70. SEVEN (1995)
If film buffs want to know the origin of the term ‘Fincher-esque’ they need look no further than Seven (1995). Dark, rain soaked urban and industrial environments were the director’s calling card during the nineties, all four of his films from the decade leaning on this milieu, for better or worse, Alien 3 (1992), The Game (1997), Fight Club (1999). Fincher’s style was no better utilised than in his adaptation of Andrew Kevin Walker’s ingenious script; two detectives, one young and brash (Brad Pitt), one world-weary and about to step in to retirement (Morgan Freeman), hunt a serial killer basing his slayings on the seven deadly sins. The film’s grubby mix of rain, sweat and grease sucks you into a world one step removed from our own, where it’s always dark and a friend is an impossible aspiration. The darkness is only vanquished during the films ultra-tense finale, when we take a nervous seat alongside the detective as they accompany killer John Doe to his final homicide and god knows what. The only downside to the brilliant climax comes when you try and work out how exactly Kevin Spacey pulled off his last hoorah; it would have clearly been impossible. Prior to this though, waiting for the next ingenious murder in the mode of the seven sins is a great hook, each death more twisted than the last, like driving past ever more gruesome car crashes on the side of the motorway. The horrific nadir arrives thanks to a small but memorable performance from Leland Orser as a man faced with an impossible choice, ‘He told me to fuck her, and ... and I did! I fucked her!’. The success of Seven prompted a new wave of serial killer thrillers with the likes of Copycat (1995), Kiss the Girls (1997), Fallen (1998), and The Bone Collector (1999) all trying but failing to top Fincher’s calling card movie.
69. CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962)
There seemed to be a turning of filmmaking minds at the beginning of the sixties. Writers and directors stopped mollycoddling audiences and aimed for proper scares, leaving audience members battered and shocked. With a tiny crew of five enthusiastic filmmakers and a minuscule budget director Herk Hervey took a stab at this new found horror ideal in 1962 with his Carnival of Souls. An opening car accident introduces us to Mary (Candace Hilligoss in her movie debut) an improbable survivor of the crash. Seeking to put the accident behind her Mary moves to a new town but soon discovers that she is being stalked by a mysterious figure. Inexplicably drawn to an abandoned pavilion Mary begins to lose her grip on reality. A commercial failure at the time of its release, Hervey’s film gained cult status in the years that followed culminating in a triumphant 1989 re-release. Though the story is threadbare and the conclusion an easy one to predict (“She was a stranger amongst the living!” the film’s tagline clumsily proclaimed) the movie’s haunting style more than makes up for it. The ethereal figures that float and judder after Mary have influenced more horror directors and writers than perhaps any other facet of modern horror; George A. Romero was clearly a fan of the film, borrowing Hervey’s spectre design for his zombies in Night of the Living Dead (1968). The main spectre that haunts Mary was in fact Hervey under full make-up, fully embracing the DIY ethic that runs through many a horror classic.
68. FUNNY GAMES (1997)
Dispensing with the components of traditional storytelling, writer and director Michael Haneke crafted a unique display of mental and physical torture with Funny Games (1997). Though the plot sounds hackneyed (a family of three are terrorised by two neighbours Peter and Paul at their lake house) Haneke’s presentation has an intensity missing from most other thriller movies. We remain in the family’s house for nearly the entire picture, suffering alongside them as they try to work out the motive for this horrifying assault and a way out of their predicament. There are no outside characters, no help on the way. We are cinematically trapped in a way that very few conventional movies dare portray. As if this was not intense enough, Haneke draws the viewer in even further by breaking the ‘Fourth Wall’, the theoretical distinction between us the viewer and the events occurring on screen. This barrier is broken on numerous occasions by Paul, who winks at and then directly questions the viewer during the more intense moments. It’s a jarring effect and culminates with Paul “rewinding” part of the movie with a television remote when the pair are finally overcome by their prey. This audacious technique raises some startling questions on the viewing of such harsh displays of callousness as a form of entertainment; even if George and Anna can best Paul and Peter there’s no guarantee they won’t ‘rewind’ proceedings and retake the upper hand. It also implicates the viewer in the crime to a certain degree, elevating the trials the family are put through to terrifying levels. We are Peter and Paul’s silent accomplice. Hollywood’s phobia of subtitles demanded a new version so Haneke produced an English language shot for shot remake in 2007, Funny Games (2007).
67. THE LAST BROADCAST (1998)
There was some argument at the end of the last century as to who was the first to claim the new camcorder horror crown, Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler with The Last Broadcast (1998) or Myrick and Sánchez with The Blair Witch Project (1999). Losing out in the profit stakes might have stung the former filmmaking duo, but horror fans can discard this pointless debate; both films are frighteningly good. The Last Broadcast has a similar into the woods story, exploring the murder of two cable television personalities, killed whilst exploring the Jersey Devil myth on live TV. The mockumentary style serves the material well, as David Leigh (David Beard) carefully walks us through his investigations. The piecemeal approach to the presentation as we nervously squint at and peer into dark footage for clues is most effective. Our desire to unravel the mystery matches Leighs, an explanation demanded to quash the uncomfortable anxiety. When the answer is revealed, courtesy of a nail-biting photo reconstruction, the movie lurches off wildly to an unexpected conclusion. The documentary presentation is ditched in favour of the more traditional third person movie view. Though this stylistic change might raise questions of narrative logic, for pure scares it is shockingly efficient, Avalos and Weiler making the most of their tiny budget in the pursuit of top notch scare mongering and a final twist that’s well worth the wait.
66. THE CONJURING (2013)
Whether you believe the claims of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren or not, there’s no denying their impact on scary cinema. Their various adventures have given rise to a raft of books, TV shows, and films including The Amityville Horror(1979/2005), Annabelle (2014), Annabelle: Creation (2017), A Haunting (2002), The Haunted (1991), and The Haunting in Connecticut (2009). The most sympathetic take on the couple to date remains The Conjuring (2013). Finally matching the success of Saw (2004) with Insidious (2011), director James Wan continued his focus on home hauntings by bringing the long-gestating Perron case to the big screen. Over two decades prior Ed Warren played recorded interviews with the Perron family for a film producer; the Perrons claimed their home had been haunted by a 19th century witch. A script was written but drifted between studios for fifteen years before brother sister duo Chad and Carey Hayes refined it well enough for New Line Cinema to pick up the production tab. The script eventually landed in Wan’s lap as director. Casting was key and the director was able to secure the talents of Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as the Warrens. The pair elevated what was a fairly standard spook house script well beyond its genre trappings. Wan also had the good sense not to mire the story with too much CGI or special effect demons. Instead Famiga and Wilson get to perform amongst a superbly realised atmosphere, with excellent support from a cast who sell the screams and tension without chewing up the scenery to unrealistic levels. Fans hungry for less blood soaked frights flooded to cinemas and an astounding $318million was earned off of a $20million budget. After that much financial success a sequel was inevitable. The Conjuring 2 (2016) offered more solid frights, slightly exaggerating the Warrens involvement in the real life Enfield Haunting incident and in the process somehow managed to turn a small English semi-detached house in to a pile big enough for the obligatory climatic chase around drama.
65. A TALE OF TWO SISTERS (2003)
Top notch scare mongering flowed freely out of Asia at the turn of the last century and Kim Ji-woon A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) was one of the best offerings from the newest horror sub-genre. The writer and director’s fifth picture presented a new take on the traditional Joseon Dynasty folk story Janghwa Hongreyon-jon. A traditionally tragic tale, we follow two sisters Su-Mi and Su-Yeong as they attempt to adjust to life with their cruel step-mother, Eun-Joo. The detached home they share with their emotionally distant father and Eun-Joo houses more than the family unit though. Spirits lurking within begin to influence Eun-Joo who becomes ever crueller in her treatment of the haunted sisters. The truth behind the death of the sister’s real mother leads to an uncanny climax. Though some of the trademarks of the Asian horror explosion, such as lank haired figures and ill-lit bedrooms, are called on once again, their use here is still the right side of cliché. Ji-woon’s handling of the twisting storyline is masterful as he feeds the audience only the necessary bare minimum of plot mechanics. He keeps the story on a queasy uneven kilter right up to the final acts shocking reveal. Yeom Jeong-ah works wonders with a chilling update of the evil stepmother routine and the interplay between Im Soo Jung and Moon Geun Young as the titular sisters ensures that the final twist is an unpredictable stunner. A dull American remake entitled The Uninvited (2009) was released six years after the Asian original.
64. THE FLY (1986)
Mucky special effects do not often lead to great scares, but David Cronenberg is one of those rare horror auteurs that can combine gruesome visuals with genuine frights. The Canadian directors remake of sci-fi classic The Fly (1958), itself based upon a short story by George Langelann, was the commercial pinnacle of his predilection for body horror. A tale perfectly suited to Cronenberg’s fascination with the infection and breakdown of the human body, scientist Seth Brundle accidently combines his DNA with that of a housefly while attempting to create teleportation pods. Over the course of the film Brundle graphically transforms into a human fly, ruining his life and his relationship with journalist Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis). Jeff Goldblum created the role of a lifetime as Brundle, a compelling performance in a film where he is rarely off screen. Brundle’s stark bodily disintegration brings the viewer frighteningly close to their own mortality and their true composition as nothing more than a walking bag of meat. At the time of the film’s release the AIDS pandemic had reached media critical mass; Cronenberg’s film was and remains a horrifying mirror to this and all debilitating diseases. A sequel followed, The Fly II (1989), which focused on the mutated son of Brundle and Quaife. Whilst it upped the level of gore it failed to recapture the pathos so wonderfully created by Goldblum. There were also two sequels to the 1958 original, The Return of the Fly (1959) and Curse of the Fly (1965), as well as the bizarre 2008 opera The Fly composed by Howard Shore.
63. PEEPING TOM (1960)
Most scary movie fans agree that Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) was the starting point for the modern horror movie. But for supporters of British director Michael Powell, his Peeping Tom (1960) released three months prior to Psycho, stakes an equally good claim to the title of godfather of modern horror. Powell’s version of Leo Mark’s original tale follows Mark Lewis (an impressive Carl Boehm), a man terrorised by his deceased father’s investigations into the nature of fear. Continuing his work Mark murders women with a spike on the end of his camera, filming the victims tortured reactions. It is only when he catches the eye of one of his female lodgers that he begins to question his work. Casting some starling questions over the voyeuristic nature of cinema, the movie was lambasted by critics at the time who labelled the picture sleazy and immoral. That the audiences viewing sat alongside Mark’s sordid observing made them an accomplice in his crimes. At some points in the film the viewer is placed right in Mark’s shoes, offering a chilling first person perspective of the murders as they happen. It was a shrewd story device but an unpopular one. Powell hardly worked in the industry again, a real crime considering the top notch scare mongering he created in 1960.
62. WHEN A STRANGER CALLS (1979)
Allegedly written as a sequel to Black Christmas (1974), this tight thriller had a major weapon in its arsenal; it had one of the scariest opening acts ever filmed. Based on the urban legend of “The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs” the opening twenty minutes shows young babysitter Jill (Carol Kane) terrorised by a series of phone calls from a husky voice asking “Have you checked the children?”. For once our heroine does the right thing and calls the police, who phone back to warn her that the calls are coming from inside the house. Jill escapes but the two children in her care have already been mutilated by the psychotic Curt Duncan (a startling Tony Beckley). It is as devastating an opening salvo as there has been in horror cinema. Skipping forward seven years, Duncan has escaped. He is tracked by the portly private investigator John Clifford (Charles Durning) in a tense cat and mouse game over the movie’s middle portion. Duncan is both scared and scary in equal amounts depending on the situation, whilst Clifford’s obsession with tracking Duncan down paints him in sufficiently interesting shades of grey. Our heroine does not reappear until the final act when we receive another heart stopping scare. It is the lack of the fantastic that lends the movie the sort of realism similar slasher flicks of the era struggled to achieve. Director Fred Walton shot a made-for-television sequel in 1993, When A Stranger Calls Back, a dull offering despite Kane and Durning reprising their original roles. A remake was released in 2006, an equally unwise move considering the onset of the mobile phone negated the shock value of the opening revelation “the calls are coming from inside the house”.
61. THE SIXTH SENSE (1999)
If you’re one of the few people that doesn’t know the astounding plot twist in The Sixth Sense (1999) consider yourself lucky. As film surprises go it is as well-known as the identity of Luke Skywalker’s father. Plot twist aside, M. Night Shyamalan showed that there was more to him than a fancy name with his third directorial outing. The writer and director crafted some of the best frights in recent years with his tale of child psychologist Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osment’s ability to see dead people. The sight of spectres appearing over shoulders or stalking the vulnerable Osment sends a genuine shudder down the spine. The build up to the numerous ghostly reveals are painstakingly tense, and cast alongside the diminutive Osment the audience reverts to a childlike state of vulnerability, cowering under bedsheets and inside homemade tents. It makes for a frosty atmosphere, even more so when underpinned by an evocative James Howard soundtrack. The chills ebb once we realise that the ghouls haunting Osment are relatively harmless. This combined with the shift from horror to emotional drama in the final third keeps the film from the upper ranks of the scary movie genre. However, The Sixth Sense became one of the first Oscar nominated horror films in years, deservedly nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award but losing out to American Beauty (1999). Shyamalan has been struggling to return to the pinnacle The Sixth Sense’s horror delights ever since.