40. SESSION 9 (2001)
Is there any better setting for a fright film than an abandoned mental asylum? Writer/director Brad Anderson took full advantage of the atmosphere such a locale provides for his underrated thriller Session 9 (2001). Anderson’s only previous projects were two romantic comedies, Next Stop Wonderland (1998) and Happy Accidents (2000), but with a penchant for horror Anderson took inspiration from a true life murder he read about in the mid-nineties where a seemingly mild mannered worker had slaughtered his wife for burning his dinner; the man removed his wife’s heart and lungs and placed them on stakes in the backyard. Together with co-writer Stephen Gevedon, they concocted their own quiet family man, Gordon Fleming (Peter Mullan) the owner of an asbestos removal company. On hard times, Gordon takes a job cleaning out the Danvers State Hospital in just one week. His crew of workers aren’t impressed with the tight schedule but set to work. Gordon’s close friend Mike (Gevedon also taking to acting duties) discovers taped interviews with Mary, one of the former patients, and her doctors over nine separate sessions; as he becomes more obsessed with discovering Mary’s fate tension amongst the clean-up crew increases and strange occurrences begin to arise. A solid cast of established character actors, including David Caruso, work wonders with a dialogue heavy script, ensuring that the pacing is impeccable and the build-up to the shocking climax is an enjoyable journey for viewers that reveal in unease. Anderson also found the perfect shooting location, the actual Danvers State Asylum. The buildings were in such a state of disrepair much of it was unsafe to shoot on, but Anderson took full advantage of the areas he could access to capture on film one of the finest horror settings of recent years.
39. EVENT HORIZON (1997)
Blending the best elements of Alien (1979), The Shining (1980) and Hellraiser (1987) Paul WS Anderson created one of the best space thrillers since Ellen Ripley paid a return visit to LV4-26. The return of the experimental space craft Event Horizon seven years after its mysterious disappearance sees Lawrence Fishburne and Sam Neill lead a rescue crew to investigate. A futuristic Mary Celeste, the opening hour is as tense a slice of cinema as there has been in recent years. As the cast try and piece together the clues to discover where the ship has been and what became of the crew, the gothic, slimy visuals gradually build the unease. Some tense set pieces, such as the airlock rescue, also do the blood pressure some damage. Anderson was forced to cut twenty minutes of footage in order to obtain an “18” rating, but enough of the graphic content remains to unnerve. Fortunately, the gore does not overshadow the creepy ambience and the reveal of the Event Horizon's previous whereabouts justifies the sinister build up. The only stumbling block is the final act when Sam Neill becomes the less effective villain of the piece. Considering the ships previous location the story called for a much more bombastic final showdown. Some unanswered questions beg for a sequel or prequel of equal merit to be made. The uncut version of the film remains the Holy Grail of undiscovered horror films, with the full movie rumoured to have been found on VHS in 2012 by producer Lloyd Levin; despite this Anderson remains resolute that his original cut of the film will never surface.
38. ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968)
Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Ira Levin’s best selling novel was a solid continuation of the modern horror ideal. Following a young couple who move into a rather dubious but upmarket New York apartment block (shot at the infamous Dakota building in the same city) the film’s heroine is the titular Rosemary, the wife of the pair. After meeting their eccentric neighbours Minnie (a part that garnered veteran actress Ruth Gordan an Academy Award) and Roman, who are in fact witches in charge of a coven that inhabits the apartment block, Rosemary’s struggling actor husband Guy makes a pact with them to further his own career. In return he provides them with a child to be carried by his wife Rosemary. Cue a disturbing and surreal central scene where Rosemary may or may not have been raped by the Devil. Though it takes Rosemary forever and a day to piece together what is going on, “This is no dream, this is really happening!” the steady stream of unease flowing from such a familiar setting is intensely creepy. When the clues start to fall into place, the feeling of dread quickens immensely. It seems that everyone is set against Rosemary getting away including it seems a trusted Doctor friend outside the satanic building. She has nowhere left to hide. The final scene is the chilling pinnacle, the blasé nature of the coven’s patrons increasing the horrific nature of what has occurred. Polanski smartly hides the “baby” from view and we have only Rosemary’s look of panic to go by as she peers into the crib. “He has his father’s eyes” one delighted onlooker coos, which we can only assume is not a sparkling pair of baby blues.
37. TRIANGLE (2009)
At a time when the American movie horror market seemed obsessed with remaking past triumphs, the British and Australian industries were busy taking on board the lessons coming out of Asia. Triangle (2009), a joint Brit-Aus thriller, was written and directed by emerging British talent Christopher Smith. With the appropriately named Creep (2004) and the critically lauded Severance (2006) under his belt Smith tried his hand at psychological horror. The result, though commercially disappointing, showed a writer and director operating in the upper echelons of the genre. We follow a group of friends out sailing when their boat is wrecked by a storm. They take refuge on a passing ocean liner that turns out to be deserted. But one by one the group are killed. It is then that lone survivor Jess spots their over turned sailing boat pulling up alongside the ship once again, with her on it as well. The brain-bending plot plays out like the horror equivalent of Groundhog Day (1993) as Jess struggles to grasp the ever repeating loop she is stuck in. A total lack of story predictability keeps the film neck deep in scares and the Mary Celeste like setting works twice the creepy wonders that the similarly styled Ghost Ship (2002) managed. That the entire movie rests on the shoulders of former Home and Away star Melissa George (as Jess) is a good thing. The actress creates an astounding portrayal, climaxing with the movie’s heart wrenching, character exposé and shock climax.
36. DELIVERANCE (1972)
Hollywood had not explored the murky depths of backwater America before 1972, but after John Boorman’s adaptation of John Dickey’s 1970 novel directors and writers were free to explore the dark corners of the United States, dangerous areas that modern life had passed by. The clichés of buck-toothed, dungaree wearing psychopaths was kicked started, quaintly enough, by four friends going canoeing. Boorman follows this urban quartet into the forests of Georgia as they run foul of the sociopathic locals. The reason behind the hunting that takes place is unclear, though the condescending attitude of Ned Beatty, Ronny Cox, Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight is a hinted at motivation, ‘Talk about genetic deficiencies-isn't that pitiful?’. That such a small slight should lead to such terrors was reason enough to stay away from foreign locales after 1972. Civilised reasoning would not work with these villains, and only Reynolds keen eye for survival could rescue the audience from inbreed torture as the foursome headed deeper in to the wilderness. Boorman makes full use of the beautiful Georgia landscape to capitalise on the fish-out-of-water thrills, as the race to get out alive sways between man versus nature and man versus hillbilly. The infamous anal rape of Beatty’s Bobby is a prolonged and agonising watch, and just as shocking now as it was all those years ago. After this shocking assault the viewer wonders just how torturous the film’s second half will be; it proves just as tense if not as graphic. Once Beatty had squealed like a piggy the way was paved for yet another horror sub-genre, with the dangerous locals of unexplored America scaring viewers in the likes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), The Hills Have Eyes (1977), Southern Comfort (1981) and Wrong Turn (2003).
35. JIAN GUI / THE EYE (2002)
Body part transplantation has been a horror staple since Dr. Frankenstein first broke out his sewing kit. Movies such as Mad Love (1935), Hands of a Stranger (1962) and Body Parts (1991) all highlighted the dangers of acquiring new limbs of dubious origin. The best horror transplant tale since Frankenstein (1931) rose out of Hong Kong in 2002. Directed by the Pang Brothers, Danny Fat and Oxide Chun, The Eye (2002) tells of Wong Kar-mun (Angelica Lee), a woman whose sight is restored thanks to an experimental corneal transplant. The eyes Mun acquires are those of a deceased Thai woman who had the power to foresee death. This power manifests itself in Mun who now has the frightening ability to see dead people. The plot takes obvious cues from The Sixth Sense (1999) but the spirits Mun encounters are even more terrifying than Osment’s tormentors. The translation of some Asian horror films leads to lost story facets and a slightly confused audience; no such problems affect The Eye. The story is wonderfully communicative, and the Pang brothers create easy empathy for Mun with very touching scenes that muse on death, life, sight and love. With a compassion for Mun’s plight firmly established the chills become even more affective, none more so than the protracted elevator scene. A powerful final twist makes for the perfect horror coda. A reasonable American remake was released in 2008 with Jessica Alba in the lead role, whilst the Pang Brothers directed two sequels The Eye 2 (2004) and the confusingly titled The Eye 10 (2005).
34. THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE (2016)
One of the most beautiful things about the scary movie is the simplicity of their concepts. At times all a fright film has to do to establish its story is show you a location and its players and the movie can get rolling; backstory, exposition and protracted dialogue isn’t needed. Such is the case with Andre Ovredal’s fabulous The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016). Following on from the equally well received ‘mockumentary’ Troll Hunter (2010), Ovredal had a point to prove, namely that there was more to his talents than the found-footage style film. Seeing that classical style horror was back in vogue with the likes of Insidious (2010) and The Conjuring (2013), he sought out a hot script by Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing that had a devilishly simple concept. The setting is a morgue and the two central characters are a coroner Tommy (Brian Cox) and his trainee son Austin (Emile Hirsch). As a storm descends on their isolated property the body of an unidentified female arrives. As the autopsy progress the pair uncover more and more unsettling anomalies with the corpse, which start to have a disturbing effect on the room and the building around them. Wringing the most out of its concept in a very short space of time, Ovredal drops the viewer in to hot water from the start. No scene is wasted and no moment passes by without moving the plot forward in unravelling the mystery of Jane Doe. And pleasingly the answers revealed along the way don’t short change the viewer; the shocks justify the build up. Credit was rightly given to Cox and Hirsch for their tag team performance, but praise should also go to Olwen Kelly for playing the Jane Doe; hired for yoga background and skill in controlling he breathing, Kelly has to be the most impressive corpse even seen on film.
33. DON’T LOOK NOW (1973)
Lying at the subtle end of the horror movie spectrum Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) represents a triumph of delicate chills over brusque scare mongering. Adapted from another of Daphne du Maurier’s chilling short stories, Don’t Look Now, the film follows the Baxters (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie), a couple who have retreated to Venice after the death of their young daughter. Once there John Baxter suffers visions of his daughter sauntering the alleyways of the city in her favourite red coat. There is also a serial killer loose on the streets. It was a bold choice to create a full-length picture from Maurier’s fifty eight page tale, but as a supernatural thriller the film stands at the very top of the genre. Many questions are asked but few answers are provided leaving the audience as confused and alone as the Baxters are in this very sinister locale. Roeg utilises the labyrinthine setting superbly; the Baxters do not belong in Venice and every fibre of the city encases them in ill will. Searching the city for clues to the film’s intricate mysteries is an uncomfortable experience. And how does the serial killer story thread fit in? The final reveal blows open the whole story in mind blowing fashion. It may seem like poetic justice, considering that the couple left their daughter playing unsupervised next to a large garden pond, but Roeg, Sutherland and Christie do more than enough to garner sympathy for the couple, not least the oft discussed sex scene. You will be aching for the couple to return to the safety of the British Isles come the final frenetic moments.
32. THREADS (1984)
All entries on this countdown have been cinematic releases. It would take a film of monumental fright to break that rule, but that’s exactly what Threads is. Of all the man-made horrors in the world none terrify more than the nuclear bomb. As a device that could end all life on earth in any number of graphic ways, it is without equal. Perhaps due to the absolute nature of mutual assured destruction, the nuclear war scenario has not been prevalent in popular cinema. The BBC produced The War Game (1965) was so bleak in its depiction of nuclear conflict the BBC banned their own film from being shown on national television. The Day After (1983), made by Nicholas Meyer for American television, was rumoured to have swayed President Reagan’s views on nuclear disarmament such was its shocking content. But the most disturbing of the nuclear war movies remains Threads (1984), Mick Jackson’s adaptation of Barry Hines’ original story. It details a nuclear attack on Sheffield as part of a wider conflict, presenting the before, during, and after events in a cold documentary fashion. For those that grew up in the Cold War “Protect and Survive” era, Threads is an all too real account of what could have been; and sadly it’s a case of what still might be. Those lucky enough to be unaware of the looming threat of a mushroom cloud will be utterly traumatized by the apocalyptic scenes, filmed with horrid sincerity by Jackson. The grim highlight is heroine Ruth’s trip to hospital just after the bomb has dropped, complete with vomit covered floors, howls of despair from burnt masses and a leg amputation, sans anaesthetic. Its downhill from here to the grim finale years after World War III has finished and the population of Britain, reduced to eating rats and living in rubble, has dropped to pre-medieval numbers. As depressing and stark a film as you will ever experience.
31. IT FOLLOWS (2017)
There was a time when great scary movies seem to come along two or three every year. In the last fifteen or so years though, pickings have grown increasingly slim. It’s therefore even more of a delight when a new classic of the genre arrives. American writer / director David Robert Mitchell claimed his spot among the horror greats with It Follows (2014). Sex often equals death in horror films, but Mitchell cleverly went one further by making sex the transmitter for a deadly curse. Jay (Maika Monroe) is a student in a tired suburb of Detroit. Seeking some spark in life from her new boyfriend Hugh, they spend an evening getting hot and heavy in his car. To her shock though, post coitus Hugh drugs her. Awakening to find herself tied to a chair on waste ground Hugh explains that he’s passed on a curse whereby the victim is pursued by dishevelled figures, slowly but constantly walking towards them. If they’re touched they’ll die. The only way to pass on the curse is to sleep with someone else. The sluggish but constant march of these ghouls automatically creates fantastic pacing for It Follows; Jay can run or drive away for a day or two of respite, allowing for slower script moments, but the figures will always catch up. The next terrifying set piece is inescapable and it’s makes for a terrifying inevitability. When the figures arrive Mitchell doesn’t disappoint, whether it’s the creepy long distance staggering of a lank haired woman, or the close quarters assault in Jay’s home by a towering old man. Mitchell shoots the picture with the style and look of a veteran filmmaker, the rundown streets of suburban Detroit beautifully photographed and the three-sixty camera pans and unique angels used crafting a film that goes well beyond the average horror offering. The package is completed by a fantastic cast who combine to elevate the script well above its genre rivals. Wonderful to look at, terrifying to watch, and a film to get the viewer thinking.