#154 (tie) – Black Narcissus (1947), dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

Black Narcissus

Nun too difficult. You are almost contractual obliged to use a bell-ringing shot atop any article about Powell & Pressburger’s Black Narcissus. And there is little wonder why, as this movie about a group of nuns atop a mountain in India is a visual feast of extraordinary sumptuousness.

After four movies set firmly within wartime Britain, filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger finally put World War II behind and look to the outskirts of Britain’s colonial empire for their fifth entry on the Sight & Sound list, Black Narcissus (1947). Though set in the mountains of northern India, the film sticks with a predominantly white, English cast (unfortunately even for a number of Indian roles), presenting the trials and tribulations of a group of nuns attempting to set up a school and clinic in a mountaintop palace. Few in number and living in isolation, the nuns (led by Powell’s beloved Deborah Kerr) struggle with their living situation, the local people, and among themselves as they try to cope atop the mountain. The film uses the nuns to delve into questions of faith, duty, colonial attitudes, lust, love, and madness. But the treatment of these themes is generally superficial, with the movie preferring to work more as an exercise in tone and image. And in that regard Black Narcissus is a thrilling work of art channeling the compositions of Vermeer, a liberal dash of Orientalism, and a sinister Technicolor palette to create an unreal world where enlightenment and derangement sit side by side. (100 min.) Continue reading

#154 (tie) – Vampyr (1932), dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer

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Dead or alive. Allan Grey, or perhaps just a dream self, stares through a coffin window. Such stark lighting and inventive camera angles work to create a nightmare world of danger and confusion in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr.

If there is a difference between horror and suspense, it might might be said to come down to a question of opacity. Horror shows its hand; suspense keeps it hid but implies strongly. But perhaps more importantly, suspense isn’t necessarily meant to scare so much as to create a mood, an atmosphere in which anything — probably the worst anything — can happen. Despite featuring an undead blood sucker, a malevolent doctor, and a one-legged murderer, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) can’t really be said to be a horror film. It does, however, create a morbidly grim atmosphere that also manages to playfully tap into the realm of dreams and nightmares. The film is awash in strange lighting schemes, misbehaving shadows, off-kilter angles, and unorthodox performances, the sum of which create a picture that engages even as it strains comprehension. Vampyr is a movie of details more than a movie of scares, but its deliberate pace and bravura camerawork create a compact world of hypnotic beauty and grimy tension. (73 min.) Continue reading

#117 (tie) – Nosferatu (1922), dir. F.W. Murnau

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Stranger in the night. Count Dracu… er, I mean, Count Orlok haunts the minds and plagues the bodies of his shipbound victims in a scene from the silent horror film Nosferatu (1922).

Nosferatu has long been considered a horror movie staple, and it is the earliest film on the Sight & Sound Top 250 list by German director F.W. Murnau. Between 1922 and his untimely death in an automobile accident in 1931, Murnau produced four movies now considered by critics to be among the very greatest ever made, with his 1927 film Sunrise (#5) being the highest ranked silent film on the list. Nosferatu was the first attempt to bring Bram Stoker’s Dracula to the silver screen, but it was filmed without securing the rights from the author’s estate. Consequently all of the characters have different names and some story details were changed in the hopes of avoiding a lawsuit (it didn’t work, they were sued and most prints of the film were destroyed as a result). So while it is a familiar story, Nosferatu gives it a spin all its own and produces one of the most iconic villains of cinema — the hideous bloodsucker Count Orlok. (92 min.) Continue reading

#235 (tie) – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), dir. Robert Weine

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Fractured fairytale. The somnambulist hauls his victim over the German Expressionist rooftops of the warped world of Dr. Caligari.

An early foray into cinematic horror, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, 1920) features some of the most wildly distorted sets the movies have ever seen. A touchstone of German Expressionist cinema, the film largely ignores naturalism of any kind in its settings, instead creating its own looming, jagged world in which terrible events transpire. The story revolves around a series of mysterious murders that occur shortly after a fair comes to town. A featured spectacle at the fair is the cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which houses Cesare, a young man who is almost permanently asleep and can supposedly divine the future. Soon suspicion swirls that Dr. Caligari is responsible for the murders, but proof is elusive. (75 min.) Continue reading

#235 (tie) – The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), dir. Fritz Lang

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Driven ’round the bend. Madness, fear, and the looming spectre of Nazism drive the twisted criminality in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), the last film Fritz Lang made in Germany before fleeing to the United States.

“Humanity’s soul must be shaken to its very depths, frightened by unfathomable and seemingly senseless crimes. Crimes that benefit no one, whose only objective is fear and terror. Because the ultimate purpose of crime is to establish the endless empire of crime.” So reads the scribbled ravings of Dr. Mabuse, a criminal mastermind driven insane before his arrest a decade earlier. In the aftermath of horrible events like the Boston marathon bombing it is a sobering (if not distressing) thought that director Fritz Lang was addressing the same sort of dreadful activity 80 years ago as the Nazis began their meteoric rise to power. This was the final film that Lang, whose mother was Jewish, made in Germany before fleeing the country. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse, 1933) is nominally a sequel to Lang’s very successful silent film Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler (1922), but it is also a semi-sequel to Lang’s previous movie, M (1931, we’ll get in to that below). Confined to a mental institution, the insane Mabuse endlessly pencils out complex criminal schemes which appear to be replicated in the real world by a criminal gang that uses terror and fierce loyalty to reach its destructive ends. Not just another crime film, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse delves into strange realms of madness in a Germany that was itself on the verge of insanity. (122 min.) Continue reading