8. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
One of the great adaptations from page to screen, The Silence of the Lambs is so un-showily clever in its choices and still able to make your stomach drop even after a dozen revisits.
A pretty faithful adaptation of Thomas Harris’ gruesome novel and one of only half a dozen winners of all “big five” Oscars (one of the only true horrors to gain such recognition), we follow soon-to-graduate FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster, captivating) on the hunt for a brutal serial mutilator and killer of women, “Buffalo Bill”. Her best chance at catching him comes from consulting the incarcerated psychologist-cannibal-murderer Hannibal Lecter (a chilling Anthony Hopkins).
Both Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins won an Oscar, and Hopkins’ less-than 20 minutes screentime as charming psychopath Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter is unforgettable, but Jodie Foster carries the film as the layered, tough and self-reliant Clarice.
From the opening moments, Clarice’s uphill battle towards being respected by her FBI colleagues, her psychotic interviewee, even the killer she is hunting, is emphasised. Jonathan Demme’s camera and editing keeps us on a level with her, ensuring that we experience the film’s most shocking twists at the same time as our protagonist. Early on we are shown, and get to know to an extent, the disturbed man Starling is hunting, but canny editing never makes us feel complicit in the horrors, the worst of which are kept just out of view to allow our own brains to conjure the most disturbing images for the most frightening affect possible.
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7. Rear Window (1954)
At its core, film as an art form is all about looking. And so, Hitchcock, a man infamous for enjoying surreptitious views of the world, made the great voyeurism movie.
We all have those moments in life when we’re 99% sure we’ve seen something sinister happen from afar. L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart), a photographer temporarily confined to a wheelchair after breaking his leg, witnesses his neighbour murder his wife through the window and sets out to prove it with the help of his glamorous friend Lisa (Grace Kelly).
Arguably no one has ever looked as striking as Grace Kelly does in this era of movies, and her energy and sizzling back and forth with a contrasting bitter Stewart is almost as much of a draw as all the intrigue and suspense Hitchcock is best known for. The uncomfortable, sweaty, heatwave atmosphere is palpable, and every one of Jeffries’ neighbours we fleetingly witness from his portal seems to have their own story to tell.
It’s an astounding use of the screen space available; our protagonist’s (and our own) limited field of view, and the ingenious apartment block set design that only reveals so much of what is actually going on at a time, enhances the mystery and the creeping dread no end. The scene where Grace Kelly is searching the suspect’s apartment blissfully unaware that he is about to come through the door is one of the greats.
The hero using his voyeuristic tendencies almost like a superpower is a very Hitchcock conceit, almost as if the director is justifying his love of looking at sex and violence by making it key to unravelling his film’s mystery and ultimately saving the day.
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6. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Guillermo del Toro’s dark and beautiful magical realist fable Pan’s Labyrinth continues to cast an unbreakable spell and pack a hefty emotional wallop.
At the height of the Spanish Civil War, ten year-old Ophelia (Ivana Baquero) is sent with her pregnant mother to live with her stepfather, a brutal Captain in General Franco’s army. As she wanders the woods, she meets a faun (Doug Jones) who tells her she is the lost princess of a fairy kingdom and must prove herself with three tasks.
The second part in what del Toro now considers a thematic trilogy (along with The Devil’s Backbone and the stop-motion animated Pinocchio) that collides childhood innocence with warfare and fascism, Pan strikes the perfect balance between dreamy escapism and crushing reality.
Del Toro loves monsters, mythology and fairy tales, and this creation story takes influence from many stories and yet feels completely its own thing, like it has been told to children at bedtime for generations to both entrance and terrify them. The lovingly crafted sets and costumes, prosthetics and animatronics, transport you to another uncanny, beautiful but quite sinister otherworld and meld flawlessly with the more recognisable, even crueller reality we recognise.
His creatures are always vividly memorable, equally beautiful and disturbing, and two of the greats can be found here with the Pale Man and the Faun, both played with a mime artist’s dexterity and expressiveness by Doug Jones. The macabre elements of Ophelia’s quest (the Pale Man eating children whole, the mandrake ritual) feel very Brothers Grimm, and the film is given the perfect tragic but bittersweet ending whether or not you think Ophelia really went on fantastical adventures or simply escaped into her imagination.
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