Movies That Will Scare The Shit Out of You
I don’t think there’s ever been a better time to be a horror fan. Broadcast television has Supernatural, The Vampire Diaries, The Secret Circle, and the upcoming Grimm and Once Upon A Time. Cable Television has shows like Ghost Hunters, Paranormal Witness, The Walking Dead and American Horror Story. Netflix is brimming with new horror films, and every subgenre seems to be addressed, from the gritty, to the gory to the sci-fi/alien, slasher, suspense, haunted house and plain old thriller.
Here are a few of my picks of classic, modern and current movies that you should not watch alone:
Werewolf movies are visceral, brutal and often times tragic. The Wolfman (1941, Directed by George Waggner, Starring Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolfman and Claude Rains as his father) sets the template for a tragic anti-hero and those who love him. An American Werewolf in London (1981, Directed by John Landis), about a couple of American hikers trekking through the English countryside–one becomes a werewolf and the other haunts him–reinvigorated the horror subgenre with stunning special effects and dark humor. The transformation scene is legendary. When Dog Soldiers (2002, Directed by Neil Marshal) came out practically straight to DVD, I couldn’t believe it hadn’t been a bigger hit. It’s squaddies versus a wolfpack and it has thrills, suspense, some gore, some laughs, some of the best werewolves I’ve ever seen (though opinion on this varies greatly), and a great cast that includes Sean Pertwee, Kevin McKidd (Grey’s Anatomy), Emma Cleasby and Liam Cunningham.
Few horror movies have as lasting impressions as zombie movies. The idea that hell is full and the dead have nowhere to go but to stick around here and plague the living is probably as bad an apocalyptic vision as you can get. George Romero’s Dead Trilogy–Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978, my favorite of the three) and Day of the Dead (1985)–is of course the purest form of the horror subgenre, but there are a couple worthy successors: The Return of the Living Dead (1985, Dan O’Bannon) brought a strange campiness, and chopping up a zombie wasn’t enough to end it–its individual parts came after you! Resident Evil (2002, Paul Anderson) and 28 Days Later (2002, Danny Boyle) both brought style, action and drama to the zombie genre, and Shaun of the Dead (2004, Edgar Wright) headed by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost brought comedy to the forefront without sacrificing the scares. And my girlfriend Ali would eat me alive if I didn’t mention Zombieland (2009, Ruben Fleischer), possibly the slickest of all zombie flicks, it’s billed as “Superbad meets Shaun of the Dead.” With Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone and a cameo that will slay you, what’s not to like?
Now I’ve done posts on vampires and vampire films before, and you know how close to my heart they are. Vampire films make for great date movies because so many of them are as romantic as they are scary. Near Dark (1987, Kathryn Bigelow) is as perfect an urban vampire film as they come, intimate and brutal and cool and dark, it was one of the inspirations for the Vampire: The Masquerade Roleplaying Game. Of course, the primary inspirations were the Romanian legends, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and the Anne Rice Novels, of which there are many great horror films. My personal favorites? Francis Ford Coppola’s epic Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) though overwrought, remains faithfully romantic to the novel; An Interview with the Vampire (1994, Neil Jordan), a veritable feast for the eyes; and Queen of the Damned (2002, Michael Rymer), in which Aaliyah and Stuart Townsend smolder with sensuality that threatens to melt the silver screen. And if you love Wes Craven’s modern style, check out Dracula 2000 (2000, Patrick Lussier) and Dracula II: Ascension (2003, Lussier again). And don’t miss 30 Days of Night (2007, David Slade) based on the acclaimed graphic novel about an Alaskan town held in the grip of terror by a gang of vampires that are more monsters than men; Let the Right One In (2008, Tomas Alfredson) a Swedish film about Oskar, a 12 year old boy being bullied and Eli, the young vampire who comes to his aid: or Thirst (2009, Chan-Wook Park) a Korean film about a devout priest who falls victim to a vampiric blood disease that drives him to commit the most horrific acts. It will make you squirm more than jump, but it is probably the truest vampire film I have seen in recent times. As romantic as the vampire legends are, they should, in the end, disturb you, not make you swoon.
Now if I may digress a bit, my favorite genre is sci-fi/horror. It’s a cross-genre really, and it’s really tough to find films that fit both categories well and that are well done. Hard to budget and hard to find the talent and a good story. So there’s a lot out there that just isn’t all that great. In fact, it’s mostly shitty. But when it is done well, ahhh, it’s oh-s0-satisfying. Here are the greats and a few personal favorites: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978, Philip Kaufman), Alien (1979, Ridley Scott), Creature (1984, William Malone), The Terminator (1984, James Cameron), The Fly (1986, David Cronenberg), Aliens (1986, James Cameron), Predator (1987, John McTiernan), Akira (1988, animated, Katsuhiro Otomo), Tremors (1990, Ron Underwood), Jurassic Park (1993, Steven Spielberg, based on the Michael Crichton novel), Species (1995, Roger Donaldson, with designs by Alien‘s H.R. Giger), Event Horizon (1997, Paul Anderson), Phantoms (1998, Joe Chapelle, based on the Dean Koontz novel), Pitch Black (2000, David Twohy), and most recently, Pandorum (2009, Christian Alvart) a kind of Event Horizon on crack, and the wholly disturbing Splice (2009, Vincenzo Natali) about the genetically created human hybrid known as Dren.
You’ll notice that there is a fairly large gap between the last few sci-fi/horror films, and that may be because the film industry has all but abandoned new properties in favor of the safer bets of franchises, sequels to films the viewing public once loved. Many of the films I mentioned spawned two, three, even four sequels, and the Alien and Predator franchises dovetailed into the AVP franchise. I liked most of them, but I’ll leave it up to you to hunt them down.
Asian Horror cinema is a tricky thing, and some of the greats spawned American copies. Ringu/the Ring (1998, Hideo Nakata), Audition (1999, Takashi Miikie), Ju-On/The Grudge (2002, Takashi Shimizu,who directed both Japanese and American versions), Dark Water (2002 Hideo Nakata), Shutter (2004, Banjong Pisanthanakun, Parkpoom Wongpoom), Reincarnation (2007, Takashi Shimizu). They often have creepy children, can be a bit on the slow and philosophical side, have bone-chilling moments and great twists, but rarely end happily. The American versions are usually more palatable so they’re the safer bet if you’re a scaredy-cat, but if you want to feel pure unadulterated horror, stick with the originals.
As we come to a close of our greatest hits of stomach-clenching films, I save arguably the best for last. The stuff that could really happen in our own homes or streets or towns. The slasher flicks and the haunted houses. One derives horror from cold-blooded psychopaths, and the other derives it from the unknown and the great beyond. Friday the 13th (1980, Sean S. Cunningham) and The Nightmare on Elm Street (1984, Wes Craven) are slasher classics, but for my money, it’s Michael Myers in Halloween (1978 John Carpenter) and Halloween II (1981, Rick Rosenthall), and that moody score composed by John Carpenter as well, that haunt me every year around this time. The strange thing is, I have Jason Voorhees dreams all the time, dammit, and not one Freddy Krueger dream, that I can recall, anyway. I guess that’s a small mercy. I enjoy big budget remakes for their popcorn value, but if I want to see something new, I want to see a new idea too. Still, I try to view them like Shakespeare plays: who wouldn’t want to try their hand at a great story they enjoyed in their youth? Of course, Shakespeare is timeless, poetic and has little in the way of stage design or period in the scripts, and many of these films were created with some underlying social commentary that may not quite fit ten, twenty, thirty years down the line. 1994s Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and 1996s Scream, also by Wes Craven, seemed to have the last fresh words in slasher cinema coffin, first by bringing his franchise a mind-bending blurring of reality by bringing in the original actors and having them play themselves…getting killed! And then secondly, by creating a light-heared parody of the slasher genre as a whole, while still keeping the scares. Of course, the sequels continue to flow, and as long as there are fans, there will be franchises.
The Exorcist (1973, William Friedkin, written for the screen by the novelist William Peter Blatty). The Omen (1976, Richard Donner). The Amytyville Horror (1979, Stuart Rosenberg). Poltergeist (1982, Tobe Hooper, though credit usually goes to Steven Spielberg, who developed the story and co-wrote the screenplay). The Blair Witch Project (1999, Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez). The Sixth Sense (1999, M. Night Shyamalan). The Others (2001, Alejandro Amenábar). Paranormal Activity (2007, Oren Peli). Insidious (2010, James Wan). All are films of hauntings and/or possession, by ghosts or demons. They embody the fear of the unknown and typically make us feel as helpless as the people in the stories. Many of them claim to be based in truth. A few of them rely on one’s own ability to become consumed by the stories and suspend your belief enough to buy the “found footage” premise. Films like Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity are best watched with friends who love being scared, and not the cynical ones that would rather make fun of the plot holes or point out the fishing wire. But even the most cynical might cringe at the incredible performances in the Exorcist, or the slickly produced chills and surprises of Insidious.
What am I watching tonight? I’m looking at a double bill of Kevin Smith’s Red State (2011) and Paranormal Activity 2 (2010, Tod Williams). Maybe, maybe if there’s time and we can stand it, we’ll squeeze in The Last Exorcism (2010, Daniel Stamm). It’s gonna be a bumpy night!