Mindjack's Vital Horror
20 movies for the strong-stomached and open-minded
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Introduction

All too often, horror movies are seen as a lesser genre than other films. They are rarely included on lists of the greatest films, and they are even more rarely recognized for major awards. This list, therefore, is our small attempt to bring a bit more attention to a genre that we love but unfortunately doesn't always get the respect it deserves.

Please note, however, that this is not meant to be a list of the 20 greatest horror movies. It is simply a collection of 20 great horror movies, taken from a pool that's full of wonders.

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Nosferatu (1922)
Directed by F.W. Murnau
Reviewed by Ian Dawe

NosferatuF. W. Murnau's seminal piece of expressionistic fantasy tells, for the first time on film, the story of the vampire. Due to legal problems, Murnau couldn't call his creature "Dracula", but he lifts the rest of the story from Bram Stoker's novel. Keying on the eerie, mesmerizing performance of Max Schreck as Count Orlock, the film retains much of its power to evoke subtle fears and will leave you looking over your shoulder. Try to pick up a DVD version without the 80s score, though.

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Vampyr (1932)
Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer
Reviewed by Jeffrey M. Anderson

VampyrCarl Theodor Dreyer's first talkie is one of the great achievements in horror, a deliriously off-kilter production of spongy, spine tingling dream images. The film's star, Julian West is really Baron Nicholas De Gunzberg, a film enthusiast who helped finance the film. He plays Allan Gray (sometimes "David Gray," depending on the print), a man who checks into a hotel where spooky things start happening to him. A dead man (Maurice Schutz) enters his room, he reads a book on vampirism, and he sees shadows move independent of their owners. There's also a memorably frightening sequence depicting the journey of a coffin to its final resting place, from the point of view of its occupant (looking out a small window in the lid). Allan/David eventually realizes that this is all the work of a member of the undead and must try to rescue himself and the dead man's two daughters (Rena Mandel and Sybille Schmitz). The film was shot in four separate languages (French, English, German, and Danish) and the surviving film was probably cobbled together from fragments of different versions.

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The Old Dark House (1932)
Directed by James Whale
Reviewed by Jeffrey M. Anderson

Old Dark HouseJames Whale's underrated classic is probably the ultimate Halloween movie: tame enough for kids, spooky enough for adults, and weirdly funny enough for all. Boris Karloff is top-billed in an uncanny performance as Morgan, the mute butler of the title house. A carload of travelers (Melvyn Douglas, Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart) runs off the road in a rainstorm and must spend the night there. Later, two more visitors (Charles Laughton and Lilian Bond) appear, sparking a little romance between Bond and Douglas's characters. Among the tenants are the cranky, snappish Rebecca Femm (Eva Moore -- playing the Una O'Connor role) and the fussy Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger). But these eccentrics are ultimately harmless. Upstairs lurks far creepier occupants. The high caliber actors each play out their scenes to the hilt, and even the most banal lines like "have a potato" have a multi-layered ring. Whale must have laughed and laughed while making this film. Benn W. Levy wrote the screenplay, based on J.B. Priestley's novel "Benighted." Gloria Stuart, at the height of her "Titanic" comeback, recorded a great commentary track for the essential Kino DVD.

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The Black Cat (1934)
Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer
Reviewed by Jeffrey M. Anderson
This review originally appeared on CombustibleCelluloid.com

The Black CatMost may recognize The Black Cat as the first onscreen teaming of legendary horror stars Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. But will anyone recognize it as a Hollywood extension of such expressionistic film classics as F.W. Murnau's Sunrise? Director Edgar G. Ulmer began working in movies with directors such as Murnau and Fritz Lang, and though he later worked in quickie low-budget films and genre films, he brought some of their visual flair with him. And thus The Black Cat is more than meets the eye.

Of course, The Black Cat is a superb horror film as well. It's said to be based on the Edgar Allan Poe story, but in fact is an almost completely original story (by Peter Ruric). It begins innocently with a newly married couple (Jacqueline Wells and David Manners) sharing a private car on a train. But their car has been accidentally double-booked, and Lugosi enters as Dr. Vitus Werdegast. This chance encounter and a bus accident will bring them to the evil mansion of Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff). It turns out that Werdegast and Poelzig have an old-time rivalry. Poelzig has appropriated Werdegast's wife and daughter, telling them that he had died in prison. At the same time, Poelzig is preparing for a Satanic ritual in which he will use the young wife for a sacrifice.

The Black Cat is often lumped in with the other Universal horror pictures of the era. It's difficult to say that it's the "best" of them, because we're comparing it with titles like Bride of Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, and Dracula. But it certainly is the most ambitious. It was one of the only times Ulmer had a reasonable budget to work with and it gives us a true idea of how much talent he really had. It's a great film.

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Cat People (1942)
Directed by Jacques Tourner
Reviewed by Jeffrey M. Anderson
This review originally appeared on CombustibleCelluloid.com

Cat PeopleVal Lewton had worked on all kinds of odd jobs at RKO before being tapped to produce a series of low-budget horror movies. His first assignment was Cat People. Lewton was a well-read intellectual who surmised that people would be more frightened at the things they couldn't see than they would be at actors running around in cat costumes. So, with writer DeWitt Bodeen and director Jacques Tourneur, he came up with a story about a mysterious Serbian woman (Simone Simon) who lives in America and works as a fashion designer. She captures the attention of an architect (Kent Smith). The two begin courting, but the woman is reluctant to kiss, or make love to, her lover, even after they've married. She believes, if aroused, that she will turn into a cat.

Lewton and Tourneur give us evidence of a cat--or something catlike in motion--lurking just around corners. But they show us nothing concrete. In one scene, a woman is walking along a dark sidewalk. She hears rustling and fears something is out there. From out of nowhere a bus pulls up between her and the audience, letting out a loud and sudden squeal from its breaks. It's the one time Lewton allowed himself an easy scare, but the scene is eerily effective. There are other great scenes that make astonishing visuals out of cheap sets, as in the swimming pool scene and the architects' office, playing with light in the pool water and desktops. The cat is unseen on the periphery in both scenes, and it's terrifying.

Even though it has been lauded by Martin Scorsese and other defenders Cat People doesn't receive the respect it deserves. Its status as a B-movie and a horror movie prevent it from being included on lists of the "greatest". But, in my mind, that it lacks the pretension of movies like The Lost Weekend or The Best Years of Our Lives only adds to its merits. Make no mistake, it is one of the greatest.

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The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Directed by Charles Laughton
Reviewed by Donald Melanson

Night of the HunterCharles Laughton's masterpiece isn't always included on lists of the best horror films. Not because it isn't a great film, but because it doesn't fit the traditional definition of a horror movie. Looking only at the plot, it's basically a drama -- or a thriller. But the film's surreal imagery, combined with Robert Mitchum's menacing performance, make for a film that's as otherworldly and unnerving as any more traditional horror movie.

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Horror Hotel (1960)
Directed by John Llewellyn Moxey
Reviewed by Donald Melanson

Horror HotelAlso known by the slightly better title The City of the Dead, Horror Hotel gets my vote as one of the most underrated of horror films . The title certainly doesn't help its reputation, suggesting a far different movie than the atmospheric, Lovecraftian film it actually is. Also, like some of the other films on this list, it has fallen into the public domain, resulting in a multitude of different DVDs of varying quality. I have the Roan Group release, which has a solid, although non-anamorphic transfer, as well as a few extras including an interview with Christopher Lee.

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The Last Man on Earth (1964)
Directed by Sidney Salkow
Reviewed by Donald Melanson

The Last Man on EarthBased on Richard Matheson's "I Am Legend" (which also served as the basis for The Omega Man), The Last Man on Earth is notable for influencing Night of the Living Dead, but it is also a great film in its own right. Vincent Price stars as a man immune to a devastating worldwide plague and, unfortunately for him, it's one of those nasty zombiefying plagues.

There are numerous DVDs of the movie available for as little as $1, but it's worth paying the extra bucks for MGM's recent Midnite Movies disc. In addition to having a great anamorphic transfer of The Last Man on Earth, it also includes Ray Milland's Panic in Year Zero on the flipside.

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Kill, Baby...Kill! (1966)
Directed by Mario Bava
Reviewed by Donald Melanson

Kill, Baby...Kill!Any film with this much punctuation in its title has a lot to live up to and Kill, Baby...Kill! certainly does. Directed by the legendary Mario Bava, Kill, Baby...Kill! is a wonderfully atmospheric ghost story and a prime introduction to Italian horror cinema, a sub-genre that all horror fans come to love at one point or another. Unfortunately, it's currently only available in full-screen, dubbed editions on DVD, but at least it's cheap. The best bet at the moment seems to be Brentwood/BCI Eclipse's edition, which is available individually or as part of their Fright Night 10-movie set.

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Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Directed by George A. Romero
Reviewed by Ian Dawe

Night of the LIving DeadGeorge A. Romero is known for making films that celebrate their pulp roots, but also carry a strong social message. In some of his later works (Day of the Dead, for example), the message is a little ham-fisted, but in this, his masterpiece, all of his not inconsiderable skills are in play. The dead are rising to kill the living and eat their brains in this small American town. Hiding from the "zombies" becomes the imperative of the surviving population. A strange cross section of society gathers together in a boarded-up house to hide from the monsters and wait for help. Thus, the film quickly turns from a creepy (and slightly cheesy) horror flick to a gripping study of human behavior as the residents of the house try to find a way to live together in a climate of fear. Their "leader", played with great skill by Duane Jones, is black (remarkable for the time) and becomes the target of the "rescuers" in the chilling and powerful ending. Romero's knack for small scale human study rivals Hitchcock at times here, and the low-budget black and white cinematography dovetails nicely with the story he's telling. This metaphor for the culture of fear and the targeting of visible minorities has never been more timely.

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The Exorcist (1973)
Directed by William Friedkin
Reviewed by Ian Dawe

ExorcistOne of the greatest films ever made, William Friedkin's dark tale of possession and demons is surprising when viewed today in how much time it takes setting up the story. In fact, if one can forget the projectile vomiting and rotating head of Linda Blair, it actually becomes a thoughtful, honest story of one man (Father Karras, played with great humanity by playwright Jason Miller) struggling with his faith. Some of the additions to Friedkin's 2003 "Director's Cut" include genuinely frightening examples of early 1970s medicine, and a ridiculous clunker of an ending involving a cop with a fetish for film. Either version, though, will both scare you and inspire a thoughtful reflection on the nature of faith and courage.

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Halloween (1978)
Directed by John Carpenter
Reviewed by Ian Dawe

HalloweenGiven the empire of imitators and sequels it spawned, it's easy to forget what a longshot John Carpenter's "calling card" film really was. Produced for next to nothing, Halloween is a study in basic film craft. It's a credit to the filmmakers that the film never looks like a small indie project - indeed, its widescreen visuals are rich and cinematic, not small and cloistered like many grade-Z horror flicks, and the characters are human and endearing. The story is simplicity itself: babysitters (including Laurie Strode, played by Jamie Lee Curtis) are stalked on Halloween night by a mysterious killer (credited only as "the Shape"). Oft-imitated, the film nonetheless remains fresh, creepy and energetic, mainly due to the commitment of all involved (including a perplexed but game Donald Pleasence) to making a good film instead of a "successful" one. Carpenter himself pulls out every trick in the book to scare his audience, and does so admirably. It may be the ultimate 70's-80's horror movie.

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Nosferatu, the Vampire (1979)
Directed by Werner Herzog
Reviewed by Ian Dawe

NosferatuA couple of generations had past since Murnau when legendary director Werner Herzog had a go at the Nosferatu story with his volatile star Klaus Kinski in the late 70s. (This time, even though the film retains Murnau's title, the creature is actually called "Dracula".) The story is the same, but Herzog brilliantly channels the essence of the expressionist form into the world of colour and quasi-realism. Better appreciated in its context as a piece of late-seventies German "cinema of alienation", the movie still works as a Halloween creep-fest, driven by Kinski's subdued and ultimately moving performance. Stay away from the English language version (filmed at the same time as the German). Both versions are available on DVD from Anchor Bay.

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The Shining (1980)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Reviewed by Jeffrey M. Anderson
This review originally appeared on CombustibleCelluloid.com

The ShiningStanley Kubrick's horror film, The Shining (based on the Stephen King novel) creates some of the most genuine spine chills ever filmed. Taking a job as a winter caretaker for a giant and remote hotel, Jack Nicholson, his wife Shelley Duvall, and his son Danny Lloyd, find that the long hallways and empty rooms contain more than a few ghosts. The film goes from scary to amusing as Jack slowly turns into a psychopath, taking an axe to his loved ones. (Why is it that Kubrick's psychopaths -- McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, Nicholson, and Ermey in Full Metal Jacket -- are so much fun?) Kubrick's use of space and the eerie steadycam have never been put to better use, and the great Scatman Crothers provides a great turn as the hotel's chef.

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The Fly (1986)
Directed by David Cronenberg
Reviewed by Donald Melanson

The FlyAccording to the Internet Movie Database, one of the directors originally attached to the 1986 remake of The Fly was a young Tim Burton (with Michael Keaton offered the Seth Brundle role). That would have likely been a very good movie, but The Fly's subject matter seems better suited to David Cronenberg's unique sensibilities than any other director.

The film gave Jeff Goldblum one of the best roles of his career (if not the best) as an eccentric scientist who invents a device capable of teleporting objects from one pod to another. He soon encounters a reporter, played by Geena Davis, who aims to document Brundle's work until he reaches his ultimate goal: teleporting himself. Brundle eventually succeeds at that goal or at least he thinks he does, until he discovers that a fly was in the teleportation pod with him, fusing its genetic structure with his, thus beginning his slow metamorphosis into a human/fly hybrid.

But The Fly is far from your ordinary mad-scientist-turned-monster movie. As many others have noted, you could simply replace Goldblum's transformation with a debilitating disease and have a very serious, heart-wrenching movie. As it is, it's a prime example of the depth science fiction and horror movies are capable of.

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Near Dark (1987)
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Reviewed by Jeffrey M. Anderson
This review originally appeared on CombustibleCelluloid.com

This vampire film with Western overtones is one of the great movies of all time. Period. Small town cowboy Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) meets the beautiful, lithe, blonde Mae (Jenny Wright) and takes her out driving. When he accidentally keeps her out past dawn, she bites him and turns him into a vampire -- though I should make it clear that the movie never mentions the word "vampire," nor does it rely on symbols such as crosses or holy water. Caleb winds up reluctantly joining Mae's "family," consisting of a ragtag band of outlaws who drive around in a modified RV. Strangely, Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen and Jenette Goldstein had all appeared together in the previous year's hit Aliens. Tim Thomerson rounds out the cast as Caleb's human dad who refuses to give up the search for his son. With Near Dark, the great Kathryn Bigelow (K-19: The Widowmaker) made her solo directorial debut, and managed to emphasize the relationships between the characters while using the gory showstoppers as support. She draped the film in neon colors, dusty plains, dirty cars and grungy bars -- places where sunlight hurts the eyes.

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Evil Dead II (1987)
Directed by Sam Raimi
Reviewed by Donald Melanson

Evil Dead 2Evil Dead II is partly a sequel and partly a remake of Evil Dead, director Sam Raimi's ultra low budget but wildly inventive film starring cult legend Bruce Campbell. In Evil Dead II, Campbell reprises his role as Ash, who again must battle the evil forces he unwittingly unleashes whilst trapped in a secluded cabin. That happens in the film's first few minutes; what follows is a breathlessly paced movie that walks the line between horror and comedy better than any other film I've seen. And unlike some other horror comedies, you can tell that Raimi and co. genuinely love the films that they reference and spoof.

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Jacob's Ladder (1990)
Directed by Adrian Lyne
Reviewed by Ian Dawe

The home video advertising for this film used to read, "a shocking ending that will haunt you forever". For once it was not hyperbole. Tim Robbins plays Jacob Singer, a Vietnam veteran struggling with his life back in the United States. Strange and disturbing things begin happening to him, and his odd chiropractor (Danny Aiello) seems to know more than he lets on. Always compelling and often outright terrifying, this is one of most disturbing and intriguing films I have ever seen. If you want to have nightmares this season, watch this movie.

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Mute Witness (1995)
Directed by Anthony Waller
Reviewed by Donald Melanson

Mute WitnessLargely overlooked by critics and audiences alike, Mute Witness manages the difficult task of both parodying the slasher genre and being an extremely effective thriller in its own right. Billy Hughes (Marina Sudina) is the witness of the title, a mute makeup artist working on a slasher film being shot in Moscow. Late one night she gets locked in the movie studio and witnesses a murder being filmed. A ton of plot twists follow, none of which I can mention here, but first-time director Anthony Waller makes it work, challenging the audience but never cheating them.

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Shadow of the Vampire (2000)
Directed by E. Elias Mehridge
Reviewed by Ian Dawe

Shadow of the VampireDirector E. Elias Mehridge (Begotten) tells the story of the making of the original Nosferatu in this quasi-satire featuring two hammy performances from John Malkovich (Murnau) and Willem Dafoe (Max Schreck). Although it has its creepy moments, particularly the unsettling final sequence, the film is more of a self-referential piece of cinematic satire than a horror feature. Watch for great supporting performances (also in the campy vein) by Cary Elwes and British comedian Eddie Izzard.

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