When it comes to genre films, nothing beats a good horror movie. Full of sex, blood, and plenty of other characteristics that make these flicks fantastic in the way that only something so widely reviled by protective parents and pro-censorship politicians everywhere can be, horror films are also often a vehicle for social commentary and scathing satire. In a tribute to the genre that taught us valuable lessons like: “only virgins are capable of outsmarting crazed killers,” “nobody dies after the first time you kill them” and – most importantly – “one movie is never enough,” we here at the editorial staff of Artsweek have taken time out of our Halloween preparations to compile a list of our top 10 favorite freaky flicks. We hope you enjoy these recommendations and always remember that when All Hallow’s Eve comes around, your best bet is to stay safe, party smart and remember, “kill the brain and you kill the ghoul.”
OK, so Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead” films aren’t the scariest stuff out there – in fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone for whom the low-budget effects and over-the-top acting inspired any fear at all. However, these films about the battle between good and evil hold the #10 spot on my list because they are truly the best of the best when it comes to bad B-movies. From their self-consciously cheesy effects to their campy take on all that is considered sacred in scary movies, the “Evil Dead” films are a precursor to the satirical, self-deprecating films like “Scream” and “Shaun of the Dead” which are so popular today. Plus, nobody knows how to juggle simultaneous skeleton slaying and quip delivering quite like Bruce Campbell.
The #9 movie on my list is a classic film that plays on the fears of anyone who has ever tried to get between a seagull and a leftover lunch at the beach. That’s right, #9 is Alfred Hitchcock’s avian action-flick, “The Birds,” in which the titular creatures unite to terrorize San Francisco and, specifically, a certain blonde bombshell named Tippi Hedren. The film is full of trademark Hitchcockian moments and enough spectacularly scary shots of the wicked winged creatures to keep you hiding from every pigeon, parrot, crow and cockatiel you see for years to come.
In recent years, Japanese horror films have become the go-to source material for any American studio looking for a frightening flick to bring in the bucks. Of the many films that have recently been remade for American audiences, one of the most terrifying and haunting is “Ju-on,” which was recently released in the U.S. as “The Grudge.” Unlike its American counterpart, the Japanese version of this film, which holds the #8 spot on my list, features a tortuously slow build-up to a barrage of grippingly jarring and terrifying images that will stay with you long after you finish the film – making this movie about a house cursed by the consequences of a man’s murderous rage a true contemporary horror classic.
Speaking of classics, #7 spot on my list is occupied by a true classic – a film made before the advent of color and computer-generated effects that is still more frightening than most modern-day box-office fare. The film I’m talking about is, of course, Browning’s “Freaks,” a film featuring a bevy of actual circus freaks playing a group of angry circus freaks who decide to wreak revenge on the “normal” people – especially one particularly beautiful starlet – who shun them. The film features a classic shot of the freaks – literally armed to the teeth – crawling through the mud and rain to teach the gorgeous girl a gory lesson. Taking its after-school-special moral about accepting other people’s differences to the most frightening and viscerally-affecting extreme, “Freaks” is one horror classic that proves real people can be just as scary as goblins and ghouls – if not more so.
You might know David Cronenberg as the guy who directed the Jeff Goldblum gross-out flick “The Fly,” but he is also the man responsible for my #6 favorite freaky film, “Shivers.” A movie about a parasite that turns people into sex-crazed zombies and, conveniently, spreads through sexual contact, “Shivers” is a perfect allegory for contemporary fears about STDs, even though it was made over two decades ago. It’s also an incredibly viscerally scary film with plenty of sex, suspense and sweet zombie action to satisfy any horror film fan, as well as many early hallmarks of what would eventually become Cronenberg’s trademark so-gross-you-can’t-look-away-even-though-you-really-really-want-to style.
The fifth film on my list is another modern-day classic that deals with the walking dead – the brilliant British import, “28 Days Later.” This film, about a rage virus that turns almost all of England into pissed-off, flesh-eating zombies is a stylized and stylish flick that proves that scary movies can be beautifully done, too. With a fast-paced aesthetic and a whole lot of social commentary woven into the many, many action sequences, “28 Days Later” is one of my favorite films – scary or otherwise – of the last decade.
Heeere’s Johnny – right here at the #4 spot on my list. That’s right, Stanley Kubrick’s iconic horror masterpiece, “The Shining” is one of the best scary movies of all time. Combining a chilling ghost story, a mesmerizing tale of a man’s descent into madness and two incredibly creepy twin girls, “The Shining” shuns special effects in favor of crafting a thoroughly haunting horror film that relies almost exclusively on the actions and reactions of its actors and the stunning visual power of its director to truly terrify the audience.
The #3 spot on the list goes to another film where special effects take a back seat to good old-fashioned acting and directing – M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense.” This film, which features a killer cast – including Bruce Willis proving he can actually act – and one hell of a plot twist at the end is one ghost story that will stay with you for years to come. With a truly affecting combination of drawn-out suspense and jarringly frightening moments, as well as one scene featuring a young Mischa Barton that is sure to make your stomach turn, “The Sixth Sense” is a movie that will make you think and scare the crap out of you – possibly literally – at the same time.
Number two is a classic film that is often found in the top spot on many critics’ top-horror-movie lists – the Hitchcock thriller “Psycho.” With its iconic shower scene and its truly frightening psychological undertones, “Psycho” is a film guaranteed to simultaneously glue you to your seat and scare your pants off. Favoring the slow, suspenseful buildup to a mind-blowing conclusion that is his trademark, Hitchcock’s most famous film represents the master director at the top of his game and proves that nothing is scarier than a mama’s boy with a knife.
The top spot on my list goes to a classic horror film that features zombies, hicks and enough scathing social commentary to scare any conservative politician. I am, of course, talking about the movie that set the standard for many modern-day horror films and showed the world that all a horror movie needs to be truly great is a master director and a mesmerizing story – George A. Romero’s “Night of The Living Dead.” This flick, which revolutionized the genre, draws you in from its first shot and keeps you fully enthralled until the killer – pun intended – ending. Despite its low-budget origins, the film is as frightening – if not more so – than its better-funded counterparts, particularly because it proves once and for all that flesh-eating zombies might be scary, but the things people will do to each other out of hate and intolerance are even more frightening. Ultimately, “Night of the Living Dead” is my #1 film because it is truly frightening, deeply moving and utterly disgusting – the perfect combination of characteristics that guarantee that this film will scare you and stick with you for years after the first time you see it.
Kicking off the list is a film that, although released only this year, has clawed its way onto this list. “The Descent,” which chronicles the grim fate of a group of female cave spelunkers, is the true stuff of nightmares. The film is a slow burner, agonizing enough in its tight, breathless, damp cave crawling sequences. But when things go bad, they really go bad – in a way that makes suffocating a mile underground in a rockslide look like a preferable way to die. The best part? It’s being screened this Friday at Isla Vista Theater. If you’ve got cojones and four dollars, don’t miss it.
Normally remakes are something to be cautioned about: the soulless minions of corporate ghouls birthed to feed on our amnesiac psyches. But there are rare instances where remakes take something underutilized and make it so much more… awesome. Number nine, the 1988 remake of “The Blob,” makes the original film look like a spot of bread mold. Sure the acting sucks, and its hard to care about about which slack-jawed Louisiana hick dies next (will it be Matt Dillon’s mullet-sporting younger brother? Or the sinister Morgan Freeman look-alike?) but the special effects are gut wrenching: men, women and children are killed in the dozens, each inventively (and juicily) absorbed and dissolved by the Blob. It’s one of the most vomit-inducing and manicly ridiculous films ever, earning a permanent spot in any late-night movie list.
Speaking of remakes, there are many instances when a Hollywood remake, especially one with Nicolas Cage, can destroy the memory of a great film. My #8 pick, “The Wicker Man,” is one such film. Long before its corpse was stolen for a Hollywood remake, there was a very special and very strange little British film from the ’70s that fascinated the few who saw it. A stodgy Christian detective, following the trail of a sinister missing child case, finds himself on Summerisle, a strange little commune where cookies are shaped like dead virgins, children are instructed in bizarre fertility cult rituals and horny innkeeper’s daughters get nude song and dance numbers as they attempt to seduce said Puritan detective. And it’s ruled over by that zany Christopher Lee – in drag! “The Wicker Man,” down to the amazing set piece at the end, is a true mind-boggler and a must-see for any connoisseur of the strange.
Number seven is a film that needs no introduction: “Shaun of the Dead.” Featuring the blokes who brought you “The Office,” this horror-comedy masterpiece skewers everything great about the recent glut of zombie movies. Not only is this film uproariously funny, but it’s also got an emotional heart and more than “a spot of red.” Juggling belly laughs, scares and belly disembowelment, “Shaun of the Dead” is a model of satirical filmmaking.
Horror-comedy is fun, but there are times when you need to be truly revolted, when characters need troubled minds and not just spurting limbs. Enter #6: David Cronenberg’s “The Fly.” Yet another ’80s remake, “The Fly” follows brainy Jeff Goldblum as he invents something to revolutionize the world: the first working teleporter. Not only does he have the teleporter, but he’s shagging Geena Davis. Things are on the up. But when Goldblum accidentally scrambles his DNA with a housefly’s, the results are exhilarating, and then revolting. Although easily one of the grossest films ever (as Goldblum’s teeth, hair and fingers start peeling off, he saves the lost body parts in a medicine cabinet museum) what really twists stomachs into knots is the emotional conflict. These characters are very real, and when a real dilemma arises (Geena Davis has to decide whether or not to have an abortion for a possibly deformed child) the results are even more disconcerting than the acidic vomit.
Number five is a movie that has so pervaded pop consciousness that it’s not even often considered a horror film. For our generation, raised on “Alien” toys, videogames and key chains, it’s easy to forget just how terrifying Ridley Scott’s “Alien” is. Perhaps the most atmospheric movie, well, ever, the sense of isolation and dread that pervades every long tracking shot of a dark spaceship is just as horrifying as the scuttling, gut-busting phallic monster that stalks them. Anyone who’s forgotten just how scary this movie is need only watch John Hurt’s demise in the infamous dinner scene to be reminded of what fear is.
All of these films play on fear, but #4 is the only one to use it as a weapon. Wes Craven’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street” took fear in a whole new direction. Sure, Freddy Krueger wears a goofy sweater, but what’s goofy about a burn-victim/child molester who slashes up children in their dreams? With enough trippy and frightening imagery to scare Dal