Friday, 27 June 2014

My Top 6 Horror Movies by John Connolly

John Connolly has been responsible for some of the most terrifying novels I've read in the last ten years.  His series of novels featuring private detective Charlie Parker are some of the most chilling explorations of evil, both supernatural and human, I've ever had the pleasure of reading. But for my money his dark fairytale The Book of Lost Things is his finest achievement as a writer.  A truly remarkable and incredibly powerful book that moved me to tears at the end.  When I approached John with the idea of him doing a piece on his top five horror movies I anticipated that he would be far too busy writing another masterpiece to take the time to do something for a wee horror blog.  I was wrong and he actually gave us his Top 6.  I'd just like to finish up by thanking John for taking the time to do this.


The notion of what constitutes “horror” is pretty fluid, I think.  I speak as someone whose mystery novels include more than a dash of the supernatural – which, of course, doesn’t necessarily equate to horror.  Like beauty, horror is generally in the eye of the beholder: what horrifies one viewer may elicit barely a flicker of reaction in another.  I’ve often thought, though, that “horror” is an unfortunate label to apply to the genre.  It’s the only genre named after a visceral reaction, and a reaction that most of us have no great desire to experience in a real, profound sense.  For me, horror is often linked to the body, and degrees of suffering.  It is the recognition, as John Donne put it, that “The concavities of my body are like another Hell for their capacity”. 

Nevertheless, in compiling this list I’ve taken a wider view as, curiously enough, I have no particular fondness for body horror. I accept, therefore, that not every film listed below will necessarily conform to everyone else’s precise definition of horror, if only because – as I said above - that definition is so personal to each of us.  I should also add that this is just today’s list.  Ask me next week and, depending on my mood, it might be entirely different.


THE THING (John Carpenter, 1982)

I’m not a huge fan of H.P. Lovecraft, whose imaginative reach always seemed to exceed his literary grasp, although I remain sorry that Guillermo del Toro has not yet realized his ambition to film Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness”, if only because I’m curious to see what he might make of it.  Still, it’s always seemed to me that “At the Moutnains…” was a very significant influence on “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, which was adapted for both 1951’s The Thing from Another World and Carpenter’s superior remake. 

Actually, I wasn’t very keen on “Who Goes There?” when I eventually read it.  Like Lovecraft, Campbell was more interesting for his ideas and scenarios than his actual prose and storytelling, and “Who Goes There?” hasn’t weathered the years well.  (Campbell also strikes me as an unpleasant piece of work, a natural controversialist who didn’t understand that irony, and arguing against prevailing doctrines, do not excuse one from being a bigot or an idiot.)

Carpenter’s film takes the best ideas from Campbell’s story – the Antarctic setting, the all-male research theme (diluted by a single damsel-in-distress in the 1951 version), the blood test with the heated wire and, most importantly of all, the creature’s shape-shifting capacities – and runs with them to the point of absolute bleakness, aided by Rob Bottin’s brilliant creature effects, perhaps the last great gasp of model-making and stop-motion animation in the genre.  It’s science fiction in concept, but horror in its Donne-like understanding of the body’s capacity for suffering.


PAN’S LABYRINTH (Guillermo del Toro, 2006)

I saw this film shortly after delivering my seventh novel, The Book of Lost Things, and realized that del Toro was approaching similar subject matter – grief, loss, fairy tales, war - but in a different medium.  The director’s English-language films have always disappointed me slightly, for they seem to be less than the sum of their parts.  With Pan’s Labyrinth, he achieved a perfect mix of storytelling and imagery, and there is little about the film that I would change.  And, in the sequence concerning Ofelia’s encounter with the Pale Man, he created one of the finest five minutes of any film in this century.  Ivana Baquero, who played Ofelia, went on to star in the film of one of my short stories, The New Daughter, for which I’m very grateful to her. Incidentally, I also love The Devil’s Backbone, del Toro’s 2001 Spanish Civil War-era ghost story which can be seen as dry run for Pan’s Labyrinth. 



There’s little that one can say about this that hasn’t already been said.  So much of what we conceive about the Frankenstein mythos is due to Whale and Karloff, and this film is one of the rare instances when a sequel improves upon an original.  Elsa Lanchester’s “bride” is by now almost as iconic as Karloff’s Monster, and the film’s influence continues to reverberate down the years, most recently in a lovely moment in Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie when the poodle next door is transformed into a Lanchester lookalike. 


DON’T LOOK NOW (Nicolas Roeg, 1973)

Permeated by grief and loss, and filmed in a Venice that manages to look both beautiful and haunted, this remains, for me, Roeg’s finest moment.  It’s an adult horror film in the sense that it explores a particularly adult fear – the death of a child – and attempts to find a visual corollary for it.  It also manages the difficult feat of including a shock ending that doesn’t overwhelm what came before it.


ALIEN (Ridley Scott, 1979)

Another film that explores the body’s capacity for suffering, but with a sexual component that makes it quite unlike anything seen on screen before.  Watching it again, what strikes the viewer is just how slow it is, how painstakingly it works to convey monotony without being monotonous while also giving us time to care about the crew.  And, in Ripley, it throws aside the screaming female sci-fi victims of the past, as well as any Barbarella-esque sex totty, and gives us a third way: a science fiction heroine who just happens to be a woman, which is a lot more revolutionary than it sounds.  James Cameron’s sequel, Aliens (1986), played interesting games with ideas of motherhood, but it’s overlong and too much in love with macho weaponry.  Alien is the real deal.


JAWS (Steven Spielberg, 1975)

Okay, so I could have included Audition, or Psycho, or The Birds, or Rosemary’s Baby, or The Innocents, or Bob Hope in The Cat and the Canary, The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case, or An American Werewolf in London, or either great version (1956, 1978) of Invasion of the Body Snatchers – and even by writing out their titles I’m kind of cheating a bit - but I’ll go with Jaws because it’s one of those films – along with, say, Zulu or The Magificent Seven for me – in front of which I can sit down if I catch it on TV, telling myself that I’ll only watch a few minutes of it, and I will still be watching at the end.  Cast, director, story, music – all come together in near-perfect harmony.  Okay, so Bruce the Shark remains a bit clunky, but who really cares?  Think of the fear of being consumed, the blackness of the shark’s eyes, Quint’s tale of survival and predation, “We’re going to need a bigger boat”, the floating head…


1 comment:

  1. I probably would have omitted Jaws for The Changeling but you're the writer. The other choices are spot on.