Carrie on scaring
One of the most famous horror films of all time gets a 21st Century makeover this week, as a new version of Carrie is released. Kimberly Peirce's film stars Chloe Moretz in the role originally played by Sissy Spacek, and co-stars Julianne Moore as Carrie's sin-obsessed mother.
Raised alone by her crazy mama, Carrie White has grown into an odd and nervy teenager who's mercilessly bullied at school. When an embarrassing video of her is posted on the internet, Carrie realises she has extraordinary telekinetic powers, and begins taking revenge on her enemies. The new Carrie is competent enough, but lacks the guignol grandeur of Brian De Palma's 1976 original, which captured the eerie energy of Stephen King's novel of the same name perfectly.
The 1976 Carrie often appears on lists of the best horror films ever, but not on mine I must say, because for all its virtues it's just a little too silly to take seriously. Neither do the truly gory horror classics like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Day of the Dead, because, to be honest, I'm a tad squeamish and not a fan of buckets of blood.
The horror films I like are the ones that use visual style and brooding atmosphere to create a tension worse than anything that happens. These are my 10 personal favourite horror films, but no doubt some of you will violently disagree with my choices, and feel free to point out the error of my ways.
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)
This highly stylised study in madness made a virtue of its small budget and used theatrical sets and outlandish acting to create a grandly sinister tone. The town of Holstenwall is plagued by a series of grisly unsolved murders, and a young man called Francis becomes obsessed with finding out who's doing them.
He meets a fairground performer called Dr Caligari, who works with a near-silent somnambulist by the name of Cesare who can tell the future and predict the exact moment of your death. When his best friend is murdered, Francis begins to suspect Caligari and his stooge, but there are plenty of surprises at the end of this unique and boldly original film.
There's something mesmerising about the dreamlike images that permeate Carl Theodor Dreyer's Weimar-era classic. The Danish director intended Vampyr to be silent, and only added dialogue during production, but his film is all about a succession of haunting images that accumulate into an extended gothic nightmare.
Dreyer partly based his film on the stories of Dublin writer Sheridan Le Fanu and used a cast largely composed of non-professionals to tell his dark tale of a middle European village preyed on by a malevolent vampire. It's an extraordinarily vivid film, full of memorable and disturbing scenes, from a character's dream of being buried alive to the famous shot of an old man ringing a bell with a scythe on his shoulder.
On the face of it, James Whale's seminal 1931 movie didn't have an awful lot to do with the novel that had inspired it. Frankenstein played fast and loose with the finer points of Mary Shelly's novel, as Universal Studios gave Whale and make-up artist Jack Pierce free rein to dream up something really special.
Bela Lugosi was originally cast as the monster cobbled together from various body parts by a mad scientist, but the Hungarian star left in a huff after some disastrous make-up tests. So it was then-unknown English actor Boris Karloff who got to play the flat-headed creature who ultimately wins over our sympathies and only seems to kill people by accident.
Les Diaboliques (1955)
Henri-Georges Clouzot's grim masterpiece is one of the most intelligent and psychologically rich horror films you'll ever see. Vera Clouzot plays Christina, the abused spouse of a loathsome and sadistic school headmaster called Michel who's also having an affair with one of his teachers, Nicole (Simone Signoret).
The two women get together and decide to rid themselves of their tormenter, drowning him in a bathtub and dumping the body in the school's swimming pool. But when the body subsequently disappears and the women hear reports that Michel has been sighted alive, they begin to panic.
Peeping Tom (1960)
Michael Powell's innovative and fearless horror film was so badly reviewed when originally released in 1960 that it seriously damaged his reputation. It told the chilling story of Mark (Carl Boehm), a technician at a movie studio who spends his spare time working on a film he calls his "documentary".
It's actually a record of all the women he kills with a spike concealed in his camera, and Mark lovingly savours the fear in his victim's faces as he watches it back. Powell intended the film as a withering critique of voyeurism in cinema, but critics couldn't take this kind of horror from the maker of The Red Shoes, and Peeping Tom effectively ended his glittering directorial career. It's now considered a groundbreaking classic.
The film that launched the slasher genre craze is so much better than anything that followed it. Alfred Hitchcock was forced to use his own money to make Psycho after Paramount refused to finance it, and shot in black and white in order to keep his budget down and make his famous shower scene look aesthetic rather than grotesque (imagine all that gushing blood in Technicolor).
Janet Leigh played a young woman on the run who pulls into the wrong motel, and Anthony Perkins was unforgettably convincing as Norman Bates, the mother-obsessed psychopath loosely based on real-life serial killer Ed Gein. Considered shocking in its day, Psycho is still not the kind of film you'd watch on your own last thing at night.
The Innocents (1961)
By far the best of the films inspired by Henry James' ghost story The Turn of the Screw, Jack Clayton's 1961 chiller is an elegant and near-flawless classic. Deborah Kerr plays Miss Giddens, a prim governess who takes a job looking after the orphaned niece and nephew of a wealthy bachelor, played by Michael Redgrave.
It seems like an ideal appointment until Miss Giddens begins to notice the children behaving oddly. The boy is expelled from school, and he and the little girl whisper together and seem to be communing with invisible forces. There are no flashy effects or cheap thrills in The Innocents, which uses atmosphere and clever camerawork to explore dark and controversial themes.
Rosemary's Baby (1968)
A young Mia Farrow endures the original pregnancy from hell in Roman Polanski's magnificently unsettling 1960s chiller. She is Rosemary Woodhouse, a naive young bride who's delighted when she moves into a swanky new apartment in uptown New York with her husband Guy, a struggling actor.
But the neighbours are on the sinister side, and when Rosemary gets pregnant she realises she's carrying the spawn of Satan. It's a weird and woozy and brilliantly directed gothic masterpiece, and John Cassevettes is excellent as the devious Guy, who it turns out sold his wife for a part in a Broadway show.
The Exorcist (1973)
William Friedkin's The Exorcist caused mass hysteria among audiences when it was first released in 1973, and rumours abounded of an on-set curse. Friedkin claimed he asked a priest to bless the set after a mysterious fire, but whatever about that the great director used all his skill to build and sustain a powerful atmosphere of dread that makes The Exorcist one of the most frightening films ever made.
Ellen Burstyn is a busy actress who becomes worried about her teenage daughter's increasing erratic behaviour. When the girl begins having spasms and speaking in tongues the priests are called, and a long and painful exorcism begins. It's chilling stuff, and full of ghastly twists and turns.
The Shining (1980)
Stephen King famously detested Stanley Kubrick's film adaptation of his 1977 novel, and missed no opportunity to say so. The writer objected to Kubrick's cavalier approach to his text, but the great director knew exactly what he was doing, and turned King's story into a magnificent, sprawling horror epic.
Jack Nicholson plays Jack Torrance, an aspiring writer who takes a job as winter caretaker of a remote hotel in the Rockies with his wife, Wendy and young son, Danny. During a long winter he develops a severe case of cabin fever, and ghosts from the hotel's past emerge to make things even more unpleasant for all.
Kubrick uses everything from flashing imagery to echoing sound to make The Shining a uniquely unsettling and starkly beautiful film. It's the Citizen Kane of horror films, if you ask me.