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05 June, 2010

Uni's Top Tens: SLASHERS & PSYCHOS

One of the regular features of the Crypt, on the left side of your screen, is the Top 10 list, my personal best and brightest of the various genres and sub-genres of Horror, Exploitation, and Science-Fiction Films that we all love and enjoy. Occasionally I’m taken to task concerning my choices for these lists, or asked to explain why one film was chosen over another, more deserving (in the mind of the questioner) movie. My reply is invariably “my list, my rules.” It does occur to me, though, that perhaps I should expand slightly on just why I choose the films I do.

Unless I’m following some specific criteria, such as “most historically significant,” “most bloody,” or “most T&A in a non-X-Rated Feature,” my standards for selecting the movies for these lists are simple—they’re the films in that category that I enjoy the most. No secret formula, no voting… they are the movies that I love, and to which I keep returning.

A prime example would be the Top Ten category “Giant Bugs / Mutant Bugs.” The 1957 Universal film THE DEADLY MANTIS is by far my top pick, beating TARANTULA, THE BLACK SCORPION, and in fourth place, the 1954 classic THEM. Most objective comparisons of …MANTIS and THEM would agree that the latter is by far a superior film—better writing, better direction, better acting, better effects—better in nearly every category. Even I would concede those points. The one thing it doesn’t do better, however, is entertain me. As much as I love THEM, THE DEADLY MANTIS is simply more fun to watch. As is TARANTULA and THE BLACK SCORPION, for that matter. And that’s what truly matters.

One category that generates more than a few comments is “Slashers & Psychopaths,” those films featuring the bad boys and girls of Horror. The Slasher film is one of the strongest genres of Horror, and has been since the mid-1970s. Vampires and werewolves wax and wane like the lunar cycle; ghosts appear and disappear; alien invaders are here one minute and gone the next. But the Slasher has been with us continually since 1978. While their popularity may fluctuate, they’ve not gone away. It stands to reason that the more popular a genre is, the more variety of opinion there is to be found regarding that genre. Let’s face it, if you’re in a group whose Horror movie passion is giant carnivorous rabbits, the chances are that your pick for greatest movie ever is a unanimous one. But if the topic switches to “greatest Slasher Ever,” you’ll be lucky to find two out of ten who would agree.

So here’s a countdown, from #10 to #1, of my list of Top Ten Slashers & Psychos—no apologies for what made the list and what didn’t, or which film is number one and which is number ten. Just a brief explanation of why I love each.

FRIDAY THE 13TH, Pt. II—(1981): Not the franchise’s first outing, but the one that transformed it from just another Slasher movie to a Horror Film legend. The addition of Jason Voorhees, the drowned son of the psychotic killer from the first film, electrified the series and propelled it to a string of sequels that would last twenty years.

SE7EN —aka— SEVEN—(1995): David Fincher’s stylish, shocking homage to 1940’s-era film noir is notable for several reasons, especially the stellar performances from Morgan Freeman, as the scarred old veteran detective, just wanting to put in his time until retirement; Brad Pitt, as his eager rookie partner; and Kevin Spacey, as the psychopathic object of their hunt. The ending sells the film, and takes it to a higher level than most of this type.

THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS—(1991): This film, directed by Jonathan Demme and starring Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster, accomplished what few Horror Films have, before or since—it won the Academy Award for Best Picture. It also captured four other Oscars®—Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director for Demme, Best Actor for Hopkins, and Best Actress for Foster. Not only was the film a critical success, but it was enormously successful at the box-office as well, creating one of the genre’s few bright spots in the Dark Ages of the early 1990’s.

THE HITCHER—(1986): Rutger Hauer may not be the first name that leaps to mind when one tries to think of good actors, but his performance as the mysterious John Ryder, the hitchhiking serial killer who plunges Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) into a nightmare road trip from Hell, is the best of his career. The film is a continuous duel between Ryder and Halsey, and everyone else is simply a distraction that Ryder must eliminate. The tension between the two is palpable, and drags the viewer along for the ride.

TARGETS —aka— BEFORE I DIE—(1968): Based in part on the Charles Whitman case in Austin, Texas, Peter Bogdanovich’s tale of a sniper terrorizing a Drive-In theater in Los Angeles succeeds beautifully, despite having had every chance of failing. Mandated to use existing footage from Roger Corman’s 1963 film THE TERROR, Bogdanovich creatively wove it into a story of a fading icon of Horror films, ready to retire, with one last personal appearance to make. His path to the appearance intersects with the sniper, and each confronts their image of fear. While the script and direction are excellent, it’s the exemplary performance of Boris Karloff as Byron Orlok, the soon-to-be-retired star, which transforms this film into something extraordinary.

FROM HELL—(2001): The Hughes Brothers take on the Jack the Ripper case, based on the Graphic Novel of the same title, is a surreal, visually stunning film, one that suffers only slightly from a less than stringent sense of focus. Johnny Depp turns in a tremendous performance as Inspector Abberline of Scotland Yard, assigned the task of running the Ripper to ground. Though one gets the impression that the filmmakers’ studied at the Oliver Stone School of Conspiracy Theory, or ‘if one explanation is good then ten must be fantastic’, the story’s never slow or boring. While historical accuracy is, sadly, little more than an afterthought to the filmmakers, it’s still easily one of the best “Ripper” films in recent memory.

SHADOW OF A DOUBT—(1943): This taut psychological Horror is one of Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s finest efforts, and in my not-so-humble opinion his finest, with the possible exception of REAR WINDOW (1954). Joseph Cotton is superb as the cold, calculating Uncle Charlie, and Teresa Wright is equally good as his niece and namesake, and the only person who can penetrate his veneer of civility to see the predator within. Hitchcock, here at the mid-point of his career, is the confirmed master of suspense, and the story of young Charlie, being stalked by the uncle that she loves, is the director at his most masterful.

M —aka— M – EINE STADT SUCHT EINEN MÖRDER—(1932): This German film, Fritz Lang’s first sound feature, is the progenitor of every psychological thriller since. The story of a pedophilic child murderer, played convincingly by Peter Lorre, hunted by both the police and the underworld, is one of Lang’s best films, and my personal favorite of his.

PSYCHO—(1960): Ask 100 people to name an Alfred Hitchcock film, and 90 will say “PSYCHO.” This film is universally recognized as the director’s greatest masterpiece, the film that defines his career. What begins as a typically suspenseful Hitchcock crime melodrama is shockingly, jarringly transformed into something else—something so much more. Featuring the most famous sequence of jump cuts in cinema history, PSYCHO revolutionized Horror.

HALLOWEEN—(1978): Before Jason, before Freddy, before the ‘80’s spawned a new Slasher film every other week, there was Haddonfield, Illinois—and the night Michael Myers came home. It’s impossible to overstate the impact this film had on the genre, from the birth of the Slasher craze, to the debut of one of Horror’s greatest directors, to the introduction of the decade’s top Scream Queen, to the film’s evocative and iconic score. Though the franchise would rapidly descend into mediocrity without John Carpenter at the helm, this initial film in that franchise remains the finest, best example of the art of the Slasher film.















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