.
“Choke on ‘em!”
Top 10 coming soon.