TG10 Horror – Vaughn’s List: Prismatic Visions of Terror

In 2022, we posed a question to our staff, our friends, and to anyone else who would answer – “What are your ten favorite films of all time?” A beautiful exercise in sharing the passions of our website and getting to exchange with so many others what cinema means to them in the process. We had so much fun that as soon as we wrapped that series, we began brainstorming ways to return to the idea with fresh perspectives, to continue sharing what cinema means to all of us. With genre cinema in our veins, the only natural progression from the shadow of ten films to define your entire experience with cinema was to wait until the spookiest month of the year and each share our ten favorite horror films. So here we are for TG10 Horror, an exploration of our favorite expressions of terror on celluloid.

In my TG10 list, I outlined ten films that express everything that cinema means to me. The films that make up my DNA as a writer, that exist within me as an intangibly critical part of who I am today. A reflective exercise that challenged me to distill thousands of films into ten definitive ideas about what film can be, and what it has meant to me. This is not so definitive. Horror is eternally expressive, a blood-etched blank canvas that allows for so much creative freedom to explore the human condition through lenses of terror. Shuffle any grouping of the countless horror films I love and I could earnestly support any top ten it might spit out. But just like last year, the act of finding a cohesive selection that says something about you is its own challenge, and one that rewarded a list of ten films that encapsulate my endless adoration for the genre.

Disclaimer: Alien is always number one – for everything – but since it claims a spot on my previous list, I left it off here to allow myself a space to talk about more films I love.

Halloween (1978)

The original revelation. A template and spawning point for so much of the genre for decades to come, John Carpenter’s seminal masterpiece remains unparalleled in its vision of the autumnal macabre. Halloween’s simmering cauldron of atmospheric unease was the inception of a spiraling adoration of the genre, flooded with visions of brisk fall air infused with nerve shredding tension, pure evil essence moving wordlessly through suburban streets and slashing with no apparent purpose. In stark opposition to pop horror contemporaries Carpenter visualizes destruction devoid of clear motive, some abstract supernatural force overtaking the peaceful town of Haddonfield, the latent dread lurking behind the holiday taking shape as a blank, destructive demon.

Carpenter’s thudding, eerie score infuses it all with a gut wrenching cinematic fog, notes that whirl around the empty streets bathed in fluorescent light like leaves kicked up by a passing chill. Carpenter and Halloween so perfectly synthesized the expression of atmospheric anxiety that it became the foundation for every avenue of horror exploration beyond it, all informed by this simple notion that horror at its best is pure evocation of emotion. Horror gets under your skin, its imagery and soundscape permeate your mind, it is freeform expression in search of revelation through viscera. At the same time, it can be a benevolent delight of melting pot celluloid, endeavoring to constantly reinvent itself and use the power of film to its fullest extent. Everything can always be traced back right here – the simple, inexplicable terror of The Shape disappearing with a cold breeze.

From Beyond (1986)

Acid-drenched cosmic horror, the vast nebulous ether beyond a veil of bloodthirsty psychosis and latent perversion. The synaptic strands of Lovecraftian adaptation all converge here, upon this monolithic ode to the dissolution of ego accompanied by chaotic, goopy, neon delirium. Devoted to textural horror coated in slimy practicals and grotesquely painted celluloid, Stuart Gordon wraps every atmospheric tenet of mind-bending unknowability and crushes it down into warped psychedelic powder, transforming a short tale of morbid cosmic curiosity into a spiral of bloody, horny mania. Pure psychic resonance splattered onto film and displayed with expressive fervor, desire for experience and lurid fascination with the unknown limits of perception.

Where most attempts to imprint the nightmare ecstasy of the unthinkable cosmos languish in unformed narrative aspirations, From Beyond harnesses the terrifying lyrical expression of Lovecraft’s work while framing magnetic central performances from Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton, and Ken Foree. All one with the hazy atmosphere they melt into the blistering neon, fragments of the ether traveling across the dimensional splinter while the decaying home slides into another realm. The mind begging for release, begging for the insight of the Great Ones so it may find another universe beyond simplistic Earthly pleasures, skull cracking beneath the weight of the infinite until your iridescent brain matter spills across the floor. The pinnacle of transcendental, slimy, cosmic schlock.

Scream (1996)

Scream is built on too much history to be a simple template that anyone remotely interested in some acerbic metacommentary on the genre could come close to matching up to. Wes Craven understood the form of horror, a father of the modern American shape of the space, largely informed by his work on A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) – a masterpiece that nearly makes this list on its own. With the additional luxury of testing the metafiction waters with New Nightmare (1994), Craven was able to form something brand new from the molten cinema of the past, an incisively violent energy creating a razor sharp weapon out of Kevin Williamson’s script. As insistently self-aware as it is internally self-serious, Scream takes the tenets of genre and wields them to create a genuinely chilling horror film that is equally capable of parodical hilarity.

The world of Scream is as informed by horror cinema as its script is, knowingly indulging in its own brutal stylistic tendencies while spiraling out into a deconstruction of filmically inflicted violence, slasher tropes, high school drama, and fervent media voyeurism. This is so definitively stated in every way that it’s no wonder that nothing following it quite matches up or feels necessary, from its astonishing use of digetic sound to its shockingly twisted opening that never fails to instill complete bone chilling terror, its existence as genre conversation as well as a stone cold classic makes for an infinitely rewatchable slice of brilliance.

The Beyond (1981)

A master of horror as an expressive vessel for the pure, atmospheric essence of soul-splitting terror, Lucio Fulci exists in a singular dimension of prolific genre output. The Beyond is the pinnacle of his acid-drenched delirium, a hazy nightmare in a muggy swamp, the tendrils of hell slowly creeping forth and lacing a town with violent dread. Blending distressing brutality with haunting choral synths and neon blood, The Beyond exists outside narrative and in a realm of pure madness, not aiming for resolution but only gliding towards the next collision with ripped flesh or snapped bones.

Though it shares space with the violently discordant City of the Living Dead (1980) and the grotesquely dreamy House by the Cemetery (1981) – forming the loosely connected Gates of Hell trilogy – The Beyond remains completely singular as a perfectly brutal distillation of the genre, a chaotic phantasmagoria constantly escaping the boundaries of form, some kind of mercurial ambient dread that never quite begins or ends. Fulci’s commitment to this perfectly tuned uncanny valley constantly escapes any and all sense, always just outside of what feels normal until a permanent unease churns through every bone in your body. The characters exist in a space between dimensions, locked in the nightmare but somehow aware of your voyeuristic desire to perceive it.

Read more about The Beyond, Fulci’s catalogue of nightmares, and the film’s stunning and singular score here.

Phenomena (1985)

There’s nothing like Phenomena. A film whose persistent dedication to the completely and utterly bizarre delivers an otherworldly experience like nothing else, a film slowly slipping from the boundaries of our reality. Everything is strange, nothing fully coheres, and every single moment of it is impossibly fascinating. Maybe a betrayal of a stated desire to showcase a variety of genre masterpieces to include two of Argento’s works, but Phenomena remains so mysteriously beguiling that it constantly begs to be returned to, to travel back to its airy alpine landscape and sink into the folds of insect extrasensory perception, crumbling institutions, entomologists with simian butlers, burning lakes, and maggot-eaten corpses.

Ascending from the clean, synthetic chorus of Tenebre, Goblin returns with one of the greatest horror scores of all time, a high octane drum machine shredder accompanied by a haunting operatic refrain, driving its midnight sleepwalk psychosis into high strung chaos. A violent gut-check twist against Suspiria’s neater internal logic, Phenomena draws its boarding school bloodshed into a dreamy haze, a world where some greater power simmers beneath the surface as cosmic influence, visions of a wayward purgatory amid the string of death. Though its unrestrained narrative splatter and unstable logic draw Argento at his closest to Fulci, this remains in a universe of its own – one ruled by Iron Maiden and Motörhead needle drops.

Possession (1981)

The cinema of Polish filmmaker Andrzej Żuławski is a marred, hellish landscape flooded with the unholy, the grotesque, and the nightmarishly entrancing. Gut wrenching, towering masterpieces with disturbing vérité expression even when venturing into more traditionally light genre filmmaking, Żuławski’s romances are as harrowing as his horror. The soul-splitting union of those two things form the shape of Possession, a maniacal and mesmerizing film of flesh, blood, and ectoplasm. Taking a messy, unformed, anguish vortex of emotional expression and splattering it onto the screen, Possession’s deranged vision of violent marital separation becomes a primal idea of what horror can be. A demented and blood-drenched collection of darkly intonated expressions of the human experience, every bizarre fold of the mind is explored and drained by way of the film’s nauseatingly propulsive, pulsating camera.

Possession is the horror of socially ingrained idealization, it is the horror of our anguished screams in search of normalcy, it is the horror of gendered expectations and the binding chains of self-hatred. Possession is the horror of what we have done to ourselves and what we are capable of doing to each other, the ensuing cycle of trauma and suffering our actions may generate. Shot through a lens of spiraling delirium caught in an oozing cosmic void, the incomprehensible mind-bending chaos seems to be in a perpetual state of collapsing in on itself – a neverending crescendo crashing into the stars. A guttural scream of agony, nothing is crafted or constructed with quite the same destructive fervor of Possession.

The Thing (1982)

Frosty, alienating, and isolated, The Thing is a chilling spider-web of dizzying distrust that starts with the fine line between the organic and the artificial and ends with the quiet, defeated submission to horrors beyond comprehension. While Halloween forms the shape of an entire genre that has persisted through the history of horror, here Carpenter takes the loosest scaffolding from The Thing from Another World (1951) and transforms it into a paranoid psychosis that is unlike anything else, an intangibly pitch perfect atmosphere that will never be recreated. Trying to make sense of something impossibly otherworldly while winds and snow blow subzero chills through shattered windows and splintered doors. Flesh consumed by contorted, grotesque viscera while the mind is consumed by paranoid delirium, every moment of goopy, vile organic decay and bone crunching transformation immortalized by Rob Bottin’s stunning effects work and underlined by Ennio Morricone and Carpenter’s pulsating synths and haunting strings.

This list may be overstuffed with horror that is primarily led by atmosphere but The Thing stands alone as a film driven by its palpable vice grip, fully leveraging its ice cold landscape enough to chill you to your core. Rather than narrative as incidental byproduct of atmosphere, every turn here is directly informed by the isolated air it develops, a magnetic synergy of form and function that propels the central psychosis to towering heights.

Demons (1985)

Demons wastes no time. Radiating grungy punk energy from the moment it begins, Claudio Simonetti’s razor sharp synthesizer needle drop that shrouds the film’s first minutes advertises the film’s entire atmosphere, musical exposition that explodes through the frame to define a sonic landscape like no other. It’s no surprise that it unfolds as a prismatic expression of distilled 80s essence and Italian horror mania, but Lamberto Bava’s Demons does it with such insistent fervor, demanding you fall into your seat at the Metropol and be consumed alive by the voracious jaws of cinema. Bava, in the footsteps of his father Mario’s extensive horror oeuvre that includes formative influence on giallo and slashers, crafts a film that weaponizes the neon-soaked dreams of escapism.

Where much of Italian horror is built on compelling central characters caught in a whirlwind of suffocating violence, Demons treats its characters as disposable to great effect, almost gleefully devouring them at the expense of their cinematic engagement. Slowly its crowd of cinemagoers are consumed and turned into their own monsters, faceless victims of genre plastered against a dissolving silver screen, ever distorting its projected image of joyous fictive schlock. Rapidly it spirals into a punk rock grapple for survival – anarchic visions of violence, spiked belts and Billy Idol invading the cinema setting to splatter demon guts and teen angst with a dirt bike and a katana. A real cathedral burner.

Tenebre (1982)

Much like his contemporary, godfather of gore Lucio Fulci, Dario Argento’s prolific catalogue of horror masterpieces could nearly form a commendable top ten on its own. Argento’s Suspiria (1977) is a common introduction into the macabre, neon-tinted world of Italian expressionist horror, a sensory whirlwind of colorful chaos and a screeching vortex of synths and bells. In contrast to Suspiria’s dark, rain-washed rainbow of terror, Argento’s Tenebre is a sun-soaked, pastel haze that flips the lens onto his own culpability as an artist of violence and death.

With deceptively simple beginnings, Tenebre slowly shifts from familiar giallo genre trappings perfectly executed by a master of the genre into a kaleidoscopic vision of art as a weapon, replete with conversational criticism of exploitative narrative violence and an otherworldly, implacable landscape. It’s the greatest realization of what giallo could be, a hypnotic and beguiling slasher that repeatedly metamorphizes and responds to its own tropes and ideas. A dizzying cacophony of spilled blood and broken glass, with one of the most stunning color palettes in horror and an overcranked masterpiece of a Goblin score that synthesizes the Italian word for fear into a melodic crimson weapon.

House (1977)

Beautiful, tragic, freewheeling creative chaos, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House (or Hausu) is a definitive masterstroke in utilizing the familiar stylings of genre to service a tapestry of pure expression, in turn breaking every filmic rule imaginable in an effort to create a transfixing, mesmeric kaleidoscope of melancholic cinema. Comedy, horror, and fantasy in a hypercolor melting pot, House exists in a liminal space between worlds. A slippery dreamy haze, a frozen supernatural purgatory drawn by the extant pain of death and fallout. Everything here follows an intangible internal logic guided by the pure force of cinema’s form. It never quite makes sense and yet the magnetic power of Obayashi’s direction and the film’s consistent dedication to delirious effects magic make for an unrelenting cinematic delight.

Operating on a wavelength informed by Obayashi’s experiences with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima the film wields a pained undercurrent of death and destruction, where a yearning for those lost manifests as spiraling rage and spectral violence. The central cast of schoolgirls on a quaint countryside vacation are forced to reckon with the sudden loss of their friends as the home they visit begins to consume with anguished fervor. Yet despite the spectrum of bloody psychedelia and the grim undertones upon which it operates, House is primarily a comedic vessel, all painted with the oversaturated extrasensory ether and plucky pop tunes that flood the soundscape of the film’s zany, dreamlike journey. Everything is pushed forward by wildly creative effects work that makes no effort to appear real – it is defined by its unreality, by its use of cinematic language to express the bizarre and to blend all the pieces of its form into a whole. It is a constant joy to experience, each character drawn with distinct and unique personality and each frame stunningly constructed. Traumatic, joyous, hallucinogenic, bizarre, and brilliant, with a glimmer of hope in the middle that love might just pull us through the pain.

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