60. DUEL (1971)
One of Steven Spielberg’s earliest directorial efforts, Duel is one of the best examples of crafting a fantastic fright film from the most basic of story ideas; a man driving across California on business is terrorised by a large petrol tanker. This bare-bones tale, written by Richard Matheson, was first published in Playboy Magazine before it fell into the arms of directing prodigy Spielberg. The director wisely chose not to clutter the narrative with any unnecessary plot mechanics and instead focused on the simple notion of a mysterious truck terrorising commuter David Mann (a never better Dennis Weaver). The story rumbles from one scary set piece to another, climaxing in a terrifying mountain climb with Mann’s car running on fumes and the rusty HGV closing in on his back bumper. Sensibly Spielberg doesn’t reveal who is driving the truck or their motivation for stalking Mann. Every idea the audience might come up with to get Mann out of his quandary is presented to us, and every one fails. The genius of Spielberg is evident from the minute the movie begins, with nary a shot wasted as he crafts some of the greatest car chase footage ever captured. He also keeps the proceedings gripping for the entire ninety minutes, despite the slender plot. Spielberg may have gone on to direct and produce some of Hollywood’s most celebrated movies, but Duel remains one of his most accomplished pictures. It also kick started a minor horror sub-genre, the horror road movie, which produced some truly gripping films, most notably Road Games (1981), The Hitcher (1986), Breakdown (1997) and Jeepers Creepers (2001).
59. OPEN WATER (2003)
Sometimes real life can provide movie inspiration more fear inducing than even the best screenwriter could concoct. In 1998 an American couple were abandoned at the Great Barrier Reef by a scuba diving company that accidently left them behind. The couple were never seen again. Sensing a great idea for a movie in the tragedy Chris Kentis, a keen scuba diver himself, put pen to paper and picked up his movie camera to make Open Water (2003). Shot on digital video, no doubt for budget reasons (Kentis and his wife funded the movie themselves) the shaky presentation creates a cinema vérité tone wholly in keeping with the subject matter. The story matches the real life events as working couple Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel (Daniel Travis) are left at sea by a diving company who fail to realise they’re missing. Stretching their dilemma to a full-length film should have been a tall order but Kentis brushes this problem aside with ease. The wonderful ocean footage captures the feeling of desolation frighteningly well. Travis and Ryan also perform wonders as the couple adrift, the panic growing with each passing minute for them and the viewer. For added authenticity real shark footage was captured by Kentis and the introduction of the ominous dorsal fin pushes the movie into painfully tense areas. The night time scene with its pitch black battle to survive the below surface killers is as gripping as cinema gets. A tremendous take at the box office put the sequel wheels in motion but the more traditionally shot Open Water 2: Adrift (2006) failed to match the crushing anxiety of Open Water.
58. THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977)
Before Wes Craven reached the promised land of international hit A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984) he cut his teeth on two of the late seventies most unrelenting horror films. The Last House On The Left (1972), an update of The Virgin Spring (1960) that was hidden beneath a swathe of violence, got the director noticed; the rape revenge story, despite being well shot, did not sit well with critics. Seeking to keep his career on track but refusing to lay down his horror ideals Craven devised another story of horror in reverse. The Hills Have Eyes (1977) sees a family tortured by a brood of cannibals in the Nevada dessert. This normal all-American family, torn apart by the savages, has to become as depraved as their tormentors in order to survive, turning the tables on them in a bloody fashion no matter what the mental or physical consequences. It was a horrifying turnaround similar to the one crafted in Last House, the supposed heroes forced to become as violently corrupt as the villains. The persecution of the family is torturous but never gratuitous and the design of Craven’s cannibal outcasts is shockingly visceral, taking cues from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s Sawyer clan. The remarkable look of actor Michael Berryman alone was enough to cause nightmares. Berryman had the acting chops to accompany his strong look and forged a successful horror career off the back of the picture. The Hills Have Eyes Part II (1985) saw Craven return to the series, but proved to be a re-run of the original film. The Hills Have Eyes III (aka Mind Ripper) (1995) was a poor addition to the franchise. A reasonable remake with Alexandre Aja at the helm was released in 2006, with a less proficient sequel following a year later in 2007.
57. HOSTEL (2005)
The story goes that Eli Roth, seeking inspiration for his next movie, turned to Harry Knowles the editor of “Ain’t It Cool News” website for something horrifying to kick-start the creative juices. Knowles, keen to help, offered to show Roth the most disturbing website on the dark under belly of the internet; allegedly it was a site where people could pay to torture or kill someone. The victims were supposedly family members sold off by impoverished relatives in third world countries. Whether this story is true or not remains a subject of debate but Roth saw this horrific concept as the ideal plot for a horror movie. Released with a heady reputation, Hostel (2005) followed three friends backpacking to Slovakia. Lured to a small village by the rumour of beautiful and promiscuous women, the trio end up imprisoned in an underground lair. They are to be victims for the Elite Hunting group, a shady operation that offers members the thrill of killing or torturing someone for money, “You could spend all your money in there” a cameoing Takashi Miike warns. The film certainly delivers on the promise of graphic content, with severed fingers, caved in heads, and snipped off eyeballs, but despite the repugnant gore the film still manages to terrify. Never has a more hellish place been painted on screen than the Elite Hunting hideout, and though the three backpackers embody the more annoying aspects of male bravado you beg for them to be let out alive. Jay Hernandez’s escape through the grey ruins of a post-communist country makes for an unbearably tense finale. Hostel: Part II (2007) traded in its scares for even more blood and a carbon-copy narrative.
56. SHIVERS (1975)
Director David Cronenberg has produced more than his fair share of terrifying films over the years. His unique brand of horror, often exploring the ghastly potential of bodily infestation, gave rise to such classics as Rabid (1977), Videodrome (1983) and Dead Ringers (1988). But his most focused picture in the body horror vein remains Shivers (1975), the story of a high-rise apartment block terrorised by a sexual parasite. Once this creature slithers into a body the host becomes a sex crazed fiend, hunting down victims like an overly horny Romero zombie. Sexual desire and intercourse as a metaphor for death was a shocking statement in 1975. By the mid-nineteen eighties, with the AIDS epidemic making headlines, many were wondering whether Cronenberg was predicting our future. Allegorical warnings aside Cronenberg constructs a tight horror film, his chosen setting neatly confining the icky goings-on to a claustrophobic maze of corridors and rooms, decked out in sickly seventies décor. Escaping Starliner Tower means the spread of the disease, remaining means certain death. Paul Hampton as Roger St. Luc is the hero facing this impossible dilemma, trying to stop the infection from spreading without succumbing to the state of sexual euphoria that the parasitic apartment folk are hell bent on spreading. In typical Cronenberg fashion, the movie climaxes in frighteningly pessimistic fashion. For attention grabbing purposes one wonders whether Cronenberg should have stuck to the film’s original working title Orgy of the Blood Parasites.
55. SWITCHBLADE ROMANCE (2003)
One of the best French horror films of all time, the title of this Alexandre Aja picture was translated to High Tension for the American market, a most apt title for this nerve shredding movie. A tale of obsession gone wrong, imagine if a director took the most hair-raising killer-chases-victim scenes and made an entire movie out of them. That is exactly what Aja and writer Grégory Levasseur did. We meet two female friends, Alex (Maiwenn Besco) and Marie (Cecile de France), who are travelling to stay at Alex’s parent’s countryside home. The night they arrive a boiler suited murderer breaks into the house and begins to slaughter the family. Alex is spared but only to be thrown into the back of the killer’s grimy van, leaving Marie to pursue her friend in order to free her from his clutches. Taut set pieces pile up as Marie tries desperately to save her friend whilst trying not to get captured and killed herself. Classic scenes of the genre, such as the customary hide-under-the-bed dilemma, are interspersed with new set-ups that push the viewer to the edge of their chair and beyond. Though graphic in places, the killer’s ingenious use of a stair rail and book cabinet being the audacious stand out, the harsh gore is essential for creating a nightmare that hits the viewers most primary senses, assaulting the eyes and ears. A final story twist that unravels much of what has gone before was too implausible for some critics and viewers, but for fright fans its the surreal, blood soaked icing on the cake.
54. THE BABADOOK (2014)
When it comes to ‘marmite’ pictures horror has more love ‘em or hate ‘em films than any other genre. The excessive splatter of Evil Dead (1982) leaves some people laughing as much as it has them shaking with fear, while the blood free thrills of Halloween (1978) leave some gore-hounds nonplussed. The most divisive fright film of recent years is the debut project of writer and director Jennifer Kent, The Babadook (2014). Whilst some heralded it as the best horror film in a decade, others left cinemas confused by its unique approach to scare mongering. A generation that took the splatter of the Saw pictures and the ‘boo’ scares of the Insidious films to heart found it difficult to accept a film whose horror walked a thin line between mental degradation and possible bogeyman in the cupboard. Written and directed by debut filmmaker Jennifer Kent, we follow widower Amelia (Essie Davis) as she struggles to raise her son Sam (Noah Wiseman) in her dilapidated home. As Sam’s erratic behaviour frays the edges of Amelia’s resolve, her son discovers a new favourite children’s book entitled Mister Babadook. But after reading Sam the book Amelia begins to suspect that the sinister figure at the centre of the story might actually be real. The impression some got from the trailers and rave reviews was of a malevolent black clad demon stalking a young mother and her child. The Babadook’s real horror though is in the unravelling of Amelia’s mind and the growing questions around her sanity; is Mister Babadook real or is this a woman in the middle of a terrifying nervous breakdown? As filmmaking debuts go, former actress Kent produced a stunning movie; her follow-up picture is eagerly awaited.
53. THE HITCHER (1986)
In horror movie territory its usually the hitchhiker that gets into trouble, ending up in the trunk of some psycho’s car or deposited in pieces in a drainage ditch; unless you’re Rutger Hauer, in which case you are thumbing a lift with evil intentions of your own. What was a very violent script by Eric Red (Jim Halsey’s chip finger was originally an eyeball in his burger) is turned into an unbearably tense thriller by director Robert Harmon. Christopher Thomas Howell makes the mistake of picking up enigmatic killer John Ryder (Hauer) and quickly finds himself fleeing both his new passenger and the police. Its a situation that spins out of control at an alarming pace, as Howell finds himself as both the victim and the accused thanks to Ryder’s machinations. The horrific splitting in two of Jennifer Jason Leigh via two trucks is the urban-legend tinged climax but it is one man’s ability to effortlessly torture another that echoes past the closing credits. The apparently motiveless stalking of Howell raises some terrifying “what if” questions, the audience placing themselves in the instantly recognisable role of lone driver on the motorway. Repeat viewings reveal a curious relationship growing between Howell and Hauer over the running time and the disturbing revelation of Hauer admitting “I want to die” hints at his true intentions. Howell grows to become a worthy opponent for him and Hauer stalks him to the bitter end. A substandard sequel followed, The Hitcher II: I’ve Been Waiting (2003) with Howell reprising his original role of Jim, topped off by a pointless and woeful Dave Meyers directed remake in 2007.
52. THE ORPHANAGE (2007)
Those who don’t believe that a scary movie can also tug at the heart-strings need look no further than El Orfanto (2007), the first feature film from Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona. Set in Spain the story follows Laura (Belen Reuda) and Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and their recent purchase of the orphanage that Laura grew up in. Laura is hoping to refurbish the building and once again make it a home for disabled orphans. But their plans go on hold as their adopted son Simon goes missing during the orphanage’s opening day party. As her son’s disappearance devours her sanity Laura makes some dark discoveries about the orphanage itself. Bucking the new century’s trend for graphic horror Bayona created one of the best spine chillers this side of The Haunting (1963). Achingly beautiful yet darkly sinister, the visuals are perfectly in-keeping with the fairy tale aspects of the story. The scares are expertly balanced with a tale of heart wrenching loss, a tense equilibrium between the ominous orphanage and the unexplained reality of a child that has vanished without trace. As the supernatural elements slither into the story, set up by an unbearably tense séance scene, the mind wanders to all kinds of terrible conclusions. But just as the scary happenings reach a crescendo Bayona delivers a cinematic knock out blow. It is a last second shocker of immense power, paradoxically terrifying in its pragmatism. Whilst the heartbreaking conclusion may raise a couple of plot-holes (how did the wallpaper get put back across the door?) the brilliance of its about turn and the expert scare mongering that preceded it cover any narrative issues.
51. JACOB’S LADDER (1990)
After the success of Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986) at the 1987 Academy Awards the floodgates were opened for writers and directors to finally show the real graphic horrors of war and the failings of US foreign policy during the Vietnam conflict. All previous sugarcoating and patriotic sabre rattling was dispensed with, replaced with a graphic and disturbing portrayal of the real terror of the battlefield. One of the first movies to utilise this new found acceptance of the realities of war as a genuine plot device was Jacob’s Ladder (1990). Directed by Adrian Lyne from a story by Bruce Joel Rubin, our hero is Jacob Singer (a superb Tim Robbins) a man we first meet in the latter stages of the Vietnam War. When Singer returns home to New York he finds himself plagued by horrific visions. Investigations into experimental drug use on soldiers lead Singer to a shocking realisation. Taking narrative cues from The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and stylistic prompts from Hellraiser (1987) Lyne creates a picture that is drunk on its own horror filled brew. It jitters down dark corridors in an unpredictable fashion dragging Singer and the audience with it. The graphic violence of Vietnam sits alongside the depressing gloom of mid-eighties Manhattan, but it is Singer’s nightmarish visions that really sting. A trolley ride through a blood stained mental hospital is the Dali-esque highpoint. A clever finale rounds off an excellent film.