Despite the borderline pathological amount of lists I make daily, Top [Insert #] Lists pain me. The real slog being the liminal space at the end of a list and, in particular, the inevitable executions that stack maybe-next-times. How do you keep your darlings darling after you’ve chopped their heads off? (Granted, there are ways.)
In pulling together my first top list for our blog, I thought horror movies might be a good place to start. The headless bodies within a movie I’m going to butcher shouldn’t mind re-decapitation. Moreover, this whole execution metaphor would be a little hank and jank for the top rom-com’s list I’ll be pulling together come mid-February.
But I’m gonna stack the deck a little further because I have a Halloween-adjacent birthday and feel like treating myself. (Thanks in advance for your cards (but don’t give me ones that play music because those scare me (and not in a good Halloween way)).) Given that best-of lists are for exposure (and (in)actively exclusion and concealment), the process here will foreground more exposure.
Pulling from the already aggregated horror lists at Taste of Cinema (of which I don’t own stock; just keeping things in one place), I note five of those lists below and highlight a film from each. Not too much depth on each highlight, but hopefully, it might whet your appetite. I dig this approach. Upside 1: You get to click through to see more of a topic that might interest you. Upside 2: I get an accomplice who did all the murder room mise en place and tarp work, which is a slog onto itself.
Being from a small town, I learned quickly to question people who rolled through and tried to impress. It’s a problematic approach that reinforces walls to various others (one can imagine the inverse with people not trying to impress you and being deemed jerks). Still we were going to be taken down from within and not by some Harold Hill thankyouverymuch. This effort needed to be collective to work, too. People who fell prey to fastness (gadgets, potions, rides, men, women, et al.) were courting a dangerous element into the fold and adjudicated thusly.
That defense system from childhood is what makes The Night of the Hunter (1955, dir. Charles Laughton) so chilling to me. A silver-tongued stranger with a pyrite cross and sinful intentions infiltrates a small town. Everyone seems to reinforce his malefic presence (Hear him! Obey him! Marry him!) except his stepchildren, who can see through the facade. That creates one of the many jarring elements of the fairy tale within a noir setup: This Hansel and Gretel have a murderer with a proven track record lumbering behind them. The result is a fascinating one-off for the director (Charles Laughton) with the history and controversy surrounding James Agee’s script (yep, that Agee) worth a dive. And, if you watch the movie and would like to hear more, it was the subject of a Zoom Back Camera episode with the film’s champion-in-chief, Professor Chris Becker.
I suppose here the question is: What makes for a good horror remake? There are many variables, sure, but Baron Blood (1972, dir. Mario Bava) has three (or four) distinct qualities that set itself up for success. (1) Most folks are unfamiliar with the film, and those who are don’t love it like Bava’s other films. (In other words, it’s not some historical castle you’re trying to flip and need to heed audiences’ various update regulations; this would be the Suspiria remake but with Houstonian zoning laws.) (2) College students needing to reckon with the sins of great-grandparents should play pretty well right now. (3) Slowly regenerating (or disintegrating) has been challenging for practical effects (with Hellraiser often being an exception or Exhibit A). This film could be slapped together nowadays cheaply with plenty of hooks to hang a lotta good looks on.
Because I seem to keep dancing with this film-has-good-bones property line, let’s take a look at those specs: An American takes a chill study abroad in Austria to revisit his lineage. He stays at a castle where his great-grandpa, the sadistic Baron Otto von Kleist, is partially reanimated by a spell. The more the Baron kills, the closer he is to being human again. And, ya know, that’s about what needs to be known about it. The movie shows proof of principle but not a ton more. But perhaps (4) there is real pleasure hanging with class themes adjacent to Dracula and recognizing how immortality, wealth, and sadism have been ruled abject and unnatural previously in case you’re looking for something to cite.
Scares work well in small packages. High concept, often within scary stories, naturally propels them toward gimmicky with their efficiency often their charm; however, seeing scary stories sweat in the name of efficiency is tiring for both the concept and the audience. A major virtue of short-form horror, either in print or film, is that the big idea is cut off before its efficiency becomes labored — one of many reasons we see the anthology and horror in tandem.
Surveying this list of horror anthology films, the demographic void Tales from the Hood (1995, dir Rusty Cundieff) helps fill pops out. But, it’s also worth noting the void of horror anthology films surrounding its release. The major short-form horror of the moment was HBO’s Tales from the Crypt (which made its leap to the silver screen in the same year but with a feature), and staleness crept around the midnight movie nostalgia that previously glued together New Hollywood supergroups.
Coming toward the end of New Jack Cinema, Tales from the Hood inserted black voices into the anthology model, becoming, for many, the preeminent horror film of the decade (anthology or otherwise) with themes worth revisiting today for their continued resonance.
Sleepaway Camp (1983, dir. Robert Hiltzik) is the film I have seen more than any other, and number two isn’t even close. I am so near it that I cannot escape it even for the least bit of distance or perspective. All I can do is look closer and closer at it. As someone who is rarely a fanboy, it’s crazy to find me in that trap. However, I have been with so many people who watched the film for the first time that I have this robotic understanding that folks who haven’t seen do enjoy it (with a note that there is problematic gender work happening).
Do I think of it as trash horror? I suppose that depends on how much trashies want to let camp into their dump (or how many trashies are admitted by counselors to their camp). I guess I don’t differentiate too much and focus, instead, on its DIY elements (with an aesthetic that doesn’t read trash). And on the camp camp sensibility, which is part and parcel of ’80s slashers given the handy dovetail that those movies both (1) are often set at summer camp (e.g., Friday the 13th, The Burning, Madman) and (2) are steeped in their gothic brand of camp. If we think of Sontag’s quote that camp is the sensibility of failed seriousness, then campy horror films might be the sensibility of failed frights. That’s where Sleepaway Camp bunks, with few if any audience jumps or screams.
While unsuccessful in the scare department, it doesn’t swap in fright for self-awareness (e.g., Scream), torture (e.g., Saw), or comedy (e.g., Severance) (or other one-word S-films). Instead, its style harmonizes between Sirk and UCLA Rebellion (maybe that’s too lofty but I think so) to become a sleepy pastoral with occasional rolling thunder with one big clap that you’ll remember.
Blood Diner (1987, dir. Jackie Kong) has the recipe to be a cult classic film. While the thought experiment doesn’t need to be why it isn’t more of one, it’s a pretty good question to entertain. It has a direct lineage to Blood Feast, an elder in the cult classic horror world and, thereby, a built-in viewership of diehards.
Blood Diner follows a similar pathway with it’s parent’s gore-out elements being supplemented with various bad tastes, played for laughs it often earnestly gets. The mixed unaware/self-aware time capsuling combined with a soundtrack that rips gives it a very different vibe between my first and second viewings, two decades apart. And I don’t remember it all that well from high school, but I think I enjoyed it much more today. With maxed-out raunch that loses some flavor the longer it’s pickled, perhaps Blood Diner will hit a more mainstream cult audience. But it has all the zeal and fun of a food fight with offal, which if you want to win it, you should bring an iron stomach.
If you like this listplay, check out the Top 3 segment on the Establishing Shot podcast. It’s usually a monthly exercise where I subject myself to fun list torture with Ted Barron and a very special guest.