Halloween is fast approaching like the shambling footsteps of the corporal undead, and what better way to celebrate the ghoulish holiday then by watching your favorite horror movies? As such, I would like to offer you boils and ghouls (hee hee) my list of favorite horror films of all time. Some are new (ish), some are old, and some are timeless, like some unknown, ancient horror in the depths of an aging manor on a blackened hilltop—but, nonetheless, each holds a special place in my gory, bleeding heart.
The Thing (1982)
I have so much to say about this film but limited space (self-imposed). So, I’ll be brief in saying it is as close to a masterpiece a horror director can achieve, or even a film for that matter. The Thing deals with cold isolation—from the world and from each other—and it’s also about trust. The Room’s (2003) tagline is “Can you really trust anybody?” which only kind of makes sense, but if it was The Thing’s tagline then it would make perfect sense! This film works because both themes (isolation and trust) are never broken, and never is this truer than when R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) is trying to weed out the alien by administering a test of his own devising, which involves setting heat to blood samples. Right up until the monster reveals itself, everyone is guessing as to who is still human and who has been assimilated; in other words, nobody knows if they can trust one another and on top of that, they are all alone on a frozen continent with relief months away.
The cast also does an amazing job—from Wilford Brimley’s pessimistic portrayal of Dr. Blair to Keith David’s role as Childs. They really all give an effortless portrayal of their characters. The real life isolation of the cast certainly contributed to the camaraderie on screen, and a funny anecdote about just how isolated the actors were is relayed in a documentary regarding the film when Director John Carpenter discusses a near-death experience on an isolated mountain, which featured their transport bus almost going over a cliff-face and very nearly to their doom.
More than that, what really makes The Thing great is Rob Bottin’s practical effects, which rely on prosthetic makeup, a double amputee, and lifelike replicas that explode with gorgeous violence. If you have never seen this movie, you simply must watch it. It’s one of the best and is an education in how to tell a grotesque and terrifying tale.
A running theme in movies I enjoy, which I didn’t realize until I formed this list, is isolation. The idea that a group of characters have a small place to exist while the fear of violence assails them appeals to me. With less room to move, characters must develop or the movie becomes stagnant, and the audience either becomes bored or turns on the protagonists.
Alien (1979) achieves where so many similar films fail. This includes creating compelling characters in distress and confusion. The harrowing onslaught of a mostly unseen enemy blinds the protagonists with paranoia and speculation as to how they will survive. The sheer fact that they allowed the character of Dallas (played by Tom Skerritt) to go try to flush the Xenomorph out of a claustrophobic’s worst nightmare.
Likewise, Sigourney Weaver’s performance as Ripley and the subtle performance of John Hurt as Kane, whose gory death is a revelation for viewers and the crew of the Nostromo, add to the realism and effectiveness of the film. Even if you’ve seen Alien, watch it again. The throat rape and chest-bursting will continue to haunt your dreams.
I don’t hear much fanfare for Sunshine, but I know its popular among sci-fi fans because it appears on “Best of …” lists often enough. Sunshine is yet another story on my list of lonely isolation aboard the spaceship Icarus II. After its predecessor becomes lost on a previous mission, the new space crew must chart a course toward the sun with the intention of dropping a nuclear payload, which will hopefully end a perpetual winter on Earth.
The mission is dire, indeed, and yet the filmmakers create a believable world filled with excellent plot development and strong casting. The score, too, is moving and overshadows some moments of lackluster special effects. And when a film can transcend its limitations (budget, casting, etc) then that probably means you have something good on your hands.
What makes Sunshine far superior, than say, Interstellar (2014) or Gravity (2013) is the balancing of storytelling which veers from science fiction adventure to slasher movie. Danny Boyle does a fantastic job directing this sharp shift with a keen eye to previous details and adequate pacing. Unlike many science fiction films, this is not just another 2001 (1968) ripoff or an attempt at mundane space horror. It’s the real deal.
Quarantine (2008) stands out as one of the finer attempts at a “found footage” title that I’ve ever seen, and it was one of the first of its genre to actually engross me into the short-lived lives of the characters. The decision to cast unfamiliar actors was a smart move and having the monsters downplayed compared to the mystery of their incarceration makes the film more jarring and definitely disturbing.
The added effect of cuing the audience to the conclusion was subtle enough as to not deem reproach. What is more, the apartment complex is claustrophobic and the narrow hallways and passages become familiar by the end of the movie. I can’t think of too many films where, as the viewer, I could probably find my way around the complex if given the chance.
I should also say that it’s scary as hell.
Kill List (2011)
I must admit, I watched this movie last year, and I was saddened that I had not seen it sooner. It has some flaws but subsequent viewings reveal a carefully plotted film, and disturbing implications, which while common for horror films, is uncommon to be so relevant upon further screenings. In other words, everything in Kill List means something: every little piece of dialogue, every altercation, every character, and every scene plays into the overall narrative and conclusion.
Thankfully, Kill List is on the good side of relentless—never questioning the intelligence of the audience to put two and two together. If given the chance, I guarantee it will stay high on your list of favorite horror films after the first time you watch it.