I love horror movies. 98% of them are garbage.
I recently saw The Conjuring 2 and found it just as predictable and boring as its predecessor. It’s well acted and well shot, but there’s nothing new or interesting here. Incidentally, the same goes for Insidious 2, which is a total bore and just as goofy as the original.
What do you like in a horror movie, Dave? Well I’ll tell you. I appreciate being scared, which is not the same as being startled. Any idiot can jump out and yell “boo.” That’s not scary. To truly unnerve an audience you must be clever, subtle and focused. Lastly, I appreciate a horror movie that avoids — or reimagines in a clever way — the same old cliches we’ve seen since Vincent Price was prowling around. With that in mind, here are five horror movies that I enjoy for being genuinely scary. In no particular order (note: all descriptions are spoiler free):
The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh
Boy do I love this movie. It takes the haunted house genre in an atypical and immensely enjoyable direction, without a single cheap jump scare. Aaron Poole is an antiques collector who is taking stock of his estranged mother’s house just after her death. He finds one strange object after another, leading him to believe that his mother was involved with a strange cult, and is using those objects now to send him an urgent message.
Director Rodrigo Gudiño has made a dark, brooding, melancholic movie that offers an unexpectedly satisfying ending.
This is a tremendous movie.
The Babadook follows recently widowed Amelia and her six-year-old son, Sam. Amelia is struggling with raising troublesome Sam on her own, a low-paying job and other stressors that I’ll discuss in a bit. Meanwhile, Sam has a preoccupation with monsters that manifests in paranoid behavior that gets him into trouble with his school and his extended family.
We learn that Amelia’s husband, Oskar, was decapitated in a car accident while driving Amelia, in labor, to the hospital. She has never dealt with this loss adequately. Meanwhile, Sam asks her to read a book she found on her self called “Mr. Babadook.” It’s a scary pop-up book that tells of Mr. Babadook, a spectral creature who torments those who deny his existence. “The more you deny Mr. Babadook,” the book says, “The stronger he gets.” Sam is convinced the Babadook is in their home, terrifying his family.
To jump forward, Amelia’s mental health deteriorates as she begins to see flashes of the Babadook himself everywhere. She stays awake for three days straight out of fear of seeing him while lying in her darkened bedroom. Finally, she is lured into the basement where the Babadook appears in the form of dead husband, Oskar. He tells her to “…bring me the boy.” She denies him and a violent sequence occurs between Amelia, Sam and the Babadook in its true, horrifying form. Sam insists that the Babadook is “in her” and she must “get it out.”
The movie’s climax occurs as Amelia, shielding Sam, looks the Babadook dead in its horrifying, larger-than-life face. She confronts it head on, seeing it for what it is. At this, the Babadook retreats to the basement.
Here’s the bit that really brought this movie home for me. Amelia and Sam are next seen in happier days. They’re about to celebrate his seventh birthday, which is significant as they’ve never formally acknowledged his birthday before. That specific date had always been the anniversary of Oskar’s death, not a celebration of Sam’s birth. Now that had changed.
Later they’re gardening and clearly enjoying each other’s company. We see that Sam has collected a bowl full of worms, which Amelia takes. She goes into the house, warning him to stay outside until she returns. Once inside, she takes the bowl to the basement and places it on the floor, where the unseen Babadook begins to growl and roar. “Shhhh,” she says, reassuring and kind. “It’s OK. It’s OK.” The Babadook quiets and takes the bowl. Amelia returns to the pleasant scene in the yard.
For me, this movie is a fantastic and creative representation of a person dealing with a significant trauma. The Babadook, as I’ve interpreted it, represents Amelia’s anxieties surrounding single motherhood, the stressors of raising a troubled child alone, the trauma of witnessing her husband’s sudden, violent death, as well as the overwhelming survivor’s guilt she’s clung to for six long years. “The more you deny Mr. Babadook,” the book says, “The stronger he becomes.” Note that when Amelia first saw the Babadook in the form of Oskar, he was locked away in her basement.
Now here’s the best part. When she turns to face the Babadook head on, she wins a victory. But, the Babadook DOESN’T GO AWAY. When a person endures a significant trauma, there’s a piece of that experience that they keep forever. The only “victory,” as it were, is to see that traumatized aspect of yourself and be able to say, whenever s/he rears up, “It’s OK, buddy. I got this. It’s all right. I’m taking care of us.”
Amelia does not destroy the Babadook; she learns to live with it. It’s not compartmentalized to a single room of her “house.” She feeds it when it’s hungry, she soothes it when it rages. She acknowledges what it is, and that it will always be there. That done, she can get on with her life.
It’s an excellent movie. Scary, smart, and in a way, uplifting.
The ending of this smart, gorgeous and ultimately brutal movie disturbed me so significantly I still think about it years later.
A down-on-his-luck hitman gets an assignment nearly a year after botching a job. Eager to win back the trust of his employers and earn a living for his family, he agrees to perform three killings for a big payoff. Honestly, I can’t say any more than that without giving something away. You should go into this movie as ignorant of its plot as possible.
Kill List is a master class in the slow burn. It starts off as a crime thriller and morphs into unforgettable, visceral horror. It’s one of the scariest movies I’ve seen in a long time that also features a moral complexity that’s typically absent from the genre.
As an example of the triumph of evil, Kill List is peerless.
Let The Right One In
The Swedish movie that inspired the recent remake with Chlöe Grace Moretz* tells the tale of forgotten, bullied Oskar and his completely indifferent mother (we never see her face). All is misery for Oskar when, one snowy winter, a girl his age and her father move into their apartment complex.
Eli is a peculiar girl. For example, she never wears shoes, despite the snow, and seems to be able to sneak up on Oskar unnoticed and in complete silence. Also, a rash of killings has coincided with her arrival.
This movie is as much about the beautiful innocence of first love as it is about the lore of the vampire. Beautifully shot with terrific young actors, Let The Right One In avoids the crap that has plagued vampire movies for years. It’s scary, beautifully constructed, heart-wrenching and yes…very bloody.
*BTW if you want to watch the US version, go right ahead. It’s nearly a shot-for-shot remake and very well done.
At first glance, Creep looks like a directionless combination of found footage and mumblecore. A young videographer answers an ad placed by a man who claims to be terminally ill and eager to record messages for his unborn son, as he’s certain he’ll die while the child is just a newborn.
They meet up and the guy seems like an annoying man-child, but ultimately harmless. It isn’t long before things get a little weird and well, creepy. The payoff is an absolute knockout that will leave you slack-jawed. Kudos to Mark Duplass who is fantastic, obnoxious and creepy as hell.
Bonus! (or, I couldn’t limit myself to five)
- Mama. Andrés Muschietti will scare the pants off of you in this film about a young couple who take on the task of raising two girls who had lived alone in the woods for years.
- The Ring. Atmosphere, atmosphere, atmosphere and one of the best climactic scenes you’ll see.
- The Orphanage. Edge-of-your-seat creepiness with an unexpected and very clever conclusion. I loved every minute of it.
- The Shining. The grandpappy of them all. There’s nothing I can say that you don’t know. This is a master class by Kubrick and Nicholson.
- The Haunting (1963). That scene at the end — you’ll know it when you see it — is awesome. Also, avoid the remake. It’s garbage.
- The Blair Witch Project. Many people poo-poo this movie but that final scene with Josh staring at the wall is damn scary.
There you have it.
Five 11 horror movies that are definitely worth your time. Rent them, turn the lights down, make some popcorn at lastly…don’t say I didn’t warn you.