In honour of Halloween, and the excellent BBC4 series A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss, I wanted to give a run-down of my favourite horror films. Every inch a child of eighties, Gatiss can keep his RKO and Hammer Horror I like my horror films full of American girls in peril, tormented by masked killers!
I can’t tell you why I love this genre so much or why the current slew of remakes depress me so much (aren’t there any original ideas?). Feminist film theorist Mary J Clover examined the allure of horror films, but more on that next time. For now, with just enough time to order them in before Sunday, here are my top ten favourite Stalk and Slash movies.
10. Black Christmas (2006)
Okay, so I said the remakes depress me, but in this one instance, I preferred the 2006 remake to the 1974 original. Why? Two words skin cookies (pictured). The original is often referred to as the slasher film that started them all, released the same year as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and four years prior to Halloween. Certainly the modern, suburban, middle-class setting and silhouetted killer set the mould for the genre. Neither the original or remake truly scared me however, hence the lower ranking.
9. Urban Legend (1998)
Everyone loves a good ghost story I grew up on modern folk tales. Dogs dripping in the shower, killers licking your hand under then bed, mental patients on the back seat of the car. Urban Legend celebrated such stories with a great ensemble cast: Jared Leto, Joshua Jackson, Tara Reid and Rebecca Gayheart from that sex tape. Not the best example of the genre, but this one came along at the height of my teen horror passion so will always have a place in my heart!
8. Halloween H2O (1998)
Sequels killed the horror genre…blah, blah, blah. Not always so. The 20th anniversary follow up to Halloween was perfect, arriving in the middle of the post-Scream revival. Jamie Lee Curtis is sensational as the adult Laurie Strode a woman on the edge of a breakdown; drinking and pill-popping. My favourite scene is the one in which the alcoholic headmistress downs two glasses of wine at lunchtime. As a teacher, I hear that, sister. Some excellent set pieces (the dumb waiter scene and Miiiiichaaaael!) and great support from Josh Hartnett and Michelle Williams make this a fave.
7. Friday the 13th (1980)
So low in the chart? Yes. The secluded Camp Crystal Lake setting is great, the chee-chee-chee-ha-ha-ha is great, but I never warmed to this franchise as much as the others. The disposable teens (including little Kevin Bacon) are a bawdy, over-sexual bunch and I never took to Alice, the Final Girl. Furthermore if sequels have killed a franchise, it was this one 10 sequels and a remake (which is potentially the worst remake of a bad bunch). If it weren’t for the surprise twist killer and the excellent final shot, I probably wouldn’t include the film at all. Oh, but what a last shot!
6. I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)
After clever Scream, I felt there was something delightfully uncomplicated about this teen offering. For one thing, the cast is a who’s who of people who were famous in the nineties if a film didn’t have Sarah Michelle Gellar or Ryan Phillippe in it, I wasn’t interested. While not exactly brimming with psychological horror, IKWYDLS (catchy) is expert at making the audience stand up and scream behind you!, run Buffy, RUN! or Love-Hewitt, put them away!.
5. Carrie (1976)
Not technically a Stalk n Slash, but there are lots of dead teenagers by the end, so there. If any other horror film builds tension and sickening dread like Carrie, I’m yet to see it. Yes, you have to wait for the pay-off, but by then, you want it. It’s also the most cerebral choice on the list. To this day I’m never sure whether to sympathise with Carrie or be scared of her. The moral ambiguity hangs over her choice to kill them all, did the guidance counsellor deserve it? Discuss. Also notable for the last scare…you know the one, and the fact it taught me what menstruation was.
4. Final Destination (2000)
You know when, as a writer, you think I wish I’d thought of that? This was my wish moment. So neat and original, coming along at a time when I thought there was nothing new to be done in teen horror. The MR James-like notion that you can’t escape your destiny, no matter how hard you try is disturbing alone, mix that with darkly humorous and elaborate death sequences and you’re onto a winner. The Mouse Trap death sequences notably the death of the French teacher are marvellous. Great young cast (whatever became of Devon Sawa after Stan?) and a very unexpected bus.
3. Scream (1996)
After the awful Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, the great man must have been hit with a lightning bolt of post-modern genius as he went back to the drawing board with Dawson’s Creek writer Kevin Williamson to reinvent teen horror for a second wave. Everything about Scream felt fresh, new and very modern while continually nodding at a much loved, but then deceased genre. It’s genuinely scary, the Drew Barrymore sequence might be one of my favourite set pieces of the genre. More than that, the razor sharp, witty script blessed the characters with more warmth and personality than they’d ever had before. In fact, perhaps Scream was the first horror film in which the Final Girl (perfect Neve Campbell) is more developed than the man in the mask (although even the killer is given depth and heart). The franchise sadly vanished up it’s own bottom by Scream 3, but next year’s Scream 4 could be the start of teen horror wave 3.
2. Halloween (1978)
There’s not much left to say about John Carpenter’s masterpiece, it’s all been said. For many, this is the perfect horror film: classy, scary, well-acted, shocking. It’s all true. I watched this a couple of nights ago with someone who hadn’t seen it before and he spent most of the film cowering behind a cushion I’d seen it so many times I’d forgotten how scary it actually is. Jamie Lee Curtis is the archetype of the Final Girl; clever, dry, honest, wholesome and Donald Pleasence is suitably intense. My favourite, however, is totally PJ Soles as Linda. Seriously, take a shot every time she says totally, you’ll be mullered by the time she’s throttled. Scariest scene? The one in which the desperate Laurie frantically hammers on the neighbour’s door. They look out of the window, but don’t come out to help her. How true of suburbia. Terrifying.
1. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
I’m sure a lot of you are disagreeing right now, but tough. For me, no other film on this list got under my skin and into my head like this one. A concept so perfect that even the 2010 remake couldn’t completely screw it up. The pitch: A murdered child molester comes back for revenge via your nightmares. Everyone has to sleep. Everyone has to dream. There’s no escape, and worse, in your dreams, anything can happen and you have no control. Maybe that’s the difference; in any other film you can scream at the girl to get out the front door, but not in Freddy’s world getting out the front door may well find you in the killer’s boiler room. The first film, in which Krueger is mercifully quiet, is terrifying, the dream sequences are trippy and unsettling (hello, the goat?). It’s worth remembering that Freddy is a mystery for most of the film too, and the kids are as oblivious as we are he’s just a man they see in their dreams. Unlike most teen horrors, Nancy’s parents are both present and vital to the plot, and I particularly love Ronee Blakely as the boozy, middle-class desperate housewife. Such a shame about the sequels that took a thing of nightmares and turned him into a thing of sitcom, and there’s nothing a remake can do about that. Freddy Krueger is little more than a joke now, but don’t let that cloud your judgement of the original, and for me, best teen horror film ever.