Today’s the day! Thirteen days before Halloween to squeeze every last drop out of the holiday until next year. This is Aly and I’s favorite time of the year and often (let’s be honest: whenever there is time) we try to watch a few horror movies during the month of October. Thankfully, I fell in love with a girl that shares my interest in the genre and, even when I’m not around, she often marathons the Netflix horror queue. Seriously. Did anyone peg Aly as a horror movie buff? I sure didn’t!
Even though Aly is a fan of the genre, I cannot tell you how many conversations we have which start with, “Have you seen this movie?” followed with, “I haven’t heard of it,” followed by a fifteen minute rant where I try to convince her that we need to drop everything we are doing and remedy the tragedy of never having watched it. Aly grew up in a small town with tons of things to do outside where I grew up glued to my television set in suburbia begging my parents to take me to the video store so I could rent some new flicks. In fact, my parents shared the same passion and even kept me home from school one day to power through the 361 minute run time of the 1994 miniseries of The Stand. Mom, dad, if you are reading this, thank you.
Now before I launch into my list of suggestions, I have to confess that my interest in movies in the last four or five years has tapered off considerably. I’ve spent sleepless nights trying to figure out why I’ve moved so far away from the interest and often only come up with the fact that it has merely been put on hold while I allow my other interests to consume me like film once did (video games and beer seem to be that all-consuming interest these days). I feel it necessary to mention this in case anyone takes note that there are very few films on this list that have been released in the current decade. It doesn’t mean I completely discount anything that is of the modern-school of horror; it simply means that I don’t devote the time I once did to watch movies as often as I used to.
Also, one last note! I had originally planned to do all 13 movies in this one post, but have since decided that its probably best to split the post in two. Check back later this week for 13 Horror Movies You Must Watch Before Halloween Part II!
So let’s talk shlock!
Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
I had decided right from the start that I had to include one horror musical . It was a toss up between Cannibal! The Musical, The Wicker Man (1973), or The Rocky Horror Picture Show but I ultimately sided with Little Shop of Horrors over the other three for one glaring reason: it may be my favorite musical, ever. Directed by Frank Oz (the man who brought Yoda to life), this film adaptation of the off-Broadway musical comedy of the same name tells the story of Seymour Krelborn, a nerdy, down-on-his-luck florist, who finds a plant from outer space that is sentient, crude, and has a taste for human blood. What happens next is filled with psychopathic dentists, plots of planetary domination, true love, and one of the most amazing soundtracks ever made.
The film stars the often overlooked and always amazing Rick Moranis as Mr. Krelborn and has an impressive cast of supporting stars that include Steve Martin, Bill Murray, Jim Belushi, John Candy, and Christopher Guest. The Jim Henson Company did the creature work for Audrey II, the murderous plant who uses Krelborn to provide him his victims, and, even though this movie came out in 1986, the effects on Audrey II still look amazing.
Tying the absurd plot together are great musical numbers that will have you singing along long after you’ve watched this for the first time or, in my case, the sixtieth time. Of particular note is the Steve Martin led “Dentist Song”, the duet between Moranis and his co-star, Ellen Greene, on “Suddenly Seymour”, and, of course, “Skid Row (Downtown)” performed by almost the entire cast of regular characters. Helping the film’s plot move along, the film is often narrated by a trio of mysterious doo-wop singers that often provide backing vocals for songs lead by members of the film’s cast.
This movie is incredibly important to me. Years ago, my mom and dad would take us to the video store to pick out movies to rent. Whenever my brother and me couldn’t find something new to watch, we would often default our decision to Little Shop of Horrors. Once my little brother and sister entered the picture, we forced them to share our mutual enjoyment of the movie and we would often break moments of silence to triumphantly sing a verse from the movie, much to my parents dismay.
After years of having not seen the film, I recently watched it and remembered that Frank Oz had originally intended the movie to have a much darker ending. For those that haven’t seen it (and you totally should), please skip the video I provided below that includes this ending. For those that have seen the movie and haven’t seen the original deleted ending, hold onto your butts. It’s a bit of a doozy.
Dead Alive (1993)
Directed by Peter Jackson, the filmmaker who brought the Lord of The Rings saga to life, Dead Alive, also known as Braindead in every other country outside of the United States, is quite frankly the single best horror comedy ever made. This isn’t an opinion. This is actual fact. I dare you to challenge me.
On a more serious note, many people don’t know that the New Zealand director got his start doing not the huge big budget Hollywood productions he is know for now, but small, ridiculously over-the-top, campy, hilarious, and unbelievably gory horror movies. And the best part about this fact is that they are all so, so, so good. I could spend this entire blog post writing about how Jackson’s first few movies are among the finest horror movies I’ve ever seen but, instead, I’ll just encourage you all to watch the trailer for Meet The Feebles and tell me why I’m wrong.
Dead Alive is set in a small town in New Zealand where a young man named Lionel Cosgrove, plagued with a Norman Bates type obsession with his mother, begins to fall in love with the foreign neighbor who moved in down the street. Their first date is at the local zoo and involves his obsessive mother tracking his every movement only to be bitten by a rare, plague-infected, hairless rat-monkey. Shortly after the bite, his mother falls ill, dies, and comes back to life as the living dead and starts infecting the entire small town while Lionel tries to keep it all a secret from everyone he knows. This includes keeping all of the zombies his mother infects alive and cared for in his home which has hilarious consequences. This film has everything you could ever want in a horror flick. Ass-kicking preacher who utters the line “I kick ass for the lord”? Check. Lawn mower strapped hero mowing down a house party filled with zombies? Check. Zombie hairless rat-monkey? Check. At least 500 gallons of blood and pus used through the film? Check. Zombie baby? Check.
Seriously. Quit reading this blog and go watch it. It may be streaming in full over on YouTube. As a warning, I wanted to mention that it was incredibly difficult to find screenshots from this movie that were appropriate for the blog. This movie is pretty gory and gross which is also kind of my thing.
The Descent (2005)
Directed by Neil Marshall of cult-horror Dog Soldiers fame, The Descent is a British horror movie that happens to be one of my favorite horror movies to be released in the last decade. Starring a cast comprised of almost only women, taking place in the most horrific of settings, and having a multi-faceted horror approach, the film felt like such a breath of fresh air when I first saw it ten years ago. The film’s premise is simple. Following the loss of her husband and daughter in a freak accident, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), the one who befell such tragedy, and a group of her friends decide to go spelunking in order to get back into the habit of their extreme sports obsessions and to fix the distance formed between the group and her. Juno (Natalie Mendoza), the former best friend of Sarah, leads the expedition and reveals to the group that she has lead them down an uncharted series of caves in an effort to make this trip more exciting. What follows is a dark, claustrophobic experience that’s filled with tension between the group that is even more complicated by the fact that they are being hunted by blind cave humanoids who live deep within the cave’s tunnels.
What makes this movie so incredible is that the cave scenes are often barely lit, the screen seems to shrink in size whenever a character is in a tight situation as they navigate through the small openings of the cave in order to convey how truly claustrophobic spelunking can be, and that the tension between the women as they fight for survival feels like a threat on its own.
To address the latter, Sarah is suffering from repeated visions of her daughter throughout the film through a repeated use of imagery where her daughter blows out her birthday candles. The screen brightens up for the moment right before the darkness that follows the extinguishing of the candles and helps to symbolize both the darkness of the caves and the possibility that Sarah may be slipping into madness. Without spoiling anything for those that haven’t seen it, there’s something more brewing between the characters that proves that human, in any situation, seem to be the real threat.
It is no surprise that my opinion mirrors those of other critics. This film is often on lists that provide underrated or overlooked horror movies. I haven’t watched in over a decade but I seem to always recommend it to people who haven’t seen it and gush about its subtle perfection. If you’ve seen it and are looking for something similar, check out Dog Soldiers by Marshall and let me know what you think of that too.
Dead & Buried (1981)
Dead & Buried was written by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, the writing team that also wrote Alien, directed by Gary Sherman, and had special effects done by the legendary Stan Winston. After the film was released, it was banned in the UK and O’Bannon disowned the film and claimed that Shusett had written the script by himself but needed O’Bannon’s name to see it greenlit. Despite these issues, the film has maintained a cult following and a favorite among horror aficionados.
Dead & Buried tells the story of a small-town New England sheriff (James Farentino) who investigates a series of grizzly murders that are occurring in his hometown with each murder involving the killer or killers photographing the victim right before death. During his investigation, he utilizes the help of the local mortician (Jack Albertson of Willy Wonka fame) who helps shed some light on how the murders occurred. Things take a dark turn when the sheriff begins to suspect the mortician of the murders and discovers that he was dismissed years ago from his former employer for conducting unauthorized autopsies. When confronted with this information, the mortician reveals that he has discovered a way to reanimate the dead and uses his army of zombies to kill the living for further practice of his art.
What makes Dead & Buried so good is that the plot feels very similar to the best episodes of the Twilight Zone. The film slowly unfolds to reveal its true plot and the viewer barely suspects its conclusion. The murders are jarring and feel very unsettling since most of them seem to come out of nowhere and have a quick, violent intensity that very few horror films do as well as this one. The special effects are also top-notch since they were done by the legendary Stan Wintson. Of particular note is a sequence where the mortician rebuilds the face of a murder victim with massive face trauma that is captured in short freeze frames where each layer of the face is rebuilt with stunning accuracy. Lastly, it cannot go without saying that the performance of Jack Alberston is so much fun. This is the grandpa from Willy Wonka playing a tortured artist mortician. Seriously. You really cannot go wrong with that.
The film does show its age and, having just recently watched it again a few years ago, I realize now that it isn’t really as good as I remember it. If you haven’t seen it and are a fan of horror movies, don’t skip it. Its a fun little movie that has a lot of plot without a lot of explanation and those classic horror movie special effects that are so sorely lacking in the CGI dominated film world we live in today.
Frailty was directed by Bill Paxton (who also stars in the film) and was probably my favorite movie that came out that year. It was one of the first films I saw in the theater that I felt like it was my independent duty to spread the influence it had on me. While technically more of a psychological thriller, I felt it necessary to include on this list simply because of my persistent need to recommend it to those that haven’t ever seen it.
Frailty begins with a man, who identifies himself as Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey), as he walks into an FBI agent’s office and claims that his brother is the “God’s Hand” killer that the agent has been hunting. He tells the agent that his brother, Adam, has committed suicide and has requested his body be buried in a rose garden in his hometown. He also suspects that his victims are buried in that same garden and accompanies the agent as they drive to investigate.
Along the way, Fenton tells the agent that, when he and Adam were kids, his dad (Bill Paxton) was visited by an angel who tasked him with hunting down demons disguised as human beings and that he needs the help of his two sons to complete his God-given mission but that they must swear this mission to secrecy. The angel gives his father a list of names, he abducts them, touches them in order to see the crimes that they have committed, murders them with an ax, and buries their bodies in the rose garden. Fenton doesn’t believe his father’s vision and takes opposition to their sinful deeds which causes his father to punish Fenton until he begins to believe. You need to watch the rest of the film to see how the rest unfolds.
Man. This movie is so good. Like, so good. Its hard to put my finger on what makes it truly exceptional. It could be that Matthew McConaughey totally owns this role (is this ever not true?) and that this was the role I think that Bill Paxton was born to play. It could be that the way the plot unfolds is so masterfully done that you may find yourself shouting at your television upon the film’s conclusion. It could be that it portrays the religiously delusional father without every convincing the audience that he is either truly delusional or that he may, in fact, have really been given this mission from God. It could be that it never puts you on the side of either boy . In short, there are so many things that make this movie great. It never seems forced or over-the-top or preachy. Whenever you read this entry, please do yourself a favor and make sure this is the one film that you watch if you haven’t seen it. If you’ve seen it, watch it again. It still holds up and gets better with each watch.
Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
Dare I say it? Jacob’s Ladder may be my favorite movie on this list. This exceptional film, directed by Adrian Lyne, stars Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Peña, Danny Aiello, Jason Alexander, and a very young Macaulay Culkin and was written by Bruce Joel Rubin, who wrote the movie ten years before it was filmed. It was said to be inspired by the French short film An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1962), which was also screened as a Twilight Zone episode in 1964, and the paintings of Francis Bacon. It has gone on to inspire works such as the Silent Hill horror video game franchise and films such as The Sixth Sense and The Jacket. In short, this movie is so incredibly important and, in my humble opinion, criminally underrated.
Jacob’s Ladder stars Tim Robbins as Jacob Singer, a Vietnam veteran who narrowly escaped death on the field after being bayoneted in the gut. Jacob is a postal clerk who lives in a Brooklyn with his girlfriend Jezzie (Elizabeth Peña) but secretly misses his wife and three sons, especially his youngest (Macaulay Culkin) who died before the war. He suffers from what may be post-war hallucinations that include faceless people who shake with intensity, cars chasing him down solitary alleys, nurses with teeth growing on top of their scalp, and a bat-like monster that tries to penetrate his girlfriend at a friend’s party. Things take an unexpected turn for Jacob when he is contacted by another comrade who claims to have similar disturbing visions and then is immediately killed after his car explodes. At the funeral, he talks with his other comrades who admit to having similar visions and believe that something was done to them in the field.
They hire a lawyer (Jason Alexander) who will not take their case after discovering that all of the soldiers were never in combat and were, in fact, discharged due to psychological reasons. Jacob is then abducted by a group of men in suits who throw him in a car, drive him to psychological hospital, and is eventually released by his chiropractor. He later talks to a chemist, who worked in the chemical warfare division, who tells him that he may have been a part of an experiment where a psychological drug code named “the ladder” was used to increase aggression and put soldiers in their most primal of states. What follows is a series of more disjointed hallucinations that eventually lead to the film’s haunting conclusion.
I often ask friends if they have a “girlfriend movie”. I always have to explain myself when I ask them this question. What I really mean is simple: Is there a movie you show potential girlfriends in order to tell whether you two are compatible? Jacob’s Ladder is mine. My reason for choosing this is that it totally encapsulates all of my favorite things about film and really challenges the viewer. On one hand, it is a horror movie. On the other, a very disturbing drama that ultimately ends in tragedy. On yet another, it can be viewed as a war film. On yet another, it can be viewed as a dramatic recreation of a conspiracy theory. In short, the movie has a lot to offer. The performances are spectacular. The cinematography is beautiful. The plot is about as tight as a plot can be. And the symbolism this movie has should leave most everyone dissecting it for days after their first watch. I could probably spend an entire blog post about the movie’s symbolism and how much it means to me. However, I just want to leave you with the quote that Jacob’s chiropractor tells Jacob that sums up the movie so perfectly. It is a quote from Christian mystic Meister Eckhart:
“The only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won’t let go of life, your memories, your attachments. They burn them all away. But they’re not punishing you”, he said. “They’re freeing your soul. So, if you’re frightened of dying and… you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. But if you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the earth.”
The Fly (1986)
No horror movie list that I would write would be complete without the inclusion of a David Cronenberg movie. In fact, I have spent so much time trying to figure out which one I would include and ultimately decided that I should probably include something that is more easily accessible from his catalog. So, if you’ve seen The Fly, I would highly suggest you check out some of his other great horror films such as Videodrome, Dead Ringers, eXistenZ (also really underrated), The Brood, or Scanners. In fact, expand that list to include all of his movies. They are all fantastic. Especially, the often overlooked Spider starring Ralph Fiennes.
The Fly is a loosely based remake of the 1958 film of the same name. It stars Jeff Goldblum as Seth Brundle, an eccentric scientist who is on the brink of developing a world changing device that would allow instantaneous teleportation. While the device is presently capable of transporting inanimate objects, Brundle eventually hopes that it will be used to teleport living things. Brundle explains his pair telepods to Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis), a journalist for a scientific magazine, who he promises the exclusive rights to the story. Soon Brundle and Veronica develop a romantic relationship that provides Brundle the inspiration needed to discover the hidden secret that would allow him to code his telepods to allow living matter.
After successfully transporting a living baboon, Brundle begins to suspect that Veronica is having an affair and, in an act of romantic jealous and alcohol impaired judgment, Brundle uses himself as the subject for transportation. Unbeknownst to Brundle, a house fly is in the pod he enters and his genetic makeup is fused with the fly upon a successful teleportation. Brundle believes that the act of teleportation has purified his body and he begins to experience increased strength and stamina. What follows is Brundle losing the characteristics that make him human, his body evolving into a human-fly hybrid, and, eventually, his total loss of humanity.
As I mentioned earlier, David Cronenberg is one of my favorite directors. Cronenberg has this ability to take a dark look into the human psyche and pull out the evil that lurks within. Most of his early films are focused on people who are forced to wear these evils as physical manifestations due to some unfortunate accident or choice that was made. The Fly is the perfect amalgamation of those ideas in that the charismatic and brilliant character’s physical makeup is literally fused with an inferior being who’s urges are mostly primordial. Also, Jeff Goldblum should have won an Oscar for his portrayal of Brundle. His performance, dare I say it, is probably the best acting I’ve ever seen in a horror movie. Even more, the special effects in this movie are easily the best of the decade (in fact, the make up artists actually one an Academy Award for this movie). Go watch it!
Phew! Thanks for sticking with me until the end. Ready for more? Check out part two of this post, with six more horror films that are perfect for the season.