Friday, July 4, 2014

Ten Of My Favorites - The First Five

Recently, someone asked me if I would be willing to list, say, my top ten horror movies. I'm not normally the kind of guy who likes doing lists - they seem sort of glib to me, and what works for me might not for another person. also, there's something about ranking works of art that seems a little weird to me. Like, there's not necessarily one thing that makes one movie better than another, necessarily - they're both good, but in different ways. And making a list always opens you up to objections - why this movie and not that one, how can you have this movie but not this other one, how can you say this movie is good but this one isn't.

So, having gotten all of my caveats and yes-buts and general ass-covering out of the way, here are ten of my favorite horror films. These are the ones that I think have stood the test of time, or will stand the test of time, or continue to haunt my brain long after I've watched them. They are in no particular order, except maybe the ease with which they came to mind.

1. The Shining

Holy shit, this is basically the ur-horror movie in my mind. The original story by Stephen King is good, and it is scary, but as I've gotten older it's struck me as more sad than scary, the story of a man trying desperately to hold his life and family together and failing. Stanley Kubrick's complete makeover jettisons a lot of that (although I do find Jack more pitiable than anything in the very end of the film, almost put down like a mad dog), for something that reaches past sense and reason and pushes direct nightmare buttons with nothing more than meticulously chosen framing and lighting and pacing and angles. I remember watching an ad for it as a little kid, and first you see Danny running through the hedge maze, and then it cut to a shot of Jack, lit primarily from above, turning around slowly with an utterly maniacal look on his face, and the image was so primal and raw that I had to change the channel, and anytime an ad for it came on, I'd do the same or even leave the room. I finally got up the courage to watch it eight or nine years later, and it was a censored version on network TV, constantly interrupted by commercials and stupid weather alerts. Didn't matter, still scared the everloving shit out of me.

2. Night Of The Living Dead

Man, fuck zombie movies as a genre. Completely overplayed to the point of parody. Not entirely incapable of doing something fresh or interesting, but generally overexposed and missing what I think the best part of the ideas of zombies are - their utter relentlessness. The thing about Night Of The Living Dead - and why it has retained so much of its power over the years - is that it, like its titular living dead, never stops or slows down. It's in black and white, so at first it feels a little quaint, like one of those early 60's horror or science fiction films that now feels more campy than anything else. But it isn't. It starts slow, and builds, and builds, and builds, and just when you think it's gotten as bad as it's going to get, it gets worse, and worse, and worse. The walking dead don't stop, and the tension and horror of what it is they are never stops either. You think you've seen everything the movie has to offer you, and then it says "no, I am not finished with you yet," and it ends with a bleak punch to the gut. It doesn't care what you want, it just knows one thing: Implacable forward motion.

3. The Thing

I've already said my piece about this film, but it's totally memorable to me as one of the first monster movies to actually fill me with a sense of loathing or revulsion. The alien reallyis alien - it's not some dude in a rubber suit with some extra appendages or forehead ridges. It flat out does not make sense in terms of how we understand life on this planet. And as its biology is beyond our comprehension, so are its motives. We don't know what it wants. It cannot (or will not) communicate. It only assimilates and propagates. The overall sense of tension is helped by the fact that all of the characters are basically trapped in a hostile environment and they don't like each other very much to start, so the stakes are immediately ramped up (the outside is hostile) and there's little to no margin for error when everyone's damn near ready to shoot each other as it is and now they have another reason to hide things, to lie about things, to fly apart instead of working together.

4. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

No amount of stupid sequels and reboots and sequels to reboots can dim the gonzo, utterly batshit power of the original. In the words of the immortal Joe Bob Briggs, "by the time you're done watching this movie, you'll think it was actually made by cannibals." It is raw, grainy, kinetic, and immediate. The whole thing hurtles along like a fever dream on amphetamines, with a gloriously hot, grimy visual palette and lunatic energy. It starts off weird and just stomps on the gas and hurtles forward from there. I remember being in middle school and some kid relating the plot of it to me, and it sounded so bizarre and ridiculous that I chalked it up to a playground bluff - he hadn't seen it but wanted to act like he had so he made up the most fucked-up thing he could think of to pass off as the actual movie. When I finally saw it, it was exactly what he had described. It's not especially gory - something I think a lot of modern pretenders forget - instead, it derives its power from its amateurishness, which makes it look like somebody's snuff-film home movie, combined with fast, tight action, extreme close-ups, and piercing feedback in lieu of conventional music in spots. You think you're seeing more than you actually are, and that makes it even worse. It's a screaming, squirming, utterly alive film.

5. The Ring

Yes, people will argue that the original, Ringu, is better. That's fine. I certainly think it has a particular charm and power, and it has strengths that the American remake does not. But I think that as a Western viewer, with Western sensibilities, the American remake is the better horror film. It's perpetually overcast, which makes everything feel more dreary and oppressive, and it takes its time in putting all of its pieces together, drawing disparate images from the cursed tape and the life of the people most intimately involved with it into a coherent story over the run time. Sudden, shocking nightmare sequences and brief images remind us that something terrible is going on here, and by and large we don't understand it. This is where I think the film especially shines - its ability to keep some things a mystery. The original explains who and what Sadako is, but in the American version, Samara's father says only "some people weren't meant to have a child", and everything that goes unspoken within that - that this person did, and what did they do to make that happen? - casts even more of a sheen over what is already a story suffused with a sense of doom.

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