October means Halloween is just around the corner, and here at Arrow in the Head, in honor of this ghoulish month of scares, every Friday leading up to Halloween, I’ll be posting mini-reviews of a few of my favorite horror flicks- some obscure, some not. Last week, we took a look at vampires, zombies and other goodies, this week, we look at some of the scariest horror flicks ever made.
THE SHINING (1980)
It’s not Halloween without THE SHINING- although, truth be told, an even more appropriate time to watch it is all alone, late at night in the dead of winter. Stanley Kubrick’s only horror movie, for many of us THE SHINING is a touchstone. Based on the novel by Stephen King (who hated this so much he made a shitty mini-series years later that stuck closer to the novel), I can say that THE SHINING is the horror film that, at the tender age of ten, totally desensitized me to the genre. I watched it at my pal Danny’s house on good ol’ VHS, on his huge (for the time) TV- and it was a horror rollercoaster like none other. For a while after this, I became obsessed with all things horror- devouring several of King’s books, and watching dozens and dozens of horror flicks.
Sure- on the gore level it’s relatively tame, but Kubrick is able to build a sense of dread that makes the film one of the all-time genre champs that many have imitated, but none have equaled. And who could forget Jack Nicholson in one of his iconic roles as the crazed Jack Torrence- chasing the annoying Shelley Duvall (she makes my skin crawl) and little Danny (REDRUM) around the overlook with an axe. HERE’S JOHNNY!!!
THE EXORCIST (1973)
As good as THE SHINING is I find THE EXORCIST to be an even scarier film. It just feels- EVIL. Blame my Catholic upbringing, but I actually avoided watching this until I was about sixteen, when I rented a really beaten-up old VHS copy that actually kind of added to the spooky vibe. William Friedkin is one of my all-time favorite directors, and to me this is his best film. The slow-burn first hour of the film is great, masterfully introducing us to little Regan (Linda Blair), and her actress mom (a powerhouse Ellen Burstyn) - while exploring Father Kerras (Jason Miller- who should have become a huge star of this) and his crisis of faith.
Regan’s possession is incredibly disturbing and hard to watch (especially the infamous crucifix scene- which would guarantee the film an NC-17 nowadays), and the climatic exorcism (“the power of Christ compels you!”) is white-knuckle. While I’d always watch Friedkin’s original version over the extended version that came out in 2000 (I hate the tacked on ending)- the one good thing about it was that it gave me the chance to see THE EXORCIST (twice) in theaters- which was amazing. Most of the sequels are to be avoided. THE HERETIC is fun in a “so-bad it’s good” kinda way, while Paul Schrader’s EXORCIST: DOMINION is truthfully nearly as bad as Renny Harlin’s re-shot version. However, there is one gem among them- EXORCIST 3, directed by William Peter Blatty. This actually rounds out an intriguing trilogy Blatty made, with EXORCIST as his jumping off point, continuing the story (in a sense) with the odd, but well-worth watching THE NINTH CONFIGURATION , and finally- EXORCIST 3, boasting a great performance by the late George C. Scott as Lt. Kinderman, played by Lee J. Cobb (who sadly died in the mid-seventies) in the first movie. If you’ve never seen it- I highly recommend it, although I’ve heard that the final version does not really reflect Blatty’s original vision, and that there’s a better version (minus any exorcisms) in Morgan Creek’s vaults.
THE OMEN (1976)
Admittedly an EXORCIST rip-off, of the dozens that followed Friedkin’s movie into theaters, this is by far the best. Who could forget young Damien- with his 666 birthmark, and evil smile. You can credit director Richard Donner for assembling a classy cast including Hollywood legend Gregory Peck (terrific) and Lee Remick, along with an iconic score from Jerry Goldsmith. In fact, THE OMEN is so good that when Fox made the idiotic decision to remake it a few years ago, they literally made it a scene-for-scene clone. Yeah- stick with the original.
While you’re at it, go ahead and watch the other two movies. DAMIEN: THE OMEN II is in itself a pretty solid movie, complete with a couple of great kills (with the guy getting sliced in half in the elevator almost beating the first film’s decapitation), and another Hollywood legend- this time William Holden, as Damien’s unfortunate guardian. The focus is shifted to an adult Damian in THE FINAL CONFLICT, with Sam Neil making for a charismatic and cold-blooded Damien- giving the series an appropriate and definitive conclusion.
To me, this is the scariest movie ever made. It totally traumatized me when I caught a heavily edited version on TV one afternoon (minus all the gore) and to this day, I have a hard time sitting through it- although I suppose that’s just a testament to how good it is. While it’s a little dated, being a VERY-1983 examination of the new technologies of the era, the story is probably timelier than ever. In fact, I’d wager that VIDEODROME itself- which features graphic torture broadcast live, isn’t that far off from the reality TV craze (although in a modern version, I suspect VIDEODROME would concentrate on the internet rather than TV).
David Cronenberg’s obsession with body horror is on full display here, with Canadian network exec James Woods undergoing some weird mutations throughout the film- including a really gross scene where his stomach gets a vaginal cavity that he shoves a gun into. Ugh- I feel nauseous just typing that. This is a really screwed up movie, but undeniably brilliant. Also- as a weird side-effect of having seen it so young, I’ve had a strange fear of Debbie Harry ever since.