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31 HORROR FILMS FOR OCTOBER
I wanted to make a list of my favorite horror movies. Since my top ten barely scratched the surface, I did a top 31, one film for each day in October.
Now, I can tell you up front that no one is going to love this list. I myself am unsatisfied with it. It feels like something’s missing, and I can’t help but feel that certain movies should be higher or lower, but I’ve tweaked it as much as I’m going to (this year.) If you comment, feel free to disagree with my choices but please be civil. This is a matter of opinion, and no two people will come up with the same list.
I am well aware of several highly regarded horror films that didn’t make my list. If you spot a notable absence, chances are that I’m aware that I left it off. Some of these films are so different from each other it can be tough to make a comparison. If one of the big ones isn’t on the list, I’m sorry but it just didn’t make the cut.
The positioning is based on a film’s over all merit (my judgment of course) not necessarily how scary the film is, although some are judged on that merit, it depends on the film. This list is not all hard-core balls-to-the-wall horror. There are horror-comedies, thrillers, family-horror films and a few films of other genres that I felt were based strongly enough on horror concepts to pass. There are definitely films on this list that some would challenge my umbrella labeling as “horror.” You aren’t wrong if you feel this way. It was a tough call sometimes and I made it.
This is the method I used to make this list. I went through my netflix ratings and made a list of every film I gave a five star rating to that could be considered horror. There were 48 films on this list in all. I meticulously judged each film against each other and ordered them from best to worst. Then I narrowed the list down to the top 31. Please keep in mind that, although I’ve seen many horror movies in my life, I haven’t seen them all. If there’s a movie out there (and there are many) I haven’t seen yet, it obviously can’t be on my list. I do realize that most (not all) of the films on this list a very well know. This isn’t because I never see obscure or underground films. It’s just that the cream of the crop tends to get noticed.
And now, the list:
31 – Gremlins 2: the New Batch (1990) Director: Joe Dante
It’s not so much that people didn’t like Gremlins 2, it’s just that no one went to see it. I think Hollywood waited just a little too long to make it. In 1990 the momentum from the first film was gone and further hindered by the scores of low budget imitators, but not enough time had passed for nostalgia to have kicked in. This isn’t a scary movie, by any means. It isn’t even as scary as Gremlins. This is a gag-a-minute, live action Warner Bros. cartoon, and when I say that, I mean when Loony Tunes were at their peak. I’m talking “Porky in Wackyland” here. I’m sure it ain’t for everyone, this is what’s funny to me. It’s on this list because it’s a movie about monsters that want to scare and probably harm people. Therefore it is a horror themed comedy and perfectly appropriate for this list.
30 – Jacob’s Ladder (1990) Director: Adrian Lyne
A great, “What is going on here?” type thriller. I don’t want to say much about it, but it’s tense & suspenseful while also dabbling in surrealism. It’s one of those films that flits in and out of reality and the audience can only guess what reality even is until it all becomes clear in the shocking ending.
29 – Identity (2003) Director: James Mangold
Actually, this psychological thriller could make a good companion to Jacob’s Ladder. A group of people are trapped in an isolated setting. Each of them has a secret and they are being picked off one at a time by a person unknown, but more is going on here than meets the eye, and that’s all I’m saying.
28 – Coraline (2009) Director: Henry Selick
Okay, I know it’s going to be necessary to defend my classifying this as a horror movie, but forget that it’s animated and that it’s at least partly made for young viewers and just isolate and examine the story alone. Is it not a horror story? Anyway, as for why I like it so much, well, there isn’t much not to like. Gaiman’s story, in spite of closely resembling more than one of his own earlier works, still hits all the right notes for what I’ve come to expect from him, and Selick is just a master of his craft. Story, character, music and animation. It’s a great movie on every level…and it is a little scary too.
27 – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) Director: Robert Wiene
Yikes. I guess it’s a daunting task to write a small blurb on why I like a film that is so academically picked over. I’ll just say that watching this, and other silent horror films from the German expressionist batch, kind of feels like that state when your just beginning to drift from waking to sleep, and I guess that’s appropriate, because that’s kind of what the movie’s about.
26 – Videodrome (1983) Director: David Cronenberg
And while we’re on the subject of the surreal, here’s Videodrome. This was one of the first horror films to focus on danger coming in the form of the signals through which we receive information. In this case it’s television and videotape. Be warned, this is a surreal film and by the end you’ll be left wondering what you just saw, but by that point in the story, that is the point. You’ve traveled with the main character down the path to madness, and you can only see things as he sees them. The reality behind his actions remains unclear. This film gave birth to a movement of horror films about media. Most were pretty lame, but the Japanese films, The Ring and Pulse, are notable.
25 – Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) Director: Don Siegel
First, I’d like to be clear that I love this and the 1978 remake almost equally. They both have their strengths. In the 50’s we were afraid of the commies and these alien invasion movies exploited all the ways we feared them. Sometimes we were told that over there people were conditioned to be smarter and stronger than us, but ruthless and without empathy for life (The Thing From Another World.) Sometimes we saw communism like it appears on a map, a red area expanding and absorbing nations in its path (The Blob.) Sometimes we even pondered they may mean us no harm, but end up destroying us in self defense when we shoot first out of our own stupid fear (The Day The Earth Stood Still). Then, there was the fear of propaganda, Communism spreading from within our society, person to person via the spread of subversive ideas. Invaders from Mars, and It Came From Outer Space went to this place, but those movies just weren’t very good. Invasion of the Body Snatchers really hit the heart of these fears. Kevin McCarthy’s (ironic name, huh?) character saw people he really cared about change to heartless strangers, and the desperation of someone seeing that the change was inevitable was heartbreaking.
24 – Forbidden Planet (1956) Director: Fred M. Wilcox
This is another potentially controversial choice, but I maintain again that what we have here is, at its core, a horror story. The following is my Netflix review of the film from a few years ago.
Well, I didn't think sci-fi films were ever taken seriously in the '50's, but it was clear to me that the makers of this gave it 100% all the way. I suppose there may have been a bit of a "b-movie" feel to it, but the special effects were, in my humble opinion, good even by today’s standards and the art direction was beautiful. I don't have to tell you about the electronic soundtrack, while listening at home these recordings are an interesting, if ambient listening exercise, but set to the imagery of this film they are mind blowing. The plot is complex and heady and the horror elements are genuinely unsettling. There's a scene shot from the monster's point of view with a very "handheld" feel, way ahead of its time. Also the film applied sci in it's sci-fi, which is to say they tried to show how stuff worked in the future, outer-space setting, instead of just leaving it up to suspension. Robbie the Robot seemed to be influenced by Assimov's laws of robotics, although I can't seem to find which came first. They don't make movies like this anymore, and they don't make dames like Anne Francis either. Hubba hubba.
23 – Re-Animator (1985) Director: Stuart Gordon
Basically, this horror-comedy gorefest set the bar for over the top, gore for humorous intent, until Peter Jackson raised that bar with Dead-Alive in 1992. Basically, it was that film that you showed your friends to say, “You’re not going to believe this shit.” Its relevance has taken a dive since Dead-Alive took its place, but I still like it. Also, it has something Dead-Alive doesn’t. It has Jeffrey Combs, one of the most charismatic and recognizable B-movie superstars of the era.
22 – Little Shop Of Horrors (1986) Director: Frank Oz
Okay, so the original Roger Corman cheapy, the broadway musical, and the 1986 film based on the play were all basically about laughs and not about scares. Still it uses a horror story as its framework and this movie is on my short list of all time favorite comedies. There had to be a place for it on this list. Just a few side notes. Look on youtube and find the alternate ending that was cut in favor of a happy one. It seems like fans are split on which ending works better (personally I like the original darker ending,) but all fans should have the option of making up their own minds. Also if your wondering about my thoughts on Roger Corman’s 1960 version, it’s a very funny movie and I do recommend it, but you’ll probably only want to watch it once.
21 – The Phantom of the Opera (1925) Director: Rupert Julian
Misunderstood monsters are one of my favorite themes in horror, and this is a real good one, not just because of Lon Chaney’s sympathetic portrayal of the phantom, but also because of the spectacular and elegant production of this silent classic.
20 – An American Werewolf In London (1981) Director: John Landis
It’s funny, quirky and scary at times. David Naughton and Griffin Dunn are a blast and the transformation scenes are some of the best special effects, practical or otherwise, in any film ever made. Ever. Period.
19 – The Frighteners (1996) Director: Peter Jackson
Oh man, I love this movie. Michael J. Fox is a con man who defrauds people by pretending that ghosts are real and he can see and speak to them. Here’s the twist, they are and he can. This is what I consider the last Peter Jackson movie before he went completely straight. It’s by no means an exploitation film like his first three, (Bad Taste, Meet The Feebles and Dead-Alive) but it still has that scumbag sensibility to it. It’s gut-bustingly funny, and yeah, at times a little scary. You’ll see shades of Ghostbusters and Ghost, but it’s darker than those films and it’s not afraid to go in its own directions. This film has some of my favorite cult actors in it, Jake Busey, John Astin and Jeffrey Combs all doing what they do best.
18 – The Thing (1982) Director: John Carpenter
Everybody loves this one…blah blah blah…practical effects…blah blah blah…paranoia…blah blah blah. I don’t mean to be disrespectful. I love the shit out of this film or it wouldn’t have made the list, its just that its been talked about to death, so I have nothing original to add.
17 – Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988) Director: Tony Randel
It’s a pretty good story, but my real love for this film is in the visual spectacle. This is horror movie making that takes the visual art aspect to its furthest extremes. Simply beautiful to look at, and enough so to rank this high on my list.
16 – The Shining (1980) Director: Stanley Kubrick
Once again, I’m at a loss for anything original to say about such a picked over movie. Just, if you haven’t seen it, you know what I mean, right? (nudge, nudge)
15 – Night of the Living Dead (1968) Director: George Romero
To be completely honest, I never really understood the big deal about Dawn of the Dead, I never found it to be as moody, creepy, deep or artistic as Night. Most people will tell you to watch this movie because it was groundbreaking, and because it spawned a genre. I’m telling you to watch it because it’s a great movie.
14 – Psycho (1960) Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Here we have the film that started the slasher genre (note the lack of slasher films on my list. Hmm.) Why’s it great? It’s great because of Hitchcock, Perkins and some real good headfucks. Hopefully you’ll see this for the first time without having had anything spoiled for you. Also, fantastic music.
13 – Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn (1987) Director Sam Raimi
How many lists like this don’t include Evil Dead 2. One of the funniest, grossest, and sometimes scariest horror-comedies. It’s delivered by cult-favorite director Sam Raimi and stars cult-favorite actor Bruce Campbell, (who’s an even bigger deal than the afore mentioned Jeffrey Combs.) So, who am I kidding? You’ve seen it. You love it. Everyone does. It’s the Evil Dead II.
12 – Don’t Look in the Basement (1973) Director S. F. Brownrigg
Here’s an obscure little gem. I don’t want people to think that just because most of the films on this list are pretty well known that means that I’m unfamiliar with lesser know stuff. It’s just that the cream of the crop tends to get noticed, and here’s the exception that proves the rule. It’s raw, it’s grainy, it’s bloody and it’s smart.
11 – Frankenstein (1931) Director: James Whale
I actually like Frankenstein over Bride of Frankenstein. Bride has great stuff but it’s brought down by what I don’t like about it, Dr. Pretorius is too campy for this otherwise classical gothic Universal monster movie. His little people scene is the lowest point. Frankenstein is also one of my all time favorite novels and the vast differences don’t bother me one bit. This is one of the great and most heart-wrenching “misunderstood monster” stories of all time. I watch it repeatedly.
10 – Bubba Ho-Tep (2002) Director: Don Coscarelli
In this horror-comedy Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis play residents of a nursing home, who may or may not be a displaced Elvis Presley and John F. Kennedy, who must stop an ancient redneck mummy from steeling the souls of the elderly. Despite the peculiar premise and the goofy humor the film can get heady and often takes a melancholy tone. At its heart it is a movie about the tragedy and inevitability of mortality.
I want to discuss this one a little more deeply so SPOILER ALERT. The following contains spoilers. If you haven’t seen Bubba Ho-Tep read no further! I’m not kidding! Stop now! Okay, so the first time I saw this, I felt that the true identity of the two leads was meant to be open to speculation. The second time I saw it, I thought the film basically tells you in no uncertain terms that Campbell’s character is the real Elvis, but implies to the point of outright stating it, that Davis’ character is either delusional or intentionally pretending. However on my third and all subsequent viewings, I’ve become convinced that not only are they average men in denial of the truth, but that the mummy is also a product of their imagination. Yes the film walks you through “Elvis’s” back story, but it’s from Sebastian’s point of view. Sebastian tells it that way, (even if he’s telling himself) he sees “Jack” as a fool, but humors him because deep down, he knows the truth about himself and also wants to be humored. If the film was told from “Jack’s” point of view, the exposition would really be that JFK’s brain was put in the body of another man, who through circumstance, ended up living in a nursing home, and befriending a fool who thinks he’s (or pretends to be) Elvis. I believe neither man is truly delusional. They choose to live in fantasy and they know it’s fantasy. They refuse to face the truth, which is that they have accomplished nothing significant in their lives, and in Sebastian’s case his daughter doesn’t show any sign of caring about him. “Jack” may not have a family, but if he does, they don’t show any sign of caring either. Thing’s that back my claim include Sebastian’s impatience with his late roommate’s daughter. He mention’s that he talked about her all the time, yet she never came around until she had to collect his things, which she just discarded anyway. Sebastian also has a daughter who never visits. That’s who he’s really angry with. A minor character whom is only referred to as “Kemosabe” has also taken on another’s identity, that of the fictional hero, The Lone Ranger. Unlike Elvis and JFK, The Lone Ranger isn’t real, but he someone who every man “Kemosabe’s” age would have admired as a child. We can assume “Kemosabe” isn’t the real Lone Ranger, therefore we can at least see that there’s a strong possibility that he’s not the only one taking some comfort in pretending he’s one of his heroes. A liberal president (and martyr) with a strong positive influence on the civil rights movement was surely admired by many educated black men “Jack’s” age, and Elvis is certainly the idol of any professional Elvis impersonator. These men did great things, Sebastian and “Jack” either failed at their ambitions, or simply let life pass them by. Either way, death is close and it’s too late now. My last clue is the photo Sebastian shows “Jack” before the final confrontation. He says it’s a photo of Lisa Marie Presley, but it’s held just out of frame so the audience can’t see it. At first I assumed this was for legal reasons. Maybe they can’t use a photo of a real person in that way, but now I think it’s a clue that the photo wasn’t of Lisa Marie at all, but of Sebastian’s daughter. He tells himself that his daughter is Lisa Marie who has no way of knowing her father didn’t die a long time ago. He can’t face the truth that she knows where he is, she put him where he is and she abandoned him to die. Now, the mummy represents death. People are dieing off in a nursing home because it’s a nursing home and that’s what happens there. These men who have stood back while others did great things in their lifetimes need meaning. They need to personify death and take it on in a fight, and they do. They die in the end because that’s simply a fight no one ever wins.
9 – The Lost Boys (1987) Director: Joel Schumacher
I admit that this film isn’t as good when I’m 35 as it was when I was 11. As an adult I realize that tough guys never dressed like that and the middle-of-the-road eighties rock n roll soundtrack wasn’t so cool after all, but I still find enough love for this one for it to crack the top ten, and I sadly acknowledge that it has more to do with nostalgia than anything. But what can I say? This was my most intense movie viewing experience at that tender age. The Lost Boys haunt me even today.
8 – Phantasm (1979) Director: Don Coscarelli
I do not care for the series of serialized sequels that followed this one. I’m happy that the franchise stayed in the hands of Coscarelli, yet in spite of this I still think the series takes something away from the original film, which works better as a standalone piece. A graphically gruesome, densely surreal pastiche of a horror flick where it feels like just about anything might happen without warning. I highly recommend it to those with a taste for the weird, and would say it has a rather high potential to terrify the viewer.
7 – Poltergeist (1982) Director: Tobe Hooper
Poltergeist is one of the first movies that a saw as a child to appear this list. (I may have seen King Kong first.) This is a PG film, suitable, in most cases, for families. The body count is zero, and yet it is absolutely terrifying. This is easily one of the most frightening films I’ve seen in my life. It scared the piss out of me as a child, and yet I understood back then how much fun it can be to be scared by a movie. I still do.
6 – King Kong (1933) Producer: Merian C. Cooper
I used to watch it over and over with my dad. Another misunderstood monster, Kong helped me learn a little about the complexities of storytelling as a child. King Kong is one of the great sympathetic horror icons of all time. The film also deserves to be celebrated for its technical achievements. Also there are dinosaurs. Yay dinosaurs!
5 – Jaws (1975) Director: Steven Spielberg
For many years I meant to get around to see Jaws, but come on. I know it’s a movie about a shark that swims around and eats people until the good guys figure out a way to kill it. Do I really need to make time to see something as formulaic as that? The answer is “Yes. Yes I do.” I was in my thirties when I finally caught it randomly on TV, and I was glued to that screen. Not even commercial breaks could kill the tension. This film is an intense-to-the-max thriller that you can’t look away from. It’s easy to presume Jaws is overrated until you’ve seen it. If you’re a doubter like I was, take my word for it. This movie’s awesome. If you liked Jaws you will likely also enjoy Duel.
4 – Freaks (1932) Director: Tod Browning
My highest ranking “misunderstood monsters” film is an examination of the joys and the pitfalls of life, told through characters born at a disadvantage and left with no other choice than to make do with what nature gave them. When the protagonist, Hans feels the itch for acceptance from those that have never known the hardships of a “freak,” he finds himself both a subject of ridicule, and in physical danger. Fortunately, the world he turned his back on remains unwaveringly loyal to its own and comes to his aid. This film has a lesson of human empathy that can’t be bad for anyone. Also it features gorgeous (yet unfortunately deteriorated) black and white photography. This film is a very early talkie and was sadly neglected, so the sound quality is very poor on all copies, but just try to cope. It’s worth it.
3 – Gojira (1954) Director: Ishirô Honda
This is the original Godzilla movie. In North America it was re-edited into the film known as Godzilla: King of the Monsters, but I do not recommend the American cut for reasons I won’t go into. In the United States, the public had a strange, literal and quite ignorant fear of radiation. Accidents involving radiation were the go to explanation for movie monsters of the decade. In the Ray Harryhausen flick, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, a great lizard is released from a glacier by nuclear tests. It sinks some ships and runs amok in New York City. Typical stuff. To the Japanese, the destructive effects of the atom were no mystery. Less than a decade after atomic bombs were detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Toho studio took the concept of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and applied it to a very ugly reality. Gojira is a film to be watched without the prejudice that comes from the sillier Gozilla movies that came after it. It is an expression of the emotions of a survivor of a nuclear attack, especially the fear of ever facing such a horror again. This is a movie about the utter destruction of a populated city, the massive deaths of its inhabitants and the emotions of the survivors. Godzilla is not a character in this film. He is a symbol of atomic force and devastation. Gojira is a very serious film and must be viewed in a serious mindset.
2 – Rosemary’s Baby (1968) Director: Roman Polanski
This is the scariest movie on my list. Throughout the whole movie you’ll be going nuts asking yourself, is it real or is she imagining all this? You’ll never know until the end. Ruth Gordon’s Mrs. Castevete is the scariest horror movie villain of all time.
1 – Dead Alive (1992) Director: Peter Jackson
Gorriest, splatterific, over the top and somewhat insane zombie comedy you’ll ever see. This movie changed my life, and introduced me to Peter Jackson before he got all stoic. Each seen has to top the previous until the blood & puss soaked climax. The films pretty well known now, but I envy those who are seeing for the first time. It’s a brand new experience. You can’t prepare for it.