#5 – THE EXORCIST (1973)
Directed by William Friedkin
Last Year’s Rank: 2
Rating: 5 stars
Sequels: Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977, D: J. Boorman, 2 star)
The Exorcist III (1990, D: W. Blatty, 4 stars)
Exorcist IV: The Beginning (2004, D: R. Harlin)
Dominion: Prequel To The Exorcist (2005, D: P. Schrader)
A lot of horror movies takes on elements of the supernatural. This usually takes the form of immortal monsters, aliens, or other unexplained phenomena. Even when a movie is supposedly “based on a true story”, the style is so heightened that it looks more like a new car commercial than a true story. The Exorcist DOES rely on supernatural elements and it’s NOT based on a true story, but somehow it’s one of the most realistic horror movies ever produced.
I guess even if you’re not religious, there’s still this little pang in the back of your head that maybe all this devil stuff could possibly be true. The scary thing is that the devil doesn’t really care if you’re a believer or not. He doesn’t even need a reason to possess you. He just does it because he can and, well, he’s the Devil.
Say what you want about Linda Blair in the later stages of her career, but as Regan MacNeil in the original The Exorcist, there’s not a child actor alive that can touch her. One minute she’s this cute little girl and the next she’s possessed by Pazuzu, spewing lines that would make 50 Cent blush (of course, the demon voice was overdubbed by another actor, but what do you expect?).
It’s a dark, haunting movie, and Friedkin’s almost-subliminal insertions of the demon Pazuzu are extremely disturbing. I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it. If you haven’t seen this lately, treat yourself. It’s even scarier than you remember.
The sequels are a mixed bag. Exorcist II: The Heretic is absolutely awful. Just a terrible movie, made all the more so by the fact that it capitalizes on the original’s name and stars. Exorcist III is a very good scary movie, though not on par with the first one. Still, there are enough scares to warrant a screening and the story, while it doesn’t look it at first, ties directly into events depicted at the end of the original. I have not seen The Beginning or Dominion, though from the stories I’ve read about the catastrophe of making those movies, I find it hard to believe they approach the levels of the first or third entries.
#4 – PSYCHO (1960)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Last Year’s Rank: 5
Rating: 5 stars
Sequels: Psycho II (1983, D: R. Franklin, 3.5 stars)
Psycho III (1986, D: A. Perkins, 2 stars)
Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990, D: M. Garris, 2 stars)
Remake: Psycho (1998, D: G. Van Sant, 3 stars)
Psycho could quite easily be considered the #1 horror movie of all time. Certainly it’s the most shocking (for its time) and influential movie on this list. It’s a masterpiece in every way. There are so many classic scenes, memorable lines, and archetypical characters, not to mention the incredible soundtrack. The most famous, of course, is the shower scene, worth a place in the movie Hall Of Fame for just introducing the phrase “shower scene” into the lexicon.
It’s such a sick, depraved, horrific, and sexual film. 1960s America couldn’t have been ready for this. Norman Bates is so batshit crazy that when gets the urge to fuck, he turns into his mother (who he murdered some years back in a jealous rage) to kill the very girl he wants to fuck. Strong stuff for the Leave It To Beaver crowd.
Psycho II was released 23 years later, continuing the story of Norman. I do like it, though it is a much more straightforward slasher movie, it’s a good one.
Psycho III was not a good slasher movie. It was a bad one.
Psycho IV was a made-for-cable movie depicting the origin o Norman — the circumstances that led to him murdering his mother and her lover. It sets the stage nicely for the events of Psycho, but it doesn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know.
The remake was strange and hard to criticize, since it was a 99% shot-by-shot recreation of the original. It was well done, well acted, and well directed, but was it necessary? I don’t really have a problem with it and really like the final shot of Norman at the end. Compare and contrast.
#3 – Ju-On (2000)
Directed by Takashi Shimizu
Last Year’s Rank: 4
Rating: 5 stars
Ju-On is the original Japanese horror movie that The Grudge is based on. It has the same writer and director, but there are numerous changes between the original and its American cousin. The biggest change (aside from language and actors) is that Ju-On is just a lot scarier.
It’s been a couple of years since I’ve seen this, so I’m really writing this review based on memory. That’s my way of saying it probably won’t be a very incisive review.
The story is basically a haunted house tale. A young woman is asked by her boss to check in on an old lady that their company has been hired to look in on. Some sort of hospice service, I’m guessing. The young woman discovers that all is not right in the house when she passes out, waking up to find the old woman dead.
From there, “the curse” spreads to anyone who had ever entered the house. The old woman’s family, the young hospice worker, and a couple of police that get involved in the case. In the end, we learn how the house came to be haunted.
There are plenty of your typical “ghost story” scares here, with apparitions appearing and disappearing, weird goings-on, and lots of things that go bump in the night. But the real scares aren’t generated solely by the visual. Ju-On uses sound to achieve a whole new level of terror, from the frightening growl that seems to signal the appearance of the ghost to the almost complete lack of music. You could watch this movie with a blindfold on and you’d probably be just as scared as you would be under normal circumstances. And that’s saying a lot for a subtitled movie.
The dvd for this movie also has one of the best commentary tracks I’ve ever heard on a dvd featuring Sam Raimi, who developed The Grudge after seeing Ju-On and getting the shit scared out of him. If you’ve seen The Grudge and think that’s all there is, you should definitely check out Ju-On for some real scares.
#2 – HAUTE TENSION (HIGH TENSION) (2003)
Directed by Alexandre Aja
Last Year’s Rank: 3
Rating: 4.5 stars
The first 3/4 of Haute Tension (or High Tension as it’s known in the U.S.) is probably the scariest movie I’ve ever seen in my life. From the opening shots of the killer pleasuring himself with a decapitated head to the sudden stark brutal violence that invades the family of a girl and her friend who are visited over a break from school, it doesn’t take long to go from, “Where’s this going?” to “Ow. I just pulled all my hair out from the suspense”. Which I literally did when I watched it last October. There’s a good hour right in the middle of the film where the suspense just never lets up. It’s the ultimate slasher movie and the lead character, Marie, appears to be the ultimate survivor.
And then the last 1/4 hits. There’s a twist so preposterous and completely lacking any internal logic, that it rips you out of the movie and, when it’s over, leaves you angry, feeling ripped off, and wondering how such a tremendous opening 3/4 could end in such an unsatisfying way. Twists, in general, are the bread and butter of horror. A good twist in the last minutes of a horror film can raise a mediocre film to almost greatness. But a bad twist that makes no sense given all that we’ve just witnessed can have the opposite effect.
It really is a testament to how good that opening 3/4 is that Haute Tension ranks so highly on this list. By all rights it should be in the bottom half, but it’s just so terrifying and brutal that even with the gigantic miscue, I still have to admire the film.
One other note. There’s a Dean Koontz book titled Intensity that I never read that apparently has startling similarities to Haute Tension. The book came first, I must say straight up. I saw the tv-movie Intensity about a year ago and was able to judge for myself just how similar they are. And the answer is that the first halves are so similar that it’s just impossible to think that Alexandre didn’t blatantly rip off Koontz’s book for his film. In fact, I wrote a post about it.
So, in closing, Haute Tension is one hell of a scary movie. And the only movie in the Top Ten that hasn’t been remade or spawned a sequel. Yet. Rent it, but grab a friend and turn on an extra light or two.
#1 – HALLOWEEN (1978)
Directed by John Carpenter
Last Year’s Rank: 1
Rating: 5 stars
Sequels: Halloween II (1981, D: R. Rosenthal, 3.5 stars)
Halloween III: The Season Of The Witch (1982, D: T. Wallace, 3.5 stars)
Halloween 4: The Return Of Michael Myers (1988, D: D. Little, 2.5 stars)
Halloween 5: The Revenge Of Michael Myers (1989, D: D. Othenin-Girard, 2.5 stars)
Halloween: The Curse Of Michael Myers (1995, D: J. Chappelle, 2 stars)
Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998, D: S. Miner, 3 stars)
Halloween: Resurrection (2002, D: R. Rosenthal, 2 stars)
Remake: Halloween (2007, D: R. Zombie, 3 stars)
Halloween is, frankly, the best horror movie ever made. It’s no accident that quite a few of the horror movies on this list are no-budget efforts from visionary directors early in their careers. Horror isn’t something that can be improved by a bigger budget. You don’t really want state of the art CGI effects. You don’t need massive sets or elaborate wardrobes. It’s a liability to have a big name star. Cheap, dirty, warts-and-all is the best type of horror because there’s the appearance of a thinner veil separating what’s on the screen and the audience. There’s energy, ideas, and passion that you just don’t find in the latest PG-13 cookie cutter remake.
Halloween was made for something like $300,000 — a microscopic amount (for movies) even in 1978. It’s biggest star was a b-movie has-been (Donald Pleasance), with the bulk of the cast filled by unknowns. Together with director John Carpenter, they put some of the scariest scenes ever conceived on film.
As a six-year-old, Michael Myers murdered his sister with a butcher knife on Halloween night. Fifteen years later he escapes from a mental institution and returns to Haddonfield, IL to kill again. He’s pursued by Dr. Sam Loomis (Pleasance) who knows exactly what Michael is: the personification of pure evil.
Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her friends Annie (Nancy Loomis) and Linda (P.J. Soles) are anticipating a typical teenage Halloween. Linda has a date with her boyfriend, Bob. Annie and Laurie are babysitting across the street from each other. Laurie firsts spots Michael in the daylight, staring at her in class from a car parked across the street. She senses something is wrong, but chalks it up to Halloween superstition.
When the sun sets, Michael stalks his prey, waiting for his chance. Before the night is over Linda, Annie, and Bob are dead. Loomis manages to save Laurie by firing six shots into Michael (at point blank range), who tumbles out a second story window. But when Loomis goes to inspect the body, it’s gone.
Such a simple story. Such a low body count (Michael would go on to kill 81 people over the next 7 movies, but, if memory serves, he only kills 5 people in this whole movie, including one off-screen murder. The first real on-stage killing by Michael as an adult occurs about 2/3 into the film, but we’re never bored. There’s a foreboding atmosphere to the movie, with the dead leaves littering the ground. We experience Michael stalking his prey, getting closer and closer, but waiting for the perfect moment. And when that moment comes, it’s swift and violent and unexpected.
But perhaps the scariest part of Halloween is John Carpenter’s terrifying soundtrack. Single notes pounded out on a keyboard have never sounded so horrifying. Borrowing heavily from Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho, Carpenter never lets the music let up so that even a seemingly innocent scene, like Laurie talking to Annie on the phone in her bedroom, is filled with dread. (Is there any other genre of film that uses sound to such precise effect as horror?)
The sequels are, as usual, a mixed bag that never capture the glory of the original. Halloween II picked up right where the first movie left off. It has some good moments and we get to learn more about Michael’s motivation and Laurie’s connection to him, but the killings are impersonal and, therefore, less effective. It’s really only when Laurie is in danger that the film clicks. A good effort, though.
I like Halloween III: The Season Of The Witch a lot as well. It goes off on a completely different tangent with no Michael Myers. This time a witch intends to kill a bunch of people with snakes hidden magically in Halloween masks. It’s much better than it sounds with good scares and a strong science fiction element.
Halloween 4: The Return Of Michael Myers kicked off a three movie series, continued in Halloween 5: The Revenge Of Michael Myers, focusing on Michael’s niece (and Laurie’s daughter), Jamie Lloyd. 4 is the weaker of the two movies, with 5 having some decent scary scenes and capturing an appropriate seasonal feel. But they’re pretty much just standard slasher fare.
Halloween: The Curse Of Michael Myers is sort of a mess. It was Donald Pleasance’s last film and he actually died before filming was completed. There’s an attempt to explain Michael’s immortality with the creation of the shadowy group The Thorn. There’s a convoluted thing about Jamie giving birth to the cult’s baby (or is it Michael’s?) and Michael finally kills Jamie. It’s impossible to follow. I guess there’s a “Producer’s Cut” out there that I’ve heard is both much better and not quite as good.
Jamie Lee Curtis returned with Halloween H20: 20 Years Later, which was somewhat disappointing. Kevin “Scream” Williamson wrote a draft of the screenplay which was ultimately rejected. This is pretty standard slasher fare, elevated by the presence of Curtis and the continuation of the Laurie/Michael story. Halloweens 3-6 are never referred to, nor is Jamie, Laurie’s supposed daughter.
The story would conclude in Halloween: Resurrection, where Michael finally kills Laurie before moving back to Haddonfield to kill a bunch of teens participating in a Halloween internet reality show where contestants must spend the night in the old Myers house where Michael first murdered his sister back in 1963.
Rob Zombie’s 2007 remake is more of an curiosity than anything else. The first half delves into the psychology of young Michael Myers. It’s some fairly effective stuff, but I’m not sure if it contributes anything to the Halloween legacy overall. The second half is like a greatest hits of the original movie, with scenes recreated. And then there’s the ending, which just isn’t as good as the original by a long shot. It’s worth a look if you enjoyed Zombie’s other movies or if you’re just curious what a remake to Halloween would look like. Rumor is they’re making a sequel to this one, but no word yet on if it’s set in a hospital or who’s going to direct.
One problem with the Halloween movies is the terrible lack of continuity. I, II, VII, and VIII apparently occur in one reality, while IV, V, and VI occur in another, with III occurring in yet another. At least in the Friday the 13th movies there’s a certain amount of respect paid with at least a minimal explanation of how Jason keps coming back. Not in Halloween. Both Michael and Loomis EXPLODE at the end of Halloween II. We see Michael get reduced to literal ashes. Yet, in IV, Loomis has a bit of a scar, but that’s it. Michael’s as good as new. No explanation. Nothing. It’s an idiotic argument, given the idiotic nature of the series, but it still bugs me.
Horror movies are so popular because they let us face our mortality in the safety of a darkened theater, surrounded by our fellow horror maniacs, free to scream at the harmless images projected on the screen. At the end of the movie we identify with Laurie Strode or Nancy Thompson or Ellen Ripley because not only did they survive the homicidal maniac or nightmare or alien that killed all of their friends, but we did too. There’s a certain feeling of accomplishment as those closing credit to Audition, High Tension, or Hostel roll. We made it to the end. But can we survive the sequel?