I’ve been a horror fan for a long time. I was introduced to the genre one Halloween night when my parents let my brother and I watch a Stephen King adaptation calledSilver Bullet. After that, horror was my genre of choice. First it was the Universal classics and anything my parents deemed scary, but tame enough. Hammer was about as edgy as I was allowed to see, but as a teenager that all changed. I got into slasher films like Friday the 13th and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Using the internet, I hunted down what was considered the essentials of the genre. Local outfit Exhumed Films also increased my exposure to a lot of interesting, and sometimes über-obscure, films.
I haven’t seen everything. In fact, I am always on the lookout for stuff I’ve missed over the years, or new movies that show promise. I write a semi-regular column at Biff Bam Pop called Lucas Mangum’s Hidden Horror Gems, where I highlight what I think are quality, lesser known horror films. I write horror stories and am currently at work on my first novel.
I’ve been a horror fan a long time and I don’t see that stopping anytime in the near future.
The list below is a group of films that may not necessarily be of the highest quality and some aren’t even scary, but they’re movies that are special to me and I recommend them to anyone who is open to exploring the genre but may not know where to start (I’m looking at you, Jill). These are, of course, in no particular order.
Read part 1 here.
11. Return of the Living Dead (1985) – This offbeat offshoot of the classic Night of the Living Dead is, in this blogger’s opinion, everything a cult film should be. Full of iconic lines and images, writer/director Dan O’Bannon (yes, the guy who helped bring us Alien) crafts an E.C. Comics-worthy take on the zombie apocalypse. The film immediately alerts the viewer that the rules are different in the world of Freddie, Frank, Trash, Suicide, Burt, and Ernie, by referring to Romero’s classic as based on a true story and rendering the tried and true zombie killing methods ineffective. In this film the dead don’t stop. Because of this little detail, what we’re left with is a film that is laden with a sense of doom in spite of often cartoonish zombie action and lines delivered with a mouthful of cheese. I love, love, love this film.
12. ReAnimator (1985) – While in the spirit of more offbeat horror films, one has to mention the Stuart Gordon-helmed blackly comic H.P. Lovecraft adaptation. Jeffery Combs nails it as the obsessive, mad scientist in training, Herbert West. The film never really reveals why he’s so determined to overcome death, but he delivers his performance with such conviction, additional exposition is hardly necessary. This is the type of film that can be watched over and over without losing its effect. It’s as likely to make you laugh out loud as it is to turn your stomach. It also contains what is probably the only scene of cunninglingus by a decapitated head.
13. Basket Case (1982) – This weird, 1980s entry from infamous director Frank Henenlotter introduces someone who I think is an underappreciated horror icon: Belial, the deformed Siamese twin who seeks revenge against the doctors who separated him from his much less deformed brother. Shot in New York, back when the city was a scary place, the film has a scummy sheen over each frame that adds to the atmosphere. Sleazy, bizarre, and full of dark humor, there isn’t another movie like it. While Henenlotter perfected his craft with Brain Damage and the excellent Frankenhooker, this film holds a special place for introducing the world to his strange, lovable body of work.
14. Freddy vs. Jason (2003) – Horror fans waited ten years after the ending of Jason Goes to Hell for the two slashers to meet in a bloody battle royale and the result was a film that eclipses most entries in each respective series because it understands what it is. Like the Abbott and Costello entries from generations before, this is full of self-aware dialogue and nearly cartoonish horror action. Wisely choosing to be more a Nightmare on Elm Street film than a Friday the 13th film (that series always had the meatier films), it starts with Freddy using Jason as a vessel to escape Hell and ends with a wild throwdown between the two characters. A sense of fun prevails over the whole thing and the filmmakers never take it too seriously. Alien vs. Predator should’ve taken the same cue.
15. The Devil’s Rejects (2005) – Rob Zombie is a pretty divisive filmmaker. There are viewers that swear by everything the man does and there are others who are less impressed with his work. Even his detractors, however, will be hard-pressed to find much to gripe about in his sophmore effort, The Devil’s Rejects. In it, he took the characters introduced in the campy, colorful House of 1000 Corpses and gave them a gritty, crime drama facelift. Full of moral ambiguity, sobering violence, and intense performances, the film achieves a depth that Zombie has yet to display in any of his other artistic endeavors.
16. Dead Alive (1992) People outside the horror genre may not know it, but there was a time when Peter Jackson was in the top tier of horror directors. His output reached its zenith with Dead Alive, which despite its reputation as being the goriest film ever made, the film succeeds on levels far more satisfying than its gross-out factor. First off, it’s completely insane. There’s a priest who does kung fu to ward off zombies while declaring “I kick ass for the Lord!” Two zombies have sex and birth a zombie baby, which leads to a hilarious scene in which the protagonist attempts to take the undead infant to the park. There’s a random interaction with a Nazi veternarian. The finale which sees a lawnmower used as a weapon to dispose of the zombies is unforgettable. Most of Jackson’s horror output is excellent (except for The Frighteners which is merely good), but Dead Alive has the most memorable moments and a great story that carries them.
17. The Reflecting Skin (1990) – I’m a huge fan of films that aren’t exactly horror but are too weird and dark to be considered anything else. The greatest of these is Philip Ridley’s meditation on death and the loss of innocence. Beginning with a group of kids who blow up a frog as part of a cruel, but innocently intended, prank, the film only gets more bizarre and twisted as it goes on. What makes it so interesting is that most of these events are filtered through the protagonist’s innocent worldview. A deep, unsettling film.
18. Possession (1981) – Though I never viewed Andrzej Zulawski’s grueling depiction of a marriage gone horribly wrong until fairly recently, Possession shot its way to the top of my list rather quickly. Frenetic from early on, the film unfolds as a psychodrama. Once “the creature” shows up, the viewer is left at a loss. It is through repeated viewings and analysis where the film’s true complexities reveal themselves. Even over thirty years later, Zulawski’s surreal film carries emotional weight that is sure to deeply affect anyone who dares experience it.
19. Suspiria (1977)- Dario Argento has done a lot for the horror genre. Like Carpenter and Cronenberg on Part 1 of this list, I feel sort of wrong just including one of his films on here, however because I want to leave room for other directors that I feel deserve attention, I’m sticking with the no repeats rule. While he’s done a lot of great work, none of his films have quite the widespread influence or vivid imagery that made Suspiria famous. From the opening double murder to the fairy tale-worthy sets to Goblin’s ever-present, haunting score, Suspiria is a classic in every sense of the word. I remember renting this from Blockbuster after being intrigued with a quote from the screenplay (“Bad luck isn’t caused by broken mirrors, but by broken minds.”) and watching it all alone in my room with the lights off. It was a truly immersive experience to which many other viewers can undoubtedly relate. At last year’s Exhumed Films Horrorthon, I was fortunate enough to see the film again, this time on the big screen. Judging by the audience’s response and my own visceral experience, the film has lost none of its impact.
20. The Beyond (1981) – For this slot, choosing between this and Fulci’s other masterpiece Zombie came with great difficulty. Both are brilliantly shot, oppressively atmosheric and pulpy in all the best ways, but ultimately, at least for me, The Beyond‘s superantural, Lovecraftian overtones and surreal narrative win out. Fulci tried other times to utilize the gags and storytelling style that made this one so good, but with far less success. For The Beyond, the stars were right, one might say. Part of its charm is that for many years, it was unwatchable in its intended form. United States audiences were forced to settle with the severely edited Seven Doors of Death. Luckily for future audiences, The Beyond is now available in all its lurid, uncut, gloomy glory.
21. Trick ‘r Treat (2007) – The anthology film has been a staple of the horror genre for many years. From Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath and the Stephen King/George Romero joint venture, Creepshow, to the recent V/H/Sand the excellent Theatre Bizarre, it’s been demonstrated that horror works really well in small bits. What makesTrick ‘r Treat stand out is that it follows the Pulp Fiction method, where all the vignettes tie together and form an overarching narrative. While it’s been done before and since, it’s never been done so effectively. Along with its strong stories, the film also creates a new genre icon in the mischievous Sam Hain. Director Michael Dougherty’s perpetually interesting celebration of the genre and the Halloween holiday had a bear of a time getting released, but thankfully it’s developed a well-deserved cult following in years since.