Thursday, August 13, 2009

The 20 Best Horror Films 1989-2009

Over at Entertainment Weekly's site, critic Owen Gleiberman has ranked what he considers to be the 20 Best Horror Films of the last twenty years and just thinking about what films that list can't include makes me feel more than a little old. When I was in my teens, a list of the best horror films of the last twenty years would've included the original Night of the Living Dead, Rosemary's Baby, Carrie, The Exorcist, Halloween, Alien, and, well - you get the picture. Back then, listing the Top 20 Horror Movies of recent vintage was a no-brainer. But the past twenty years? That's more of a challenge. Despite his picks being greeted with plenty of outrage by horror fans (then again, what isn't greeted with outrage by horror fans?), I don't feel that Gleiberman's list is so bad - it's just very heavy on 'pop' fare, like Shaun of the Dead (2003) and Drag Me To Hell (2009). And he also fudges the twenty year timeline with the inclusion of Ringu (1998).

For the record, here's his picks:

20. Dead-Alive (1992)

19. Darkman (1990)

18. Event Horizon (1997)

17. The Kingdom (1994)

16. The Descent (2005)

15. Shaun of the Dead (2004)

14. Hostel Part II (2007)

13. Misery (1990)

12. From Hell (2001)

11. Planet Terror (2007)

10. Ringu (1998)

9. Alien 3 (1992)

8. Drag Me To Hell (2009)

7. The Sixth Sense (2009)

6. What Lies Beneath (2000)

5. 28 Weeks Later (2007)

4. Scream (1996)

3. The Blair Witch Project (1999)

2. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

1. Audition (1999)

There's a lot of titles on that list that I wouldn't go for myself - at least not for the top 20 - but personally I think it's interesting to see what recent horror movies someone who isn't necessarily a fan considers to be the 'best' (Darkman? What Lies Beneath? Sure, why not?). Others, though, apparently feel otherwise - they're a little beside themselves over what is or isn't on this list. If any group of fans likes to take things personally, it's horror fans. Most of the time, that's a positive, other times not so much. In looking at how some readers have fumed on EW's site, I see that some people never fail to lose their shit if a film doesn't conform to their definition of what horror is ("This list is a JOKE! The Sixth Sense is a supernatural thriller - NOT HORROR! Learn something about movies, OK?!") or if - god forbid! - a movie be included that didn't personally scare them. Given all that, I still felt motivated to take my own shot at a top twenty. In putting this together, I debated including titles that were obviously important, popular or influential but that I didn't personally care for. And in the end, I opted to not bother. I don't discount the importance of films like Hostel, Scream, or Saw - or Twilight, for that matter - and in most cases, I also like those movies. But I just happen to like the 20 films on this list more.

Here's my Top 20:

20. Candyman (1992)

Still the best adaptation of a Clive Barker story to date. Director Bernard Rose (Paperhouse) delivered a real stand-out film here. Why he didn't continue to build a bigger body of work in the genre is a mystery as he clearly had a killer instinct for it - not just in knowing how to shock an audience, but in being sensitive to the deeper mythological potential of horror (the imagery in this film is wonderful - from the use of graffiti to the swarms of bees). Although Tony Todd as the Candyman may look like a typical slasher villain with his blood-encrusted hook, he's really a cursed, romantic soul (who will just happen to gut you). And Virginia Madsen as graduate student Helen Lyle is one of the bravest of doomed horror heroines (you sure wouldn't catch me crawling into a bonfire).

19. Exorcist III (1990)

After watching this at a matinee showing the first day it came out, I walked out into the mid-afternoon sun feeling that I had watched the first really serious horror movie in far too long (remember that Exorcist III came out the same summer that lighter offerings like the 'thrill-omedy' Arachnophobia was released). That feeling was not shared by my fellow moviegoers, however, who were grousing on the way out about how lame the movie was but even in the middle of the day, I was chilled by it (is the hallway murder the greatest 'jump' scare ever?) and I'm glad to see that over the years, Exorcist III's reputation has steadily grown (and it's still influencing other films - there's a shot of an old woman crawling across a ceiling in the upcoming film Legion - ironically the original title of Blatty's novel - that's straight out of this film). I wish William Peter Blatty would direct more movies because, well, I think he's pretty great at it. With this and The Ninth Configuration (1980), he's two for two in my book.

18. From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)

When this came out, I thought it could've been just a little better than it was. After all, for Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez to team up on a vampire film - that had to be a classic, not just a fun movie. But thirteen years later, the fun of FDTD does feel pretty classic. This is just a good time - and it's so much better than Tarantino and Rodriguez's later collaboration, the double-feature Grindhouse (2007). In its own way, this is a double-feature of it own with a crime film and a monster movie split down the middle. Some of the lines here are cornier than I care for and some of the effects come off better than others but it's rowdy, raucous, eager to please, and it has no less than Harvey Keitel, Fred Williamson, Cheech Marin, Danny Trejo and Tom Savini as vampires - not just vampires but unholy, hell-spawned bloodsuckers - and how awesome is that? Oh, and Salma Heyek as Santanico Pandemonium is not too shabby, either.

17. In the Mouth of Madness (1994)

In some ways, Carpenter stepped out of his comfort zone with In the Mouth of Madness' warped-reality narrative. But that the end of the world should come in the form of slimy tentacles and rubber monster suits appears to have been too good a joke for Carpenter to pass on telling. There might be better horror films than In the Mouth of Madness out there but none of them have Frances Bay (Blue Velvet) as a creepy hotel inn-keeper with a naked old man inexplicably handcuffed to her ankle. And none of them have Julia Carmen (Fright Night 2) doing a kind of 'crab-walk' that out-Exorcist's The Exorcist. Oh, and none have the classic line "every species can smell its own extinction", which has been burned into my brain since I saw this in 1994. For all that and more - "Did I ever tell you my favorite color is blue?" - In the Mouth of Madness swallows its competition.

16. Safe (1995)

Watching how Julianne Moore's character in Safe becomes progressively more unable to deal with even the most casual contact with her environment for fear of acerbating her phantom illnesses is genuinely hard to watch without feeling your inner hypochondriac start to hyperventilate.

15. Silent Hill (2006)

I always hear a lot of disparaging talk about this Christophe Gans-directed movie and for the life of me, I just don't get it. I'm not familiar with the video game this is based on but I love the images in this film. Even if the film is flawed, it shows you things you just can't see anywhere else - ghastly, horrible things - and that, to me, is something worth celebrating. Just look at that picture above - no other horror movie has got that in it. While most films would be lucky to have one memorable monster to their credit, it seems there's no end to the bizarre apparitions that call Silent Hill home.

14. Jacob's Ladder (1990)

Director Adrian Lyne made a brilliant choice to reimagine the demons that torment Vietnam vet Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) from the traditional notion of horned devils as described in Bruce Joel Rubin's script to figures of twisted, morphing, vibrating flesh (inspired by the paintings of Francis Bacon). Even almost twenty years later, we're still seeing new movies employing Jacob Ladder's disturbing 'vibrating' head effect. As a fan, I hope that someday a longer, alternate cut of this film - with the excised footage of Jacob receiving a 'cure' for his visions and the reappearance of Elizabeth Pena's character at the end - will emerge but even if that never comes to pass, Jacob's Ladder remains a cinematic puzzle that can leave your heart in pieces.

13. The Ring (2002)
I know it's heresay to say so, but I prefer the US remake to Hideo Nakata's 1998 original. Nakata's film is obviously fantastic but I liked Gore Verbinski's take on the material much better. I think a lot of it comes down to preferring Naomi Watts' character to that of Nanako Matsushima's character in Ringu. It's likely due to cultural differences between East and West but I thought Watts played a much stronger woman and the bond between her and her son was more affecting than that seen in Ringu. Outside of that, I thought Verbinski proved to have a great handle on the horror genre. He showed a natural instinct towards making this film visually striking while still keeping it about the characters and the story, and of how to amp up the scares of the original without - to my mind, at least - making them cheesy. I also liked how this really grabbed the imagination of the American public. While I don't think the public is always 'right', I do think that when so many people respond so genuinely to a movie that there must be something there worth noticing. At the very least, The Ring scared the shit out of a lot of people and that counts for something. Oh, and the horse taking a dive off the ferry - God, what a sight!

12. Dawn of the Dead (2004)

I would've bet money that a remake of Romero's zombie classic would've been an easy film to hate on and an impossible one to love but yet I think director Zack Synder nailed this movie. You could debate the differences between the two films but why bother - both are great in their own ways. In regards to Synder's film - I can't help but get off on what a bad-ass zombie movie this is. This is the kind of full-out zombie apocalypse that I always wanted to see on screen and this delivered on that and then some.

11. American Psycho (2000)

Almost ten years since its release, this adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' novel is still something of an underappreciated item. While I think some viewers felt gypped by the suggestion at the end that Bateman's crimes were only in his imagination, I feel that what the ending implies is that the killings were all real but yet when evidence of his crimes was inevitably discovered by others at Paul Allen's apartment building, it was disposed of by the building's management rather than risk a scandal and investigation (after all, it'd make it difficult to entice high paying tenants if the building gained a sordid reputation). And when Bateman’s lawyer claims that Paul Allen couldn’t be dead because he had lunch with him twice recently, it continues the film’s running joke about how none of these people are able to discern one from the other – the implication being that he must’ve had lunch with someone he only assumed to be Paul Allen. The hell that Bateman finds himself in at the end is a hell of total isolation in which even his most atrocious acts mean nothing in a world too self-absorbed and driven to be troubled by monsters.

10. Inside (2007)

Back in the day, films like Alien and The Exorcist had people fainting in the aisles. You don't hear much of that happening these days, sadly - except at film festivals, it seems, where the audiences are probably not too seasoned when it comes to horror films. But if this had gotten a wide release, I guarantee it would've made those kind of headlines.

9. Mulholland Dr. (2001)

It was tough trying to decide which David Lynch film of the last twenty years fucked me up the most. This, Lost Highway (1997) or Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992). This won, obviously - but it was neck and neck to the end. Cinching the win for Mulholland Dr. is that this is the only time I had to flee to the lobby during a movie. For those who've seen Mulholland Dr., it was the scene in the alley at the back of the diner that did it - when that derelict suddenly comes around the corner and the sound drops out of the movie, I seriously had to get out of the theater for a moment. I still haven't seen Lynch's most recent film, Island Empire (2006), by the way. I have it on DVD but I'm just too scared to watch it. Even though it's been eight years since Mulholland Dr., I still can't go back to Lynch. If I do, I know that eventually he's going to really hurt me.

8. Se7en (1995)

When talking about why Se7en is so great, everyone always talks about David Fincher's direction (after all, this is the film that cleared his name after the - unfair, I believe - debacle of Alien 3) and Andrew Kevin Walker's darker-than-dark script, but I'd just like to give a shout-out to Rob Bottin's underappreciated FX work in this. Bottin's '80s work in films like The Thing, Legend, and Robocop is always cited as being classic, which it is, but his work in Se7en is right up there with his best stuff. I can only imagine how Fincher's eyes must've lit up when Bottin showed him the animatronic puppet for the sloth victim - at least I hope that was an animatronic puppet. If it was make-up on an actor, then damn - Bottin's even more of a genius than I thought.

7. Irreversible (2002)

Director John McNaughton's Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) was described at the time of its release as being "too bloody for the art crowd but too arty for the blood crowd" - or something along those lines - but here is where the art house really meets the grindhouse. This Gasper Noe film that tells the story of a man out to avenge the rape of his girlfriend (a crime that unfolds in real time, over the course of nine agonizing minutes) is beautifully made but almost impossible to watch. In telling its story in reverse chronological order, the film has an almost transcendent effect. Its final images remind me - of all things - of the 'stargate' sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

6. The Passion of the Christ (2004)

A lot of people would say that Peter Jackson made the best splatter movie of the last twenty years with Dead-Alive (1992) but they'd be wrong. In fact, he didn't even make the second best splatter movie - that honor belongs to Sylvester Stallone with Rambo (2008). Beating all comers is Mel Gibson with his Biblical bloodbath (and he didn't do so badly with his 2006 Mayan bloodbath Apocalypto, either). It might strike some as sacrelige to put this on a list of horror movies but this is the Cannibal Holocaust (1980) of Jesus movies. On top of the on-stop torture of Christ (a character so abused that by the end they have to replace actor Jim Caviezel with an animatronmic puppet - how horror movie is that?), the recurring images of the devil are every bit as disturbing as those of the glimpses of Captain Howdy in The Exorcist.

5. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Every mention of this film seems to come with an acknowledgement that it isn't for everyone. But while this will always remain a divisive film, I love it and will never hesitiate to say how badly it scared me. This is as pure as horror gets. I think it's the closest horror has ever gotten - or ever will get - to being about fear itself.

4. Let The Right One In (2009)
Just when I thought I'd rather vomit out my entire intestinal tract rather than watch another vampire movie, along comes one of the best ever made. I second every bit of praise that's been directed towards this movie.

3. Audition (1999)

Rather than discuss this Takashi Miike movie - the Asian answer to Fatal Attraction (1987) - I think a transcript of my reactions during the final twenty minutes should do it: "No, no, no, no, no.....ohmygod....ah,ah,ahhhh....FUCK! FUCK! Nooooooooo!!! AAAAAAAA!!! Mommmeeeee!!!" Cue whimpering and...done.

2. The Silence of the Lambs (1992)

Yeah, it swept the Oscars. Yeah, it's become a part of the cultural vocabularly - in other words, this is an easy movie to take for granted. It's sure not a movie a fan would pull out to prove their deep knowledge of the genre. But you know why almost everyone on the planet knows about Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal 'the Cannibal' Lecter? Because this movie is frigging great - it deserves all the acclaim it's gotten. If Jaws (1975) was the 'A' version of the B-monster movies of the '50s like Creature from the Black Lagoon (producer Jack Harris once called Jaws "The Blob with fins"), then Silence of the Lambs feels like the 'A' version of the kind of gritty psycho fare of the '70s like Deranged or Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

1. The Mist (2007)

Frank Darabont's long-awaited Stephen King adaptation got a mostly hasty brush-off by fans and critics when it was released in 2007 but The Mist has been on my mind lately. Watching footage on the news over the last few months of the tea baggers, 'birthers', and health care protestors bringing their vitrol to the streets and town halls of the country, I can't help but think of the character of Mrs. Carmody, as played here by Marcia Gay Hardy. When The Mist was released one of the biggest criticisms towards it was that Darabont had made Carmody's religious zealot into an unfair caricature and that the film's portrayal of how some of the townspeople were so quick to be mobilized to her bloodthirsty cause was unrealistic.

But looking at the public displays of white hot rage and hysteria of many people in our country, right now, is scarily like looking at Mrs. Carmody and her followers. This isn't about how people are being portrayed or demonized by the media, it's how they're actually acting and the things that they're actually saying - on camera for the world to see. To say that people wouldn't or couldn't react as violently to the situation in The Mist as some of the character here do is a case of wishful thinking. When the world stops making sense to some people, they lose it. The idea of responding with rational action goes off the table quickly and The Mist nails that. As its tagline stated, "fear changes everything".

As for the controversial ending, some have criticized it for being too bleak, or for making Thomas Jane act in a way that his character shouldn't have, but I disagree. A lot of people confuse the fact that as viewers we have an omniscent perspective on the story that the characters themselves don't. I think that Darabont does everything he can to sell us on the idea that hope has bottomed out by the end of The Mist. The world is gone. Gone like the generator in The Thing gone. Given all that these characters have witnessed and with the suggestion of even greater horrors awaiting them, it's not so unbelievable that Jane's father would take the action that he did.

And although the subsequent restoration of normalcy is cited as proof that Jane's dad was a fool for, um, jumping the gun, I think the suggestion is there that it was potentially the "blood sacrifice" that brought the world back. Had Jane and his son sat in that car for another day, or another week, the mist might've remained around them but it's only after Jane pulls the trigger that it clears and the world returns. Was it just shit luck, was it fate, or was Mrs. Carmody right all along? Whatever the case, I think Darabont gives the viewer more to consider than just a cynical twist.

Oh yeah, and The Mist also looks terrific in black and white. That's good enough for #1 for me.


kindertrauma said...


I laughed out loud (with joy) when I got to #1

This List RULES!

seriously brilliant!

Love the inclusions of Mulholland drive and Irreversible as both of those movies scared the crap out of me

and its about time Jacob's Ladder got some recognition... people have been ripping off that movie for 20 years and never giving it any credit.

Personally, I hate OG's list because his lack of enthusiasm for the genre is apparent throughout. As a horror fan I'm just tired of reviewers like him and their prejudiced attitude. I'm sick of having to add an extra star or two to their reviews to make up for the bias. This is the same guy who recently called the ending of JC's HALLOWEEN "a bogus corporate plot twist" Don't mind me if I hate him forever for that ignorant remark. He's entitled to his opinion for sure but the end result is useless to me. (If I wrote a list of the 20 best rap songs of all time I'd expect to get an equal amount of flack.)

Anyway, thanks for taking the time to make a list that comes from an enthusiastic fan who knows what he is talking about and can back up his choices without insulting the films & filmmakers not chosen. The end result, unlike OG's, is a fascinating pleasure to read. -Unk

Jeff Allard said...

Thanks Unk! I'm so glad to hear you liked seeing The Mist at #1. As long as you're cool with it, I feel I must've chosen wisely! As for OG, I've been rolling my eyes at his reviews of horror movies for years now (I still remember him giving The Prophecy - one of my faves - an F!). It's nice when he gives a rave to a deserving film like Drag Me To Hell but by and large he just doesn't get the genre.

Timmy Crabcakes said...

Great list!
So many of my favorites... and nothing I'd take serious exception with... except maybe Candyman.

Very happy that Silent Hill and Mulholland Drive made the cut.

I've never even heard of Safe... which I'm gonna have to check out despite my allergy to Julianne Moore.

Jeff Allard said...

Thanks, Knob - glad you're mostly happy with the list. Give Safe a look sometime - it's a quiet movie but seriously disturbing.

J. Astro said...

Great list, friend, and I personally agree that EXORCIST III's hallway scene = greatest jump-scare ever. The buildup is so tortured & slow, you finally get lulled, and then *SKREEEEEE!!!!* jarring music and smash cut, in your FACE!!! hehe.

Good stuff.

Jeff Allard said...

Thanks, J! Yeah, I remember flying out of my theater seat when that hallway murder occured. And even though the final exorcism was a studio-mandated addition, I thought Blatty did a great job with it.

Pax Romano said...

Terrific list - Agreed with you about Mulholland Drive-that film stayed with me for months, and that damn monster/bum behind the dumpster haunted my dreams (As for Inland Empire - it's brilliant, just be ready to have a good three hours of your life to devote to it - and it might not be a bad idea to keep the remote handy to pause as needed to catch your breath).

The only film on your list I have not seen is Inside. Just put it in my Netflix queue.

Jeff Allard said...

Thanks, Pax! And thanks for the recommendation on Inland Empire - I'll catch up with it eventually. I almost sold my disc awhile back on ebay but I held off 'cause I know that one day I'll give it a watch.

Matt-suzaka said...

As I would expect, your list is mad tight, Jeff and I would agree with most of it.

I concur that Silent Hill is a great piece of genre work, and doesn't get enough recognition from fans who only give the visual aspects of the film there due. The full body skinning scene is one of the most wild and amazing things I have seen in a horror movie in quite some time!

I still have yet to see Noe's Irreversible, but it has been on my must see list for a while now, and I too have never even heard of Safe. But it's "Safe" to say that I will be seeking it out soon!

Thanks for the awesome list!

Jeff Allard said...

Yo Matt, thanks for giving my picks a thumbs-up! I know that Silent Hill catches it share of shit from people but I think it blows the doors off most horror films. There's images in this film that just floored me - like the sight of the little girl joyously twirling and dancing under a rain of blood as a woman is ripped to pieces by barbed wire above her.

As for Irreversible and Safe - definitely give them a look. I have a feeling you'll like them!

Unknown said...

Ugh, thanks for bringing politics into it, douche.

Jeff Allard said...

You're welcome!

Zach said...

Just happened to stumble upon this recently, so I know I am a bit late, but the slot victim in Se7en was an actor in make up. He was very thin and they made him look worse with make up and prostheses. Eerie, no?