Simon Todd’s 7 of the Best: Unforgettable Films
Written by Simon Todd
This is a list of 7 films that, on first watching them, dwelt in my mind for days afterward. I have not done any research into their plot beyond recounting my experience of watching them. What follows is based on memory alone.
This film digs deep into the soul of many men, seeking out the greatest unease. Presented against a background of decayed industrial dystopia, Eraserhead has a soundtrack beset by a jarring whining sound that never quite lets up. In this film, a young man is dragged through the discomfort of getting his girlfriend pregnant, then having to attend a meal with her relatives (where the food animates and an old lady shudders in the kitchen.) They marry and the baby is born, looking more like an amoeboid alien whose strangled cries are wrenchingly constant. Soon the hero is left to attempt to look after the baby and, as in all things, fails. At every turn, the environment (and the people in it) conspire to denigrate/humiliate the man. This is a true horror film. Its surreal affront to the boundaries of reality delves deep into a disturbed and very pertinent truth which is the tenuous hold most have on their confidence. I would not watch it again.
At a time when Bela Lugosi was dominating the American horror film alongside Boris Karloff, Carl Dreyer produced perhaps the most haunting and lugubrious vampire film. Shot almost entirely at dusk or first light, the film focuses as much on atmosphere as plot. Not patronizing the audience with a clear explanation of all events, the film is riddled with iconic and symbolic images (a farmer waiting for a ferry with his scythe becomes death, for instance.) Vampyr has an antiquarian quality, adding to an aura of creeping fear. Even as the grainy titles shudder onto the screen I always get a sense of foreboding that never quite goes away.
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
A perfect ensemble cast (Karloff, Lanchester, Thesiger, Clive, the amazing Dwight Frye) creates James Whale‘s masterpiece outdoing his original from four years previously. Not psychologically horrifying in the sense of Eraserhead, this film does not scare as once it did. But nonetheless it is eloquent, witty and intelligent. The final scene with the bride is still powerful today, with Elsa Lanchester completely stealing the film during the couple of minutes she appears. Marvel at the German expressionist lighting and sets, the genre defining laboratory and a grotesque style permeating the whole spectacle. Always worth a revisit and to be watched seriously as intended.
The Thing (1982)
No one will ever laugh at a mimic or doppelganger in AD&D ever again. This film takes the classic idea of an isolated group of people, used in films as diverse as The Blair Witch Project, The Old Dark House, Alien and The Cabin in the Woods throwing in an idea that (on the surface) could be a vehicle for an Agatha Christie novel. One of them is a killer. But when the killer devours and impersonates each victim as it goes it gets to a point where the audience is constantly waiting for the next gut-churning reveal. In an era before CGI took over, the animatronics is as awe-inspiring as the revolting on-screen gore is brutal. It could so easily have become just another bloodfest if it wasn’t for the genius of maintaining the tension through psychological horror and great acting. Set in the coldest reaches of Antarctica, the outcome is as chilling as the weather.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
If anyone asks me what I consider to be the greatest horror films I do not got to slasher films. However nostalgic one could be for Halloween or A Nightmare on Elm Street, they are still (alongside Final Destination, Saw and even The Omen,) a rather dull litany of wondering how the next victim will spectacularly kick the bucket (of blood). No, like Eraserhead, the true horrors lie with films tinglingly close to reality like Manhunter involving the first film appearance of Hannibal Lecter and a prosaically-rendered hunt for a believable serial killer (devoid of the “romantic” anti-hero status of Hopkins’ great rendition.) The great horrors contain no fantasy. Baby Jane is a chilling psycho-drama that is grueling to watch, stunningly acted by Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, and deeply claustrophobic as the audience is drawn into what is effectively a torture movie of bitterness, envy and seething hatred. Like Eraserhead, I would have to be in the right mood to even think of watching this again. Another film like this is Gaslight (1944) of course.
Certain films take on an aura which place them outside the conventional movie lists. Vampyre, and Eraserhead both do this alongside the evocative Carnival of Souls. Nosferatu feels like a found-footage film. Almost destroyed shortly after it was made and rescued from oblivion by a few copies reaching the American shores, the film itself takes on a mythical feel. Every character is a grotesque. The melodramatic face-twisted acting is consistent throughout and gives the film a quality that’s akin to a Noh play. The set piece scenes of heightened German expressionism leave shadows on the viewers mind that ripple throughout film history. A film that may even suffer if one were to find a mint condition version of it, this is a feast of visual scenes each taking us into dreamscapes of grainy gothic shadow. The remake with Klaus Kinski in 1979 is also not to be ignored. For me, Nosferatu is one of the most powerful renditions of a vampire on screen.
Village of the Damned (1960)
One of John Wyndham’s books rendered onto film, this is set in the eternal post-war Britain of the rural countryside. The comfortable middle class village would be appropriate in any Miss Marple book or film (as would the well-spoken hero.) It is these very icons of eternal Englishness that are laid siege to. The entire village suffers a mysterious sleep for a number of hours after which the women of the village become pregnant. The offspring are albino children of superhuman intellect capable of twisting the minds of all around them. If you love psionics at work, watch this film. The insidious alien invasion assaults the sanctity of society where the ones to be cherished, the offspring, become the most dangerous of all. Just like Night of the Demon and Dead of Night, this film is British horror at its pre-Hammer best.