10/ Re-Animator (1985)
Is it just me or were they having more of a laugh making horror films in the 80s? It seems like such a golden age for grisly, messy, witty, silly and absolutely bloody genius gorefests. And with Re-Animator Stuart Gordon prescribes a deliriously high dosage of all the above… then pours an extra geyser of blood on top. Just to be sure. Based on a classic H.P. Lovecraft story, this madcap tale about screwball medical student Herbert West, and his scientific breakthrough that enables him to re-animate dead tissue, is both a subtle poke at the dangers of nonsensical scientific progress and also an absurdly unsubtle slice of 1980s horror humour. Jeffrey Combs puts in a delightfully demented turn as West, the evil orchestrator of the ensuing gory exuberance, as the film bounces from one bizarre scene to the next. An oft-forgotten gem.
Best bit – The ghastly re-re-animation of Daniel’s unfortunate cat. Having already been killed , brought back to life and battered back to death, West then gleefully gives the poor, crippled pussy one last resurrection to prove his shocking genius to Daniel.
9/ Candyman (1992)
Born in the imagination of horror maestro Clive Barker, in at number 9, comes the legend of Candyman. We’ve all heard it. There aren’t too many adolescent horror fans who haven’t dared to test themselves by defiantly pronouncing ‘Candyman’ five times to their own spotty reflections in the mirror. The genius of this film is not in spawning this myth, nor even in creating one of the most enduring icons in horror film folklore. The genius of ‘Candyman’ derives from its intelligent investigations into the power of these myths themselves. In her efforts to prove the non-reality of the Candyman myth, sacrificial victim Helen Lyle unwittingly conjures the Candyman myth out of myth and into reality… and, in the process of her horrific torture, creates a fresh Candyman myth to inhabit the imaginations of trembling teenagers. Because Candyman doesn’t live in reality. He dwells where he was born… in the imagination.
Best bit – The hair-raising (and head-scorching) finale, as Helen battles to save a baby from inside a rapidly accelerating bonfire, with Candyman’s furious bellowing echoing around her, as she becomes wrapped up in flames.
8/ Videodrome (1983)
Another gory classic from the 80s, this time from the master of macabre body-horror, and Toronto’s own, David Cronenburg. Its about Max Renn, played by pokerfaced James Woods, a porn industry executive looking for the freshest, most controversial content he can lay his grubby mitts on. When he stumbles upon Videodrome, a plotless, violent show of sexual cruelty, he thinks he’s found it. What he doesn’t realise is that he hasn’t found Videodrome, Videodrome has found him. His exposure to its signal transforms his brain and body into a human vehicle for Videodrome’s desires, even to the point where its evil executives can put video-tapes inside a yawning wound in his stomach to command his every action. The hallucinatory chaos that follows has to be seen to be believed, as televisions spew guts and video recorders sprout veins. Clever, if somewhat mind-boggling, this is Cronenburg’s finest hour… and a half.
Best bit – As the hallucinations start to take hold, Max is so seduced by the image of Debbie Harry (yep, Debbie Harry of Blondie…she gets naked too) that he jams his face into his television, finding the squishy screen surprisingly yielding to his efforts.
7/ Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)
I love horror films. I love postmodernism. And I loved the first Nightmare on Elm Street film. So it seems only natural that I should love this final, final, Nightmare on Elm Street, as Wes Craven, inventor and director of the original Elm Street, chucks all three ingredients into a fuming, fiery melting pot, boiling over with imagination. Because this is a film on a mission. And that mission is to save Craven’s 1984 creation Freddy Krueger from the direness he had been doused in during a decade littered with excruciatingly banal sequels. It’s a brilliantly realised concept, as the actors from the first film play themselves making one final sequel to the Freddy series whilst Freddy himself battles to break out of the dreary fictional world he has been consigned to and into the real world, where he gruesomely tortures the increasingly confused cast by bringing the world of the first film with him. It’s postmodernism all over and a great way for Craven to have his own, final say, on the Freddy phenomenon he created, whilst at last preserving Freddy’s soul in a sequel worthy of his monstrous cinematic status. Although, come to mention it, I did quite like the 3rd one.
Best Bit – When the events, and even the film set, start to mirror the first film, beginning with the babysitter’s ceiling-crawling demise at the clawed hands of an invisible Freddy. John Saxon is especially creepy when he starts muttering lines his character once said, ten years before.
6/ Psycho (1960)
It might be the oldest film in the top 10 but this fact has no bearing on the power of Psycho to unsettle audiences, nearly half a century since its release. Horror directors working today would chop off their limbs (well, they’re certainly eager to chop enough off their characters) if they could create even half the dread the late, great Alfred Hitchcock generated in audiences with Psycho, one of the all-time classics of any film genre. For this is cinema of the highest order, as the tension is cranked up early, though faintly at first, during thieving Marion Crane’s paranoid getaway, and then is blown completely off the scale by the sudden, brutal nature of that shower scene. Despite only lasting 12 seconds its impression on the mind is unshakeable, even when you know it’s coming. From then on the viewers’ frayed nerves are set to tweak at the slightest provocation. And Hitchcock makes damn sure that this happens.
Anthony Perkins’ twitchy performance as momma’s boy Norman Bates is spot-on, sensationally bringing to the screen Norman’s insecure social bungling, edgy temperament and fierce psychotic eruptions. Psycho is the original slasher/serial killer flick and is still yet to be topped in the nerve-wracking stakes, even to this day.
Best Bit – It would be far too predictable to pick the infamous shower slicing scene. The most powerful moment, for me, comes in the final five minutes, after Norman’s psychosis is explained, and we are granted very brief access into his mind… to find the crazed mother reigning there… and a twisted satisfaction on Norman’s face.
5/ Scream (1996)
Because I’m not content with drooling uncontrollably over Wes Craven’s deployment of postmodernism in his ‘New Nightmare’ film, I shall now conduct more pandering to the postmodern arts by worshipping Scream, his shrewd celebration of slasher flicks. Ok, so I’m obsessed, but it’s just so clever! I’ll explain myself. Scream is a slasher flick about slasher flicks; a slasher flick that is aware of its generic status as a slasher flick and even has its characters making consistent slasher flick references to their own slasher flick situations. Erm, maybe I should try and refrain from using the term slasher flick from now on. Randy “there are certain rules that one must abide by” Meeks is the embodiment of this genre appreciation, and his witty, know-it-all remarks on proceedings enlighten the cast and audience throughout. Why, he even knows who did it. “There’s always some stupid bullshit reason to kill your girlfriend” he observes midway through, “Besides, if it gets too complicated, you lose your target audience.” A canny self-referential line that is typical of the film as a whole.
Of course, it helps if you’re already a fan of such splatterfests, because the references and in-jokes come thicker and faster than the mounting bodycount, but for horror fans it is a welcome dose of originality in a genre not often renowned for it. A particularly superb sequence comes near the end, when the soundtrack from classic slasher flick (Oh crap! I said it again!) ‘Halloween’ emanates from the tv in the background, adding extra tension to the climactic scenes. And, let’s not forget, Scream is a horror film first and foremost, so crucially this genre referencing doesn’t detract from the gory thrills on offer… in fact, it even succeeds as a well-disguised whodunit.
Best bit – Has to be the marvellous 12 minute, pre-credit torturing of Drew Barrymore, as she makes chit-chat with a killer who ‘wants to play a little game’, has her horror movie knowledge put to the most bloodcurdling of tests, and eventually ends up ‘sliced and diced’ and hanging from a tree.
4/ Ju-on: The Grudge (2003)
In the last decade, whilst Western horror films have predictably regurgitated all manner of diabolical re-makes (The Wicker Man with Nicolas Cage anyone?!) and mindless violent bollocks (Hostel, the Saw sequels), east of the globe the Japanese have steadily been laying down their own brutal markers for truly disturbing horror.
The plot of The Grudge is simple and really just a foundation on which to unleash set-piece after set-piece of relentless, mounting dread on increasingly uncomfortable audiences. A house where dreadful violence once occurred holds the deathly essence of these events within it and anyone who sets foot inside is tainted fatally by it, no matter where they go. But, like I said, this basic premise is the mere foundation on which the experience is built, for the entire essence of the film, like the house itself, practically oozes an evil that comes crawling at you from every crevice. There is no clever point to it, there is no subtle character or plot development, it is all just there to scare you shitless. And it’s very effective, a rollercoaster of pure tension with little release, leaving you hanging on the edge of the drops way longer than is healthy for your blood pressure. Each terrifying scene builds and builds to the point where, after 90 minutes of being perched rigidly on the edge of your seat, your arse, as well as your angst-riddled mind, begins to ache with the effort. But, this is what horror is all about. I know, I read it on the back of a trashy Dean Koontz novel.
As always, Hollywood just couldn’t resist rehashing it and, as much as Sarah Michelle Gellar’s image is never nauseating, dull, soulless re-gurgitations like that most certainly are.
Best bit – The twisted descent of the ghoul down the staircase in the final climax; an act of contortion more gruesome than your average circus performer.
3/ The Shining (1980)
I have the greatest of respect for Stephen King… as a writer. As a film critic however, I’ve got to be honest, he sucks big time. How can he possibly mistake this masterpiece of grandeur and suspense for the worst adaptation of one of his stories, finding it ‘dreadfully upsetting’ and the only one he can ‘remember hating’? Has he not seen ‘Dreamcatcher’, ‘Needful Things’ or the juvenile attempts at scariness offered by the guff ‘Children of the Corn’ series? Please Stephen, stick to what you do best eh?
The Shining, in its novel form, is a shimmering example of what King does do best, with it’s meticulously constructed character flaws (including his trademark struggling writer turned alcoholic), brooding supernatural menace and devastating explosions of horror. Kubrick naturally had to adapt it for the screen the best way he could, and so rightfully discarded any potentially preposterous sequences, such as when the hedge animals come alive. The focus of Kubrick’s film is taken away from the alcoholic tendencies of Jack, the tortured father and husband, and placed confidently in the realm of ambiguity. No tightly plotted character background to explain the mental degeneration of Jack Torrence here; the horror of the events are far scarier when the root cause for Jack’s mania is up in the air. Was Jack Torrence mad to begin with? Have the supernatural forces of the hotel merely brought them out? Or would the malicious hotel have claimed the sanity of any would-be caretaker, no matter who it was?
The gloriously unhinged, career-defining performance of Jack Nicholson helps to create an image of a man who might be nearing the end of his tether right from the off, so when his psychosis starts to show itself it just seems to make sense. The film is unnervingly precise in its approach, patient but forceful, as the dread escalates towards the axe-happy ‘Here’s Johnny’ moments of the finale. King should be proud. His work inspired one of the only true ‘works of art’ the horror genre has been blessed with.
Best bit: I just love the moment when dopey housewife Shelley Duvall finally discovers the very real depths, and apparently long-lasting, madness of her husband, by flicking through the end product of his countless days hunched over the typewriter.
2/ Alien (1979)
Firstly, a quicky explanation. Alien has made this horror top 10 because it is a horror film… set in space. Aliens, though awesome, is not. It is an action blockbuster… set in space. Alien is a horror film because it’s a haunted house movie, set on a spaceship, which is terrorised by one of the scariest monsters in cinema history. It’s dark, it’s claustrophobic, and it’s damn horrifying when it wants to be. My Dad showed me this film, his favourite of all-time, when I was a wee nipper and though it had me quivering under my sheets at night, tossing nervous glances at the bedroom door to check no extra-terrestrial menaces with bitey tongues were coming to devour me, I’m very glad he did. Because it has become one of my all-time favourites too. Ridley Scott’s masterful direction is composed, patient, and utterly ruthless when going for the jugular. The timing and the twists are all the more devastating because of his deft approach. James Cameron went on to scale spectacular new heights with Aliens seven years later (also one of mine and my Dad’s favourite films) but its Ridley Scott’s initial shocker that carves the deeper scars in one’s consciousness.
Best Bit – Sorry, but I’m going to have to be predictable with this one. Yep, you guessed it, it’s the chestbursting scene. It might just be the best, and most shocking, scene ever. Brilliantly executed by Scott, it still has a powerful effect on me when I watch it, even now, 15 years since it first terrified me.
1/ Evil Dead 2 (1987)
The best of the best when it comes to awesome 80s, low-budget, blood-gushing free-for-alls. It was no small task choosing between this and the 1981 original for the top spot (because, let’s face it, it had to be one of them) but this manic feast of eye-popping inventiveness has nabbed the honours by the rotting skin of its zombie teeth. And it was soooo close. The first one had the endlessly cringe-worthy pencil stab to the Achilles scene; and then who can forget the glorious bit of tree rape in the woods. But this riot of a sequel, which is not so much a sequel than a total re-vamping of the first, ups the gross-out comic ante even further, and is full to bulging with memorable moments.
This is the film where undead-warrior Bruce Campbell cemented his cult status, really coming into his own as his girlfriend falls prey to the zombie horde early on, leaving him alone to fight the steaming menace from the woods. From then on the ghastly laughs escalate at a frenetic rate, as scene by gore-drenched scene hurtles past, cram-packed with such mania as zombie waltzes in the night, spiteful heads in vices, eyes popping out into screaming mouths, chortling mooseheads, bitter squabbles with mirrored reflections, zombies anxiously gnashing for mouthfuls of hair, and the most epic duel in the history of epic duels between one man and his severed hand. It’s a hoot, from start to finish, but it also has so much to teach us. I mean, I for one know what to do when the dead eventually do start stalking me from their graves. Grab a chainsaw, chop off my own hand, attach said chainsaw to my arm where the hand used to be, rev it up, and in my good hand brandish my boomstick at any foolhardy deadite that comes crawling. Easy. Or, should I say… Groovy!!