1. Dread (2009)
This movie came and went under the radar with little fanfare notice save a few features in Fangoria. Although it’s no surprise no one’s seen this, because it was one of After Dark Horrorfest’s movies this past year.
However, this movie is one that cannot be missed. It is the best Clive Barker adaptation ever. I will never see a movie starring one of the people from Twilight… except for Jackson Rathbone. He stars in Dread, so he gets a free pass. Plus he did a great turn as a killer on Criminal Minds. Anyway, this movie is so amazing that I can hardly describe how brilliant it is. Anthony DiBlasi is the best horror director to come out since Michael Dougherty did Trick ‘r Treat (see below).
This movie is insidiously creepy—it gets under your skin. There are no scenes that are meant to scare you, there aren’t any “boo” moments, but you spend the entire movie with an inescapable feeling of… well, dread. Because of this flick, there are now two things that I will never look at the same way again: meat and bathtubs. Watch the movie, you’ll understand.
2. My Name is Bruce (2007)
We all know that there is no way to adequately describe how awesome Bruce Campbell is. It’s like trying to number the stars in the sky, to describe how hot the sun is, or how bad Twilight is. You just can’t do it with any words in any language.
But if you want to get the feeling of how awesome Bruce is, watch his movie. It doesn’t get more epic than this: a B movie making fun of B movies, directed by and starring the biggest B movie star of all time. Need I say more? Didn’t think so. But in case you’re still not sold: Bruce Campbell knows the meaning of life, but he’s not telling. Maybe you’ll see it in his movie.
3. Reincarnation (2005)
Takashi Shimizu is most famous for doing the Grudge films (based on his Ju-On movies, which I’ll get to later), but what he should be known for is Reincarnation, the only good film to come out of the four Horrorfests other than Dread. This movie is about the making of a movie about a murder than happened at a hotel. The catch is that the actors in the film (and some others involved), are the reincarnated spirits of those that died in the horrific massacre—including the killer. The film has a great twist ending, a strange scene with a murderous doll, and it is genuinely creepy. This film may seem like another Asian movie about ghosts and vengeful spirits, but it’s more than that. Shimizu’s talent for atmospheric, smart horror films will never be better exemplified than by this film.
4. Hostel Pt. II (2007)
Hostel is not one of my favorite movies. I can appreciate its place in the genre, and I love Eli Roth, but it’s more bloody than scary, and there’s more nudity than actual story. Hostel pt. II, however, is one of the best horror films ever made. It got knocked out at the box office by summer blockbusters (what were they thinking releasing this movie in the summer, anyway?), but it’s better than any summer popcorn flick. Whatever happened to Eli between this and Hostel should happen to every horror director so we get more than just one or two good movies a year. This movie actually has a plot, it’s more stylish than the first, and the ending is something that no other horror movie has had the balls to do. Literally.
5. The Last Horror Movie (2003)
I have a bad habit of renting terrible indie horror movies. The reason I rent them is because of this movie: you never know when you’re going to get one that’s actually good. The Last Horror Movie is one of my favorite films of all time. Directed by Julian Richards (who also made Darklands), this film centers around Max, a serial killer who is creating a video diary of his murders. Sounds a little like Man Bites Dog, doesn’t it? Nope. This movie is a hundred times better. Sounds a little like Behind the Mask, too, doesn’t it? Yes, and that movie’s really good too. But The Last Horror Movie is better than both. When I show this film to people, they always turn to me and ask, “This is just a movie right? This isn’t real, is it?” That tells you something. This movie seems real, it seems like this could actually happen. Part of this is because of Kevin Howarth, a greatly underappreciated actor. (I also recommend Summer Scars, the next film he did with Julian Richards, Cold and Dark, and one of his first films, Razor Blade Smile.) This movie is fast, too realistic, bloody, intriguing, and smart: all the necessary characteristics for a good horror film.
6. Session 9 (2001)
Movies that take place inside abandoned mental hospitals are always creepy. They’re not always good, but at least they’re atmospheric. Of all those movies, Session 9 is the best. Gordon is the leader of an asbestos removal team, who go to the hospital to clear it in one week. Each man has his demons, and so, it seems, does the hospital. One of the team members, Mike, finds a box labeled “evidence” that contains tapes of sessions with a patient named Mary Hobbes, who has dissociative identity disorder. As Mike listens to the sessions, things at the hospital progressively get worse and (almost) everyone on the team meets an untimely end. Eventually, when he reaches session 9, things are beyond all help, and Simon, Mary’s murderous personality, says, as the end credits roll: “I live in the weak and the wounded.” Doesn’t sound too scary, I know, but this movie creeps into your mind, like The Tenant. When I first saw this movie I couldn’t get up to turn off the TV because I was afraid there was someone in the room with me; every little noise made me jump. I still get that way when I see it. It’s the most powerful movie I’ve ever seen.
7. Arachnophobia (1990)
Venezuelan bird spiders, mutant baby spiders, Julian Sands, and John Goodman as the town exterminator. It doesn’t get much better than this. High on laughs and scares, this is one not to miss. Also, make sure to stick around for the credits to hear the movie’s theme, written from the spider’s perspective. No joke.
8. The Ugly (1997)
Did anyone ever rent that horror compilation movie Boogeymen? It’s not very good. My cousin and I spent the summer before our senior year of high school having bad movie marathons. This was one that we picked up just because. We had heard of all of the killers featured in the film except for one: Simon. The scene that followed made us laugh hysterically. Not the reaction you want from a piece that promotes your horror film. But it did make me want to see the movie, and after a year of not being able to find it, I just bought it from Amazon, nearly sight-unseen. Luckily, it wasn’t a waste of my $15. The Ugly is one of the best psychological thrillers I’ve ever seen. It’s also from New Zealand, which makes any movie that much cooler. In context, the scene we watched from Boogeymen is extremely effective. This movie, which focuses on an institutionalized serial killer who is getting a reevaluation by an outside psychiatrist so he can be freed, is simultaneously scary, thrilling, and sad. Everybody should see this film at least once, if for no other reason than Paulo Rotondo is awesome. This film was also hailed as “the most daring debut since Resevoir Dogs,” for what it’s worth.
9. The Tenant (1976)
The last film in Roman Polanski’s “apartment trilogy,” after Repulsion (which I highly recommend) and Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant is a movie that is so brilliant that no one can understand it. Overlooked in favor of Rosemary’s Baby, this movie focuses on a man named Trelkowski (played by Polanski), who rents an apartment in France where the previous tenant, Simone, attempted to commit suicide by throwing herself out of the window and through a pane of glass. Trelkowski goes to visit Simone in the hospital and as soon as she sees him she lets out a god-awful cry and dies. As Trelkowski occupies the apartment he is soon unreasonably chastised by his neighbors and his landlord for hosting a party with his friends, making too much noise, not joining in on a petition against another neighbor, etc. He tries to adapt, but is disturbed by the frequent sight of his neighbors standing and staring blankly in bathroom (which he can see from his own window) and the discovery of a hole in his apartment with a human tooth stashed inside. Things continue to spiral out of control in a web of confusion and hearsay, and before long no one—not the main character or the audience—has any idea what’s real and what’s illusion. This movie gets into your head and makes you, as a viewer, feel like you’re going insane. Any movie with that kind of power is deserved of repeated viewings.
10. Ju-On / Ju-On 2 (2002) / (2003)
As I said earlier, Takashi Shimizu is a genius. These two movies are so scary I can hardly watch them. That little boy is so damn scary… I’ll put it to you this way: our three Grudge movies combined aren’t even half as scary as the first Ju-On alone. And the second one… wow. It has the two scariest scenes I’ve ever seen. You’ll never feel the same way about someone knocking on your wall again.
11. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)
Unfortunately, there aren’t many new ideas in Hollywood. Freddy vs. Jason happened once before, back in ’43, with a little movie called Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. This has been one of my favorite movies since I was a little kid (the Wolf Man has always had a place in my heart). This film is one of the best of the Universal Classic monster movies, but it gets little fanfare. Bela Lugosi plays the Frankenstein monster (which he was originally considered for, but didn’t take because the monster had no lines and was a heavy make-up job), and Lon Chaney Jr. reprises his role as Larry Talbot. This movie is great because it follows Talbot’s story linearly while the storyline of the Frankenstein monster is off-the-wall silly (he’s frozen in ice? Really?). It also gives the Wolf Man an even more human and tragic story: all he wants to do is die. An early precurson to films about assisted suicide? Not likely, but hey, it’s there, and those Universal movies did cover some pretty serious stuff (Freaks, anyone? Or The Black Cat, which is about necrophilia?). Plus, it’s only like 75 minutes long; that’s not even an hour and a half. If you can’t give up that little time for a good movie, then you’re really not a genre fan.
12. Monster Squad (1987)
Forget The Gooies. Yeah, I said it. When it comes to teenaged-comedies from the ‘80s, The Monster Squad blows Sloth away. This movie, directed by Fred Dekker (his second film, after Night of the Creeps), is about a group of kids trying to stop the end of the world. Every century, there is one night where the balance between good and evil is equal, and the two sides must fight for control. There is a magical amulet that controls limbo—purgatory—and these kids, who dub themselves The Monster Squad, have to find this amulet and save the world. Why do they call themselves The Monster Squad, you ask? Because Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon are all here as the forces of darkness (reimagined by legend Stan Winston because Universal wouldn’t release the images to Dekker). Besides laughs and thrills, this movie also features the most badass Dracula ever put to film. He’s cold, calculated, cunning, and evil, pure and simple. What other Dracula has ever had the guts to call a 5 year-old girl a “little bitch?” There’s a reason “The Wolf Man’s got nards!” is to go-to catch phrase for a whole generation of horror fans. Watch this film to find out why.
13. Fearless Vampire Killers; Or, Pardon Me But your Teeth are in My Neck (1967)
Before Shaun of the Dead there was The Fearless Vampire Killers. This movie was so ahead of its time that few people realize its brilliance. Roman Polanski did make some amazing films, and this one is one of his best. It also features one of the last performances by the late Sharon Tate, who does a great job as Sarah, the daughter of the local tavern keeper who presents a tasty treat for our head vampire Count von Krolock. Some of the movie’s funniest moments: Herbert, the gay son of the Count, trying to seduce Polanski’s character Alfred, a Jewish vampire who scoffs when a crucifix is pointed at him (“Boy, have you got the wrong vampire!”), and Alfred doing what most of us would do when confronted with the task of killing a vampire asleep in his coffin—he freaks out. It’s silly, but it’s also frightening, and definitely groundbreaking; this film really did start the modern horror comedy.