I’ve always liked Halloween.
When I was a child, it wasn’t anywhere near as popular as it was these days. We’d get together, our gang, and tell scary stories on the steps of each others houses and frighten each other with stories of Chalkie White, missing children and persistent, peripatetic spectres in council houses. We’d hollow out turnips (yes, hello ‘austerity Britain 2010’ with pumpkins for 50p) and stay up far too late.
But still, it resonates. I’ve been through every horror phase: comics, books and movies. Each has built a fascination and fear of the supernatural that although seems somewhat diminished at my age, it still informs a lot of what I enjoy.
So I got to thinking: what were my top five scary films?
After lots of discussion, both on and offline, here they are in no particular order. What are yours?
The first 18 film I ever saw in the Odeon Cinema in Leeds has left a lasting impression. John Carpenter’s genre defining movie has it all: a relentless, demonic killer with supernatural overtones, middle America that looked like the promised land, plenty of gratuitous boob shots of babysitters and stacks and stacks of tension and shock value. The soundtrack was home-made and brilliant – of its time and at the same time, timeless.
It’s lo-fi horror with the bad guy wearing a cheap mask and a boiler suit who hunts down the local suburban kids in what would become a staple scenario for years to come.
It still sends a chill up the spine with its knowing old movie references and its cold, cold heart. Oh, and Michael Myers, who just won’t lie down.
2. The Haunting
Of course, you’ll know that I mean the original Robert Wise version from 1963. How can a film made the year I was born pack such a chilling punch? This film is all about what is not shown on the screen – the mind does all the work here and as I write this a chill goes down my spine and goosebumps appear. That’s the power of this film.
Not much else to say except don’t find yourself at home, on your own, with this film on the television.
This film is not a traditional frightener in my books, in actual fact.
But the first time I saw it – again at the Odeon in Leeds I seem to remember – the theatre was packed with tension. Word had got out about the ‘chestburster’ scene and people were nervous about it. Before that, the tension builds portentously and after that it’s pure adrenalin punctuated by moments of genuine horror.
Ridley Scott builds the tension beautifully of course and the genius is that we don’t see the monster until near the end and even then we don’t really get to see it. Our minds work over time. I remember in the days before VCR, it took 8 viewings at the cinema to appreciate HR Gigers’s magnificent monster.
4. Blair Witch Project
It’s funny, when I got to thinking about the films that affected me at the time that I saw them, there weren’t many modern horror films. Oddly, when I saw Blair Witch at the cinema, I marvelled at the fake marketing campaign around it and enjoyed the thrill of one of the best ‘must see’ cinema events of recent times.
It was only when I first saw the film on a television, in a hotel room, a long way from home, that the full power of the film hit me. Made for the small screen, it really hit home – the jittery, claustrophobic filming and the one hundred per cent believable scenario drew me in.
I looked around the empty American hotel room except for me and my imagination and again, my mind filled in all the gaps and made it way scarier than anyone could have made it. It builds and builds to a pretty chilling crescendo that genuinely chills you to the bone.
5. The Exorcist
I mentioned horror books earlier, and the daddy of them all was William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. As an avid reader of horror and sci-fi as a teenager, this was the bad boy of them all. I seem to remember plucking up courage to read it after mum had put it down and after reading it, wasn’t sure it was a good idea. Books always leave a bigger impression with me (that imagination again) and this one was no exception. it was chock full of horribly visual and very realistic set pieces: the whole country seemed to be talking about how bad it was.
When the film came out I was too young to see it at the cinema and it took years for it to appear on VCR. I avoided it. I knew it was scary – I’d seen bad clips of Linda Blair doing horrifying things and I’d read the book so I knew what was coming. When I eventually summoned up the courage to watch it, it was part of an all night horror video session with me and Carl Milner. It was scheduled for a 2am slot (scheduled because we reckoned that’s when we’d be at our lowest ebb and therefore more susceptible to frights) coming right after Romero’ frankly unsettling Dawn of the Dead.
Suffice it to say we had the lights on and we made plenty of cups of tea when it got a bit much. It still has a hold of me even now – it was on tonight, I wouldn’t watch it: there’d be something else on.