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80 to 71
2017-09-20, 11:15 PM

80. HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER (1986/1990):

Unfairly categorised by one infamous scene, John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) is as cold a thriller film as any horror could want to find. Like the film’s titular psychopath Henry the movie is unsympathetic, measured and unflinching. Shot in 1986 but not released until 1990 due to lengthy debates with the MPAA over graphic content, McNaughton’s picture follows Michael Rooker’s Henry, a killer who lives with former prison friend Otis (Tom Towles). Otis becomes Henry’s partner in murder but when Henry begins a relationship with Otis’ sister Becky the two men become violently confrontational. The aforementioned scene is the filming of Otis and Henry murdering an entire family in their house. As we watch the scene unfold it becomes clear that the murdering pair are also watching the killing, which they filmed, on video playback. It is a shocking moment, summed up by Rooker’s deadpan expression as he watches the violence unfold. Its Rooker’s staggering performance as Henry that alarms, his detached expression barely changing from beginning to end, no matter what the activity. Loosely based on real life killer Henry Lee Lucas, the starkly presented opening montage of brutal murders is a grim opening. The horror appears to have ebbed by the film’s final act, as Henry saves Becky from Otis’ rape attempt. But the unceremonious dumping of a tell-tale suitcase in the films last shot reconfirms Henry as the most inhuman and disconnected cinematic killer of all time. Such was power of Rooker’s performance the actor found himself typecast as the villain for the rest of this career, only finally breaking free thanks to a pleasingly winning turn in Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (2017).

79. TOURIST TRAP (1979)

There are moments in David Schmoeller’s Tourist Trap (1979) that follow the clichéd slasher movie traits so closely you will be tempted to fumble for the “Stop” button on your remote. Chief among which is the lack of common sense amongst the four friends who stop at the Slausen Desert Oasis looking for their missing companion Woody. But wrapped around the story of this quartet is a chillingly surreal thriller movie. It is so hard to nail down the killer’s modus operandi you’ll be dizzy with fright right up until the hideously bizarre last shot rolls into view. It’s impossible to comfortably predict where the movie will take you next, a moment of weirdness always cropping up to nudge the viewer off track. The film offers little in the way of comforting exposition and your imagination is left to plug unsettling plot hollows. Does the killer have some sort of supernatural power or are the hundreds of mannequins littering the Slausen Desert Oasis remote controlled? Are the apparitions ghosts, or are they hallucinations? Schmoeller creates some wonderfully unnerving imagery along the way and shows a surprising amount of visual and aural restraint at a time when many films makers were scrambling to up the gore and noise quotients. A perfect example of Schmoeller’s utilisation of well-chosen sound effects and moments of silence comes in the opening scene where the aforementioned Woody meets a sticky end. The sinister and oddly puzzling style of this segment is repeated throughout the movie, creating a rare breed of fright film. Though not particularly well received upon release in March 1979, a cult following subsequently grew, with horror legend Stephen King singing the films praises in his non-fiction offering Danse Macabre.

78. THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (2009)

Whilst the films which kick started the gorenography craze of the mid-noughties were outstanding thrillers in their own right, Saw (2004), Hostel (2005), Wolf Creek (2005), the resulting deluge of graphic content did little to raise the prestige of the horror genre. Many of the films placed gore above plot, acting, originality and any other facet that makes a film worth a watch. Fright fans prayed for a swing back in the opposite direction and slowly but surely the about-turn arrived. One of the proponents of change was writer and director Ti West. With a slant towards the horror genres of the late seventies and early eighties West’s first two pictures had a wonderful retro vibe, The Roost (2005) featuring a gaggle of killer bats and Trigger Man (2007) following three friends stalked through the woods by a mystery hunter. For his third film West fully embraced the period premise and set The House of the Devil (2009) on a college campus in early eighties USA. The resulting film was the best eighties horror film fans had never seen. College student Samantha, desperate for funds to pay the rent on a new flat, takes a last minute babysitting job for a mysterious elderly man. Driven out to a large house in the countryside by her friend Megan, Samantha takes the job against her friends better judgement despite finding out that the her employer for night lied; she’ll be looking after his elderly mother while he heads out with his wife for the lunar eclipse that’s occurring. West wins point for casting the criminally underused actor Tom Noonan as the Mr. Ulman, the man so strangely in need of a babysitter. But the real brilliance of the film is in West’s ability to perfectly recapture the early eighties feel. Shooting on 16mm and nailing the trappings of the time, if it wasn’t for the age of Noonan and other horror perennial Dee Wallace who also cameos, horror fans could well be fooled in to thinking a lost eighties classic had been unearthed. And whilst the climax of West’s film falls back on to well used horror conventions, the preceding hour as Samantha tries to settle in to her spooky home for the night is one of the most subtly chilling sixty minutes of cinema in recent years.

77. SHUTTER (2004)

The J-horror phenomenon of the late nineties wasn’t confined to Japan. Across the Orient filmmakers were offering up some of the creepiest movies in years and proving doubters wrong that the apparently sophisticated theatre goers of the new millennium could still be scared witless. First time directors Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom shot and co-wrote Thailand’s finest horror film to date with Shutter (2004). After leaving a party with his girlfriend, photographer Tun (Ananda Everingham) and girlfriend Jane (Natthaweeranuch Thongmee) accidently kill a young woman on their drive home. Leaving her body in the road the pair scurry home. Over the next few days Tun discovers mysterious white shadows appearing in his photos. Shortly after Tun’s closest college friends begin to commit suicide. The spirit photography premise is used incredibly well throughout the film to set the viewer on edge, though the lank haired spirit and wrongful death / revenge was slightly derivative of previous J-horror movies by 2004. Even so, the plot reveal in the film scenes is still worth the wait and justifies all the hair-raising and chills that precedes it. The body count is also surprisingly low throughout, but it’s in no way detrimental to the scares. Hoovering up every successful Asian horror film Hollywood didn’t take long to offer up their take on Shutter. The fact that Japanese director Masayuki Ochiai was behind the camera for Shutter (2008) didn’t stop it being a dumbed-down, by the numbers reproduction.

76. TRAIN TO BUSAN (2016)

If Zack Snyder’s fantastic Dawn of the Dead (2004) remake showed the coming of the zombie apocalypse in the west, Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan (2016) is the equivalent unravelling of society in the east. Whatever catastrophe changed folk in the States in to sprinting flesh-eating fiends is also happening in Korea, and, it’s safe to assume the rest of the world. While there’s no direct link between the two films, many of the things which made Dawn of the Dead (2004) a success are utilised equally successfully by Sang-ho, in particular the frantic action of hordes of the undead scrambling for fresh meat. So compelling is the action its strong enough to gloss over the two dimensional characters who find themselves trapped on a bullet train heading to Busan as the zombie epidemic takes hold. Among the passengers is a yuppie father eager to make up for his lack of involvement in his estranged daughters life, a pregnant woman and her physically imposing husband, two teen would-be lovers, an elderly businessman one selfish act away from becoming an evil bastard, and an overwhelmed train driver without little idea what he’s meant to do with his train amid the growing chaos. You can guess what’ll happen to most of the occupants of the train, providing you can find respite from the one-hundred-mile-an-hour pace the film moves at; from the minute the train leaves the station there’s barely time to breath between bouts of grabby, flesh munching terror. The train setting is wrung dry for every possible thrilling set piece, and the battles between carriages are some of the finest horror action ever filmed. The film was such a success Sang-ho was commissioned to direct an animated prequel the same year. Seoul Station (2016) provides the back story to a number of the train occupants who found their way to Busan in the middle of a worldwide zombie apocalypse.

75. SOUTHERN COMFORT (1981)

The early nineteen-eighties were not all about the slasher movie. Amongst the plethora of skinny blondes being chased by masked desperados there were some over looked horror masterpieces being produced by directors not out to make a quick buck. One of the best of the era was the Walter Hill directed Southern Comfort (1981). The film follows a group of National Guardsmen on a training exercise in the Louisiana swamps. The trainee squad make the mistake of stealing some canoes belonging to the native Cajuns to get across a particularly soggy patch of swamp land. The Cajun locals are none too pleased with this and spend the rest of the movie picking the would-be soldiers off one by one. The Vietnam metaphors are not particularly subtle, and equally obvious is the influence of Deliverance (1972). However, whereas Deliverance presented its natives as banjo strumming, backward-minded caricatures, Southern Comfort leaves its villains cloaked in the cover of their natural surroundings before unleashing a whole village of seemingly regular but suspiciously sinister folk on our two remaining heroes at the film’s climax. Hill also keeps the tension on a steady climb from the movie’s first moment up until the unbearably edgy dénouement, and all without resorting to an overly graphic male rape scene. The group of nine troops are all played to perfection by an accomplished group of character actors including Powers Boothe, Keith Carradine, Fred Ward and Franklyn Seales. With no real ammunition, only the blank rounds that are permitted to use in training exercises, the troupe gradually begin to turn on one another as tempers fray and the locals begin to get the better of the supposedly superior soldiers. Wrapped around this disintegrating group is an otherworldly environment of crawling mist, towering trees, dense undergrowth and dirty swamp water, all expertly photographed by Hill and his crew. You never know from one minute to the next whether the group are being watched, followed, set up or placed within gun sights, or if it is just the unnerving setting playing havoc with your sense of paranoia. The visuals are juxtaposed by an achingly beautiful soundtrack courtesy of guitar maestro Ry Cooder, making for an unnerving package from start to finish.

74. ILS/THEM (2006)

Directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud struck another blow for the remerging European horror scene in 2006 with this disturbingly tense cat and mouse story. The slaying of a mother and her daughter by a roadside opens the movie before we join Clémentine (Olivia Bonamy) and Lucas (Michaël Cohen) in their comfortable home. The sound of the television being turned on prompts Michael out of bed, but he is attacked by a hooded teen. What follows is a frantic scramble as the couple attempt to survive the night pursued by a motiveless but deadly gang of children. Playing on the same fear of disenfranchised youth that drove the terrifying Eden Lake (2008) two years later, Moreau and Palud use every minute of screen time to build the distress both the viewer and the lead actors have to suffer. The faceless, unprovoked killer always terrifies more than the villain that is revealed and psychologically dissected, and the directors wisely keep their killers from view. The viewer is stranded, as confused and anxious as Clémentine and Lucas. The lack of the fantastical in the set pieces brings the action that much closer to home, a “what if” terror that will leave most audience members clamouring to up the security on their own abode. Chillingly the only explanation the assailants give at the movie’s conclusion is “they wouldn’t play with us”. That the film was loosely based on the murder of an Austrian couple in their Romanian holiday home by three teenagers adds yet another level of horror. An American remake of sorts was released in 2008; directed by Bryan Bertino The Strangers (2008) had a very similar plot though the familiar presence of A-list actress Liv Tyler pulled the movie out of it-could-actually-happen realms.

73. DARK WATER (2002)

Director Hideo Nakata could be forgiven for falling back on the clichés of modern Asian horror. After all, he created most of them with his landmark film Ringu (1998). But instead of unleashing a slew of longhaired spooks Nakata focused on the more restrained aspects of good scares. Dark Water (2002), based on the short story Floating Water by Koji Suzuki, was perhaps the most understated of all the successful Asian horror films of the new century. Taking inspiration from some of the best subtle thrillers from The Haunting (1963) to Ghost Story (1981), the film follows a recently divorced mother Yoshimi (Hitomi Kuroki) and her daughter Ikuko (Rio Kanno) as they move into a rundown apartment block. The onset of a water stain on the ceiling of the apartment sparks an escalation of creepy events, including the appearance of a mysterious child. Plot similarities with Ringu aside (a drowned child, a returning vengeful spirit) Nakata crafts one of the best tapestries of unease thanks to a wonderful eye for eerie visuals and framing. Nakata adds his labyrinthine apartment building to the list of top notch horror film venues, but marks his scares with a character driven tale that makes the finale all the more affecting. The obligatory American remake was released in 2005 with director Walter Salles gathering one of the most star packed casts for a horror film in some time. Jennifer Connelly, Tim Roth, John C. Reilly, Dougray Scott and Pete Postlethwaite all feature in a movie that strived for subtle horror but suffered from a lack of scares.

72. IT (2017)

As the poor performance of The Dark Tower (2017) showed, Stephen King’s lengthier classics have always proved difficult to translate to the big screen. Condensing the richness of King’s characterisation in to a manageable ninety minutes has tripped up many a filmmaker. King’s much beloved 1986 one thousand-plus page epic It had to settle for a two part 1990 made-for-television outing. And whilst Tim Curry’s performance as Pennywise the Dancing Clown won much deserved plaudits, the adaptation ran out of steam as it stumbled to a disappointing end mired by a climatic ‘beast’ that looked like it cost all of twenty dollars to make. The novel cutting back and forth between the central gang of seven as children and adults battling an evil entity that ‘feeds’ on the occupants of the small town of Derry, director Andy Muschietti and his writers wisely chose to cleave the story neatly in two. It (2017), revealed in its closing credits as Chapter One, focuses on the stories heroes as children. Capitalising on the current trend for eighties set drama with a few nods to main instigator Stranger Things (2016), the child's story is moved from its 1958 setting in the novel to 1988. Muschietti also dispensed with other unnecessaries to streamline his plot; the entity no longer appears as various classic horror monsters and takes the form of Pennywise more often, and the villainous Bower gang are decreased in number. Wisely the disturbing group sex scene between the adolescent heroes as they struggle to make it out of Pennywise’s sewer lair is also jettisoned. The result is a blend of The Goonies (1985) and Phantasm (1979), a rare central cast of child actors all delivering compelling performances. The threats outside of It, such as the violent Bower gang and Bev’s abusive father, are often as terrifying as the titular evil, but its Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise that leaves the biggest impression. A triumph of character design production and acting, Skarsgard delivers the best collection of jump scares in recent cinema, fittingly creating the best movie fairground ghost train ride since Poltergeist (1982).

71. KILL LIST (2011)

If asked to describe a typical Brit most people beyond UK shores would mention the staid personality and the stiff upper lip. But there’s a flipside to these stereotypical traits; look towards the likes of Monty Python and The League of Gentlemen and you’ll find a zany, dark blend of horror and humour. These qualities infiltrated British cinema to create a truly unique fright film sub-genre, the British horror film. Quirky to the point of being disturbingly peculiar with a sprinkle of dark humour, there’s no other genre like it. Keeping the spirit of Deathline (1972), Theatre of Blood (1973) and the like alive is writer and director Ben Wheatley. Both Sightseers (2012) and A Field In England (2013) offered a much needed British twist on post-millennial horror, but his most accomplished movie to date remains Kill List (2011). As one critic described it, the film is a heady mix of Witchfinder General (1968) and The Wicker Man (1973). We follow a British soldier Jay (Neil Maskell) coaxed in to working as a hitman for one last pay day by a friend. His list of targets grows and some of them seemingly welcome their fate. As Jay reluctantly continues it becomes apparent he’s embroiled in something much larger and more sinister. The film raised a little controversy on release due to some graphic content, but outside of Jay dispensing with one of his victims with a hammer there’s a manic escalation of plot that unnerves with every passing minute. Wheatley dispensed with much of the plots exposition, ensuring that the viewer is planted squarely in Jay’s shoes, scrambling for clues as to where his kills might be leading. The answer to that is a shattering climax that’s difficult to predict and even harder to forget.

 

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