After railing against horror films -- or, at least, modern horror films -- in my last post, I think it is important to lend a bit of context as to what I consider "horror". Therefore, after you finish up reading this list, please feel free to visit my previous blog post (link is below).
9. Deathgasm (Jason Lei Howden, 2015)
MY RATING: ★★★★★★★★☆☆
AVAILABLE FOR VIEWING ON NETFLIX (US) | NR | 86 MIN.
Deathgasm is relatively new to the horror scene, having only been officially released two years ago. However, taking some inspiration from Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead, and other horror/comedies, Deathgasm is a surprisingly entertaining, hilarious, and startlingly scary ride.
The story revolves around a group of friends, all of whom are interested in death metal, growing up in a rather boring suburb. In an effort to escape the tedium of their lives, they form a band. While in this band, they accidentally summon an evil entity through some cursed sheet music, and all Hell breaks loose -- quite literally.
The most remarkable thing about Deathgasm is how well it incorporates its music into the narrative. Having gone through a death metal phase myself during high school, I could easily buy these kids as both avid metalheads, and aspiring musicians.
Deathgasm is extremely gory, as well. It's actually surprising how much they get away with (though since the film is not rated, there really isn't any restriction on what they can do). Guts are strewn all over the place, limbs are ripped off, people are decapitated, and much, much more.
It was an official selection at a variety of film festivals across the world, including the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, Sydney Film Festival, New Zealand Film and TV Awards, Fangoria Chainsaw Awards, Fright Meter Awards, and Molins de Rei Horror Film Festival. It was nominated for everything from best film to best effects, and won four awards.
If you are the kind of person who loves a good horror/comedy that doesn't skimp out on the gore, or the laughs, then Deathgasm is definitely worth checking out.
8. The Others (Alejandro Amenábar, 2001)
MY RATING: ★★★★★★★★☆☆
AVAILABLE TO RENT ON AMAZON | PG-13 | 104 MIN.
The Others is the rare exception to PG-13 horror films, and their general poor quality. Starring Nicole Kidman in the leading role, the story follows a mother, Grace Stewart, trying to care for her two photosensitive children while waiting for her husband to return home from World War II. The children cannot be touched by sunlight in any way, or else they will be harmed, so Grace keeps the entire house shrouded in darkness, the only light being oil lamps they carry around the house. As you can imagine, weirdness ensues.
What The Others does so well is slowly, and methodically build tension. It doesn't rely on jump scares, but instead uses its natural narrative atmosphere to its benefit. Enrique Bello shows his immense talents as gaffer, and Javier Aguirresarobe captures everything beautifully with his cinematography. The tension truly is palpable in this film, and Kidman's performance is exquisite.
The narrative itself is also incredibly intriguing with plenty of twists and turns along the way to keep you interested. it never fully reveals its hand until the end of the film, though, which makes it a thoroughly enjoyable experience from beginning to end.
If you like old fashioned ghost stories, atmospheric horror films, and/or Nicole Kidman you will love The Others.
7. The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005)
MY RATING: ★★★★★★★★★☆
AVAILABLE FOR VIEWING ON NETFLIX (US) | R | 99 MIN.
The Descent is essentially two horror films in one. It starts of with one premise, executes it perfectly, and then takes a wild left turn into crazy town. What ensues is violent, terrifying, and wholly engrossing.
The Descent follows a group of women who go on a caving expedition, and end up getting trapped in the cave, and have to fight their way out.
What's more amazing about this film (directed by Neil Marshall, who also directed the episodes "Blackwater" and "The Watchers On the Wall" for Game of Thrones) is how well all of these characters are built up, and how well they are torn apart. All of these women are well written, and their descent into the cave (pun intended) acts both as a catalyst for the horror, and the beginning of a terrifying character analysis.
Don't get me wrong, though, it's not all dialogue. The Descent is a truly messed up film, with plenty of blood to satisfy viewers, and plenty of atmosphere and tension to satiate picky watchers like me. It truly has it all. Best of all, it rarely uses jump scares (the ones that are there don't feel forced, either), and has an incredible location that naturally builds tension.
This film is brutal, terrifying, and sometimes poignant. I highly recommend it.
6. Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968)
MY RATING: ★★★★★★★★★☆
AVAILABLE FOR VIEWING ON AMAZON PRIME | NR | 96 MIN.
This is the zombie movie that began the zombie moving craze (which was continued with the excellent sequel, Dawn of the Dead). The late, great George A. Romero created a film that was extremely scary, and had plenty underneath the surface in terms of social commentary. With an extremely memorable cast of characters, extremely taut direction (this was Romero's debut feature; he had only done one short film beforehand), and gritty cinematography, this film has stood the test of time, and aged well.
Night of the Living Dead follows a group of people who barricade themselves in a remote house after the dead rise, and begin to eat the living.
The effects are great as well. I recommend you watch the black-and-white version, not the colorized version (both are available on Amazon Prime), because the former feels more visceral, and is much scarier. The blood effects are surprisingly memorable, and the lighting is perfectly executed. The narrative itself is powerful, and the ending is one of the most gut-wrenching climaxes in cinematic history.
This is one of the best horror films ever made, and a vital installment in cinematic history. I highly recommend it to everyone -- just remember to watch the black-and-white version.
5. A Nightmare On Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984)
MY RATING: ★★★★★★★★★☆
AVAILABLE FOR VIEWING ON NETFLIX | R | 91 MIN.
A Nightmare On Elm Street is another essential film to see, both in terms of its influence in horror cinema, and because of its importance to the independent market. Wes Craven had directed eight films previous to Freddy's first film, but few of his features have withstood the test of time quite as well as this 1984 classic.
A Nightmare On Elm Street follows Nancy Thomas and her friends as they try to uncover the mystery behind their shared nightmares, and survive Freddy's relentless attempts to kill them.
What Elm Street did so well that few other films were doing at the time was incorporate surrealism into its horror. Not only is the catalyst for the horror brilliant in and of itself -- we all know how visceral, and terrifying, dreams can be --, the surrealist cinematography, the cutting-edge effects, and the relentless pace of the film all add to create an absolutely incredible experience from beginning to end.
Elm Street is still terrifying, too. While it has this underlying atmosphere of very dark comedy (mainly utilized by Freddy's character), the film is very dark, very grisly (especially for the time it was made), and memorable. In fact, few horror films have as many memorable moments, locations, and characters, as this film does.
This is also the film that put New Line Cinema on the map, who became one of the most important distribution companies in American cinema (they are the reason we got Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films). It is an incredible success story for independent filmmakers to aspire to.
A Nightmare On Elm Street is one of those films you need to see. Watch the sequels at your own risk, though.
4. The Orphanage (J.A. Bayona, 2007)
MY RATING: ★★★★★★★★★☆
AVAILABLE FOR VIEWING ON HULU | R | 105 MIN.
The Orphanage is a surprising horror film. On the one hand it is very creepy, with some extremely unsettling imagery, some terrifying moments, and a very unsettling story at its core. However, it is also very poignant, sweet, and oddly uplifting in spots. It's a weird blend of optimistic storytelling and cynical horror. It works, though, and has proved to be one of my favorite films (not just horror films) recently.
The Orphanage is about a woman, Laura, who brings her family back to the orphanage where she grew up. While she is there, her son begins to communicate with an invisible friend. As you can imagine, creepy things ensue.
Everything works well here, from the narrative (which slowly reveals its hand over the course of its 105 minute runtime), to the gorgeous cinematography, to the great sound design, to the exquisite lighting, to the powerful acting. The entire film is placed squarely on Belén Rueda's shoulders, and she consistently delivers throughout the film.
Fans of Guillermo del Toro's films (who is the executive producer of this film) will love The Orphanage, as it delivers his style of dark horror. However, viewers will also be surprised by its optimism, and the narrative as a whole.
3. Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932)
MY RATING: ★★★★★★★★★★
AVAILABLE TO RENT ON AMAZON | NR | 64 MIN.
Freaks is very impressive horror film. Coming off the heels of films like Dracula, Frankenstein, and a wave of German expressionist films like Nosferatu, there was a surprising amount of content out there for those early audiences who wanted to indulge their fear. This film is very unique in that it used actual sideshow performers as part of its cast. Everyone, and everything, you see in the film is real -- no effects, and very little makeup.
Freaks follows a group of sideshow performers who discover that a trapeze artist, who has agreed to marry their leader, is only doing so for the sizable inheritance she will receive from doing so. Hijinks ensue.
This film begins as you would expect. There's a lot of flowery dialogue, some basic plot developments, and continued tension throughout the film. However, it's not until the final twenty minutes that the film really becomes terrifying, and truly scary. The amateur cast does incredibly well, the cinematography is great, and the lighting is beautiful.
Freaks also has the distinction of still technically being illegal to show in a few US states. Back when it was first released, so many people were shocked by its content that a number of US states made it illegal for anyone to show it. While those laws are not enforced anymore, they are still technically on the books.
This is an important part of cinematic history, and I highly recommend that everyone watches it.
2. Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)
MY RATING: ★★★★★★★★★★
AVAILABLE TO RENT ON AMAZON PRIME | R | 91 MIN.
John Carpenter, like Wes Craven, is the perfect role model for young, independent filmmakers to aspire to. Carpenter had already made two features (Dark Star and Assault on Precinct 13) when he created one of the scariest films, and one of the most enduring horror movie villains, of all time. Made on a budget of $300,000, Halloween proved yet again that you just need ingenuity, determination, dedication, and a great idea to make a film successful. Halloween ended up grossing $47 million in the US.
Halloween is about a psychotic killer, Michael Myers, who returns to the small town of Haddonfield after fifteen years, while his psychiatrist, Dr. Loomis, pursues him.
Halloween sports the grungy, gritty cinematography we see in films like A Nightmare On Elm Street, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Night of the Living Dead. Carpenter creates a brooding atmosphere with this imagery, and its sound design (partly engineered by Carpenter himself). Jamie Lee Curtis is perfect as Laurie, and there are a ton of memorable, and terrifying, moments throughout this film's lean runtime.
Carpenter's Halloween is the perfect starting place for someone interesting in getting into horror, or for those who are interested in specific, genre-defining installments. It's also just an incredibly structured film, and essential viewing for all movie-lovers.
1. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920)
MY RATING: ★★★★★★★★★★
AVAILABLE FOR VIEWING ON AMAZON PRIME | NR | 67 MIN.
This is one of the grandfathers of modern horror. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was one of the first German expressionist films, and it was also one of the first horror films ever made. With its distinct production design, its revolutionary cinematography, and its twisting narrative all contribute to what is an incredible overall film. Even if you don't like silent films, I implore you to watch this one.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is about a hypnotist, Dr. Caligari, who uses a somnambulist to commit murders throughout a town.
There are a ton of features which make this film an important installment in cinematic history, but it also proves to be quite entertaining. With a short runtime, taut direction, and revolutionary lighting, cinematography, and production design, this is definitely my favorite horror film of all time.