Next year will be the 120th anniversary of the first horror movie, and the genre has gone through many eras during this time. The popularity of classic Universal monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolfman) soared from 1900 to the 1930s, then the atomic years in the ‘50s gave us Godzilla and a host of other irradiated creatures to fear. The late ‘70s and the ‘80s saw the rise of the slashers with Michael, Freddy and Jason stalking us in our nightmares. Then there are zombie films that come and go with the rise and fall of our economy. When times are hard, we love movies about people facing the insurmountable horde, with only those that fight the hardest surviving to the end. We all want to believe we have what it takes to be those people. If we could survive that, then of course we will make it through a hard economic period. With Stephen King’s IT dominating the box office, the success of Annabelle: Creation earlier this year, and the anticipation of a new entry into the Saw franchise, I thought I would compile a list of my favorite horror movies. They will be in no particular order, because to me, they are all great for different reasons.
Virginia Madsen plays skeptical graduate student Helen Lyle who befriends Anne-Marie McCoy (Vanessa Williams) while researching superstitions in a housing project on Chicago's northside. It is Anne-Marie that introduces Helen to the legend of the Candyman (an iconic portrayal by Tony Todd), a hook-wielding figure of urban legend, that some of Ann-Marie’s neighbors believe to be responsible for a recent murder. After testing the legend for herself, a mysterious man matching the Candyman's description begins stalking Helen, and she fears that the legend may be all too real.
While 1992’s Candyman may not be on the same technical level as some of the other films on my list, it is flat out the scariest movie I have ever seen. I saw this movie when I was eight or nine years old, which my wife tells me was way too young, but at that point I had been watching all the famous slashers for years. However, there was just something about Candyman; maybe it was that fact that he could come into your home. You didn’t have to travel to Ohio, Illinois or New Jersey. All you had to do to be a victim was look in the mirror and say his name five times – an act I was encouraged to do by my older brother. I dare myself to watch part of it whenever I see it on tv and it still always creeps me out. I managed to make it through the sequels, and while Tony Todd continues to give a good performance, those films don’t hit me with the same level of unease as the original.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors from 1987 is the third and best installment in the Nightmare on Elm Street series, which now stands at nine movies. It was written by original creator Wes Craven and stars Heather Langenkamp, Patricia Arquette, Larry Fishburne, and Robert Englund. With the return of Craven and Langenkamp, we finally get the answer to the mildly ambiguous ending of the first film and forget that the events of the second movie ever happened. The plot focuses on Freddy terrorizing a group of kids living at a mental hospital. What Freddy does not know is that the only person to ever survive, Nancy, is also there – and she is training the patients to control their dreams, developing powers in order to fight back against the undead killer.
This is my favorite of the slasher genre because Freddy has always been my favorite of “the big three,” and this is his best film. This is the one that best balances the mix of menacing and humorous; it has gruesome deaths and some jokes. Later films leaned too heavily on the jokes, even during the kills. In Freddy’s Dead, he killed someone with his version of a Nintendo power glove. Dream Warriors featured some of Freddy’s most memorable kills, including turning one teen into a marionette. If they ever do another remake of Nightmare on Elm Street, I hope they start with this premise and lose most of the jokes. I would want it to be a really terrifying Freddy with a group struggling to find a way to fight back and become the dream warriors.
In 1982 John Carpenter released a remake of the 1951 The Thing from Another World (which in turn was based on the novella Who Goes There?), a remake so good, most of the world has forgotten the original. In remote Antarctica, a group of American research scientists have their world turned upside down when an escaping sled dog from a Norwegian research center finds their camp. Now a resourceful helicopter pilot (Kurt Russell) and the camp doctor (Richard Dysart) must lead the crew in a desperate, gory battle against a vicious creature, before it picks them all off, one by one.
This film is made memorable by its amazing practical effects and the tension brought on by mistrust and isolation. The original film was spurred on by the current red scare that was sweeping the country. Just like in the ‘40s and ‘50s, in this film you are never sure who is on your side. It could be your boss or someone you considered a friend that will end the world as you know it. Some people may not want to go back and watch a movie that is almost 40 years old because they prefer the look of modern movies, but I would encourage them to seek out this film and see what the real artists of the time were capable of. I can guarantee that there are images that will stick with you for a long, long time. Once you watch this movie, you and other fans can have hours of conversation about who, when, how and what will happen next.
In deep space, the crew of the commercial starship Nostromo is awakened from their cryo-sleep halfway through their journey home to investigate a distress call from an alien vessel. The terror begins when the crew encounters a nest of eggs inside the alien ship. An organism from inside an egg leaps out and attaches itself to one of the crew, causing him to fall into a coma, and they soon realize that its life cycle has merely begun. Alien stars Sigourney Weaver in her iconic role as Ripley and Tom Skerritt as Dallas, the ship’s captain.
It almost feels like the writers of Alien watched the movie Jaws and thought to themselves, “What could make this even worse? Instead of a man-eating shark that you can avoid by going to a pool, you are trapped in space, years from earth, facing off with a creature that makes a great white feel as dangerous as a guppy.” Like Jaws, we don’t always see a lot of the creature, but when we do, it makes an impact and it has been iconic for nearly 40 years. Lots of tension, gore and a realistic, lived-in futuristic world make this the greatest sci-fi horror ever made. It was followed up with what may be the greatest sci-fi horror/action movie when James Cameron directed Aliens. A few years ago, I got to see this in theaters for its 35th anniversary, and yes, it was cleaned up some, but it still looked great. Its effects held up better on the big screen than something like Ghostbusters, which came out five years later. Whether you watch this at home or on the big screen, do it in the dark with the volume up and try not to get too scared.
Now that Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and his girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), have reached the “meet-the-parents” milestone, she invites him for a weekend getaway upstate. Chris initially reads the family's overly accommodating behavior as nervous attempts to deal with their daughter's first interracial relationship, but increasingly disturbing discoveries lead him to a truth that he never could have imagined.
The newest film on this list should go down as a modern classic, and I think it will in some sections of our society. Unfortunately, because it deals with race relations, I know people who refuse to watch it simply because the whole topic makes them uncomfortable…which is the point. You should be uncomfortable as you recognize the fear and mistreatment that so many people experience and how people partake in subtle racism, even with the best intentions. Get Out may not terrify you, but it will leave you hoping that Chris isn’t as alone as he feels, and that his trip to meet Rose’s parents won’t be his last trip anywhere. Another great aspect of this film is Rod, the films comedic element. He does an amazing job of easing back on the tension so the next time we go back to Chris, the director can ratchet it up even higher. It is a movie everyone should watch, especially if you are a fan of suspense and horror.
That’s five films, but we’re not done yet. I feel the need to discuss my favorite horror comedy and a horror legend, whose making-of story I find more interesting than the movie itself.
Allison and her friends are taking a break from school to go camping when they are confronted by a couple of hillbillies who may have been responsible for the Memorial Day Massacre. Easy-going hillbillies Tucker and Dale are on vacation to fix up their new but dilapidated cabin in the woods, when their lives are made increasingly more difficult by a group of preppy college students. After several accidental and intentional deaths, the true face of evil is revealed. Starring a couple of cult favorites in Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine, this movie was bound to be funny. Adding in the director of Zombieland made it hilarious.
I could have picked something like Shaun of The Dead, but that movie can stand on its own as a horror movie with some comedy, whereas this movie exists to be a comedy with horror elements. I’ve made everyone I know that hasn’t seen this movie watch it, because it is great. The humor is referential and borders on slapstick at times. That means it won’t be for everyone, but I think everyone should give it a try, if for no other reason than to encourage the creators to get to work on the long in development sequel. The deaths are entertaining and the characters are surprisingly deep, making the movie a satisfying watch on multiple levels. Don’t just take my word for it, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil has an 84% on Rotten Tomatoes and rated 3 out of 4 by Roger Ebert.
Supposed “found video footage” tells the story of what happened during the final days of three film students (Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, Michael C. Williams) who've traveled to a small town in Maryland to collect documentary footage about the Blair Witch, a legendary local murderer. Over the course of several days, the students interview townspeople and gather clues in support of the urban legend, but the project takes a frightening turn when the students lose their way in the woods.
Responsible for the explosion of shaky, point-of-view, found-footage horror movies, The Blair Witch Project will always have a place in the horror hall of fame. However, the story surrounding the making and marketing of the movie is more fascinating than the actual movie. The viral marketing, the websites and the insistence that this was actual footage found in the woods and edited but unaltered led to a true phenomenon. It also led to a lot of hatred, when the world at large caught up to the fact that it was just a traditional film and not actually proof of a ghost nor chronicling the very real death of three college students. People felt mislead and their anger over that left a foul taste in their mouth that has followed the series, as it produced a sequel and a reboot 17 years later.
My favorite story about the making of the film is how the directors cast the film and then treated those actors. The three actors had never been in a movie before. They were all found working in improv. There wasn’t really a script for them to memorize. The directors had a story outline and would update each actor every morning on the type of things he or she should do that day. The details were left up to the cast. This process wasn’t done by formal meetings before shooting began for the day, however. Each actor would receive a package with their day’s food and notes. The directors slowly decreased the amount of food they were providing so the cast would be hungry and on edge and they wouldn’t have to worry about working that into their performance. So, if you decide to seek out The Blair Witch Project, I suggest watching it once through to experience the film for what it is and then again with the commentary to hear more about the creativity of the cast and directors.
Well there it is, my top 5(ish) horror movies. I’m sure you agree with some and not with others. Share your list in the comments and we can discuss what you think should have been included, or ones you think could have been knocked off the list.