Doug's Picks for Ten Honestly Effective Horror Movies

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Tuesday, 21 July 2009

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Doug's Picks for Ten Honestly Effective Horror Movies

I watch more horror than the average bear. In fact, I sometimes realize that I watch horror movies with such constancy that they rarely register as genre to me. I am a little unique amongst horror fans because I watch old b-movies along side new gore and I watch Asian ghosts alongside classic Universal creature features. When I talk to non-horror-loving friends, or those who only rarely indulge in horror, I usually get a response along the lines about how this or that gave them nightmares, how this or that was trying too hard to be scary, or about how this or that was just disturbing and had no redeeming value. The average person approaches horror with either a utilitarian face ("I want to be!") or a overly brave face ("This is not scary, HA, I'm not scared of this!"). A horror fan, well, we approach them differently. We enjoy the sophmorish mix of drama, fear, moral questioning, and heroism. As I've said before, horror is the new punk. Horror is also one of the few genres that accepts the concept of the epic, the over the top, the larger than life, and proudly admits it.

Most "best of" horror lists have one of two goals: a list of the most disturbing (read: full of guts and gore) or a list that tries to make the claim that real horror is made by outsiders to the genre and all the horror fans or missing the point. Disregard both types of list. The former is used by the sort of guys who giggle during gore scenes, and the latter is mostly avoided by everyone. This is my "best of" list, a series of horror movies that are haunting, effective, and stick to your gut a little. I mix up several different genres. I throw in some gorey ones and some that have no gore at all. I mix and match countries. As far as I know, all are readily available to buy in stores or to rent, none are especially esoteric. I have tried to not list many "duplicates" which is kind of hard. Instead, I have included a "Others like it" field so that I can list other movies that have made the list if the one listed did not dominate. Not all of these will fit the "horror" motif just dead on. Some will fit it better than others. I have avoided some like Irreversible and Requiem for a Dream that are as disturbing or moreso than the ones below, because they are more societal horror than anything, but keep those two in mind, as well, if you want to feel like the world is a bad, bad place. There are a few movies (Alien and Pyscho are two ready examples) that have awesomely effective and very famous scenes, but I am trying for movies that keep up the consistency a little, maybe devoid of any big "punch" scene but have plenty of minor scenes that add up. I have generally avoided shorts and set-pieces and aimed for complete movies, but keep in mind such things as Cutting Moments (which really is the most horrifying short film ever) and Flowers of Flesh and Blood (though only keep these in mind if you can stomach lots of blood). I have also avoided the gorepunk genre of over-the-top gonzo fests, but Meatball Machine and Dead Alive have given plenty of people nightmares. Finally, I have tried to stick to movies that I have heard plenty of agreement about their effectiveness, but I have included three "bonus" movies that receive a fair share of mixed reviews and downright complaints, but I personally liked them and recommend them.


Sub-Genre (ish). "S/he is not who you think he is" Torture/Slasher.

Why This One? Because (1) Takeshi Miike needs a place on this list and (2) the ending scene has been continously remarked as one of the most disturbing ever. Man holds a mock-audition to meet women, meets someone who thinks is awesome but who everyone else gets weird vibes from, and courts her as the audience is shown increasingly disturbing "behind the scenes" footage ranging from vomit eating and other abuses to a burlap sack scene that kind of sticks in your gut. Oh, and did I mention needles in the eye? Many needles? So many needles. Almost makes the slow sawing off of a foot look tame.

Further Information. Wikipedia entry on Audition

Others Like It. The closest I can think to it is Misery, though there have been several (say, Hand that Rocks the Cradle or Fatal Attraction) that are more in the thriller than horror genre and use the same motif of a disturbed individual getting too close to familial comfort. Which is the driving engine of these films, dramatic irony that lets the audience in on the "joke" while a person (almost always a male) opens the door to someone who will destroy his comfort and even his family. One of the big motifs of post-King horror is the breakdown of the American family, and apparently other countries are also interested in this as well.

Night of the Living Dead

Sub-Genre (ish). Zombies.

Why This One? This was one chosen because the low-budget, black and white goodness was as fresh as zombies have ever been, and is still the most influential zombie move out there. People will tell you that they are referencing Dawn of the Dead, but they are far more likely to involve a group of people who meet on the run, flee from zombies in the country side, and hole up in a "fort" that has nothing like a mall going for it. The tension of race relations, the infected child motif, and all those things that sit underneath the zombie genre came out of this movie. This one has a slower burn than most later zombie movies, and a lot of the tension is inside of the house, which has helped to keep the genre more grounded in humanity than gore (well, the best parts of it). Not to mention that Duane Jones is considered the first case of a strong, unapologetic, black male lead in American cinema. He tells white people what to do. If the ending is less ambigious than most of Romero's, it is moreso in a horrible way. As 28 Days Later would later say: "It's just people killing people, the same as it ever was..."

Further Information. Wikipedia entry

Others Like It. Any of the other Romeros fits the bill (Dawn, Day, Land, and Diary) with most people putting Dawn above Night and many rank the latter two as dreck. Though a differet vibe almost altogether, I really like 28 Days Later and the Dawn of the Dead remake. After about the time they were made, zombies became a much more "arcadish" genre, so many of the bigger zombie nambes are more about zombie killing than just staying alive.

Cannibal Holocaust

Sub-Genre (ish). Whatever genre it is that shows you the inside of turtles. "Handcam" realistic slasher.

Why This One? The only movie on this list, and possibly the only movie since I have been 13 that gave me nightmares. I mean, honest to goodness nightmares, not just showed up in my dreams as a cameo. A group of students head off down the Amazon to do research. Bad, bad things occur. This movie is very stark. The students witness, and commit, scenes of brutal rape and murder. They cut open animals far more cruelly than required (and, due to a lack of animal cruelty laws at the time, they do this to live animals, including a scene with a turtle being cut open alive that is probably the single most icky moment I have ever seen put down to film). The ending scene is shot so convincingly that supposedly the law got involved and the actors had to testify to the fact that they were still alive. Man. It even starts out telling you that they are going to horribly die, and by the end, you are still surprised at how bad things got.

Further Information. Wikipedia entry

Others Like It. Depends on what you mean like it. The next notable use of the handcam style footage was probably Blair Witch. As for graphic, stark shots, there are number of gory exploitation horror movies (off the top of my head, Zombi 2 comes to mind, or maybe the American movie The Devil's Rejects, though neither are quite in the same subgenre and neither match this movie for the starkness of the direction). If you are looking for the sex-and-torture-violence side of the genre, maybe Hostel, but the combination of elements in this movie make it hard to match. You end up going too extreme or picking something with a different vibe. This movie is both graphic and graphically plain at the same time. It works very well to convince you that it is not a movie, which a lot of movies fail at.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Sub-Genre (ish). Strange family in the woods slasher.

Why This One? Because it is low-budget, feels cheap and gritty and grimey, and is one of the first (if not the first) horror movies to convince you that its outrageous events are all true. They are not, but people were ready to believe that a movie shot so plainly was simply telling the truth. As a friend of mind has pointed out, one of the strangest parts about the effectiveness of this movie is that does not show gore all that much. You have peoples' heads bashed in and hanging from meathooks, but you mostly see this from a distance. Very awesome use of angles and build up, despite a relatively low death count, this is the movie that established all the "bunch of college kids stop at a house" style storyline, even if it was not the first instance (EC comics had a few stories very similar, but never quite so graphic, no pun intended). This movie had to suck for Texas's tourism trade.

Further Information. Wikipedia entry

Others Like It. Rob Zombie's first movie, House of a 1000 Corpses was kind of an ode to it, but not really. Like Cannibal Holocaust, it kind of depends on what you mean. I guess movies like Halloween and Friday the 13th and Black Christmas all helped to work on the prestige of lower budget films that showed somewhat snotty teens get their comeupance, but my mind is blanking for one that actually involves them going to a house, getting slaughtered one by one, and doing it with the same sort of vibe as this movie (most go one notch up on the strange meter, at least). Wolf Creek is probably your best bet, though it is less a house and not really a killer family. More just a crazy guy out in the Outback.

The Host

Sub-Genre (ish). Creature Feature.

Why This One? You take all the awesomeness that is a monster of the week style horror movie, scenes of city destruction and bumbling heroes and running crowd scenes and all that, and you make the audience give a crap by having the cutest little girl ever be on the brink of death the whole time. It's a cheap ploy and it works. The fact that the rest of the movie is a strange ode to self-sufficiency, mental issues, broken families, the cost of modernization, and hiding from authorities that should be helping you also helps. The ending is both explosively good and heartwrenching at the same time, though a couple things are up left up in the air.

Further Information. Wikipedia entry

Others Like It. The original Gojira works as an atual horror creature feature, but you will probably find Jaws (though not really scary) and Alien to be much closer to the vibe of someone hunting something that is also hunting them, as both of these also deal with isolation versus authority help and people not quite qualified to take on the monster doing so out of necessity.


Sub-Genre (ish). Asian style ghosts.

Why This One? Because it dials it up a notch. While many of the Asian-style ghost movies involve a mix of jump scares and long mood building, this one inverts the formula. The jump scares become their own sense of mood building and you start hoping for some stretch where you don't have to tense up. The fact that the ending is both downbeat and emotionally satisfying is a bonus. Avoid the American remake, mind you.

Further Information. Wikipedia Entry

Others Like It. My three favorites are (in this order) Ju-on: The Grudge, Ringu, and Dark Water. Many have started pointing out that Asian horror is somewhat bloated with ghostly women with long black hair, and it's true, but the three just mentioned manage to make the ghost story format work enough to scare you more than a little.


Sub-Genre (ish). Jesus Christ! THE KILLER IS IN THE HOUSE! slasher.

Why This One? I'll keep this one short: pregnant woman trapped in her own house, stalked by crazy person in effectively shot scenes involving old metal scissors, darning needles, blood, blunt trauma, and flame. Very pregnant and lots of people feel lots of pain. While I normally scoff at remakes, there is a possible Spanish remake by the director of REC in the works, that will focus even more on the fact that she is pregnant. Huzzah?

Further Information. Inside's Wikipedia entry

Others Like It. Black Christmas and Halloween are two good and earlier examples of the killer coming to you style horror (the novel Dracula being arguably the earliest example of such, though with much more fantastical take, most horror revolves around someone going somewhere else), though I would recommend the non-horror but tense Rear Window for a good example of what happens when your home life is threatened by violence that you did not earn.

Children of Men

Sub-Genre (ish). Dystopian Future.

Why This One? While less horror than the rest, it is one of the more haunting. The lynchpin of dystopian, apocalyptic futures is to both convince us that humanity is done for, with all the existenstial trappings that brings, while making us care for a couple of individuals. Sure, in ten or twenty years, the Earth will be a dead place, but as long as those people are happy now. That's what matters. Impressive visuals, a political meandering, and Clive Owen knocking the acting out of the ballpark with one of his most impressive performances ever—complete with one of the longest single takes in genre history—make this a movie that is both effective and competent. And, well, about a world in which no more babies (excepting one) are being born anymore. The people are getting older, the prospects are getting more grim, and people are still finding time to be assholes.

Further Information. Wikipedia entry

Others Like It. The Road (still forthcoming at the time I write this) looks to be a good film in a similar vein, while On the Beach is often cited as being the post-apocalyptic film for film-lovers. I say bollocks to that, a little, and suggest When the Wind Blows as the most gut-punchingly effective post-bomb film. As for post-plague, you have Twelve Monkeys as a mess-up-your-day film.


Sub-Genre (ish). Japanese weirdness.

Why This One? I promise that I am not one of those who sits around and talks about how weird the Japanese are, and means it, but they do make a might fine "strange horror" film. Not weird fantasy in the sense of Lovecraft, but just strange, strange horror. This one involves a man who travels down into tunnels and brings something back up, a nude girl that might be a victim of his delusions, or might be a vampire. There are a few plot twists along the way, but none are fully verified, and you as the watcher have to figure out what just happened. I find the fact that it's shot super-cheaply and gets really murky to help. This is actually due more in the "controversial" bonus section, but a lot of actual horror fans like it while many spectacle-loving and desensitized style horror fans do not. I overall go for the opinions of the former, but keep in mind that not every one likes this one.

Further Information. Wikipedia entry

Others Like It. Some of my favorite examples of "other Japanese weirdness" include Detective Story, Uzamaki, and Suicide Club. The first and the latter go a little too weird in places, but stick with you, and the latter is almost hauntingly beautiful while being screwed up weird (it is about a town that becomes infected with spirals, and that's not a typo).

The Orphanage

Sub-Genre (ish). Western-style ghost story.

Why This One? I think this movie makes it because so much of it is not horror, but you rarely realize that until after the fact. Horror explores issues of loss more than non-fans realize, and as I have said before, one of the marks of post-King horror (though it was also there before him, he just seemed to be the one that noted it more than a little as opposed to having people "chin-up" the loss of a family) is that the most horrible thing about good horror is that you will never see your loved ones again. In this movie, you find out that not all monsters are trying to make victims of you, but this does not always mean that you can escape the fate that has been ordained. Wonderfully shot and paced, the I suppose you could call it a twist ending is when the overall impact will truly hit. Oh yeah, there's an American remake brewing. That's scary, too.

Further Information. Wikipedia entry

Others Like It. Hmm, this movie gets compared a lot to Pan's Labyrinth because of del Toro (producer of this one, director of that one) but the vibes are slightly different and the genres are notably different. The above mentioned Dark Water (cited as a "see also" for Shutter) deals really closely with the question of what makes a good/determined mother in the midst of a ghost story. I have not seen the 1980 movie Changeling yet, but it often gets cited as a really scary ghost invading a home film. Not in the same genre at all, but the "things a parent (this time a father) must do" aspects of Stephen King's films The Mist and Pet Cemetary are most memorable and tragic parts of both.

Bonus #1: Cabin Fever

Why they didn't like it. I think Cabin Fever's use of weird humor, weird acting, and derivative plot drove most people away.

Why I did. The scenes of spreading infection really work, and the "it's going to have to be bleak" sensation as you realize the extent of the infection does not stop you from trying to care about characters. Just watch the scene where the man locks the love of his life in a shed to save himself, or the scene with the leg shaving as chunks of flesh are carved away by the crying teen.

Bonus #2: Darkness

Why they didn't like it. It is a slow movie, with not much to keep you going, for the most part. You have to have faith to get through it, in some ways.

Why I did. The slow-pace did not bother me, I kind of liked it. What's more, the pay off struck a major vibe with me. I still have flashbacks to it. As far as downer endings go, this is possibly the most truly bleak.

Bonus #3: The Burrowers

Why they didn't like it. Naysayers mock it, stupidly, for shallow plot similarities to Tremors while more learned complainers point out issues with time and geography (there is also an issue with horses not being exactly continuity friendly in a couple of scenes, a movie that makes the audience feel like it should go back and count could have possibly been shot better in those scenes) and a few took exception to the conclusion. Well, not the actual conclusion, which has been generally hailed as an example of meta-horror (Just who is the real monster? dun dun dunnnnn) and a shout-out the originally intended ending of Night of the Living Dead; but the killing of monsters has been somewhat decried as being too mystical and out of the blue.

Why I did. While there are several other, and potentially better, "mix-and-matched group of specialists and attaches get surrounded by horror and fight a hopeless battle" creature films (see REC, Aliens, and Descent for three awesome and memorable examples); little touches make this movie so awesome. It has probably the best use of dramatic irony in horror in years (the audience is shown what happens to victims well before the characters figure it out) and it's wry social commentary mixes in your face historical attitudes with more subtle summations. Plus, it mixes many humorous one-liners right in with its despair.

Si Vales, Valeo


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