Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France


Last month the American Film Institute released its list of what it considers the 100 “most thrilling” American films during a three-hour Television Event. (Remember when they were just “programs” and then “specials”? Now they’re “events.”) Apparently, this is now something of an AFI tradition to release a list of 100 most [insert adjective here] films each summer. Last year it was the 100 funniest films. Readers with long memories will recall that I found that list rather strange since it covered everything from the truly wacky and outrageous to such “comedies” with dramatic elements as Fargo, Bull Durham, Broadcast News and The Apartment.

Fortunately for this year’s list, picking “thrilling” movies isn’t quite as tricky as selecting “funny” movies, although the term does bear some definition. By “thrilling,” do we mean scary? Exciting? Unbearably suspenseful? Emotionally overwhelming? Sheep wearing panties? Okay, sorry, I may be getting a bit too personal here.

The common denominator to all the films on the list is that they all get the blood pounding, whether it is through suspense, fright, emotional release or non-stop action. I would dearly love to take major potshots at the list, but I can’t really. After all, they clearly got the first two right. While arguably tame by today’s teen slasher standards, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho made a whole generation of us afraid to take showers or to go into dark fruit cellars. And, in the end, that may be the ultimate qualifier for a truly “thrilling” movie. It makes us afraid to do something after we’ve seen it. The No. 2 film Jaws made us afraid to swim in the ocean. (Also, Jaws 2 made us afraid to go to sequels, but that’s another matter.)

I will quibble with the No. 3 pick. When I was studying in France in the early 1970s, I kept hearing dire things about The Exorcist. Friends in America wrote that this movie was too frightening to see. I read press reports of nurses on hand at the theaters because people were fainting and having anxiety attacks. When I finally returned home and had a chance to see it myself, I defied history and went to view it with my best friend and his first wife. (Longtime readers with persistent memories will recall my previous film outing with those two.) The fact that I chanced this seems even more extraordinary since they actually told me that they had tried to see The Exorcist at the drive-in once already but that it got too intense for my friend’s wife’s delicate sensibilities and they had to leave a few minutes into the movie. But, they assured me, their nerves were up for it this time and there would be no problem.

We all managed to stay for the entire film, but I couldn’t figure out what the fuss was all about. Sure, it was a bit creepy, and the special effects were impressive for the time. But for someone, like myself, who was weaned on endless episodes of Dark Shadows, it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. I still don’t know what the big deal was. The only common thread I was able to perceive among my friends who were utterly terrified by the movie is that they were all raised Catholic. What this has to do with it, I’m not sure, but I believe it merits further study. But the bottom line for me was that The Exorcist, unlike Psycho and Jaws, didn’t make me afraid to do anything, except maybe eat split pea soup. It was essentially a triumph of hype and suggestion over suspense and horror. In other words, it was the forerunner to The Blair Witch Project, which interestingly seems not to have made the AFI list at all.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I should confess that, while I personally have never been involved in an exorcism myself, The Missus had her house in Ireland blessed by a priest who had been involved in an exorcism in Australia, and for some reason I have always slept much better there since.)

Other quibbles with the AFI list would be to move Alien even higher than its No. 6 ranking, and what’s The French Connection doing in the top ten? I could come up with others as I go down the list, but I won’t bother. In a way, compiling a list of all-time thrilling films seems like a pointless exercise. After all, shouldn’t all cinema, in one way or another, be thrilling?

-S.L., 5 July 2001

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