||10-30-2012 01:39 AM
Jeremy's Top Ten 2012
This has been the first October Madness where I have been unable to be a wholehearted participant, and it makes me sad to look back on previous years where I’ve been able to write scores of reviews on horror films both greatly admired and greatly unknown. But for the foreseeable future time is extremely limited in my life, and even something so simple as a top ten list becomes difficult to squeeze in, which is why this one is coming in just under the wire
This has been the first October Madness where I have been unable to be a wholehearted participant, and it makes me sad to look back on previous years where I’ve been able to write scores of reviews on horror films both greatly admired and greatly unknown. But for the foreseeable future time is extremely limited in my life, and even something so simple as a top ten list becomes difficult to squeeze in, which is why this one is coming in just under the wire with but a few days to spare. Unlike last year I have not provided a theme for the list. These are all just movies (or in one case a TV series) that I have found new or continuing enjoyment in, some of them well known, others not so well known, that I wanted to give mention to this Halloween season. Enjoy!
|10. Monsters Crash the Pajama Party (1965)|
This brief (31-minute) short remains a fascinating glimpse at the bygone era of spookshow horror extravaganzas, which mixed live performances with filmed entertainment. The “story” concerns a group of college girls who are left alone to spend the night at a haunted house in the middle of nowhere as part of a sorority initiation stunt, not knowing that the building is home to a mad doctor conducting experiments with the help of various evil sidekicks, including a guy in an absolutely atrocious gorilla costume. Monsters Crash the Pajama Party is an early exercise in intentional camp that never attempts to take itself seriously and includes corny visual gags like the words “mad scientist” stenciled on the breast pocket of the evil doctor’s lab coat. While home video cannot replicate the experience of seeing this at a small town theater at midnight (during the climax images of lightning bolts replace the onscreen action, which is where men on costumes would run out into the theater to give the audience a good scare) I still make a point of hauling this one out to watch every Halloween season.
|9. Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-75)|
The two TV movies that inspired this short-lived series will be gristle for a future year’s top ten list, but in the meantime I want to express how happy I was to finally catch up with Kolchak: The Night Stalker via Netflix streaming earlier this year. As a kid my local VHS rental store had a two-episode collection of the series featuring the episodes The Ripper and The Vampire, and I rented that tape over and over again. But the remaining eighteen episodes of the series eluded me, and by the time Universal released a complete DVD set in 2005 I had almost totally forgotten about Darren McGavin’s adventures as a Chicago reporter tracking down supernatural creatures with zero help from the police or his own overbearing boss. Featuring everything from swamp creatures to ghosts to Aztec mummies, it’s easy to see why this show didn’t even last a full season, as the monster of the week format clearly stretched the thin production budget and limited the growth of Carl Kolchak as a character. But viewed as if they were individual short horror movies, there are some genuinely scary and suspenseful episodes here, and even the mediocre stories contain some truly creepy moments. Even the sunbaked daylight exteriors (many of them shot in and around Los Angeles, not Chicago) have a grim, cheerless quality to them that sticks with you long after Kolchak has turned out the lights in his office at the end of each episode.
|8. The Ghost (1963)|
Sometimes a movie is so ubiquitous that it becomes easy to ignore. Such is the case with me and The Ghost, which has for years been readily available from mail order companies and faux public domain DVD labels. When I finally saw it last autumn I realized just how much I had been missing all that time. Set in early twentieth century Scotland, the lovely Barbara Steele plays Margaret Hitchcock, wife of the wealthy but crippled Dr. John Hitchcock. The good doctor is paralyzed from the waist down but has every intention of walking again with the help of a cure he is developing, a formula that involves the deadly poison curare. Unfortunately Margaret is in love with her husband’s physician and decides to murder her spouse by withholding the antidote to his latest experiment. But things don’t go according to plan, as her inheritance goes missing and a spectral apparition of the dead Dr. Hitchcock starts to terrorize her and her lover! Directed by the great Riccardo Freda, The Ghost has plenty of Neapolitan atmosphere and a few twists and turns that help to keep the viewer guessing all the way to the end.
|7. Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)|
I remember a time, way, way back in the days of dial-up Internet, when you could find on some horror movie message boards a militant group of fans who had no use or affection for a Halloween movie where Michael Myers only appeared on a TV screen showing the first film. Sometimes they were the same group of folks who hated Scream for making jokes at the expense of the horror genre. I guess we should call them “slasher fundamentalists”. In any case, it took a little while but Halloween III has certainly received the fan reappraisal that it deserved. The kid in me loves the crazy B-horror plotline, and Tom Atkins makes a great sleazebag hero, while Dan O’Herlihy elevates the proceedings as the colorful Druid villain. This is a great one to watch in a theater with an enthusiastic crowd.
|6. 28 Days Later (2002)|
I have to admit that the first few minutes of this movie left me cold the first time that I watched it; animal rights activists are too easy a target, and the idea of waking up to discover yourself in a deserted, ransacked city had been done more times than I could count. But 28 Days Later is a film that rewards patient viewers, and I was won over in the end by Danny Boyle’s careful attention to his story and his main characters, giving the audience a reason to care about them and their plight at the hands of the sinister Major West and his troops. Although the final act rests on a highly illogical premise (the British Isles are too small and too accessible by electronic communication for so many characters to not realize that they are under military quarantine), the movie succeeds in the same way other illogical movies succeed, by holding your attention so successfully that the fallacies don’t become apparent until long after the credits have rolled.
|5. The Phantom of the Opera (1925)|
When I was about sixteen I was fortunate to see this film projected on the big screen with full orchestral accompaniment, and while it was an extremely cool experience, I had already discovered that this was one movie that needed no sound or music to scare. The Phantom of the Opera was an early encounter for me on VHS, when I couldn’t have been much more than eight years old. My mom bought me a tape from the Goodtimes Home Video label, and not realizing that it was a silent film, popped it into the VCR, only to be confused when no music accompanied the opening credits. You see, Goodtimes was a cheap label, too cheap to spring for a music score for a lot of the silent films that they released, but even without any sound at all the film enveloped me, with Lon Chaney’s brilliant self-done makeup and pantomime performance becoming instantly memorable. The phantom’s unmasking is a moment that has stuck with me always, and remains more effective than the same moment in all the subsequent adaptations of the novel. This was probably my first lesson in the power of pure images.
|4. The Haunted Palace (1963)|
My personal favorite of the AIP/Corman/Price/Poe films, this adaptation remains something of an oddball entry in the cycle due to it having almost no Poe but a lot of H.P. Lovecraft. But despite some budget shortfalls this one is dripping in gothic New England atmosphere and features a memorable performance from Vincent Price as the hapless Charles Dexter Ward, who moves into a castle he has inherited, only to fall under the spell of his warlock ancestor, burned at the stake a hundred and ten years earlier. The film also features Lon Chaney Jr. as one of the spirit’s warlock accomplices. The Haunted Palace is also notable as the first of many filmed Lovecraft adaptations.
|3. Dracula (1931)|
Although it’s come in for frequent criticism for being overly static and stagey (especially following the rediscovery of the generally overrated Spanish version), the Tod Browning/Bela Lugosi adaptation remains a favorite of mine from the Universal pantheon. It is true that, after a set of visually striking opening scenes, the cinematography and editing become too static for their own good, and the London-based part of the narrative does seem like a filmed stage play. But a stage play relies on its actors to bring it to life, and in Dracula we have the perfect casting of Bela Lugosi, Dwight Frye and Edward Van Sloan, who almost singlehandedly inject life into a narrative that is otherwise lacking in energy.
|2. Ghost Busters (1984)|
A friend of mine who works in commercial casting once, several years ago, had Ernie Hudson in for an audition, and he commented to me how much the actor had visibly aged. And when you see them now, you can tell how much Bill Murray and Harold Ramis have aged, because they have both gone gray, and you can see how Dan Aykroyd and Sigourney Weaver have both started to go wrinkly. But while its cast members have aged, Ghost Busters the movie has so far shown itself to be timeless. Even after almost thirty years, it retains all the humor and charm that made it the monster box office success of 1984, with more quotable lines than Casablanca or The Social Network. As a little kid I was a Ghostbusters fanatic, with all the toys and even the proton pack and jumpsuit that was marketed to kids. Even today, when time allows, I make it a point of going to repertory screenings of the film here in Los Angeles, which are always well attended.
|1. Psycho (1960)|
Frequently imitated but never equaled, even when Gus Van Sant remade the thing shot for shot, Hitchcock’s Psycho is the Rolls Royce of the horror genre, a perfectly crafted, smoothly running piece of machinery that may lack the big budget and star power of some of Hitch’s other films from the time period, but which makes up for it in spades with plenty of raw, violent energy. Though the shower murder has rightly gained infamy among the public, I have always been more disturbed by the murder of Martin Balsam’s character and his backwards tumble down the stairs. Although it’s been many years since I’ve seen this one, I plan on revisiting it again soon on Blu-Ray.