I saw Poltergeist when it first came out in one of the big Leicester Square cinemas. The place was packed, and from the very beginning the audience was laughing at the comic portrayal of suburban American life. As soon as the paranormal stuff began – chairs moving across the floor, etc – we were gasping and cheering. By the time the real horror got going we were screaming, laughing, cheering, the lot. I will never forget the moment – my favourite scene in any horror film ever made – when the mother falls into the muddy swimming pool and is ‘joined’ by a rotting corpse. Every single person in the house leapt to their feet. I’ve never experienced anything like it in a cinema since. Despite some glaring plot problems, which I don’t really care about, Poltergeist has everything that I want in a horror movie and more. Small town: check. Oppressive sense of normality: check. Humour: check, in spades. Supernatural bollocks: check. Sexually attractive cast member: oh yes, Daddy Craig T Nelson. But then there’s the exorcist Tangina, the sinister girl-child Carol-Ann, a scary clown doll, the fantastic device of the haunted room with toys whirling around in it… Everything about Poltergeist is turned up to ten, and if it sacrifices narrative integrity for bludgeoning effect, who gives a shit? The music is fantastic, there are lines that you can use in almost any social situation (‘They’re here!’, ‘This house is clean’ etc) and the special effects are wonderfully analogue. Poltergeist is not only my favourite horror film, it’s one of my top three favourite films in any genre, and I sometimes think that if I could only have one DVD on my desert island, it would be this.
The first horror film I ever saw, and still one of my absolute favourites. The Birds is such a work of art – all those Hitchcock devices like silence, skewed point-of-view etc really come together to turn a rather silly story into something absolutely mind-blowing. There are two things that make this movie stand out for me: one of them is the very shallow fact that I think Rod Taylor is one of the sexiest men ever to step in front of a camera. The other is a little more serious: The Birds is one of those films that changes for ever the way you look at the world. I know that birds will never gang up on humans, but you still come away from this movie with the tantalising idea that the natural world is inherently hostile to humans. I love thinking about that as I trip merrily along a country lane, or feed the dicky birds in my back garden. Watching The Birds recently on DVD I was struck again by how exciting it is: there’s no long, tedious build-up, the funny business starts almost immediately after the wonderful flirtation scene in the pet shop, and once the horror begins it has the momentum of a runaway truck. The casting is perfect, the set pieces (‘Run, children, run!) unforgettable, and the final half hour defies description. In fact, I love The Birds so much that, having written this, I’ve just moved it several places up the list.
In compiling this list I thought long and hard about my ultimate vampire film. I love vampires, at one time I was quite obsessed with the concept, and yet nearly all the movies in the genre leave me dissatisfied. The silent classics like Murnau’s Nosferatu are overly arty (and don’t get me started on the Herzog remake, which is one of the worst films ever made). The 1931 Bela Lugosi version doesn’t float my boat at all, although I tried really hard to like it. Hammer obviously did some great work in the field, and I have a guilty love of the Twilight movies – but thus far, the only vampire film that I can watch over and over again is Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 production, pompously titled Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It sticks to the novel more than most, that’s for sure – and I love the book unreservedly. It manages to get some of the sex-blood-death stuff that Stoker evoked so well. But the real reason I love this film is because it’s so massively overblown, self-important and melodramatic. The opening scene has blood gushing out of crucifixes. Anthony Hopkins is more than usually dreadful as Van Helsing – parts of his performance make me laugh so much I start crying. Keanu Reeves is famously miscast and wooden as Jonathan Harker, with his ever-changing hair colour. The women fare better: Winona Ryder is uptight and sexy as Mina, and Sadie Frost steals the show as Lucy. Gary Oldman tackles the polymorphous Count with all the gusto of a Victorian actor-manager, hamming up the accent and the gestures for all he’s worth. For all that it’s genuinely exciting and moving, and it’s wonderful to look at. Bram Stoker’s Dracula ranks very high in the quotability stakes as well: for days after watching it, we go round the house saying ‘See me now!’, ‘Lucy harboured secret desires for you’, ‘Take me away from all this death…’ and ‘Are you going to cut off my head and drive a stake through my heart, you bastard?’.
I always think of Species as the horror genre’s equivalent of Showgirls. The central character is a sexually voracious blonde who rampages her way through urban America using (and in her case killing) a lot of men. Taste and probability never stand in the way of a thundering good plot, and there are some really good set pieces, including the obligatory sex-in-a-swimming-pool scene. I really like the basic idea of Sil, the gorgeous alien chick, being the result of a laboratory experiment gone wrong, and I envy her ability to seduce every single man she meets, even if one of those men is the unappetising Alfred Molina. She can leap tall buildings with a single bound, and when she gets horny (which she does, frequently) she can kill with a clench of her honeyed thighs. There are many reasons why I should hate the film, not least because it gives work to my least favourite actor of all time, Forest Whitaker, who mumbles sensitively in a little wool hat. Sadly he doesn’t get brutally murdered, but Ben Kingsley does, which is some consolation.
American high school setting: check. Hot cast members: check (especially Shawn Hatosy as the troubled jock). Uptight women turning into ravening sex beasts: check. Possession by squiggly aliens: triple check. The Faculty is right up near the top of this list because it takes hold of a well-established genre and not only does it properly, but somehow manages to make it seem fresh and original. One of the things I like about this movie is that it wastes absolutely no time: the possessions start right at the beginning and the tension keeps getting ramped up until the very end. The teachers are fantastically sinister, and you can basically relive all your teenage fantasies about how ‘they’ are out to get you, because in this case they are. There’s a great innoculation scene in which the students get infected with alien parasites, and a very clever mixing of realistic high school bullying-and-bitching with far-fetched outer-space hokum. The group of misfit teens (including Frodo) who tackle the monster are very appealing, and half the fun lies in guessing which of them is really the baddie. The denouement is fittingly set in the school gymnasium, scene of many a childhood trauma, and it leaves absolutely nothing to be desired.
During the 80s I went to just about any horror movie that opened in the West End, even those which ran for a single week on a tiny screen. As the decade progressed, more and more of these films went straight to video – and when I was reviewing videos in newspapers and magazines I discovered some real corkers. But I always missed the theatrical experience, especially with films like Re-Animator. It’s loosely based on a story by HP Lovecraft, but any whiff of literary credibility is completely spurious. Re-Animator is an all- orgy of shock and gore, as demented young scientist Herbert West sets about bringing the dead back to life. It starts off with a cat – one of my favourite ever ‘pets in horror’ scenes. If I had time and a private income, I’d write a thesis on this neglected area of the genre, because if a film hasn’t got an animal sensing evil, or a pet going demonic, I’m really not that interested. The effects in Re-Animator are outrageous, there’s a ton of slime, some great ham acting and a script full of hilarious lines. There’s a fine decapitation, and one of the most distasteful sex scenes I’ve ever seen outside a John Waters movie. The follow-up by the same team, From Beyond, is also really great, but Re-Animator strikes the perfect balance between intelligence, humour and total over-the-top horror. Once seen, never forgotten.
First of all, let me say something about another film: The Exorcist. It’s not on this list, in case you were wondering, because after repeated viewings I still think it’s awful. The narrative is a shambles, the possession quickly becomes dull and I find Fr Damian’s macho struggle tedious in the extreme. The Omen, which is usually overlooked in The Exorcist’s favour, is a very different matter. The central premise is solid, the gradual development of the horror is handled with subtlety and pace, escalating through one set-piece to another, and the sense of evil destroying a family is very satisfying. The parents (Lee Remick and Gregory Peck) are superb, Patrick Troughton and Billie Whitelaw steal every scene they’re in, and the child himself is really scary. I love the fact that some of it’s set in Guildford Cathedral, because I passed it every day on my way to school. I’m particularly fond of the children’s party scene, ruined when the nanny flings herself out of a window (‘It’s all for you, Damian!’). Heads roll, torsos are skewered, and Billie Whitelaw does a lot of biting. I find The Omen much more disturbing now that I’m a father; the climactic scene of Gregory Peck dragging his screaming son on to the altar is now one of the most horrific things I can imagine.