With Halloween fast approaching, I decided to recommend a few horror films for your viewing pleasure. As you will see, my taste is rather conventional, but I hope you will find some hidden treasures on the list. They are not listed in any particular order.
THE HAUNTING, 1963, d. Robert Wise
This is my current favorite. It remains a chilling film despite its total lack of gore and deliberate pacing. I grew up in a very haunted house. If anyone asks me what it was like, I tell them to watch this film. It's all about cowering under the echo of inexplicable bangings and footsteps at night, only to spend the day either denying what happened or doubting your sanity. Avoid the 1999 remake starring Liam Neeson at all costs.
THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, 1973, d. John Hough
Essentially the same plot as The Haunting, however, this film, scripted by Richard Matheson from his own book, revels in everything the earlier film refrained from showing. It isn't as good as The Haunting, but it is fun on its own level. It remains a guilty pleasure that reminds me of my many days spent at the Arcade Theater on Harford Road. (Why did my parents let me see this film alone?)
THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, 1935, d. James Whale
This film best represents my childhood spent watching creature features every Friday and Saturday night. I suspect that these classic horror films are too tame for today's cynical youth. That is a pity, because this film remains a masterpiece of cinematography, art direction, writing and performance. Karloff is amazing. He brings both tremendous empathy and menace to the monster.
THE NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, 1968, d. George A. Romero
I first saw this film on Super 8mm. I didn't know what to expect. The synopsis sounded corny to me, but the movie, with its gritty documentary feel, absolutely blew me away. I literally sat stunned with my mouth wide open at the end.
THE EXORCIST, 1973, d. William Friedkin
This film usually tops various internet lists of the scariest horror film, but I was actually quite dismissive of it for many years. Initially, I felt it was cheap. To me, it relied too heavily on shock effects and not enough on story and character. I was wrong. With the more people I have lost over time, the more the story of these two characters, a priest losing his faith because of his inability to save his mother and a desperate mother wanting to do anything to save her daughter, resonates with me.
I TRE VOLTI DELLA PAURA (BLACK SABBATH), 1964, d. Mario Bava
Not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, but this omnibus film really scared me as a kid -- especially the third story: A Drop of Water. It remains a guilty pleasure, but now I prefer to enjoy it in its native Italian language.
PHANTASM, 1979, d. Don Coscarelli
If you truly analyze the script, you'd find it is a contradictory mess. What really happened? Still, coherence must take a backseat to mood. I think Coscarelli manages to churn up some primordial fears concerning loss, death and the things of death, from the adolescent perspective, in this effective little film.
DAWN OF THE DEAD, 1978, d. George A. Romero
Everywhere you look, you seem zombies nowadays. I think you have to bless or curse this film for that phenomenon. This film about four people trying survive a zombie apocalypse in a shopping mall skillfully mixed gore with subtle social satire about our materialistic society. It has been all downhill for Romero as his social statements became more heavy-handed in his subsequent zombie epics.
THE NIGHT STALKER, 1972, John Llewellyn Moxey
A cynical newsman begins to believe that a series of killings in Las Vegas are the result of a vampire in this made-for-TV film scripted by Richard Matheson. This film, which updated the vampire myth and placed it in a thoroughly modern context, has been an influence on my own writing. In my opinion, this remains one of the best vampire movies ever.
HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS, 1970, Dan Curtis
I was a huge fan of afternoon gothic soap opera Dark Shadows growing up, and it remained a pleasant memory until someone gave me a DVD of some of the original television programs. Sadly, I found them unwatchable. This film, however, another fond memory from my ill-spent youth at the Arcade Theater, still works. It does suffer from a little shorthand because the filmmakers expected the audience to be familiar with the characters, but it is a taut, well-directed horror film. The TV soap actors successfully stepped up their game for the big screen.
THE SHINING, 1980, d. Stanley Kubrick
Stephen King hated Kubrick's adaptation of his novel, but it remains the best King adaptation. It remains consistently creeping -- especially those little girls. Kubrick tends to be a filmmaker with a chilly, cerebral approach, and horror is sometimes best served cold.
CARNIVAL OF SOULS, 1962, d. Herk Harvey
A woman emerging from a river after a car accident finds herself drawn toward a strange carnival in this genuinely creepy thriller made on a shoestring in Kansas and Utah. I once visited the dancehall site on the Great Salt Lake in Utah that inspired the film. It was as creepy as the film.
SPOORLOOS (THE VANISHING), 1988, d. George Sluizer
Technically speaking, this is probably a thriller or mystery rather than a horror film, but it remains a disturbing film that builds to a chilling climax that will stay with you for a long time. In the film, a young man tries for years to find out what happened to his girlfriend who disappeared during a holiday in France. Moved by his perseverance, the abductor makes contact with him. Avoid the 1993 American remake starring Jeff Bridges at all costs!
HALLOWEEN, 1978, d. John Carpenter
Don't blame this film for all of the horrible slasher film that regrettably followed in its wake. This innovative and compelling film still that introduced all of the tropes of the genre still works.