PART ONE: THE RUNNERS-UP
Carnival of Souls (1961)
Herk Harvey, a director of industrial documentaries and educational shorts (anybody here seen Pork: The Meal With a Squeal? What about What About School Spirit?) turned his hand to narrative films with this eerie cult favorite about a professional organist (Candace Hilligoss) who survives a terrible car accident and is thereafter pursued by a man only she can see. The filmmaking and acting are often rough and amateurish, particularly at the start, but when the heroine takes a new job in Utah the movie develops an undeniable, spooky power that builds to a nightmarish twist ending that has been echoed by everyone from M. Night Shyamalan on down. Much of the film’s weird power is grounded in its unique soundtrack — all organ music — and the scenes shot in a derelict amusement park along Great Salt Lake (in real life the old Saltaire pavilion) that obsesses the heroine and provides the setting for a most disturbing climax. A real original, and a textbook example of how to transcend limitations of budget and technical expertise.
The Howling (1981)
When he was still better known as a novelist than an independent filmmaker, John Sayles raised moviemaking cash by batting out a series of cleverly written scripts for B-movie king Roger Corman. Thus, while art-house patrons went to see Return of the Secaucus Seven, the twin-cinemas down the street (this was the pre-multiplex era, remember) were showing Sayles-scripted items like Piranha, Alligator and Battle Beyond the Stars — each, in its own way, an above average genre film loaded with movie buff in-jokes. The Howling is by far the best of the bunch, adapted from a no-account horror novel about a traumatized TV anchorwoman (Dee Wallace Stone) whose trip to a New Age resort brings her face to fang with a colony of werewolves. The idea of an encounter group for lycanthropes may not be as funny nowadays as it was in the immediate aftermath of the Seventies, but the film gave director Joe Dante the best showcase for his weird junk-culture sensibility. It also gave Rob Bottin and Rick Baker a first run at the splattery transformation effects they would go on to use in The Thing and An American Werewolf in London. The film is a treasure trove of movie geek references — Sayles and Dante even twitted Corman’s parsimonious ways by giving him a cameo as a man checking a coin slot for spare change — but it also delivers the scares when needed.
The highly praised horror writer Clive Barker established himself as the Luis Bunuel of the grindhouse circuit with this tale of a gory love triangle involving Larry, a wimpy husband; Claire, a desperate housewife; and Frank, a former bad-boy studmuffin who is slowly reconstituting himself as a human being, one blood-drained victim at a time. The idea of a woman recreating her lover from blood and memories is as poetically gruesome as anything imagined by Franju (Barker has clearly spent some quality time with Eyes Without a Face) but the film earns its place in the splatter hall of fame as the debut of the Cenobites, a demonic foursome with rather advanced ideas about what constitutes a good time — “No tears, please, it’s a waste of good suffering” is not a line you’ll find in The Joy of Sex. The numerous sequels, which Barker did not direct, are of no interest, though Barker himself has produced and directed other worthwhile movies (Candyman, Lord of Illusions).
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
The fact that it runs out of gas before the big climax keeps this John Landis item — his last good film, really — from making the Top 10, but the first hour is loaded with enough genuine scares, original plot twists and inventive black humor to keep it at the top of the also-rans. David Naughton, previously a pitchman for Dr. Pepper, plays a strapping Yank who loses his best friend and a few quarts of blood during a nighttime attack on the moors of England. We all know what comes next, but Landis gets us there with considerable style and an inspired subplot based on the idea (probably concocted, but I’m not a student of Larry Talbot lore) that a werewolf’s victims must wander in limbo until their murderer dies. Landis clearly had no idea of how to end the story, so he covers his tracks with a Blues Brothers style demolition derby. Too bad, Landis — you coulda been a contender.
The opening scenes, with their bizarre half organic-half mechanical vistas, and the eponymous monster (all brilliantly designed by Swiss head case H.R. Giger) have been plagiarized and imitated by countless other horror movies, and for a very good reason — they’re creepy as hell, and striking enough to disguise the otherwise pretty conventional storyline, in which the crew of a spaceship must repel an alien boarder that is picking them off one by one. The second half of the film, in which dumb people constantly put themselves into dumb situations where they can easily be killed, is a second-rate haunted house story with Dolby-enhanced screaming, but that first half — and the justifiably famous “chest-burster” scene — is still something to see.
The War of the Worlds (2005)
Steven Spielberg’s breakout movie, Jaws, was an adventure yarn with monster-movie trappings; this umpteenth adaptation of H.G. Wells’ unreadable 1898 classic is a horror movie with science fiction trappings. The horror is grounded in a father’s desperation to protect his children’s lives, and if possible their sanity, as murderous aliens literally erupt from the ground and start smashing human civilization to pieces. By avoiding clichés (no scenes with military men discussing how to stop the invasion, no scientists dropping in to give us the big picture) and focusing on the ground-level perspective, Spielberg gives the story something it’s never had before — genuine fear. The casting of Tom Cruise as the father (and the halfway plausible rumor that the origin of the aliens reflects Cruise’s belief in Scientology) closed a lot of minds to this film, as did a small, ridiculously moralistic backlash over the fact that some of the imagery reflected 9/11. But Cruise, an underrated actor, performs more than capably, and no other film in recent memory has imagery as beautiful and terrifying as the burning train speeding through town, or the placid stream gradually choked with corpses. Or, for that matter, a suspense scene half as tense as Cruise’s struggle with a mad survivor in the cellar of a house being combed over by the aliens. It’s true that the story ends abruptly. That’s how Wells wrote it: the aliens kick humanity’s collective butt until they keel over from the sniffles. And by the time Spielberg is finished putting you through the wringer, you’ll never be so grateful to share the world with flu and chicken pox.
The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)
The Night of the Hunter is far more intense and adventurous, but its blend of tension, whimsy, folklore and spookiness is presaged — gently and charmingly — in this adaptation of Stephen Vincent Benet’s story about a down on his luck farmer who sells his soul to the devil for seven years of good luck, then calls on the famed orator Daniel Webster to plead his case when the devil comes to collect. Walter Huston is sheer cackling perfection as the devilish Mr. Scratch — I can’t decide if this or his prospector in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is his best performance — and Bernard Herrmann’s Oscar-winning score finds him testing out many of the effects he would later use in his music for The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock. My only complaint is that the film waters down Scratch’s “I’m as American as you are” speech, which is one of the greatest sucker-punches in literature. Seek out the Criterion DVD version, which is probably the best restoration job we’ll ever see on this neglected classic.
The Tenant (1976)
Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby are often cited as the high points of Roman Polanski’s horror movie vein, but I’ll take this clammy masterpiece over both of them. Polanski himself stars as a rather unstable man who rents an apartment in which the previous occupant committed suicide. Paranoia and terror drip from virtually every frame, and I can think of no other film that works so skillfully and effectively to undermine your sense of what’s right and proper. From the novel by Roland Topor, an artist who had a hand in the animated cult film Fantastic Planet (La Planete Sauvage) and Fellini’s Casanova, which should give you an idea of his mindset.
And finally . . . Who are you trying to kid?
Or, The Most Overrated Horror Movie Of All Time:
The Exorcist (1973)
Disgusting, maybe, but scary? I’ll let Michael Keaton in Beetlejuice have the last word: “I’ve seen The Exorcist about a hundred and sixty-seven times AND IT KEEPS GETTING FUNNIER EVERY SINGLE TIME I SEE IT.”
Tomorrow: The Top 13, Bottom Tier
Originally published in The Opinion Mill.