I'm taking a short break from writing about music to talk about something else I love deeply: horror films. Ever since I was a boy I've loved scary movies. In fact, one of my first memories is sitting in front of the television completely engrossed by A Nightmare on Elm Street at my grandparent's house. To this day, I'm still not quite sure what the attraction is. Maybe because it's cathartic to experience fear in a safe, controlled environment? Maybe it's that horror movies seem more free to explore the darker aspects of life, imagination and social taboo? I honestly don't know.
Horror isn't so different from other genres in the sense that most of what gets put out into the world is not very good. But one of the unique and exciting distinctions of the horror genre is that even campy (read: shitty) films can be a lot of fun to watch. Look no further than the cult following of Troll II, widely regarded as one of the worst movies ever made, and yet a film thousands of people gather together and watch each year precisely because of how awful it is. Annual horror conventions draw tens of thousands of fans to celebrate the monsters and stories that scared them as children and still keep them up at night. In what other part of cinema do you find kinship like this?
Horror films can be artful as well. It's tempting to just list both David Lynch and David Cronenberg's early filmographies in support of that statement. The four lists below are my humble attempt to gather and categorize what I consider to be the best of horror films. Of course my opinions are subjective and, as a child of the late eighties/early nineties, tend to reflect the culture of horror I was most impressed by. I still have many films to see and it's my hope that these lists will evolve with me. I also don't consider myself an accomplished film critic or writer. It was actually pretty hard to review forty films without sounding boring and repetitive. This is why I happily classify myself as a horror nerd rather than an expert.
If any of you have any thoughts about the lists or suggestions for films I should see don't hesitate to let me know. Thanks for reading and enjoy!
Top 10 Horror Films Of All Time:
1. The Exorcist (1973) Directed by: William Friedkin
The Story: Regan, the teenage daughter of a famous actress, is possessed by an evil spirit after playing with a Ouija board. Her mother enlists the help of two priests to perform an exorcism.
Why I Love It: Of all the horror movies I've seen throughout the years this is the only one that still frightens me as much as it did when I was a kid. The special effects hold up well and the cloud of despair that hangs over the entire film still fills me with dread.
2. The Fly (1986) Directed by: David Cronenberg
The Story: A remake of the 1958 classic, The Fly tells the story of Seth Brundle, a scientist who invents the world's first teleportation pod. After successfully transporting a chimp, Brundle teleports himself. All seems well until Brundle slowly begins changing into something monstrous.
Why I Love It: This is the perfect horror film. Great story, great acting, great photography and Oscar winning special effects. And underneath all the horror lies a touching, though tragic, love story.
3. The Thing (1982) Directed by: John Carpenter
The Story: While doing research in Antarctica a group of scientists discover a shape shifting alien that assumes the form of the creatures it kills.
Why I Love It: Aside from the mind-blowing special effects (all pre-CGI) and the wonderful performance by Kurt Russell, the true horror of this film is the slow paranoia infecting the crew as everyone increasingly suspects their fellow man might be the monster in disguise.
4. The Shining (1980) Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
The Story: A family looks after an empty hotel for the winter where an evil presence slowly drives the father insane. The son, Danny, has a psychic ability (called "The Shining") that allows him to see horrific visions of both the past and future as they all struggle to survive.
Why I Love It: It's hard not to love any Kubrick film, but this one goes down as one of the greatest because of the story itself (Stephen King is the shit), the top notch acting and the eerie attention to detail that has now become a Kubrick hallmark.
5. Rosemary’s Baby (1968) Directed by: Roman Polanski
The Story: A young couple move into a new apartment where the neighbors become increasingly strange and imposing. After Rosemary becomes mysteriously pregnant, paranoia sets in as she fears for the safety of her unborn child.
Why I Love It: I've always been fascinated by depictions of high society dabbling in the occult. Another horror trope I've always loved (and one featured heavily on these lists) is the slow unfolding of paranoia and how it dissolves reason. Rosemary's Baby achieves both masterfully.
6. Psycho (1960) Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
The Story: After stealing $40,000 from her employer, a woman splits town to rendezvous with her lover. On the way she stops at a remote motel owned and run by Norman Bates, an odd but charming person with fairly deep-seated mother issues.
Why I Love It: This is arguably the greatest psychological horror film of all time. It still holds up today. Anthony Perkins plays Norman Bates perfectly and the slow, morbid unfolding of the story is classic Hitchcock.
7. The Silence of the Lambs (1990) Directed by: Jonathan Demme
The Story: Based on the Thomas Harris novel of the same name, this is the story of detective Clarice Starling's investigation into a serial killer who kidnaps women and takes their skin. In order to solve the case she seeks the help of psychotically brilliant inmate Dr. Hannibal Lector, a notorious killer himself with a knack for cannibalism.
Why I Love It: Brilliant acting (both Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins won the Oscar), brilliant directing (Demme won the Oscar) and a brilliant screenplay (Ted Tally also won the Oscar). The dialogue is mesmerizing. Buffalo Bill is a fascinating villain and the way Lector emotionally dissects Clarice is incredible. Any time Anthony Hopkins is on the screen he steals the show. And as good as the film is, the book is even better.
8. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) Directed by: Tobe Hooper
The Story: A group of teenagers on a road trip to visit one of their grandfather's old houses is met by a demented, cannibalistic family with a son who has a particular penchant for chainsaws and wearing skin masks.
Why I Love It: Another great example of a horror film that has as much bite today as it did in 1974. The violent scenes are plain and surreal. The kills and screams are not written or acted through the lens of Hollywood sensationalism. Everything has a realness to it that is pleasantly nauseating.
9. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) Directed by: Wes Craven
The Story: The kids of Elm Street are plagued by similar nightmares of Freddy Krueger, a burned man with knives for fingers. If Freddy kills you in your dreams you die in real life. The morbid past of this killer and the kids' parents unfold as one brave girl takes the monster on in the dream world.
Why I Love It: One of the most creative horror premises of the last several decades, the idea that someone can haunt your nightmares using your greatest fears to kill you is incredibly frightening. Over the years the NOES films got sillier but there are several moments in this original that still scare the shit out of me.
10. Hellraiser (1987) Directed by: Clive Barker
The Story: Based on Clive Barker's novella, The Hellbound Heart, this film tells the story of Frank, a world-traveled hedonist in search of ultimate pleasure. After solving a mysterious puzzle box he is reborn into a strange world ruled by bizarre demons and their leader, Pinhead. Bound to a room in an old house, Frank enlists an ex-lover to help him satisfy his hunger for blood.
Why I Love It: Pinhead has been the one horror villain who consistently scares me and for this reason I will always love him. I'm a big fan of all of Clive Barker's work but his earlier stories are my favorite. If you like Hellraiser you must also check out his incredible collection of short stories, Books of Blood.
Top 10 Obscure Horror Films:
1. Eraserhead (1977) Directed by: David Lynch
The Story: A man in a bleak, industrial town finds out a woman he was seeing is pregnant with his child. This is the story of him coming to terms with fatherhood amidst increasing existential madness against the backdrop of a gray, indifferent world.
Why I Love It: One of my favorite films of all time, I discover something new with each viewing. There are layers of relational atrophy, fear of fatherhood, isolation, communication, sexual taboo, ambivalence, etc. The imagery is poignantly disturbing and the soundtrack of ominous, ambient noise is a brilliant thread throughout. I can't recommend this one highly enough.
2. Freaks (1932) Directed by: Tod Browning
The Story: In a traveling circus the beautiful trapeze artist Cleo marries Hans the dwarf in order to steal his money. A tale of deceit and revenge set against the backdrop of struggle between the "normals" and the "freaks."
Why I Love It: Freaks is a touching and often humorous unfolding of life as an oddity and a film that ultimately asks: Who are the real freaks of society? Those born with physical defects or those who pay money to stare at them and treat them cruelly?
3. American Psycho (2000) Directed by: Mary Harron
The Story: Patrick Bateman is a young, privileged businessman navigating career and romance in late 80's Manhattan. Oh, and he's utterly insane.
Why I Love It: I love everything about this movie. It's sense of humor. It's unabashed brutality. It's soundtrack. Based on one of my favorite novels by Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho is a character study masterpiece, delving deep into the bizarre mind of a seemingly normal psychopath.
4. Suspiria (1976) Directed by: Dario Argento
The Story: A young dance student joins an esteemed ballet academy but soon learns that the school is a front for something far more sinister in the wake of mysterious murders.
Why I Love It: I love Suspira for it's cinematography, beautiful colors and for it's wonderfully understated eeriness.
5. The Wicker Man (1973) Directed by: Robin Hardy
The Story: A detective visits a remote Scottish island to investigate the disappearance of a 12 year old girl. He quickly senses not all is right with the inhabitants of this small island town as he learns they are all dedicated members of an ancient pagan cult.
Why I Love It: This movie is wonderfully shot and acted with super eerie music and scenery. It has a masterful performance by Christopher Lee and an unforgettable ending.
6. The People Under The Stairs (1991) Directed by: Wes Craven
The Story: A team of desperate burglars break into the home of a wealthy couple only to find themselves trapped inside a house of horrors.
Why I Love It: Another brilliant Wes Craven offer, this movie has a great blend of horror and dark humor. It's a lot of fun watching our anti-heroes as they encounter the bizarre couple who own the house and the horrifying things that lie beneath it.
7. In The Mouth of Madness (1994) Directed by: John Carpenter
The Story: Sutter Cane is a best-selling horror novelist who disappears after publishing his latest book. The film follows investigator John Trent as he travels to Cane's hometown to unravel the link between Cane's latest novel and the pandemic insanity it is inflicting on it's readers.
Why I Love It: Not only is this John Carpenter's best film since The Thing, it is also the last great film he has made. The premise is original and inspired. The visuals are well executed and creepy. There is an atmosphere of foreboding that permeates the entire film and Sam Neil's performance is top notch.
8. The Cell (2000) Directed by: Tarsem Singh
The Story: An FBI agent enlists the help of Catherine Deane, a social worker who virtually analyzes children's minds, to go into the mind of a comatose serial killer in the hopes of locating his last victim.
Why I Love It: SO GOOD!. Jennifer Lopez is great in this trippy, surreal film. The premise of peeking inside the mind of a psychopath is so interesting and the filmmakers execute his inner thoughts with horrifying, imaginative beauty. If I could take all of you on dates we would go to this move. And then we would probably never speak again because you would think I was insane and you'd probably be right.
9. Society (1989) Directed by: Brian Yuzna
The Story: A teenager suspects he is very different from his wealthy family. In fact, the whole town seems a bit strange. After overhearing an incestual sex ritual involving his sister and father, he sets out to discover the truth but things only get more bizarre as he begins to see what the town's high society is really up to behind closed doors.
Why I Love It: This movie has one of the most incredible and disturbing intros I've seen from 80's horror. Oddly, the rest of the first act seems as if it's going to be another cheesy teen movie with bad dialogue, bad hair and bad music. But once we start to learn about the sinister things happening below the surface of this town it becomes enthralling. I won't spoil the ending other than to say I was completely unprepared for it. Not for the faint of heart.
10. Frailty (2001) Directed by: Bill Paxton
The Story: A man confesses to police the bizarre story of how his religious fundamentalist father committed a series of gruesome murders to "rid the world of demons."
Why I Love It: Who would have ever thought Bill Paxton was a great horror director? Certainly not me, but man, this film is incredible. It's a slow burn but so worth it and there's a really interesting twist at the end. A truly overlooked gem in the last few decades of horror movies.
Top 10 Mindfuck Films:
1. Martyrs (2008) Directed by: Pascal Laugier
The Story: After escaping being kidnapped and tortured as a young girl, a woman is psychologically tormented in her adult life. After seeking revenge she calls her best friend for support. Let's just say her friend had no clue what she would be signing up for. The second half of this film is so bizarre and horrifying. It's really best to see it knowing as little as possible.
Why I Love It: This film absolutely blew me away. While it does technically fall into the category of torture porn (a sub-genre I utterly loathe) it is only one of a few I've seen that deals with gore tastefully. Ultimately, the philosophical implications of the film justify the brutality. The imagery of this one will stick with you long after the credits roll.
2. Cold Fish (2010) Directed by: Shion Sono
The Story: A teenage girl is caught shoplifting at a fish store. To her father's relief the owners, a husband and wife, do not press charges but instead arrange for her to work off the debt by working for them. They soon realize the shop owners are more dangerous than he could have ever imagined. Horror ensues, etc.
Why I Love It: I love this film for it's interesting story, cinematography, characters and acting. But mostly I'm in awe of it's relentless commitment to brutality.
3. The Skin I Live In (2011) Directed by: Pedro Almodovar
The Story: A celebrated plastic surgeon seeks revenge by kidnapping the man who raped and permanently traumatized his daughter. Unfortunately for his victim, the surgeon has a lot more on his mind than murder.
Why I Love It: I've always been a fan of body-horror and this film is an excellent new submission in that sub-genre. Antonio Banderas lends both a great performance and legitimacy to horror in general as a serious artistic platform.
4. Haute Tension (2003) Directed by: Alexandra Aja
The Story: Two college students go to the country to visit one of their parents but are soon attacked by a ruthless murderer.
Why I Love It: I like all of the New French Extremity films (there are several on these lists). The cinematography is great for a slasher flick. The action is good and the kills are creatively morbid. The plot sounds cliche but I assure you things get very interesting in this one, especially as we learn the identity and motive of the killer.
5. Cannibal Holocaust (1979) Directed by: Ruggero Deodato
The Story: A group of sensationalist documentarians travel to a remote Amazonian island in order to capture the daily lives of a cannibalistic tribe. To manufacture drama for their film they torment the tribe with cruelty and violence but are met with gruesome revenge.
Why I Love It: Before the oughts this would likely have been the candidate for most disturbing horror film of all time. In fact, some of the scenes in this faux documentary were so realistic that the filmmakers were arrested for allegedly murdering their actors on camera. As a comment on conventional conceptions of primal violence this film succeeds in asking: Who are the real savages? The tribe of uncivilized cannibals or the film crew who traded their humanity for a shot at success?
6. Excision (2012) Directed by: Richard Bates Jr.
The Story: A highly disturbed high school student with hopes of becoming a doctor begins to blur the lines between reality and her blood-filled fantasies.
Why I Love It: There are a lot things to love about Excision but the standout moments are definitely the heightened reality dream sequences. It's nice to see a refreshing plot come alive with great acting and a great screenplay. And for the gore freaks there's plenty to love here as well.
7. Frontier(s) (2007) Directed by: Xavier Gens
The Story: A group of fugitives flee Paris during political upheaval. Outside of town they stop at a remote inn run by insane neo-Nazi's with a penchant for torture.
Why I Love It: I love survivor movies especially when they involve strong female characters. As with the other French Extremity films, this one is hard to watch at times. However, like Martyrs, there is more to this one than senseless brutality. At the end of your viewing you may feel exhausted, but you'll also feel rewarded.
8. The Human Centipede (2009) Directed by: Tom Six
The Story: A brilliant surgeon comes out of retirement to capture three unsuspecting victims in the hopes of turning them into his favorite pet, a human centipede.
Why I Love It: I love this one because it's easily one of the more unique plot lines in recent horror history. Contrary to common perception, The Human Centipede is not over-the-top gory nor is it pornographic. Much of the visual element is left to our imagination and the true terror lies precisely where it always should in a great horror film: the mind. Both the minds of the unfortunate victims and ours as empathetic onlookers.
9. Father’s Day (2011) Directed by: Adam Brooks
The Story: Ahab is an ex-convict seeking revenge for the death of his father by hunting down the Father's Day Killer, a serial killer who specializes in murdering and raping dads.
Why I Love It: From start to finish this movie is so bizarrely wacky that it's impossible not to stick with you for a while. Combining absurdity with humor and horror is not easily done well and I guess it's reasonable to question if this film even pulls it off. But as a total mindfuck, Father's Day absolutely belongs on this list.
10. Salo (1975) Directed by: Pier Paolo Pasolini
The Story: Based on Marquis de Sade's disturbing novel, 120 Days of Sodom, this film tells the story of four fascist libertines who, having lived full lives of hedonism and the deranged gratification of their every perverse sexual desire, have decided to band together to have the ultimate soiree. They capture a group of young men and women, taking them out to a secluded castle where they perform unimaginable horrors.
Why I Love It: Well, I wouldn't say I love this film. I cringed through most of it. It is a bleak, pessimistic movie and while watching it one feels a sense of dread and doom. Salo is definitely not for everyone but should be required viewing for any serious horror fan.
Top 10 Horror Films Of The Last 10 Years:
1. The House of the Devil (2009) Directed by: Ti West
The Story: Samantha, a struggling college student, answers an ad for a babysitter. After a series of bizarre phone calls and a very strange meeting with the man who placed the ad, she has second thoughts but decides to take the job anyway. Samantha soon finds herself the target of sinister occultists.
Why I Love It: Ti West does an excellent job building suspense and playing on the mind of the viewer for most of the horror in this movie. It's also a fitting tribute to the best aspects of 80's horror nostalgia. The last act is well worth the wait and yet I never feel bored or impatient with the rest of the film.
2. Kill List (2011) Directed by: Ben Wheatley
The Story: A retired hit man agrees to take a final job that promises a large payday for three kills. Things become strange when his victims not only willingly surrender but even thank him for killing them. He finds himself tangled in a bizarre mystery as both his humanity and sanity unravel.
Why I Love It: I loved all of the plot twists. I had to watch this film twice to fully understand what was happening. The mystery is intriguing and the violence is absolutely brutal.
3. You’re Next (2011) Directed by: Adam Wingard
The Story: A family reunion at a secluded country house is interrupted by a group of murders lurking in the woods. As the family struggles to survive we begin to see the killers' twisted motives unfold.
Why I Love It: I am super bored by home invasion films. They are always predictable and rarely scary. This was not the case at all with You're Next. The setup is great and the protagonists are super creepy with a lot of creative kills. The plot twists are original and I LOVE the homage to the strong female survivor trope. I enjoyed this one enough to see it twice in theaters.
4. Paranormal Activity (2007) Directed by: Oren Peli
The Story: A young couple attempts to capture the evil presence haunting them on home video.
Why I Love It: Seeing this in the theater was one of the creepiest movie experiences I've ever had. The horror world is now saturated with mostly sub-par found footage movies (largely due to the massive influence of this film) but this one (like Cannibal Holocaust and The Blair Witch Project) will go down as one of the greatest because of it's subtlety, realness and ability to scare years after it's initial release.
5. American Mary (2012) Directed by: Soska Twins
The Story: Mary is a brilliant but disillusioned surgical student who begins working underground for criminals and the socially ostracized in order to pay for medical school. As her new job begins to entangle her in a dark drama, Mary slowly loses her mind.
Why I Love It: This is a refreshingly unique story with a great performance by Katherine Isabelle. Plenty of gore with interesting supporting characters and some surprising twists and turns. What's not to love?
6. Lovely Molly (2011) Directed by: Eduardo Sanchez
The Story: Molly and her new husband move into her deceased father's house out in the country where repressed memories begin to haunt her.
Why I Love It: As with most of the films on this list, Lovely Molly features psychological unraveling that has it's main character blurring the lines between fiction and reality. Some people hated the ending but I thought it made the movie memorable and list worthy.
7. The Loved Ones (2009) Directed by: Sean Byrne
The Story: Lola is a mentally deranged teenager who will stop at nothing to get a date to prom.
Why I Love It: Kudos to my Australian fellow horror nerds for making a super fun (and super fucked up) teenage horror film! Great performances by these young actors, especially Robin McLeavy, who make the terror dreadfully believable.
8. The Cabin in the Woods (2012) Directed by: Drew Goddard
The Story: A group of teenagers vacation at a remote cabin in the woods. After unknowingly waking up an evil force, they struggle to survive and find out the bizarre truth not only about the nature of the cabin, but of the very world itself.
Why I Love It: This one was so much fun! A wonderful love letter to the entire genre of horror and Evil Dead in particular. Like other films in this list, the plot sounds traditional but it is definitely a modern spin on an old story. The characters are intentional archetypes but played with well-written irony and a super aware sense of humor. This one is a blast without compromising the horror.
9. I Saw The Devil (2010) Directed by: Kim Jee-woon
The Story: A secret agent's pregnant wife is the next victim of a serial killer. On the quest for personal revenge he begins to blur the lines of good and evil.
Why I Love It: One of the best revenge films since Oldboy.
10. The Battery (2012) Directed by: Jeremy Gardner
The Story: In a post-apocalyptic world infested with zombies, two former baseball players struggle to survive and find meaning in their strange new lives.
Why I Love It: I'm not being dramatic or hyperbolic when I say that I HATE zombie films. I fucking hate them. The zombie film is easily the most boring sub-genre in all of horror. In my opinion, no one has improved upon George Romero's original Night of the Living Dead, including Romero himself with all of his shitty sequels. So for me to get excited about a zombie film it has to be pretty remarkable. Enter The Battery. The best thing about this zombie movie? So few zombies! Rather than lazily cash in on this nauseatingly overused gimmick, the filmmakers decided to focus on the psychological struggle of two lost survivors, thus making The Battery not only one of the more interesting and original horror films of the last decade, but also of the entire zombie sub-genre. Bravo!