The best (in my opinionated view) 100 films of all time - in no particular order.

Monday, 6 July 2015


Back in the early eighties I watched this film with my wife and my friend Mark David and his wife and it terrified the four of us. We decided to get drunk after the film finished, but eventually ran out of booze. Mark told me that he had a bottle of whisky at his house and he would go and get it and I decided to accompany him just in case he got scared on the way there. Mark and his wife had taken on two rescue dogs that were particularly destructive and on the way to his house I asked him how they were getting on. “Bloody things,” he said in his lilting Welsh accent, “They’ve chewed up just about everything in the house. The only thing they haven’t had a go at is the three-piece-suite.” When we got to his house he discovered that the two dogs had somehow managed to open the kitchen door and were halfway through dismantling the three-piece-suite in the lounge. Mark looked at the two dogs with a mixture disbelief and hatred before he walked into the kitchen, picked up the bottle of whisky and unscrewed the cap. “Bollocks,” he said, before downing a huge gulp of the amber liquid. The prospect of telling his wife what the dogs had done was seemingly more frightening than the film he had just watched.

So, just what is it that constitutes a good horror film? Is it buckets of blood and gore? Is it jump scares? Is it special effects? Or is it something else?

I’m a fan of zombie films myself. When World War Z came out in 2013 I was living and working in Saudi Arabia. My wife had gone back to the UK for a month and I was out there with my fourteen year old son, William. We decided to have a zombie frenzy, a whole month of zombie films, starting with Charlie Brooker’s brilliant five part series Dead Set (2008) and culminating with a visit to the cinema in Bahrain to see World War Z. In between we watched George Romero’s classic zombie trilogy – Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985); we watched Simon Pegg’s marvellous Shaun of the Dead (2004), and the hilarious Cockneys vs Zombies (2012) and Zombieland (2009). We watched Zack Snyder’s excellent remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004) and Danny Boyle’s quasi zombie film 28 Days Later (2002) as well as its sequel 28 Weeks Later (2007). We watched the gruesomely amusing The Revenant (2009) and the utterly terrifying Spanish horror REC (2007); and to top it all we ploughed our way through just about all of AMCs awesome series The Walking Dead (2011 - ). When it came round to seeing World War Z we both had high expectations and on the whole we weren’t disappointed. As an action movie it was second-to-none, delivering one breath-taking set piece after another but as we walked out of the cinema William said to me, “That was a really good film, Dad, but it wasn’t a proper zombie film because it wasn’t gory enough.” I agreed with him, but was it because we were both desensitised to the sight of zombies hungrily feasting on the internal organs of their human victims or was it because that’s what everyone expects to see in a zombie film?

The thing is, zombie films are not really about the zombies – they’re about the survivors and how they cope in a world gone horribly wrong. If you substitute the zombies for a plague or a virus as in Breck Eisner’s exhilarating remake of George Romero’s The Crazies (2010) or Steven Soderbergh’s terrifyingly plausible Contagion (2011) you have basically the same thing. What scares us is not the blood and gore but the idea of a world without hope.

The Haunting, one of my favourite horror films, has no zombies in it whatsoever. Furthermore, it is about something that I don’t believe in at all – ghosts. And even more than that, it is now over fifty years old. In 1963 in between making West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965) the renowned director Robert Wise gave the world one of the most effective horror stories ever committed to celluloid.

Robert Wise started his career as an editor on low budget films in the late thirties, but he came to prominence after his superb editing on Orson Welles’s seminal film Citizen Kane (1941). He was also the editor for Welles’s second feature, the brilliant The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), where at the studios insistence he reluctantly directed a new (happy) ending for the film while Welles was out of the country filming Journey Into Fear (1943). He directed ten largely forgotten films and two classic Val Lewton produced horrors, The Curse of the Cat People (1944) and The Body Snatcher (1945) until his big break came with the release of The Day the Earth Stood Still in 1951. The Day the Earth Stood Still is an important film in that it was a science-fiction film that didn’t treat its audience like idiots – it was a serious film about our place in the universe and was also responsible for turning millions of people onto science-fiction.

He was the director who gave budding author Michael Crichton worldwide exposure with his adaptation of his first book, the microbiological threat novel, The Andromeda Strain in 1971 and he directed the first Star Trek movie in 1979. But it’s his 1963 film The Haunting that is his true masterpiece.

Made deliberately in black-and-white with no monsters or ghosts in plain sight, hardly any special effects and no blood or gore, The Haunting is a cunningly deceptive horror film. Adapted from Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House, the film starts with a short prologue that details the history of Hill House before moving forward ninety years to a scientist (Richard Johnson) and three others (Claire Bloom, Julie Harris and Russ Tamblyn) who are carrying out paranormal research on the house. It’s at this point that things start to get scary. What it does is lull the audience into a false sense of security. It creates a sense of unease which slowly builds into a series of terrifying encounters – and it does this without revealing a single apparition. Along with the superb, deep, shadowy black-and-white photography, most of the terror is created by the sound department. Loud, relentless pounding, old men babbling and children crying all add to the mounting terror that encompasses you as you watch this unnerving film and I defy anyone to watch it on their own with the lights out and not be frozen in fear. The hand holding sequence is particularly frightening.

What makes The Haunting so scary is the fact that you never see anything. Its less-is-more technique is highly effective. Jack Clayton had done much the same thing in his 1961 adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, the creepy psychological horror The Innocents, and Alejandro AmenĂ¡bar used the same process in The Others (2001). James Wan used it for the most part in Insidious (2010), regarded by many as the scariest film of the last ten years. Directors of modern horror films are now tuning in to the fact that they don’t need buckets of blood and gore and expensive special effects to make something truly frightening. All that’s required is a little suggestion and the imagination of the audience. 

And to prove that point all you have to do is look at the remake of The Haunting that was directed by Jan De Bont in 1999 – an overdone and overblown mess of a movie with stilted, unrealistic dialogue and heaps of special effects that show you what you’re supposed to be frightened of. Any subtlety that the original had was replaced with CGI creatures that make it less scary. De Bont seemed to have no subtlety of any kind and no concept of the unknown. It’s a perfect example of a director not understanding the mechanics of what makes something scary.

Way back in 1963 Robert Wise knew how to frighten his audience out of its wits – he understood perfectly well that it’s not what you see that frightens you. It’s what you don’t see.

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