People have begun asking me if slasher films are the only horror movies I enjoy – obviously because of my predilection for the slice‘em/dice‘em fests that fostered my love of the genre. But the truth is that slashers are not the only films of the genre that I enjoy; actually, my #1 horror film of all-time is not a slasher film at all. So I thought I'd share my non-slasher Top Ten horror movie favorites for those curious as to my alternative tastes in terror. Following is my list, in descending order…
10. Motel Hell ~ Definitely the guilty pleasure on my list, this low-budget shocker about the carnivorous doings at the titular lodging is a delightful blend of dark humor, camp, gore, and cannibalistic ingenuity. Farmer Vincent (Rory Calhoun) and his sister, Ida (Nancy Parsons) run a rural motel in the backwoods of Texas, where they produce their own brand of smoked meats. People come from miles away for the renowned smoked delicacies; unfortunately, some of them find themselves buried up to their slashed vocal cords in the brother-sister duo’s secret garden where they end up being smoked themselves as the special ingredients in Farmer Vincent’s meats. After all, it takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent’s fritters, as the movie’s tagline reminds us. This campy cult-classic is fraught with dark moralistic overtones as Vincent and Ida justify their macabre meat packing practices by targeting those they deem sinners ~ prostitutes, swingers, and even a traveling druggie rock band. Check into this motel, and I promise you’ll never look at beef jerky the same way again!
9. The Boogens ~ There is something intrinsically scary about mines, and perhaps that’s why I love this sometimes silly little monster movie so much. Genuinely creepy at times and unintentionally funny at others, The Boogens harkens back to the golden age of B-grade monster movies. This movie has such a retro feel that you can almost see the poodle skirt-clad gal cuddling into the crook of her checkered vest-and-bowtie wearing boyfriend's arm at the drive-in on a Saturday night. The plot concerns a long-abandoned Colorado silver mine that we learn, through a time-efficient montage of vintage photos and newspaper headlines during the openings credits, was once plagued by mysterious disappearances and deaths until it was eventually sealed. Flash forward to present day when a group of entrepreneurial capitalists, keeping with the true Regan-era greed of the time period, decide to re-open the mine. Before you can say “Watch out behind you!” the titular creatures are unleashed and tentacled, razor-sharp clawed terror ensues. The puppet-like creatures, which present as a cross between Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and some ill-conceived Muppet rejects, are an absolute hoot and make this little schlock fest a worthy creature feature.
8. The Descent ~ It speaks pretty highly of a film nary three years old to be included on a list of top ten horror films, but The Descent is one of those instant classics that doesn’t need to withstand the test of time to determine its status as a masterpiece. This is a film with all the elements of a landmark horror movie: believable characters, a claustrophobic setting that is as scary as the horror action itself, gore galore, truly terrifying creatures, and a morbidly dark overtone to the entire proceedings that will stay with you long after the end credits role. Neil Marshall, who also helmed the highly-effective werewolf opus Dog Soldiers, is as promising a new director as they come.
7. The Howling ~ Speaking of werewolves, my lucky number seven pick of favorite non-slasher horror films is also my all-time favorite lycanthropic outing. The Howling tells the story of high-profile TV news anchor Karen White (Dee Wallace- Stone) who becomes the unwitting subject of a vicious serial killer’s obsession. After a well-choreographed ambush during which the killer is shot by police (notice I didn’t say “killed”), Karen is urged by her seemingly kindly psychiatrist (Patrick McNee) to rest her frayed nerves at his holistic retreat, aptly dubbed “The Colony” for reasons that become clear later in the movie. It isn’t long before Karen’s boyfriend, Bill (played by Wallace’s real-life first husband, the late Christopher Stone), is attacked by what first appears to be a very large wolf. But werewolf aficionados know full well what really happens when the moon is full, and it isn’t long before Karen finds herself surrounded by her eccentric fellow guests at The Colony, themselves blood-thirty werewolves. In addition to some mind-blowing on-screen man-to-werewolf transformations helmed by effects artist extraordinaire Rob Bottin (The Thing), The Howling also boasts one of the most memorable and highly-effective screen killings of all-time when the character of Terry (played with a genuine sense of terror by the underrated Belinda Balaski of Piranha and Gremlins fame) is confronted by Eddie, the serial killer-cum-werewolf ambushed in the opening. The scene works remarkably well because director Joe Dante brilliantly leaves the brutality of the scene to the imagination of the filmgoer, eschewing blood and guts for flashes of shadowed shots of sharp claws slashing the defenseless reporter. Sheer horrific brilliance!
6. The Birds ~ Sometimes the greatest terrors come from the mundane…from the everyday things that surround us as we go blindly about our daily lives. It is in keeping with this notion that Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 nature-run-amok masterpiece is still one of the all-time most terrifying films I’ve seen. As the titular critters descend upon the hapless denizens of Bodega Bay with increasingly ferocious attacks, Hitchcock does a remarkable job of demonstrating that it’s not only when we’re alone and in the dark that we face danger. From the first frames when Tippi Hedren is pecked by a seemingly random gull, the intensity of the film builds with each successive attack. Anyone who doesn’t crawl up a wall while watching the infamous schoolyard attack (keep your eyes peeled for future Alien screamer Veronica Cartwright as one of the frightened children) must be clinically dead themselves!
5. The Shining ~ One would be hard pressed not think that a collaboration between horror lit maestro Stephen King and renowned film director Stanley Kubrick would be anything but pure genius. Add to the equation a once-in-a-lifetime performance by Jack Nicholson and some of the best set pieces in a modern horror film and you’ve got the makings of a masterpiece. Based on King’s bestselling novel of the same name, The Shining is the ghostly tale of the supernatural going-on at the creepy Overlook Hotel that befalls the family who arrives to look after it during a long winter hiatus. Kubrick does a remarkable job personifying the Overlook Hotel, essentially adding the lodging as a central character in the film. Besides Nicholson’s tour-de-force performance, the film benefits greatly from the career-best work of Shelley Duvall and the late Scatman Crothers. Redrum!
4. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (’78) ~ It’s rare that a remake eclipses the merits of an original, but this 1978 redux of the 1956 film of the same name proves it’s possible. Led by a stellar cast including Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum, Lenoard Nimoy, and the incomparable Veronica Cartwright, this Invasion moves the action from the small-town setting of the original to big city San Francisco. Director Philip Kaufman masterfully guides his cast through the escalating paranoia of the essentially-intact original story concept as a microscopic alien life force invades Earth and slowly replaces people with emotionless shells of their former selves. The film seems more a cautionary metaphor for the de-personification of modern society as a whole, with the alien likenesses devoid of all human emotion. There are some genuinely unsettling sequences in Kaufman’s inspired take on an old favorite, including the massage parlor scene and several gory scenes where the pods “give birth” to characters’’ alien likenesses.
3. Alien ~ They may not be able to hear you scream in space, as the tagline for this 1978 sci-fi horror classic suggests, but they sure heard me screaming in the movie theater during this one! Arguably, Alien is the preeminent sci-fi screamer of all time, with its simple storyline of the ill-fated commercial towing vessel Nostromo and it’s even more ill-fated decision to answer a cosmic distress call. What ensues is a jump-out-of-your-seat thrill ride of outer space scares as the crew inadvertently brings back a slithering, acid-blooded alien that, at first, scampers about the ship before growing in to a very nasty killing machine with lots of teeth. Lots of them. Sigourney Weaver earned her A-list actress wings with her performance as the resourceful Ripley, while a terrific ensemble including Tom Skerrit, John Hurt, Harry Dean Stanton, and Veronica Cartwright lend support as her doomed shipmates.
2. The Thing ~ Twelve rugged men stranded at an Antarctic research station might sound like the set-up for an enticing gay porn film, but in John Carpenter’s spellbinding 1982 remake of The Thing From Another World (1951) this premise serves as the catalyst for one of the scariest, most suspenseful horror movies ever. After a helicopter full of seemingly mad Norwegians flies over base camp in pursuit of a seemingly harmless Siberian husky and crashes in the process, the inhabitants of the scientific outpost are later horrified to learn that the Norwegians weren’t mad after all and the husky isn’t so harmless when the dog mutates and attacks the other dogs at the camp. The hapless dozen soon learn that an alien life force that can alter the cell structure of those it consumes moves among them. In a clever nod to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Carpenter creates an atmosphere of claustrophobic tension as the malevolent shape-shifting alien force moves from victim to victim and paranoia amongst the men reigns supreme. Rob Bottin’s special effects in this film are downright spectacular and are used logically and to tremendous effect in enhancing this terrifying tale.
1. The Fog ~ Another Carpenter masterpiece sits atop not only my list of non-slasher favorites, but also ranks as my all-time favorite horror film (just above Halloween). The Fog is a skillful slice of old-fashioned horror in the grand tradition of the classic ghost story. As the coastal town of Antonio Bay prepares to celebrate its centennial, the ghostly inhabitants of the Elizabeth Dane, a clipper ship full of lepers that was sunk at the hands of the town’s founding fathers, rise up from their watery graves shrouded in an eerie fog to seek revenge against the townsfolk. Carpenter assembles an ensemble of genre vets that hasn’t been matched since, with then-wife Adrienne Barbeau, Halloween alumni Jamie Lee Curtis, Nancy Loomis, and Charles Cyphers, Psycho screamer (and Curtis’ real-life mom) Janet Leigh, Hal Holbrook, Tom Atkins (Night of the Creeps, Creepshow), and the venerable John Houseman (Ghost Story). There has never been a more atmospheric horror film, with menacing wisps of foggy tendrils at very turn, waterlogged ghosts sloshing and dripping with seaweed, and Carpenter’s usual moody score. Carpenter uses location to optimum effect, with Barbeau’s smoky-voiced DJ character taking up resistance against the fog at her lighthouse radio station while the rest of the ensemble find themselves taking shelter at the town’s old church. The scenes leading up to the church siege are classic stuff, with various characters trying to escape the encroaching fog as Barbeau broadcasts its street-by-street approach, while the all-out attack on the church is harrowing with shots of rotted hands crashing through backlit stained glass windows and grabbing various characters by the hair. Although Houseman’s pre-credit campfire cameo effectively sets the tone and Holbrook’s drunken Father Malone is a standout, it’s the quartet of scream queens who steal the show. From Barbeau’s emotional pleas to her trapped son across the airwaves and Curtis’ in-the-wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time hitchhiker's wide-eyed incredulity, to Leigh’s stoic portrayal as organizer of the anniversary events despite her husband’s disappearance in the fog the night before and Loomis’ understated turn as Leigh’s sardonic but faithful assistant (which only reinforces our sense of loss that this gifted actress eventually gave up acting for a successful career as a sculptor), it’s the women who give The Fog it’s emotional depth. It’s bittersweet that Carpenter has at once created what is likely the finest ghost story in cinematic history, while never again matching the artistry and storytelling he imbued in The Fog.