By Matt Singer | Criticwire April 9, 2012 at 9:15AM
Every week, Criticwire asks film critics a question, and brings you the responses in The Criticwire Survey. We also ask each member of the poll to pick the best film currently playing in theaters. The most popular choices can be found at the bottom of this post. But first, this week's question:
Q: "This week sees the release of the anticipated horror film 'The Cabin in the Woods.' In its honor, we're asking this question: what is your all-time favorite horror film and why?"
The critics' answers:
"Had the question been which horror film is the best or greatest, the answer would be relatively obvious: Alfred Hitchcock's 'Psycho' (1960), a film nearly as conceptually radical -- and in the same way -- as its exact contemporary, 'L'Avventura' (1960), and one that deserves more credit than any other for birthing the modern American cinema. I might still cite it as my favorite though only after pausing to measure my feelings against those for Christian Nyby and an uncredited Howard Hawks's 'The Thing from Another World' (1951), an emblem of the latter's humanism and democratic inclinations articulated in a richly composed middle-ground; Jacques Tourneur's 'I Walked with a Zombie' (1943), a deeply critical favorite of a favorite; John Carpenter's 'Halloween' (1978), a brilliant re-conceptualization of shot/reverse-shot editing within the horror context; and James Whale's 'The Old Dark House' (1932) -- primarily (though not exclusively) to raise the ire of our Criticwire host, Mr. Singer."
"I have to go with 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' (1974). It's elegantly simple: this big unstoppable motherfucker with a chainsaw is going to cut you to pieces, and there is nothing you can do about it. Unless, of course, you're the Final Girl. That inevitable confrontation of mortality at chainsaw-point frightens me more than ghosts or zombies or any of that. Also, for a movie that was shot for a buck and a half, it's way stylish, and always in the service of being scary."
"If 'Shaun of the Dead' counts, then that. But as for scary movies, my favorite will always be 'Poltergeist,' probably because it’s the only movie that has consistently frightened me since it came out, when I was five. I grew up in New England, which is particularly big on ghost stories and haunted houses; famed paranormal investigators The Warrens lived in my town and would visit local schools in order to tell their unbelievable tales. It was almost a contest for some families residing in old Colonial homes such as ours to brag about hearing noises and convincing others their basements or attics were the site of murders, hangings or suicides. All this would seem to prepare and desensitize me from being scared by a movie like 'Poltergeist,' and yet this film has so much going on and is so illustrative of all the fears that would otherwise be easily disregarded that it must have overloaded and overwhelmed my young imagination. I think during every thunderstorm of my childhood I had some expectation that the giant tree outside my window would reach in and grab me. I also have a soft spot for 'Poltergeist 3,' thanks to which I still do second takes when walking near mirrors."
"My favorite horror film has to be 'The Shining.' It's a smart, eerie, riveting psychological thriller that creates an unsettling and utterly believable world like few others in the genre. It also looks fresher and cleaner every year. It's a reminder that a horror film doesn't have to be stuffed with jump cuts or gritty filters to work, or to 'fit in' with whatever the genre's current overlords say it must. It's a terrifying film for its openness, its vivid color, and the relentless way Kubrick draws you into the twisted and surreal world of the Overlook Hotel. It's also just damn scary."
"I'm a total horror-phobe, so I haven't braved the majority of scary movies out there, but the ORIGINAL "cabin in the woods" flick -- 'The Evil Dead' -- is one I put my Big Girl Pants on for, and am always more than happy to revisit. It features Bruce 'The Chin' Campbell kicking ass, tree rape, Raimi POV camerawork at its most insane, demon possession, dismemberment and 'dead bodies in the cellar' ...what more could you want?"
"Too many horror films expire on repeat viewings, and very, very few do the opposite. For me, Kubrick’s 'The Shining' scared me as a child, scared me as a teenager, and now scares me as an adult. It is a film that becomes more terrifying as you explore it further, perpetually unfolding with each time you watch it, as you discover its subtextual depths, which are more horrific than the narrative itself."
"Fair or not, I tend to exclude films that seem to transcend the genre when I'm thinking about my favorite horror films. 'Psycho' and 'The Shining' would surely count, but are after something more, I think. So I'll go with Carpenter's 'Halloween.' It's scary, fun, has great music, basically started a sub-genre, and shows all the trademark pacing and skill of Carpenter's style. Awesome."
"I'll go with the original 'The Omen' directed by Richard Donner and starring Gregory Peck and Lee Remick. It's really the best example of the creepy kid horror movie, and it played with all sorts of interesting ideas of faith and religion -- if Jesus Christ might someday return, why not the Devil as well? The film featured a couple of the scariest moments of any film I've ever seen as well as the most gruesome deaths, and all of it works just as well the tenth time watching it as the first."
"'Shoah.' I'm not joking. (See Hannah Arendt quote.)"
"I'm not sure if this is technically considered 'horror,' but my gut instinct, when asked a question like this, is to go with 'Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.' It remains one of the most genuinely scary and disturbing films I've ever seen -- and not just because of creepy special effects, effective suspense setpieces, or jump scares. It has some supernatural elements, sure (Bob, the Red Room, and so on), but mostly David Lynch's prequel to his celebrated television series evokes the horror of Laura Palmer's slow-motion descent into her own personal hell. Maybe the most unnerving thing about it is that she is fully cognizant of what she's going through and where she's headed and yet she just can't seem to help herself. It's full-on psychological terror -- which may be the most horrific of all. And Lynch, as is typically the case with him, doesn't maintain any ironic distance towards his protagonist, which makes the experience all the more intense."
"'The Thing' (1982, dir. John Carpenter) - Great horror films reveal the power (and terror) of ambiguity. For me, John Carpenter's 'The Thing' remains one of the best horror films because it constructs an entire premise (and monster) around the erosion of individual certainty and the realization of communal doubt. All of Carpenter's brilliant trademark aesthetics (creeping sound design/score, landscape-dominated long shots) feed into this one dichotomy. The result is a tectonic plate of fear and repression effortlessly shifting underneath the character's feet. There is no finality or closure for them; just permanent isolation of the soul."
"So many films run through my head but I'm going with my gut and saying 'It's Alive.' Sure, a killer baby sounds pretty ridiculous but as I wrote about on my tumblr it's a film that, personally speaking, captures the look and feel of the movies I'd watch on Sunday afternoons. These early memories are hazy now but their impact remains. It's funny, scary, and the climax is affecting on a deeply felt emotional level. How many horror films do that? Also it has one of the best last lines in all of cinema."
"It's a battle between evil and evil: 'Rosemary's Baby' and 'The Exorcist.' I'm giving the edge to 'The Exorcist' because as much as I love Polanski's film, it's unnerving but not 'scary.' Even now, just the sound of Linda Blair channeling Mercedes McCambridge, or a quick glimpse of her rotting face, makes me want to run across the hallway to the comforts of my parents' bed."
"'Cemetary Man.' Building on the appeal of the 'Dylan Dog' comics but pushing them in far more abstract directions, Michele Soavi takes the qualities of zombies in a much more profound direction than (gulp) any of the Romero films, wildly entertaining as they are. It's never entirely clear if the cemetery proprietor brilliantly played by Rupert Everett actually faces hordes of undead or just loses his mind, but that same ambiguity allows the movie to inhabit a combination of extreme spookiness and dark comedy that -- like the plot of the movie -- plays by its own rules. I've never seen another horror movie like it."
"The obvious answer here is Hitchcock's 'Psycho,' and it has to be that film. The last time I watched it, I wasn't struck as much by the shower scene, but the sequence that follows it. For ten, almost silent minutes, we follow Norman Bates as he cleans the mess left by 'Mother.' Since we have no other characters on screen, our identification shifts to Norman -- we want him to succeed, even if we disapprove of the action he's doing. The moment that tops this is as Norman watches Marion's car sink into the bog. For a second, the car stops, and my heart did as well. The transfer of identification, from the victim to the perpetrator, is now complete."
"'Poltergeist.' Every time I scratch my face while looking in the mirror, I worry I'm going to peel my skin off."
"It may be as much a thriller as a horror movie, but I can't help but choose 'The Silence of the Lambs' as my favorite horror film of all time. The flick gave us Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Hannibal Lecter, but beyond that, it's just so effective at chilling you to your core while still investing you in the characters. Bar none, it's my favorite horror film."
"My all-time favorite horror movie is 'Alien.' The vast majority of horror movies are preoccupied with hitting formulaic scare beats, but Ridley Scott understood that withholding things is far creepier. In this movie, you keep anticipating that something is going to happen, and then it doesn't. The sensation of dread grows exponentially. Then, after almost an hour, something finally does happen, and it's the most horrific thing you could ever imagine. Because it understands how to mount tension to almost unbearable levels, 'Alien' is one of the few horror movies to legitimately scare me."
"'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.' One, because I'm from Texas, and you know, I have to have some home state pride. Two, it's so grimy and creepy and awful even after all these years. Three, the dance that Leatherface does at the very end with the chainsaw. I mean, that is poetry. Four, the voiceover by John Larroquette."
"I've worked and written within the horror genre for quite a few years, so this is a question that comes up often. To me, there is no better horror film than Whale's 'Bride of Frankenstein.' It's quintessential horror at its best. Little details like the German expressionist sets, Una O'Connor's overdone camp performance, and of course Karloff really paved the way for most horror thereafter. Ernest Thesiger's Doctor Pretorius is one of my favorite characters in all of film. A VERY close second and third for me would be two quite different films; John Carpenter's 'The Thing' and 'Return of the Living Dead.'"
"I love the big staples of horror from the '70 and '80s, films with directors that pushed the artistic value of the genre to new highs. But these days, I find most of the genre's entries to consistently fall below the bar. That's why Ben Wheatley's 'Kill List' blew me away at SXSW 2010 and why it might just be my favorite 'horror' film of all time. Frankly, I don't know what label to slap across it, but its crazed mixture of psychological drama and genre tropes freaked me the fuck out. I saw the movie twice in one day in Austin (which I attempted to follow with a cohesive review), but I was glad to have a year to stew on it, when my Operation Kino co-hosts and I finally dug into this meaty piece of horror."
"My all-time favorite horror film would have to be the original 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre.' I think it's my favorite because I saw it when I was about 10 years old while having a sleepover at a friend's house. It was the first time I was truly terrified. I wanted to shut it off, but couldn't stop watching it."
"'Jaws.' It's not just one of my favorite horror movies, it's one of my favorite movies period. 'Jaws' never fails to terrify and thrill me, plus it has really beautiful character work and humanity that gives all the terror a real weight. It's the total package."
"I'm not much of a horror person and scare very easily, but I still can't resist the wonderful strangeness of David Cronenberg's 'The Fly.' The combination of the classic Goldblum humor and the horrors that await him make the movie fascinating enough that I'm willing to be terrified."
"I hate horror movies, because I am a little wuss. Sudden jolts in volume are my deadliest enemy, and the decibel count has increased drastically in the last decade. (One title I saw for review, 'The Unborn,' was basically nothing but an alt-tab 10-to-80-db exercise.) Horror movies I like, therefore, better have a lot else going for them. These would include John Carpenter's still freakishly efficient 'Halloween,' all four parts of the 'Scream' series and -- because I guess 'The Devil's Rejects' isn't really a horror movie -- Rob Zombie's 'Halloween II,' which has a lot of very loud brutality that's more than compensated for by the numerous weird things that happen, like Weird Al telling off Malcolm McDowell's Dr. Loomis."
"Admittedly, I'm not much of a horror movie fan. For this reason alone, I'm tempted to just pick 'The Cabin in the Woods,' but I have a feeling that is (A) not allowed and (B) possibly premature and (C) a boring answer. So, instead, I'll pick a movie that I suspect will not be anywhere else on this list because it's not very good. But! No movie frightened me more as a child than the opening scene of 1979's 'When a Stranger Calls.' It was in heavy rotation on HBO in the early '80s and I was/am an only child and often found myself home alone. After watching that scene, I'd find myself home alone and scared. (Unfortunately, the rest of the movie isn't very good.)"
"My favorite horror film is 'The Shining' - simply the most ominous, unsettling, and layered work the genre has to offer. Though for pure terror, 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' ranks a reasonably close second, Kubrick's masterpiece remains a work of sustained formal and thematic virtuosity that constantly suggests new interpretations upon each viewing, all while delivering an incomparable atmosphere of unceasing homicidal madness."
"There are always certain films that you catch that unexpectedly stick with you for days, weeks, and often, months. You can’t stop thinking about them because their contents are so powerful and they touched you in some way or another. If you could drill a hole in your head and let those film bleed out, you wouldn’t; it becomes a happy burden. For me, it’s Sean Byrne’s 'The Loved Ones.' In his feature film debut, writer and director Sean Byrne perfectly synthesizes graphic violence with genuine dialogue and honest teenage emotions to tell a great horror story. 'The Loved Ones' could have turned gross for the sake of being gross, but Byrne assures the audience that the violence is necessary to push the narrative forward. In Byrne I trust."
"My all-time favorite horror movie is Lucky Mckee's 'May.' I gravitate towards horror where the director has sympathy for the monster, and anyone can sympathize with McKee's protagonist, a strange woman named May whose loneliness drives her to murder. It begins with her in the middle of a blood-curdling scream. She has one hand covering her eye as she looks into a mirror, wincing in agony. From there, McKee's approach is more subdued and inexorable. He takes time to develop his characters, none of whom fall into horror cliches. The final act, where May loses her mind, combines queasy realism and a tragic denouement. 'May' is the only horror movie I recommend to genre aficionados and neophytes alike. Certain scenes inevitably cause them to recoil in disgust (at one point, McKee subjects us to blind children crawling over broken glass). But what makes his movie stand out, and why I keep recommending it, is how it uses gore and violence to make us feel May's despair on a visceral level. Other horror movies made me cover my eyes and some even gave me nightmares. 'May' is one of the few that left me deeply unsettled, staying in my mind for years after seeing it."
The Best Movie Currently In Theaters on April 9, 2012:
The Most Popular Response: "The Kid With a Bike," "Damsels in Distress" (tie)
Other Movies Receiving Multiple Votes: "The Deep Blue Sea," "Jeff, Who Lives at Home"