Based on the 1959 novel of the same name by Robert Bloch, which was itself loosely based on the story of Wisconsin serial killer and cannibal Ed Gein, the 1960 film Psycho, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, was filmed in black & white, by a television crew, on a small budget, because Paramount had already rejected the project, claiming its subject matter was “too repulsive… and impossible” for film. Hitchcock, who had already optioned the novel, then financed the film himself. According to film critic Roger Ebert,Psycho (1960) “remains the most effective slashing in movie history, suggesting that … artistry [is] more important than graphic details.” Because Hitchcock was answerable to no one but himself, he succeeded in creating one of the greatest psychological horror films ever made. At the same time, he created an art film classic.
The story begins as if it were a crime mystery. Marion (Janet Leigh) is having an affair with Sam (John Gavin), and she is distressed that they cannot marry because of his debts. Later that afternoon, when she returns to work, Marion is asked to take a substantial cash deposit of $40K to the bank. Instead, Marion absconds with the money, hoping to use it so she and Sam run away together.
That night, in a thunderstorm, Marion stays at an isolated and mostly unoccupied motel, managed by a young man named Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). Though handsome, Norman is gawky, and he has an odd hobby: taxidermy. The room where he serves Marion dinner is filled with dead and stuffed birds of prey.
From the spooky house overlooking the motel, Norman’s mentally ill mother can be heard berating him, and this elicits Marion’s sympathy for him. It also makes her re-evaluate her own crime, which would hurt not only her employer but his client as well. Marion takes a shower, symbolically cleansing herself of her evil intentions since she has apparently decided to return the stolen cash, when…
You may or may not know about the most famous shower scene in all of cinematic history, but the rest of the story becomes an intense murder mystery as the audience’s sympathy is shifted from impulsive criminal Marion to horrified son Norman as he desperately attempts to protect his dangerous mother.
In a move that, even now, is considered outrageously audacious, Hitchcock directs the film’s viewing audience as much as he did its actors: about a third of the way into the film, he takes all the viewers’ attention away from the ostensible protagonist — played by the film’s star power, Janet Leigh — and focuses the story on the newly introduced Norman. “I was directing the viewers,” [Hitchcock] told [fellow director] Truffaut in their book-length interview. “You might say I was playing them, like an organ.”
As Norman is feverishly working to protect his violent mother from discovery, Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) is desperately worried about Marion, who has disappeared. While asking Marion’s lover Sam about her whereabouts, the pair is approached by a detective (Martin Balsam), who has been hired to retrieve the stolen money. Sam and Lila encourage the detective to search for Marion, confident that some mistake has been made concerning the missing funds, which they assume Marion will be able to explain.
Even if that means they must break into the spooky old house where Norman’s mother is obviously keeping watch over everything that happens down at the motel.
Nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actress for Janet Leigh, and Best Director for Hitchcock, Psycho is considered one of Hitchcock’s best films. Marred only by the final scene with the psychiatrist — which appears before the classic finale with Norman and his mother — Psycho is a classic thriller, with enough realistic spookiness to keep you up at night.
Okay, so I was gonna go all classical on you by proving that I could name the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World, but I couldn’t find any pictures of them because they’ve all been destroyed. Except for the Great Pyramids at Giza. So then I thought I’d do the 7 Wonders of the Modern World, but there are so many disagreements, it’d be like going to a family reunion and listening to great-aunts and uncles argue about what happened to you when you were three: You did not cross the Golden Gate Bridge; you went up the Empire State Building. I wanted to take you to see the Giant Statue of Jesus in Brazil, but your mother wanted you to see the Great Wall of China, while your father — God love him — wanted you to see the Panama Canal. (And, yes, those are some of the items actually considered to be Wonders of the Modern world.) Instead, I decided to do something I found a lot more interesting: the 7 Wonders of the Horror Movie World.
Hammer Horror Film Stars, L to R: Christopher Lee, John Carradine, Peter Cushing, Vincent Price
I have always loved scary movies, I grew up on all the Hammer Studio classics with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, I loved anything with Vincent Price because it was usually based on something by Edgar Allan Poe, and I didn’t even care about the special effects. Who cared if you could see the shadow of the fishing pole holding the “bat” that was flying around the room, terrorizing the beautifully made-up and costumed tourists (all with really big hair!). I was in a darkened theatre with my siblings and lots of other kids whose parents had dropped them off to get them out of the house for a while, being scared out of our wits, and I loved it.
Of course, I laugh at most of those movies now, though I appreciate what they were doing at the time. Now my horror movies have to have something different to scare me, something that could really happen, or some new twist on the paranormal. And I have to want to watch it over and over, even though I already know the story. That’s one of the reasons I love October so much: watching all the horror movies while waiting for Halloween. But I’ll watch a good horror movie any day.
And by “good,” I don’t mean a bunch of stupid teens in some isolated area screaming while running in high heels (girls) or bare feet (boys) while a killer with a dangerous implement (fill in the blank) chases them down till he finally catches them and hacks them into pieces.
Here then, from #7 to #1, are my picks for the Top 7 Wonders of the Horror Movie World.
And I’m talking Hitchcock’s original here, which was ground-breaking even if it was only because he killed off his leading lady, who happened to be a big Hollywood star, less than halfway through the film. Then again, maybe it was that atmospheric music, if you could call it “music.” It didn’t have anything to do with the fact that my little sister and I watched it on the sofa-couch when we were 6 & 7, respectively, while “babysitting” our baby brother.
Yeah, we were scared. Long before we ever found out about Norman Bates’ mother, too. I still find it fantastically creepy. And that Shower Scene. Janet Leigh claims she could never take a shower afterward and feel quite safe enough. I hear you, Janet.
To tell you the truth, I don’t even know what “the shining” in the movie (or the novel of the same name) is. And I know fans complain that the Kubrick version is nothing like the Stephen King novel on which it was based. But there’s something terrifying about the entire concept: being stuck, without rescue, in an isolated place, with a husband who’s slowly and obviously going violently insane. Now that’s horror for me, if only because it could really happen.
And I love Jack Nicholson, even before he gets to the iconic — and ad-libbed — “Here’s Johnny” scene. The typewriter tantrum is just a taste of the scary to come.
#5 Sleepy Hollow
Tim Burton makes some weird movies, I admit, but he also makes some fine ones. This is one of my favorites. It has big stars — Michael Gambon, Miranda Richardson, Christina Ricci, Johnny Depp, and Christopher Walken. It has atmosphere. It has good special effects, especially since Burton doesn’t overdo it on the gadgetry stuff he likes. Depp’s performance as the fainting-under-stress detective Ichabod Crane investigating the murders in upstate New York is a funny but seriously interesting take on the original Washington Irving story. But Walken as the Headless Horseman can not be beat. Even when he has no head.
In interviews, Walken claimed the director instructed propmen to hold lights under his chin, shining them upward, to “make him look scarier.” Walken told him, “Get those d***d lights out of my face. I can make myself look scary without any help from them.” And he proved true to his word. He’s at some of his scariest in the Death of the Hessian scene.
We found this film totally by accident one night, and within a few minutes we were hooked. I could only find the trailer since the film is only a few years old, but I doubt I could show you any scenes that wouldn’t give away the frightening premise and revelation at the finale. You know the main idea: parents longing for another child and also to do good in the world — no, not Angelina and Brad — adopt an older, unwanted orphan from another country — in this case, Russia — and bring her home to the good life in America. Where, of course, things start to go wrong. But not in any way you’d ever guess.
Though the earnings at the box-office were mixed, Orphan was a prize-winner in several Independent Film Festivals, and Isabelle Fuhrman as the orphan Esther was universally acclaimed.
A great twist on the age-old vampire story, a prize-winning entry in Independent Film Festivals, based on the Swedish version of the film and directed by the same person. I can’t even tell you anything about it without doing the Spoiler Alert thing. Suffice it to say that it starts out with two lonely and outcast kids who begin a tentative friendship while scary, gruesome murders are being committed in their neighborhood.
Some viewers like the Swedish version — Let the Right One In — better, some the American. I don’t usually like to read my films, so I’m guessing I’d prefer this one. The performances by the child-actors are great, and the ending of Let Me In is completely unexpected.
Okay, so the lit-tra-chure purists complain that this isn’t really like Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw, on which it’s based, where two young children in a governess’ care claim to see ghosts. Or the governess claims that the children told her they see ghosts and that she has to protect her wards from the supernatural beings, depending on your interpretation of the governess’ reliability. Some film buffs prefer the 1956 Deborah Kerr version of The Innocents, if only because they say it’s closer to the James’ book. For my money, give me Nicole Kidman and the stunning child actors in this version. You have to watch it a second time to see all the clues you missed the first time. And you’ll probably be willing to do it right away, it’s that good.
Set in a brooding old estate right after World War II, where wife (Nicole) and children are patiently and worriedly waiting for Daddy to come home from the War, while being looked after by a trio of servants who “come with the place.” The Others is so close to #1, I had to flip a coin (not really… well, okay, only a couple times).
There is no doubt that this is one of the greatest film versions of the classic vampire story. Surrounded by a short set-story explaining Dracula’s and Mina’s psychic and emotional “connection”, the rest of the film is pretty loyal to the novel, even showing the characters writing their letters, receiving telegrams, and typing their diaries/journals, which is how the book is presented. Great performances by all, including Sir Anthony Hopkins, Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Cary Elwes, etc.
But no one, and I most emphatically repeat, no one can out-do Gary Oldman’s spooky, eerie, sexy (yes!), scary, totally believable turn as Count Dracula, or as he’s known to Mina, Prince Vlad. And I ain’t talking about the special effects here because director Francis Ford Coppola went old-school and refused to use computer graphics anywhere in the film (and added the author’s name to the title of the film so it wouldn’t be confused with any other Hollywood version).
I’m not talking the brilliant costumes, hairdressing, wigs, and makeup on Oldman either. I’m not talking about his accents — he claims to have used a different accent or dialect for every film he’s made, and that none has ever been his own natural dialect — which change, consistently, in Bram Stoker’s Dracula whenever he needs them to. He even learned an old dialect of Transylvanian for the set-story which begins the film and appears before the credits.
I’m talking about Gary Oldman, in what should have been an Oscar-winning performance. He rocks as Dracula (sorry, Christoper Lee: you know I loved you when I was a kid.) Oldman is so good, that I’ll even watch this one with commercials, though of course, they leave some of the coolest stuff out.
The best horror movie of all time, and included high (usually in the top 10) in the lists of most “Best Horror Movie” compilations: Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Somebody who knows me already asked why I didn’t include The Prophecy (1, 2, and 3), with Christopher Walken as a kick-ass Archangel Gabriel come down to steal someone’s soul to help with the War in Heaven. I love that movie. Seen it dozens of times. But there’s so much humor, especially with the scenes including Amanda Plummer, Adam Goldberg, and Walken, that I don’t even know if it, technically, classifies as horror. So, I left it out.
What say you, my Lovelies? Any of your favorite horror films that should have made it on this list? Let me know, in spooky comments.
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