Lawrence’s Top Ten . . .
By: Lawrence Napoli
Ah yes, followers of the Cosmic Book News light; I realize that the internet is rife with “top ten” lists of everything that can be qualified in some way. Websites love these because they attract hits and incite readers to grab their torches and pitchforks when the inevitable occurs and certain fan favorites are omitted. I gain no pleasure in catalyzing such petty squabbling, but I am interested in expressing to you my particular tastes and perhaps make a friendly suggestion when it comes to cinematic recommendations. This is NOT a definitive list of “the best” (whatever that means) horror films. This is MY list of horror films that genuinely freaked me out, told great stories and made me think twice every now and then when I find myself in similar situations back in the real world. These films are ranked 10 – 1 and I will attempt to justify each position so be forewarned, spoilers will follow.
10) Saw (2004)
What to be afraid of: surveillance, pig masks, bad habits and desperation
Why it’s here: Innovation and experimentation were the main selling points for this film once the end credits began to roll. I distinctly remember recent American horror films up to this point in history as a series of hapless slashers and gore-fests that may have been difficult to watch, but never really tapped into fear. James Wan is to be congratulated for creating something new. This film basically takes place in one room where the protagonists/victims are pushed to their investigative (and sanity) breaking points in order to escape a death trap they apparently were deserving of being placed within. The climax is only eclipsed by the final reveal, which effectively conceals the open ended nature of the ending concerning the actual escape or death of Dr. Lawrence played by Cary Elwes.
9) Paranormal Activity (2007)
What to be afraid of: deals with the devil, Ouija boards and haunted girlfriends
Why it’s here: This movie doesn’t get made without the insane success and the new sub genre of home-video-style-horror that came from The Blair Witch Project (1999). What makes PA worthy of my list is that the film rewards with very subtle reveals in perhaps the most realistic presentation of that which cannot be explained. I appreciated that this film was less about flashy effects and more about taunting the audience with the anticipation of fear. Staring into the frame where seemingly nothing happens makes the viewer hyper sensitive to the environment which effectively amplifies the fear once something happens. This film does bow to certain horror conventions, but simply must be experienced because nothing like it has been seen before.
8) The Wicker Man (1973)
What to be afraid of: cults, pagan religion and ignorant yokels that live in the past
Why it’s here: Pay no attention to the Nicholas Cage remake of this classic starring Christopher Lee. It never happened. This film starts off as a simple investigation into the disappearance of a little girl and it turns into a decent into the absurdity of an antiquated and isolated society and the cold viciousness of entrapment and human sacrifice. What truly makes this film creepy is the fact that the whole island is casually dead set on murdering our protagonist, Sgt. Howie. They also do it with very happy faces. The climax is quite chilling in drawing out the fate of the heroic police officer despite his final rant regarding the evil of this deed in light of Christianity.
7) Poltergeist (1982)
What to be afraid of: Zelda Rubinstein, white noise and self stacking furniture
Why it’s here: What is more frightening than weird things happening in your own home and not having a clue as to how to deal with it? One possibility would be if that fact is pointed out by your youngest daughter who has an open dialogue with ghosts. I love how this film played up the fear of the white snow on TVs with no signal. It also designated a difference between haunting and demonic activity. It is a clear inspiration for Paranormal Activity, but favors more overt effects typical of this time period over subtlety. What is it with children and their susceptibility to the supernatural? If ghosts had issues with what the living were up to, doesn’t it stand to reason that they’d communicate with adults that have the power to change their ways?
6) Alien (1979)
What to be afraid of: “Mother,” space, artificial life forms and “Corporate Earth”
Why it’s here: The void of space means death to life without traversing it in a spaceship. What if that spaceship has a ravenous beast on board and you and your crew basically have spoons and forks to defend yourselves with? You can’t exactly run outside and Ridley Scott turned the concept of horror in space into a stalking thriller where only a labyrinth of metal and machines stands between you and your doom. This series embraced a more action-oriented format in its subsequent sequels, but this first film is undeniably horror. The legendary Stan Winston composed the design for the terrifying Alien that lurks the Nostromo thanks to good old fashioned corporate greed back on Earth that is ready, willing and able to sacrifice any number of laborers for profit even in the future. In space, no one can hear profit margins falling.
5) Audition (1999)
What to be afraid of: pretty girls that are shy, burlap sacks and acupuncture needles
Why it’s here: Takashi Miike has an extremely gruesome imagination, but I guess that would be a requirement to bring the novel written by Ryu Murakami to life in the most sincere fashion. This is another one of those misdirection horror films because it begins like a standard drama following a man entering depression over the death of his wife and a general lack of companionship. This is not a good film in which to sport an XY chromosome as it punishes misogyny thanks to the depraved obsession with vengeance felt by the killer, Eihi Shiina (kitty, kitty, kitty). A tortured soul herself, her only meaning in life is sexual satisfaction through masochistic punishment that is all but justified by the protagonist’s cavalier attitude towards women. This film certainly makes you think twice about dating complete strangers who hide their “red flags” well.
4) The Ring (2002)
What to be afraid of: unmarked VHS tapes, ghosts in the machines and televisions
Why it’s here: This American remake of Ringu (1998) is superior in every way because it actually delivers a horrific story that makes some semblance of sense. Plot is a detail of Asian cinema that isn’t always considered to be “a priority.” The image, the real and the supernatural force that bridges them presents a chilling take on interactive technology. It also shows that throwback tech like Super 8mm film can be every bit as creepy (if not creepier) than the most supremely crafted digital art. This film introduces its own urban legend and produces an investigation that is equal parts suspenseful and intriguing. The search for escape turns into a search for redemption that lulls the audience into a false sense of comfort for the climactic reveal that few films in history have been able to top.
3) Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
What to be afraid of: getting pregnant, maternity supplements and “doctors”
Why it’s here: You know how some people designate pregnant women as having moments of irrationality and paranoia as a result of hormonal imbalance? This film presents another explanation for this sort of phenomena. This is no dream! Pregnancy is one of life’s grandest wonders, but it also puts women in a unique state of vulnerability. This fearful situation gets progressively worse when Rosemary Woodhouse’s (Mia Farrow) world closes in on her as her physical condition degenerates, gets no support from her husband and is gradually shut off from the outside world. It forces Rosemary to become self reliant to get to the bottom of her conspiratorial concerns to the point where her worst fears are nothing compared to the shocking truth. When the whole world cares about your baby more than you, chances are something is incredibly wrong.
2) The Shining (1980)
What to be afraid of: isolation, bloody elevators, room 237 and all work and no play
Why it’s here: Two awe inspiring minds in the form of Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick converge in this film and the result is one of the finest explorations into fear and terror that the human condition has been exposed to. Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is a writer suffering from writer’s block and he figures an extended period of time removed from the rest of the world will do him some good. That would normally be recommended if the supernatural weren’t involved. The Overlook Hotel is a ghostly haven that wreaks havoc on Jack’s imagination, frustration and paranoia to the point where he transforms into a less ideal husband and father. Perhaps this film was just an elaborate warning about writers in general and how their eccentric nature makes them susceptible to homicidal tendencies? Nah, anyone stuck in a huge hotel, on a mountain top, in the middle of nowhere could have those kinds of visions. Good thing Shelly Duvall was a champ with that Louisville Slugger!
1) The Exorcist (1973)
What to be afraid of: Satan
Why it’s here: If it’s horror and it’s a movie, then it’s compared to this film and let’s face facts: few horror films deserve to be in the same zip code. Shocking special effects, corrupted innocence, a duel with the greatest evil of all and a basis in reality are only some of the bullet points for this horror classic. It also boasts some of the finest performances in a genre known for actors mailing-it-in. This film is quite frank in stating the simple fact that evil is real, it is recognized by the Catholic Church and the first line of defense in the war against demonic possession is the exorcist – a shadowy agent of good who receives no Earthly reward for what is considered to be a very hazardous line of work. No further explanation is necessary. Even non-fans of horror films ought to have seen this one.