It’s Halloween! Which means it’s time for costumes and trick or treating and bobbing for apples and candy and me having to corral four dogs in order to open the front door and give a bunch of strange children fun size candy bars. More importantly, it’s time for horror movies. Let’s do a top five, shall we? We shall. And we shall shut up and like it. Spoilers!
Halloween is such an integral part of both the horror movie canon and my own personal movie-watching experience, that I have no idea when I saw it for the first time. My parents had extremely lax movie rules, particularly because my sister is nine years older than me, and the first movie I ever remember watching was A Nightmare on Elm Street. I was four. (Look, I said they were lax, okay?)
So, anyway, Halloween is accepted as great and stuff and it is! John Carpenter is great and the score is great and the acting is great and Jamie Lee Curtis is great and everything. Halloween is sort of the baseline by which other horror movies are judged. It has a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes and though I’m not one to give much clout to critics — do you even know me?! — that’s, you know, pretty good and stuff.
The thing is… it’s pretty boring?! I was born in 1985 and raised on MTV and the internet, man, I have a classically, stereotypically short attention span and this thing DRAGS. It really drags. And there is neither enough blood nor guts to really satisfying the monster inside of me. Only five people die! And one of those is offscreen! That’s not enough death or dismemberment for me! I need more violence than that. Sorry I’m a nauseating hellbeast and all, but really.
That said, even with a low body count and minimal splatter, I love this movie. It scares the crap out of me and it freaks my sister out so badly that she’s never been able to sit through more than a few minutes of it. It’s slow, yeah, but it’s good, slow tension and it simmers and simmers and simmers until you’re sort of painfully miserable waiting for someone else to die. It’s very pleasurable.
Plus, Michael Myers is unbelievably iconic and I’m never going to hate a villain that can’t die. The best ones aren’t supposed to.
An American Werewolf in London is great and another iconic part of the canon and my life and stuff, except I remember watching this for the first time in high school by myself late at night and totally freaking out. It’s largely considered the werewolf movie and it has an 89% on Rotten Tomatoes and I don’t think I’ve ever talked to a single human being who had seen it and didn’t love it. Also, I’ve never talked to another person for whom it did not irreversibly transform the song “Blue Moon.”
I could talk about how good it is and how well-paced and how wonderfully world-built it is and how it’s really, at it’s core, about a sense of displacement and alienation, but instead I just want to talk about Rick Baker for a second because Rick Baker is the best. Rick Baker is so much the best that he won an Oscar for this. An Oscar. For a horror movie. An Oscar they created because of this movie. I know, right?
I’m going to make a firm assertion here that werewolf transformation is the hardest effect to pull off in media. It’s hard and it’s often really, really bad. Really bad. An American Werewolf in London is not bad, it’s incredible. Rick Baker’s make-up and effects are basically unparalleled and the puppetry of the wolf rig is unbelievable. Even 31 years later this shit looks cool as hell. And, maybe even more importantly, the creature design is phenomenal. Hands down the best looking werewolf in any werewolf media I have ever experienced. (The Howling is a really close second, but those stupid pointy ears are embarrassing.) He’s so menacing and big and wild and uncontrollable is what makes a werewolf terrifying.
Also, this movie is about friendship and because of friendship, David is really sympathetic. I have long asserted that traditional werewolves are the only truly sympathetic movie monster. They can’t control what they are, they didn’t choose it, the transformation is often excruciating, and they usually have no desire to hurt anyone. They’re still monsters and they still have to be destroyed, but you always feel at least a little bad about it. David fits that and his friendship with Jack even in death just makes it all worse. “Kill yourself, David, before you kill others.”
I’ve only seen The Cabin in the Woods once and I put it at number three without hesitation, so I think it’s kind of apparent that it’s totally great. Am I wrong? Of course I’m not wrong. I also don’t know anyone who saw it and didn’t love it and I mean really love it. Look at that 91% on Rotten Tomatoes!
I didn’t know what the end of The Cabin in the Woods was before I saw it and, truthfully, I’d probably say that it’s the ideal situation, but I wouldn’t call it a twist and I wouldn’t call it mandatory. I knew what was going on — essentially — about a third of the way in, but the scale and scope of it were what were shocking, really and truly. I feel like movies with twists are single-watchers. Once you know how it ends — The Sixth Sense and The Village spring easily to mind — the movie’s not really worth much anymore. This is not one of those cases. Not at all. Though I haven’t gotten to watch it a second time (Someone send me a free bluray! What am I blogging for if no one’s sending me free shit?!) I already know I won’t be disappointed. I saw The Avengers eight times in theaters, but I talked about this one — to any and every human who would listen to me — about 100 times more.
I’m actually sort of in love with it for a variety of reasons. It’s smart and conceptual and fast and all that and the twist is masterful, threaded through from the very first scene — literally — but when it plays out, it’s just massive in scale and it looks so cool and, just, damn. It’s awesome. The characters are likable, really likable, and they stumble into their stereotypes with brilliant reason. It was fun to watch and fun to listen to — that dialogue! — and the end is… Huge, essentially and literally. There are, like, almost literal rivers of blood! And it has an ultimate body count of the entire global population. But the biggest reason I love it is that the monsters are sympathetic.
Okay, well, I think they’re sympathetic even if this is maybe not explicitly in the movie, but in the end when you see this massive network of caged creatures, you kind of have to feel bad for them. Bred, collected, or created, they’re trapped — literally and bureaucratically — and weaponized. I didn’t feel that pull initially, I just bought into the concept as a whole — victims chosen, guided, and led to choose their own death — but then I saw this guy:
Is that really the face of someone who wants to hurt you? Does that look like the face of a ruthless killing machine, waiting for his turn at the bloodshed buffet? No it does not. That looks like a sad guy I’d kind of like to be friends with. Just, you know, don’t get too cuddly with him. It’s probably not even his fault that his face is full of sawblades, okay? Stop being so judgmental.
I battled over this particular entry because my actual favorite Friday the 13th movie and the one I list in my usual top five favorite movies of all time is Part 3D. It’s when Jason gets his mask! It’s full of great, cheesy 3D fourth-wall-breakers! It’s so eighties. But. This is a list about scares — kind of — and Part 2 has the best of them by far.
Jason Voorhees is my favorite horror icon. My absolute, hands down, worship at the altar of, feel weirdly fond and sympathetic toward, love wholly and completely favorite. He was just a kid! And he died because a bunch of young people couldn’t chill out and pay attention to the kids they were supposed to be in charge of. Then they killed his mother! I’m not going to blame the guy for feeling a little fucking vengeful. Maybe don’t stick around and murder enough kids to overflow a landfill, but still. He’s a little sympathetic.
Anyway, in Part 2 Jason wears a bag on his head and terrorizes a blonde named Ginny who is kind of shrill, but not nearly as incompetent as other slasher victims to come before and after. It’s not a great movie! (With only 33% on Rotten Tomatoes, I am officially saying it is deeply underrated.) But it also has one of the only scares in it that has ever worked on me in repeated viewings.
When Jason comes through the window and grabs Ginny from behind? I have actually, fully screamed every time I’ve watched the movie. Dozens of times. I’m not easily startled, man! That moment is just perfect. She thinks she’s safe, she’s finally taking a breath, she thinks she’s going to be okay and then she totally fucking isn’t. Poor Ginny. It’s an echo of the final shot of the first Friday the 13th, but it’s a really fucking good one.
Scream‘s the perfect horror movie. Sorry, every other horror movie to come before or after it, but it is. This is the one to which all other horror movies will be compared. It’s so good that I’m actually kind of offended that it’s only at 83% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Scream is funny and fun and bloody and smart and fast and inventive and memorable and repeatable and self-aware and awesome. Everyone is great and it’s Wes Craven and it’s Kevin Williamson’s whip-crack dialogue and it’s just so good. I’ve probably watched it more times than any other movie ever. I saw it in theaters when it came out and I liked it so much the first time that I went and saw it again the same day. It’s still that good.
What makes Scream really great isn’t the self-awareness or the snappy dialogue or the satisfying violence. I mean, those things help, obviously, but it’s the whole of it that makes it different. It’s an entire package, solid from end to end and top to bottom. From that first ringing phone in Casey’s house to Gale Weathers’ final report, there is never a moment that feels poorly placed or unnecessary. There is never a second I wish would move faster. I’m never aching for the it to get to the next kill. (I already told you: I am a monster.) The entire ride is flawlessly enjoyable, well-paced, and vital.
Another important element is that, even in all the swiftly-moving violence and conversation, you meet characters and you get to know them. You get to like them before they’re gutted. Principal Himbry in particular is one of the most likable horror movie victims I’ve ever watched. He’s sympathetic, he chastises the kids who are reveling in the masked violence, and he’s kind to Sydney. In the few moments we really get to spend with him, it’s easy to see he’s clearly invested in his students. That shit’s cool as hell, man.
Also, it’s a much more well-lit horror movie than we’re trained to expect and that’s unusual and awesome. Horror movies are dark for a variety of reasons — to set mood, to amp up tension, and to hide a plethora of sins and shortcuts — but Scream isn’t really like that. Even outdoor scenes — everything that takes place outside the party house and even Casey’s scenes at the beginning — are reasonably bright and clear. Some of the biggest acts of violence and most of the climax take place in a particularly well-lit kitchen. Our killers are revealed to us literally right next to a light fixture. The killers are masked, but they don’t hide in shadow. They stand in the grocery store, along the tree line in a yard. The killers are arrogant and you believe they can do and get away with anything.
Scream has two of the best villains on top of solid, likable characters — Randy is great, Gale is layered, Sydney’s competent, Dewey’s all heart — because they’re so utterly ordinary. There is nothing special about Stu or Billy. They’re totally human, totally fallible, and completely unremarkable. And that’s what makes them such great villains. Anyone can snap, anybody can seek revenge, anybody can just decide to kill. Ghosts, goblins, and ghouls aren’t real, so they aren’t scary. Humans are real and they really do kill. Humans are terrifying.
Happy Halloween, kids! Hug a monster and trust no one. Everybody’s a suspect.