James Wayland is the author of the novels Trailer Park Trash & Vampires
James Wayland is the author of the novels Trailer Park Trash & Vampires and Dirty Southside Jam, as well as the novella Just the Fright Job – the man knows good horror. So when he asked if we’d run his top 20 horror movies, we jumped at the chance. You can check out his picks for top horror films 20-15 here and 15-11 here. Here is the next installment for Wayland’s top horror flicks below:
#10 Fright Night (1985)
A neat blend of comedy and horror, Fright Night is my favorite vampire movie and one of my favorite horror movies in general. I have always been a big fan of Roddy McDowall’s work, and the role of genre actor Peter Vincent (who is famous for playing a fearless vampire slayer) may have been the best part Roddy ever got to play. Likewise, the vastly underrated Chris Sarandon is splendid as Jerry Dandrige, a suave vampire who deftly veers from seductive charmer to frightening monster whenever the script calls for it. The plot concerns a teenager named Charlie Brewster (William Ragsdale) who is rather intrigued by his new neighbor. One night, he’s spying on this recent addition to the neighborhood when he sees Jerry sprout fangs and realizes that he is living next door to a vampire. This is very problematic, for Jerry notices Charlie looking on and decides that he has to deal with this curious youngster. Charlie is a big fan of Peter Vincent’s hokey vampire films, so no one is willing to believe him, least of all the timid star himself. Yet Vincent reluctantly agrees to help Charlie, and thus a teenager and a horror film vet must enter the vampire’s lair at night and do battle with the undead. The effects are splendid and Tom Holland did a fantastic job with the direction. There are lots of laughs, an abundance of suspense, and some serious scares in the mix. I like the score a lot, and the supporting cast (including Amanda Bearse, Stephen Geoffreys, and Jeffrey Stark) is solid. Everything works to perfection throughout Fright Night, and it is truly rare to find a horror film that is so damn enjoyable. The humor never veers toward parody and the fright factor is strong with this one. It may be the only vampire movie to make my Top 20, but Fright Night is a great representative for that beloved sub-genre.
#9) Halloween (1978)
Simple but highly effective, John Carpenter’s Halloween is a fantastic film that remains at the forefront of the slasher sub-genre. This smash hit produced on a shoestring budget heralded the emergence of one of the genre’s most celebrated directors and also signified the arrival of Jamie Lee Curtis, scream queen extraordinaire. In addition to putting a spotlight on Carpenter’s talent as a director and Jamie Lee’s acting chops, Halloween gave us the perfect boogeyman in Michael Myers and laid the groundwork for one of the genre’s most frightening franchises. Donald Pleasance is also in the mix, and he shines in one of his signature roles as Dr. Loomis, the determined but panic-stricken shrink who couldn’t keep Michael locked away and is thereby determined to shoot him dead. Good luck with that. The mood and the atmosphere are incredible; in addition to creating a wealth of suspense and dread with ample foreshadowing that makes the most of Michael’s unnerving presence, Halloween also perfectly captures the essence of the spooky season. The kills are shocking, the tension is almost unbearable at times, and I think this film benefits from one of the best endings the genre has produced. It may not be all that complex and the deliberate pace and the lack of gore may disappoint some horror fans, but Halloween does everything right. It’s a classic film from a gifted director and it should be mandatory viewing for any respectable horror fan as the end of October draws nigh.
#8) Return of the Living Dead (1985)
So, this is one of these weird situations where I’m comparing things and I come to the realization that one of them is my favorite while I recognize another as being superior. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. That makes sense to me, so hopefully it makes sense to you too. Anyway, there is another zombie movie featured on this list that I find to be a better motion picture, but Return of the Living Dead makes up for any flaws it has with a major dose of entertainment value. It is the definitive take on the subject? No. Is it the most enjoyable take on the subject? Absolutely. This movie has it all: laughs, scares, a soundtrack for the ages, and a fabulous cast. There isn’t a true star in the mix, but everyone involved makes the most of their part, and the stellar script by director Dan O’Bannon gives every character some quality material to work with. The effects are great and there is an abundance of gore. Most importantly, as I’ve stated on numerous occasions, I do not believe that there is a movie out there with better dialogue. As shit gets real, the characters verbally spar with one another, and their exchanges are charged with energy and fear. O’Bannon’s direction is fabulous, and I give him an abundance of credit for putting together this invigorating and fresh take on a beloved sub-genre that produces a lot of really solid movies that seldom deviate from the formula. Dan did his own thing with Return of the Living Dead, and the end result is a real asskicker of a movie that is equal parts hilarious and horrifying.
#7) An American Werewolf in London (1981)
The finest werewolf movie ever filmed is quite the absurdity. Director John Landis takes several familiar staples from this particular sub-genre and employs them to tremendous effect, yet he also runs wild with the concept. Thus, there are big laughs, horrifying nightmare sequences, and dead friends who still drop by from time to time to hang out and encourage our main character to kill himself. The transformation sequence is the stuff of legend, and the soundtrack that Landis put together (every song refers to the moon) is positively delightful. The cast, led by David Naughton and Griffin Dunne as a pair of American backpackers, is splendid, and the script is lively and inventive. Like the other movies to make my list that include a bit of humor, the film never becomes a parody, and the chuckles are offset by some chilling material that greatly benefits from stellar effects work and an obvious affection for gore. The movie does a great job of developing a sinister mood that is frequently interrupted by gruesome hijinks and those devilish nightmares. The end result is a special picture that is truly unique. While offering up a sound and gripping yarn about the tragic curse of the werewolf, An American Werewolf in London takes lots and lots of left turns along the way, keeping the audience on their toes. It’s a joy to behold and calling it the finest werewolf movie ever filmed seems like a bit of an understatement. No other film of this ilk has ever come close to challenging An American Werewolf in London for that title, and it’s hard to believe that such a film will ever be produced. This wild and hairy ride is a delirious smorgasbord of delights that should thrill any red-blooded fan of the horror genre.
#6) Deep Red (1975)
Dario Argento used to make top-notch horror films; he was known for his deft use of a moving camera and his lively color palettes which served to inject a surreal element into his work. Dario was no stranger to gore either, and he had a serious jones for twisted plots. Though he has completely lost his ability to make a quality film in this day and age, Argento was lighting up the screen with sensational chillers and gruesome thrillers in the 70s and 80s. In my personal opinion, while Suspiria will always be more popular, this is his finest film. Suspiria was #15 on my list and it is surely a top-shelf horror film, but for my money, Deep Red is more exciting and far more fulfilling. While Suspiria is a fairy tale of sorts, Deep Red is a blood-curdling mystery that is equal parts slasher flick and ghost story, though to label it as either would be inaccurate. David Hemmings stars as a pianist who witnesses a horrific murder without being able to identify the killer. Soon, he and an intrepid reporter (the wonderful Daria Nicolodi as Gianna Brezzi) are trying to solve a vicious mystery that reaches into the past. As they work to uncover the truth, the death toll rises and it becomes quite clear that they are in great danger. Stellar cinematography, an amazing score by Goblin, and one of Argento’s most inventive plots come together in Deep Red, an elaborate whodunit that is full of scares and twists. Finally, while there can be no doubt that the death scenes in Suspiria are sick and demented, the murders that occur in Deep Red may be even more disturbing.
#5) The Shining (1980)
More akin to a different vision of Stephen King’s terrifying book than a faithful adaptation of that titan’s work, this Stanley Kubrick venture is definitely one of the most striking horror films of them all. Jack Nicholson is front and center throughout, and he wrings every drop of entertainment out of an iconic part. True, Nicholson’s Jack Torrance lacks the depth and the warmth that makes his literary counterpart’s sinister downfall a tragic affair. Yet his take on the character yields one of the most sensational villains in the history of the cinema, as Jack’s work in The Shining is both horrifying and a joy to behold. It is most certainly a performance for the ages, and thought it towers over the motion picture itself, Kubrick’s peerless direction and Shelley Duvall’s emotionally charged acting are also superb assets that are integral to the success of this beloved classic. While some may chafe at the way Kubrick disregards many aspects of the source material, the movie has an irresistible appeal and it is clearly a horror film of the highest order. The technical merits of The Shining are beyond reproach, and while there can be no doubt that Stanely Kubrick was both immensely talented and incredibly prolific, I think that this terrifying journey into insanity and violence is his most remarkable film. Furthermore, though his career is littered with fabulous star turns, this is probably my favorite example of Jack’s magnificent talent as well. The Shining is both legitimately creepy and totally fascinating, and it greatly benefits from the presence of a gifted cast and one of the finest directors in the history of the cinema.
#4) Dawn of the Dead (1978)
George Romero invented the zombie genre as we know it with Night of the Living Dead, and he perfected this ever-popular sub-genre with his insightful and provocative follow-up. Seldom has social commentary been so entertaining, and few horror films offer as much in the way of a character study. Some may complain about the lengthy running time, but Romero made great use of every minute. Dawn of the Dead is never dull, and the bonds that we forge with the four leads only serve to enhance the emotional undercurrent running through this captivating yarn. At times, the picture is grim and utterly terrifying, but it also contains moments that are downright hilarious. Then there are several thrilling sequences that give way to gory mayhem on a massive scale. Tom Savini’s effects work is wicked cool, and Romero clearly got everything that he could get out of this riveting tale. Ken Foree, Gaylen Ross, David Emge, and Scott H. Reiniger are totally invested in their roles, and each player has a nice arc that defines their character as this weary quartet struggles to survive a blood-soaked nightmare. Dripping with gore, peppered with subversive humor, and exceptionally well-made, I think that declaring Dawn of the Dead to be the best zombie movie of all time is an easy decision. Yes, I enjoy Return of the Living Dead a bit more, but there can be no doubt that Dawn of the Dead is a far richer movie.
Stay tuned next week for the TOP 10 List for Best Horror Movies by James Wayland.
We’ll put the rest of Wayland’s list up as we get closer to the big day, until then check out his blog here.
If you’re looking for a way to get in the Halloween spirit outside of these movies, make sure you check out our Halloweek series of events here!