With Halloween round the corner and me working on my horror-suspense novel “The Mine”, I thought this would be as good a time as any to make a Top 10 List of my favorite horror movies. Plus with Rakhi Ka Insaaf and Arundhati Roy in the news and a consequent mass hysteria regarding shrinking genitals in the air , what indeed could be more appropriate? So here without further ado, is my Top 10 list of horror movies (Actually 11 because I just could not prune this list), in chronological order.
Invasion Of the Body Snatchers (1954): “They are here, already. You are next. You are next”. What happens when everyone you know suddenly starts speaking with an uniformly unemotional voice, when the whole world as you know is exactly the same but yet not quite? A horror classic for the ages. Seen as an allegory for the suppression of free-will in the face of indoctrination and an indictment of both Communism and McCarthyism, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” works on many levels—- as a purely political movie and also as a potent reminder of mankind’s visceral fear of being absorbed and assimilated into a larger whole, of having our individual freedoms taken away for the sake of totalitarian “order”.
The Seventh Seal (1957): Bergman’s classic about a crusader playing a game of chess with Death, considered by many to be one of the greatest movies ever made, will not normally be slotted in the horror genre. But if horror is defined as something that fills you with dread, you will be hard pressed to find anything better. Stark black and white visuals of plague-ridden Europe, apocalyptic in its despondency combined with Bergman’s patented “light on the face” effect (as showcased supremely in the last scene of “Wild Strawberries but in a different context) makes “The Seventh Seal” an unnervingly eerie experience. For me of course the most terrifying thing about the movie will be its message—–that contrary to what we are led to believe, at the end of our lives there is be no kind and gentle God waiting to rain mercy and love. Instead stands Death, cold and implacable, inflicting terrible tortures on our souls (“The Dance of Death”) as we journey across the great beyond.
Night Of the Living Dead (1968): Drops you in the middle of the action and refuses to let go. Undeniably the most influential zombie movie ever, establishing many of the conventions of the genre, this claustrophobic, immensely fast-paced film about a group of strangers boarded up in an abandoned house while the undead close in on them from all sides, has its starkest moments when the group, despite their existential threat outside, keep fighting among themselves, with visionary director George Romero contrasting the horror outside with that raging inside.
Clockwork Orange (1971): Yet another movie that normally would not be considered to belong to the genre. However what could be more frightening than Alex and his “droogs” indulging in some of the most wanton acts of cruelty shown on screen (“ultra-violence”) to the cheery tune of “Singing in the Rain” or the State playing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at full volume while having Alex’s eyes kept open with clamps (so that he cannot close his eyes to the images shown) as a part of curative torture? What indeed can be more frightening than the realization that our greatest monsters are not gargoyles or creatures from the sea but normal human beings and the societal structures they create and which in turn creates them? “Clockwork Orange”, Kubrick’s vision of urban dystopia is as chilling and relevant today as it was when it was first made.
Carrie (1976): In Brian De Palma’s “Carrie” (based on the Stephen King novel) when the high school’s beautiful bunch humiliates a disturbed, highly introverted girl (played by Sissy Spacek), she spontaneously unleashes mayhem around her, leading to horrific deaths for her tormentors. What makes “Carrie” for me a cut above the more famous “Exorcist” is that while the latter’s shock value lies in its depiction of religious blasphemy (personally which left me cold), “Carrie” is unique in the way it brings out the horror of school life, the relentless cruelty shown by the cool kids to those socially awkward, a reflection of the essential sadism of human nature.
The Omen (1976): Horror themes that exert the most impact are those which tap into some of our most primal fears. “Omen”, like its more illustrious predecessor “Rosemary’s Baby” plays on one of these—namely that there is something “not right” with an offspring. Where “The Omen” scores over “Rosemary’s Baby” (despite the latter being directed by Roman Polanski) is in its ability to create a darkly disturbing atmosphere of Biblical evil, helped in no small measure by its use of Latin chants for accentuating the feeling of dread, and the elaborately constructed horror-set-pieces, like the one where Damien’s governess commits suicide. One of the rare movies which retain the power to make you twitch nervously in your seat over multiple viewings, even when, because you have seen it so many times before, you know when exactly the “moments” are coming.
The Shining (1980): A dark exploration of loneliness, silence, dementia and the dis-associative power of dreams, brought to life by the combined genius of Kubrick as a director and Nicholson as an actor, “The Shining” is a study in how to construct a gripping narrative with its the ominous buildup, tautly gripping middle and an unforgettable climax (The scene in which Jack Nicholson bursts through the door with a cheery “Here’s Johnnie” being now a part of cinematic folklore). The very definition of psychological horror, a chilling portrayal of one man’s descent into insanity, if there is just one out of these ten you would watch, I would recommend this.
Se7en (1995): A dull and dreary cityscape, awash with rains and a set of intensely flawed characters form the backdrop for this, the ultimate serial killer movie. Leatherface may be more gruesome and Mike Myers of Halloween more wanton, but really none of them can match the nameless John Doe (Kevin Spacey) in terms of being pure diabolical. Spacey has perhaps overall ten minutes of screen-time but so powerful is his presence that even in such a brief period, he is able to leave an indelible impression in the pantheon of truly epic screen villains, a monster whose most killing ability is not the way he dispatches people but in how he brings out the evil inside them .
The Blair Witch Project (1998): The whole ” discovered footage” basis of “The Blair Witch Project” was not new (it had been used for instance in the execrably brutal nasty “Cannibal Holocaust”) at the time of its release. What however was novel was the way the movie’s directors used the then new medium of the Net to promote it as a “real fake” movie , a tactic that was then nothing short of revolutionary. Of course that’s not why the Blair Witch Project is one of my favorites. It is because here is one place where the evil is never shown explicitly, but only through indirection. I have always felt that the impact of horror is usually compromised once the monster comes out of the shadows and here the makers don’t make that mistake. The other reason I like it so much is because of the last scene. When you see it for the first time, you might not realize its sinister significance but then once you remember a remark, made in an off-the-cuff way in the beginning, only then does the horror truly sink into you. (Many viewers who have not paid attention to every detail miss this “remark”.) Any movie that can send a chill down your spine after it is over, I would say is pretty special. The premise of real-life handycam footage and indirection has been used several times hence—–sometimes pretty well (Cloverfield) and sometimes pretty derivatively (Paranormal Activity) but never has its exerted as much an impact as the Blair Witch Project.
The Ring (2003): Horror snobs would turn their nose up at me when I say that I have never been a fan of Asian horror—no not of Takashi Mike’s “Audition” or “Chakushin Ari” (made in the US as “One Missed Call”), not of “A Tale of Two Sisters”, not of “Cure” (an excellent plot I felt ruined by avoidable obscurantism). The only two I have really loved have been Ju-on (The Grudge) and Ringu (The Ring). Of them, Ring (the English version) is my favorite not just for the way it brings out the implacability of evil but also for that famous jump-out-of-your-seat sequence towards the end, which made even a hard-boiled horror freak like me give a start. What makes it even more remarkable was that it freaked me out when I saw it, for the first time, in a cross-Atlantic flight on a small screen stuck on the behind of the front seat, not really an atmosphere conducive for watching horror movies !
Saw (2004): Possibly the most controversial choice in this list, there are no half-measures for Saw— you either love it with a passion or hate it deeply. I saw it for the first time in a dollar theater in Detroit, going in with no idea as to what I was getting into. When the movie finished in an almost operatic climactic sequence, I was clapping—-applauding the director’s vision. Most people get so carried away by the stomach-churning torture-porn of Saw that they never really appreciate how cleverly the movie is constructed. Constraining the action inside a filthy room, developing it through dialog between two terror-stricken men who find themselves chained to the pipes with a dead body in their midst knowing nothing about why they were there, everything about Saw—-from its premise to its use of lighting and jump-cuts are genre-defining, not to forget, of course, an ending to end all endings. Well not quite. “Saw” spawned six sequels, some of them actually not half-bad (with innovative use of the concept of time and story-interweavings) and numerous torture-porn wannabes (Hostel I and II, Turistas, reboots of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Hills Have Eyes, Halloween) with each of which trying to amp up the horror by showing progressively more cringe-worthy acts of cruelty. However not a single one could replicate the original’s subversive cleverness.