As I have often alluded to, I am a child of the 70s. Likewise, my horror journey lead me through many films that would now be considered old-school classics. Others might even feel that some of these movies are cheesy, or that they don’t “hold up”. I can assure you that when viewed through a child’s eyes, these films were ALL mind blowing. I want to take a moment to lay out the 10 Essential Horror Films to Know Malevolent Dark. These are the films that lead to a lifetime of horror fandom.
These films will be split across two posts and will be placed in no particular order. I simply couldn’t bear choose between my favorite children and rank them. To derive the order of the films I numbered one through ten on a sheet of paper. Their placement in this list will be decided by 1d10.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) – The Ultimate in Horror
Many consider, and Malevolent Dark would agree, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) to be the king of kings in horror. Never before had a movie descended headlong into the depths of insanity and cannibalistic depravity. Directed by Tobe Hooper, this film may be the best example of wrenching massive critical success from the jaws of a non-existent budget. My first glance of this film came in a brief snippet in the 1984 horror film documentary Terror in the Aisles (1984). Upon seeing that clip, I could think of nothing else but the brutish monstrosity of a man exploding through the front door of a old farmhouse.
After a few months of begging my parents at the local B.A.C. Video Store, they let me rent this masterpiece on Betamax. It changed me forever.
The film took me on a journey into pure and terrifying psychological horror. Tobe Hooper left me completely shaken. The closing scenes were so harrowing that I could only let out a gasp of relief as a broken and bloody Sally Hardesty laughed manically as she narrowly escaped. How bad was it? It is literally the first movie that gave me anxiety as I contemplated watching it a second time the following day. Fortunately I rose to the challenge, and was able to really take the film the second time.
With The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Tobe Hooper created a masterpiece of horror. It demonstrates a style of terror film-making that is both brutal and barbaric, but technically brilliant and beautiful.
House on Haunted Hill (1959) – Where it all Began
I have said before at Malevolent Dark, House on Haunted Hill (1959) was the first film that made me love horror. Up until that point, I had witnessed my share of monster movies. King Kong and Godzilla, or better yet, King Kong vs. Godzilla had occupied much of my time. I had great introductions into horror’s great characters: Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy. These introduction came via two great horror studios, Universal and Hammer Productions. My point is, by that point in my young life (age 5), I already possessed a pretty strong horror resume.
Something about House on Haunted Hill changed things. This film, directed by William Castle, offered a completely different style of horror. House on Haunted Hill is a story of infidelity and dishonesty. It is a film about greed and revenge. At the end of the film, its not entirely clear that Haunted Hill is in fact Haunted, but actually a victim of the horrible people that insist on filling its halls. House on Haunted Hill is a film about the evil that men and women do.
For black and white film in the late 50’s, the inclusion of fully severed heads blew my mind. Castle also pulled off one of the most wicked jump scares to hit the screen. The marital dynamics between Carol Ohmart and Vincent Price (my hero as a young boy) were clearly profound even for a child. Finally inclusion of fantastic modern architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House provided incredible contrast to the battered cliché of gothic architecture and squeaky wrought iron fences.
House on Haunted Hill is the films that launched a lifelong fascination with horror cinema, and ultimately provides the foundation for Malevolent Dark.
Re-Animator (1985) – Love and Gore from Miskatonic University
I have mentioned it before, and eventually we will do a complete article on the topic. 1985 was a banner year for horror. everything seemed to be clicking. Fangoria magazine had hit its stride with it 50th issue. Special effects as an artform had reached its pinnacle. The artist behind it (Tom Savini, Rick Baker, Stan Winston, Dick Smith) became a bigger draw for the studio than the directors. Great films just kept coming and coming in 1985. One of my most anticipated films was Re-Animator.
Directed by Stuart Gordon and based on the great work of H.P. Lovecraft, this film seemed to have everything that a 10 year old boy could want in a film. Speaking specifically of Fangoria issue #50, it featured a wonderful pictorial and article titled “Literary Zombies” written by David Everitt. The article had me bubbling with anticipation. I simply could not wait for its arrival at my local video store. When that fateful day arrived, I could not be more pleased with what I found.
Stuart Gordon’s film bubbled with originality. The over the top performance of Jeffery Combs as the modern day Frankenstein, Dr. Herbert West, oozed black humor and self-aggrandizing narcissism. Some of Gordon’s film soared so high that under normal circumstances it could be considered ridiculous. However, the horrific events and substantial gore consistently keeps the film rooted to the ground. I mean, how else could one get away with a re-animated severed head performing cunnilingus on a scream queen Barbara Crampton?
While 1985 was filled with fantastic horror contributions, Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator holds a special place in the deep dark recesses of Malevolent Dark. And, Dr. Herbert West’s crimes against nature would undeniably secure a sacred spot as one of the 10 Essential Horror Films to Know Malevolent Dark.
Phantasm (1979) – Blood and Chrome
This likely won’t be the last time I reference the Saturday Night Shocker. Back in Saint Louis on KPLR channel 11 on Saturday night, the local kids would get treated to a select horror movie at 10PM. Back before our family gained the prestige to own a VCR, this provided my only tether to the world of horror. One of those late night gems was Phantasm (1979), directed by Don Coscarelli. Whoa, what a mind-blowing experieince.
Fortunately for myself, I had never heard of this film prior to it making the Saturday Night Shocker playlist. Coming into this film with literally no understanding and no foreshadowing from trailers that reveal too much. Right from the start Phantasm reached out and held me in it clutches. When the flying sphere of death makes it first appearance, I could only stare at the screen with awe.
But, there is so much more to this film. The obvious bits came in the form squashed re-animated from the recent dead. The The Tall Man played by Agnus Scrimm offered a iconic bad guy. Pan-dimensional portals and a science fiction mystery that refuses to give up the ‘what’ or the ‘why’ leaves the filmgoer befuddled. Underlying all of that fantastic story-telling was a story of profound sadness.
After losing his parents in an un explained tragedy, lead character Mike Pearson loses his only caregiver, his brother Jody. As a youth, the uneasy feeling of loneliness pervades the rest of the film. Yet, he manages to create this loving bond with his brother’s best friend, Reggie. After all of this emotional development and posturing of hope the shocking end kicks you in gut and leaves you with sinking feeling of despair.
Phantasm still stands as one of the most original horror movies of all time and is essential viewing for all horror fans in the eyes of Malevolent Dark.
Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (1972) – Ewww, it’s gross
If it weren’t for the practice of jamming trailers at the beginning of video-tapes, this one might have escaped my grasp. The trailer seemed very strange and off-kilter. It introduces the crazy circumstances of a group of theater students have a jolly good time with rotting corpses that they had unearthed. Was it a comedy? Was it horror? I couldn’t tell for sure, but I had to see it.
What I found in Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (1972), was a fascinating combination of both comedy and horror. Directed by Bob Clark and written by Alan Ormsby, this film proves highly effective and strikingly stylish. In all honesty, it really doesn’t go deep into uncharted territory. By this time, George Romero had already created all of the farmhouse claustrophobia anyone could handle. But Bob Clark’s film does something better. It enshrouds itself in a thick fog of dread and tension.
Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things deftly moves from childish antics and lame black comedy to suffocating dread in the confines of a cottage collapsing with the living dead. Due to the prolific careers of its producers, this little-known film would lead me to classics such as Black Christmas (1974), Deathdream (1974), Deranged (1974). Yeah, it appears 1974 was a good year for horror as well!
The foreboding tension of this film somehow overcomes its many flaws and obvious financial limitations. Still, it left an indelible mark, and left me feeling uneasy as the final sequence rolled. Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things easily secured a place on The 10 Essential Horror Films to Know Malevolent Dark.
But Wait, There’s More!
Thank you for reading Part 1 of the 10 Essential Horror Films to Know Malevolent Dark. Stay tuned for Part 2.