100 Greatest Horror Films

I took part in Slant Magazine‘s 100 Greatest Horror Films feature. Each contributor was asked to submit a list of their 100 favorite scary movies, which were then aggregated to form the overall list. Here’s what I submitted:

1. The Shining

2. Suspiria

3. I Walked With a Zombie

4. Dawn of the Dead (1978)

5. Halloween

6. A Bucket of Blood

7. Rosemary’s Baby

8. Jaws

9. Who Can Kill a Child?

10. Frankenstein (1931)

11. Blood and Black Lace

12. Vampyr

13. The Birds

14. Nosferatu (1922)

15. Let’s Scare Jessica to Death

16. Freaks

17. Deep Red

18. Don’t Look Now

19. Psycho

20. Possession (1981)

21. Kill, Baby…Kill!

22. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

23. Cat People (1942)

24. Spiderbaby

25. Zombi 2

26. Pin

27. Night of the Demon

28. Scanners

29. Nightmare City

30. Haxan

31. Alien

32. Return of the Living Dead

33. House

34. Sleepaway Camp

35. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage

36. Day of the Dead (1985)

37. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

38. The Fly (1986)

39. A Taste of Blood

40. The Devils

41. Jigoku

42. The Exorcist

43. Carrie

44. House on the Edge of the Park

45. Black Christmas

46. They Live

47. Blood Spattered Bride

48. The Night of the Hunter

49. Patrick

50. Sisters

51. Deliverance

52. Le Frisson des Vampires

53. Kuroneko

54. Black Sunday

55. Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

56. Razorback

57. Onibaba

58. Martin

59. The Thing (1982)

60. Tetsuo

61. Don’t Go in the House

62. Kwaidan

63. Repulsion

64. It’s Alive

65. Demons

66. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

67. When a Stranger Calls (1979)

68. Dead and Buried

69. Bride of Frankenstein

70. Intruder

71. Kwaidan

72. Maniac (1980)

73. Dead Ringers

74. Daughter of Dr. Jekyll

75. The Last House on the Left

76. The Evil Dead

77. Cemetery Man

78. La Vampire Nue

79. Driller Killer

80. White Zombie

81. Audition

82. Fanatic

83. Blue Sunshine

84. What’s the Matter with Helen?

85. Tenebre

86. Slumber Party Massacre

87. Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out!

88. Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things

89. Wolf Creek

90. The Devil’s Backbone

91. Near Dark

92. In the Mouth of Madness

93. Daughters of Darkness

94. M

95. Images

96. Leprechaun

97. Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master

98. Pontypool

99. Martyrs

100. Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom

Another look at “Crass consciousness”

Vulgar auteurism. So hot right now.

Presuming the majority of those who will read this blog post are already firmly aware of the hearty debate (or petty bickering, depending on who’s involved) currently transpiring in the world of online film criticism, I’ll forgo any unnecessary preamble and simply instruct those who aren’t in the know to first read this, and then read this.

Now that everyone’s up to speed, I’ll cut to the chase. Back when Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil: Retribution first hit theaters, I penned this piece for the Reader, in which I aired some grievances toward Anderson and vulgar auteurism (henceforth referred to as VA, as is the custom. . . I think) writ large. It didn’t cause much of a ripple, probably because VA had yet to pervade the zeitgeist in the way it has in the last couple weeks—or maybe I’m just a bad writer. I don’t know. I’m not a doctor.

Anyway, the piece has since resurfaced in this thoughtful blog entry posted by Outlaw Vern, in which the following excerpt from my review is quoted: “In the past few years the auteur theory has been perverted by a new school of critics, most of them bloggers, who’ve elevated to the level of high art various studio hacks whose work can hardly be ranked with the classic Hollywood directors.”

Spurred by this mention, and by the overall fervor surrounding the subject, I’ve decided to firmly clarify my position on VA, which is slightly less vehement today but nevertheless anchored in skepticism and irritation. I somewhat regret the hardline stance I took back then, because at the end of the day, I don’t feel any moral, ethical, or philosophical resistance toward VA. Besides, as Outlaw Vern piece aptly points out, VA practitioners aren’t necessarily trying to place the likes of Neveldine/Taylor or Justin Lin next to Hitchcock or Hawks—and even if they are, who gives a shit? After all, this whole film criticism game is only valuable when it’s subjective. The staid, inflexible canonization of, for example, the American Film Institute is probably more disadvantageous to cinema culture than VA’s irreverent, willy-nilly canonization.

OK, so—vulgar auteurists aren’t necessarily  saying Paul W.S. Anderson=Paul Thomas Anderson. They’re simply saying we can (and should) discuss Paul W.S. Anderson in the same way we discuss Paul Thomas Anderson—that is, with serious consideration for his personal style. And I’m fully on board with that. In fact, I like to think I did just that in my original review.

But the thing I can’t ignore—the thing that, in my opinion, ultimately reveals VA to be superfluous at worst and cute at best—is the sheer fact that this battle has already been waged and won by critics and cinephiles ten times the likes of anyone currently going to the mattresses for or against VA. Contrary to some of the comments left on my review, I know my film history. I know that the invaluable work done by the young writers at Cahiers du Cinema, the Hitchcocko-Hawksians from whom the self-described Mann-Scott-Baysians* so conceitedly aped their name, widened the parameters of film art discourse by recognizing and analyzing the profound stylistic consistencies present in supposed studio journeymen, all while maintaining a vested intellectual and passionate interest in world art cinema and the history of cinema in general, forever altering the way people think about, read about, and most importantly, watch movies.

And I believe this democratization of quality abides by a single rule: That the director’s personality be foremost in the film. Call it a policy, call it a theory—whatever you want. It’s been the guiding principal for major film criticism ever since. It’s the single notion that proved it was possible for one to approach the work, say, Abel Ferrara and Woody Allen on an equal plane. It’s why I’ve long found it possible to regard Russ Meyer and Ingmar Bergman as equals. Even before I heard the words “vulgar auteur,” I didn’t see anything wrong with enjoying Total Recall in a double feature alongside The Mirror.

I guess that’s why I’m skeptic, even a bit miffed by VA. There’s seems to me an overriding pretense that VA is something new and cutting edge, and I’m wary of such hubris. (Calum Marsh’s thing for the Village Voice, in all its bluster and overconfidence, is indicative of most VA writing I’ve come across, though I’m of the opinion that Pinkerton’s piece is the worst offender here.) Ultimately, I do believe VA can never be anything more than a flash in the pan. Their intentions, though self-serving, aren’t inherently malicious, and I welcome open and thoughtful discussion for any and all films and filmmakers, but at the end of the day, the redundancies are impossible to ignore.

Will VA stick? I don’t know, and I don’t really care. But if I had to venture a guess, I’d say the buzz will die down eventually, if only because the Internet, the wellspring of VA whose trends and customs seem to shift on a daily basis, won’t allow it to proliferate. In other words, if cinephilia is an elementary school, vulgar auteurists are the kids with the snazzy light-up sneakers, which have an fashionably oracular appearance despite performing the same basic function of shoes have performed since time immemorial.

Remembering Roger

Ebert1

In the waning summer days of September 2010, I was assigned by my college newspaper to review Mark Romanek’s sci-fi drama, Never Let Me Go. The assignment required me to attend a press screening on the 16th floor of 70 East Lake Street in downtown Chicago, a private theater where the city’s critics preview all the new releases. The prospect of running elbows with professional film critics was thoroughly exciting, so you can imagine my panic when I found myself running late for the 12:30 PM screening.

I burst into the tiny theater somewhere around 12:35 PM and was relieved to see the film had yet to start. I immediately sat down in the first open spot I saw, in the very back row in the seat closest to the door. As I set my bag down and switched off my phone, one of the press agents who organized the screening tapped my shoulder: “Excuse, you need to move—we’re saving this seat for Roger.”

My mind still reeling from my mad dash to the screening, a single thought entered my brain: “Who the fuck is Roger?” I sighed, collected my bag, and plopped myself down in the seat directly in front of me. Finally settled, I surveyed the scene and saw I was surrounded by some of the best critics in the business—Scott Tobias, Michael Phillips, and J.R. Jones, among others, were each on hand. Eventually, I thought to myself, “I wonder if Roger—”

It hit me like a sack of bricks. “Who the fuck is Roger?” Roger fucking Ebert, that’s who. Just then, the door swung open, and the man himself entered the room. A few people waved, some said “Hi, Roger.” He waved back, gave a thumbs up, and sat in the seat I had just vacated—the one in the far back row, closest to the door. His seat.

Now directly in front of him, I sunk as far into my chair as possible. I was embarrassed, for starters, but I was also going to make damn sure I didn’t impede on one iota of his vision. This was Roger Ebert, after all. The film started (we always wait for Roger) and I spent the duration fully aware that one of the most—if not the most—important people in the history of film criticism was sitting directly behind me. Somehow, I made it through.

Thankfully, that wasn’t the last time I saw a film at 70 East Lake. As such, it wasn’t the last time I saw Roger. For a while there, he was a weekly fixture in my life. Obviously, we never exchanged words, but as I became a more familiar presence in the screening room, he often made a point to nod and wave my way. Once, I even got a thumbs up—after a screening of I Am of Number 4, of all things. I felt the warmth, compassion, and good nature so many people have mentioned since his passing. He made me feel like a peer.

The surreality of the whole thing was never lost on me. Roger was larger than life. Here was a guy whose work I admired fiercely, whose pragmatic and inspiring words adorned my cork boards and countless notebooks. Here was a guy who took thoughtful film discussion and made it cool, who went on TV and talked about things that I wasn’t hearing anywhere else. And here he was, just another guy in the screening room.

In my time as a critic, I’ve been sent to press junkets, interviewed the likes of Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, and Ed Helms—the only time I’ve ever felt starstruck, when the sheer scope of what was happening seemed beyond my comprehension, was when Roger Ebert came into the screening room that afternoon in September. It’s a day I’ll never forget. I’ll miss him.

The Films of Val Lewton: Cat People

[My father] was a kind of hack, but he enjoyed the challenge that came with turning hack work into something special, to take an impossible thing and do something with it. There is a sort of pride in being a whore. He saw a certain honesty in being able to make a living.” —Val Edwin Lewton, Jr.

Despite years of marginalization and an unfortunately brief body of work, Val Lewton—born Vladimir Ivanovich Leventon in what is now Ukraine in 1094—has become key figure in America cinema. He began his artistic career as a novelist before entering filmmaking, his first credit coming in the form of “revolution sequences arranged by” in MGM’s A Tale of Two Cities. From there, he became the head of the horror unit at RKO Radio Pictures, where he amassed a truly unique body of work.

Save for two pseudonymous writing credits on Bedlam and The Body Snatcher—for which he assumed the name Carlos Keith, a moniker he often used when writing pulp novels for Vanguard Press in 1932—Lewton was credited solely as producer on each of his films. Of course, historical record and years of critical analysis prove Lewton was no mere producer; but there remains a unique relationship between Lewton, the key author of his films, and his directors, who, in any other circumstance, would be considered the key author.

Val Lewton

The first three films Lewton created for RKO were in collaboration with Jacques Tourneur, a director who belongs in the annals of cinema history but who has only recently received the sort of critical evaluation reserved for the greatest of filmmakers. Together, Lewton and Tourneur made three films: Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and the The Leopard Man (1943). Collectively, these films signify a certain way of thinking about and creating horror films. As a producer, Lewton was never concerned with making movies that relied solely on cheap and predictable B-movie gimmickry. Psychological nuances exist below the narrative of each film and reveal themselves in ways that are at once disarming. He understood that genre cinema, though seemingly conventional given its instilled guidelines, was capable of eliciting real emotion and tackling pertinent social issues.

Cat People, aside from being grade-A entertainment in lieu of its B-level status, is a watershed moment for Lewton in addition to being a key text in the Tourneur oeuvre. For Lewton, the film marks the beginning of a superlative if pithy producing career, as well as the introduction of the imperative “Lewton Bus” technique (more on that later); for Tourneur, Cat People is a sort of thematic harbinger for his later work—the hero’s aversion to European customs in Berlin Express; the gap between art and fashion in Nightfall; the actual appearance of cats in Way of a Gaucho, Stranger on Horseback, and others—in addition to being a crystalline summation of his early short films, incorporating aspects of The Face Behind the Mask, The Ship That Died, and the What Do You Think? serials.

It tells the story of American man (Kent Smith) who marries a Serbian-born fashion artist (Simone Simon). Their idyllic relationship is put to the test by Simone’s belief in an ancient curse she’s carried down from her ancestors, which causes her to turn into a evil panther whenever emotionally or physically aroused. This puts an obvious strain on their marriage, but Smith makes matters worse when he assumes Simon is simply delusional. Before long, he falls for his more conventional co-worker (Jane Randolph), sending Simon into a jealous furor.

Lewton’s films were often poorly advertised and rarely represented what the films were actually about.

Lewton possessed great savvy as a producer. Considering the restrictive nature of working in B pictures, he made any would-be limitation work for him rather than against him. When literally forced to make a film about people who turn into cats—RKO demanded he make a movie called Cat People before a script had even materialized—let a lack of funds and resources fall by the wayside and instead created mood and intrigue via clever imagery and ambiguous narrative technique. With the help of Tourneur, cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, and editor Mark Robson, Cat People became a veritable clinic in mood and tone, incorporating elements of sound design, expressionistic lighting, and elliptical editing as means to avoid actually having to show scenes of Simon turning into a panther.

The now-famous pool scene featured in is perhaps the most sterling example of how Lewton could take simple scenarios and craft moments of pure cinema from them. In the scene, Randolph takes a dip in an indoor pool. Having already begun her courtship with Smith, Randolph is unknowingly being stalked by Simon, who follows her into the pool room. Here, Randolph’s fear of Simon and her supposed curse manifests itself in the film’s mis-en-scene. The waves from the pool bounce and radiate off the walls of the room, yet Musacara’s evocative and highly contrasted cinematography is never compromised. Additionally, the sequence features an intricate sound design that places the viewer deep within the scene. Each noise leads to second-guessing: what first sounded like a guttural growl is revealed to be a car in need of an oil change; the splashing of the water could just as easily be muffled footsteps.

The other key scene in Cat People is, of course, the “Lewton Bus” sequence. As Randolph makes her way home, here (justified) paranoia is again manifested in the intricate sound design and editing. What sounds like the low growl of an approaching predator is revealed to be the sound of an approaching bus, but the real kicker is the blending of a panther’s growl and the vehicle’s breaks. The primacy of sound in Lewton, even in his manipulation of it, renders it inseparable from his images, an inherently expressionistic stratagem he’d only perfect with subsequent films.

The atmosphere of the scene is a heightened version of what permeates each of the Lewton/Tourneur films. In other instances, the films are deeply psychological and play more like horrors of the mind. In Cat People, the character of Irena is deeply rooted in her past. As a result, many of the characters in the film are intimidated by her exoticness. These themes of cultural fear and distrust are expounded upon in I Walked with a Zombie, which flips the premise of Cat People and sees the milquetoast Betsy at odds with mysterious and bizarre surroundings. Additionally, the concurrent boundaries between rationality and skepticism seem to mar the characters and their ability to interpret the situations presented in the narrative. These boundaries are specific to each film, such as the space between human and animal (Cat People, The Leopard Man) and the living and the dead (I Walked with a Zombie), but each speak to Lewton’s preoccupation with the unknowable.

Grappling with The Master

The general consensus of the initial reactions to Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film The Master could adequately be summed up as, “I need to see it again.” Indeed, this story of an unhinged WWII vet named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Pheonix) who falls in with a cult and has his existence challenged by its enigmatic and charismatic leader (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is fiercely cryptic in theme and narrative. Between the allusions to L. Ron Hubbard and the birth of Scientology, the references to the shifting cultural conscience of America post-WWII, and the equivocal nature of the characterization, The Master doesn’t make for lite watching—it does, however, make for easy watching, which isn’t exactly the same thing.

By easy, I mean “easy on the eyes.” Ever the stern formalist, Anderson has officially joined the likes of Andrei Tarkovsky and Hou Hsaio-hsien as a master of the long take. Many of the best sequences in the film play out in a single camera track, which were made all the more stunning thanks to the film’s screening in the epic 70-millimeter format. (I share my thoughts on that over on the Bleader; while you’re there, make sure to read J.R. Jones’ nuanced observations of the film, in which he surmises that he, too, will need a second viewing). The crispness of the image and the tangibility of its contents were nothing short of remarkable. With any luck, the film may be the final word in the whole digital vs. celluloid debate—whoever runs the North West Chicago Film Society Twitter account said it best: “The characters construct a reality; the hyperreality of 70mm & the enormity of the big screen let us see through it. DCP? Hm!”

So if the narrative is impregnable, consider the visuals transformative. But in getting back to the narrative, Anderson has said the film is simply a story of a WWII soldier who falls in with a cult after the war—and I agree. Allusions to Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard are certainly present, but The Master is less concerned with the construction of a religion (or cult or following or whatever) and more concerned with the susceptibility of the human mind when faced with mass trauma. This theme ties The Master closer to 2002′s Punch-Drunk Love more so than Anderson’s previous film, There Will Be Blood (2007), with which it shares only superficial similarities—both films are period pieces about larger than life figures framed in a historical context that they ultimately transcend, but there’s a deeper current of human behavior present in The Master. If Punch-Drunk Love reads like an examination of the Agitated Modern Man, then The Master depicts the birth of the Agitated Modern Man.

The sexual panic that plagues Punch-Drunk Love‘s Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) is comparable to the sexual aberrations that plague Freddie, particularly in the way both afflictions inform virtually every aspect of their behavior. Anderson often harvests this maniacal and erratic behavior for humor: laughter filled the Music Box throughout the film, even during scenes that arguably weren’t designed to be comical. Like Punch-Drunk Love, whichis structured as a romantic comedy, this humor stems from a place of deep anguish. In spurts, both films occasionally resemble a sort of demented Jerry Lewis film, the psychological underpinnings rendering the humor uncomfortable and even a little disturbing. (There’s also the interesting parallel of Hoffman, who acts as Barry’s reckoning and Freddie’s, well, master.)

Furthermore, a desire for belonging and familial structure can be found in each of Anderson’s films, dating all the way back to his 1996 debut Sydney (aka Hard Eight), a riff on Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le flembeur. The surrogate family of Boogie Nights (1997) appears most analogous to Dodd’s motley crew of wayward souls. Boogie Nights is yet another humanist examination an impressionable soul (Mark Wahlberg) whose behavior is governed by sex.

Placing the film within Anderson’s oeuvre at large is simple—placing it in a larger context, not so much. He’s always shown a penchant for sprawling stories, filled with diametric characters that exhibit inscrutable behavior. An Anderson narrative has come to be defined by the confusion and conjecture they inspire. This doesn’t speak to a lack of authorial control—no filmmaker as meticulous as Anderson would let anything fall by the wayside—but it is indicative of an author intent on requiring, well, a need to “see it again.” Like a good novel, The Master is likely to only grow richer with repeat visits.

“Henceforth, there is cinema…”

And the cinema is Nicholas Ray—at least according to Jean-Luc Godard, who bestowed this honor upon Ray in his review of the 1957 masterpiece Bitter Victory. Today is Ray’s 101st birthday—although the Lacrosse, Wisconsin native is essentially ageless: As the director of such films as They Live By Night, Knock on any Door, and, of course, Rebel Without a Cause, he’ll always be remembered as a harbinger of youth culture, a defender of the wayward souls lost in a world that refused to understand them. His sensitive yet bracingly honest depictions of contemporary America went grossly underrated for the bulk of his career, but today we recognize Nicholas Ray as one of the cinema’s greats who told classic stories of the misunderstood.

But as masterful a storyteller as he was, Ray wasn’t married to his scripts. In fact, like most classic Hollywood directors who were worth a damn, he frequently revamped and reconstructed the screenplays he was assigned to direct. His greatest film, 1952′s The Lusty Men, was virtually made on the fly; Rebel Without a Cause was similarly produced, as he said in 1970, “[It] was being written all through the shooting… I didn’t even follow my own camera placements.” Ray would go on to say in the same interview that “the relationship between improvisation and the script usually begins with the director’s dissatisfaction with the way the scene is coming alive.”

Indeed, Ray’s films have a distinct air of discovery in them, as if what’s unfolding on screen is the result of a director who’s unsure of what will happen next. You get the sense that he’s feeling out the scenarios much in the same way the audience is, with each scene exacting some sort of nuance or sense of subtext in a way that feels organic and realistic. Sometimes he simply observed the action; other times, he gripped it by the throat, as in the climactic scenes of films like Johnny Guitar and Bigger than Life. A Ray narrative is unpredictable, but it has distinct respect for the viewer, both for its intelligence and its desire for emotion, resulting in a sort of harmony wholly unique to his artistry. Watch as he details this approach quite plainly during scene in 1950′s In a Lonely Place, a movie I, like so many others, am rather obsessed with:

A black cat and a blue beard

Edgar G. Ulmer, one of Hollywood’s most eccentric and evocative film stylists, is mostly known for directing two films: the poverty row noir Detour (1945) and the Boris Karloff-Bela Lugosi Universal horror The Black Cat, which screened twice at the Gene Siskel Film Center screening in a brand new print. The inky black-and-white photography of The Black Cat looks better than ever, but if you ask me, it’s not the Ulmer film that’s most deserving of such a thorough restoration.

Bluebeard

His 1944 horror-noir hybrid Bluebeard, which stars John Carradine as a murderous artist who paints portraits of women and subsequently strangles them once he’s finished, is readily available on DVD but in forms that range from egregiously bastardized to merely passable. The best of these can be found in a disc from All-Day Entertainment. Digitally transferred from an archival 35mm print courtesy of the Cinematheque Francaise,this version is, in fact, the complete film—bootleg versions courtesy of Roan Group Archival Entertainment and other such outlets are spliced to hell—but the sound isn’t quite right and the transfer is poor, giving the film a darker look than Ulmer intended

I realize that might seem like a nitpicky critique given Ulmer’s highly expressionistic style. Bluebeard does indeed benefit for a healthy dose of shadows, but it’s the elements of the frame that Ulmer baths in light that suffer the most from this lack of contrast. In particular, the film’s masterfully composed flashback sequence, which Dave Kehr suggests might be “the last full flowering of hard-core expressionism,” appears to suffer from a lack of grain and is certainly devoid of the sort of texture I’ve seen in actual 35 mm prints of Ulmer’s work.

In addition to Bluebeard, the Cinematheque Francaise possesses a number of Ulmer’s 1940s PRC quickies in addition to some of his Yiddish-language films, including The Singing Blacksmith. I’d love to see a retrospective of his work, with each print given the same attention as The Black Cat.