A few days ago, in our premiere Question of the Week, I asked “What are your favorite horror films (and, optionally, why)? After some thoughtful and diverse responses, now it is time for my own answer. In all honesty, I could probably make a list of twenty of my top horror films (how have I left out more Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and Hammer pictures?), but here we go for starters.
In very non-static order (because I have named all of these my “favorite” horror film at some point or another):
- The Innocents. 1961. Director: Jack Clayton. Starring Deborah Kerr. Screenplay by Truman Capote and William Archibald, based on Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw. This movie is a perfect adaptation of a classic ghost story with a psychological bent. From the chilling settings to James’ macabre story (moodily adapted by Capote), the haunting score, to the spot-on performances, this may be the quintessentially perfect ghost story film. Beautifully shot in black and white with amazing effects, and with an ending that leaves the audience guessing, this may be the epitome of a gothic chiller.
- Vampyr. 1931. Director: Carl Th. Dreyer. Starring Julian West, Maurice Schutz, Sybille Schmitz. Screenplay by Carl Th. Dreyer, based on the story In A Glass Darkly by Sheridan Le Fanu. A dreamlike, spectral piece of European filmmaking, Vampyr is notable for its iconic chilling imagery, whether you can follow its strange tale or not amidst the intentionally disorienting style. Easily the most creepily macabre imagery in the first half-century of filmmaking. Also notable is the film’s extended special effects sequence using disembodied shadows.
- The Exorcism of Emily Rose. 2005. Director: Scott Derrickson. Starring Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, Jennifer Carpenter. Screenplay by Scott Derrickson and Paul Harris Boardman. This is the most interesting film about demonic possession I have seen. This one is particularly significant because of the questions it raises. Equally effective as a courtroom drama and a horror film, the story has a large focus on both faith and on possible explanations for possession symptoms. The thought provoking film leaves the audience contemplating that either these things exist or they don’t… and both conclusions have repercussions.
- Nosferatu. 1921. Director: F.W. Murnau. Starring: Max Schrek, Greta Schroeder. Screenplay by Henrik Galeen, based on the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker. One really can’t address the horror genre without naming Dracula, and no adaptation has ever been as completely macabre as Nosferatu. Count Orlock (this film’s verion of Dracula) is a ratlike, grotesque vampire without the charm of Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee. He spreads the plague throughout the German community he invades. Ghastly, iconic imagery and a sinister ambiance pervade the whole film. Brilliance.
- Something Wicked This Way Comes. 1983. Director: Jack Clayton. Starring Jason Robards, Jonathan Pryce. Screenplay by Ray Bradbury, based on his novel. This was the very first movie that ever scared me and now, almost twenty years after I first viewed it, I still find it creepily enjoyable. Produced by Disney (suprisingly), Bradbury’s classic tale of two boys coming of age in a small town as an evil carnival feasts on people’s regrets and unhappiness still packs a chill thanks to stellar performances and the subtle but perfect direction by The Innocents‘ Jack Clayton. This film is a perfect introduction to the horror genre for kids, a great film to watch around Halloween, as well as a great talking piece in regard to sin, desire, and evil.
And just because I’m the proprietor of this here establishment, here are my honorable mentions:
- The Phantom of the Opera. 1925. Director: Rupert Julian, Edward Sedgwick (uncredited). Starring Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry. Based upon the novel by Gaston Leroux. A flawed but compelling telling of Gaston Leroux’s famous mystery/horror novel. Easily the most faithful to the book, this film’s strengths rest in Ben Carre’s opera house sets, the stunning early Technicolor masked ball sequence, and the compelling performance of Lon Chaney as the Phantom (featuring his incredible death’s head makeup and shocking unmasking scene).
- The Exorcist. 1973. Directed by William Friedkin. Starring Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Max von Sydow. Screenplay by William Peter Blatty, based on his novel. The pioneer exorcism film. Filled with shocking moments and great atmosphere, it is no longer as scary as it once was, but it still leaves quite the impression.
- Night of the Living Dead. 1969. Director: George Romero. Starring Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea. Screenplay by George Romero and John Russo. I actually think this is one of the scariest movies of all time. I own it, yet I almost never watch it. Its rural, earthy realism actually bothers me like few other movies, and so I hardly ever watch it… but only because it fully succeeds in what it intended to do.
- The Wolf Man. 1941. Director: George Waggner. Starring Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Evelyn Ankers. Screenplay by Curt Siodmak. Full of foggy moors, this sympathetic werewolf story may no longer be frightening, but it has the perfect atmosphere for a gothic tale and created much of the werewolf legend that we take as granted today.
- The Orphanage. 2007. Director: Juan A. Bayona. Starring Belén Rueda, Geraldine Chaplin. Screenplay by Sergio G. Sanchez. Almost making it into my top five, this Spanish film is both creepy and moving at once. Great performances and just the right atmosphere lend to the almost fairy-tale story, highlighted by parallels to Peter Pan.
(Illustration: a still from Carl Th. Dreyer’s Vampyr)