’28 Days Later’ (2003), 113 minutes, Ratings: 85% Tomato-meter 7.6 IMDb
Danny Boyle established himself in the mid-90’s as a master of horror ranging from the unnervingly realistic ‘Shallow Grave’ to the surreality of ‘Trainspotting’. Here he takes on a pandemic meets a zombie apocalypse with a cast headed up by a very young Cillian Murphy. As Jim, Murphy wakes up in an abandoned hospital in London to find the streets empty & soon finds out why. These zombies aren’t the shambling ‘Night of the Living Dead’ variety. Of scary situations, zombies that can outrun you rank near the top. Naomi Harris & Christopher Eccleston costar.
‘Alien’ (1979) 104 minutes, Ratings: 97% Tomato-meter, 8.4 IMDb
(Sci-fi, Horror, Corporate evil)
screen The tag line for this film was “In space no one can hear you scream”. I remember seeing it on a big enough to create the illusion that we were in space with the crew, one of the best casts I’ve seen: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skeritt, the greats: Harry Dean Statnton, John Hurt & Ian Holm. The terror of the alien constantly morphing, killing its host & everything in its path, the indifference of the corporation that considers the crew expendable and the fierce courage of Ripley and of course Jonesy* the cat. It all happened here first. One of the most terrifying, well-made films I’ve ever seen.
‘Angel Heart’ (1987) 113 minutes, Ratings: 77% Tomato-meter, 7.3 IMDb
In 1978 Alan Parker brought us the unforgettable ‘Midnight Express’. In 1987 he brought us to the Big Easy, captured the atmospherics of the woozy, sticky, heavy air and introduced noir to gore. Turns out to be a successful combination. Mickey Rourke plays Harry Angel in his best acting work & is seeking someone for Robert DeNiro, someone who has no desire to be found. Voodoo/Voodoun figures prominently and every lead Mr. Angel pursues meets a messy end. Lisa Bonet and Charlotte Rampling complete this ensemble as they navigate the sensuality that was mid 20th century New Orleans and the ever escalating blood letting.
‘The Autopsy of Jane Doe’ (2016) 86 minutes, Ratings: 86% Tomato-meter, 6.8 IMDb
(Ritual sacrifice/Witch Persecution/Haunting)
A horror film with a cadaver in the title role is so promising and this one delivers. As a funeral director and his son unravel the mystery within and surrounding the corpse of a young woman the palpable question could come from a riff on a 20th century ad: Was she or wasn’t she? A ritual sacrifice? A witch? An innocent who met a horrific end? All of these? Meanwhile a storm is coming and with it possible devastation. The element this film has in common with ’28 Days Later’, “Poltergeist’ & most Tarantino films is a most compelling one: Retribution. And a sequel is entirely possible.
‘The Babadook’ (2014) 94 minutes, Ratings: 98% Tomato-meter, 6.8 IMDb
“Baba-baba-dook-dook-dook!” So fun to say, reading kids to sleep. Who knows where that book came from? Almost everyone likes a scary story now & then especially one you can chant along with… until it starts turning the house, the world upside down. The principal players in horror stories: Zombies, banshees, ghosts and ghouls are reflections of the human ways various cultures contend with the mystery of death and the agony of grief. Jennifer Kent in her directorial debut explores layers and levels with this mother and son dealing with loss in a horror movie like no other. See it.
‘The Blair Witch Project’ (1999) 81 minutes, Ratings: 87% Tomato-meter, 6.5 IMDb
This one is emblematic of the DIY spirit of Generation X. The first time I saw it I remember thinking, “They got lost in the woods? In Maryland?!” I was a single Mom with a little boy sleeping in the next room & didn’t scare easily. When my son was a teen, we found it again, watched it and had a fantastic time freaking out. Clocking in at a mere 81 minutes it’s raw, terrifying fun. For anyone who rolls their eyes, I’d love to give you $60,000 & tell you to make a better film, but frankly, I haven’t got it.
‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’ (1992) 128 minutes, Ratings: 73% Tomato-meter 7.4 IMDb
(Grand master of Vampires)
There are taller, darker, more handsome Draculas, but Gary Oldman, carries this mess of a movie on his slender shoulder brilliantly as so many choke and chew the scenery around him. If you’ve ever wanted to see Oldman shave Keanu Reeves with a straight razor, drop what you’re doing and see it now. The scene that makes this movie for me is where Oldman may have pounds of age make up on his face, but catches sight of a woman he’s missed for 500 years. Love, longing & loss, it’s all there in his eyes, the mark of fine film acting. He didn’t tell us love never dies, he showed us.
‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ (1920) 67 minutes, 96% Tomato-meter, 8.0 IMDb
Here’s where basically every scary movie you’ve ever seen began. Silent films don’t come much more highly touted than this one in all its German Expressionism. If film acting is so much about the eyes, it is even more so in silent films & the cast delivers. One set in particular was positively hypnotic, but what did not work in the restoration I saw was the score. Free jazz with electric guitars? Whose idea was that?? It threw everything into anachronistic tension and not in a good way. Symphonic black metal would be a far better choice.
‘The Cabin in the Woods’ (2012) 95 minutes Ratings: 91% Tomato-meter, 7.0 IMDb
(Zombies, Meta Sacrifice)
Slapstick splatter, red-neck, torture worshipping zombies and an overarching theme of ritual sacrifice. Sound like a good time? You’ll love this one. Joss Whedon collaborated on the screenplay so the plot is well constructed, a solid platform for the laughs, screams and the way out there systems trip. The acting’s great all around: Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford are great as the corrupt, blasé bureaucrats as are Fran Kranz, Kristen Conolly and Chris Hemsworth as the college students heading toward what may be their last party. What elevates this film is the concept of “where nightmares are from” rather than something out of a nightmare. It manages to be both deep and fun.
‘Carrie’ (1976) 98 minutes, Ratings: 94% Tomato-meter, 7.4 IMDb
The combination of Stephen King, Brian de Palma, Sissy Spacek & Piper Laurie is sheer, dark movie magic. Carrie’s a shy girl bullied by her mother (Laurie, in her Oscar-nominated pitch-perfect pentecostal star turn). Margaret doesn’t bother to tell Carrie about anything as sinful as puberty. Carrie is in turn bullied by other girls who had better look out. Carrie has a superpower that resonates even after the superhero glut of the 21st century. She deals with the mean girls in their turn. William Katt & John Travolta mostly look pretty, but make no mistake, this is a story of woman’s inhumanity to woman. Karma is leveled unforgettably.
The Changeling’ (1980) 1 hr 47 minutes 84% Tomato-meter 7.4 IMDb
(Lost Child/Haunted House)
A great horror film, based in Seattle, brings George C. Scott out west after a family tragedy. Scott plays a composer who is now teaching to packed lecture halls. The old house where he’s staying is huge, perfect for lavish parties with live music. The music he composes in the unfamiliar house unlike anything he’s written before… because he’s not alone in the house. Melvyn Douglas plays a U.S. Senator with ties to the house. As with all good ghost stories, there’s a mystery to be solved inside all the unnerving noises and creepy rooms, walled off or abandoned. One might assume the title would give away the mystery, but not so. See it, likely at your local library, free of charge: The pleasure of physical media…
‘Crimson Peak’ (2015) 119 minutes, Ratings: 73% Tomato-meter, 6.5 IMDb
Another haunted house? This is no mere shed out in the woods, but a sumptuous, ancient mansion with a wealthy, privileged and possibly inbred family. Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska, & Doug Jones under the direction of the brilliant Guillermo Del Toro bring us ‘Crimson Peak’. Del Toro made this film between ‘Pacific Rim’ and his Oscar-winning ‘The Shape of Water’, which is a testimony to his range as a director and storyteller. The art direction cinematography and special effects range between decadent and heart-stopping. It’s far from perfect, but parts of this film are outstanding.
‘The Devil’s Backbone’ (2001) 106 minutes, Ratings: 92% Tomato-meter, 7.4 IMDb
I don’t think there’s a better setting for a horror film than an abandoned orphanage at the end of a war. The war in question is the Spanish Civil War. 10 year old Carlos arrives at the orphanage and very shortly looks like he’s seen a ghost, because he has. Spirits trapped between two worlds, secrets, lies and an unexploded bomb all figure into this story that is allegorical, political and has impact through decades and generations, generations that are a mystery to orphans. As we know, wars drive policy, make history, cost countless lives and make so very many orphans.
‘The Exorcist’ (1973) 122 minutes Ratings: 85% Tomato-meter, 8.0 IMDb
This had to make the list. It’s the law. Full on demonic possession, the temperature in the room dropping so suddenly you can see your breath. Ellen Burstyn wrote in her memoir of the ordeal of making this film and so many inexplicable & shudder-worthy things that happened on the set. Linda Blair’s performance was positively sacrificial and is illegal for underage actors today. In the title role, if Max Von Sydow’s repeated line “The Power of Christ compels you!” falls a little flat, it’s because, at least at that time Max was an unapologetic atheist. You’d think that would come up in the audition…
‘Get Out’ (2017) 104 minutes, Ratings: 98% Tomato-meter 7.7 IMDb
A horror film addressing race, class and privilege, released in early 2017 & the timing couldn’t have been better. A young black man, his daughter of privilege sweetheart, a visit to her parent’s home. Events strange to alarming & beyond ensue. It’s Jordan Peele’s fist major splash in the cinematic sea and he won the Oscar for Best Screenplay. Few horror movies are honored with Oscar gold and this is the first to win for Original Screenplay. Bradley Whitford as the father reminds is just how creepy it can be to be too much of a fan of someone you’ve never met.
‘Halloween’ (1978) 91 minutes, Ratings 96% Tomato-meter, 7.8 IMDb
Before the sequels, the franchises that no doubt paid off a few high end homes there was this humble tale of a boy who had stabbed his sister 15 years before on Halloween. Now a young man he has escaped from wherever he was locked up, just in time for the anniversary. Jamie Lee Curtis, then a newcomer with a name or two to live up to heads the cast in a film with pacing, sense of place and an ever building composition of not only jump scares but what a NYT critic called “still shocks… the ones that linger with you.” It’s been relentlessly imitated, but well worth seeing how they got this right the first time.
‘Jacob’s Ladder’ (1990) 113 minutes, Ratings: 72% Tomato-meter, 7.5 IMDb
A 20th century gem of psychological horror that jumps between New York City, Viet Nam and hell with a very young Tim Robbins as the titular Jacob. Some vets never made it home, others came home physically but still have one foot decomposing in the jungle. So many things went wrong in that war, in any war and we follow Jacob as he struggles to sort it out between flashbacks and moments unnerving, terrifying & despondent to sublime. Costarring a perfectly adorable Macaulay Culkin before the incident with aftershave made him famous.
‘The Lady Vanishes’ (1938) 96 minutes, Ratings: 98% Tomato-meter, 7.8 IMDb
(Mystery, early Hitchcock)
If you’re looking for blood, guts and mayhem, pass this one up, but if you’re looking for early Hitchcock when he was still working in the U.K. that’s a crisp, clear combination of great camera work, performances & story, don’t miss it. Miss Froy has been vacationing in the Balkans and goes missing on her trip home. Due to the devastation the Nazis rained on them and subsequent political blunders awakening vengeance, the Balkans would be a rare vacation destination for the rest of the 20th century, but I digress. The train is full of shady strangers who are pressing the idea she never boarded the train. There’s witty dialogue and plenty of humor as Hitch navigates us through the mystery. It’s a delight, check it out.
‘Let the Right One In’ (2008) 116 minutes, Ratings: 98%Tomato-meter, 7.9 IMDb
Oskar is a 12 year old boy living in Scandinavia (long, long nights) who is a target for bullies. An eccentric, mysterious girl moves in right around the time a series of murders happen in the area. She’s different, she’s nice, she has good manners… and she could have had something to do with the murders… and yet… The pacing, acting and storyline is familiar, but feels fresh in this setting. If you see it, you’ll never forget the scene at the pool, but that’s all I’ll divulge. It’s a study in vampire etiquette… and the blood effects are sublime.
‘Night of the Hunter’ (1955) 92 minutes, Ratings: 99% Tomato-meter, 8.0 IMDb
Okay, this is more noir than horror, but it was this seminal role the landed Robert Mitchum the role of Max Cady in the 1962 film ‘Cape Fear’, the only ‘Cape Fear’ worth seeing, but I digress. In the 21st century $10,000 isn’t a lot, but during the Great Depression that was the kind of money some would kill for. Shelley Winters plays the mother of 2 children, soon to be widowed because 2 people died in a bank robbery for which her husband was convicted. Along comes Mitchum, tattoos on his knuckles, preaching about love and hate. Sometimes the scariest monsters are those who walk among us.
‘The Others’ (2008) 104 minutes, Ratings: 83% Tomato-meter, 7.6 IMDb
No blood or gore here, this one’s all about the story and great performances, particularly by Nicole Kidman and Fionnula Flanagan. Mist envelops this island in post-WWII Britain where Grace (Kidman) lives with her photosensitive children. Daylight will harm and possible kill them, so Grace diligently balances candle and keys, protecting her son & daughter from the light. Her staff have left and she is overwhelmed when three people who can help appear. She holds out hope that her husband will return from the war, but the house inexplicably continues to shift. You won’t know heroes or villains until the final frames. Costarring Christopher Eccleston.
‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ (2006) 118 minutes, Ratings: 95% Tomato-meter, 7.9 IMDb
(War/Family Violence/Phantasmagoric Escape)
This collaboration between Doug Jones and Guillermo Del Toro is particularly delicious and terrifying. It won Oscars for Art Direction, Cinematography & Make Up, but to the point. Spain, 1944. A plucky young girl uneasily navigates her pregnant mother and new stepfather’s union when she discovers a labyrinth and is transported into an exciting world of terror and danger, much more interesting than the banalities of war (weird, brutal new dad is a military officer.) Pan transforms into various horrifying forms and puts Ofelia through her paces with exacting tasks, but he’s a sweetheart compared to her ruthless stepfather. Fantastically imagined, beautifully shot, this one is a feast for the senses. See it.
‘Pit & the Pendulum’ (1961) 80 minutes, Ratings: 84% Tomato-meter, 7.1 IMDb
(Poe: Need I say more?)
Vincent Price was my very first favorite actor. It was in this adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s 1842 short story that at the tender age of 7 or so that I discovered an actor & genre that delighted me and a discipline I continue to respect. Price was a classically stage trained actor before finding his niche in scaring and thrilling audiences. There’s nothing like the Spanish Inquisition as a rich source for horror stories. Here Price is the keeper of the Medina castle, double cast. His wife had died under mysterious circumstances and her brother has come searching for her. A pendulum with a blade is involved and may or may not slice someone in half. I’ll never tell.
‘Psycho’ (1960) 109 minutes, Ratings: 96% Tomato-meter, 8.5 IMDb
Blood effects: So difficult to make real. Film, TV, live theatre, very few get it right, but I’ll come back to that. ‘Psycho’ has two almost separate story lines: Marion Crane’s complicated relationships, her desire to break free, her fateful stay at the Bates Motel and in the second act her sister’s search for her and for justice justice. It’s a masterpiece of 20th century film in any genre, with Hitch at the top of his game: Performances, gorgeous black & white cinematography and the unforgettable score. But back to blood effects: You can get away with a lot in a black & white film and the sweet solution to realistic blood effects in the shower scene? Chocolate syrup. See it, if you haven't already.
’A Quiet Place’ (2018) 90 minutes, Ratings: 95% Tomato-meter, 7.5 IMDb
(Family stalked by Alternate life forms)
For a mere $17 million (not a lot to make a major motion picture in the 21st century) here’s a horror film with an unearthly twist. Quiet is not the source of peace, but the lack of it means certain violent death at the claws of huge, bloodthirsty creatures. The family we’re following are fully developed characters, not mere marks to be picked off as in so many horror films. John Krasinsky directed and stars in an innovative horror film, one about a family that has been surviving for years in this state. Imagine labor & delivery of a child where making sound would mean far more blood than a birth. Now check this film out. — 10/1/2023
‘Rear Window’ (1954) 112 minutes, Ratings: 100% Tomato-meter, 8.5 IMDb
Jimmy Stewart is laid up with a broken leg and nothing to do but engage in a bit of voyeurism, something Hitchcock himself was given to. Hitch was a creeper before Woody Allen or Harvey Weinstein, but I digress. Anyway as life’s rich pageant unfolds before his binoculars, Jimmy notices something off. Raymond Burr is acting very strangely and may be more than just a bit of a brute. Solving the mystery of a possible murder ratchets up the tension with quite a bit of humor thrown in. And Grace Kelly’s entrance is perhaps the best in cinematic history. — 10/1/2023
‘Rebecca’ (1940) 100 minutes, Ratings: 100% Tomato-meter, 8.1 IMDb
The mayhem and debauchery mostly take place off screen in this adaptation of a novel by Daphne Du Maurier, but there is definitely a Fleurs du Mal vibe from this singular Hitchcock winner of the Oscar for Best Picture. Lawrence Olivier and Joan Fontaine star as the widower and his new bride. But the first wife casts a long shadow and there is nothing blithe about this spirit. How did she die? And why is everyone still so obsessed with her? Hitch guides us through this tangled web, at the top of his considerable game. See it. 10/1/2023
‘The Ring’ (2002) 115 minutes, Ratings: 71% Tomato-meter, 7.1 IMDb
(Cursed Video US)
Okay, a lot of jump scares in this U.S. remake of a cursed video tape (remember VHS? Beta??) From the time (usually unwitting teens) see what is on the tape, the clock is running and the ones who see are the ones who die. Usually a loved one seeking what happened to the deceased comes across the tape and the body count mounts. This is adapted from a far superior Japanese film released at the end of the 20th century (more on that below). Naomi Watts is great as a journalist whose niece is among the fallen. Her performance and the watery grave soundtrack are worth taking the time to check this one out. — 10/25/2019
‘Ringu’ (1998) 96 minutes, Ratings: 97% Tomato-meter, 7.3 IMDb
(Cursed Video Japan)
The original tale of the cursed tape and seven days to fight it or get your affairs in order and prepare to die is masterful. No jump scares, no cheap devices, just a slow burn and a story that unravels so completely you’ll forget you’re reading subtitles. The images, the pacing, the plot are subtle, relentless and horrifying. You may avert your eyes or be unable to because it is mesmerizing. The horse, the well with the detached fingernails stuck to the sides. It’s as close to a perfect a horror film as I’ve seen. — 10/1/2023
‘Shaun of the Dead’ (2004) 96 minutes, Ratings: 92% Tomato-meter, 7.9 IMDb
I know, more zombies, but this and Hot Fuzz’ (2007) are two of the more inspired comedies with a creepy edge. Time spent watching Bill Nighy work is always well spent. He plays Shaun’s Dad and there’s a scene between them where we witness how truly great his acting is, the craft that won him a Golden Globe in 2007 and BAFTAs for both Best Actor and Supporting Actor in 2004. Chase scenes through back yards with laundry hanging dry and how much people shuffling mindlessly toward the coffee that starts their hearts resemble zombies is all well played. —10/1/2023
‘The Shining’ (1980) 146 minutes, Ratings: 85% Tomato-meter, 8.4 IMDb
(Haunted hotel, burial ground)
Stanley Kubrick made huge films: ‘Spartacus’, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, ‘A Clockwork Orange’ & ‘Full Metal Jacket’. Not always easy to watch, but hard to deny the grand sweep of his vision and his knack for catching people at their worst and never looking away. Kubrick didn’t like Jack Nicholson’s performance and neither did I. More than any player, the hotel is the true star of this film. Built over native burial grounds, there’s enough blood to cascade out of elevator doors and push furniture down the hall. There’s not enough of the little boy and *Scatman Crothers* confiding about shining, but the endless halls with geometric carpet pattens & what lies behind various hotel room doors will be to keep you in creeping horror and pouring darkness for the 146 minute running time. —10/28/2019
‘The Silence of the Lambs’ (1991) 118 minutes, Ratings: 96% Tomato-meter, 8.6 IMDb
The list wouldn’t be complete without this one and to those who whine that serial killer films aren’t horror movies, you’re cordially invited to make your own list. Anthony Hopkins and Jodi Foster are at the peak of their considerable powers and the high stakes chess game they play as lives hang in the balance is breathtaking. She has much more screen time, but he makes his count. There’s a scene that’s literally about shooting in the dark that’s my favorite, but everyone has their own. This and ‘The Exorcist’ are the only horror movies to win Best Picture. I prefer this one, but watch them if you dare and decide for yourself. —10/29/2019
‘Us’ (2019) 116 minutes, Ratings: 93% Tomato-meter, 6.9 IMDb
(Stalked by Alternate Realities)
Lupita* Nyongo* is a great actress and delivers her most indelible performances of characters under horrifying circumstances. As Adelaide, she struggles with an unnamed trauma, but soon we’re viewing a story about parallel lives. What would our lives look like if we had different breaks, different opportunities, lived in a different neighborhood? Would we still be who we are? This film takes that thought experiment and runs with it. Sure, we assume we’re the hero of our own story, but what if we’re the villain and harmed others to secure our place in life? This may disturb your sleep for much longer than any jump scare. — 10/30/2019
Zeptember, Track by Track: Debut through Physical Graffiti:
I (Debut): Released 12 January, 1968
‘Good Times, Bad Times’: Every one of these albums starts strong, but this one was particularly important. The Beatles were breaking up, leaving a cultural sinkhole and the ’60’s were drawing to a close. Everything about this song rings true, the band is tight and the equanimity about a lover leaving is never to be heard again in Zep’s lyrics.
‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’: This was nearly as much of a screamer as ‘Communication Breakdown’ & there are alternate versions that bear this out. I’m so grateful they started acoustically with gentle vocals, before the histrionics begin. They were a new band and this track gives them range and depth. (#11 of my top 20)
‘You Shook Me’: I found Led Zeppelin a teen & didn’t know this record as well as the others. Almost 25 years into the 21st century I’m aware this & other Zep songs were based on songs written by Black blues singers who likely died dead broke. I’m also aware that Plant was 19 when they started playing as a band & he & John Bonham were 20 when this record was released. Not many people knew what cultural appropriation was at that time, but the guitar line is right out of John Lee Hooker’s set list. Hendrix was still alive and innovating 12 bar blues was happening many places in the world. This song is the first time we hear Page/Plant call & response.
‘Dazed & Confused’: One of their signature songs, Jimmy Page stretches this one out to 29 (!) minutes live in Madison Square Garden in the movie ‘The Song Remains the Same’. The descending bass line with the guitar line exploding over the top of it put those boys on the map. The band didn’t have a name at first and in the 9 days it took to record this album (including mixing). Keith Moon had a point, the critics weren’t kind. But that didn’t stop the fans, airplay or not, from snapping up this record & playing if for their friends.
‘Your Time is Gonna Come’: Love the intro (magnificent work by John Paul Jones), but the misogyny after that gets to me. I’m a lifelong fan, but some songs hold up better after a few decades. For me, this one doesn’t. Best thing about it is how it fades into the best track on the record,
‘Black Mountain Side’: Best track on the record, acoustic Zeppelin at its best. It’s a gem glimmering between two tracks more associated with this band, but so much better. Bonham & Page win this one. (# 26 of my top 30)
‘Communication Breakdown’: Even as a die-hard Zeppelin freak, this song has never done a thing for me. When people decry Led Zeppelin as nothing but noise and indicate this song? They’re not wrong.
‘I Can’t Quit You Baby’: Okay, everything I posted about ‘You Shook Me’ to this paler version. I get the nearly universal theme of not being able to walk away from a hopeless relationship & at 20 (or any age) I wouldn’t have managed better lyrics. Moving on…
‘How Many More Times’: There is rare footage of the band appearing on a television show performing this song & it’s sheer brilliance. This was before Peter Grant got ahold of them & allowed no further appearance on media. His approach: If you want to see Led Zeppelin, buy a ticket and see a concert.
But back to the song: On the record, the walking bass line is so much fun it almost makes up for the misogyny and DV at the end, But. Not. Quite. They couldn’t include that content on television so it was up to young Mr. Plant to rewrite it and he came through beautifully. Too many TV shows at the time did lip-synch/playback, but this was a live performance and it showcases them at the top of their form.
Track by Track: Led Zeppelin II, Released 22 October, 1969
‘Whole Lotta Love’: This one is hard rock with a soundscape, not exactly psychedelia, but like the band, all it’s own deal. John Bonham’s fine work is better showcased here & the guitar and bass layering throb through the song when Page & Plant aren't mixing it up. Then there’s Mr. Plant with lyrics that are considered tame today that scandalized sone and thrilled others. A powerful beginning to what is arguably their best album.
This song, along with ‘Rebel Rebel’, made no sense to me at all before puberty. A few years later I recognized them as Genius(!) This one made enough of an impact (crater?) that Zep was still using it as their finale for their Madison Square Garden shows filmed for ‘The Song Remains the Same’. (Rated 11 of the top)
‘What Is and What Should Never Be’: This one begins as a sweet outing with one’s beloved on the water and then starts playing with soundscapes before too many people used that term. A percussionist who uses the gong before the song ends commands respect. (#17of my Top 20)
‘The Lemon Song’: The guitar breaks in this one are about the best thing about the song. Many excitable teens back in the 20th century loved this one because it was naughty (again, tame by 21st century standards), but musically it doesn’t stand up and the misogyny sours me on this one.
‘Thank You’: A rare love song, with a wedding vibe, but the organ is intense enough to keep it from being sappy. The outro with the fade out and fade in to finish the song is perfection. (#23 of my top 30)
To celebrate their second album, what would be the second side on vinyl, they have 2 sets of songs linked. Clever & fun…
‘Heartbreaker’: When asked about founding the heavy metal genre, Jimmy Page dismissed it. While Zep may be an influence for many musicians, Page was not claiming paternity. That said, here’s one that’s aged like fine wine. The growly bass seems to breathe in this song. The guitar solo builds and just when you think it can’t build anymore it explodes into one of the finest breaks Page has unleashed. Collaboration with the bass and when it finally does top out, Plant is ready to drive it home. After decades of listening to Zep, this one jumped out at me a few years back & kicked it near the top of my list. As the last “Heart-“ beats, I joyfully skip ahead to ‘Ramble On’ & a couple of others that made my Top Ten. (#3 of my Top 10)
‘Livin Lovin Maid (She’s Just a Woman)’: The walking bass line is fun, but the band never performed this song live, because it’s Jimmy Page’s least favorite song of theirs and I can’t argue with him.
‘Ramble On’: The sweet rhythm of hoof beats in percussion, complimentary bass & sandy perfection of the vocals set this song apart from anything else on II. The lyrics are evocative of fall & eventually Tolkien-informed. Jimmy Page comes in with a solo that would fit in well with traveling musicians of old. The overdubs are never overdone, which enhances rather than overwhelming the song, exciting to the ear. (#17 of my top 20)
‘Moby Dick’: It speaks well of John Bonham (may he Rest in Peace) that I’d freely sit still for a drum solo and that it lands in my Top Ten. This one & ‘Bring it On Home’ are both great songs & the transition between them is brilliant. (# 9 of my top10)
‘Bring It On Home’: The opening vocal is another innovation within a collaboration that seemed to never run out of them. Yes, there’s the blue-eyed blues issue but it’s grand to hear the lads tear this one up. (#8 of my top 10)
Track by Track: Led Zeppelin II, Released 5 October, 1970
I listen to I through Physical Graffiti every Zeptember and III is usually one I like less, but this year a vibed with it: Strong, hard rock, a couple of complex tunes, strong, hypnotic blues, “butt-rock” & the rest is mostly sad country songs. The album’s art spun with a paper disc the same size as a vinyl disc, with windows that lined up with images. Mine broke.
‘Immigrant Song’: Opening the record with another signature, full-on hard rock screamer, an often imitated, never duplicated song. Kurt Cobain cut his teeth on this song, whether with Nirvana or not, is unclear. When it was used in the film ‘Thor Ragnarok’ & the previews I thought “Hammer of the Gods… clever!”
‘Friends’: Here for the first time, but not the last, Plant’s hopeful vocals are underscored by Page’s sinister instrumental. The juxtaposition is delightful and no one I know does it better. (#21 of my top 30)
‘Celebration Day’: ‘Friends’ slides into this one. Here Page & Plant’s switch places, upbeat music with sinister lyrics. The chorus is about the winners, but the verses tell more about the conquered that are scary and this is no mere soccer match.
‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’: Sexy, dramatic blues as satisfying live (on film) as it is on the studio release (a perfect centerpiece track for III). The seven minute run time never feels too long and as I heard Plant lean into the first chorus, both in the film and on the CD I discovered & was reminded: *This* is why I love Led Zeppelin. Page is the High Priest of note for note solos & following the song as originally created. This melodic, minor gem is as much a spell as it is a song. (2 on my top 10)
‘Out on the Tiles’: After seven minutes of ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’, the lightness of this track is a great balance with another great bass line. A teen boy in my family was interested in Led Zeppelin & when he heard this song he said “This is butt-rock! Led Zeppelin played butt-rock?!” “Proto-butt-rock, dear” I replied.
‘Gallows Pole’ Based on a folksong called ‘7 Curses’, the lads make it their own with banjo in the mix. The upshot? Don’t give up your sister. You still might die.
‘Tangerine’ The band capture longing here for a love long gone with the prettiest outro I’ve heard in a while.
‘That’s the Way’ One of the best sad love songs, by Zep or really anyone. The steel guitar backs a story of childhood sweethearts separated by rumors, then a parent and the girl does not recover. Sad with sweet acoustic overdubs.
‘Bron Yr Aur Stomp’: After the last three this one provides sorely needed fun, a lot of it. The band is tight & going full on country stomp. Anyone asserting Led Zeppelin doesn’t have range, let them listen to this record.
‘Hats Off to Roy Harper’ This record has a distinct folky-country vibe. Here it’s mostly off the rails. I can hear the negotiation in the studio: “You want 10 tracks? Okay…”
Track by Track: Led Zeppelin IV, Released 8 November, 1971
‘Black Dog’: Love it or no matter how you feel about it, this is another signature song, instantly recognizable & a strong start to IV.
‘Rock & Roll’: Rock doesn’t get more classic than this one. My go-to at karaoke. (#25 of my top 30)
‘The Battle of Evermore’: A great and unusual duet, the mandolin and harmonies (with some excellent dissonance), this one has been covered by Heart, friends of the band. Rest in Peace Sandy Denny (1947-1978).
‘Stairway to Heaven’: This song rings in the ears of virtually anyone who lived through the ’70’s in the U.K. or the U.S. Its 3 parts wafted out of radios, some say overplayed, but never played out. Some love the first part with acoustic guitar, recorder and gentle vocals, others are patient with all that but ready to “wind on down the road”. I love it all & as I was taking a break from writing last night this song was playing and at hearing “Dear lady can you hear the wind blow and did you know, your stairway lies on the whispering wind”. I looked up at my laptop & thought “You talkin to me?”
‘Misty Mountain Hop’: Tolkien-influenced, with one of the best intros of Zep’s discography and one of their most danceable songs. The lyrics are both fun and insightful, just like the man who wrote them.
‘Four Sticks’: This song would be stronger without the vocal track. Just step back & let the immortal John Bonham work his magic, guys!
‘Goin to California’: Here’s a sweet one, legend has it was written for Joni Mitchell, probably not an actual romance, but the lads had heard about the Laurel Canyon scene & likely wanted to be there. Some beautiful, human moments like Robert Plant taking an audible breath on the lead mic too soon (‘Tangerine’ & ‘Black Country Woman’ have them too) are left on the final pressing, long before the era of auto-tune, etc. The mandolin & more give us something gorgeous and melodic before the sublime chaos of ‘When the Levee Breaks’, which concludes IV, arguably the best of Led Zeppelin’s albums and certainly the most famous. (#19 of my Top 20)
‘When the Levee Breaks’: Words fail me as to how hard this one rocks. Everyone is firing on cylinders, the guitar and Plant’s wailing, the throb of the bass and Bonham tearing it up on the drums. Page in his element his guitar wailing in a way Derek & the Dominoes tried with ‘Layla’ & fell short, which is why the piano coda of that song is the best part. Zeppelin perfection and the lyric “Cryin' won’t help ya, prayin’ won’t do ya no good” is nearly as cold-blooded as Johnny Cash’s “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.” In the final chord we all wind up under water. (#4 of my Top 5)
Track by Track: Houses of the Holy, Released 28 March, 1973
‘The Song Remains the Same’: To say this record starts strong is an understatement. This song starts out at speed, between guitar and drums with a great break after the intro. It slows down in grand style for the vocal. It’s a valentine to the road.
‘The Rain Song’: Lyric and lovely, the shape of this song is elegant as to how love between people weathers the seasons. Soothing & compelling. (#5 of my Top 10)
‘Over the Hills & Far Away’: This has topped lists as the most quintessential Led Zeppelin song: Sweet acoustic guitar licks to open the song, sexy romantic vocals without a trace of sappiness, wasting no time getting to the volume, philosophical lyrics & danceable instrumental breaks. What sets this song apart is that it goes back to the quiet place & grows into a grand ending. (#13 of my Top 20)
‘The Crunge’ This is a great party song, very danceable. In the days of reasonably priced vinyl this song wrapped up the first side and when “Where’s that confounded bridge?” came over the speakers at parties most people would stop, look at each other confused. You’ve just been pranked by Zep kids, go back to your party, in progress.
‘Dancin’ Days’: This song is what it says & the dance party continues…
‘Dyer Maker’: If ‘The Crunge’ was the band’s swing at funk, this is their swing at reggae and out of the gate John Bonham shows that he’s up to the challenge. When the rhythm is there, the rest tend to follow & the dance party that’s gone on for three tracks is about to stop short.
‘No Quarter’: Led Zeppelin and The Doors have in common that their bass players also handled keyboards, or bass on keyboards as well. John Paul Jones does an exceptional job of all of this all the way through in the extended introduction. While the live version in the film ‘The Song Remains the Same’ is great, the vocals on the studio disc were a revelation to me, something fearful & intimate that couldn’t be produced in a house the size of Madison Square Garden. Here’s one of many with a a spooky, menacing (see the title) vibe playable all the way through Rocktober. Another song that’s more of a spell. (#12 of my Top 20)
‘The Ocean’: Fun, bouncy hard rock & Grant counts it in. The bass line is fun, funky & the dance party is back on. I have a friend who worked at a record store and she told me the most often requested song by people who didn’t know the name of the song was this one.They’d have to sing it to her. In the last part of the song they capture an oceanic vibe without ever losing the pace. When Robert Plant say “Oh… It’s so good” I have to agree. —CYH 9/20/2023
Track by Track: Physical Graffiti, Released 24 February, 1975
‘Custard Pie’: Another example of Zep albums starting strong: ‘Good Times, Bad Times’, ‘Whole Lotta Love’, ‘Immigrant Song’, ‘Black Dog’, ‘The Song Remains the Same’, some of the male rock music critics were too uncomfortable with the metaphor in this one to appreciate or report favorably about the song. It’s showy, bawdy & uses a number of phrases from old blues songs, for which the band was likely sued, but Plant makes them his own and takes the musical innovation Zep is known for ever forward. (#18 of my top 20)
‘The Rover’ This is a showcase for Jimmy Page’s virtuosity & while everybody’s great here, he is spectacular. If Plant could clip the “yay-yeah”s that are annoying ear worms, the song would be perfect.
‘In My Time of Dying’: A huge song, beginning with a dirge and Plant’s vocals take it all the way through the crossover process with the band putting forth a wall of sound that would bring Phil Spector to his knees. Everyone is great, but John Bonham (may he Rest in Peace) takes top honors. His percussion work is precise and devastating. This is one of many tracks (‘Kashmir’ and ‘When the Levee Breaks’ come to mind as well) why Zep was dubbed “Hammer of the Gods.” (#15 of my top 20)
‘Houses of the Holy’: The dream side of vinyl was this, ‘Trampled Underfoot’ & ‘Kashmir’. This intro is perfect for making an entrance, Plant’s vocals are angelic over a riff that’s pointedly unholy and the song swings by delightfully. There’s a burlesque troop in Seattle called the Atomic Bombshells that did about 4 shows called “House of Thee Unholy”, each one in Zeptember. I was lucky to catch the last of them. Burlesque to Led Zeppelin, what’s not to love? (#29 of my top 30)
‘Trampled Underfoot’: In 1975 on a Pan Am flight to Heathrow there was in-flight music on headphones and this was one of the songs that turned up on that 9 hour flight. I caught this one on every rotation. I’m not overstating that it changed the way I listen to music & I have never, before or since, heard anything remotely like it with the possible exception of Billy Preston’s ‘Outta Space’. (#6 of my top 10)
‘Kashmir’: This one is a favorite of many and for those of you who know the genre of Symphonic Black Metal, here’s where it started. The ominous strings and Bonham’s march-through-the-desert drums are hypnotic and that’s just the beginning. It unfolds into a sonic feast with just the right amount of overdub at the right time to make it mind blowing. No band I know knocks it over the top like these guys. These are only a few reasons so many people adore this song & other than samples, I’ve never heard anything like it. Another song that’s a spell, as their best ones are. (#1 of my top 5)
‘In The Light’: The drone under an ornate intro (possibly harpsichord) leads into Plant’s hopeful vocals are underscored by Page’s sinister instrumental. The juxtaposition is delightful and no one I know does it better. (#20 of my Top 20)
‘Bron-Yr-Aur’: Perhaps the most known of Jimmy Page’s acoustic work, it’s impeccable & smooth enough to use for meditation. Yes I do meditate to Led Zeppelin. (#24 of my Top 25)
‘Down By the Seaside’: A sentimental song, sounding different from every other song of Led Zeppelin. If I’m going to the sea, I’d take ‘The Ocean’ or ‘What Is and What Should Never Be’ over this one, but that’s only my choice. I’ve been a big fan of Zep since high school and there will always be some twerp who takes aim at things they know you love. Some boy said to me “All Led Zeppelin’s songs sound the same.” “Really?” I asked, “Name three.” Not a word from him after that.
‘Ten Years Gone’: Years ago, Robert Plant had a girlfriend who laid down an ultimatum: “The band or me.” Plant wisely chose the band, to the benefit of all who love them. This song is for &/or about her, a beautiful remembrance with one of my favorite guitar solos ever. Many a passenger in my car know it, as I’ve played it over and over… (#10 of my Top 10)
‘Night Flight’: This one begins sounding like a hook up then spins out to a full on warning for evacuation. It’s nigh on perfect if not for the gratuitous grunts at the end. How Plant managed them without vomiting is beyond me.
‘The Wanton Song’: A song about a succubus or an ode to sex on the road can be taken either way. In either case, the lush guitar and wicked stutter drum make it.
‘Boogie With Stu': This one’s a romp with crazy rhythm & a fun, silly vocal. ‘Physical Graffiti’ was as heroic an undertaking as a rock & roll album gets. A break for some fun was in order. This song made me grin the first time I heard it & it has ever since. (Top 27 of 30)
‘Black Country Woman’ holds promise instrumentally (Bonham, baby), but the old saw “I know your sister too” with the tag “What’s the matter with you, mama?” curdles it. Same teen boy listening with me was disgusted: “You f**ked her sister? Dude, what’s the matter with *you*?!” Exactly.
’Sick Again’: This one doesn’t sound like Zep, more like they’re riffing on a Stones song. It’s about the Hyatt House in Los Angeles that was dubbed the Riot House that featured John Bonham riding a motorcycle down the hall, Keith Moon demolishing various rooms and underage groupies. Sadly, ‘Sick Again’ probably means dope sick. A messy end to a masterpiece & they were likely exhausted.
Film Review,’The Song Remains the Same’ Released 20 October, 1976
What is worrisome about the music industry is that it’s more about industry than music. For years Peter Grant who managed Led Zeppelin kept them away from media insisting that if people want to see them, they should buy a ticket & see a live show.
He had a point, live music really is best. Led Zeppelin was so big at the time that everyone who wanted to see them might not be able to get a ticket for a live show. When Grant connected with a film producer the answer became clear. Two sold out concerts in Madison Square Garden, filmed and the band and Grant got to choose scenarios, proto music videos to pair with certain songs.
The movie is awash with the Hammer of the Gods at full momentum in a huge house. If you like ‘Dazed & Confused’, you’ll have 29 minutes of it! It could do with better editing, but it was my full introduction to Led Zeppelin beyond what I’d heard on the radio. I invited a friend over to see it and we became instant fan-girls. I bought many of their albums. That was the point.
Of all the scenarios (mobster, Arthurian, gothic graveyard, hermit) the one I love best is John Bonham’s. He doesn’t try to be anyone other than who he is and in his scenario, I saw what he loved best: Custom cars & motorcycles, coaching his son on the drums, dancing with his beautiful wife, working on his farm with livestock, preparing to demolish brickwork with a jackhammer & having a pint at the pub. It’s a beautiful window into his too-short life & what makes this movie golden. —CYH 9/16/2023