I doubt I could really do this sort of thing for all movies, as there are just too many I wouldn’t fancy leaving out. So I thought I’d just do horror movies this time – my favourite film genre, and it leaves it open for me to work on another genre when ideas for the Desert-Islandy things begin to dry up.
But the seasoned film buff may sense a problem here, and that’s the openness to interpretation that the term “horror movie” attracts. Father Dougal, we must recall, found “a Volkswagen with a mind of its own” to be the stuff of nightmares, after all. However, here you’re just going to have to make do with what I decide is a horror movie. Let’s face it, it’s an unlikely enough scenario that I’d suddenly have to grab ten of my favourite horrors before being cast away on a desert island that presumably has a fully-working home cinema system and power supply, without having to add the notion of a customs official testing each film against a list of pre-ordained criteria. Let’s just leave reality out of this, okay?
So here we go, in no particular order (until the top three). Unlike my last couple of these things, no reserves, just a top ten.
There aren’t too many American movies that are at least partially set in the Yorkshire Moors, which really helps this one. You’ve got the classic dumb American teenagers who stumble into the Slaughtered Lamb pub (a great name if ever there was one), full of not entirely welcoming people who suddenly become bad at darts. But the intrepid young explorers are at least told to stay away on the roads. That’s the last thing they do, obviously, and it’s not long before they both become a midnight snack for some hideous toothy beast. One of them dies, the other ends up having a fling with Jenny Agutter, which is a good recommendation for lycanthropic savagery in anybody’s book. However, he soon realises that he’s become a werewolf, and we’re treated to one of the better werewolf scene changes that cinema has produced. The film ends with his alter-ego going on the rampage in central London, where surprisingly, people actually notice, and the Met police actually try to do something about it. Look out for a young Rik Mayall playing chess in the pub scene at the beginning.
Theatre of Blood (1973)
If you like your horror colourful, melodramatic and with Vincent Price in, look no further. Our Vinnie, the chap who gave us the creepy voice in Michael Jackson’s Thriller, plays Edward Lionheart, a has-been Shakespearean actor who has faked his own death, and plots revenge on the local critic’s circle who have not looked favourably upon his work. And the best part – he kills them all in the manner of Shakespearean deaths. There are lovely gory moments, like the surgical beheading of Captain Mainwairing, and the realisation of what’s happened to those poor, innocent poodles. Being melodrama, it’s camp and over the top, but knowingly so, which makes everything all right. Diana Dors is in it too, which helps any film. A must for any actor who has ever felt that they’d fancy shuffling a critic off their mortal coil. So a must for any actor.
We’re talking James Whale’s version here, from 1931. This is the film that gave us the iconic imagery we always associate with Frankenstein – The lumbering, square-headed creature with bolts in his neck that turned Boris Karloff into a movie legend, the electronic lab equipment and Colin Clive’s manic screams of “It’s Aliiiiiive!” on realising that his creature was aliiiiiive. Karloff is brilliant as the docile creature, though, and you can’t help but feel sorry for him – even after the very controversial scene with the girl and the flower, which even today you can’t watch it with feeling some sense of utter dread. The sequel Bride of Frankenstein, is almost as good, and even has Katie Nana out of Mary Poppins as the creature’s intended. Odd that those are the two roles she’s best known for. Like many of Universal’s 1930s flagship horrors, it spawned numerous other sequels that weren’t nearly as good, but always either referred to a relative of the monster (“Aunt of Dracula!”) or some unlikely combo (“The Invisible Man Meets Frankenstein Meets The Wolfgirl!”). Best watched drunk, those ones.
Carry on Screaming (1966)
Okay, fair enough. Not really a horror. But I’m on a desert island, and some comedy now and then would be welcome, what with all the horror stuff I’ve brought along. This just about fits the bill as horror – It’s a spoof mostly of Hammer movies, but with nods to Universal horrors and one or two others. Here the villains – Kenneth Williams and (swoon) Fenella Fielding, are running a beastly operation to turn pretty young girls into mannequins, before selling them off to shops. The girls are abducted by Oddbodd – a boiler-suited half-Frankenstein’s-Monster-half-werewolf halfwit, whose body parts can regenerate with an electrical charge. Inspector Sidney Bung takes on the case of the missing women with his foolish sidekick, Slowbottom. It’s full of the usual Carry On stuff – pretty ladies, lusty fellas, innuendo and silly jokes. Oddly, no Sid James in this one, but Harry H. Corbett makes up for it in the role of the downtrodden Bung.
The Omen (1976)
Both The Omen and The Exorcist were gamechangers in the Horror world when they came out, being set in the modern day, with spooky music, and having an element of Satanism within. Excuse me for a moment while I shoot myself in the face for having used the word “gamechangers”.
Okay, done. Boy, did that hurt. Anyway – The Spawn of Satan is born, and some fool does the old switcheroo with the Prince of Darkness and a US diplomat’s kid. You initially wonder how anyone would notice, but it soon becomes strikingly obvious that he’s a bit odd – when he goes to church, he screams. When he visits the zoo, the monkeys scream. When he has a birthday party, his nanny hangs herself. Gregory Peck, the diplomat in question, realises something is wrong (you don’t say), and investigates it with the help of a photographer. In truth, this movie is best remembered (by me at any rate), for the crazy death scenes that fans of the Final Destination series should enjoy. There’s a priest impaled by a church lightning rod, and the photographer is decapitated by a pane of glass. Gritty and gory in a way that Hammer or Universal would never have dared. The 2006 sequel had its charms, but this original will always stand out.
The Wolfman (1941)
Often considered by the first werewolf film by people who’ve never seen the earlier Werewolf of London, this Universal Horror from the early forties is the more famous of the two, and features Lon Chaney Jr. as the transmogrifying terror. He play Larry Talbot who, thanks to a gypsy curse – one of those gypsies being Bela Lugosi – becomes very hairy and toothy, with a taste for liking his steaks very rare, at a full moon. Like any good werewolf flick, at first he doesn’t realise it’s him committing all the weird murders going on – making the goodie also the baddie, and making film students wonder just how they analyse the conflicts between protagonist and antagonist. The film also stars Claude Rains of The Invisible Man fame, making it one of the early horror ensemble casts.
The Nanny (1965)
Okay, so this doesn’t sound like a horror, especially as Bette Davis is the title character. But it’s one of the most interesting Hammer movies about – perhaps because it doesn’t look at all like Hammer. In fact, had I not known it was a Hammer, I’d have thought it was Hitchcock. Possibly more suspense/thriller than horror, then, but it seems to deserve inclusion here.
We begin with a young boy being taken back home after a stay in some sort of institution for kids with behavioural problems. We don’t know quite what these were, but it’s clear that there’s some serious animosity toward the family’s nanny from the boy. He considers here evil. He’s considered a troublemaker. We don’t know quite what to believe. But as the film’s plot opens up, we begin to see why the tension’s there. We slowly discover who IS the malign influence. In some quite shocking detail, for a film of that age (and in black and white). A cinematic gem, but an unfortunately little-known one.
But now, we come to the top three. I’ve found it too difficult to rank these three, so I won’t put them in any sort of order. Oddly enough, they all star Christopher Lee. Which is only right.
Sleepy Hollow (1999)
It’s Tim Burton. And it stars Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci and Christopher Lee. Plus Uncle Monty, Emperor Palpatine, Dumbledore (v2.0), Alfred the Butler (v2.0), Queenie from Blackadder, Winona Ryder’s dad out of Beetlejuice, Darth Maul and the guy out of Pulp Fiction who kept the watch up his arse. And more. How’s that for a cast?
It’s a looser-than-loose interpretation of Washington Irving’s story, putting Depp’s Ichabod Crane in the role of a detective sent to investigate some beheadings in upstate New York. Crane is a man of science, and disbelieves stories of ghosts and a Headless Horseman. But after he finds a strange tree that can only be a Tim Burton creation, and sees the horseman appear, he has other ideas. All this while he’s falling in love with Christina Ricci (who wouldn’t?) and she’s falling in love with him (who wouldn’t?), and the townsfolk are losing patience with him, as one or two others lose their heads, literally. And it’s filmed with a slightly blue tinge to give it even more of a gloomy, macabre look. It basically has everything – great cast, great direction, great script, and a big spider.
Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)
You’ve got to love Christopher Lee for this movie, not just because he’s the definitive Count (sorry, Bela), but also because he steadfastly refused to say any of the lines given to him – as he thought Bram Stoker would never have written them. It’s Christopher Lee’s second Hammer Dracula, and bears all of the hallmarks of the studio – filmed in that nice bright Eastman colour, with Bernard Robinson’s grand, lush sets and James Bernard’s cracking score. The plot is also very typical – four travellers in Transylvania end up at the mysterious castle that the locals (all from the West Country, it seems) refuse to acknowledge. It is, of course, Old Pointy Tooth’s castle, and when they’ve been told they can stay for dinner, they’re clearly misreading the signals. One throat-slitting and smoky transformation later, Drac’s out of his coffin and ready to sink his fangs into Barbara Shelley – you can’t dispute the man’s taste. But one fellow gets away and brings back a priest to sort out Dracula once and for all, at least until the next sequel that Hammer did. To my mind, it’s the best film Hammer ever did – and if you presume yourself to be a fan of Hammer, and haven’t seen it, then you can get out of my blog right now, thank you.
The Wicker Man (1973)
Often considered the best British horror film, The Wicker Man is certainly different in horror terms. Nothing supernatural, a soundtrack of folk music, and religious ideology that’s more about pleasing the old gods than summoning Satan. Rowan Morrison has apparently gone missing from the Scottish island of Summerisle, and Edward Woodward is the copper sent from the mainland to find her. But what he finds is the locals denying her very existence, despite everything pointing to the fact that she does, or has existed. His inner Christian is further enraged by the pagan rituals, often involving sex or nudity, that prevail on the island. The seemingly affable Lord Summerisle, a part written for Christopher Lee, allows him the wherewithal to continue his investigations, but…no, I’m not going to spoil it. Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee are excellent, and we have Ingrid Pitt (mmmmm) and Britt Ekland (mmmmm) too. The music is beautiful, being all folky and appearing out of place in such a sinister plot. And that final scene is just frabjous – The Wicker Man in full glory, the setting sun, and the Summerisle citizens singing joyously.
And if, before reading this, you thought I was on about a Nicholas Cage film of the same name, get the Hell out of my internet.