100. GHOST STORY (1981)
With the slasher boom in full swing there was very little room left in the horror genre for more traditional scares. Fright fans were much more interested in watching scantily clad women being chased by knife wielding maniacs. It was a gamble then for director John Irvin to adapt the 1979 Peter Straub bestseller Ghost Story. It was the writer’s fifth novel and the best evidence so far that he was a potent challenger to Stephen King’s horror crown. Irvin had his work cut out for him though, bringing to life Straub’s complex and multi-themed story. We meet four old friends (the wonderful quartet of Fred Astaire, John Houseman, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Melvyn Douglas) who have formed a social club based around the retelling of old stories. When the story of woman called Eva draws parallels with another woman in their past, Alma, a tale of murder and revenge unfolds. The director keeps the stories back-and-forth timeframe on course with a skilled hand whilst drawing on old fashioned scare tactics to keep the audience on their toes. The numerous reveals of mouldy, ghostly faces harks back to the traditional horror films of the sixties, reaching a crescendo when Astaire’s Ricky is accosted by the rotting corpse of Eva in the heart stopping finale. The Robert Zemeckis directed What Lies Beneath (2000) drew interesting parallels with the movie’s murdered lover, watery vehicle grave some years later.
99. POLTERGEIST (1982)
An Exorcist (1973) inspired Steven Spielberg script directed by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) helmer Tobe Hopper; horror movie pitches do not get much better than that. Whilst the resulting movie didn’t induce the terror that Hopper previous horror masterpiece did, it was a rare example of big budget Hollywood creating top notch scares. Poltergeist has become the fairground ghost-train of horror movies, something for thriller rookies to cut their teeth on and horror veterans to reminisce on. The frights are traditional and colourfully presented, many of them apparently stemming from Spielberg’s own childhood, the spooky tree outside the bedroom window, the creepy clown doll. As a counterpoint a little Hooper nastiness creeps in just to keep the audience on their toes; watch as one poor soul peels his face to pieces over the kitchen sink. But on repeat viewing the well-worn tale of house on Indian burial ground provides more subtly chilling delights. Understated moments such as the self-stacking chairs terrify just as much as alternate dimensions and skeletons in the swimming pool. Mix in some excellent effects work, intriguing discussions of the afterlife and a film stealing performance from Zelda Rubinstein and the result is a rare combination of high polish and effective scares. Despite the addition of the superbly sinister Reverend Henry Kane Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986) and Poltergeist III (1988) were disappointing sequels. A television series followed, as did a number of real-life tragedies for the Poltergeist cast and crew, including the tragic deaths of actresses Heather O’Rourke and Dominique Dunne.
98. HOMICIDAL (1961)
Film director William Castle was an unconventional filmmaker. The helmer made his name crafting a string of classic b-movie pictures in the nineteen-fifties most of which relied on cheeky marketing ploys to pull in the punters, the insurance certificates from Lloyd’s of London for Macabre (1958) and the “joy-buzzers” attached to theatre seats for The Tingler (1959) being two of the finest examples. Castle’s 1961 picture Homicidal (1961) offered a similarly cheesy gimmick, a sixty second “fright break” just before the film’s final twist during which terrified patrons could leave and claim a refund. But the film wrapped around this publicity stunt was a genuine shocker of a film. Stealing from one of the best thriller films of all time, writer Robb White ‘borrowed’ cross-dressing killer device from Psycho (1960). We meet Emily (Jean Arless) a seemingly good natured beauty who shares a large mansion house with a wheelchair-bound elderly woman. When friend Miriam calls in to visit, the story creeps to a revealing and shocking conclusion. The woman is actually a man plot twist has been used subsequently (The Crying Game (1992) and the audacious last scene of Sleepaway Camp (1983)) but the story crafted by Castle marks its best outing to date. For all Castle’s trickery Homicidal was a genuine tale of suspense with a pace that at times outstripped Hitchcock’s Bates Motel thriller and a concluding revelation that matched Norman Bates’ penchant for donning a frock or two.
97. CAPE FEAR (1991)
Martin Scorsese’s first stab at the scary movie arrived courtesy of a film studio pushing him towards a more commercially ripe project. Roping in his long-time collaborator Robert De Niro ensured that his remake of J. Lee Thompson’s Cape Fear (1962) would be no mere blockbuster re-tread. Adding the likes of Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange and Juliette Lewis to the cast also ensured that the somewhat two-dimensional characterisation of the original film was dispensed with. The moral ambiguities as to who is in the right and who is in the wrong remain though as De Niro’s Max Cady seeks revenge on the lawyer who wrongfully sent him to prison. Its Cady’s slow building intimidation of the Bowden family that really chills. Never crossing the line far enough to warrant serious police intervention, Cady demonstrates just how easily it is torment someone providing you have the will. Its De Niro’s film from the off, as he delivers his most menacing performance. The ironic zenith of his powder-keg Cady is a quiet scene when he a smiling Max nonchalantly confronts the young Danielle Bowden on the stage of her school hall, ‘There’s no hurtin’ here Danielle’. The growing anxiety explodes into a climax of sublime scenery chewing from De Niro as Cady plunges over the edge of sanity on the Bowden’s house boat. It’s a slightly formulaic end to a picture that promised much more in its early running. The Carrie (1976) styled false ending gets another dusting off but it all ends in a predictable watery finale for Cady. Even so, for a text book study in how to mastermind well-paced scares and tension Scorsese’s effort is high class and there may never be a more realistically intimidating onscreen psychopath than the one De Niro delivers. Fans of the original also got to enjoy some interesting tributes to the 1962 original as Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck and Martin Balsam all crop up in small cameo roles.
96. SALEM’S LOT (1979)
What was made as a two part Stephen King dramatisation for American audiences was given the big screen treatment when it reached European shores. Whilst the theatrical cut is a more concise 112 minutes, horror connoisseurs are advised to stick with the full 184 minute saga. King’s second novel after Carrie, Salem’s Lot sees writer Ben Mears return to his home town after the death of his wife. His arrival coincides with the reappearance of Kurt Barlow, a vampire fixing to feast on Salem’s town folk. One of the issues with King adaptations is the limitation a movie’s length places on characterisation. The two-part format allowed director Tobe Hooper time to build the residents of Salem so that when the blood started to run the audience cared who lived and who died. A rare modernisation of the vampire mythology which also pays neat homage to Stoker’s Dracula, the Halloween (1978) inspired eeriness of American suburbia is combined with the traditional terror of the neck chomping vampire to create some truly chilling moments. The infamous scene of Danny Glick letting his undead brother into his bedroom for a late night collarbone nibble is best remembered, but there are a host of other moments both small and large that unnerve just as equally, ‘You’ll enjoy Mr. Barlow, and he’ll enjoy you’. A Return To Salem’s Lot (1987) followed but the sequel had no input from Hooper or King and nothing to do with the original story other than the setting. A remake of the original was released as a television miniseries in 2004. An impressive cast including Rob Lowe, Donald Sutherland, Rutger Hauer and James Cromwell made it solid viewing.
95. THE INNOCENTS (1961)
Picking up the Peeping Tom (1960) psychological horror baton director Jack Clayton crafted a haunting interpretation of Henry James’ 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw. Taking screenplay pointers from the 1950 William Archibald’s Broadway play of the same name (as well as incorporating script work from Truman Capote) The Innocents (1961) tells the story of Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) a recently appointed Governess. Replacing Governess Jessel who died a year before, Giddens is tasked with caring for two orphaned children in their manor house home. The children’s behaviour grows increasingly bizarre and Giddens believes that the spirits of Jessel and her callous lover are taking over the children. The questions over Gidden’s sanity as she succumbs to the contentious nature of the eerie happenings is expertly realised by Kerr. Chilling support is provided by Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin as the brother and sister couple, side stepping the frequent annoyance of children on screen mistaking over acting for honest performing. Their turns as the possibly possessed siblings are expertly handled, topped off with a controversial on-the-lips kiss between Kerr and the young Stephens. The setting of Bly Manor predated The Haunting’s (1963) Hill House by two years and creates a locale of equal understated menace. A harrowing ending closes the film on an unexpectedly emotional note. Director Clayton returned to child based thrills in the underrated 1983 horror Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983).
94. SINISTER (2012)
There was a time when the ‘snuff’ film was considered an urban myth in movie circles, a piece of celluloid that depicted the actual death of a real person or persons. It was dark subject only really explored in any detail in Joel Schumacher’s underrated 8mm (1999). Since then though, the proliferation of uncensored news footage on websites across the internet has made the snuff film a redundant entity. But this didn’t stop director Scott Derrickson using the snuff movie as a plot device for one of the best horror films of the new millennium. Ethan Hawke is crime writer Ellison Oswalt, who in seeking inspiration for his next book moves his family to a new home, one where the previous occupants were all found hanging from a tree in the back garden. Only he knows about the tragedy though and as he secretly explores the house and the circumstances behind the deaths he uncovers what appear to be a series of snuff movies in the attic, showing various people killed by an off-camera assailant. Oswalt’s growing desperation to find out what happened to the occupants of his new home builds wonderfully over the film, with the viewer’s sense that all is not likely to end well twisted ever tighter by Derrickson. The scares littered throughout are pure J-horror, which was a little old hat by 2012, but there’s no denying that they get the job done. And as the truth behind the attic snuff footage becomes apparent to Oswalt in the finale, the classic too-little-too-late terror tactic so reminiscent of The Wicker Man (1973) and Spoorloos (1988) provides a climax that for once justifies all the boo scares and shadowy figures employed in the build-up. The central evil to Sinister earned enough box office dollars to entice a sequel, and Bughuul returned for Sinister 2 (2015). The second time around though the thrills were too predictable to work.
93. PHANTASM (1979)
If the horror film has one advantage over other cinematic fare it’s that a scary movie doesn’t necessarily have to make sense to be effective. Half of horror legend Dario Argento’s output will have you scratching your head as match as it’ll have you reaching for a pillow to hide behind. One of the most confounding but successful horror films of the last century was Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm (1979). Only his third picture, the Libyan filmmaker wrote the script himself, telling the story of Mike and his battle with a local undertaker who is building an army of undead dwarves to take over the world. On paper the plot was relatively straight forward if a touch quirky, but when it came to committing his vision to celluloid Coscarelli overloaded his film with as much eerie imagery as the script could shoulder. While it makes following the logical point to point narrative tricky, the combined effect is a dream of a movie that pulls its viewer deeper and deeper in to a dark, confounding realm . As Michael Baldwin’s Mike gets ever more embroiled with the sinister work of Angus Scrimm’s brilliantly realised Tall Man you start to wonder if you’ve nodded off and you’re now in the middle of your own nonsensical nightmare. At such moments Coscarelli offers a life line by way of a tit-bit of plot logic to keep things moving; that or another startling horror image, such as the Tall Man’s flying spheres of death that became the Phantasm series’ second motif alongside Scrimm’s suited villain. A $12million take on a modest £300,000.00 didn’t guarantee an immediate sequel but in 1988 fans got their wish with Phantasm II (1988). Though some of the magic had gone it did offer some much needed story exposition for the original movie. Further sequels of decreasing quality followed, Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (1994), Phantasm IV: Oblivion (1998), and Phantasm: Ravager (2016).
92. FINAL DESTINATION (2000)
Picture this; James Wong’s Final Destination (2000) was not made as a glossy Hollywood thriller but as an Asian horror in the Ringu (1998) mould. Its high concept story, a group of teens cheat death only to have death itself come back to kill them off, would fit in perfectly with the dark supernatural ideals of the Asian horror market. Final Destination’s polished veneer and pretty cast have not served it well, and neither have the hackneyed sequels. But the first instalment remains one of the most original and well executed horror films of recent years. Commencing with the scariest plane crash ever filmed our band of protagonists escape death thanks to a premonition by Alex (Devon Sawa) one of their number. Horror veteran Tony Todd later explains that death has a design and is now hunting everyone that should have perished in the passenger jet explosion. Cue some of the most stressful set pieces any viewer should have the joy to endure as the group are killed off in various domesticated ways (run over by a bus, strangled in the shower, impaled by kitchen knives). The death scenes are wrung tight by Wong, squeezing out every last drop of dread. Some post Scream (1996) self-awareness provides a little relief (horror fans will note that nearly every character is named after a star or director of classic horror films) but outside of some knowing nods Wong wisely chose to play the clever death-design concept straight and right to the last frame. Whilst Final Destination’s death scenes were from the "might actually happen” category, the sequels Final Destination 2 (2003), Final Destination 3 (2006), The Final Destination (2009), and Final Destination 5 (2011) went for fantastical scenarios too far-fetched to be frightening.
91. LAKE MUNGO (2008)
Unusual cinema can often reap great box office rewards, particular in the horror genre. But for every The Blair Witch Project (1999) there are a raft of inventive fright films that fail to find an audience. The indignity of the straight-to-dvd tag can be a tough reputation to shake. The up side is that for horror fans there's a far-stretching mine of movies to unearth. One of the best horror films of the last twenty years, and one which slipped by almost unnoticed, was Lake Mungo (2008) from Australian writer and director Joel Anderson. Not seeking to make a scary movie, Anderson set out to explore the way in which grief can impact on an 'average' family. Shot as a faux documentary Anderson follows the Palmer family after their daughter Alice disappears at a local lake in unexplained circumstances. As the plot came together though Anderson began to pull more and more on the supernatural side of Alice’s fate. Offering one of the most frank explorations of loss seen on film, the movie is an emotional watch. But equal to the heart string tugging is the spine-chilling ghostly after effects brought on by Alice’s fate. Encompassing the best home-video tactics used by Paranormal Activity (2007) the documentary presentation immediately raises the terror levels beyond a standard film. And the unravelling of the mystery as to what happened to Alice more than lives up to the preceding chills. The climax is terrifying and tragic in equal measure. While those small number of critics who saw the film poured praise on the low budget chiller, the box office take was minimal. Lake Mungo thus remains the greatest horror film you’ve probably never heard of and the one movie that deserves a much bigger audience.