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?

1. Halloween

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.

3. Alien

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.

6 thoughts on “Halloween

  1. I also had my first viewing of Alien at the Odeon and totally agree with you. I think it was a Tuesday afternoon and there was a total of about 5 people in the cinema, which made the chest scene even worse as there was nobody around to be brave to and say ‘didn’t bother me in the slightest’. Don’t you find it interesting though, that all the films you list are pre full blown computer fx (except Blair)? I know these days that we can see ‘Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion’ or watch ‘C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate’ courtesy of computer graphics, but the thing about these films were the sets were ‘real’, there was real creative cinematography and a story that could draw you in.

  2. Brilliant post Phil. Love it.

    Never really did anything for Halloween when we were kids. Probably why I love it so much now as an adult.

    Why do we enjoy scaring ourselves so much with grim, scary movies? I suppose it’s only human of us to want to stimulate all the senses – fear as well as joy.

    Up until recently, Blair Witch was the ultimate horror movie for me. That was until I saw Paranormal Activity at the cinema. I’m embarrassed to say, as 37 year old, that film has reduced me to feeling very uncomfortable when I’m in the house alone. A combination of a brilliant movie making and an over-active imagination.

    Love the picture you have used for Blair Witch. Whenever I want to freak the wife out, I strike that pose in the corner of the room. She goes mental!

  3. Nice top 5. The Exorcist and The Haunting are my top two horrors of all time.

    I first saw The Exorcist when I was 18, in about 1994. It was still banned on video at that time, but the Odeon in Birmingham had run a midnight showing every Friday and Saturday night for donkey’s years. Me and my mate went to the pub for a few beforehand, then went onto the cinema. It was in screen 8, which seated about 100 people, and practically had a screen the size of your average TV in the corner. The cinema was full of drunks, but as soon as the film started, the terrible atmosphere of the movie just transported me to another place. Incredible.

    Aside from the above two, The Shining is one of my favourite horror movies. Beautifully shot, universally fantastic performances, and some stunning sound design.

    However, whilst not strictly a horror film, the single most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen is Threads – the 80s part documentary, part drama about what would happen if a nuclear attack hit Sheffield. I only saw it a few years ago, on a portable DVD player on a London-Leeds train journey, but it moved me in a way that no other film has. I think what made it work was the interspersion of scientific reports and facts, with their effects on perfectly normal people. That you can see yourself in these people’s places, in a way you can’t with the protagonists of, say, Hellraiser, chilled me to the core and left me looking at things in real life very differently for days.

  4. Was too tired to wax lyrical about Blair Witch last night. It’s fantastic, however there are some films I wish I could experience in a certain way. I remember reading an interview with the makers of Blair Witch, and they said that their dream way to experience the film would be just to be given it on an unmarked VHS, with no prior knowledge of it. HOW COOL WOULD THAT BE?

    Oh, and how on earth did I forget to mention Carpenter’s The Thing? Astounding command of tension, and still some of the most creative and dazzling visual effects of all time.

  5. Horror scares the life out of me. My 15 yeaar old stepson comes over on a weekend and stays up to watch all the horrors on Sky late at night. Thats when I know its time for bed.

    I can trace my fear right back to when it started. For me The Exorcist wasn’t horror – in fact I remember thinking how stupid it was then her head started spinning. For me, horror is when people are running for their lives. Being chased by something – especially FREDDY KRUEGAR. He is the root of my horror fear. Them blades screaching down the boiler. The fear of falling asleep. God I don’t think I slept properly for years after watching Nightmare on Elm Street.

    I notice that there’s a new Freddy film about to be released – everytime I see the ad for it my blood runs cold. I definitely won’t be watching that one. I learned my lesson well.

  6. Some great comments above – thanks to all who took the time to tell us about their fright nights.

    There are obviously some major omissions and this whole process got me thing about how difficult it can be to nail the top ten list in any genre. Whilst it’s hard, it certainly sharpens the mind and I find the process of writing about it sharpens it further.

    Notable omissions include John Carpenter’s The Thing, Nightmare on Elm Street (original), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (original), Last House on the Left (original) and The Ring (original creepy japanese version). Thanks to all on Twitter for their thoughtful contributions.

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