Friday, October 29, 2010

What's Wrong With Slasher Flicks?

As you know, I’m a big fan of horror movies (see the Top 25 Horror Film list for proof). But I don’t like slasher flicks. In fact, slasher films have really begun to offend me on many levels. Not only have these films become utterly pointless and uncreative in the extreme, but they’ve sunken to incredible depths of depravity. It’s time this tired genre got the chop.

The reason I like horror films is the strong emotions they can evoke. A great horror movie can provide both a physical and a mental experience. These films stick with you; their themes and ideas play themselves out over and over in your mind until they achieve a level of paranoia or terror normally reserved for life threatening situations. That can be exciting. And with that terror comes a series of physical reactions. For example, it can make your heart race. It can also heighten your senses, letting you hear every little noise, see things you normally don’t notice, and even turn your skin into a sensor for the world around you as it reacts to even the slight breezes. There is something satisfyingly primitive in this.

But slasher flicks are a different beast entirely; they don’t seek to generate terror, they seek to shock you. Thus, whereas horror movies try to find the one thing that terrifies you deeply and bring it to life on screen, slasher films simply toss disgusting and shocking images at you until you can no longer bear to look. At best, they cause a nervous reaction that passes the moment the stimulus is removed.

Moreover, slasher films are some of the least creative films ever made. Every one of them follows this pattern: young female hottie is going about her business. Meanwhile, the psycho killer appears, be he an older male psychopath, alien or supernatural being. The psycho killer stalks the young hottie, usually killing her friends in the process, often in sexually suggestive ways. In the end, the hottie escapes, the killer appears to die, and we wait for the hint of the sequel. There is no variation. Sure, you can add a subplot about a conspiracy or an evil-being hunter, but that’s just window dressing. The story always remains the same.

There’s no writing skill required either. You set the story somewhere isolated, though anywhere will do. You introduce the characters, and have one of them tell the rest about the legend of old ____. After that, it’s just screams and blood. In fact, a typical script probably looks a little like this: “Hey, let’s go skinny dipping. You mean at haunted killer lake? Yeah. Ok. . . ahhhhhhhhhhh ahhhhhhhhhh ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh. Roll credits.”

Let’s face it, there’s no there there. And I find that objectionable. These movies are little more than a series of gross out scenes connected by a plot so thin it could be written on the head of a pin. What’s the point in watching that? Why not just watch actual autopsy videos? Heck, rent Autopsies Gone Wild, it’s a scream.

But my real objection to slasher films is the level of depravity. The modern slasher film’s primary purpose is to find new ways to destroy a human body. Yet, that’s not actually what I consider to be the depraved part. Indeed, while I find no artistic merit in what they are doing, it is difficult to say that showing someone hacked to death is somehow morally worse than seeing them shot on screen. One is certainly more disgusting and arguably more gratuitous to the plot, but substantively, the morality is the same -- both involve the killing of a human being.

So what is the depravity? Well, it’s a combination of two things. The first derives from a complaint made by feminists that I think is somewhat correct. They have long objected to slasher films on the basis that they glorify violence against women. That part I think is bunk. Slasher films are about violence and it doesn’t really matter who the victims are. Moreover, people who have studied the matter have found that males faired much worse in slasher films than females. But there is a related aspect to this that is a valid criticism: slasher films combine sex and violence. Indeed, large parts of the violence in slasher films is of a sexual nature: almost every one of these films involves people killed while they are engaged in sex, people who are killed through some attack on their genitalia, or people who are killed in other sexually suggested ways.

The combination of sex and violence, particularly the suggestion that the two are connected, makes these films little more than simulated snuff films (where real murders were supposedly caught on film -- though there is little evidence this genre actually existed). This is the kind of stuff that motivates serial killers and true psychopaths, and we should not be too quick to dismiss this merely because the depravity is only simulated by the actors. Indeed, ask yourself if you would draw such a distinction if we were talking about kiddy porn versus simulated kiddy porn? The answer is “no” because it is the attraction to the depraved activity that we consider the problem, and it does not matter whether that activity is simulated or real. The same is true with snuff films. It is the attraction to seeing others killed that is problematic, and it does not matter if the killing is merely simulated. And before you say, “wait, there’s nothing wrong with films about murder,” let me point out a key difference. When people see films about murders (or other acts of violence), they are drawn in by the story; indeed, they don’t even need to see the murder to get full satisfaction out of the film. But with snuff films, it is the murder itself that attracts the viewer, just as it is the images of sexually exploited children that attract the pedophile to child porn. Thus, the closer slasher films get to snuff films, the more depraved they become.

Further, let us look at the second reason modern slasher films are depraved: a high level of sadism. Sadism is the desire to inflict pain or injury on another without cause. It is a mental condition that is common in sociopaths, and slasher films now thrive almost exclusively on sadism, with each director trying to outdo those before him.

By sadism, I don’t mean that the killings are more graphic. That’s the issue addressed above about shooting someone versus cutting them up. What I am talking about is the replacement of simple killing (no matter how graphic) with torture killing. In older films, the slasher villain was motivated to kill and they did so, often brutally, but with little doubt that their sole goal was to achieve the death of their target. But that’s no longer the case. These days, it’s not enough that the villain simply kills for revenge or kills because they are mentally ill or kills because they are evil. Instead, today’s slasher villain must kill because they derive a thrill from it, and to express that thrill, they need to prolong the death and find ways to make the victim suffer as much as humanly possible.

This trend really took off with the Saw series, which involved a sadistic killer who arranged ways for his victims to maim themselves before they died. This has since become the norm in the slasher genre. For example, there was a film on television the other night (The Final) where a group of high schoolers captured another group of students and forced them to cut off each other’s body parts or paralyze each other. No doubt the director would claim this was a film about ironic punishments and that the slashers had a motive for their actions -- seeking revenge for mistreatment by bullies -- but that’s not true, their actions were pure sadism. How do we know? Because nothing these characters did could be considered a valid form of punishment or even vengeance under any moral scheme known to man because their behavior was not intended to remedy a problem or to prevent a harm or protect a person, and because the punishment was in no way proportional to the crime, instead, its sole purpose was for these characters to derive a thrill from torturing and killing others. And the justification offered for the characters’ behavior was nothing more than a pretense, a smokescreen meant to hide the fact that this film was the director’s sadism fantasy.

This is the problem with modern slasher flicks. The originals walked a fine line between stories of unusually brutal killers and plotless, quasi-snuff films. The modern version jumped that line and ran miles down the wrong side of the road. They now glorify snuff films and revel in sadism. And that makes these films depraved and without merit. Add in the lack of creativity, and these things need to go.

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Friday, October 22, 2010

Film Friday: Bob Roberts (1992)

In the spirit of the upcoming election, I thought I’d do something you never thought I would. . . I’m going to recommend a movie written by, staring, and directed by Tim Robbins. This is another one of those richly ironic films where an über-leftist tries to expose the “evil right wing” and ends up exposing his own side. It’s also a very entertaining film.

** spoiler alert **

Bob Roberts is the fictional story of Bob Roberts, a candidate for the United States Senate in Pennsylvania. It’s told in a documentary style, but remains very film-quality. Roberts (Tim Robbins) and his mysterious campaign manager (Alan Rickman) manipulate the press, slander their opponent, enter into shady deals, encourage cult-like followers, and dodge an obsessed “journalist” (Giancarlo Esposito) who investigates the truth about Roberts’ mysterious dealings. That truth appears to be that Roberts is a Manchurian candidate of military contractors and the C.I.A., who are secretly funding his campaign. No dirty trick is too low for this campaign.

So why in the world would I recommend this film? Well, for one thing, it really is quite a good film. It’s well shot, well paced, and all around entertaining. For another, the film boomerangs on its leftist intent. Here are some examples:

First, while Roberts is the evil right winger cliché that haunts the dreams of leftists like Robbins, Roberts actually comes across as one of those likeable villains you find yourself cheering on -- just like the generation of kids who wanted to be Gordon Gekko after Wall Street. It's hard not to like Roberts because he's friendly, witty, and is unfairly put upon by the other side. For example, Roberts keeps saying things like: “stay off crack. . . it’s a ghetto drug.” If you understand the anguish the left has regarding the disparity between how cocaine and crack are sentenced, and how they blame that disparity on racism, then you’re supposed to see this statement as evidence of racism and you’re supposed to be appalled. But that's too deep in the pond of leftist paranoia for most people and anyone not steeped in hard-left victimology will simply see this line as funny and/or absurd.

Secondly, the folk music is great. Roberts is a folk singer and he uses his music as part of his campaign. The music is intended to be pure satire, as Roberts sings lines like “be a clean living man with a rope in your hand” (implying you should act like a vigilante). But most people will find themselves having a high degree of sympathy with the lyrics of his songs. In fact, Robbins became so concerned about this that he refused to release the soundtrack for fear that Republican candidates would start using his songs -- just as Ronald Reagan turned Bruce Springsteen’s anti-American rant “Born in the USA” into a pro-American anthem.

Third, this film highlights the nastiest side of liberalism in the most unflattering ways. For example, in one scene, it shows the intolerance of liberals when Roberts appears on a fake Saturday Night Live show (the parody of SNL is actually spot on, with poorly-written unfunny scripts, bad acting, and mindless characters). The actors (including John Cusack) throw tantrums about Roberts showing up, treat him rudely, and finally try to sabotage the show to deny him any publicity. While Robbins no doubt thought the audience would see these characters as noble for standing up to power, they actually come across as mean, petty, and intolerant. . . exactly the kind of vile, intolerant, hateful types we've seen parading through Hollywood for years now. Moreover, their hate is made impotent in the film because nothing they try seems to be able to stop Bob.

Fourth, this film is rich in irony. While Robbins means this film as an indictment of the American right, the things he accuses the right of doing are all out of the playbook of the left. For example, it is hilarious to see Robbins complain about secret military funding of right-wing Bob, when the past 20 years have shown that liberals are the creatures of big business, the military industrial complex, and foreign money. He accuses right-wing Bob of planting a fake sex scandal to embarrass his opponent, something Democrats specialize in (like all the October surprises, e.g. the fake Bush Sr. affair, CBS making up Bush Jr.'s military record, etc.). It’s also hilarious to see a brainwashed cult-like group of followers (including a young Jack Black) begin following Bob around, when the only thing approaching this in real politics has been the legion of Kool-Aid drunk liberals that wept whenever Obama spoke.

In some ways, this film is also quite prescient. For example, it foretells the much nastier style of campaigning that has become a Democratic specialty -- secret dirty money, image over substance, a hard-left flank that tries to suppress its opponents by any means including violence, faked scandals, loads of hate, etc. It also foretells the shift from a mainstream media to a more fringe media. In fact, Bugs Raplin (Esposito), the crazed journalist, is a lot like the paranoid weirdoes who would soon begin to inhabit places like Huffington Post, where they too complain that the MSM won’t cover the "real" truth because they’re beholden to secret corporate interests.

At first blush, this film sounds like something you wouldn’t want to see if you’re not a flaming leftist, but it really is worth watching. Robbins’ attempt to slander the right backfires in almost every scene and his story telling ability is undeniable. The story has clever twists and turns, the acting is perfect, and the characters are likeable. Moreover, unlike most leftist films, this one doesn’t preach because it assumes that you will pick up the meaning from the words and deeds and motivations of the characters, and that you will naturally agree with Robbins. . . hence, no need to preach.

Sadly for Robbins, he never realized that the window he thought was letting him peer down into the dark side of conservatives was actually a mirror. Good for us though.

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Friday, October 15, 2010

And They Were Bored. . . The end.

For several years now, I’ve noticed that I’m getting less and less thrilled with the endings of movies. Actually, “thrilled” isn’t the right word, “bored” would be more correct. I’ve considered several possible causes for this, but nothing ever fully explained it. But now I think I’ve finally figured it out.

When I initially noticed this issue some time ago, my first thought was that perhaps our short-attention span culture was finally getting to me? Maybe decades of ever-shortening commercials and instant gratification was killing my mind and causing me to lose interest in anything lasting longer than a few minutes? But then I realized that my most favorite movies tend to be long films that take their own time, and I have no problems sitting through those.

Then I thought that maybe the issue was familiarity. Maybe the real problem was that I was watching movies I’d seen before, and since I knew the endings, there wasn’t a lot of point to sticking around to see them play out. This is the same reason I don’t watch reruns of sporting events. But this didn’t quite work either. For example, I can still watch many of my favorite movies over and over and I don’t turn them off before the endings. Indeed, it’s just not The Great Escape until you see Steve McQueen sitting in the cooler one last time, and it’s not The Empire Strikes Back until you see the Millennium Falcon disappear into the distance. So how could it be familiarity? Not to mention that I’m not just having this problem with films I’ve seen, but with most modern films even when I am seeing them for the first time.

So perhaps it’s a different kind of familiarity. Maybe the problem is that so many movies are so formulaic today? Maybe it’s a matter of “seen one, seen them all”? But again, how does that explain my willingness to sit through dozens of older films where I know the ending, even though I can barely get myself to sit through a film like Terminator Salvation without flipping on my laptop? Or maybe it’s just that the endings of films can rarely hold up to the promise they hold before they start having to answer the questions they posed when they began? But that same problem should apply to older movies I haven’t seen and yet I find myself much more interested in those than in new films I haven’t seen.

I could suggest that maybe I just like older films better, but that’s not true. I don’t succumb to nostalgia, I don’t prefer fakey effects, and I think story-telling techniques have continued to get better and better over time.

So what is causing this problem?

Well, after the last couple weeks of watching dozens of modern horror flicks, a pattern began to reveal itself. No matter how interesting these films started, when they got near the ending -- about twenty minutes out, the writers simply quit writing, and instead of anything plot related, they just inserted a constant assault of screaming, running and squirting blood. . . a mind-numbing assault.

And it wasn’t just horror movies. The last twenty minutes of every modern action film has become a videogame chase scene awash in gun play, wire fights, and unbelievable CGI escapes. The last twenty minutes of modern science fiction films have become shoot outs and scream-fests as the heroes run from space monsters while the space station explodes around them. Even cartoons are following this pattern.

Consider the movie Pirates of the Caribbean. The last twenty minutes of the first film were largely a combination of two fight scenes, though they weren’t super obnoxious and they involved breaks for plot. But the sequel ended in the now-standard mind-numbing Hollywood chase. The third film ended in an atrocity, a 30-plus minute special effects assault intermixed with a ludicrous CGI fight scene. Some of the CGI fight scenes at the end of the second and third Matrix films come close to 40 minutes depending on how you count them.

Everything I’ve seen lately falls into this same pattern: near the end of the film, the script apparently contains the words: “insert videogame, attention-deficit-disorder, assault-the-senses-arama here. . . roll credits.” It must be a macro.

But hasn’t this always been the case? Actually, no. And that’s why I’m finding that only modern films are boring me. Sure, older films followed a pattern of trying to put the climactic scene at the end, and that often involved a shootout, a chase scene or a fight. But they rarely ran more than a few minutes and they always left room for plot. Compare the famous car chase in Bullitt (which isn’t actually at the end), which lasted only nine minutes total, with the first two not really being a chase in the traditional sense, against the never ending CGI fights at the end of the movies listed above. Or compare the feel of the attack on the Death Star, which involved little action mixed in with significant dialog, against the videogame lightsaber fight and cliché-fest at the end of the third prequel.

What makes this all the stranger is that at the same time they are inserting these long, long pointless endings, they are editing them with ultra quick cuts to try to maintain the attention of the audience. When I saw Armageddon for the first time, I found the editing to be so obnoxious that I found myself counting the number of seconds between cuts; I never made it to 8. And while I thought that was a bad sign at the time, that’s the golden age compared to today. Today, waiting as long as 8 seconds to make a cut in a fight scene would be unthinkable. . . and that doesn’t even consider the vomit cam.

I think this is why I find myself rarely paying attention at the end of modern films. Once the fighting begins, everything of interest in the story is over. So I flip on my laptop, and I start doing something else. I hope Hollywood is paying attention, but I doubt it. . . there aren’t enough explosions in this article to get their attention.

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Friday, October 8, 2010

Film Friday: Memento (2000)

A couple weeks back, we talked about the incredible human brain and its ability to take events that are out of sequence and put them back into their proper order. Nothing highlights this better than Memento, a psychological thriller written and directed by Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Inception). Memento is the story of a man who can’t make new memories, and what makes the film really stand out is the way Nolan tells the story. He tells it backwards.

** spoiler alert **

Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce -- L.A. Confidential) is a former insurance fraud investigator who suffers from a condition called anterograde amnesia. This is an actual medical condition which renders the brain incapable of storing new memories. Essentially, the sufferer has all of their memories up to the point of injury, but cannot remember anything that happens thereafter. Leonard got this condition when he was struck on the head as his wife was raped and murdered. That's the last memory he has. He has spent every waking moment since that attack tracking down the killer: “John G.” To aid him in this search, Leonard has the police file and his mysterious friend (Joe Pantoliano). Also, since he can’t make new memories, he takes Polaroid photos and writes cryptic notes to himself on these Polaroids, notes like “don’t trust him.” He also tattoos important rules on his body, things like “never answer the phone.”

The story begins with Leonard killing a man named Teddy, who he believes to be John G. This scene is in color. The story then shifts to a black and white scene with Leonard sitting in a hotel room telling someone on the telephone about his condition and what he’s been doing. The story then shifts back to a color scene, only this scene takes place before Leonard killed Teddy and it ends right at the moment the first color scene begins. It takes a moment to understand what is going on, but what Nolan is doing is telling the story in two parts by alternating the black and white scenes with the color scenes, each of which last only a few minutes. The black and white scenes are told in chronological order, whereas the color scenes are told in reverse chronological order (during the opening credits you actually see a scene running backwards, but that is the only time Nolan does that).

While this sounds confusing, it turns out to be a brilliant choice. By telling the story backwards, Nolan gives the audience a sense of confusion similar to what Leonard experiences. Basically, each scene begins without any idea of what has come before that scene. Thus, for example, Leonard may find himself holding a gun, but he has no idea where the gun came from or what he was doing with it. And since we are in the same boat as Leonard because of the reverse-chronological order of the film, we likewise have no more idea than Leonard where the gun came from. Similarly, we have no idea who the people around him are or what they may have done or said only a few minutes prior. Hence, we are just as lost and disoriented as Leonard. Can he trust the weeping woman who needs his help (Carrie-Anne Moss -- The Matrix) or the hotel clerk who’s exploited Leonard's condition to rent him multiple rooms? Who is Teddy really? We don’t know, and neither does Leonard. (Interestingly, experts on anterograde amnesia agree that what Nolan has created is similar to what people with anterograde amnesia actually experience.)

But unlike Leonard, we have one advantage that really makes this film pay off -- we know his future because we’ve already seen the ending and are working our way backwards through the story. This brings us to Nolan’s second achievement. By going this route, Nolan converts what would otherwise have been a run-of-the-mill film into a stunning story with a constant barrage of twists. Almost every scene involves revelations that change the entire complexion of the story, as we learn about the real motivations of the characters, we learn what Leonard’s notes mean, and we learn why Leonard has taken the steps he takes. Indeed, with each scene we find ourselves reinterpreting the events that we know will take place to fit the new facts we’ve uncovered. The result is a puzzle that grows with complexity as you get closer to its solution.

While this is going on, the interwoven black and white scenes have Leonard telling us how his condition came about and he describes a man he met with the same condition: Sammy Jankis. Leonard investigated Sammy for insurance fraud, and we learn that Sammy’s tail ended tragically because of Sammy’s wife’s inability to understand what was really happening to Sammy, which was caused by Leonard’s insistence that Sammy was faking. Without giving too much away, this raises questions about divine retribution or karma, what is memory, is there a part of us that learns by instinct rather than through the conscious making of memories, and what makes us who we are. There is even a twist regarding Sammy that adds a whole new layer to this story, though I won’t give it away here, except to say that maybe Leonard doesn’t have true amnesia, but instead wants to believe he cannot make new memories. Indeed, there is considerable evidence for this when you find out the real relationship between Teddie and Leonard, and in the fact that Leonard occasionally seems to know things that happened after the injury.

This is a movie you should see. It’s intelligent with great acting, gripping story-telling, and amazing surprises. This film presents a fascinating look at what it would be like to have true amnesia and it gives us a classic example of the power of our minds to assemble a complete story from out-of-order pieces -- as well as the limitations on that power. Indeed, the main theme to the story seems to be about those limitations, specifically how easily we can be manipulated, even by ourselves, when we lack full knowledge.

I highly recommend this film.

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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

What Makes Us Like Characters?

Have you ever wondered what makes us like certain characters and dislike others? Of course you have. There seem to be a lot of possible explanations offered, everything from our opinion of the actor to the morality of the character. But in the end, I think it comes down to one thing: we like characters who display personality traits we wish we had, and we dislike those who display traits that annoy us.

Let’s start with the idea that our opinion of a character will be determined by our opinion of the actor. Hollywood bets heavily on this, and there is some truth to it. Indeed, our goodwill to an actor can translate into goodwill toward the characters they play. But few actors generate much goodwill. Moreover, while this can translate to the character, that isn't always true. For example, our goodwill toward Harrison Ford may make us inclined to like Han Solo, but it likely would not improve our opinion of Humbert in Lolita, should Ford play that role.

Further, the fact that different actors can play the same character tells us that the identity of the actor actually isn't all that important to the character. Indeed, in general, unless the choice of actor interferes with our perceptions of the character, e.g. they are physically inappropriate like Truman Capote as Rambo or they bring negative baggage like Michael Moore, then any actor should be able to play almost any character. That means it is something other than the actor which decides our views of the character.

So what is it then about the character that matters? Liberals suggest that we like those who are most like us, and fear those who are different. Thus, they would (and do) suggest we like characters who are similar to us, e.g. whites don't like black characters. Of course, this goofy theory of oppressionology falls apart once you realize that movies don’t attract audiences that are identical to the demographics of their characters, and that whites have accepted actors like LL Cool J and Ice Cube, and Americans have accepted foreign actors, and even males and females seem to like each other.

Traditionalists argue that we like characters based on morality issues. Thus, we like characters who act morally and dislike characters who act immorally. But that falls apart right away as well. We like Darth Vader, and he’s hardly a good guy; even before the lousy prequels, Vader was evil, tyrannical, and also a lapdog for a truly unlikeable Emperor. We liked Max von Sydow in Needful Things, even though he played the devil. . . a generally difficult character to like. And there are a bunch of characters who are paragons of moral virtue that we just can’t stand.

Heist films present an excellent example to consider. We like Danny Ocean, even though he’s immoral, and even though we would vote to convict him if we sat on a jury. Indeed, we love all the bank robbers, the schemers, and the fraudsters, but only on film. . . not in real life. And even on film, there is a fine line: the moment they cease being hip or cool, and instead become murderous or rotten, we suddenly stop liking them. Tony Soprano was cool, Phil Leotardo was not, even though both did the same acts. And what is the difference between these two?

Consider this. We like to live vicariously through films and books; they are our fantasy worlds. And in our fantasies, we want to see ourselves as better than we currently are. Thus, we prefer characters that have the traits we wish we did. We want Darth Vader’s power to terrorize. We want Danny Ocean’s cool. We want characters who are under control, funny, sexy, smart, strong, interesting, and a whole host of other things we admire or yearn to be. And when we find characters who have these traits, we like them. On the other hand, when we find characters with traits we find annoying either in ourselves or in our day-to-day lives, we dislike those characters. Thus, we don't like characters who are whiners or weaklings, who suffer from indecision, or who are vindictive, petty or arrogant. These are traits we see every day and which we want to escape.

I think this is what determines whether or not we like characters. It's not the morality of the characters or their actions or what they look like, nor is it the actor who plays them. What makes us like or dislike characters are the traits the characters possess that we either aspire to or which annoy us. In fact, I would go one step further and even suggest that these are the same reasons we like/dislike particular actors.


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Friday, October 1, 2010

Top 25: Horror Films You Should Know

With October beginning today, it’s time to roll out the next Top 25: horror movies! These are the top 25 horror movies you should know to be well-versed in horror. Again, these are not necessarily the best or the most scary, but they are the most significant.

Horror is one of the most consistently popular genres in film, with even middling movies guaranteed to make money. Why? Because audiences want to feel emotional responses to their entertainment, and no emotion is easier to evoke than fear. Fear comes in many flavors, everything from being startled or shocked to deep down psychological terror that makes you sleep with the lights on. Few movies reach that final level, but when they do they usually leave a mark on our culture. Let’s begin. . .

1. Night of the Living Dead (1968): The importance of Night of the Living Dead cannot be overstated. This film brought horror movies to adult audiences. Before this, horror was costumed monsters aimed at kids. This film also created the zombie craze which continues unabated today and established the conventions for that entire subgenre. “They’re coming to get you, Barbara.”

2. The Omen (1976): The Omen spawned the “Satan is coming” subgenre of horror films and gave us Damien Thorn, a figure who has entered the popular culture as a representation of pure evil. There are even indications this film influenced the American view of Satan and the Book of Revelations. And Gregory Peck playing Damien’s father made it respectable for big name stars to do horror movies. “Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast; for it is the number of a man; and his number is 666.”

3. The Exorcist (1973): The Exorcist is considered by many to be the scariest movie of all time. This film brought exorcism to the public consciousness and spawned a demonic possession craze in modern horror films. It also introduced the now-clichéd idea of pitting a demon against a priest who lost his faith, and it gave us perhaps the most iconic horror image of all time: Max von Sydow standing outside Regan’s house under the lamp. “The Power of Christ compels you!”

4. Alien (1979): Alien brought modern horror into the realm of science fiction and established the conventions of that subgenre. brought modern horror into the realm of science fiction and established the conventions of that subgenre. It also involved the first female hero and it established Ridley Scott, who really redefined science fiction. “In space, no one can hear you scream.”

5. Jaws (1975): Jaws sparked a nationwide panic over and fascination with sharks, which continues to this day. It also solidified the career of Steven Spielberg. Jaws is particularly noted for waiting to reveal the monster until late in the film, so as to build suspense, though ironically this wasn’t intentional. . . they just had a hard time making the mechanical shark work. “You're gonna need a bigger boat.”

6. Halloween (1978): Halloween introduced the slasher film, though it was tame by modern standards. Halloween also gave us Michael Myers, as a masked, speechless, killing machine, who escapes a mental hospital and returns home to kill his family and everyone else in town. Myers has become the template for modern slasher villains. “He’s coming to your little town.”

7. The Shining (1980): One of the most iconic and oft-referenced horror films of all time, The Shining is the story of Jack Torrance, who goes insane while working as the winter caretaker of a haunted hotel. This movie, more than any other, defined Jack Nicholson and made Stephen King stories a staple of horror films (though, ironically, King “hated” the film). “Here’s Johnny!”

8. The Ring (2002): This film involves a young woman haunted by an evil spirit. At a time when slasher flicks had become the norm, this film opened the door for a new subgenre by importing the Japanese vision of horror in which creepy, but non-gory images (often involving children) terrorize the heroine while she tries to solve the mystery of what created the evil spirit. A whole slew of similar, remade Japanese films followed (e.g. The Grudge, Dark Water, The Eye, etc.). “He watched the tape!”

9. The Haunting (1963): The story of a group of paranormal investigators who spend several nights in a haunted house plagued by violent spirits, this film established the haunted house subgenre and all of its conventions. This film has been remade and repeatedly copied. “You may not believe in ghosts but you cannot deny terror!”

10. 28 Days Later (2002): This movie revived the slowly dying zombie subgenre (no pun intended), by introducing fast-twitch zombies. Suddenly, zombies became a whole lot more menacing. “Repent the end is extremely f**king nigh.”

11. Resident Evil (2002): Resident Evil started the craze of turning videogames into movies, something which has continued unabated ever since. It also popularized the use of scantily-clad, young women as the butt-kicking heroes, a staple in the horror/action genre. “You're all going to die down here.”

12. Poltergeist (1982): Poltergeist introduced the country to the concept of a poltergeist, not a ghost, but a malevolent force that haunts people. This has since replaced simple hauntings in films. It also created the film conventions for ghost hunters, including the types of equipment they need and their associations with colleges, and it introduced ideas like the blinding white light after death into which we are supposed to walk. This film also highlights the 1980s craze of demonizing property developers. “They’re here.”

13. Friday the 13th (1980): The story of risen-from-the-dead, hockey-mask-wearing, chainsaw-wielding Jason Voorhees, this film added a supernatural element to the silent, killing-machine character first seen in Halloween, and gave us motiveless killers who can’t be killed no matter how many times you shoot or stab them. This movie also gave us the “our friends are dying, let’s go skinny dipping” cliché as Voorhees works his way through a pack of camp counselors. This film has spawned 12 sequels to date. “They call this place Camp Blood.”

14. Scream (1996): The story of a killer who’s watched too many horror movies and decides to live them out in real life, Scream revived the horror genre for younger audiences by setting the film around teenage actors and following like a hipper, totally like cynical, tongue-in-cheek style or whatever. “Movies don’t create psychos, movies make psychos more creative!”

15. Saw (2004): Saw is basically a snuff film with little else to recommend it. But it belongs on the list because it opened the door for modern torture porn, which all but abandons story in favor of 90 minute, sadistic bloodbaths. “He doesn't want us to cut through our chains. He wants us to cut through our feet!”

16. The Blair Witch Project (1999): Shot like a home movie, this story of three film students who vanish chasing an urban legend started (and basically ended) the “found footage” horror film subgenre. “I am so scared! I don't know what's out there. We are going to die out here! I am so scared!”

17. Nightmare on Elm Street (1984): Elm Street gave us Freddie Krueger, who could kill you in your dreams, made Johnny Depp a movie star (instead of a television star) and made Wes Craven a star director. This film is referenced in dozens of later films, inspired numerous sequels and copies, and encouraged slasher movies to step up the special effects game and the level of creativity. “Whatever you do don't fall asleep.”

18. The Amityville Horror (1979): The story of a father who goes insane upon moving into a house and repeats the murderous rampage of the prior owner, this film introduced the idea of a “true” horror story, which has become a bit of a cottage industry. “There's nothing like it on the market. Not at this price.”

19. The Evil Dead (1981): Gory, silly and primitive on all levels, Evil Dead is not a good film, but it is a cult classic with a large following and is well-known by horror aficionados. The story of four people in a cabin who open a doorway to hell, this film made Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi into Hollywood names. “Give me some sugar, baby!”

20. Rosemary’s Baby (1968): Rosemary learns that a coven of witches think her baby is the Antichrist, oh goody. This film made Roman Polanski famous before he became infamous. It also introduced the idea that perfectly normal looking people could be engaged in Satanism. Many of the conventions created by this film continue to dominate Satanism and witchcraft-based horror movies today, and some have suggested this film spawned the Satanic-cult-mania of the 1980s that destroyed the lives of many daycare workers. “He chose you, honey! From all the women in the world to be the mother of his only living son!”

21. Psycho (1960): Hitchcock’s classic tale of deranged serial killer Norman Bates who is compelled to kill his victims to gain the approval of his dead mother. Although this movie is tame by modern standards, it shocked audience at the time, and in many ways, is the first psychological slasher film. “She might have fooled me, but she didn't fool my mother.”

22. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956): A classic film about pod people taking over a small town by replacing the inhabitants, this film expressed the American fear of 1950s communism and represented the height of 1950s-style horror. It also gave us a now-standard horror trope: the friends who seem normal, but aren’t. “Love, desire, ambition, faith - without them, life's so simple, believe me.”

23. Phantasm (1979): Phantasm is the story of a supernatural and malevolent undertaker (“the Tall Man”) who uses the dead for reasons unknown. It’s also one of those cult classics you must know to be well-versed in horror films. “You play a good game boy, but the game is finished, now you die.”

24. An American Werewolf In London (1981): Famous for special effects that were ahead of its time, this very-dark comedy follows a teenage American tourist in London who gets bitten by a werewolf and tries to figure out how to stop killing people. “Kill yourself, David, before you kill others.”

25. Nosferatu (1922): This is the granddaddy of them all and literally started the entire horror movie genre. However, the film has not held up nor is it particularly influential in terms of story or style, hence it is at the end of our list. “Is this your wife? What a lovely throat.”

Again, these are not necessarily the best movies or the scariest movies. John Carpenter’s The Fog and Prince of Darkness are considerably scarier than many of them. The Japanese versions of films like The Grudge and Dark Water are better than the American versions, as is Les Diaboliques. The Ninth Gate is easily my favorite Satanism story, and I truly love Something Wicked This Way Comes. And there are many historical films I’ve left off, such as anything by Lon Chaney or Bella Lugosi. But those aren’t as well-known or as influential as the films above.

Happy October!

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