Monday, October 31, 2005
First off, here's a lively Halloween read for you: Alex Ness at PopThought.com cultivated a special seasonal surprise for all of you via exclusive online interviews with yours truly along with Jamie Delano, Steve Niles, Tom Mandrake, Ben Templesmith, and Tony Isabella on horror comics and all things horrific. It's A Special Halloween Treat, no tricks, and it's just a click away at
The link goes live today -- Enjoy!
My Fave Halloween Horrors Lists! For those who feel the need for guidance in selecting tonight's lineup of video & DVD horrors, I humbly offer the following personal 'top horror film' lists.
Consider this, too, a preview of the upcoming book SR Bissette's Blur Vol. 1 from Black Coat Press which will be out in time for Christmas. The following appears in Volume 1 (the first of four collecting the complete run of my weekly New England newspaper video columns and articles, 1999-2001), which is jam-packed with other delectable companion dishes, from individual reviews to articles like these covering entire genres. More info and how to order link when the book is ready to purchase...
Without further ado:
Here's my "Creeper Sleepers" column from October 28, 1999, followed by a related column relevent to the season. The first was written for family newspapers (during the fall of The Blair Witch Project's brief reign) for the casual home reader, so forgive the 'primer' tenor and tone -- if you're a die-hard like me, you might skip the appetizer to scan down to THE TOP HORROR FILMS: S. R. BISSETTE’S BAKER’S DOZEN, which is the real meat-and-potatoes. Remember, too, these were scribed before the blossoming of DVD as the preferred home video format, and the abundance of marvelous horrors we've been blessed with since:
CREEPER SLEEPERS: LOW BUDGET HORRORS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD!
Since the silent era, every generation has had its own equivalent to The Blair Witch Project. Sure, The Phantom of the Opera, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Exorcist, and Jaws are terrific, but often it’s the impoverished B-movies and cheapies that crawl out of the woodwork that really raise our collective goosebumps. In hopes of inspiring a few private dusk-to-dawn gatherings in the Valley this Halloween weekend, allow me to introduce you to these “creeper sleepers” that forever changed what a horror film could be, should be, and would be. A couple of these films were made by major Hollywood studios, but most of them emerged from regional independents, eager to make their mark. These low-budget horror films captured the public’s imagination of their time and made millions, changing horror films forever. I’ve arranged the titles chronologically, to emphasize the impact these films had on each other, and marked the most significant titles with an asterisk.
* THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1919) This startling German silent classic was an international hit, the first cult horror movie. Eager to put the audience in the mind set of the madman telling the tale, the backdrops were constructed and painted in the manner of the expressionistic art movement, with costumes, makeup, and performance stylized to match.
NOSFERATU (1921) Another German silent, a dreamy chiller which unveiled the cinema’s first and most nightmarish Dracula (Max Schreck).
* DRACULA (1931) Though produced by an established studio (Universal), this was a major gamble that paid off, ringing in the Golden Age of horror movies. Bela Lugosi remains the archetypal European vampire: “Children of the night, what music they make...” Check out the remastered edition, featuring a new score by Philip Glass; the Spanish language version, shot back-to-back on the same sets with a different cast, is even better, sans the mythic resonance of Lugosi’s presence.
FREAKS (1932) Tod Browning’s unflinching parable of life, love, and revenge among sideshow freaks prompted patrons to faint or flee. Though MGM produced this, they disowned it, and many countries banned it outright, damning it to obscurity for decades. It was rescued and revived in the late 1960s, earning its place in horror history.
* THE CAT PEOPLE (1942) We’re talking about the black and white original, not the sexy color remake. The surprising success of this subtle low-budget Val Lewton production introduced an intelligent new approach to horror films: urban, contemporary, driven by psychological nuances, relying on the suggestive power of the unseen and teasing the audience’s collective imagination.
* THE THING (1951) Again, see the black and white original, not the John Carpenter color remake (though it’s a great film, too, and much closer to the short story that inspired both versions). This tightly crafted, claustrophobic tale of an alien visitor terrorizing a remote arctic base kicked off the entire 1950s monster cycle, introduced the first jump-out-of-your-seat moment (the Thing at the door) to modern horror films, and urged audiences to “Keep Watching the Skies!” They did, and still do.
* LES DIABOLIQUES (1955) Here we go again: see the original French version, not the dreadful Sharon Stone remake. This psychological shocker had audiences lining up around the block in every major city in the US, provoking shrieks during its horrific final act and inspiring a jealous Alfred Hitchcock to make Psycho.
* INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956) Don Siegel’s paranoid sf classic about a small community supplanted by dispassionate “pod people” crept into the consciousness of a generation, tapping our xenophobia, the ongoing “red scare,” and the unspoken “soullessness” of the post-World War suburban lifestyle. Both of the color remakes are very good, but see the original first; together, they actually work as a coherent trilogy.
* THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) This was the first color Hammer Film, introducing Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee -- and an aggressive, graphic new approach to Gothic horror -- to the world. The whirlwind international success of this film and Hammer’s followup, The Horror of Dracula -- which is even better! -- sparked the horror revival of the late ‘50s and 1960s.
* I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF (1957) starred Michael Landon as the toothy j.d. terror of the first-ever teen horror film. Despite the title, this was a great little thriller, and its record-breaking boxoffice success was a major kick-in-the-ass wake-up call to the Hollywood studios.
* PSYCHO (1960) Please, forget the color remake -- you owe it to yourself to see the Alfred Hitchcock original, which dared to assault its audience with unprecedented intensity and forever expose the potential for madness lurking in the meekest of souls. Though directed by Hitchcock, this was made without studio support in black and white for very low budget, working with the production team behind Hitchcock’s popular TV series, hence its place on this list.
FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER (1960) This color Vincent Price vehicle ushered in the popular Poe series which lasted through the 1960s, and legitimized the king of the drive-in quickies Roger Corman as one of America’s premiere directors.
CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962) See the black and white original, not the color remake. This sleeper didn’t earn many playdates until its re-release in 1989, but it became a cult favorite for its genuinely spooky evocation of the dream realm, notable for its stylized photography, score, and inspiration for Night of the Living Dead.
* BLOOD FEAST (1963) Notorious Herschell Gordon Lewis shocker dared to go where no major studio would, crudely carving out brains, tongues, limbs, and its unique niche as the first true “gore” film. This widely-imitated breakthrough hit of the 1960s drive-in circuit was filmed in and around the beaches of Sarasota, Florida.
* NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) George Romero’s made-in-Pittsburgh independent bent all the rules of the genre, provoking genuine terror and forever changing horror films. It’s impossible to convey how shocking this film was in its day. See the black and white 1968 original, not the colorized version, the color remake, or the dreadful 30th Anniversary Special Edition (sporting a hideous new soundtrack and idiotic new footage). Also beware of bad bootleg editions -- the best prints on video are from Hal Roach Studio, Spotlight Video, and especially the restored Anchor Bay edition (or the definitive Elite release, on laserdisc and DVD).
* LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972) Wes Craven’s first film was a drive-in and grindhouse hit, eschewing supernatural horrors for its grim depiction of the cruel murder of two teenagers en route to a rock concert and their upscale family’s brutal revenge on their killers. It’s almost impossible to see uncut, but even in truncated form, it’s a jarring downer. Craven followed this with The Hills Have Eyes (1977), which was even better, though it had nowhere near the impact of Last House. “Just Keep Repeating: It’s Only a Movie, Only a Movie, Only a Movie...”
* THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) Despite the title, this wasn’t a “gore” film; there’s a reason director Ridley Scott screened this for the cast and crew of Alien, and the Museum of Modern Art was quick to secure a print for their permanent collection. Texas student filmmakers Tobe Hooper (who went on to direct Poltergeist) and Kim Henkel’s primal grasp of cinema transformed this thin tale of young folk waylaid by a nasty hitchhiker, suspect Texas BBQ, and the most deranged family in film history into the closest approximation of a nightmare ever to kiss the screen.
SHIVERS (1975) David Cronenberg’s debut film (also on video as They Came From Within, its US theatrical release title) is still a humdinger, detailing the infestation of a Montreal highrise by infectious sexual parasites. Financed in part by the Canadian government, this had members of Parliament screaming until it became the country’s most profitable Canadian film of all time.
* ERASERHEAD (1977) David Lynch’s first film remains one of the strangest ever made, and it became a fixture of the midnight movie circuit -- though The Rocky Horror Picture Show remains the Midnight Movie sensation! An estranged father is abandoned in his sordid apartment with his loneliness, fears, sexual longings, and his illegitimate, inhuman baby; there is no way to coherently summarize this uncanny experience, the most tangibly dreamlike of all horror films.
* DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) George Romero’s ultraviolent color sequel to Night of the Living Dead was a huge hit, inspiring a new era of zombie and gore films around the world, none of which held a candle to this witty, character-driven, action-packed classic. Romero’s sadly underrated final entry in the trilogy, Day of the Dead (1986), is also a masterpiece.
* HALLOWEEN (1978) Forget the sequels: John Carpenter’s original is the best bogeyman movie ever made, streamlined only to scare you. Even if you have an aversion to “letterboxed” videos, I highly recommend you see the “Widescreen” edition, as Carpenter uses the entire stretch of the screen to say “Boo!”
PHANTASM (1979) An odd, intoxicating curio about inexplicable events in a mortuary, told with the beguiling inventiveness, vigor, and nonsensical lunacy of a preteen boy’s campfire tale. It’s Invaders From Mars (1953) for a new generation: “Booooooooooooy!”
* FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) The archetypal summer-camp-killer classic may be crude, lewd, and derivative, but this is filmed-in-New Jersey pick-up struck a real nerve in its target audience, earning a fortune and an endless franchise for Paramount.
* THE EVIL DEAD (1983) Sam Raimi’s rock ‘em, sock ‘em, knockabout nightmare debut film energized the old zombie stereotype and grossed -- and grossed out -- millions. Raimi’s sequels, Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness (now available in a new video/DVD edition featuring the original ending), are highly entertaining, too, but lack the original’s horrific go-for-break edge.
* A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984) The original Wes Craven classic was and remains an original, genuinely subversive low-budget exercise in fear, introducing the now-cliche, dream-like element of “rubber reality” to the genre.
HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER (1986; unreleased until 1989) This unblinking, raw, and dead-sober Chicago indy distilled the true-life Henry Lee Lucas case history into an indelible meditation on non-supernatural evil, deromanticized and all the more terrifying for its banality and recognizable humanity. Approach with caution.
SCREAM (1996) Wes Craven strikes again, plucking a fresh nerve for a new generation and prompting a new genre revival with this sassy, self-aware revamp of the teen horror formulas.
* THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999) After over three decades of increasingly explicit mayhem, this inexpensive student venture embraced the Lewton aesthetic of “less is more,” reawakening a new generation to the terrors of the unseen -- and their own imaginations.
[Note: The following material was originally published in VMag #1, November 1997 (CroMag Publications, Inc.), “The Halloween Issue,” as part of a collective article entitled “The Top 5 Horror Movies: A Highly Subjective Tour of the Genre,” featuring ‘top horror film’ lists from writers Punco Godyn, G. Michael Dobbs, ‘Bill and Dana,’ Stanley Wiater, Joseph A. Citro, and yours truly. I include my list here as a companion to the above Halloween Video Views column, and to provide my definitive listing for an adult readership of what I then considered the best horror films.]
THE TOP HORROR FILMS: S. R. BISSETTE’S BAKER’S DOZEN
With almost forty years of obsessive affection for, viewing of, and studying horror movies, it’s damn near impossible to narrow my fave down to just five titles. In fact, I couldn’t do it! So, here’s my current baker’s dozen list. Bear in mind, I’d name thirteen others on a whim and depending on what day of the week it was.
1., 2., and 3.: George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), DAWN OF THE DEAD (1977), and DAY OF THE DEAD (1985): The ultimate apocalyptic American horror movies, one for each decade since the ‘60s. Romero is one of our finest storytellers; it’s a crime the current commercial cinema refuses to accommodate him. [Note: I would certainly add Romero’s LAND OF THE DEAD, 2005, to this list today -- SRB, August, 2005]
4. James Whale’s THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935): I love the classic 1930s horrors, but this and King Kong (1933; more a monster movie than a horror movie and hence not on this list) are the jewels of the crown. Frightening, funny, fierce, heartfelt, and one of the best movies ever made, period.
5. Georges Franju’s EYES WITHOUT A FACE (1958, aka Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus): The French Grand Guignol tradition brought to the screen with breathtaking beauty, poetry, and horror.
6. Mario Bava’s BLACK SUNDAY (1960): A baroque black-and-white Gothic arabesque atmospherically photographed around the porcelain (and punctured) features of Barbara Steele. The first horror movie to really scare me -- I love it like no other.
7. Ken Russell’s THE DEVILS (1971): A lethal merger of Church and State conspires to knock the walls of the fortified French of Loudon to the ground with a sanctioned witch hunt against Father Grandier (Oliver Reed). A delirious adaptation of the Aldous Huxley tract, still impossible to see in this country in its original uncut form.
8. Mario Bava’s BAY OF BLOOD (1972, aka Carnage, Twitch of the Death Nerve, Last House Part 2): I can’t possibly justify this title’s presence here, other than to say it’s the greatest “body count” horror movie of them all. I rushed to see it every time it played at the drive-ins (under a variety of titles). Ravishing Bava cinematography, an ever-escalating string of truly horrific murders (much imitated in the Friday the 13th series) to gain an inheritance, and a hilarious final shot. An unsung classic!
9. Nicolas Roeg’s DON’T LOOK NOW (1973): Roeg’s best films do not pass before our eyes, they explode and implode within the mind. Drawn from one of Daphne du Maurier’s tales, this elliptical psychic thriller never fails to profoundly engage, mesmerize, terrify, and move me.
10. Tobe Hooper’s THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974): On first viewing, one of the most relentless of contemporary horror films; on subsequent viewings, a brilliantly crafted pitch-black comedy, too (“Look what your brother did to the door!”).
11. David Lynch’s ERASERHEAD (1976): Evocative of Bunuel, Polanski, and Samuel Beckett, this one-of-a-kind feature edges from an oppressive urban dreamscape into one of the most tactile domestic nightmares ever committed to film. The Lady in the Radiator is disturbing, but, oh, that baby!
12. David Cronenberg’s THE BROOD (1980): Cronenberg crawls under my skin like no other filmmaker. In a perverse twist on (and indictment of) recovered memory and “inner child” therapy, “Psychoplasmics” urges its survivor patients to externalize their internal rage, culminating in tragedy and a genuinely startling climactic revelation. The monstrous titular metaphor galvanizes this harrowing portrait of a family ravaged by the cruel legacy of child abuse.
13. Lars Von Triers’ THE KINGDOM (1996): THE HAUNTING (1962), CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1963) and LADY IN WHITE (1987) top my list of best ghost movies. Lars Von Triers one-ups them all with this lengthy mini-series set in a haunted hospital that literally sent shivers up my spine. It’s also wickedly funny, which doesn’t mitigate the chills.
Those are my current favorites, but here’s the five most genuinely horrifying films that come to mind. These are not entertainments: these are repulsive, straight-from-the-gut horror movies, dead serious and absolutely no fun; recommended for diehards only.
1. CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1979): Ruggero Deodato’s parable of soured Third World relations -- primitives are butchered by documentary filmmakers, the filmmakers are then in turn butchered by the outraged tribe -- is at once the summit and nadir of the notorious Italian cannibal movie cycle. The film-within-a-film structure is cleverly conceived and executed, but the mayhem is, at times, nigh on unbearable.
2. COME AND SEE (1985): An orphaned Russian child’s terrifying passage through the hellish WW2 landscape. The most horrifying war film I’ve ever seen; once seen, never forgotten, comparable to Jerzy Kosinski’s novel The Painted Bird.
3. HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER (1986): Unflinching amoral snapshot of a contemporary American monster who is excruciatingly familiar and human, a condemnation of the society that created him by failing to in any way connect with or contain him. As such, one of the most moral films of our time.
4. IN A GLASS CAGE (1989): A vicious cycle of sexual abuse entraps an iron-lung bound pedophile (who also conducted experiments on children in the Nazi concentration camps, which he continued in his South American home) when one of his victims, now a teenage boy, becomes his caretaker. Exquisitely mounted, performed, and photographed: you are afraid to watch, but cannot look away, as the debasing spiral between tortured and torturer closes its coils.
5. THE BEGOTTEN (1991): Sans any comprehensible narrative or characters, this is the ultimate nightmare movie to date. A frightful tableau of birth, death, and abandonment dissolves into a dense, dark mire of cloaked figures, writhing forms, vile textures, and unspeakable emotions. Cinema as Dionysian ritual: primal, impenetrable, unshakeable.
Of course, if I were writing those lists today, some things would change, including the addition of titles that simply didn't exist when I wrote these in '99, and a couple I didn't catch up with until the amazing DVD revolution -- but all in all, I stand by my pix.
HAPPY HALLOWEEN, one and all!