100 horror films in the 100 days leading up to Halloween
When I watch a film, I want to escape from the world for the duration: horror seems to do that for me more than any other genre.
It tends to feature either:
- people who are nothing like me;
- situations I am highly unlikely to encounter; or
- crises in which I would not possibly survive, but the people on the screen just might.
There are other things I like about films that I often get from horror, too…
- A great plot, that keeps me on my toes about where it’s going;
- I like to see skill and intelligence in how a film was written and made;
- I like wit (and horror seems to lend itself to satire very effectively);
- I like to feel excited, in all its forms, in mind and body;
- And most of all, I like variety.
The only aspects of the horror genre that I kind of struggle with are comedy/cheesy films (but that goes for genres other than horror too) and pointlessly over-the-top films; there must be a good reason for all that blood/music/screaming, etc… indeed, a good reason for me to have watched the film at all. That said, if there’s one thing I was able to take from the #100DaysofHorror challenge last year, it’s that there will always be exceptions, and I’ll always find a surprise or something I like in any of the myriad sub-genres.
I think you’ll see all the plus points above in #80 to #71 of my countdown to Halloween. There is certainly variety in terms of quality, but – unusually for me – only English-language films represented this time. Perhaps I’ll find some more foreign language films soon.
The Guardian (1990, USA), directed by William Friedkin
The Guardian is about a couple who hire a nanny to look after their baby, not realising she plans to do the kid some witchy harm. It caught my eye on the Horror Channel listings because William Friedkin directed it, which felt like a good sign. Alas, I was mistaken.
The film was weird, and I don’t mean in a good way: on one hand, it was beautifully shot, and nicely acted and featured the mouth-watering (naked!) Jenny Seagrove; on the other hand, the story was rubbish. I mean the death by tree stuff is pretty exciting (yes, the mysterious nanny had a relationship with a tree), but it belongs in a fifties pulp novel, not a serious film from 1990. And when she started to look like a tree, it was so ridiculous I would have switched off the film, except Seagrove had just got me drooling.
Nice try, Friedkin, attempting a bit of folk horror. But The Guardian got steadily more laughable as it went on. Yes, it was a little bit exciting here and there, but not enough to compensate for the naff script.
The Woman in Black (2012, UK), directed by James Watkins
This was another case of “nice but”, I’m afraid…
In case you don’t know (this one’s a bit famous), The Woman in Black is a period film in which a bereaved solicitor takes an assignment to wrap up a deceased woman’s estate, and encounters a vengeful ghost terrorising local families while he’s there. I was never especially interested in the past but figured I’d give it a try when I found it on Shudder, as there must be a good reason for its strong reputation.
But The Woman in Black wasn’t for me. It was very nicely made, of course, but there were way too many ghost clichés for my liking. Now I know when I wrote about Veronica, I said that the clichés belonged in that story, but that one succeeded because it focused on the personalities involved, against the backdrop of the séance story formula. In the case of The Woman in Black, though, it felt like we were simply being presented with a showcase of his to make an old-fashioned scary ghost story, without any original angle applied to it as well.
Despite being a 12a film, it wasn’t for my son either. He likes creepy films, but this one focused too much on the death of children. It was downright melancholy all the way through!
The production was lovely, and I liked the ending (despite the predictability of it), but I found a lot of The Woman in Black just too tiresome to enjoy.
Night of the Living Deb (2015, USA), directed by Kyle Rankin
Another great find on the Horror Channel. I’d been keeping my eye out for Night of the Living Deb for some time since I missed it at a film festival a couple of years ago, and it did not disappoint.
Night of the Living Deb is – believe it or not – a romantic comedy which takes place at just the same time as a zombie outbreak appears to be starting. I thought it was going to be silly: it wasn’t. It wasn’t a raucous running-and-shouting-type rom-zom-com like Shaun of the Dead, but gentler than that… and indeed less Shakespearean than Warm Bodies. It was very, very enjoyable!
Not only was Deb a very entertaining film (in terms of the plot, the style and the acting), but it was also intelligent: the standard zombie film formula and clichés were questioned and addressed within the story. The plot held together nicely, while standard tropes (like the infection being spread via bites) were pulled apart. But this was done as a natural part of the story, not pretentious or satirical in any way.
And it featured the amazing Ray Wise, being sneaky and loveable at the same time. What more could we ask?
The Possession of Michael King (2014, USA), directed by David Jung
Poor Michael King (Shane Johnson) is so bereft (and self-destructively depressed) after the sudden loss of his wife that he decided to try every possible way to reach the spirit world, essentially to prove to everyone that it’s not possible: there’s nothing there to be reached. And like every good rationalist experimenter, he records everything (yes, it’s another found-footage film).
The film is called The Possession of Michael King, so of course, as you might have deduced, there is an active spirit world to be reached, and something nasty reached back.
I will not tell you anything about how this happens, or what happens next… What I will tell you is that I found this unpretentious belly-punch of a film to be without a doubt the scariest film so far this season. What made it scary? I don’t know… except that I could feel everything that man went through, and I could imagine – no, I knew – how he felt. That may have been down to the acting, Jung’s direction/writing (yes, he did both), the special effects or a combination. But if I, the lay person watching, cannot tell what is affecting me, that must be either art or magic, rather than straightforward skill or craft.
Dead impressed, Mr Jung; and cheers, Horror Channel.
Dead Silence (2007, USA), directed by James Wan
Well, this was different… a murder thriller about a possessed ventriloquist’s dummy. Yes, I know there have been films about creepy puppets before, but Dead Silence was written by James Wan and Leigh Whannell (the pair behind Saw), with a soundtrack by Charlie Clouser, and with Donnie Wahlberg playing a secondary part… yes, just like he did in Saw. Sounds like a fun reunion!
Unlike that earlier film, Dead Silence had very much a film noir style; it was great to see that team working on something different. In this story, Jamie (Ryan Kwanten) is sent a box with a very stylish and pristine dummy inside… and next thing we know, his wife is dead. He has to figure out what was behind both the delivery and her demise, and at the same time persuade Det. Lipton (Whalberg) that he himself wasn’t to blame.
There are ghosts, zillions of dummies, curses, messed up killings and a very twisted ending… I liked it a lot. Thanks again to the Horror Channel.
They Live (1988, USA), directed by John Carpenter
I couldn’t say I have liked everything John Carpenter has made (need to give In the Mouth of Madness another try sometime); but I admire The Thing, and that means I’m prepared to give any film of his a try.
This was definitely an example of horror as satire: the horror was an invasion by evil aliens; the satire was in the way they used human consumerism as a way of keeping people compliant. And very clever it was too.
They Live looked and sounded distinctly like an eighties film, and was lots of fun, despite some of the serious settings and messages. Strangely enough, the introductory part of the film also looked like it could have been the start of a gay **** film: workers with muscles and construction helmets, some offering the buff hero (Roddy Piper) a place to stay, etc.
I don’t think They Live is Carpenter’s best film, but it was certainly original and one that any horror or sci-fi fan should try.
Howl (2015, UK), directed by Paul Hyett
A low-budget British film about werewolves attacking a late night broken-down train, with Sean Bean (from such films as Dog Soldiers) as the first person attacked: excellent!
Howl was shown as part of Horror’s Channel’s Frightfest season (it had its premiere at that festival in 2015), and was definitely more about the people on the train than the monsters attacking it. Kind of like a Ten Little Indians variation, the creature picked off passengers one by one, while the two staff (played by Ed Speleers and Holly Weston) do their professional best at keeping people calm.
The direction and the score make Howl nicely tense and the killings are suitably gory; even the werewolf transformations are nicely done. But the best thing about this film is the way the characters are written: not many of them are nice, as such – some of them are downright love-to-hate bad – but they all have clear personalities of their own, and anyone who has travelled by train can imagine meeting these people. I can imagine watching some commuters I travel with getting eaten…
Do look out for Howl, especially if you like your leading man to be a believable everyman, rather than a chiselled superman.
White Settlers AKA The Blood Lands (2014, UK), directed by Simeon Halligan
Nice young out-of-towners vs. hostile locals again in White Settlers… but this time, the visitors have bought a house and plan to stay; and the locals want them gone because they believe the house belongs in their family. At least I think that was their issue: their reason for terrorising the newcomers wasn’t as clear as perhaps it could have been.
What was clear, though, is that the couple (Pollyanna McIntosh, and Lee Williams) were well-to-do English and they bought an old house just over the Scottish border: White Settlers was a film about territorial bad feelings here in the UK, and I found that theme deeply distasteful.
The production and the tension were good, though the writing and acting – in my opinion – were well below average (McIntosh was much better in The Walking Dead). Animal masks are used in plenty of other horror films (most notably You’re Next) and the ending was better done in Wolf Creek 2.
Another film in Horror Channel’s Frightfest season. But sorry, I didn’t like it.
Cherry Tree (2015, Ireland), directed by David Keating
Cherry Tree was about a PE teacher (Anna Walton) taking advantage of a vulnerable teenage student (Naomi Battrick). Get this: the teacher is a witch who wants the girl to carry the spawn of a demon, to be sacrificed upon its birth. And in case you’re wondering, the tree is a sacred one where the witch casts her evil spells.
The acting was not bad; the writing was snoringly awful. I regretted choosing this film, nearly fell asleep and have nothing else to add.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974, USA), directed by Tobe Hooper
That’s right, I’ve never seen The Texas Chain Saw Massacre until now. I blame my misconceptions from years ago when I first heard about the film (I assumed it would be a mindless film with little but killings, probably based on the title). Then when I did first try it, perhaps about five years ago, I found the soundtrack too intense; perhaps it was the wrong time for me: now I found the soundtrack fascinating.
Having given it my full attention now, I’m actually very impressed. Almost all of the film fascinated me, for two reasons particularly: there were many elements in the film which showed what an inspiration it was to later films; and it was an early example of what I’ve seen so much of already, the nice young people meet hostile locals. I’ve been reliably informed that in America this is known as the Hillbilly Horror subgenre, and I find it interesting how that concept is treated differently in different countries. I’ve seen Deliverance – another prime example – and that came out two years prior to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, though with a different class of actors, director and budget. Deliverance tends to be considered a higher quality film, and a thriller/drama, more than a horror; so because of the differences, it’s very easy to overlook what the low-budget Massacre did well.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was one of Tobe Hooper’s first films, and he put a huge amount of creativity into the resources he had available. He created protagonists who were believable, in terms of their dialogue and the way they responded to their situation. He used wide open countryside and bright sunlight (not for all, but) for a good deal of the film, despite it being full of menace and violence. And the soundtrack… gentle folk tunes in a couple of scenes contrasting with knives and shrieks. This classic keeps the viewer’s senses on edge through every scene.
I’m curious about the sequels, but don’t feel the need to watch them. I might give the recent Leatherface a try… but I’ll definitely be adding Death Trap to my list; another Tobe Hooper film starring Marilyn Burns.
Check out the rest of my #100DaysOfHorror countdown and feel free to contact me on Twitter if you have “must see” suggestions for me.
Alix has been writing for Ready Steady Cut since November 2017. They cover a wide variety, including genre festivals, and especially appreciates wit and representation on screen.