Screengrab Archive #3: Halloween Edition

(Originally posted 10/30/08)

This may be the scariest Halloween in recent memory.

Whatever happens in the election, it’s going to be a nightmare for tens of millions of Americans. But until then, we’ve got a few days to dress like Joe the Plumber and Sarah Palin, drink pumpkin-flavored beer and relax with ghosts, vampires and zombies instead of all those scary talking heads on TV.

There was some debate here in the Screengrab Crypt regarding whether this was a list of the BEST horror films of all time or the SCARIEST (or if there’s a difference)…which naturally got us thinking about just what makes a film scary in the first place.

When my mother-in-law was a wee little French-Canadian, she went to a screening of Murders in the Rue Morgue where a theater employee in a gorilla suit popped out when the lights came up, sending the audience screaming into the streets of Nashua, New Hampshire…now THAT’S scary.

On the other hand, there are some horror movies that skip the gotcha! moments in favor of sheer dread, a creeping mood of hopeless, helpless paranoia that haunts your nights long after the adrenalin rush from the guy in the gorilla suit has faded. I remember squirming my way through all the maggots and vomited intestines of Lucio Fulci’s Gates of Hell as a teenager, but what scared me the most was the Italian film’s pervasive sense of inescapable doom…

…not that I have especially fond memories of the film. Just because it scared me didn’t mean I liked it, in the same way I’d rather read a 700-page grad school dissertation on the cultural significance of the torture porn craze than sit through Saw V.

Like comedy, it’s hard to nail down the secret of great horror, but we know it when it lurches up…RIGHT BEHIND YOU!!!!!

Just kidding. Enjoy the list, and Happy Halloween from your pals here at The Screengrab!

5. DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978)


Fuck a Zack Snyder remake – no other zombie movie, not even by George Romero, will ever surpass the original Dawn of the Dead. How do I love this gory, nasty, and surprisingly moving masterpiece of terror? Let me count the ways. First of all, while it can’t surpass the closed-up creepiness of the original Night of the Living Dead, it opens it up to staggering effect and makes it a truly apocalyptic horror film. Second, Night had always been projected as a one-off; it was Dawn that made zombies into one of the famous monsters of filmdom, that transformed Romero’s dead-eyed flesh-eaters into beings with their own mythology and internal logic. By doing so, it didn’t just launch a franchise – it launched an entire universe, a cultural archetype with as much meaning and possibility as vampires, werewolves – or angels. Third, it’s tight as hell, incredibly suspenseful, and remarkably well-acted, with the technical difficulties of filming something so ambitious on a shoestring overcome in surprising and effective ways. Fourth, like all great horror movies, it gives us an essential human drama at its center; we care about the story because we care about Stephen, Peter, Roger and Francine. Fifth, it’s a deeply satirical exercise, the first attempt – and probably the most successful – by Romero to mock us by showing us the way a lot of people probably see us: zombies as cultural/political metaphors. And sixth…well, it’s about a bunch of flesh-eating zombies running amok in a shopping mall. And, to use the highfalutin language of film criticism, that’s awesome.

4. PSYCHO (1960)

One of the running jokes around the opulent Screengrab offices is that no matter what lists we come up with, there’s some way to fit Psycho onto them. I’ve personally written up so many aspects of it, I feel like I should get a screenplay credit. But Psycho is definitely responsible for two major accomplishments – both, to me, indisputable, and both decidedly mixed blessings to cinema – that make it especially suitable for this list. The first is that it effectively killed off noir. The highly stylized crime dramas were already on their way out, but Psycho, by cribbing so many of their visual cues but utterly annihilating (literally, at least in the case of Marion Crane) their doomed criminal anti-heroes and shifting the focus from ordinary criminals to extraordinary psychopaths, Psycho put noir in the ground as a dominant method of storytelling. The second is that it ushered in a new kind of villain: setting the tone for the slasher movies of 20 years later and the torture porn of 40 years later, Psycho replaced the notion of the murderer as a relatable character – a villain, surely, but one driven by rational urges like greed, lust, revenge, or envy – with that of the psychopath. Gone was the moral ambiguity of crime dramas past, and in its place was the appeal of the villain who was totally alien: who was intriguing because we could not recognize ourselves in him, because he did things we literally could not imagine. There’s no denying that these two transformations did more harm than good, and ushered in legions of terrible movies, but they’re also further testimonies to how great, and how transformative, Psycho really was.

3. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)

George A. Romero has directed a number of great films, but his legacy will surely be his contributions to the zombie horror subgenre. With five Dead films under his belt and yet another on the way, Romero has defined the modern concept of big-screen zombies. Many consider his masterpiece to be 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, with its scathing critique of our consumerist impulses, but for sheer thrills, nothing can top the original Night of the Living Dead. The plot is simple, almost crude — a group of strangers barricade themselves in an abandoned home in order to defend themselves against an infestation of zombies roaming the countryside. But working from this rudimentary premise, Romero fashioned a scruffier, scarier counterpart to Hitchcock’s The Birds, another film that mined horror from a sudden, uncanny plague unleashed by nature. In addition, Romero’s hardscrabble shooting style — his black and white 16mm cinematography was necessitated by the film’s $100,000 budget — helped to change the way horror movies could be made. With the runaway success of Night, horror began to move away from the elegant, big-budget productions to more quick-and-dirty scares, paving the way for the likes of Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Halloween, and many others. But none of this would matter if Night wasn’t scary as hell, which it definitely is, in large part because Romero so skillfully orchestrates the breakdown of society that results from the zombie plague. With the line between living and dead so thoroughly obliterated, nothing else can be sacred — government, law, morality, and perhaps most memorably, the institution of the family. When a couple’s infected daughter suddenly turns on her parents, it’s clear that anything is possible in Romero’s world, which is perhaps the scariest notion of all.

2. FREAKS (1932)

Having launched a legend the year before with the Bela Lugosi talkie of Dracula, old Hollywood hand Tod Browning decided to quit fucking around: this time, he was serious. This time, the horror felt by his audience wasn’t going to be creepy or sensual: it was going to be repulsive and visceral. And he was going to make them pay for it. The essence of some of the greatest horror stories is making the audience question who, exactly, the monsters really are, and, by peopling its cast with authentic touring circus freaks and then making them the victims of the greedy, lying “normals”, Freaks made it crystal clear: they are us. Some have accused the film of exploiting its cast, but that’s a knee-jerk reaction that not only ignores the movie’s moral complexity (and the fact that the wronged freaks exact a chilling, and utterly deserved, vengeance on their tormentors), but also the fact that for many of the performers, it was the biggest paycheck they’d ever have. They were also treated well by Browning and his cast, something that couldn’t be said for the studio (which wouldn’t allow most of them to dine in the cafeteria) or many of its stars (who refused to star alongside “sideshow exhibitions”). The knowledge of how the picture was made only serves to enhance its powerful condemnation of intolerance — which was even stronger, just as the ending was even bleaker, before the studio forced cuts. Even today, over 75 years later, Freaks remains one of the most disturbing films ever released by a major Hollywood studio – just as Tod Browning had intended.

1. THE SHINING (1980)

One of the big mistakes many horror filmmakers make is to over-explain the mysterious forces at work in their films. Ask anyone who’s watched the misguided “explanation scene” that George Romero belatedly added to some of the DVD releases of Night of the Living Dead — usually, not knowing exactly why the monsters are attacking is much more effective than knowing. No horror movie has captured this idea better than The Shining. Stanley Kubrick memorably stated of 2001 that he “wanted to ask more questions than we had answers,” and he used the same tactic in bringing Stephen King’s bestseller to the screen. Naturally, this annoyed many viewers, including King himself, who didn’t cotton to the liberties Kubrick took with his work. But no matter — it’s the film’s ambiguity that makes it so disturbing. Why are there two different Gradys? What’s up with the guy in the animal suit? And what exactly happens to Jack at the end of the movie? Wisely, Kubrick withholds the answers, allowing the disorientation that results from these scenes to go unresolved. In addition, the film also tells a more human-sized horror story, of a family that’s barely holding together even before the ghosts arrive on the scene — a man whose eerie formality keeps his demons uneasily at bay as long as he stays off the sauce, a boy overwhelmed by his supernatural gift (curse?) and still scarred by an act of drunken violence by his father, and the woman who can’t handle the idea of losing either of them. All the while, Kubrick practically hypnotizes us with his filmmaking brilliance — those Steadicam shots! — meaning that even when The Shining becomes difficult to watch, it’s impossible to look away.

Contributors: Andrew Osblood, Jack-o-Leonard Pierce, Mauled Clark

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