Stephen King didn't much like Stanley Kubrick's version of his novel about a haunted hotel, and I have to admit I found myself at first insufficiently terrorized by it when the film opened in 1980. But the older I get, the more I appreciate the movie's relentless creepiness, its steadily mounting atmosphere of dread, its uncanny sense of being buried alive in a wide open space. Jack Nicholson's normal-to-nutso transformation offers much more nuance than I gave it credit for, and Shelley Duvall's awful awakening to her hubby's case of stark raving crazies should have earned her an Oscar nomination. Cite virtually any scene from The Shining, and I'll show you a film that tries to copy it.
Is there any director more rewardingly manipulative than Alfred Hitchcock? He spends the first 45 minutes of Psycho getting us invested in the story of a young woman who's on the run after having stolen money from her boss — then he abruptly kills her in the most shockingly stark murder scene ever filmed. And then what does he do? He introduces us to a whole new cast of characters, knowing full well we'll have a queasy suspicion that he could do away with any of them at any moment, as well. Even without that shower scene — which may have changed the direction of movies forever — Psycho would stand as a landmark horror movie. As it is, it borders on deliciously unbearable.
The Bride of Frankenstein
Director James Whale's original Frankenstein was a straightforward affair — you know, gather the body parts, stitch 'em together, pull down some lightning and, voila, "It's a-LIIIIIVE!", followed by peasants with pitchforks. The sequel, though, is quite something else, a masterful mix of horror and sentiment. Boris Karloff infuses his monster with an astonishing level of humanity — witness his sentiment-dripping scene with a blind hermit and his heartbroken reaction to the Bride's horrified scream. The film's unapologetic attempt to humanize the monster, and thus make all the more tragic his ultimate fate, hinges completely on Karloff's ability to convey emotion from beneath a mountain of makeup.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Maybe you had to live through the gnawing nationwide suspicion that communists were everywhere in the 1950s, trying to infiltrate American society, to appreciate the full impact of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It's scary enough upon viewing today, as pods from outer space land in rural California, hatching aliens that become blank-faced, emotionless versions of the humans they kill. But in its day, the political subtext of director Don Siegel's masterpiece was equally disturbing for those who feared the communists and those who dismissed those fears as overwrought. Seldom have science fiction and real life found such chilling resonance.
Sure, you can laugh about it now, but the night in 1973 when you slunk into that dark theater, informed only by the nervous rumors circulating among your friends, you were seized by a sense of chilly foreboding. Then came Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells theme, and before you knew it all Hell was literally breaking loose on screen, what with the turning head and the spewing pea soup and the unwelcome news regarding what one character's dead mother was doing at that very moment. The Exorcist still informs our vision of what close encounters of the satanic kind should look like, and if you dare to think about it, even now, you realize that those skittish friends of yours back in '73 didn't know the half of it.
Silence of the Lambs
The characters had already existed in book form, and indeed there'd already been a movie made about Hannibal (The Cannibal) Lecter. But when Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal and Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling, a student at the FBI Academy, squared off in director Jonathan Demme's twisted melding of horror flick and police procedural, all bets were off. After it was all over, the shaken audience not only felt they had barely escaped with their own lives; they were left with the sickening sense that the depths to which human evil can sink are, really, unfathomable.
Dressed to Kill
Director Brian De Palma had been cribbing off of Hitchcock for years, and he really hit his Hitchy stride with this story of a serial killer stalking beautiful women in New York City. As his first victim, Angie Dickinson meets an unfortunate end in an elevator. There's no shortage of suspects, including the victim's psychiatrist (Michael Caine), a cop and a high-priced call girl (Nancy Allen). Through it all, De Palma maintains the uneasy notion that anyone could be a killer, if you push just the right buttons.
The Devil's Advocate
Keanu Reeves is a hard-driving defense attorney and Al Pacino is Satan incarnate in this delicious little 1997 morality tale. Impressed with how Reeves' character got a child molester off in Florida, Pacino enlists him to join his unholy law firm in Manhattan. What follows is a devilishly delightful battle of wits as Satan skillfully manipulates the lawyer into deeper and deeper levels of decrepitude — all the while reminding him he's operating under his own free will. By the time he's too deep to dig himself out, the lawyer finds himself knocking on the gates of Hell in a very cool, hideously baroque finale.
Ingeniously, director Wes Craven resurrected the slasher movie genre by satirizing it in this supersmart 1996 tale of teenagers terrorized by a killer in a ghost mask. The kids, all well versed in the conventions of horror flicks — never tell people "I'll be right back" when you leave a room; never assume the killer is dead, etc. — discover in the course of the evening in question that those old saws are all too true. With a severed tongue firmly planted in its cheek, Scream earns its laughs, and its gasps, honestly.
Director Michael Powell was known for lush A-list movies such as The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffman, so when he unleashed this savage little film on unsuspecting British filmgoers in 1960, they never forgave him. It's the truly macabre tale of a handsome young filmmaker who focuses his little Bell and Howell movie camera on terrorized women while impaling them with a sharpened leg of his tripod. We do get to watch as the cops spend much of the film tracking down the killer, but the sheer cold-bloodedness of his crimes — he eventually mounts a mirror on his camera so the victims can watch themselves die — leaves the viewer with a sick sense of complicity. Ecchh.