The List (5-1):
5) Night of the Living Dead (Romero, 1968)—This film, the first in Romero’s expansive Dead series, remains one of the finest films of Apocalypse ever made, and is arguably one of the primary inspirations for the glut of zombie films and TV shows that have recently dominated popular culture. But few have lived up to the original. The shocking ending has serious social implications, but reading this film as allegory may end up a distant, secondary response as you watch. Released right before the MPAA ratings system was initiated, this movie likely scarred countless children who found their way into its screenings.
4) Alien (Scott, 1979)—Ridley’s Scott’s horror/sci-fi hybrid features a few explosive scenes, but largely favors the slow building of tension through its quiet, dread-drenched atmosphere. He follows the old rule that what you don’t see is scarier than what you do and holds off on revealing the iconic xenomorph until well into the film’s runtime. However, Alien is perhaps the one film where this maneuver wasn’t entirely necessary, because the creature, as envisioned by HR Giger, might be one of the most genuinely terrifying things ever put on screen. It’s one of the few monsters on this list that doesn’t lose its impact once it is heavily featured.
Oscar Spotlight: the film was nominated for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, and its Visual Effects team, including surrealist painter HR Giger, took home the gold statue.
3) The Shining (Kubrick, 1980)—Stephen King was famously dissatisfied with this Stanley Kubrick adaptation of his novel, but that hasn’t stopped it from becoming a horror classic. The film made extensive use of the steadicam, which allowed Kubrick’s camera to freely roam the Overlook Hotel—a character unto itself—with a ghostly grace. Shelley Duvall was nominated for a Razzie for her performance as Jack Torrance’s terrified wife, but that seems a ridiculous choice in retrospect: Duvall gives one of the all-time great “performances of panic” and as she becomes increasingly overwhelmed and pathetic, so too does the audience.
2) The Birds (Hitchcock, 1963)—As is always the case with Hitchcock, there’s more going on beneath the surface of The Birds than it first appears. There’s a whole subtextual excavation one could carry out by examining the relationship dynamics (and the accompanying psychological ramifications) that anchor this terrifying film about a man, his mother, his young sister, and the woman he develops an attraction to as they—and the rest of the world—are besieged by flocks of birds that begin attacking for no apparent reason. But it works as a straight thriller, too. The terror is compounded by Hitchcock’s refusal to provide a possible reason for the attacks and the chilling last shot, which offers no closure, but suggests merely a lull before the real Apocalypse.
Oscar Spotlight: Nominated for Best Effects.
1) Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960)—One of Hitchcock’s most famous films, Psycho shocked audience’s during its initial release. This shock stemmed from several sources: the (for the time) blunt depictions of violence and sexuality, the offing of the primary protagonist halfway through the film, and—surprisingly—because Hitchcock showed a flushing toilet, which was unheard of at the time. Because of the unexpected twist halfway through the film, Hitchcock insisted that no late viewers be admitted to screenings, a rule that was highly publicized and used to promote the film and generate interest; Hitchcock, like William Castle, could be quite the showman. Even a bit of pat psychological exposition at the film’s end can’t undo the masterful horror that Hitchcock and his collaborators—Saul Bass and Bernard Herrmann, to name just a couple—unleash in this terrifying classic and AwardsWatch’s top-rated horror film.
Oscar Spotlight: Nominated for Best Art Direction and Cinematography (black and white) as well as Director and Supporting Actress, though it came away with no wins.
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