I've been reading SFX Magazine since issue #1 and was delighted when they added a column devoted to all things horror. The only thing wrong with Penny Dreadful's monthly contribution is that there's not enough of it. That being the case I figured she would be a perfect choice to contribute a My Top 5 Horror Movies piece to Afraid of the Dark; partly it was because I thought it would be cool to have a respected horror columnist do a piece for us but mostly it was just because I was interested in finding out what horror movies float her boat above all others. So without (much) further ado I will leave you in the hands of Penny Dreadful but not before I thank her. Her's is a damn cool list that contains a fistful of horror classics that are close to my heart also. So cheers.
Like most horror fans I’m often asked what I love about the genre, with a mixture of fascination and disgust. My answer varies from day to day: the survivalist mentality; the possibilities of the unfettered imagination; a safe place to explore the dark side; a love of stories, myths, legends. For today though, my answer is diversity. The sheer range of tropes, themes, styles, tones and subgenres that exist under the horror umbrella (the horror umbrella is like a normal umbrella only it’s made of, err, human skin. Keeps you dry but kind of stinky and disgusting…). I’ve tried to pick a range. The choice is endless.
1. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre - The best horror film ever made – whether Tobe Hooper knew it at the time or not. Opening shots into direct sunlight, the last half hour scored with relentless screaming, it's an ordeal to watch. Not fun, not frivolous, not glib, but horrible and important. This is true horror, a reaction to Vietnam that presents real characters and strips them of their humanity – a slasher, perhaps, an exploitation movie in more than one sense, but miles from modern torture porn. Leatherface isn't interested in ritual humiliation – that would be to see the Hardestys and their friends as individuals. A slaughterhouse reject – Leatherface kills people as he would cattle. Mallet to the head, door slams, the end. I came to this film late – age 19 or 20. It disturbed me and fascinated me. The production design alone is incredible and it's the detail that makes this movie so perfect for me. The dead armadillo, the drunk screaming 'I've seen things!', the teeming spiders web. Hideous. Brilliant.
2. The Omen - The Exorcist is perhaps technically a better film – something of a horror masterpiece and a film I adore – but The Omen, which arrived on the coat tails of The Exorcist, is part of me. When I was furious about being too young to watch Batman and Beetlejuice at the cinema, The Omen Trilogy was shown on terrestrial TV and my brother recorded them into VHS tapes which I watched over and over and over again. It's a brilliant story – full of twists and shocks. It's got an emotional core – even after the evidence is incontrovertible and his wife and friends are dead, Gregory Peck's tortured American diplomat still turns adopted son Damien's head away before attempting to stab him: he can't resolve that this sweet looking kid could be the devil. The cast, not least Peck, is impeccable – fragile, brittle Lee Remick, terrifying, snarling Billy Whitelaw, sort of weirdly sexy David Warner. The music is nothing less than iconic (riffing on, but not, in fact from Latin Opera Carmina Burana, which of course, I am now also mildly obsessed with). And then there's the kills. Inventive, gruesome, expertly foreshadowed, and playing on our fears of the accidental, the incidental – 'the luck of the devil’, if you like, the Final Destination franchise absolutely owes The Omen a living. I never get tired of watching this film (I also love The Omen 2 – The Omen 3 not so much), it was part of my initiation as a horror fan and I'm pretty sure it's the reason I was frightened of dogs till my early 20s.
3. Ringu - Without exception the film that scared me more than any other. It was on telly. I'd never seen an Asian horror movie before, (that whole wave hadn't yet hit the UK). I knew nothing about it other than it was horror. I thought I was going to die for a week after. The genius of Ringu (not true of the remake) is its incredible sense of the uncanny. Take the haunted videotape itself, which of course it forces the audience to watch start to finish before we even know what it really is thus making us complicit. Flies. A woman with a cloth on her head. Some writing. An eye. Who knows what it is we're looking at – there's no true explanation it's just wrong, wrong in a primal, instinctive way. Same with the now oft-ripped-off way Sadako moves, in the final, unbearable shock scene that I still can't watch without feeling uncomfortable. It's weird. It's wrong. It's uncanny. The other thing that of course makes Ringu a work of bloody genius is that it breaks the glass screen. There's a piece of learned wisdom first world viewers accept without thinking about it – the glass screen of the TV or the cinema separates real from not real. We don't think about it, but it's there. It's why we scream at horror houses, but rarely out loud in movies. But Ringu, the scary little bastard, not only forces you to watch the haunted tape, uses TV as it's means of 'getting you' (and who doesn't have a TV somewhere in the house?) but also subconsciously makes it very clear: the glass screen does not protect you. Sadako is coming through that glass screen, and she's going to literally scare you to death. It was my obsession with this movie and the need to 'normalise' it – prove to myself it was just a film – that is directly responsible for my career.
4. Carrie - The great thing about half-arsed remakes is sometimes they really help you to put a finger on exactly what it is you love about the original film. So it was with Kimberly Peirce's stultifyingly average take on Stephen King's first novel, which painted over all the things I love most about De Palma's movie. For a start Sissy Spacek – while Chloe Grace Moretz is a fine actress she's too self possessed for this part. Spacek is perfect. Paper-thin. Translucent skinned. Probably smells weird. Carrie is the victim's victim, fucked up so monumentally by her mother you know she's not going to be ok. Lost, confused, overwhelmed by the late onset of puberty and her burgeoning power, bullied by the other kids, unable to just be normal, she's so unbearably tragic. Most heartbreaking scene: the spinning dance sequence before a bucket of pig’s blood ruins everything. For once, for perhaps the only time ever, she's beautiful, happy and Tommy's dancing with her because he genuinely wants to. I also love this movie because of its very strong female focus – mothers and daughters, the horrors of adolescence and the particular kinds of cruelty young women are capable of, topped off with the wonderful/terrible finale, showcasing the uncontrollable vengeful power of a female, without, crucially, make it anything to do with rape.
5. Dead Ringers - There needed to be a Cronenberg. This is my favourite Cronenberg. It's not as strongly identified as horror as, say, The Fly, Shivers, Rabid, Scanners etc, which are all excellent movies, but this is the one I love the most. Another 'taped off the telly' special from my teenage years, there's something about Ringers I find weirdly seductive – which I know sounds a bit messed up, but I stand by it. I think it's fitting that Cronenberg's psycho-sexual nightmare should break taboos and cross lines, inside and outside the narrative. Without the gynaecological instruments for mutant women, drug addiction and psychosis, there's a romance, a melodrama and a family tragedy somewhere in Dead Ringers. It's a bravura performance – or rather TWO bravura performances - from Jeremy Irons as co-dependent twin gynaecologists Beverley and Elliot Mantel, and while Dead Ringers isn't scary in the way other entries on this list are, it's certainly disturbing and unsettling, and ultimately just really sad. I love this kind of heavily character- and narrative-driven horror, where you're dying to know how the film will end. Darkly fascinating.