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Penguin Pete’s Top Ten Horror Movies Of All Time

by "Penguin" Pete Trbovich on July 27th, 2018 | |

The present author promised to explain the reasoning behind my Top-Ten list, so here it is.

Here at the Satellite of Love, I do a lot of horror reviews, so it’s helpful to you readers to get a feel for what *I* consider to be the perfect horror movie; this list is ten examples. These are the flawless gems of the horror genre as I see it, each of them elevating the genre to an distinct art form. Some are canonical; others will surprise you. The method to my madness is explained either way.

#1. Psycho (1960)

No surprise here; Psycho always makes the cut. What sets Psycho apart, besides being arguably the first true “slasher movie,” is that it’s a film noir for most of the story. Marion is an embezzler, a criminal on the lam, and she’d never have met Norman Bates and his sketchy dive if she hadn’t been frantically fleeing town in the first place. Bates reciprocates by being her karmic executioner, while giving us one of the most canonical horror movie villains of all time. And of course, this movie innovated half the genre, and was a brilliant subversion of movie tropes at the time it was released. Toss in one of the finest directors of all time working at his peak, backed by one of the most iconic soundtracks of all time, and it asserts its place at #1.

#2. Alien (1979)

Part of what makes a horror movie work is examining the flaws and foibles of human nature. Alien is the ultimate existential crisis of being human against the void of the universe. We’d like to think of ourselves as conquering pioneers who meet all challenges head on; Alien shows we’re just squabbling monkeys who can be picked off like flies the moment we meet the unknown. When we meet actual extraterrestrial life for the first time, it probably won’t be the next Lance Armstrong being our ambassador. It will be these people: space miners more concerned with their union dues than advancing science. And if there is a dominant intergalactic species out there, it is probably something based on exploiting the weaknesses of other planets’ species.

#3. Eraserhead (1977)

Again examining the flaws of humanity, Eraserhead shows us how fragile the human mind is. In this post-industrial hellscape, Henry and Spencer have a baby; for this, they are punished and driven mad by an apparently Lovecraftian god with unguessable rules of its own. It is claimed that this movie defies logic; I say it makes perfect sense: Humans are tragic creatures caught between their godly aspirations and their animalistic drives, while having narrow minds that only comprehend the outside world in rigidly constructed categories in a universe that isn’t built for that. It is the universe itself which defies logic – and that is a horrifying situation.

#4. The Wicker Man (1973)

Humanity flaw again: Humans have this drive to find higher powers than themselves, and will make them up in the absence of one, then argue with each other about whose totem is correct. The Wicker Man is about much more than a cult; Sergeant Howie arrives on that island intent to enforce some good old British civilization with the crown and church behind him. The island, Lord of the Flies for adults, is the savage nature on the dark side of humanity. And it wins. But the people on the island aren’t stupid, just corrupted by the hand of Lord Summerisle, who is chucklingly confident that his domain will hold its ground. Real life cult leaders such as the Reverend Jim Jones and Marshall Applewhite continue to remind us that the folly of mass delusion stays chained to our heel.

#5. The Shining (1980)

No parables of human nature here, this is just a good ghost story with a great director. It’s got a faerie tale structure and functions like any cabin in the woods genre flick with a bigger, fancier cabin. What sets The Shining apart is the sheer high art of this movie. Every scene is a signature, every scare is terrifying, every idea has sired a dozen memes. The performances are all superb, the sets are the most iconic visuals of the horror genre. It is the kick-ass best at everything it does. Director Stanley Kubrick never made a dull movie; each of his films are like the human race viewed through the eyes of aliens, and The Shining shows us naked and afraid against the cold.

#6. The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Good horror should make you afraid, and you’re seldom scared in adult life as you were when you were a kid. The Night of the Hunter is a perfect faerie tale told entirely through the eyes of the child protagonists. The novel it’s based on was specifically intended to illuminate the real-life horrors of how vulnerable children were during the Great Depression, and the movie turns that into a Southern Gothic nightmare. The Reverend Harry Powell is also one of the scariest movie villains ever; not only is he a complete monster, but he can pass himself off as a fine upstanding citizen in front of all adult authority figures. Only the children see his fangs and horns. Every child who was ever been abused or stalked but couldn’t get Social Services to believe them identifies with the defenseless kids, John and Pearl, who have to grow up far too fast to fight for their survival.

#7. Suspiria (1977)

Here again, it’s all about the art. Dario Argento creates such a stunning vision in Suspiria that it just flat-out transcends the art form. The story, a sort of fever-dream on its own, wouldn’t be that remarkable in another context, but the style in this case bolsters the substance. Between the candy colored lights, Gothic architecture, hypnotic Goblin soundtrack, and foreboding mood, Suspiria is one of the few examples of a good psychedelic movie. New viewers aren’t that impressed with it at first, but it works under your skin, gradually resurfacing in glimpses and visions when your defenses are down.

#8. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Horror films are seldom recommended for their plot nor acting alone, but The Silence of the Lambs fills in perfectly. The story, based on Thomas Harris’ novel, is chock full of twisty plot points within a solid police procedural frame; while Hannibal Lecter, Clarice Starling, and Buffalo Bill form a shifting triangle of influence, each character larger than life. In the end, they get their Buffalo while the Cannibal escapes; a trade-off that steals a clean victory from the protagonist. And need we mention, Hannibal Lecter is one of the most iconic villains in all horror cinema? He’s a realization that many strive for but few achieve; a brilliant genius who is also an amoral psychopath, able to assault your mind as easily as he can lash out to strike at your body.

#9. Triangle (2009)

My most controversial pick to be sure, but I’m here to defend it. Triangle is a cross between Groundhog Day and Friday the 13th, but that’s just the base ingredients. What sets this movie apart is a David-Lynch quality without involving David Lynch; it explains little, yet you can watch it again and again and all the parts stick together down to their tiniest detail. The details pry it loose from a purely rational explanation. Is this a real-life chain of events, or is it the tortured death-dream of Jess, mired in her personal hell framed by elements of classical Greek mythology? How did it start, why is it happening, and will it ever end? We can’t know, and in that way Triangle is a definitive horror movie for being the perfect expression of horror at its most fundamental: Chaos without mercy.

#10. Phantasm (1979)

It’s ironic that Phantasm should be at #10, because it manages to combine several elements from the movies above. It, too, is a children’s nightmare told from a kids’ eye view. It, too, defies all logic, but stays tight within its own rigidly constructed, death-obsessed universe. Along the way, it raises questions about the human relationship with mortality. There’s no pragmatic reason for us to treat death the way we do, but we’ve always done it this way. It doesn’t matter if The Tall Man comes from another galaxy or from the boogies hiding in our closet; he holds up a fun-house mirror to our own insecurities, and kicks us on a psychological level where we don’t quite know how to defend ourselves.

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