113 MUST SEE HORROR FILMS (1960-2020)

This post is an update from my original 50 must see horror film list (2013).

In our house, we watch an intense thriller or horror film about once a month. We ramp it up every October to around 8-10 horror films to celebrate Hallowe’en. I admit there were a couple films on this list my wife couldn’t finish and I don’t blame her … although she did make it to the end of Martyrs, so who knows what qualifies as too much? And why do we enjoy scary films, anyway? Probably, on some primal level, they are purgative and cathartic to watch. Catharsis is employed by Aristotle in the sixth chapter of his Tragedy as a defense of literature for its ability to release ourselves from the reception of our experience of shock and horror.

I’ve also included atypical horror films: the Pasolini film, Salo: 120 days of Sodom, which is not a horror proper but is still included on this list, is a visual representation of the Sade novel; the film is full of abject horror, grotesque materiality and torture, and yet the violence in that film is infused with representation— symbolizing fascism, corruption, and power. Horror films provide both abject representation and escape, and some—perhaps the Saw and Human Centipede franchises—might be simply what is often referred to as “torture porn.” Brazilian theatre director and pedagogue Augusto Boal argues against theatre as an Aristotelian construct because he saw it in this form as coercion to support the dominant ideology. And while Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed, which clearly states that the only liberating theatre is the kind that directly engages the spectator in action, hence allowing the people (spectators) the means to production in order to rehearse and potentially engage in revolution, I wonder if Boal somewhat misjudges the power of the directly uninvolved spectator, or at least his reading of spectators who, while they might not be able to control the production of a fixed text, they do, in fact, control its interpretation. And while theatre and film serve different yet similar purposes, I think it’s important to remember that horror and tragedy and its representation have a history that extends to the earliest of artistic practices.

All humans experience fear and nightmare. The horror genre was born out of a cultural need to confront and vicariously conquer something frightening that we do not fully comprehend. We will continue to find ways to represent those experiences. Here’s a list of some of my favourite horror films—although the list is hardly exhaustive and it is always evolving—in time for All Hallows’ Eve. I use Psycho as a turning point for modern horror as it set a new level (especially in American cinema) for the acceptability of violence, sex, and deviance. 60 years later and we’ve nearly seen it all. A pre-1960s horror list is a task for another day. And, of course, this list is just my opinion; ultimately, I focus on the horror films that have stayed with me the most. Enjoy these cinematic nightmares! 

Any suggestions for other films I should watch that are deserving to be on the list? 


113 MUST SEE HORROR FILMS (1960-2020)

113. Dr. Sleep (2019): I was surprised by how good this film was. Sure, it has its flaws, but it is a near impossible task to follow The Shining. 

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112. Mandy (2018): Gonzo and blood-soaked madness featuring an inspired performance from the one and only, Nic Cage. 

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111. We Are Still Here (2015): A smart and fun twist on familiar territory.

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110. Honeymoon (2014): Leigh Janiak was badass in Game of Thrones and she’s just as badass in this slow building thriller.

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109. Army of Darkness (1993): A well mixed horror brew of action, gore, and comedy.

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108. The Dead Zone (1983): A strong Stephen King adaptation from Canadian director David Cronenberg. Both Cronenberg and King (unsurprisingly) appear on this list multiple times.

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107. Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn (1987): Not quite as good, but certainly as much fun, as the first installation!

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106. Fright Night (1985): Lots of thrills and humour in the original Fright Night.

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105. Session 9 (2001): While the ending feels a little abrupt, this film is a masterclass in creating atmosphere.

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104. Frozen (2010): Not to be confused with the Disney musical, Frozen is a tense film about three snowboarders who must fight for their lives in the freezing cold after getting stranded on a ski lift.

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103. Scanners (1981): An older sci-fi horror classic from David Cronenberg with mind-blowing visuals

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102.10 Cloverfield Lane (2016):Of the Cloverfield franchise films, this is the one I enjoyed the most. It utilizes its confined setting to great effect and the acting is quite outstanding.

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101. In Fear (2014): A high tension and immersive experience where most of the fear and violence takes place in your head.

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100. Creep (2015): Black humour at its finest; Creep offers an idiosyncretic and fresh interpretation on found-footage horror films.

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99. The Devil’s Backbone (2001): A great film from Guillermo del Toro with equal parts ghost story and political allegory.

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98. High Tension/ Haute tension (Switchblade Romance) (2005): One of the crazy bloodbath French slashers you need to see to believe. The ending could be a little stronger.

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97. Host (2020): The first quarantine horror film that takes place entirely over Zoom, Host is scarier than you’d think. Given I teach on Zoom these days, this film gave me real anxiety.

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96. A Quiet Place (2018): If you would have told me back in 2013 when I first started this list that I would include a post-apocalyptic science fiction horror film directed and starting John Krasinski I would have laughed at you, but here we are. 

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95. We Are What We Are (2013): I guess there is such a thing as a smart cannibal film. Honourable mentions for Cannibal the Musical and Ravenous.

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94. Don’t Breathe (2016): This intense film from Fede Álvarez is well written, acted, and it maintains its tense atmosphere throughout. 

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93. Pontypool (2009): A fantastic Canadian psychological thriller in which a deadly virus infects a small Ontario town. Pontypool is a tense, abstract, and unique contribution to the zombie canon.

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92. Shaun of the Dead (2004):Who says the zombie apocalypse can’t be funny? Shaun of the Dead has earned its status as a bonafide cult classic. 

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91. Candyman (1992): I love the score from Philip Glass, which fits well with the nuanced and chilling premise of Candyman.

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90. The Invitation (2015): This tension-rich and slow-building thriller from Karyn Kusama is confident and adds something new to the “dinner party from hell” subgenre. 

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89. Requiem for a Dream (2000): If one of the main components of the horror genre is to elicit fear in the audience, then Requiem for a Dream is truly a horror film. Rather than talking to my kids about drug addiction when they’re teenagers, I plan to have them watch this. And then we can have the talk … about how crazy this film is.

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88. The Lighthouse (2019): Between this and The VVitch, Robert Eggers is on a role. This visually stunning black-and-white film takes place in a lighthouse (filmed in Nova Scotia) and loosely adapts a Poe story to great effect. The performances from the leads as lighthouse keepers—Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson-—is also a masterclass in acting. 

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87. The Conjuring (2013): Well-crafted horror film that reminded me of classics like The Exorcist and The Amityville Horror

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86. Hush (2016): Michael Flanagan proved he is a formidable talent in the horror genre with his followup to Oculus. Hush provides an original take on the slasher and home invasion thriller. 

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85. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986): A chilling and disturbing portrait of a psycho killer.

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84. The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976): A young Jodie Foster plays the title role in this taut Canadian thriller.

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83. Calibre (2018): A twisted film that takes an unexpected turn. I caught this one on Netflix and was surprised by how good it was. 

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82. The Host (2006): This excellent monster feature from Bong Joon-ho (Okja and Parasite) is full of scares, humour, and astute political commentary.  

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81. Misery (1990): James Caan and Kathy Bates are both fantastic in what is certainly one of the better adaptations of Stephen King’s work.

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80. Funny Games (2007): Michael Haneke remakes his own film (1997) with a strong performance from Naomi Watts. Easier to watch than the crime drama Irreversible, but that isn’t saying much. Is this voyeuristic sadism? Is Haneke successful in turning the camera back at us? You decide. 

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79. Red White & Blue (2010): Well-acted and taut thriller that is also a severely distressing revenge film with a surfeit of torture. Need I say more?

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78. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978): A powerful remake that expands on the themes of the original.

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77. The Descent (2005): Great performances from an all-female cast in this creepy and claustrophobic decent into nightmare.

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76. Inside/ À l’Intérieur (2007): I think the French make the most messed up horror films, and this film, which is part of the New French Extremity, is about as bloody, visceral, disturbing, and engrossing as they come. As Rob Gonsalves of eFilmCritic put it, “Leave it to the French to make Suspiria look like a ’30s drawing-room comedy.” I can’t actually recommend this one, and kind of wish I could un-see it.

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75. Salo: 120 days of Sodom (1975): The film updates Marquis de Sade’s most extreme novel to fascist Italy in the final days of WWII. You probably won’t enjoy watching it, but it does a great job in showing how we are often complicit voyeurs of the world’s most disturbing and real horrors.

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74. Suspiria (2018): While Luca Guadagnino’s reimagining of Suspiria was certainly polarizing, I appreciated how daring and original it felt. The soundtrack from Thom Yorke is also excellent.

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73. Scream (1996): Nice homage to early slasher flicks—many of which were Craven’s own—and revival of the genre.

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72. Don’t Look Now (1973): With haunting imagery and and a bone chilling score, Don’t Look Now is a must see for fans of the horror genre. It seems that Donald Sutherland was in a lot of these kinds of films in the ’70s.

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71. A Field in England (2013): Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England is a British historical (although revisionist) thriller/horror shot entirely in black-and-white and set during the mid-17th century English Civil War. The film is a gumbo concoction odyssey that breaks free of the historical thriller genre through the use of experimental film techniques: mixing humour, horror and hallucination, with a dissonant kaleidoscopic audio score—an homage to 60s psychedelia. See my full review, here. Also, for another unconventional “horror” film from Wheatley, see Sightseers.

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70. Black Christmas [also released as Silent Night, Evil Night(1975): One of the first slasher pics ever made, and it’s Canadian! Interestingly, it is one of Steve Martin’s favourite films.

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69. Under the Skin (2013): With feet firmly in both the sci-fi and horror genre, Under the Skin offers a fresh take on both genres while taking the audience to strange new places. Also recommended in a similar vein: Annihilation (2018). 

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68. Carnival of Souls (1962): The surreal and dreamlike imagery in this film was a major influence on David Lynch and it is easy to see why. An example of effective storytelling that proves once again that less can often be more.  

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67. Jaws (1975): Spielberg’s Jaws remains a benchmark in blockbuster thrills, and has given sharks a bad name to this day. Da-Dum:It’s incredible that two simple notes can inspire so much terror. Check out the impressive new 4K restoration of the film. 

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66. 28 Days Later (2002): One of the best zombie movies out there; in addition, it has a fatal political bend to it.

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65. [Park Chan-Wook’s Revenge Trilogy] Sympathy of Mr. Vengeance (2002); Oldboy (2003); Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005): While these films fall more into the mystery/thriller category, their grimy violence and high style allow them to verge into the horror genre (certainly in gore and subject matter) and presents the viewer with both shock and thought.

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64. Los ojos de Julia/ Julia’s Eyes (2010): Full of Hitchcockian suspense. Your eyes will be glued to the screen.

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63. Carrie (1976): Teen angst horror-prom blood fest at its best.

Rewatching Carrie a little while ago I noticed that Buck 65 samples the theme in his song, “The Centaur.

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62. Night of the Living Dead (1968): George A. Romero’s debut is a seminal horror classic and it almost single-handedly created the template for the zombie film.

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61. An American Werewolf in London (1981): Pitch perfect genre-crossing horror-comedy.

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60. Nightmare on Elm Street (1984): Featuring Johnny Depp in his screen debut, Nightmare on Elm Street showcases Wes Craven at his finest. Freddy Krueger remains as frightening as ever.

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59. The Fly (1986): Wow, horror films before all the special effects crap were so inventive. The Fly is a macabre romance with all the early fleshy Cronenberg trademarks. Oh, and Goldblum.

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58. Eden Lake (2008): This British horror film is brutal, but features incredible performances from both Kelly Reilly and Michael Fassbender.

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57. Goodnight Mommy (2015): There’s been some fantastic horror films in the last five years, and this one by duo Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala is one of them. This unsettling identical-twin psycho-thriller is a riveting nightmare.

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56. The Wicker Man (1973): While the Cage remake would likely end up on a slew of worst lists, the original is a classic with a truly unforgettable ending.

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55. Videodrome (1983): Videodrome is a disorienting, wholly strange experience about technology and cybernetic flesh and lust that still resonates today.

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54. Ringu (1998): I have to go with the Japanese original. Elemental nightmares with a dose of technological anxiety create an unnerving mix.

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53. The Cabin in the Woods (2012): Meta-horror flick that is funny, scary, weird and wonderful, often within the same scene.

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52. Re-Animator (1985): Stuart Gordon’s take on a H.P Lovecraft story is full of blood and gore and is a perfect mix of humour and horror.

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51. Pulse (2001): Fantastic Japanese horror flick that uses the power of suggestion to provide real scares.

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50. The Innocents (1961): Atmospheric British classic based on Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.

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49. It Follows (2015): While it falters at times, It Follows is a smart and terrifying offering that reminds us that modern horror has plenty to offer.

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48. Drag Me to Hell (2009): Horror veteran Sam Raimi delivers a modern campy thrill ride.

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47. The Babadook (2014): Jennifer Kent’s film relies on genuine scares rather than gore. A modern classic in my opinion. Her latest film, The Nightingale is brutal and shows the full force of settler and patriarchal colonialism and its machinations of violence on women and Indigenous people.

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46. The Brood (1979): The perfect example of David Cronenberg’s body horror cinema, offering a take on how repressed demons of the psyche worm their way to the surface. The Criterion print of this film is a work of art.

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45. Revenge (2017): With a feminist edge, Coralie Fargeat infuses new life into the exploitation revenge flick.

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44. What We Do in the Shadows (2015): One of the funniest horror-comedy films I’ve ever seen, and a great update on the modern vampire flick.

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43. Train to Busan (2016): Entertaining South Korean Zombie apocalypse film that takes place mostly on a train. This one is lots of fun!

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42. Halloween (1978): A Hallowe’en horror film list would feel inadequate without this film that set the bar for modern slasher films like Scream.

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41. You’re Next (2013): This film has it all: energy, brutal gore, a strong female lead, and pitch black humour.

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40. Spoorloos/ The Vanishing (1988): The original, of course. I mean how many great foreign horror films has Hollywood unnecessarily remade? This film slowly unravels until we are presented with one of the most shocking endings in any film.

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39. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974): While host to a surfeit of bad remakes, the original is low-budget exploitation gore at its optimum. Is this where chainsaw nightmare are made?

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38. Rosemary’s Baby (1968): Polanski’s iconic thriller is a spellbinding film that will turn expectant mothers to prayer for safe passage.

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37. A Tale of Two Sisters (2003): This South Korean psychological horror drama film written and directed by Kim Jee-woo is intricately structured and full of enough twists to reward multiple viewings. 

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36. Let the Right One In (2008): This film reenergizes the vampire genre. See Twilight if you want bad horror romance (I assume, as I haven’t actually seen it), but watch Let the Right One In if you want an intelligent film with affecting storytelling.

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35. Eyes Without a Face (1960): This 1960 French film is both beautifully poetic and deeply disturbing, often within the same frame. While there’s not much in terms of character development, this film provides an interesting take on the mad-doctor saga and the heterografting scene still disturbs. 

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34. Us (2019): Jordan Peele has opened up the horror genre to show how America’s racism continues to haunt the present. Us expands on some of the themes in Peele’s debut film, Get Out, and critiques the interconnected territories of race and class. Moreover, Lupita Nyong’o’s performance is a thing of wonder. It’s also a genuinely creepy film and while some critics had a hard time classifying Get Out, this is a full-on horror film.

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33. Mulholland Drive (2001): “Silencio.” In many ways this film parallels Lynch’s Blue Velvet as we gradually awaken into a living nightmare. Once Pandora’s box is opened the film enters into a mysterious realm that few, if any, films can travel, traverse, and transcend as beautifully and as well as this film does.

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32. Antichrist (2009): Shocking and controversial art house horror. Another film on this list that is not for the squeamish.

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31. Repulsion (1965): Schizophrenic decent into psychosis. One of Polanski’s best.

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30. American Psycho (2000): This violent and sharp satire from co-writer and director Mary Harron exposes the shallow nature of American culture. It is also nearly impossible to imagine any actor playing Patrick Bateman other than Christian Bale. 

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29Martyrs (2008): If you want to watch something utterly horrifying and violent (it is part of the French extremity movement), but also smart and daring, Martyrs might be the film for you. Even though I’ve only seen this film once close to when it was released, many of the images continue to haunt me.

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28. [REC] (2007): One of my favourite zombie films and perhaps the best uses of POV found footage.

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27. Kill List (2011): Slow burn crime-thriller that gradually becomes a corporal horror.

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26. Raw (2016): Another crazy French horror film (big surprise!). This one, directed and written by Julia Ducournau, provides something new to the cannibal horror genre, and it is very atmospheric and full of symbols that stay with you.  

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25. Blood Quantum (2019): An Indigenous zombie film from writer and director Jeff Barnaby. Barnaby’s “bare knuckle” approach to cinema is an important cinematic intervention (see his excellent Rhymes for Young Ghouls), and this zombie horror film feels all the more pertinent during COVID-19. 

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24. The VVitch (2015): This directorial debut from Robert Eggers is visually compelling and unsettling as it shows that so much of the horror genre is about atmosphere.  

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23. Hausu (1977): This surreal Japanese horror flick is the stuff of legend. The script was influenced by the ideas of director Nobuhiko Obayashi’s pre-teen daughter. He asked her what she found to be truly scary, which is why it is likely the only film where a piano eats someone!

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22. Come and See (1985): With a title that references the Book of Revelations, Elem Klimov’s Come and See is a harrowing and graphic anti-war film (about the horrors of the fascist genocide in Belorussia). It is also surreal and poetic. I realize choosing an anti-war film opens up the discussion of horror, but the last 45 minutes of this film really do feel like you’ve descended into Hell.

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21. Alien (1979): A poetic sci-fi horror tour de force. I watch this film every few years and it never gets old.

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20. I Saw the Devil (2010): You’ve likely noticed that I am a big fan of South Korean cinema and horror. If you are looking for something intense and full of action, I highly recommend this Korean film. The chilling performance from Choi Min-sik as a psychopathic serial killer is a sight to behold. 

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19. Hereditary (2018): Speaking of great performances, it is a blunder than Toni Collette was not nominated for an Oscar for her role in Hereditary. Most people reading through a horror list have likely seen Ari Aster’s debut film at this point, but if you haven’t you should get on that. Aside from Collette’s great performance, it is full of shocking twists and scares. 

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18. Audition (1999): kiri, kiri. This Japanese psychological drama will stay with you, and nothing can prepare you for the shocking ending.  

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17. Blue Velvet (1986): A surreal blend of psychological horror with film noir, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet still disturbs and perhaps tells us even more today about the horrors of small-town American life. 

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16. The Evil Dead (1981): Its careful mix of black comedy with supernatural horror made The Evil Dead an instant milestone in graphic horror.  

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15. The Loved Ones (2009): This Australian film mixes horror and teen drama well and the ending is one of the best of any horror film. It gives new meaning to the challenges of going to prom. 

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14. Eraserhead (1977): Shockingly, or not, David Lynch calls Eraserhead his most spiritual film. A surreal and experimental body horror about a man’s fear of being a father, the film is engrossing and disturbing. The creepy sound design for the film is also really incredible. 

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13. The Exorcist (1973): Considered by many to be the scariest film of all time, Friedkin’s The Exorcist is a horror classic with some of the most blood-curdling scenes (the spider walk scene!) on celluloid.

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12. The Wailing (2016): This lengthy South Korean horror gem has it all: Asian mythology, exorcisms, shamans, zombies, and the devil. It starts off as a comedy, but quickly turns quite dark.  

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11. Midsommar (2019): While it is only his second film (after Hereditary), Ari Aster proved he is a true horror auteur with this one. I enjoyed this even more than Hereditary and although it is more unsettling than it is scary, the images are disturbing and the hallucinatory tone of the film lingers long after it’s over. 

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10. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992): Some might disagree with having this rank so high, but I think it is David Lynch’s most pure horror film. It is also his most misunderstood and denigrated work. The film’s subject matter is not only difficult, but its narrative complexity can feel impenetrable at times. According to David Foster Wallace: “[Fire Walk with Me] sought to transform Laura Palmer from dramatic object to dramatic subject … Laura was no longer ‘an enigma’ or ‘the password to an inner sanctum of horror.’ She embodied, in full view, all the Dark Secrets that on the series had been the stuff of significant glances and delicious whispers.”

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9. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014): Such an amazing debut from Ana Lily Amirpour. It’s not often you’ll come across an Iranian Vampire Spaghetti Western let alone one with a lonely chador-wearing feminist-vampire-vigilante on a skateboard who fights against the oppression of women. It’s also beautifully filmed and scored. 

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8. Silence of the Lambs (1991): Both Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster give incredible performances (in which they both won Oscars) in a film that legitimized horror in the eyes of the general public. As a psychological study and horror film, it has it all. However, I tend to agree with some of the criticisms of the film by the LGBTQ+ community around the portrayal of Buffalo Bill. 

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7. The Thing (1982): John Carpenter’s remake is such a fantastic and engrossing film. The fear and paranoia of a mutant disease spreading while in isolation takes on new meaning in 2020. After seeing this, watch the episode called “Ice” from the first season of The X-Files for some close parallels.

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6. Deep Red/ Italian: Profondo Rosso (1975): Of all the Argento and giallo films I’ve seen, this one is the best. Even though I enjoy Suspiria slightly more for its abstraction and incredible cinematography, Deep Red is more compelling and complex and you can see its influence on later horror films and murder mysteries. The soundtrack by Goblin is also great. 

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5. Get Out (2017): Rarely does a film come out that changes the landscape of the conversation happening within a given genre, but Get Out manages to do that and more. American comedian and writer Jordan Peele recognized lacunas in the genre and crafted a film that uses the metaphor of the sunken place to address the pain of commodified black bodies in cinema/horror. It’s also a lot of fun to catch all the references to The Shining in the film. 

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4. Dead Ringers (1988): A progenitor of a genre typically referred to as body horror, Toronto-born and world-renowned auteur David Cronenberg remains one of the most audacious narrative directors working in cinema. One of Cronenberg’s most controlled and creepy films, Dead Ringers centres on twin-brother gynaecologists who share everything, including a patient, and despite their best efforts, cannot be severed from one another. The “Instruments for Operating on Mutant Women” are a haunting metaphor for male desire to control reproduction. I had a chance to see this at TIFF as part of David Cronenberg: Evolution, and before the screening Cronenberg discussed how Dead Ringers was a critical turning point in his career; after the screening, the first words Jeremy Irons spoke were, “That’s a pretty strange film.” Indeed. 

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3. Suspiria (1977): This abstract, glossy, and gory horror is full of phantasmagoric style.  The soundtrack is incredible. While most horror stories take place in settings with isolated victims, Argento takes things one step further by placing his young protagonist, Suzy (Jessica Harper), in a particularly creepy ballet academy located in rural Italy. The movie is violent, jarring, and also full of breathtakingly beautiful cinematography and vibrant colours. Goblin’s score is one of the best in all of horror. Check out the original theme, and then listen to hip-hop producer RJD2’s use of the sample in his track “Weatherpeople.”

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2. Psycho (1960)There’s before Psycho and after Psycho. While it seems hard to believe, Psycho was the first film to show someone flushing a toilet. With that said, we can see why the famous shower sequence (consisting of 78 set ups and 52 cuts in 45 seconds) sent some people running out of the theatre. No longer were our private domestic spaces safe. Hitchcock imagined the shower scene without sound, but fortunately Bernard Herrmann convinced him otherwise as it is one of the most recognizable sonic moments in all of cinema.

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1. The Shining (1980): 

blood: redrum, RƎⱭЯUM
what’s in room two-three-seven?
surprise: here’s Johnny!

There was a time when Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining was not considered to be the great horror film many people and critics see it as today. The film opened to derisive laughter. As Pauline Kael wrote, “Who wants to see evil in daylight, through a wide-angle lens?” Over time The Shining’s stature as a classic has grown and it introduced nearly all the elements that are part of horror’s popular lexicon: jump-cuts, modernist music (Kubrick uses six pieces from Polish composer, Krzystof Penderecki), subliminal inserts (Danny’s visions), and all kinds of visual metaphors. The film itself is structured like a piece of music with various movements and recurring rhythms. It is a film you can get lost in and think through every time you watch it. It was innovative, especially in its use of Steadicam (see Danny’s pedal car). 

The most arresting element about Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s book is the engrossing labyrinthine structure of the film, which adds a dizzying effect as we get lost deeper and deeper in the film’s maze. Replacing King’s topiary (hedges that come alive) with a maze adds plenty of cinematic verve to the adaptation. Topiary just isn’t scary; on the other hand, a demented Minotaur of a man running through a maze to kill his kid in the dead cold of winter is bone chilling. For me, Kubrick’s version was much more terrifying because instead of ghosts—although mysterious elements are present—we are shown a more mythic and immediate evil. Evil exists in the world of the living and it is our responsibility to contest it. Kubrick’s finale is ice cold: the world freezes over and evil still waits in the halls of the Overlook Hotel.

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Need a reprieve from all the scary carnage? Here’s The Shining à la Seinfeld with a laugh track.

When Voices Intertwine (Book Review)

Robert Bringhurst is often described as a modern-day renaissance man. Few writers could navigate fields as diverse as poetry, translation, typography, cultural history, and philosophy as interwoven vocations. Through an adherence to polyphony as a mode of deep ecological thinking, Bringhurst works to make accessible the wisdom of poets and thinkers past, from Sophocles to Haida mythtellers Ghandl and Skaay.

As Bringhurst puts it, “when two voices intertwine, the space they occupy gets larger, and the mind gets larger with it”; no wonder poet Denis Lee calls him “a man of massive simple-mindedness.” Bringhurst has a way of chiselling complex thinking down to that part of being that ineluctably binds all living matter together. Bringhurst’s ontological approach is more aligned with ancient Greece than the modern academy, which is why editors Brent Wood and Mark Dickinson make clear that he doesn’t neatly fit within the “twenty-first century university’s rubric of knowledge production and transmission.” As such, Bringhurst is most comfortable in the role of an independent public thinker, bound by neither institution nor strict cultural protocol, which has irked some of his critics.

Click here to read my full review at Canadian Literature.

Top 5 Records of 2015

There was a lot of great music released in 2015. I could easily compile a list of the 50 Best Albums of the year, but instead I am keeping things simple and mentioning the 5 albums that made the deepest impact on my listening last year. If the list was longer, it would include such fantastic releases as Jamie xx’s In Colour, BadBadNotGood and Ghostface Killah’s Sour Soul, Panda Bear’s Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, Four Tet’s Morning/Evening, Max Richter’s Sleep, and Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld’s Never Were the Way She Was, among many others. Here’s the list of my 5 favourite albums of 2015 with a selected track from each record.

5. Father John Misty, I Love You, Honeybear

Josh Tillman’s second release under the moniker Father John Misty tells the story of his courtship of his wife, Emma. This is a really fun record that reads like one long self-reflexive joke that we are let in on. This album is all about juxtaposition, placing caustic irony beside blunt declarations of love.


4. Kasami Washington, The Epic

For those of us who listen to jazz, it’s exciting to see how the genre is being taken in new directions. Last year’s You’re Dead! by Flying Lotus drew on the spiritual jazz of Alice and John Coltrane to the progressive jazz fusion of Weather Report to the humourous and cosmic tones of Sun Ra. Kasami Washington’s The Epic, also on Lotus’s Brainfeeder imprint, builds on that format in a three hour jazz odyssey that digs deep into the past and pushes forward as a kind of generational intervention. The Epic features a 10-piece jazz band with augmentation from a string section and a full choir and holds its own with the best of fusion records. This is consciousness-raising music and it is getting lots of spins over here.


3. D’Angelo and the Vanguard, Black Messiah 

14 years after the critically acclaimed Voodoo, D’Angelo returns with the militant, powerful, and funky Black Messiah. The album is incredibly layered with murky vocals, unsettled grooves, and fuzzy guitars, with deep roots in rock, funk, jazz, and gospel. It’s an album that recalls Sly and the Family Stone’s 1971 funk album There’s a Riot Goin’ On. An unbelievable comeback record from D’Angelo.


2. Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell

Sufjan Stevens’s beautiful Carrie & Lowell has been on repeat in our house since its release. The songs on the album are inspired by the 2012 death of his mother, Carrie, and the family trips they took to Oregon in Stevens’s childhood. For me, this album is up there with Seven Swans and Illinois. This album is Stevens’s most personal and mature and it is also his most stripped down record, which allows his abilities as a songwriter to shine through.


1.  Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly

Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly provides an Umwalzung—that is, revolution—through a complete overturning of prior mainstream hip-hop album templates, as Lamar enacts one of the most ferocious black chants ever to appear on a hip-hop record. The album’s unforgiving blackness is important, because it reminds white listeners that sometimes we need to sit down and listen to the conversation that is taking place rather than try to control or shape it. This is art and music that is both relevant and functional, showing that you can make music that is both rhetorically powerful and aesthetically pleasing. Without a doubt, Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly is my favourite release of 2015. It certainly restored a lot of my faith in mainstream hip-hop. As David Jeffries puts it, “To Pimp a Butterfly is as dark, intense, complicated, and violent as Picasso’s Guernica, and should hold the same importance for its genre and the same beauty for its intended audience.”

DJ Phoenix (my son) getting into the mix. #DJPhoenixDailyRecord
DJ Phoenix (my son) getting into Lamar’s powerful record. #DJPhoenixDailyRecord

 

 

The Presence of the Past

Winfried Siemerling’s The Black Atlantic Reconsidered and Austin Clarke’s In Your Crib prioritize transatlantic Black perspectives from within national paradigms to explore Black Canadian identity, belonging, and the presence of the past. The two works are quite different: Clarke’s text is an introspective long poem that channels the radical spirits and rhythms of the civil rights movement, and Siemerling’s text is a considerable historical undertaking that reconsiders Canada’s place in the Black Atlantic. However, both texts deepen our understanding of Black writing and radical thinking within a Canadian space that belongs to a larger historic transatlantic nexus.

Click here to read my full review at Canadian Literature.

Book Review: The Inconvenient Indian

Thomas King is one of Canada’s most prolific writers: a renowned novelist, broadcaster (The Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour), screenwriter, one-time NDP electoral candidate, and the first person of Aboriginal descent to be chosen to give the Massey Lectures (in 2003). In The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America Thomas King shares his extended reflection on Native (King’s chosen term) identity through history, humour, and personal meditations. For King, stories define who we are and The Inconvenient Indiantakes this maxim and displays—through the weft and warp of history—why the stories we tell matter, especially since Canada’s story is often about the country’s strained relationship with First Nations people.

To read the full review over at The Bull Calf, click here.

Book Review: Dennison Smith’s Fermata and Catherine Owen’s Trobairitz

A Sound Withheld

Dennison Smith’s Fermata and Catherine Owen’s Trobairitz are two poetic texts significant not only for the sounds they make, but for what they withhold. For all the cacophony and multivoicedness sustained in each text, there are plenty of moments that give the reader pause. Fermata (a lyrical text of Zen-like suspension) and Trobairitz (a text that weds twelfth-century troubadours and their female counterparts, the trobairitz, with twenty-first century metalheads) are worlds apart; yet, both texts resonate with silences, shift between suffering, love, and desire, and combine and reclaim traditional materials with the alchemical power of the fearless poetess who conducts language at the centre of each narrative.

To read the full review at Canadian Literature, click here.

Top 15 Films of 2013 & Oscar Predictions

Below are my top 15 films of 2013. As a rule I didn’t include documentaries, which given the slew of great docs released last year (The Act of KillingBlack Fish, The Square) would have made compiling the list more challenging.

There are a few films I still want to see, such as The Dirties, Fruitvale Station, and Nebraska, along with a few foreign films, and any list is subjective (and in this case a little androcentric), but if I had to choose 15…

1. 12 Years a Slave: The best film of the year. No, it doesn’t change history, and no it doesn’t provide the full picture of slavery, but it is a riveting and powerful two hours of cinema. 12 Years a Slave offers no artificial Hollywood catharsis; rather, it presents an honest and harrowing parable of the evil of slavery as told through the real life experience of a man who was sent to hell and lived to tell about it. Read my full review, here.

2. Prisoners: Given the incredible performances from the entire cast, there should have been some Oscar nominations for acting, especially for Jackman’s and Gyllenhaal’s standout performances. Given the subject matter, this is hardly a film for everyone, but it is a spellbinding English-language debut from Villeneuve. Read my full review, here.

3. The Wolf of Wall Street: Martin Scorsese’s latest offering The Wolf of Wall Street has divided audiences into two camps: those who praise the work as a masterpiece of cinematic verve, and those who say it glorifies white-collar crime along with the film’s antihero, real life penny stock criminal, Jordan Belfort. The Wolf of Wall Street is an irreverent and potent satire about greed, excess, and the perversion of the American dream. The writing is spot on, Scorsese’s directing is inspired, providing lots of room for his actors to improvise, and DiCaprio gives the most dynamic performance of his career. Matthew McConaughey, who also gave a great performance in Dallas Buyers Club, steals a scene in the movie. Read my full review, here.

4. Her: Spike Jonze’s Her is a fantastic film that merges science fiction with romantic dramedy to explore the state of modern human relationships in the age of technology. Joaquin Phoenix proves once again why he is one of the best actors working in cinema today (I thought Phoenix should have won Best Actor last year for The Master). It would have been really cool if Scarlett Johansson as Samantha (voice) received an acting nomination given she never physically appears on screen.

5. Dallas Buyers Club: Matthew McConaughey is on fire lately. He’s gone from romcom melodramatic hamming to a first rate actor who is a serious a contender for Best Actor at this year’s Oscars. He’s even taking on T.V.—well, HBO—in True Detective. In Dallas Buyers Club, McConaughey’s character, a homophobic electrician and rodeo cowboy, finds out he has AIDS and is told he has only 30 days to live. He ends up smuggling unapproved pharmaceutical drugs into Texas when he finds they are effective at improving his own symptoms and then distributes them to fellow AIDS sufferers through the eponymous “Dallas Buyers Club,” drawing the ire of the FDA. Dallas Buyers Club is a formidable film that deals squarely with the AIDS crisis in the 80s, which along with Leto’s spellbinding acting is carried by a scrawny McConaughey  who gives one of his finest performances.

6. The Wind Rises: Likely maestro Hayao Miyazaki’s swan song, The Wind Rises is a beautiful and devastating lament concerning the distortion of beauty. A visually magnificent celebration of the ingenuity and creativity of prewar Japan the film hints at what is possible, but then shows how easily dreams can become impossible nightmares. While I was surprised like many that the protagonist was a warplane designer, and although the film skirts around some important political issues, I was, nevertheless, drawn deeply in by the story, images, and wonderment that will—like all Miyazaki films, from Totoro to Spirited Away—stay with me for a lifetime.

7. The Place Beyond the Pines: The only logical reason this film was completely snubbed at the Oscars is that is was released too early in the year, as the trend seems to go. The Place Beyond the Pines contains the best cinematic twist I saw on screen last year. The film—which veers towards Greek tragedy throughout—provides a salient discourse about the moral ambiguity we walk in order to protect our loved ones. Unlike most films of its style, there are no heroes, only shared fears and truths manifested through the ripple effects of a violent past.

8. Upstream Color: This film flew a little under the radar, perhaps because the unusual content alienated most viewers. Upstream Color is written, directed, produced, edited, designed, cast, and stars Shane Carruth whose last film was his 2004, Primer. Upstream Color focuses on two people whose lives and behaviours are affected by a complex parasite—that they are unaware of—that has a three-stage life cycle as it passes from humans to pigs to orchids. You need to see and experience this transcendent film to believe it.

9. Frances Ha: Directed by Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, and co-writer with Wes Anderson of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Fantastic Mr. Fox), Frances Ha is a quirky indie film with an endearing performance from Greta Gerwig. I agree with Stephanie Zacharek of The Village Voice who praised Gerwig’s acting, writing: “No other movie has allowed her to display her colors like this. Frances is a little dizzy and frequently maddening, but Gerwig is precise in delineating the character’s loopiness: Her lines always hit just behind the beat, like a jazz drummer who pretends to flub yet knows exactly what’s up.” If you don’t know what’s up, check out this off beat picture.

10. All is Lost: This film has a similar feel to Gravity, only it takes place at sea and is, in my opinion, more riveting. This film captivated me in the same way that 2001: A Space Odyssey did, except instead of classical music, the majority of sounds emit from a perilous ocean. Robert Redford is literally the only actor in this film, and his performance is one of his best. The lack of a Best Actor nomination for Redford is perhaps the biggest Oscar snub this year, but that’s hardly a surprise since this isn’t a Weinstein Company film.

11. Blue is the Warmest Color: The most controversial film of the year, entirely because it depicts two women having sex for 7 minutes (although that’s less than 5% of the film’s running time). Aside from offending puritans and some lesbians who contend it got the “sex” wrong—not that there is ever a right way to have sex—the film is an artful treatment of love in its many colourful brushstrokes, although blue is the primary colour. I found the polemical performances truly inspired, and the story feels very real, which sadly seems to be a rare treatment in same-sex love depictions in cinema, sans a few films I’ve seen such as Pariah and Weekend.

12. In a World… One of the best comedies of last year, In a World… is written, directed, co-produced, and stars Lake Bell. The film feels fresh with a straightforward plot focusing on a young woman doing voice-over work for film trailers. Bell’s performance is magnetic as she takes on the cutthroat male-dominated world of voice-over.

13. A Field in England: Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England is a British historical (although revisionist) thriller shot entirely in black-and-white and set during the mid-17th century English Civil War. The film is a gumbo concoction odyssey that breaks free of the historical thriller genre through the use of experimental film techniques: mixing humour, horror and hallucination, with a dissonant kaleidoscopic audio score—an homage to 60s psychedelia. Read my full review, here.

14. Blue Caprice: A cerebral and chilling depiction of the triviality of evil, based on the notorious Beltway sniper attacks from the point of view of the two killers. Blue Caprice is a striking and engrossing debut for writer-director Alexandre Moors, and the taut psychological thriller is made all the more eerie thanks to a  great soundtrack provided by Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld.

15. Philomena: Based on the true story of Irish Catholic nuns who sold babies to the States because they were conceived out of wedlock, Philomena concerns injustice and hypocrisy, only to teach its audience a potent lesson about how forgiveness is far more difficult and significant than outrage. The film gracefully teeters between the BBC reporter’s slightly unrestrained antipathy (Steve Coogan) and Philomena’s (Judi Dench) heartfelt and humble demeanour.

~

Some other films (sans documentaries) I enjoyed, but didn’t quite make it to the top: Gravity, Enough Said, Blue Jasmine, Enemy, American Hustle, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Side Effects, Before Midnight, and Inside Llewyn Davis.

And a few of my picks for the 86th Oscars:

Best Picture: 12 Years a Slave
Best Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio (Wolf, but will likely go to Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club)
Best Actress: Judi Dench (Philomena)
Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)
Best Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave)
Best Directing: 12 Years a Slave
Best Documentary Feature: The Act of Killing
Best Animated Feature: The Wind Rises

Happy Oscars day!

The Shining: Does Kubrick’s film Redrum King’s novel?

Over the last week I’ve read—or rather engulfed myself within—Stephen King’s The Shining. It is one of my favourite films, and so I thought I should give the novel a chance. In fact, despite the thousands of books I’ve read, studied, and written about, I’ve never actually read a Stephen King novel, and so I wanted to correct this overlook on my part. Fortunately, the hardcover edition I have also contains Carrie and Misery, and so I will likely read those soon, as well as perhaps The Stand, which I’ve heard might be King’s finest work.

Most of the book was read in our cozy 700sq foot apartment as Toronto was hit with one of its biggest snowstorms of the year. While I haven’t quite suffered writer’s block, I have had ten to twelve-hour days cooped up inside the house (I continue to work diligently on my PhD thesis, which is a little over a month away from a full first draft) where I feel like I am going a little crazy. Not that I admire or identify with Jack Torrance as he struggles with his own writing and budding insanity, but I certainly felt a detached and sinister sense of camaraderie with him: all work and no play make Paul a dull boy. The main difference between King’s novel and Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic adaptation is that King’s novel is more human. King is concerned with familial relationships and the internal psyche of his characters; by comparison, Kubrick focuses his lens on larger metaphors, structure, and allegory.

To say one is better than the other is to do both works a disservice. They are vastly different. Personally, I prefer the film. It helps that Jack Nicholson gives one of his most inspired performances and that I am an immense fan of Kubrick’s work. I think the film’s visual images are more potent than in the book, and its finale is more operatic and horrifying. And yet, I appreciate the imaginative prowess and humanity of King’s novel. The love and strong relationship between Jack and Danny was hardly emphasized in the film. Jack’s alcoholism and gradual descent into madness, related to King’s own struggles with alcohol, is also much more developed in the book. Further, in the novel, Wendy is a multifarious and resistive character whose internal struggles are largely reduced to shrieks on the screen. Lastly, and perhaps the most shocking character change—although this one feels like an assassination—is that Dick Hallorann’s role is greatly reduced in the film. He is perhaps the most interesting character in the novel, and in Kubrick’s film he is abridged to just another black man dying on the screen. He is not even mourned by Wendy or Danny. Like all the characters, Danny is much more complex in the book, but it is his lack of complexity on the screen that makes him so damn creepy. We are not meant to identify with Kubrick’s characters; we are victims of Jack and the Overlook Hotel’s history of violence, which makes for a more unsettling film than the book.

Once again, if the medium is the message then Kubrick’s stylistic choices are suitable to the cinematic force of his adaptation. Kubrick’s visual choices have been written about in great detail and even inspired the satisfying, although a little too drenched in conspiracy theory, documentary Room 237. The most arresting element about Kubrick’s adaption is the engrossing labyrinthine structure of the film, which adds a dizzying effect as we get lost deeper and deeper in the film’s maze. Replacing King’s topiary (hedges that come alive) with a maze adds plenty of cinematic verve to the adaptation. Topiary just isn’t scary; on the other hand, a demented Minotaur of a man running through a maze to kill his kid in the dead cold of winter is bone chilling. In fact, I found that, at times, King’s haunted house clichés and ghosts were just not that frightening, although the build-ups in the novel are very captivating. Nevertheless, Kubrick’s version was much more terrifying, for me, largely because instead of ghosts—although mysterious elements are present—we are shown a more mythic and immediate evil. Evil exists in the world of the living and it is our responsibility to contest it. Wendy and Danny do escape Jack (the Minotaur) in Kubrick’s The Shining, but rather than the burning (I will not spoil the ending) and warm ending of King’s book, Kubrick’s finale is ice cold: the world freezes over and evil still waits in the halls of the Overlook Hotel.

Before filming, Kubrick told King on the phone he didn’t believe in hell, and that he “thought stories of the supernatural are fundamentally optimistic.” No wonder King was so disturbed by Kubrick’s film, since King’s book is both supernatural and optimistic, and Kubrick’s film is not. Love conquers evil in King’s novel, and Danny receives some practical advice at the end of his trials: “But see that you get on. That’s your job in this hard world, to keep your love alive and see that you get on, no matter what. Pull your act together and just go on.” It’s hard to think how Danny and Wendy will go on at the end of Kubrick’s film, but somehow they must. Both films are powerful allegories for the darkness of the human spirit. King’s novel is just much more optimistic since love, not perseverance and survival, overcomes evil.

Personally, I enjoyed Kubrick’s film more than the novel, but the source text was a pleasure to read, especially since the novel switches between so many different viewpoints. Most great film adaptations, I also enjoyed Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange more than Burgess’s novel, are successful because they ignore their source text. King was so angered by Kubrick’s adaption that he eventually remade the movie himself, in what many have described as a painfully boring and uninspired adaption, although wholly faithful to the original. Perhaps King’s version is closer to translation than it is to adaptation. Comparing the book to the film is like comparing apples and oranges. And yet, I’ve been doing that somewhat here, but largely to emphasize they are very different works, and should be thought of as separate entities. Kubrick uses the novel as a starting point for his own unique vision. Maybe the film version should open with the preface: inspired by Stephen King’s The Shining. And while the film has certainly outshined the book (inspiring many other riffings such as in The Simpsons), perhaps another reason King was so frustrated by it, both deserve a place on your bookshelf. In some ways, both the film and novel  complement one another, presenting a fuller picture of how, as King puts it in the book, “Sometimes human places, create inhuman monsters.”

The Story of Film: An Odyssey

I think cinema, movies, and magic have always been closely associated. The very earliest people who made film were magicians.
-Francis Ford Coppola

Film is a language of ideas: each shot a director’s thought, every film a magical world of its own. Recently, on Netflix, I watched Mark Cousins’s monumental The Story of Film: An Odyssey, which consists of 15 one-hour chapters and some 900 minutes covering the history of film. The experience was like taking a semester-long film studies survey course spanning the birth of cinema to the movies of today and the future. Except, rather than travel to campus, take notes, or write an examination, I leisurely embarked on this odyssey from the comfort of my home, often in 30-minute increments over my lunch. Cousins’s thesis is a relatively straightforward one: the story of film is the history of innovation. From the opening chapter it is apparent that The Story of Film is hardly the tale of Hollywood, as Cousins’s radical, at times revisionist history covers not only studio pictures, but also film mavericks on the fringes of the studio system in America, Japan, India, Africa, Mexico, Italy, Britain, China, Korea, France, and elsewhere.

The Story of Film is global in scale, affording the viewer numerous opportunities to engage with the history of cinema from a non-and-decentering American perspective. By the mid-point of the series Cousins’s diatribes against Hollywood start to feel a little predicable and exaggerated, perhaps harder for some to digest given his metric vocal delivery and lilting Irish accent, but it was a pleasant reminder that film hardly belongs to America or Europe, as many of cinema’s greatest innovators/innovations were/happened in India, South America, Africa, Japan, China, or even, Canada. Through dozens of interviews with some of film’s most important progenitors and nonconformists, and hundreds of selected film clips with nuanced analysis from Cousins, the documentary is certainly an epic quest. The documentary played at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and I could only imagine what the experience might have felt like for those audience members who watched all 15+ hours over a few days. Watching The Story of Film reminded me that film is much more than a fascination of mine. Like my dedication to reading and music, film viewing is an Odyssean expedition where the discoveries are ongoing and illimitable, often far outside the American moviemaking machine. I also appreciated that The Story of Film introduced me to many great films I’ve never heard of, or had forgotten I had at one point or another intended to watch, or in the case of a few, rewatch. I’ve seen thousands of American films, including most of the AFI Top 100, and so the majority of films on my list were made outside America. I might have to visit an actual video store to find many of these titles, but here are some of the films featured in The Story of Film I hope to watch this year, ideally in chronological order:

Excessus Mentis: A Defence of Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street

How manye maladyes ffolwen of excesse and of glotonyes.
Chaucer, The Pardoner’s Tale 514

Martin Scorsese’s latest offering The Wolf of Wall Street has divided audiences into two camps: those who praise the work as a masterpiece of cinematic verve, and those who say it glorifies white-collar crime along with the film’s antihero, real life penny stock criminal, Jordan Belfort. While not quite the magnum opus some call it, I think The Wolf of Wall Street is an inspired parable and cinematic opera about greed, excess, and the perversion of the American dream.

Perhaps there was a time, as Percy Shelley writes in “A Defence of Poetry,” when “poets [were] the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” I say this with some unease, since my primary field of study is poetry, but today it seems that filmmakers are the cultural legislators of the Western World. Hollywood, like the stock market, is big business, netting profits in the billions every year. In many ways, Hollywood is emblematic of the American dream; certainly the cinema is a place where we exchange money to watch our dreams, fantasies, and even nightmares unfold on a big screen in a dimly lit room. Scorsese, who often challenges Hollywood sensibility, continues to be one of American cinema’s great dream makers and storytellers, gifting the world films like Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990), and The Departed (2006).

The Wolf of Wall Street continues Scorsese’s fixation with crime, identity, and machismo, as well as his Roman Catholic concerns around guilt and redemption. However, unlike Scorsese’s other gangster films there is hardly any graphic violence in Wolf, although there remains, perhaps more than any of his films, his liberal usage of profanity. It could be argued, and probably should, that Belfort’s obsession with controlling women’s bodies, as well as his betrayal of his victim’s trust, is violence. The narrative techniques and do-it-yourself rise to power in Wolf parallels Goodfellas, but instead of mob bloodshed and revenge, Scorsese focuses his lens on robber baron, capitalistic sociopath, and real life penny stock criminal/self-made multi-millionaire, Jordan Belfort.

The Wolf of Wall Street is an orgiastic, hurly-burly, dizzying cornucopia of sex, drugs, and total debauchery. It is Scorsese’s most excessive film, with a three-hour running time (even after he left an hour on the cutting floor), and so many scenes of Belfort (manically acted by DiCaprio) and Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) popping Qualuudes (a very powerful pill based drug) and having sex with prostitutes that you feel, perhaps, an additional hour of the film could have been cut. However, the excessive use of excess in the film highlights the vulgarity of Belfort’s lack of morality, as he travels far beyond the prescribed limit of acceptable capitalist criminality (in the eyes of regulators) and gets lost in the rapturous trance of the game he is playing.

Does the film glorify Belfort’s despicable swindling his clients out of millions, failing to show the effects of his actions, as one victim, Chistina McDowell, insists in an Open Letter? Or, does it sicken the viewer and take Belfort down through its use of raucous and unrelenting satire? For starters, I don’t think the film glorifies white-collar crime, just like I don’t think 12 Years a Slave glorifies slavery. Humour and satire are effective in making the audience realize just how absurd and excessive Belfort’s greed was. Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator was extremely risky in 1939 as it used satire to effectively depict and make fun of Hitler and dictatorships, and it was banned in many countries. Film is representation; otherwise there would not be films about the Holocaust. Great art is often confrontational, and if art is to challenge it needs to be provocative enough to start some important conversations, which Scorsese is thankful that this film did (Screen Rant). DiCaprio has called Wolf a punk rock film about the darker nature of humans. While McDowell’s point is well taken, I don’t think the film would be as punchy, effecting, or vicious if it showed the effect Belfort’s actions had on his victims. It would be Oliver Stone’s 1987 film, Wall Street. 

Unlike many of Scorsese’s films whose protagonists or antiheroes often burst into flames at the end of the film, Belfort hardly suffers for his incendiary crimes. Rather, we are reminded that Belfort is a real person: a cog in a larger system of oppression that makes his actions possible in the first place. People like Belfort often get away with, or face minimal retribution for the crimes they commit. In the end Belford informs on his own associates in order to save his own ass. Henry Hill does the same in Goodfellas, deciding to enroll in a Witness Protection Program, with real-life Hill serving four years and six months of his 10-year sentence in prison. The Wolf shows Belfort entering prison with a look of fear in his eyes, which quickly dissipates when he realizes that prison for him, with tennis courts and other luxuries, would not be that bad: “For a brief, fleeting moment, I’d forgotten I was rich and lived in America.” It should sit uncomfortably with viewers that Belfort never really gets the justice he deserves. In one of the final scenes, FBI agent Patrick Denham (played by Kyle Chandler) apprehends that his pursuit of Belfort and his organization has changed very little about how America operates.

Watching the film I was reminded of the CEOs of the big three automakers who flew in luxurious private jets to Washington to plead for a $35 billion bailout in taxpayer money, or AIG, whose executives, after receiving some 85 billion bailout dollars, headed for a week-long retreat to a luxury resort and spa. Belfort is the bastard child of a much larger malaise of greed in corporate capitalism. Some reviewers have commented that Wolf is essentially propaganda for Belfort’s motivational speaking career, but I can only assume that the individuals who would hire a man like him are already deeply lost in the sea of excess. Or, like millions of Americans, they are chasing a dream. There are those who will watch The Wolf of Wall Street and identify with Belfort. Steven Perlberg of Business Insider described watching the film near the Goldman Sachs building and reported cheers by the audience of financial workers at inappropriate moments, such as “When Belfort—a drug addict who later attempts to remain sober—rips up a couch cushion to get to his secret coke stash, there were cheers.” I’m sure there were also those who watched Christian Bale in American Psycho and wanted to be Patrick Bateman, although they hopefully didn’t cheer openly in the theatre. There will be those who admire DiCaprio’s sinister portrayal of Belfort, similar to how Michael Douglas has had hundreds of people come up to him and say, “I wanted to be like Gordon Gekko” (Greed is Not Good). Many, mostly young men full of bravado, will want to be like Belfort. Can you blame them, especially since our society often promotes men (and sometimes women) who are willing to do anything to get rich? This is hardly Scorsese’s or DiCaprio’s fault—it is simply poor viewer analysis. Think of how many different interpretations there are of Shakespeare, or the Bible? Just because some misguided and bullied kids listened to Marilyn Manson before they shot up their school, hardly means that Manson was the root cause. Such would be an evasion of the larger issues, often ignored by mainstream media.

For me, the film was a little like travelling through Dante’s fourth circle of Hell (greed/avarice) for three hours, although I do admit that I laughed a fair bit, which is sort of the point of the grotesque parody. The Wolf of Wall Street is an irreverent and potent satire about greed, excess, and the perversion of the American dream. The writing is spot on, Scorsese’s directing is inspired, providing lots of room for his actors to improvise, and DiCaprio gives the most dynamic performance of his career. Matthew McConaughey, who also gave a great performance in last year’s Dallas Buyers Club, steals a scene in the movie. Some might feel the film glorifies greed. Jordan Belfort glorifies greed. America glorifies greed. The film does not. In some disturbing ways, Belfort was simply being American. As Belfort belts out in one of his many excessive speeches in the film:

This right here is the land of opportunity. This is America. This is my home! The show goes on!