The world’s premier horror festival, Film4 FrightFest, kicks off later this week in London so what better time to take a look at ten of the great horror movies ever made?
The genre has been with us as long as the medium itself with Georges Méliès producing the first cinematic works of horror in 1896. It is without a doubt one of the most controversial mainstream entertainments and has been in trouble with the law once or twice as well as the spreader of a moral panic or ten (remember the "video nasties"?). Yet the allure of a good scare continues to draw audiences to the humble horror film.
1. The Beyond (Lucio Fulci, 1981)
Lucio Fulci was known as the Godfather of Gore, which tells a little bit about what you can expect from such films as The Beyond. Fulci was – at his absolute best – a master of horror whose surrealist gestures allowed the films to attain a dreamlike strangeness. Some find his work incoherent and shoddy – and that’s true, too – but there’s nothing quite like zombie apocalypse shocker The Beyond.
2. Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1978)
‘When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.’ Once a cult passion for gorehounds, the zombie has staggered well and truly into the mainstream. Brad Pitt is even appearing in an adaptation of World War Z next summer. Dawn of the Dead is the Citizen Kane of zombie movies. Zack Snyder remade the flick in 2004 and surprisingly, didn’t mess it up.
3. Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)
Horror fans were smiling recently when the 2012 Russian Synchronised Swimming team performed their gold-winning routine to Goblin’s iconic Suspiria score. Giallo legend Argento ventured off into more supernatural territory with this tale of witchcraft but retained the mad violence and ultra-stylish set pieces. Suspiria is a true benchmark in the genre’s history.
4. Vampyr (Carl Th. Dreyer, 1932)
One of the greatest filmmakers of all time came a cropper (critically and financially) with this privately funded entry into the vampire sub-genre that is so good it makes one wonder what the hell audiences and critics were smoking back in 1932. Trompe l'oeil effects, a creepy acting style from the cast and Rudolph Maté’s eerie cinematography combine to produce something very special indeed. Even today ‘serious’ reviewers are sniffy about this one compared to his more famous work, but Vampyr is a highly original work of the macabre.
5. The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973)
William Friedkin’s 1973 box office smash shouldn’t work at all. The story is absurd and goes against all sorts of principles, most of them to do with the laws of physics and reason. Yet the director utilised his documentary background to anchor the movie in such a believable and ordinary manner so that it grips you anaconda-tight and never let’s go. The deliberately slow pace leads to a terrifying showdown between a demon and a priest that once seen is never forgotten.
6. Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968)
Roman Polanski’s sly humour makes Rosemary’s Baby all the more frightening. Mia Farrow is sensational as the girl chosen by Satan and his minions to birth the Antichrist into the world. Even her seemingly supportive husband, Guy (John Cassavetes), has been bought off by promises of wealth. The film, however, belongs to Ruth Gordon as busybody neighbour Minnie Castavet, whose kindness turns oppressive and sinister.
7. Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973)
With its fractured narrative and elliptical editing style, Nic Roeg’s tale of a grieving couple in Venice, Italy is a landmark moment in British cinema. Roeg, however, was undoubtedly influenced by Aldo Lado’s giallo flick Who Saw Her Die? (1972). Resemblances are uncanny, even down to the wintry Venice setting.
8. Black Sunday (Mario Bava, 1960)
Cinematographer turned director, Mario Bava, spent a career in low budget picture-making yet is one of the most influential horror artists ever. Tim Burton is a massive fan and paid direct tribute to Black Sunday in his 1999 film Sleepy Hollow (aka the last film Burton did of any merit). The opening scene, in which a torture device is attached to Barbara Steele’s face, is the exact moment the modern horror movie was born.
9. The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, 2012)
Although co-written and directed by Drew Goddard, the imprint of the mighty Joss Whedon (co-writer and producer) is all over this film that takes postmodernism to ironic, self-referencing heights it never dreamed of. The film might not be scary but The Cabin in the Woods dissects the entire history of American horror cinema in a remarkable way. It’s also incredibly funny.
10. Martyrs (Pascal Laugier, 2008)
Nothing can quite prepare you for Martyrs, in which two young girls find themselves avenging a past crime only to stumble into a greater nightmare. There might not even be a succinct term in the English language to describe what the film does to the viewer’s emotions and nerves. Laugier goes beyond torture porn (a vile term) to invoke a palpable terror that gets progressively sadder and worse, capturing something unique and uniquely unpleasant.
Follow Martyn on Twitter: @Martyn_Conterio