Six years ago on another iteration of this blog, I put together my Horror Movie Top Ten List. It hasn’t changed much between now and then, but it seemed to make sense to revisit it as I try to get this version of the blog up and running (especially tonight, when a lingering headache/sore throat combo prevented me from visiting a local haunted house with some friends from work). I’m presenting it largely as it appeared in 2009, but I’ve added some minor edits and updates where applicable, along with an addendum to make up for anything list-worthy that’s shown up in theaters in the last six years.
Originally posted 10/31/09:
1) I tried to stick with “traditional” horror movies, as opposed to movies that bleed (har har) into action or comedy or science fiction. So that means no Alien or Shaun of the Dead or The Thing. (This is a fairly malleable criterion, though, as one or two inclusions on my list will make clear).
2) For no good reason other than I feel like it, I’ll be lumping together foreign films and their American versions, as well as original films and their remakes. I often find I like both iterations of a movie, and sometimes for completely different reasons. Rather than take up two spots, I combined them into one.
3) I’m crap at ranking things, so my list is alphabetical, as opposed to in order of preference.
So, here they are – My Alphabetical Top Ten (or Twelve or Fourteen, Because I’ve Combined Originals With Remakes) Horror Movies That Are Traditional Horror and Not Action or Comedy or Science Fiction.™
The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, 1999) This is one of those polarizing movies, which usually means it’s doing something right. The people who didn’t like it thought it wasn’t frightening, but the people who liked it thought it was one of the scariest things they’d ever seen. Count me in the latter camp. Aside from its masterful conceit – the movie is the recovered footage from three filmmakers who went missing in their search for the titular witch – the film’s naturalism (down to the occasionally obnoxious characters) made it seem all too real. What really made the movie work, though, is the way it played on the audience’s fear of the dark and the unseen, as well as the anxiety of being completely powerless. It’s the sense of hopelessness and desperation permeating the end of the movie that gives it its kick. You know exactly what’s going to happen in that house, but that doesn’t make it any less effective.
Update: Of course what I really should have said in here is that nothing is more frightening than the sound of small children giggling outside your tent in the pitch black of night. It’s also worth mentioning that anyone coming to this movie fresh is likely to be underwhelmed. 15 years of found-footage movies (most of which are dreadful) has undeniably dulled Blair Witch‘s impact. Much of the reason why this movie hit me as hard as it did is because I’d literally never seen anything like it.
Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1978; Zack Snyder, 2004) The original version – like all of Romero’s zombie movies – is not just a horror movie. Yes, the gore is gruesome and shocking and plentiful, but the movie also functions as a sly satire of consumer culture. When the survivors take refuge in an indoor shopping mall, the parallels between the shambling zombies and brain-dread shoppers are writ large. Snyder’s 2004 reboot strips down the satire, turns the zombies into sprinters, and delivers a bare-bones monster movie whose acting is a cut above the standard horror-movie fare. The always-terrific Sarah Polley takes a break from independent films to head up this scary, fast-paced, no-fuss zombie flick. The fact that this is – so far – Snyder’s last decent film before disappearing up his own ass makes it all the more worthwhile.
The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005) A movie that’s far scarier than it has any right to be, The Descent manages to transcend its potentially hokey premise (female spelunkers are terrorized by a clan of mutated cave dwellers) to become one of the most genuinely frightening films of the last ten years. Like most good horror movies, The Descent works precisely because it preys on the audience’s own fears. Marshall takes our natural aversion to darkness and claustrophobia and uses it as another monster. The creatures don’t show up until well into the movie, but by the time they do, the audience’s nerves are already fried from anticipation and the natural stress of the situation in which the women find themselves. The terror comes on multiple fronts, and Marshall makes it look effortless. Be sure to watch the movie’s original, blacker-than-black ending from its European release.
Update: This one still holds up for me. I didn’t say it at the time, but if I was going to pick my favorite horror movie of the 21st Century, this one wins, full stop. A couple come close (see below), but The Descent ticks all the right boxes for me.
The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1981) I don’t know if anyone’s ever done a ranking of the goriest movies of all time, but this one has to be close to the top. Sam Raimi’s calling card as one of cinema’s most inventive, playful directors was this creepy, gruesome take on demonic possession that also launched the career of Bruce Campbell. Not so much a horror movie as an assault on the senses, I first saw The Evil Dead in high school and was unused to a movie sticking with me the way this one did. The series got progressively sillier, culminating with 1992’s Army of Darkness, not a horror movie as much as a comedic riff on time travel. The Evil Dead, if not Raimi’s definitive masterpiece, is at least the movie that most effectively illustrates what he’s capable of as a director. As a sidenote, it was so good to see him return to this territory earlier this year with Drag Me to Hell, surely a contender for future versions of this list.
Update: I wrote this original list well before the 2013 remake, and I probably need to watch that one again. I wasn’t particularly impressed, finding that it mainly tried to outdo the original’s gross-out factor with none of its wit or smarts. But I suspect I owe it another viewing, this time without the weight of expectation. Also, with six years of hindsight, Drag Me to Hell most certainly won’t be making an appearance on new versions of this list.
The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) Man, this movie. I don’t remember when I first watched it, but images from it are seared into my brain to this day. One of the reasons it works as well as it does is because it takes its sweet old time getting things established. Watching its re-release in the theater several years ago was a fantastic experience, but it struck me that this movie would never be made today. It’s slooooow – especially as it establishes Father Merrin’s experiences in the Middle East and introduces Chris MacNeil and her soon-to-be possessed daughter, Regan. The leisurely pace is key to the movie’s success, though, because we come to know and care about these characters. And when it swings into action – with all the head-rotating, pea-soup-spewing, crucifix-abusing notoriety it gained – it never lets up until the final climactic moment. I love horror movies, but there are very, very few of them that actually bother me – not just scare me, but lodge in the back of my brain for days afterward, where I worry at them when my mind is otherwise unoccupied. The Exorcist is, for my money, probably the greatest horror movie of all time.
Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978) Unfairly sullied by an abundance of inferior sequels (as well as by Rob Zombie’s pointless reboot), Halloween remains the archetypal slasher movie. It also shouldn’t be held responsible for the raft of slasher movies that followed in its wake (and which continues to this day). Carpenter’s original is genuinely frightening, from the big reveal at the end of the prologue to Michael Myers’ escape from the psychiatric hospital to his inevitable appearance in and terrorizing of bucolic Haddonfield, Illinois. Throw in the bookish heroine played by Jamie Lee Curtis, as well as all the other devices that have since become horror movie cliché (Horny teens! Booze! Boobs!), and it’s easy to see why Halloween became the template followed by many less inventive filmmakers. When it comes to slasher movies, accept no substitute. Halloween is all you need.
Update: A year or two after writing this list I saw the original Friday the 13th on the big screen, and it’s tempting to lump the two of them together here in a bit of revisionist history. Friday holds up better than I remembered, and, like Halloween, it can be easy to forget how good the original was in the deluge of far inferior sequels.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984) It’s fitting that Wes Craven’s tour de force follows Halloween, because A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s influence has been diminished for many of the same reasons as Carpenter’s film. An abundance of genuinely shitty sequels makes it easy to forget just how awesomely spooky and disturbing the original was. While Nightmare is sort of a slasher movie, it goes deeper than that, plumbing the frequently surreal depths of the characters’ dreams. And bogeyman Freddy Kruger (a child molester burned to death by the parents of the children now haunted by him) is a horror movie character fit for a time capsule. He’s bent on revenge, but that revenge takes increasingly uncomfortable forms. As a result, A Nightmare on Elm Street provides just as many memorable images as The Exorcist (Johhny Depp’s girlfriend being dragged across the ceiling is just one that stuck with me for a long time), and is, in its own way, just as frightening.
[•Rec] (Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, 2007)/Quarantine (John Erick Dowdle, 2008) A surprisingly creepy variation on the zombie formula, [•Rec] is a Spanish movie that tells the story of a TV film crew that gets more than it bargained for when it goes along with the fire department on what was supposed to be a routine emergency run. Upon arrival at the apartment building, the situation quickly spirals out of control as they discover – but of course – that the building’s residents have been infected with some sort of virus that turns them into feral, zombie-like carnivores, and now the authorities aren’t letting anyone out. Related, documentary-style, from the perspective of the TV news reporter on the scene, [•Rec] puts the viewer right in the middle of the horror, and as a result, it hits even harder. The final sequence is, to put it simply, one of the most viscerally frightening things I’ve ever seen. Quarantine, the American remake, sticks close to the original but manages to find its own voice and adds one or two kicky little twists of its own. Most impressively, the final scenes are every bit as effective as in the Spanish-language original, which means, as remakes go, Quarantine is an emphatic and unqualified success.
Update: [•Rec] is one of the few movies to challenge The Descent for my personal top spot. It’s just unrelenting, even on repeat viewings. And I wrote this list before I knew the Jennifer Carpenter of Quarantine was the Jennifer Carpenter of Dexter. It was a kick catching up with her on that series after being blown away by her work here.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974) One of the other big guns of modern horror movies, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a movie I watch at least once a year, and I always feel like I need to bathe afterward. Focusing on a group of 20-something’s on a road trip, the entire movie seems coated with a patina of grime, from the first interaction with the hitchhiker to the shots of the cattle in the slaughterhouse to the confrontation that gives the movie its name. It’s a crude, disturbing movie that left me feeling profoundly uneasy. It was only after I thought about it, though, that I realized how little gore we actually see onscreen. The movie is horrific, to be sure, but most of the violence is implied, leaving our over-active imaginations to fill in the blanks. Often incorrectly labeled as a slasher movie, it seems to me that Chainsaw Massacre actually has more in common with the recent “torture porn” movies (Hostel, Saw, etc.). The difference, of course, is that Chainsaw Massacre is genuinely frightening without being especially graphic, while the movies that emulate it only get the graphic part right, and almost completely leave out the fright.
28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002) In terms of pure entertainment, it doesn’t get any better than 28 Days Later. Jim wakes up in a deserted London hospital, wanders outside, and finds that the entire city is a ghost town. These shots of empty British streets are breathtaking, and it’s this visual panache (courtesy of Danny Boyle, one of my favorite directors, and his frequent director of photography, Anthony Dod Mantle) that helps establish 28 Days Later as being more than a garden-variety horror movie. Jim comes to discover that the population has been virtually wiped out by a virus that turns the infected into hyper-aggressive (and very hungry) cannibals. A movie about human nature as much as it is about survival, 28 Days Later is an intense and harrowing experience. If the ending feels a little like an optimistic cop-out, I forgive Boyle for wanting to give viewers a single ray of sunshine after the 90 minutes of pitch-blackness that preceded it.
Brand new stuff:
Okay, like I said at the top, not much has changed in the last six years. I still stand by all these selections, but reviewing the list now it bugs me that classics like Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist and John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London didn’t make the cut, and not representing more recent films like Brad Anderson’s unbelievably creepy Session 9 and Bryan Bertino’s home invasion masterwork The Strangers also seems like an oversight. But if I’m going to be honest, I’m not sure which films on the existing list they’d replace.
Finally, in the interest of staying current, here’s quickie reviews of four more movies released since I wrote the original list that could show up in my Top Ten on a good day.
The House of the Devil (2009) This slow-burn throwback to the grungy 70s isn’t for everyone. It starts slow and stays slow (until the batshit crazy climax), but writer/director Ti West’s meditation on Satanic cults transcends its stylistic affectations to deliver something truly unique (and uniquely frightening).
It Follows (2015) Read it as an allegory for the dangers of promiscuity all you want, but I found it to be a clever riff on the inexorability (and inevitability?) of slasher movie villains. Writer/director David Robert Mitchell cannily plays with tone and setting in a way that consistently keeps the audience off-balance, and in “final girl” Maika Monroe we’ve finally got an heir to Jamie Lee Curtis.
Paranormal Activity (2009) One of the few found-footage movies to up the ante from Blair Witch (and do something original in the process), Paranormal Activity scared the hell out of me for many of the same reasons as its predecessor. Capitalizing on our (or maybe it’s just my) completely natural fear of crazy shit happening while we’re asleep, writer/director Oren Peli tells a tale of demonic possession solely through camcorder footage. Rather than being hokey, he uses this limitation to his advantage, showing us in inventive ways all those things that go bump in the night. Paranormal Activity is that rare breed of movie that literally had me covering my eyes. And I firmly believe that the first three movies in the series, taken as a trilogy, are the high-water mark in 21st Century horror filmmaking.
Unfriended (2015) I know, I know. But trust me on this one. Taking place entirely in real time on one girl’s computer screen – through the manipulation of applications like Facebook, Spotify, IMs, Skype, and so on – Unfriended gives us something truly original. As a killer stalks a group of high school friends communicating online, director Levan Gabriadze ratchets up the tension in wholly unexpected ways. It may not age very well (as technology evolves, it’s probably going to look as quaint as Drew Barrymore’s landline in Scream), but for now it’s got the goods.
Thoughts? Suggestions? Recommendations? Sound off in the comments.
New Order – Get Ready (2001)