It's Amir here, bringing you the second episode of this month's Team Top Ten. Last week we looked at the best horror films made before The Exorcist. This week it's time for everything that came after that seminal classic. Moreso than in the previous list, Team Experience members have agreed on canonical titles, barring an exception or two. This isn't to say there weren't any surprises. We decided against compiling a preliminary list of eligible titles before voting - precisely to avoid total agreement on our choices - and lo and behold, differences in opinion over what is considered horror lead to some major eyebrow-raisers; I'm already anticipating your comments about the absence of Jaws. But that's the fun in list-making.
Without further ado join us for the haunted house, serial killers, and terrifying isolation of...
10. The Others (2001)
Generally speaking we divvy the write-up duties on our team top ten ballots based on who ranked what highest. Curiously The Others fell to me, Nathaniel, though it was actually not on my ballot. Surely it's that ghostly aura of Kidmania which surrounds me. Or was it the fact that this neo horror classic is also a canonical entry in the Women Who Lie To Themselves™ genre of which I am a super-fan. Despite all the wonderful little scares in The Others involving creaky old houses, mysteriously reappearing husbands, and possibly sinister servants my favorite moment is all visual. Despite Nicole's expertly haunted star turn -- a star turn Nick once geniusly described as "ceramic befuddlement" and there's no topping that so I won't try -- my favorite moment in the film is all visual and actor-free. It's the extended sequence when the haunted house is flooded with light, all the windows, doors and shudders freshly opened. What a glorious reversal of horror tropes from this throwback to classic ghost tales. The film's twisty smart screenplay understands this and exploits it: it's the light, not the darkness, that so unsettles our delusional protagonist; self-awareness can be frightening. The film's subversive hand, deftly played, suggests that some people will do almost anything to stay in the dark.
9. The Descent (2005)
I was raised in a Catholic country where legends about headless priests, demons who step out of hell to collect souls after midnight, indian cemeteries with hidden treasures found by following orange trees made out of gold and ghosts of a myriad other varieties (not to mention the infamous chupacabras) were an essential part of my formative years. By the time I was in my teenage years and realized all of this was phony, it took a lot to scare me. For example I still don't get why people think "The Exorcist" is any scary for example, other than for it being an allegory for the perils of losing your soul to the film industry...
It wasn't until 2006 when a film truly crawled under my skin and made me squirm, gasp, drop my popcorn and want to pee my pants from fear...and it was "The Descent". Neil Marshall's film takes the concept of spelunking and twists it around by revealing that nothing is more dangerous than losing one's humanity in the caves of your mind. Morals, kindness and any signs of love are flushed down the drain as five women get lost in some caves in the Appalachians turning against each other, each of them craving only to survive...and all of this happens before actual flesh eating monsters are introduced! By then the movie had me covering my eyes and hoping it would all end soon; however, that final shot (from the original cut) will never cease to haunt my dreams.
8. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
When The Blair Witch Project first opened in 1999, I was 15 and my sister was 13. One of the few television shows the whole family watched together was The X-Files - my sister and I considered it a big thrill when we were allowed to stay up late go watch it on Sunday nights. Blair Witch was inescapable, and when my parents heard there was no gore, they decided to ignore the R rating and go as a family. Put aside the brilliant marketing campaign (the greatest since Psycho's "no latecomers allowed!" policy), forget about the seemingly endless homages and parodies (you are allowed to include Book of Shadows with them), and The Blair Witch Project is still the scariest film of the last quarter-century. Even if we now know it's fake, the terror onscreen feels real. This is how people really react to being scared - they don't think, they don't fire off a witty comeback. They jolt, scream, and run like hell (swearing optional). Just how scary is Blair Witch? Let me put it this way: My family lived in a wooded area - our house was set back from the road and surrounded by woods on two sides. When we got back from our evening screening and realized that we had to take the garbage out to be collected the next morning, it took all four of us to bring out one garbage can. And some of us never took it out ever again.
7. Scream (1996)
“What's your favourite scary movie”
And just like that a new generation was introduced to the wonders of the horror genre. Before Scream’s 1996 Christmas season release the genre was in dire straits. Quality titles such as Candyman would flop and lacklustre direct-to-video Leprechaun sequels populated the Blockbuster shelves. In a way, Scream acted as a reboot to an entire genre and remains one of the most influential horror movies of all time. Why? Well firstly, it’s adherence to genre conventions made it work as an audience-baiting slasher the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the early ‘80s heyday. Who can deny the terror of watching Drew Barrymore receive taunting phone calls over jiffy pop, or effective old-fashioned ‘boo!’ scares as Ghostface plays cat and mouse with soon-to-be-iconic final girl Neve Campbell? Still, It’s thanks to Kevin Williamson’s wicked screenplay that Scream become legend. His roster of whipper-smart teens and refreshingly multi-dimensional adults (when will the Academy officially apologise to Courteney Cox?) not only knew the conventions, but how to (theoretically) defeat them. For once the characters were as smart as the audience, and in sweet irony changed the “rules” at the film’s core. It became a $100m box office smash and a new horror video night standard (not to mention the equally amazing Scream 2). I feel like I’ve spoken about Scream so much that I can’t possibly have anything more to say (perhaps that’s why I’ve struggled to finish my own scene by scene deconstruction of the initial trilogy). Ultimately this film is so great that that’s never the case.
6. Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
It's claimed for horror films that they're a reflection of the time in which they were made, which probably applies to some genre masterworks more than others. But there's no missing how The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, made in the waning years of the Vietnam War and shortly before the Watergate scandals brought American respect for authority figures to an all-time low, underlines the anxieties of its era in deep red smears. A group of conspicuously un-special young people arbitrarily dying horribly for no reason other than being in the wrong place, and a third act that turns the holiest altar of Norman Rockwell Americana, the family dinner table, into a torture chamber? You can't get much angrier at the state of things in the '70s than that. It's so nihilistic that you can almost miss how relatively free of blood it is; the real brutality lies in the film's certainty that this pointless death and violence is impossible to stop, or even to slow down. It's a howl of dark energy as bestial as the inarticulate screams bellowed by the seminal slasher villain Leatherface in the last scene, free to kill again, and again…
5. Silence of the Lambs (1991)
The scariest moment of The Silence of the Lambs doesn’t involve Anthony Hopkins grand performance as Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter. It isn’t even the agonizing night-vision scene where Clarice Starling quakes in the darkness, utterly vulnerable to the stalking killer. No, the scariest moment is when Catherine Martin stands in a parking lot watching Buffalo Bill in a fake cast, pretending he can’t lift a couch into the back of a van. We cringe as she ignores all the warning signs and allows herself to be lured to her doom, and it’s extra horrible because, if you’re like me, every time you watch a voice in your head says the same thing: “I would have helped too.” Two decades later Silence has been a victim of its own success as the power of the film has been overshadowed by parody, camp, and an endless stream of lesser imitators. But watch it again. The film holds up because somewhere in its dark core it isn’t playing. These people exist. These things happen. Sure Silence is undeniable fun. It’s baroque horror, a thriller, executed with exceptional artistry on every level. But then there’s that girl who found herself at the bottom of a pit just for being kind. And she lingers in the mind long after the fun dissipates.
4. Carrie (1976)
As we just learned this past weekend, you try to top Brian DePalma's 1976 emotional shocker and they're all gonna laugh at you. Or at least shrug. And where's the girl power in that? There's no shrugging in horror! And nobody anywhere near DePalma's film comes close to shrugging - from top to bottom, from that potato peeler flying across the kitchen to PJ Soles' little baseball cap, everybody's bringing their big game. Big bigger biggest. Nowhere moreso than in its pair of powerhouse central performances - I feel fairly righteous in saying that Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie will never be topped, as many awesome ginger-ish actresses as get tossed this way. This is opera, this is iconography, this is an eensy little mother-daughter drama standing in for everything in the world (religion, puberty, pig-farming) and dragging it it all down to car-flipping teacher-smashing potato-peeling heart-rending hell. These are godless times, and I liked it, I liked it! Let's drink to that.
3. Halloween (1978)
Along with Psycho, Halloween is the horror film I’ve probably seen the most. For this reason, it is one of my favourites and, what I consider, one of the most effective made. As with the Hitchcock film, I’ve watched it roughly once a year since I first saw it in 1987. (Not always on October 31st, though it does help, and not always all the way through.) Sometimes, especially if I’m alone, it freaks me out too much to carry on watching. Even now. It’s a film with real staying power. The first time I watched it I was alone, it was late, on Halloween, and in a dark house not entirely dissimilar to Annie Brackett’s (Nancy Loomis). Oh, how I had trouble sleeping that night. Its power truly resides in what it leaves in your mind. It’s that music. The sense of dreadful expectation. The half-glimpsed “shape” of a man in a bad William Shatner mask and a boiler suit just standing there in the garden, in the street. It, He, Michael Myers, even has the balls to appear in broad daylight, allowing for no avenue of next-day escape; watching it in the daytime doesn’t ease the situation — it often makes it worse. The way Carpenter plays horrible, clever games with screen space and ominous pause — suggesting in the emptiness of Haddonfield just what lurks in the darkest corners of our imaginations — is tinged with just a dash of sly, knowing genius. But it’s those shots near the end that make the fear resoundingly concrete. The camera returning to the locations of Myers’ kills after he’s... vanished. The once familiar but now-empty areas visited by death. It’s the potent horror of these snapshots of sheer terror that I remember most. Thanks for eternally terrifying me, Mr. Carpenter.
2. Alien (1979)
The beauty of Alien is its simplicity. At its heart, the film is a classic monster in the haunted house story. The titular monster - only given history, biology, and a name in later sequels - appears in Alien as a fatal force hidden by shadows. The brief glimpses of the alien are as disturbing as they are deadly - a flash of spiny tail, light refracted off an elongated skull, the sudden dart of a fanged inner mouth. The rest of the film is as elegantly designed as the monster itself. The first half builds slowly for atmosphere but never stops for explanation. Once the monster is birthed, the spaceship's crew is picked off with increasing violence until only one unlikely survivor remains - Ellen Ripley. Alien is stylishly streamlined. With the constant conjecture that has surrounded the film since its 1979 release, the ultimate takeaway is clear: that which we don't understand scares us most. Like the cyborg Ash states, "I admire its purity."
1. The Shining (1980)
Despite its place of honor atop our list, when The Shining was initially released in the summer of 1980, it was hardly seen as a modern-day masterpiece: Critics dismissed it and Stephen King (who wrote the book it was based on) was one of its major deterrents complaining the film adaptation was not faithful enough to his story (he even went so far as to remake The Shining into a miniseries in 1997 so that his vision could be realized.) One of the few Kubrick films to not receive a single Oscar nomination, it was rewarded with a pair of Razzie nominations (Worst Director and Worst Actress for Shelley Duvall) during the awards' inaugural year. But over the past 33 years, the film seeped itself into the cultural lexicon with such indelible images as a ghostly pair of twin sisters ("Come play with us, Danny. Forever and ever..."), an elevator door that opens to reveal a cascading wave of blood, "REDRUM", and a manic Jack Nicholson hacking his way through a door with an ax to deliver perhaps the film's most memorable or certainly most quoted line, "Heeeeere's Johnny!" (The line was an ad lib by Nicholson and Kubrick almost didn't use it in the film's final cut.)
Like much of Kubrick's work, it takes multiple viewings to discover the complexities lurking below the surface. The 2012 documentary, Room 237, even went so far as to present different theories as to what the film is really about. Is it really a social commentary about the genocide of the Native Americans? (The blood on the elevator is that of the Native Americans who's sacred burial ground the Overlook Hotel is built on.) Is it really about the Holocaust? (Kubrick was researching a film about the subject at the time.) Or perhaps its really a take on the Greek myth of the Minotaur in the Labyrinth. What about a coded admittance by Kubrick that the 1969 moon landing was, in fact, staged by the director? The fact that the film holds up under such intense scrutiny is a testament to the work's quality, making The Shining not just one of the greatest horror films of all-time, but one that transcends genre to take its place among the all-time greats.
• A total of 61 films received at least one vote from the 14 ballots. Curiously the only film besides The Shining to top more than one list was a film that missed the top ten: Perhaps it's because there were two versions splitting votes?: Ringu and The Ring.
• The most recent films to receive a vote was The Conjuring (2013) which came in at no. 9 on one list.
• No film appeared on every list
• David Cronenberg continues to be a favorite of The Film Experience. Though none of his films made the top ten four of his films received votes: Dead Ringers, The Fly, The Brood, and Videodrome
• The most unusual "is this horror?" choices were [safe] (1995) and INLAND EMPIRE (2006). Horror of the soul for sure!
• Sadly no foreign-language titles made the list but the most popular were Ringu and Audition from Japan, Sweden's Let the Right One In, and The Netherland's The Vanishing
Let the Right One In (2008) missed the top ten by just 1 tiny point. The rest of the top twenty in descending order were The Ring and/or Ringu, Suspiria (1977), Dawn of the Dead (1978), Audition (1999), Jaws (1975), Se7en (1995), Dead Ringers (1988), The Fly (1986) and a three way tie for 20th between [safe] (1995), Bug (2006), and The Omen (1976).