Every few years I like to make a list of the best horror movies I’ve seen. This is no easy task. Much like with dating, you have to wade through all the bad ones to find a few gems. These are my list for 2014 (based on the ones I’ve seen). Criteria? I don’t care about the level of gore or nudity. That usually cheapens the experience for me. They must be creepy. That’s it. Some of you will say “nothing scares me” but I request that you watch these films at night, with no interruptions or distractions. You can’t just “watch” a scary movie…you must “experience” it by being in the right mood. Rant over. Here’s my top 25 list (in NO particular order).
25. Friday the 13th (2009)
Usually Michael Bay’s name brings up a slew of jokes around explosions and shallowness. The jokes sort of stopped quickly with the release of a Friday the 13th reboot, produced by Bay. Written by Marcus Nispel, this cold and brutal story-line made Jason Voorhees frightening. I would say “frightening again”, but this version was more horrifying than any of the originals. He was quick, big, and serious. Unlike Rob Zombie’s Halloween, this reboot kept the original in tact, but elevated the concept of “Jason.” Nispel also worked in a reasonable story about a missing sibling and one or two small surprises. I cannot wait until part 2.
This Japanese flick is on a majority of horror movie list. Let me tell you, the excruciating pace in the beginning is well worth the pay off. It follows a man who is convinced by his friend to have auditions for a fake movie in order to find a companion. He finds a pretty young girl, but there is far more to her than looks. I remember sitting in my apartment when “it” happened and I leaped up from the sofa. I was forced to pause the video and regain my composure. The performances were on point and the cinematography was purposeful. This is the fine china of horror (No Asian pun intended).
23. Session 9
I wasn’t sure what I was getting into with this movie. First, to have an all male cast in a horror movie is a rare treat. Yet there was plenty of drama and character development to support the mystery of what was going on. The set up was great. A team of asbestos removers are hired to work on a closed asylum. As the group is divided for various reasons and relevant back stories revealed, tensions begin to mount. One guy finds old tapes of therapy sessions that he seems a bit too obsessed with while another discovers valuable remains of the old residents. The story leads you down a dark tunnel of despair to the point of wanting out. My roommate at the time walked out about 20 minutes into it because the tension was too high. Session 9 is either a ghost story or a slasher flick. That voice saying “Do it, Gordon” is one I never want to hear in real life. Either way, it was a great indie effort that left me needing therapy.
22. Dawn of the Dead (2004)
I’m a big supporter of director Zach Snyder, especially when I look at films like this. This remake perfectly captured the diverse characters, the looming peril and those unforgettable scenes. Few remakes are worth mentioning. This was one that needed to be made. I even love that real amputees were cast as zombies. It’s that kind of attention to detail that causes this to be added to the list. The true ending was…influential.
Anyone that knows me, knew this would make the list. One of the most frightening movies in recent history. Casting Ethan Hawke was a smart move, making this more like a drama that turns into a horror. What makes this so scary is that even if the antagonist were human, what happens to the families could REALLY happen. It’s like the horror is on two different levels. Watching this in the theatre, the soundtrack had me afraid to turn my back to the screen. That was a first.
20. Alien & Aliens
It’s hard to hold one’s breath for over an hour, but I feel like I almost accomplished that during Alien and its sequel. Space never felt so raw and primal. This felt more real than space movies before it. There were no model-types running around with a slight scratch on the cheek. These were employees going up against…the mother of all aliens. They kept a golden rule in tact by not revealing the monster all at once. It was a proper horror introduction which is what kept it scary. You didn’t know what exactly was cornering our heroes in those claustrophobic corridors. It was also nice to see a “real” alien versus some CGI concocted foe. This movie holds up nicely over time, which makes it one of the best.
19. Paranormal Activity 2
I’ll wait for you to settle down before I explain myself. The first in this series was so unbelievably stupid that it was distracting. From the bad acting to the lack of good reason to carry a camera 80% of the time the lead did, this movie was a test of my patience. Honestly, who records a general conversation with their spouse? There were moments that made me a bit creeped out, but it failed to make an honest impression. Now, PA 2, on the other hand, solved the “loose camera” issue by getting a good portion of the footage from installed security cameras. It also had a likable family with marginally better acting. The acting isn’t really the issue, though…It’s people who are not skilled at ad-libbing, having arguments that make no sense. PA 2 deafened us with silence, however. It put children in vulnerable situations. It hunted the family before your eyes and left us with an ending that felt like you had discovered a horrible truth about your parents. The movie theatre I was in was full and dead silent. No one moved or left their seat and when it was over, there was an eerie quiet. We were all shaken. Of course, then they came out with PA 3 and “The Marked Ones” and the fear was over.
18. The Fog (1980)
John Carpenter’s underrated movie that was made into a sad remake, The Fog was a clever use of light and camera to create entities uncomfortable to look at. The golden rule was used here again as our killers were kept mostly in the fog, leaving a haunting silhouette and red eyes. The driving music and enveloping darkness worked well together as confused citizens of this sea-side town scrambled for safety against some of the most viscious looking ghost ever. It also helped that the cast looked “real.” and contained the likes of Jamie Lee Curtis, Adrienne Barbeau, John Housman, and Hal Holbrook. Eek!
17. Blair Witch Project
Few movies over the last 50 years (horror in particular) have been so polarizing, with half of its audience driven away with nausea and impatience and the other half glued to the screen. For those that could get past the cyclonic cameras and bought into the setup, we were haunted by the final images in the basement (and grossed out by Heather’s nostril work). I don’t think of this so much as a movie as a piece of a myth, that spawned so much media attention and debate about its reality. However, the idea of being picked off in a wooded area that sends you in circles by an unseen force is pretty scary. While some people attribute this to being the grandfather of “found footage” movies (it isn’t), it holds other impressive records. The ridiculously low budget was returned ten fold, proving you don’t need special effects or big names to win over audiences.
16. Skeleton Key
This movie is a racist person’s worst nightmare (behind Candyman). After terrible A-list actor movies like Hide & Seek (Robert DeNiro) and Rear Window (Johnny Depp), I had decided to avoid all horror movies that had well-known actors in them. However, on a whim, I tuned in to Skeleton Key and was given the ultimate creeps. Kate Hudson plays a caretaker hired to help an elderly woman with her bed-ridden husband. As the story unfolds, it hints at several possible plots until it reveals itself truly. There is a moment when I feel sick to my stomach by what’s happening because unlike most horror movies, I see no way out of it and have a strong attachment to the main character. Skeleton Key combines good acting with a well-conceived plot, that centers around the question “Do I open this door or not?”
15. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
A classic for many reasons. It extended the 15 minutes of fame for two legendary actresses. It also delved into insanity on a superior level with Bette Davis’s crafted performance. Sisters Blanche (Joan Crawford) and Jane (Bette Davis) have been secluded from society after Blanche is injured in an accident that leaves her unable to walk. Jane, meanwhile, suffers from guilt, alcoholism, and delusion…feeling responsible for the accident. She tortures Blanch and as her sanity rapidly spirals out of control, her behavior becomes more dangerous. If nothing else can convince you this is top notch horror (close to the level of Psycho, in regards to story and performance), make it to Davis’ musical number performed for Victor Buono. Classic!
14. Halloween & Halloween II (1978 and 1981)
I had to put these together. They compliment each other and create a greater story. Unlike Zombie’s terrible “reboot,” the original was simple, psychological, and re-introduced the slasher that paved the way for Jason Voorhees. Carpenter created a identifiable “anytown” with Haddonfield. It is family and sunny. Gives it more impact when Michael Meyers shatters this illusion of safety. There are many great things about this movie; Carpenter understood the impact of doing violence in controlled spurts, the performances of Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasance, the William Shatner mask, and that soundtrack!!! Part II was created after the unexpected success of part 1. It put our heroine in what is normally the “next step” after a movie ends; the victim goes to the hospital. Here, the hospital becomes a place of horror, stating that nowhere is safe. It is also where we learn the relationship between Michael and Laurie Strode. Zombie didn’t do any favors to these classics with his brutal, predictable vision, where we learn too much about the villain.
Poltergeist is, in my opinion, the most solid piece of horror cinematography and directing of any other. It is like the Star Wars of horror in how it is constructed. No wonder since it had Tobe Hooper and Steven Speilberg involved. I give it high marks because the quality of it all was greater than anything before it. The family was the kind you wanted to live next to (before the haunting starts, anyway) and the lead up to the finale is paced perfectly. It’s little cute haunted house tricks in the beginning. It builds and builds until things are out of control and we have traveled one of the greatest supernatural roads ever. It has so many iconic scenes and lines that it had to be on the list. The polish that I normally hate in horror works well here…like taking a Normal Rockwell picture and poking out the eyes.
12. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
When I talk about gritty versus slick, this would be the “gritty.” For me, it makes the stage more unsettled…like violence or fear. TCM is one of those movies that captures the sickest of real-life minds and surprises you with how little violence there is. Smart enough not to use a lot of bad make-up jobs that don’t stand up to time, Tobe Hooper makes another film that ends on my list. The scene with the large metal door and sledgehammer are hard for me to watch. The heroine dealing with her disabled brother as well as her own physical limitations of being petite, makes your palms sweat when she’s confronted with the hulk of Leatherface. The final scene is unsettling and become a staple for horror movie references. Watching this takes a thick skin (for those that haven’t been desensitized).
I held off watching Psycho because it had been parodied so much, I thought I wouldn’t enjoy it. How wrong was I? I had at least one good jump and one scream. Alfred Hitchcock created tension unlike any other and everything was so carefully framed that it felt like walking through a narrow hall full of fine crystal. Anthony Perkins played Norman Bates with great precision, evoking sympathy with a raised eyebrow. He’s a wonderful character to study, but best of all…you never know just how insane he is until the very end.
10. The Haunting (1963)
A smart tightrope walk from supernatural to psychology, this has a classic horror movie feel. The large home serves as a backdrop for a handful of characters dealing with paranormal abilities (unlike the remake where they were all suffering from sleep disorders.) As the movie trods along with “bump in the night” moments, it gathers up a strange momentum that pushes you towards uncertainty. The best moments hinge on Julie Harris, who plays frail little “Nell.” She gives a thoughtful but disturbing delivery towards the end. The remake was a handful of decent actors tripping over a flood of special effects and poor dialogue. This is a beautifully haunting display of old horror at its best.
Since I’ve already reviewed this, I won’t get too verbose in my commentary. I’ll just say this is one of the best anthology horror movies I’ve seen in awhile, because the overarching story was as chilling as the mini-stories. I think the upcoming 3rd installment looks terrible, with too many special effects, but the original is a strong (in both vulgarity and horror) bit of cinema that gave me chills.
8. The Thing (1982)
Wow, talk about creating tension. John Carpenter new how to do a remake. The feeling of being trapped and the unidentifiable creature are two of the elements that make this a true horror movie. What happens to the victims is a head-turner and the idea that anyone could be “it” keeps you from ever really feeling comfortable. Another male-dominated movie, The Thing lacks iconic scenes like some of the others. Yet, it tells a solid story of terror.
7. 30 Days of Night
There is simply no vampire movie more brutal or unforgiving than this one. My muscles were constantly constricted throughout this tale of blood-suckers in Alaska. Josh Hartnett and Melissa George do a fine job of understating their characters until the right moments. Ben Foster gives the performance to look for, though, as a stranger in town. The mood starts off rather dim, but sinks much further. The only flaw is the “Twilight” ending that feels a little too cheesy for me. Otherwise, this is the ultimate vampire flick for horror fans.
6. Ginger Snaps (entire trilogy)
When this movie came out, if felt like a hand reaching out to those girls in the 90’s that were too moody to live. They listened to Fiona Apple while “becoming women” and embraced anything too serious for their own good. Two sisters and a werewolf make for an unique coming of age story. Katherine Isabell and Emily Perkins are an amazing duo as the sisters. It’s an amazing concept with a cool delivery that continues on to the 3rd installment, not caring about rules or opinions. It does what it wants, like a beast.
5. The Ring / Ringu
Both movies (American and Japanese) excel in this story about a cursed video tape. It isn’t fair to compare them, because the American version respects the original while making it current for US audiences. The bizarre imagery and unexpected deaths are unsettling. Also, not since “When A Stranger Calls” has a phone ringing been scary. Each version plays out like a murder mystery only with an abstract killer. Now the real curse is watching The Ring 2. That was awful.
This bizarre little tale of a crazy man’s devotion to doing “God’s work” left me speechless. The small town setting gave in to the simplicity of religion of real life small towns, allowing us to strip away a lot of unbelievable supernatural hyperbole. What we are left with is the man down the street that everyone thinks is a nut, but the story plays out in a way that shocked me. It made me question my perception of people and my own spirituality on a frightening level.
3. The Strangers
I have only seen one trailer that left me wanting to lock the door. It was this one. The movie lived up to the advertisement. It starts off as an awkward anti-love story as the male lead and the female lead arrive at a farm house out in the middle of nowhere. Something has taken place between them, but we are not aware of what it is until later (a brilliant way to make us care about the characters). Bit by bit, the horror is introduced, making you wonder if it had been there all along. The movie has a sympathetic Liv Tyler (who does melancholy so well). The drama is real and the horror is waiting to break in. When it does you have no idea what’s coming.
I think I gave a review on the sequel, but it starts off much stronger. There is an old-school quality to the editing and score…a blend of Poltergeist and The Exorcist. There is a weak moment when we are on the “other side” but it contrasts nicely with the abrupt ending. There’s a sense of control with the camera work, much like with Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist. It also introduces one of the most attractive couples in a horror movie ever, Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne. In addition to the complimentary performances from them, Lin Shay is one of the best mediums to ever be on screen since Zelda Rubinstein’s Tangina in Poltergeist. Alright, so…Basically? This movie is Poltergeist, with supernatural entities taking a young boy and the parents trying to get him back. There is much more to this movie, though…even before you get to the clever sequel.
1. The Exorcist
Seem like a cop-out #1. Well, remember that these aren’t in any particular order AND this movie was extreme when it came out and is still a good film today. The use of effects were smart and the acting was made a priority. The directing was better than it should be for a horror movie. What really makes The Exorcist worthy of all of these lists is the terrible transformation Reagan (Linda Blair) makes from the average innocent daughter to the demon-possessed monster she becomes. It made a full journey that kept getting worse and worse before your eyes. It was such a strong movie and portrayal that Blair’s career never really took off the way it should have.
Some honorable mentions;
*Nightmare on Elm Street – The original was horrifying despite lots of b-movie acting and bad effects. Plus Johnny Depp showed his midriff.
*Stigmata – people gave this movie crap, but I found Patricia Arquette to be a sympathetic character and fitting for the party girl gone spiritual vessel being tortured.
*Triangle – trust me, this one narrowly missed my list. The twists and turns and ending are some of the best I’ve seen in recent years. When you finally realize what’s happening, you find out that you don’t.
*Pontypool – a fresh take on zombie-type films. I can’t say much without giving it away, but it is a brilliant story with the right touch of humor.
*Grave Encounters – while this is a cheap movie in both cost and story, it does it well. It is entertaining at worst and creepy at best.
*The Host – A monster movie that beats all monster movies. Even if you don’t like monster movies, you need to watch this one.