The British may own spooks and black magic through their dominating James Bond and Harry Potter icons, but the Germans initially ruled over the birth of horror films. The first masterpiece of the genre is the expressionistic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Modern concepts of hypnotism and mind control are expressed in this film, although the CIA would not adopt them for another 20 years or so.
The Manchurian Candidate (1962) is one of the greatest spy movies ever made, and also a terrific horror story with many layers. It introduced the concept of brainwashing through psychic driving and ritual abuse. In fact, the story was so on target the film had to be pulled for many years after JFK was assassinated, simply because the assassination had too many similarities with this story. In fact, Oswald was undoubtedly a victim of MKULTRA hypnosis programming. The 1960s was really the classic era of this genre and half my top ten come from the decade.
Carnival of Souls (1962) sets the record for low budget, having been made for around $33,000. Despite the lack of any real resources, its a psychological masterpiece driven by an incredibly disturbing organ soundtrack. People have tried to remake this but never to the same effect.
Alfred Hitchcock is one of the great masters of the genre and made many films that deserve consideration, including Psycho. But The Birds (1963) is my favorite of all the scary films Hitch made, and it’s been made all the more disturbing by the recent revelations he used the production to torment the female star, Tippie Hedren, because she refused to submit to his sexual desires.
My favorite director in this genre, however, is Roman Polanski, and his Repulsion (1965) is without doubt one of the most disturbing psychological experiences of my life, the first real immersion into the world of psychosis.
It doesn’t take a big budget to make a great horror film, and that’s been proven over and over. I don’t really care for the slasher films and gore is not my bag, and in a way I guess this film got a lot of that trend going, but today it seems super tame in that regard. Night of the Living Dead (1968) was an original update on the zombie film.
I don’t know why The Tenant (1976) doesn’t get the respect it deserves. Although I enjoyed the basic horror melodrama Rosemary’s Baby, I found this film far more psychologically interesting, exploring concepts of psychic possession and split personality syndrome in a highly original manner. One of the most under celebrated films you’ll ever see.
The Shining (1980) was strangely uncelebrated when it came out, although I found it to be one of the scariest films I ever sat through, a real descent into madness even more powerful than Polanski’s Repulsion. It did eventually attain the status it deserves and now serves as a launching pad for numerous rabbit holes and disinfo stories, so great is its resonance on the telepathic plane.
Talk about psychologically disturbing, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) set a new bar in that regard. Proving once again that big budgets don’t necessarily make for big horror, director John McNaughton fashioned this masterpiece on a measly $100,000 budget. The film launched a few careers and deservedly so. And I should add I’ve known John since high school and recruited him into my band The Soul Assassins in 1988 in New York City to play organ.
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) is a wonderful merger of fantasy and horror and seems to owe a ton of inspiration to The Shining, especially the ending. Of all horror films released in the last few decades, this one really stands out as my favorite.