I’ve always liked Halloween.
When I was a kid, it wasn’t anywhere near as popular as it was these days. We’d get together, our little gang from the estate, tell scary stories on the steps of each others houses and frighten ourselves silly with stories of Chalkie White (local imaginary weirdo killer), missing children and persistent, peripatetic spectres in council houses. We’d hollow out turnips (oh for the luxury of soft pumpkins) and stay up far too late. And as the turnips started to smell nutty and cooked, the witching hour approached.
But still, over the years, it resonates. I’ve been fascinated with being scared and as such, through every horror phase: comics initially then the quite immersive books and then ultimately the movies. Each has built in me a fascination and fear of the supernatural that although seems somewhat diminished at my age, it still informs a lot of what I enjoy to this day.
So I got to thinking: what were my top five scary films?
After lots of discussion, both on and offline, here they are in classic reverse order…
What are yours?
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 scifi 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 old school video tape. 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 my old mate Carl Milner. It was scheduled for a 2am slot (because we reckoned that’s when we’d be at our lowest ebb and therefore more susceptible to frights) coming right after Romero’s 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, but I wouldn’t watch it: there was something else on.
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 got to me – 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 an ordinary, horrific crescendo that genuinely chills you to the bone.
This film is not a traditional frightener in my books, I’ll come clean.
But the first time I saw it – the theatre was packed with tension. Word had got out about the ‘chestburster’ scene and people were nervous about it. Before that, the anxiety builds portentously and after that it’s pure adrenalin punctuated by moments of genuine horror. These days it’s been superseded by all manner of shockers but it’s the daddy of all monster movies for me.
Ridley Scott builds the tension beautifully 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 video, it took 8 viewings at the cinema to appreciate HR Gigers’s magnificent monster. And still it fascinates.
2. The Haunting
Of course, you’ll know that I mean the original Robert Wise version from 1963, not the shoddy remake. 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 and as I write this a chill goes down my spine and goosebumps appear when I think of the door handles slowly turning and the wood of the doors bowing with supernatural pressure. The director skilfully lets our minds do all the work and modern directors should take note: scares are to be cultivated and not dropped in willy nilly. 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. Turn it off and watch a re-run of Family Guy. Or Top of the Pops.
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 electronica and brilliant – of its time and at the same time, timeless.
It’s lo-fi horror with the bad guy wearing a cheap mask (based on William Shatner, fact fans) and a boiler suit hunting down local suburban kids in small town America in what would become a staple scenario for years to come. Carpenter delivers a taut, edgy and to this day iconic movie full of memorably shocking scenes.
It still sends a chill up the spine: its knowing classic horror movie references and its cold, cold heart. Oh, and of course Michael Myers, who just won’t lie down. At least until the sequel, but that’s another less interesting story. Halloween is a classic — still unbeaten after all these years.