Horror is a genre of extremes of quality. The best are boundary pushers; taboo breakers; effects pioneers; critiques of society; and explorers of humanity. The worst? I present The Bye Bye Man as synecdoche. Both ends of the spectrum are available on horror streaming service, Shudder, so here are ten excellent starting points, presented in no particular order. (Yes, I know it says it's a ‘Top 10’ but I’ve swindled you, you rube)
10. Bride of Re-Animator
Bride continues the story of Herbert West and Dan Cain as they further experiment with West’s miracle serum. Following the death of Cain’s fiancée, West discovers her heart in the Miskatonic morgue and, armed with the knowledge that their new formula can animate individual limbs, corrals Cain into an experiment to recreate his dead love using disparate body parts. The result is a madcap story involving the psychic flying head of an evil scientist, a zombie girlfriend catfight and acres and acres of disproportionate gore.
After the success of Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna’s notorious splatter comedies Re-Animator and From Beyond, offers opened up to the pair from new quarters. The two even approached Disney who, upon recognising their success as purveyors of depraved madness, gave the greenlight to their next project: a kids’ movie called Teenie Weenies - later renamed to Honey I Shrunk the Kids.
For Bride, Gordon was taken elsewhere (to develop cult weirdness Robot Jox) and Yuzna took over both script and directorial duties. While not quite the unmitigated success of its predecessor the recruiting of Japanese SFX legend, Screaming Mad George ensures that the carnage is ingenious, hilarious, and extreme and the continued presence of the exceptional Jeffrey Combs as West keeps the spirit faithful.
Is it scary? No. But it is gross.
9. Nosferatu the Vampyre
F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror contains some of the most iconic moments in cinema, not just horror. But it was almost lost to the public when the Bram Stoker estate won a lawsuit for copyright infringement against Murnau and ordered all prints destroyed. Luckily, some survived and went on to inspire generations of great filmmakers.
One of those filmmakers was Werner Herzog who considered it the best film ever to come out of Germany and set about production of a true homage to the film with his long-time (and long-suffering) leading man Klaus Kinski in the role previously occupied by Max Shrek. Stoker's Dracula was on day two of being in the public domain when the film was released, so Count Orlok returned, lawsuit free, to being Count Dracula.
The result is very clearly a Herzog film, but also very clearly Murnau’s vision too, and the two aesthetics blend seamlessly. It is an absolutely gorgeous piece of cinema and remains one of the few occasions where a remake can stand side by side with its original masterpiece. The version presented on Shudder is the English language release but, never fear, it isn’t dubbed. Herzog filmed it twice side-by-side with the same actors speaking both German and English.
There are rumours of animal cruelty on set in the way that the hordes of rats were transported, kept and treated so if you find it understandably difficult to separate the ends from the means, you should probably give the film a wide berth.
Is it scary? A little? Okay, not really, but that doesn’t matter.
8. It Follows
It Follows is the story of Jay, a girl who, after a troubling sexual encounter with her new boyfriend, discovers she is being stalked by a slow-moving malevolent presence. The presence can look like anyone and if it catches up with her, it will kill her. The only way to free herself from its unrelenting advance is to sleep with someone else and pass the curse along.
A divisive film for many, its obvious metaphor for sexual relationships, consent and sexually transmitted diseases is admittedly presented without subtlety. That being said, the presentation of the ever-looming evil takes the well-trodden idea of a slow but unstoppable threat, popularised by Night of the Living Dead, and reinvigorates it with some real chills. The searching POV shots and silently menacing wide shots demonstrate both an aptitude which is fully versed in the conventions of the genre, and a fresh eye, able to tweak them to greater effect.
It Follows became a breakout hit for director David Robert Mitchell but, rather than slotting into a groove, he preceded to leave the genre behind with his next film to play with the conventions of a different genre. Under the Silver Lake, a noir-inspired detective movie, is simply one of the best films of the past decade.
Is it scary? Absolutely
7. One Cut of the Dead
Maniac independent director Higurashi is trying to make a zombie movie in an abandoned water filtration plant. The rumours are that the plant was once a place in which the army experimented on corpses to try and bring them back from the dead, and it isn’t long before those rumours prove to have a little more credence to them than the actors and crew suspected.
Littered with homages to George Romero, fun lo-fi effects and some very dodgy acting, One Cut makes a very good movie out of pretending to be a very bad one. If you haven’t seen it then it’s very tough to discuss owing to the fact that the movie takes a very sharp left turn around the thirty-minute mark, but be assured, by the end, any particular misgivings you may have had during that first half hour will be more than compensated for by the time the final credits roll.
The most recent film on this list, and also one of the most inventive, if you’ve ever been involved in amateur dramatics or movie production then you’ll get some big laughs out of it. If you haven’t – well, this is what it’s really like.
The movie was a sleeper hit in Japan, finally earning over one thousand times its budget. I think that tells you something about its quality.
Is it scary? It’s a scarily accurate pastiche of filmmaking…it’s also hilarious.
6. The Changeling
While grieving for his recently deceased wife and daughter following a car accident, composer John Russell moves to Seattle where he has purchased a grand Victorian mansion from a local historical society. No sooner has he moved in than strange occurrences begin to disturb him: loud banging sounds; taps turning on at night; a window spontaneously smashing. As he searches for the cause of these strange events, Russell begins to uncover the house’s dark history.
George C Scott delivers another powerhouse performance in one of the best haunted house movies ever made. His performance of the grieving, impotently angry Russell is reason enough to give ‘must-watch’ status to this film. But it isn’t the only reason. The ghostly occurrences start subtly and are all the more unnerving for it. The more Russell learns, the more the house rails at him, and the more powerless Russell becomes.
Though exteriors of the mansion were shot using a façade erected around an existing house in Vancouver, all of the interior sets were built from scratch on a soundstage. This might not sound that unusual…until you actually see the set. The lavish antique oak, huge windows and labyrinthine interconnected rooms stand out as one of the great achievements of set design.
Is it scary? Yeah, it’s pretty scary.
5. Deep Red (Profondo Rosso)
British Jazz musician Marcus Daly witnesses a brutal stabbing through an apartment window and immediately runs to the scene to help the victim and confront the killer. He later explains to the police that when he got there, the killer was gone but as he re-examines the scene, a half-remembered painting from the hallway seems to be missing. He is drawn to investigate and in so doing is faced with a disturbing local folktale – the House of the Screaming Child.
Dario Argento is not everyone’s cup of tea. He has often been accused of valuing style over substance but I’ve always argued that that’s a feature rather than a bug. His films are opulent, surreal mood pieces and his eccentricities are always on full view.
Arguably Argento’s best film and certainly his most accessible to an audience with more traditional expectations, Deep Red flourishes in it’s theatrical shooting style and Argento’s love of tableau, bold colour and melodrama all work in service of the story (a typical giallo slasher mystery). The film is the first instance of krautrock band Goblin’s long-lasting collaboration with Argento and, let me tell you, the soundtrack slaps.
Deep Red contains some of the finest scares of Argento’s career and is a nice gateway drug into his particular brand of horror.
Is it scary? Yeah. Often weird, usually creepy and always bloody.
4. 2000 Maniacs
Ghosts, Gore and Early Grindhouse.
Six Yankee tourists find themselves out in redneck country. In a little town in the middle of nowhere they are given the status of guests of honour at the memorial of a great Confederate Civil War defeat. It turns out that being guests of honour at a redneck Civil War centennial is not all that great as the 2,000 inhabitants of the town set about punishing, torturing and dismembering the group to mark the 100th anniversary of what they consider to be a Yankee atrocity.
Okay, in 1964 it didn’t take much to shock an audience, but Maniacs was a pivotal moment in the birth of the exploitation grindhouse surge of the late sixties and seventies. Along with its predecessor Blood Feast, it demonstrated that more extreme violence and more exuberant shocks were a way to get people into the cinema. Films could show people things that they couldn’t get on TV and this appeal of taboo-breaking depravity continued to grow following Maniacs’ release – culminating in the breakout success of Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
There’s something tacky and cynical about the work of director Herschel Gordon Lewis, a man who was only ever in it for the money, and he became a bit of a self-parody in his later career but, intentional or not, he’s seen by many as one of the fathers of modern horror. No Herschel Gordon Lewis, no Texas Chainsaw, no Evil Dead, no Saw, no Hostel. Wait, am I meant to be defending him? I’ve reasoned myself into a corner. Just watch the damn film!
Is it scary? By today’s standards it’s a bit of a joke but the folk in the sixties flipped their wigs!
3. An American Werewolf in London
While backpacking across the Yorkshire moors, American tourists David and Jack have a violent encounter with some kind of wild beast. The beast is shot by a local but not before Jack is fatally mauled and David is left close to passing out from his injuries. Before his eyes close, he sees the body of a man where the beast had been before. Some days later, David wakes up in hospital with the growing realisation that something is wrong.
Considered to be the werewolf film by many, John Landis’ darkly comic horror is a pitch-perfect blend of scares, humour and ground-breaking special effects. American Werewolf came during a strange boom in wolf movies in 1981, preceded by Joe Dante’s The Howling (which boasts some equally impressive transformation effects, if a much sillier wolf suit) and Michael Wadleigh’s Wolfen (which pioneered in-camera POV effects, later refined by R/GA for their work on Predator).
Recipient of the first ever Academy Award for Best Makeup, the film has entered the public consciousness for its terrifying, body-horror oriented transformation scene. But that’s far from the only reason the film is fondly remembered.
Is it scary? It’s still surprisingly scary and the practical effects have aged unsurprisingly well.
2. Ring (Ringu)
Masami’s friend, Tomoko, claims to have watched a strange video, depicting a series of disturbing images. Tomoko and three friends had sat through the tape a week ago and, when it ended, received a bizarre phonecall. Unconvinced by the obvious urban legend, Masami ignores Tomoko’s worries, but she soon realises that the reality of the deadly supernatural powers stored on this video is unavoidable.
When written as a novel in 1991, the story had a sort of uncanny element to it; taking an everyday object and infusing it with fear, which worked about as well as any second tier Stephen King novel. When the film was released in 1998, VHS was looking like the past as the introduction of DVD was becoming steadily more widespread. By the time it hit western audiences, DVDs were fast becoming the norm, refreshing the concept with the mystery of a near defunct format. For this reason, it came to wider audiences at exactly the right moment in the zeitgeist and thus became an international hit.
Following the international success of Ringu, a wave of what become known as J-Horror films hit the West: films frequently focussing on vengeful ghosts (often girls with long, lank hair) linked with Japanese folklore or urban legends. Suddenly the visual language of Japanese horror cinema was being used in a wave of Hollywood releases – including a number of direct remakes of J-Horror hits, notably The Ring starring Naomi Watts and The Grudge starring Sarah Michelle Gellar. Images such as dirty fingers, guttural sounds and the rediscovery of chiaroscuro effects in the early 2000s continue to have a lasting effect on hackneyed studio horror output for teens and gallons of internet “creepy-pasta” – always pale shadows of their originator.
Is it scary? Oh yes – though try not to giggle through each mention of ‘Brine Goblins’.
Bill Whitney doesn’t fit in with his uptight, upper-class family. His parents are too snobby and his sister, Jenny, makes him downright uneasy. Come to think of it, even his girlfriend has been acting weird lately. When an ex-boyfriend of Jenny’s shows up with an audio recording of what sounds like some kind of murderous orgy involving his family, Bill sets about trying to uncover what exactly is going on with the elites of Beverly Hills.
Two Brian Yuzna films on the same list? Am I assigning more importance to his contribution to horror than any reasonable person might? Almost certainly! But this is a low-key favourite of mine that too few people have seen.
The movie combines David Lynch’s sense of humour with John Carpenter’s sense of subtlety and, yes, that is the right way around. Society is completely off its rocker in its depiction of class struggle – fiendishly inventive and face-palmingly stupid at the same time.
Screaming Mad George takes charge of the effects once again and, without giving anything away, ‘The Shunt’ is one piece of horror movie special effects work you will never forget. But don’t be tempted to read up on it too much beforehand; go in cold for the weirdest surprise of your life.
Is it scary? Scarring is maybe a better word for it!
Remember, friends, this is in no particular order. Mostly because they're quite hard to compare, but also because I like to foment anarchy on the internet. Rail at my shenanigans at will!