25. An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Directed by John Landis
Marred by unnecessary/crappy sequel? Yes.
Little English boy: “A naked American man stole my balloons.”
In many ways, horror is the toughest genre to pin down in terms of quality. Maybe you grew up in the ‘30s and seeing the mummy limp after someone for the first time (seriously, who would that guy catch??) scared the bejeezus out of you; or you crawled under your seat when you saw The Birds in the ‘60s, an era that revitalized horror thanks to a fresh batch of concepts from Alfred Hitchcock and… well, Alfred Hitchcock (although to be honest, I always thought he was a tad overrated. Birds… really? That’s what’s keeping people up at night?); or you were a teenager getting off on the gore and gratuitous boobage of ‘70s/’80s slasher flicks. Maybe you’re a Japanese horror buff and get chills from pasty, bug-eyed possessed children or the freaky new ways they think up to kill people. Or maybe you appreciate the new era of horror movies – ones that actually integrate plotlines and character development.
In other words, it’s all a big ol’ judgment call – one person’s horror classic is another’s schlock.
Speaking of schlock, we land on our first entry: American Werewolf in London. I think John Landis takes a similar view on horror as I do: that horror movies don’t really scare people… they may chill, they may repulse, they may make you wonder why you’re laughing at something so sick… but they don’t scare.
So in Werewolf, he lays the black humor on thick… Orc-ish storm troopers machine gunning a young family watching the Muppets, the main character’s deceased best friend appearing throughout the film in continually decomposing form, etc. And then every time you get lulled into thinking how purely goofy the movie is, someone gets mauled. Sweet.
The effects are particularly bad (they were then and are that much more dated now) and the acting is terrible… but I’d start a horror marathon with this just to cleanse my palate.
24. The Devil’s Rejects (2003)
Directed by Rob Zombie
Marred by unnecessary/crappy remake? This is technically a sequel.
Otis B. Driftwood: Boy, the next word that comes out of your mouth better be some brilliant fuckin’ Mark Twain shit. ‘Cause it’s definitely getting chiseled on your tombstone.
There has always been a kinship between horror and heavy metal. The dark themes, black clothes, over-the-top excesses. An it doesn’t take a genius to infer that someone who renames himself Rob Zombie is obsessed with the genre. And boy is he ever one fucked up poobah.
The trend in horror movies over the last 10 years has been ever-escalating acts of indifferent depravity, starting with the brutal Japanese torture porn popularized in the Saw movies. What sets Devil’s Rejects apart is the point-of-view. Most torture films are told from the victims point of view. Zombie makes the psychos the center of the film, anti-heroes with personality and back-stories that you are meant to root for and sympathize with.
Zombie introduced these characters in House of 1000 Corpses, but that movie was silly over-the-top horror in the vein of the Evil Dead movies, so it was easier to just laugh at and dismiss. This is altogether more disturbing for its seriousness. Zombie shoots it with a handheld, so the touch of reality really amps up the torture scenes. That he would cast his wife as one of the main characters shows just how messed up Zombie really is. Sheri Moon Zombie got so shaken during one part of the production that she had to take 2 days off to recover. Now that’s metal. And that is horror baby.
23. Suspiria (1977)
Directed by Dario Argento
Marred by unnecessary/crappy remake? Not yet.*
Dr. Frank Mandel: Bad luck isn’t brought by broken mirrors, but by broken minds.
Sure, you can watch Suspiria on a nice sunny day with some friends and completely pick the film apart for all of its faults – the absolutely atrocious acting and stilted dialogue, especially. But go sit on your couch by yourself at midnight and throw it on… then tell me it doesn’t keep you awake the rest of the night (and you’re damn sure not going anywhere near your bathroom window).
That’s the whole point, and the brilliance of Italian horror legend Dario Argento: it’s supposed to feel choppy and fake. His goal is to create a surreal nightmare, filled with vivid visuals and a downright intrusive soundtrack. Unlike far too many films where the payoff (i.e., kill) is the focal point, Argento is about creating a sense of menace and suspense – letting scenes linger and linger until you can’t stand it any more – and it doesn’t lift until the movie is over (and then some). Molto bene.
*[Editor’s note: inexplicably, Argento is said to be planning his own remake. Details are spotty. Inexplicabllier, Natalie Portman is rumored to be cast. Natalie Portman? What’s next… Shia LaBeouf in the sequel to Wall Street??? Oops…]
22. The Descent (2005)
Directed by Neil Marshall
Marred by unnecessary/crappy sequel? Yes.*
Beth: I’m an English teacher, not fucking Tomb Raider.
Over the course of the past 5-10 years, a new crop of film makers started dabbling in horror movies, looking to pay homage to (and improve upon) the films they grew up with. Along the way, they realized that having a decent plot and characters you actually care about really do matter. I can watch a thousand bitchy co-eds get cut to ribbons by Jason and not feel an ounce of emotion about it… so long as they have their tops off, it’s all good. But put together a group of strong-minded, capable women with complex lives and families and personalities… well, suddenly their survival means something more.
The Descent centers around six girlfriends who meet in a remote part of the Appalachians for their annual spelunking trip (it’s more of a rock climbing trip, but I just like using the word spelunking). The beauty of the movie is that for about the first 40 minutes it’s nothing but the women and the drama that ensues as they go about their spelunking. Then, of course, the CHUDs come. And you know when there are CHUDs involved, I’m in, baby.
As much fun as it is to (sorta) root for the bad guy, if you’re not pulling for the protagonist… not hoping that good will somehow prevail… well, then most of the time it’s just not going to be as compelling. And Neil Marshall does a great job setting the table for these characters, so that by the time they meet the creatures, you almost want to grab a pickaxe and help them out.
[Editor’s note: if this movie had been called The Spelunkers or, even better, Spelunked!, it would’ve been no lower than #5.]
*[Editor’s note #2: In checking out clips for the movie, I found out that The Descent 2 will be opening this year. The trailer looks particularly crappy, so you may want to be one-and-done for this franchise.]
21. Session 9 (2001)
Directed by Brad Anderson
Marred by unnecessary/crappy sequel? No.
Doctor: And where do you live, Simon?
Mary Hobbes: I live in the weak and the wounded… Doc.
There are two main types of horror movie. There is the slasher-film gore-fest. And there is the atmospheric creepy supernatural thriller. What makes Session 9 such a great horror movie is that it straddles both genres. It’s a nice balancing act by super-talented young director Brad Anderson (The Machinist, Transsiberian).
It starts out in creepy mode, as a bunch of asbestos-removal workers begin a job in a long-abandoned psychiatric hospital, and this under-utilized horror-movie setting is really the main character. It’s particularly well-done, because the movie achieves this effect without it feeling like the place is haunted, and so it avoids the trappings of the straightforward ghost story. Most of the story is very much a series of psychological terrors that grip the crew. But toward the end, the movie turns on a dime into a violent and gory slasher film. It sounds odd, but it’s actually pretty freaking awesome.
20. Devil’s Backbone (2001)
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Marred by unnecessary/crappy sequel? No.
Casares: What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber.
Guillermo del Toro is making movies that transcend their genre bounds. Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth, and this lesser-known Spanish spookathon. They all work as fantasy, comic book, and horror movies respectively, but they also bring a lot more to the table. More daring, more imagination, and grander themes.
Sure, this has a freaky looking dead child bent on killing. And yeah, there are lots of dark tunnels, floating dead bodies, and even a magically undetonated bomb seemingly supsended by magic. It is a horror movie after all. But it’s also about the disintegration of morality during war, specifically the Spanish Civil War, which was also the setting for del Toro’s critically lauded Pan’s Labyrinth. Fascist sympathizers, war profiteers, misguided ‘rebels’. Ultimately, the ghosts are just their victims, and these freaky kids want their revenge.
19. The Shining (1980)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Marred by unnecessary/crappy sequel? No.
Grady daughter: Come play with us, Danny, forever and ever and ever
When you think of classic images from horror movie history, it’s amazing how many come from The Shining. Check out just a few of the iconic visuals.
For ever, and ever, and