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YA Wednesday: Libba Bray's 10 Favorite Horror Movies

 

The Diviners is not only one of the best books of September, I think it's one of the best books of the Fall, combining the glamour and excitement of 1926 New York (think Ziegfeld girls and Prohibition gin) with totally creepy occult murder, secrets of the supernatural, and a diverse cast of characters. The Diviners has the goose bumps factor of an early Stephen King novel with an impeccably researched look at the history and pop culture of the 1920s--the Labor movement, speakeasy jazz, and young women like Evie O'Neill with their feathered  headbands and chutzpah.  

Author Libba Bray (who won the Printz Award in 2010 for Going Bovine) has been getting lavish praise for The Diviners, which is the first of a new four-book series (yay!), and when I talked to her earlier this year about the new book--see the video of our interview after the jump--I had a really hard time not laughing into the microphone because she was cracking me up. One of the things we talked about was Bray's love of horror--Salem's Lot is one of her all-time favorite books and she refers to it as "Our Town with vampires" (that should give you a clue about her sense of humor).  In the spirit of things that go bump in the night Bray came up with something special for Omni readers: the funniest top 10 horror movies list I've ever seen (the movies are scary as hell, it's Libba Bray who is hilarious).  Did she include any of your favorites? 

“MY TOP TEN FAVORITE HORROR MOVIES”

 Horror, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love your ominous, cobweb-encrusted mansions and staircases leading to bad things. I love your neighbors who might be Satanists and your slowly rising corpses. I love your screams, your maniacs in hockey masks, your creaking doors, and your beasties roaming the moors under a full moon. I love you so much that I had to make a Top Ten List of my favorite horror movies of all time. Because that’s how my love rolls…like a severed head…bouncing down the stairs and landing at the screaming heroine’s feet. Wait—why are you moving away from me?

A warning: This list will contain spoilers, so if you haven’t seen some of these movies, and you prefer to remain unspoiled, do not read any further. You have been warned. You know, like in a horror movie prologue.

10. AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981)

For a kid who grew up loving Hammer Horror films AND National Lampoon magazine, this is the perfect movie—a great mix of horror and comedy. David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) are two college pals backpacking on the moors of chilly England where they run afoul of a local werewolf. Dude, that was so not listed in the Frommers Guide. David is taken to a hospital in London to recover but is visited by his now-undead-and-not-loving-it, toast-eating pal, Jack, who warns David that when the moon is full, he’s going to change. A lot. Like, don’t make dinner plans, and don’t be wearing your best clothes when it all gets real.

What’s great about AAWIL is that it succeeds so well on both levels: The comedy is completely disarming (I particularly love the scene in which the hero is visited by the undead in an adult movie house, and the mauled fiancée is all English cheer and politeness) while the scares are quite scary (Hello, businessman-in-the-London Underground station!) It also jump-started my crush on Griffin Dunne who gets all the best lines here. Plus, the soundtrack—“Bad Moon Rising,” “Blue Moon,” “Moondance”—is pretty darn clever.

9. WHEN A STRANGER CALLS (1979)

If you ever wondered why teenaged girls suddenly stopped babysitting and started working at the local Taco Bell, look no further than this movie which singlehandedly moved babysitting from “Great way to make a few bucks on a Saturday night” to “Great way to meet a homicidal maniac.” To this day, the sound of an icemaker dropping its frosty load makes me run for cover. And if I ever pick up the phone and hear, “Have you checked the children yet?” I will need defibrillation paddles STAT.

Teenaged babysitter and all-around good kid Jill (Carol Kane!) is babysitting in a darkened house when Billy Crystal jumps out and says, “It just so happens he’s mostly dead!” and…oh, sorry. Wrong movie. Strike that. Anyhoots, Carol’s babysitting but she keeps getting these weird prank calls asking her if she’s checked the children yet. It’s starting to work on her nerves, and we are treated to lots of creepy build-up: the aforementioned icemaker sounds. A near attempt at going upstairs. A frightened Carol staring into the dark outside the windows. What could be out there, you think. Better stay inside, Carol, and keep those doors locked! Well, Carol hears you, and she does just that.

When she’s finally good and terrified, though, she has the police trace the call and they phone her back frantically to let her know that the call is coming from inside the house! All together now: AAAAAHHHHHH!!!! And that’s just the first thirty minutes of the movie, folks. There’s another hour to go. I won’t tell you what happens but suffice it to say that Charles Durning shows up, and you know that where he goes, bad things follow.

8. THE EVIL DEAD II(1987)

Bruce Campbell. Sam Raimi. A chainsaw. “Grooovy…” #nuffsaid

7. SUSPIRIA (1977)

I’m not normally a fan of gore, unless it’s highly stylized gore from Italian horror master, Dario Argento, and every death scene is like a nightmare-by-Missoni. Even the wallpaper in this movie seems malevolent.

Jessica Harper, who was the go-to girl for 1970’s horror movies, stars as Suzy Bannion, an American dancer attending a girls’ dance academy in Germany. From the get, things are weird: Suzy arrives in the middle of the night to see a panicked girl running away from the academy and into the nearby forest. Because that’s not ominous AT ALL. Suzy’s not real quick on the uptake, though, so she sticks around, even though maggots fall from the ceiling. Because, you know, sometimes that just happens.

There are murders galore—INCREDIBLE murders!—and an old blind man, witches, poisonings, glowing eyes outside windows, an attic filled with barbed wire, and one impaling that isn’t the slightest bit phallic. None of it makes much sense. But the plot is incidental. In fact, if you go in expecting linear flow, you’ll set yourself up for disappointment. Instead, allow yourself to be carried away into an Expressionist nightmare awash in surreal sets; Technicolor, Grand Guignol imagery; and the bordering-on-camp dark humor that makes for an XL 1970’s Grimm’s Fairy Tale. Add in that flesh-crawling soundtrack by Goblin (Fact: Prog-rock makes everything scarier) and you might just have to watch “Step Up” to reestablish your happy place when it comes to dance academies.

One thing’s for sure: You’ll never feel the same way about stained glass ceilings again.

6. THE SHINING (1980)

“Redrum! Redrum! Redrum!” Never before has an index finger been so terrifying.

We all know that when it comes to horror, Stephen King is The Man. But King-meets-Kubrick? Now that’s a pretty formidable combo. Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson. Right? You’re scared already.) is an alcoholic writer trying to make a go of it with sobriety and his wife (Shelley Duvall) and son, Danny (Danny Lloyd). He’s been hired to be the caretaker of the looming Overlook Hotel for the winter season where he can write to his heart’s content. Oh, sure, there was that unfortunate incident long ago when the caretaker went a little nuts from the isolation and murdered his entire family right in the hotel, but let’s let bloody bygones be bygones, right? I mean, what could possibly…GO WRONG???

Little Danny Torrance, in addition to having a creepy voice for his finger, has been gifted with “The Shining”—a form of telepathy that allows him to see blood washing out of elevators and dead twin girls in pinafores who want to play “forever and ever and ever.” That is a gift I would want to return, frankly. Danny’s got a bad feeling about the Overlook Hotel, and for good reason. It is the granddaddy of haunted houses. If you think it’s hard to get stale smoke smell out of hotel walls, just try getting rid of entrenched evil. It becomes clear over the crushing long haul of days that something ain’t right about the Overlook, and Danny’s family is in terrible danger. Dun-dun-DUN!

Super scary moment: Danny, who has free run of the hotel, riding his Big Wheel around the empty hallways. The camera angle only lets us see what Danny can see. (What’s around the next corner? We. Don’t. Know.) But it’s the sound of the Big Wheel tires rumbling across the wooden floor then going silent on the plush carpets before going loud again that is completely unnerving.

I started to list more scary moments and realized that there isn’t a moment in this movie that isn’t frightening. The “Overlook Hotel” is actually the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, not far from my brother’s house. He drove me there once. I declined to get out of the car.

5. THE OMEN (1976)

I went to see this in sixth grade with a pal whose parents were fern-decorating, Fleetwood Mac-listening, macramé-wearing, Let-It-All-Hang-Out folks who thought kids should be exposed to everything in order to “expand their consciousness” (and avoid the need for an expensive babysitter). Yeah, thanks for the nightmares, Mr. and Mrs. W. Needless to say, this scared the pee-pee out of me.

I should probably mention that I have a tiered system for horror, from mild thrills to major chills to I-Will-Need-You-To-Hold-My-Hand-Through-the-Night. Let me break it down for you:

  • Dude, Watch Out for that Freak (Friday the 13th, Halloween, Silence of the Lambs, The Beguiled) This stuff is scary, sure, but my reasoning is that if I can outrun, outthink, out-hide, or out-bludgeon the thing chasing me, I’m not gonna need a Depends for the movie.
  • Dude, This Place Ain’t Right (The Haunting, The Amityville Horror, Turn of the Screw, Session 9, The Grudge) This is your standard haunted house/ghosts on the loose movie. I love that stuff—love it like Belgian waffles on a Sunday morning served to me by Jeremy Renner in an apron. But still, I reason, I will nevereverever go into a decaying insane asylum. You can’t make me. No, you can’t.
  • Dude, No Offense, but Are You, Like, a Malevolent Being? (The Thing, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Salem’s Lot, The Crazies, all zombie movies) Now we’re cooking. This is the kind of flick that kicks up the paranoia quotient. The movie that makes you question your sanity, doubting what you see and whom you love and everything you hold dear as evil closes in. You know, like a family reunion held at DisneyWorld.
  • Dude, It’s the Devil. We Are So Totally Screwed (Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Last Exorcism, Audrey Rose, The Mephisto Waltz, The Sentinel) This kind of flick is easily my #1 scarefest. It’s not playing around with minor league ghosts and maniacs anymore. We’re talking Evil with a capital E: Demons. Immortal soul threats. Antichrist shenanigans. Unicorn warlocks. Repeated showings of “Showgirls.” *shudders*

“The Omen” fits neatly into this last category. American Ambassador Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) and his wife, Katherine (Lee Remick), are stationed in Rome where they’re raising their six-year-old son, Damien (Harvey Stephens), who seems to have a few…quirks. Lesson one: Never name your progeny something that sounds like “Demon.” Lesson two: Casting director who found this kid? You are a stone cold genius. What happens when Atticus Finch finds out he just might be raising the devil’s tattooed spawn? All hell breaks loose. Literally. Esteemed British actor David Warner is great as the Me Generation photographer in a Studio 54-certified ascot trying to warn the clueless parents. And revered Beckett actress Billie Whitelaw chills as the nanny with a questionable pet policy. (“Nice doggy…”) After this movie, I was never able to listen to “Carmina Burana” or pull a nightgown over my head again.

 

4. ALIEN (1979)

“In space, no one can hear you scream,” was the tagline for Ridley Scott’s terrifying science fiction-horror masterpiece.  I promise you, when I saw this movie for the first time, they could hear me scream all the way to space.

My friend, horror writer Dan Poblocki, calls “Alien” “a haunted house movie in space.” It’s also a monster movie, a commentary on class and dehumanization, an intense survival tale, and, as some critics contend, an exploration of primal fears of rape, vulnerability, and birth. Whatever you want to call it, it’s downright terrifying in any universe.

The crew of the mining vessel, Nostromo (Oh we see what you did there, Ridley Scott. Yes, we do.) is heading back to earth after long months in space when they receive a non-negotiable directive from their corporate employer to touch down on a planetoid and investigate a signal. The blue-collar workers here look the part—weary, sweaty, sleepy-eyed, cigarette-smoking, coffee-swilling. Scott takes his time building up the believability of the world and the characters, focusing on their relationships, the petty grievances and intra-crew disagreements, the resentment felt toward the uncaring corporate employer, and the palpable desire to just go home, so that by the time the thrills start, the audience is completely invested. That is one of the things that, to me, separates the great horror films from the merely okay—the investment in character and the slow turning up of the gas.

The Nostromo, with its dimly lit corridors, dark and narrow air ducts, blind alleys, industrial design, and Things That Drip is as menacing as the alien—claustrophobic and inescapable. H. R. Giger’s spooky sets and sleek, beautiful-yet-hideous monster are, of course, iconic now, and they still terrify. My husband and I just watched this again recently and even though I’ve seen it a gazillion times, I was still pulling the covers around me. Now, that’s a good horror flick.

 

3. JAWS (1975)

Would you believe me if I said I think of “Jaws” as a great horror western…on the beach? A Stranger Comes to Town—only the stranger here is a great white shark terrorizing the waters off quaint, coastal Amity (what is it about the name Amity, man?) Roy Scheider’s Chief Brody (The Sheriff in these here parts) wants to shut down the beaches to protect the good citizens, but the profitable Fourth of July weekend is coming up, and the powers-that-be don’t want to lose out on the cash. So poor Brody has to keep watch, jumping at every screech and bark, until the unthinkable happens: Director Steven Spielberg…

{SERIOUS SPOILER ALERT, IN CASE YOU DIDN’T HEED MY EARLIER WARNING}

 

….kills a kid. HE KILLS A FREAKING KID, PEOPLE! That sixth grader and his inflatable raft are blood-in-the-water camera chum! After that, all bets are off, and there’s no sense of safety for the audience. And Brody, who hates the water, is going to have to head out to sea like a maritime Gary Cooper (along with his sidekicks: oceanographer Richard Dreyfuss and seasoned shark killer Robert Shaw) to fight the bad guy threatening the peace of his town.

Sometimes, a movie becomes enmeshed with your personal life in a way that forever shapes it in your memory. When I saw “Jaws”, my family had just moved to a small, northern Texas town where I felt like, well, a fish out of water. My parents were inching toward a divorce that would take a few more years to sort out; there were secrets in my family swimming in the murk under the surface and I could feel them with that sonar particular to children—an early warning device devoid of denial’s protection, much like the John Williams soundtrack here. That’s what good horror does—it gives catharsis to the fears you’ve yet to voice and allows you to deal with them in an abstract way until you can find the courage to do so in real life. So thanks for that, Steven Spielberg.

Favorite scene: The men’s good-natured, slightly drunken, macho one-upmanship stories of survival morphing into Robert Shaw’s slow, moody recounting of the U.S.S. Indianapolis is pitch-perfect, a real-life horror story that manages to be as heartbreaking as it is terrifying.

2. THE EXORCIST (1973)

You knew this was coming, right? I mean, it’s as inevitable as “Layla” and “Stairway to Heaven” on a classic rock station’s “Top 100 Songs of All Time” Labor Day weekend countdown. But seriously, how could I possibly leave off “The Exorcist”? It ticks off every box on my checklist for good horror:

  1. Slow build. (Check)
  2. Doubt as to what’s really going on—is Reagan disturbed or possessed? (Check)
  3. A formidable supernatural evil opponent. (Sooo check.)
  4. Complex, flawed characters. (check)
  5. Believable setting. (The Devil hangs out in Washington, D.C., believable? Like candy from a baby…)
  6. Political undertones? (check)

Reagan (Linda Blair) is a good kid on the knife’s edge of puberty living with her single mom, a famous actress (Ellen Burstyn). They’ve taken up residence in an old house in Georgetown for the duration of a film shoot, and that’s where Reagan is introduced, via Ouija Board, to “Mr. Howdy.” (Due to an adolescent experience, I find Ouija Boards incredibly creepy, which is why one figures into the opening of THE DIVINERS.) Soon, Reagan’s a levitating, head-spinning, pea soup-vomiting, furniture-throwing, crucifix…defiling, Mercedes Cambridge-voiced, demon-possessed problem child giving two priests a run for their faith. No one’s getting out of this unscathed.

In DANSE MACABRE, Stephen King argues that “The Exorcist” was a movie about parental fears of their counterculture teens, which is a great point. (And the “film” Ellen Burstyn’s character is shooting involves student demonstrations.) But it’s also about abandonment, fractured families, loss of faith, existentialism, adolescent angst/sexual fears, and loss. In fact, after the terror subsides, the feeling “The Exorcist” leaves me with is one of intense sadness. A horror movie that makes you think and feel? How frightening.

1. ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968)

This is, without a doubt, my favorite horror movie as well as one of my favorite movies of all time. It has everything I love to get my scare on for: malevolent covens, anagrams, strange chanting, a creepy old apartment building, mysterious deaths and illnesses, paranoia, possible Satan worshippers living next door—and all of it happening in my own backyard of New York City. I love “Rosemary’s Baby” so much that the apartment building in THE DIVINERS, The Bennington, is influenced by the Dakota, and one of the characters, T.S. Woodhouse, shares a name with the protagonist of this film.

So often when we think of horror, we think of physical isolation—the haunted mansion on the hill, the cabin by the lake, the motel room in the middle of nowhere. What I love about “Rosemary’s Baby” is that it takes place in the heart of bustling, modern, crowded Manhattan, yet, the sense of isolation is palpable: a city of eight million strangers, neighbors we don’t really know, a woman marooned inside herself, that “God is Dead” TIME magazine cover. It all adds up to an existentialist mood that’s the real emotional undertow of fear and dread needed to make the ending work.

Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse (Mia Farrow & John Cassavetes) score a desirable apartment in the grand old Bramford Building off Central Park that has every New Yorker crying with real estate envy. Midwestern, lapsed Catholic Rosemary wants to start a family, though Guy, a rising actor with Hollywood ambitions, is reluctant. They settle into the building and become acquainted with the eccentric, elderly couple next door, Minnie and Roman Castevet (Ruth Gordon & Sidney Blackmer). After a really strange night of getting frisky that guarantees Guy some nail clippers as his next birthday gift, Rosemary gets pregnant. Friend Hutch (Maurice Evans) is concerned that something’s wrong with fragile Rosemary beyond that unfortunate Vidal Sassoon haircut Mia Farrow got mid-movie. He leaves her a book on witches just before he slips into a mysterious coma and dies. Soon, Rosemary’s doing detective work with Scrabble tiles and accusing her neighbors of witchcraft, and the New Yorkers in the audience get to feel relief about their crappy studio apartments with leaky toilets.

The majestic Dakota apartment building—yes, where John Lennon was tragically shot and killed—stands in for the Bramford here, and its gothic splendor is a perfect setting for occult doings. When you can make a simple linen closet into a totem of fear, you’re doing it right. Ruth Gordon is a gem—the overbearing-in-her-attentions neighbor every New Yorker has invented elaborate excuses to avoid. Is she just a nosy old lady? Or is she a minion of Satan?

As Mia Farrow’s pregnancy and paranoia progress, so does her unreliability as a narrator. Is she right to feel afraid? Is she having some sort of weird, pregnancy-induced psychosis or is a cult of Devil worshippers really after her baby? What, exactly, is Tannis Root? And how come Charles Grodin isn’t funny in this picture? Every detail is another card on the deck of creepy.

Years after I saw the movie, I read the Ira Levin book and was surprised to discover that the political flourishes I had attributed to Polanski—the Pope’s visit, the Kennedys appearing in Farrow’s hallucination/dream—were actually written by Levin, who knew a thing or two about scaring folks. And speaking of scaring folks, I read ROSEMARY’S BABY while sitting in a NYC park, pushing my infant son’s pram.

But those are my issues.

--Libba Bray

 

Comments

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My friend and I have been searching for this type of blog post "YA Wednesday: Libba Bray's 10 Favorite Horror Movies" with the longest time,Thanks for excellent blog post,

Just saw this and although it was posted a while ago I have to comment. Every time I would visit my grandparents house when I was young, Rosemary's Baby was always on tv, this was in the late 70's and I don't think I ever recovered from it being the scariest movie ever!

Actually, Uncle Stevie has always referred to "Salem's Lot" as '"Our Town" with vampires' (see "On Writing").

All are good ones! Though the Exorcist is too scary for me. Alfred Hitchcock also made some really great ones. Thanks for the list! xo

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