4 – KING KONG (1933)
You might think this an odd choice. A dated film with hammy acting, too much screaming and obvious models. And yes, it is a creaky old thing. But it contains more charm than any other film on this top ten, and it resonates with me to the point where my heart skips a beat whenever I see that old RKO ident heralding its start. Another film that pierced me when I first watched it as a (dinosaur-obsessed) child and it has stayed with me ever since, even though I now make tut-tut sounds when I see the Styracosaurus chowing down on some long pork.
Kong himself has real presence, thanks to Wills O’Brien’s special effects magic, and the chase to rescue Fay Wray on Skull Island is both grisly and truly thrilling. It’s a wonderful story with some amazing set pieces, and it’s better than you remember. A warning to the wise, however… steer clear of the sequel, Son of Kong, rushed out in the wake of this film’s staggering success.
5 – THE WICKER MAN (1973)
Some of the most effective horror films are penned or directed by people who aren’t immersed in the genre. Anthony Shaffer, who scripted the film, is best known for his play Sleuth and his foray into Agatha Christie territory with a couple of scripts featuring Hercule Poirot. Director Robin Hardy was making his debut. I love this film because it manages to get under your skin despite most of it being shot in daylight.
Edward Woodward excels as the upright Sergeant Neil Howie who flies out to the Hebrides on the hunt for missing schoolgirl Rowan Morrison. Christopher Lee reins in his creep gland and plays the charming Lord Summerisle with panache. Britt Ekland catches the eyes as the landlord’s daughter, and gives the oblivious Howie an escape route if only he’d quell his Christian virtues. Howie is simultaneously aroused and disgusted by the promiscuity prevalent on the island and the internal battle he wages – you can almost see the angel and the demon sitting on his shoulders – plays itself out in every nuanced expression.
The title of the film and the iconic picture of the wicker man are like the gun that appears in the first scene of a thriller. You know what’s coming, but that knowledge doesn’t soften the blow when Howie claps his eyes on it for the first time. You find yourself echoing Howie as the sun sets and the torches are lighted. Oh God. Oh Jesus Christ…
6 – THE OMEN (1976)
There’s plenty to like in this film. The performances, by some real heavyweights, are excellent (David Warner as the doomed photographer Jennings is a standout). It’s played straight and seriously despite some dialogue that would sound terrible coming from lesser mouths (Troughton: His mother was a jackal!). Jerry Goldsmith’s score alone supplied goosebumps. And Damien, played by Harvey Spencer Stephens is seriously creepy, making Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick in the pallid 2006 remake seem like Basil Fotherington-Thomas…
Billie Whitelaw as the nanny Mrs Baylock is utterly terrifying. She carries something malevolent in those big eyes of hers (whoever cast this film deserves some serious plaudits) and seeing her partially obscured by fabric in Katherine Thorn’s hospital room, as if viewed through Thorn’s eyes, is, for me, one of the greatest moments in horror film history.
I was deeply troubled by the way Lee Remick’s character dies plunging out of a hospital window, having already watched her seriously injured in a fall (I felt the same kind of discomfort watching Bo Derek’s demise in Orca when the killer whale crunches off at the thigh her broken, plastered leg). The final image of Damien turning to smirk at the camera is perfect. A throwaway line near the start of this film – ‘He has his father’s eyes’ – comes back to give your heart a jolt when you watch it again.
For a limited time only my first novel, Head Injuries, is available for the Kindle at a reduced price of 77p (99c for my American friends). You’ll also find two short stories bundled with the novel: The Return and MacCreadle’s Bike. Grab a bargain!
“I loved it. His portraits of everyday loneliness are brilliant. Altogether I thought it one of the finest and most haunting modern spectral novels I’ve read.” — Ramsey Campbell
“Incendiary stuff… marks Williams out as a writer of rare if warped imagination.” — Time Out
“Lean, compelling prose marks this out as a thriller of real distinction.” — Crime Time
7 – THE THING (1982)
Along with Eraserhead, this film elicited the most WTFs from me when I first watched it. It retains its power 30 years on. Few films can be set in wide open spaces and produce an unbearably claustrophobic atmosphere. A huge influence on my novel The Unblemished – I was deeply scared by the idea of the monster that looks like us in order to get close to us – The Thing is a story drenched in paranoia and tension that builds and builds. You find yourself swearing at the cast when they lose track of the alien again. Back to square one and another agonising wait to discover who’s it. Solid performances all round, including the dogs… And what was Rob Bottin on? The incredible effects he created for the film (he was what… 21… 22 at the time?) were ahead of their time and one of the main reasons the film merits revisiting. For me, John Carpenter’s finest moment.
8 – JACOB’S LADDER (1990)
Absolutely terrifying. Tim Robbins plays Jacob Singer, a Vietnam vet with a filthy chuckle who is suffering from hallucinations. It becomes likely these are post-traumatic flashbacks, incited by his experiences during the war, a suspicion enforced when ex-Army colleagues begin to show up, convinced they are at the heart of a grim conspiracy. The truth behind the mystery is shocking, but by the time you find out, you’re almost grateful for it, so intense and claustrophobic and downright horrifying are the assaults on Jacob’s psyche.
Available now, Ellen Datlow’s annual anthology contains my story The Pike.