Since the creation of film, there have been horror movies.
They have lurked in the darkness of genre, occasionally becoming mainstream or cult classics, but mostly going unrecognized when compared to action, drama, or comedy. A horror movie can contain all three of those things in addition to the death, screams, and scares. There are thousands of horror movies out in the world, but I’d be crazy to try and watch them all in one month. Instead, I’ve made selections out of pre-determined film ‘eras’ to create a rudimentary guide in watching horror movies.
The second decade of the 21st century brought with it a new self-awareness to the horror genre. Remakes and reboots had been done to death, many of the original films didn’t garner quite enough success to get sequels, and the Final Destination and Saw franchises were coming to a close (or so we thought). It was time for horror movies to be reborn. Starting with Tucker & Dale vs. Evil and Insidious, the new tone of scary films varied from intense and psychological to satirical takes on done-to-death tropes.
It’s no longer just zombies, vampires, or serial killers chasing innocent people through various settings. Now there’s deeper symbolic meaning as horror is used to address issues of class, sexuality, race, and mental illness on the surface level rather than through critical lenses. No longer are things as obvious as they first seem, and, frequently, the evil doesn’t have an understandable reason for being malevolent. But isn’t that realistic? The Purge shows us the evils of bureaucracy and class, The Babadook serves as a metaphor for clinical depression, and The Cabin in the Woods asks us if the cost of such horror is worth the price. Many of these films benefit from the deeper message, but the return of practical terror instead of just gore brought things to the next level. There are hundreds to talk about, but here are just ten notable entries in the past seven years.
- Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (2010). The tropes of the backwoods redneck horror genre are many and had been done to death—especially in the early 2000s with prevalent films such as Wrong Turn, The Hills Have Eyes, and The Devil’s Rejects playing on the terror that one feels when out in the sticks. This comedy refutes those tropes and seeks to prove that appearances and first impressions are deceiving. Tucker and Dale are two buddies who just bought a cabin in the woods as their vacation home; they encounter a group of college kids who are creeped out by the two beer-drinking, awkward-face-making men and hijinks and misunderstanding ensue when Dale and Tucker rescue/kidnap one of the kids. This results in a lot of gore, hilarity, and further attempts to rectify the situation. There’s also a subplot about killer hillbillies. Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine carry this film with their amazing acting, senses of humor, and genuine sympathies; the college kids are believably parodic of every 1980s slasher victim. Honestly, it’s a funny film that you need to see if you haven’t.
- Black Swan (2010). Ballet is scary enough in the real world—beautiful, but terrifying in its intensity. This film captures that tone perfectly. Natalie Portman portrays Nina, a ballerina who is cast as the lead in her company’s production of Swan Lake. Unfortunately, this puts a ton of pressure on Nina to succeed; her director isn’t getting the performance he wants, her understudy seems to be trying to take over, her mother is a control freak, and old habits come back to the forefront. The cinematography of this film is gorgeous, the soundtrack is amazing (but with Tchaikovsky how could it not be?), and every actor is just giving their all to create this intense, surreal experience. Kudos to Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Winona Ryder, and Barbara Hershey for their supporting roles among many other recognizable faces. If you’re not a fan of ballet, that’s fine, because this isn’t really a film about ballet at its heart—it’s about obsession and the pursuit of a dream. And can’t we all relate to that in some way? The final scene is one of my favorites in cinema, and definitely releases the tension in an unexpected way.
- Sinister (2012). I’ll admit that I was afraid to see this movie for the longest time because my friends all said it was the scariest movie they’d seen. While I may not necessarily agree with that degree of hype, I’ll pass along the recommendation that this film is creepy as hell. Ellison is a true crime writer in pursuit of a story, so he uproots his family and moves into a crime scene (as you do), and discovers that there may be more at play than just basic homicide when he finds some Super 8 footage in his attic. First off, Ethan Hawke plays a convincing artiste type of character because, yes, for book research you’re willing to do some pretty weird shit. The Super 8 footage is some of the most creative and creepiest use of a past format within new film that I can remember and my stomach convulsed every time a new reel would begin. The plot unspools in a believable manner and, even though I figured out the ‘twist’ halfway through, I was still shocked to see it enacted. It also manages to circumnavigate one of horror’s biggest tropes, even though it does fall into plenty of other ones. If you’d like to visit with the boogieman this Halloween, then find a copy of Sinister today.
- American Mary (2012). It’s already been well established by now that I don’t do body horror. So how then can I watch—and love—a film like American Mary that revolves around body modification and surgery? The answer is because I’m in love with Katharine Isabelle, modern scream queen, who plays the lead, and because the premise and concept pay off from beginning to end. Mary Mason is deep in debt from medical school, and looking for a way to make some quick cash. Unfortunately, this leads her down the wrong rabbit hole as she finds connections in the body modification community and—after a traumatic event—leaves school to pursue a successful career helping people drastically change their appearances. Isabelle carries this film with grace and aplomb, managing to make scenes of joy beautiful and quiet horror unravel through the trauma narrative. This is a story that’s been told before, but not quite in this way. The soundtrack is good fun, and the Soska sisters did a lovely job with the writing and direction; I didn’t feel like there was a wasted scene. The ending is haunting, but sticks to the guts of what this film is trying to talk about. The color palette and body horror are visually striking, and are part of what make this one of my personal favorites.
- It Follows (2014). I partially blame this film for the huge wave of 1980s nostalgia that is recurring in horror once again. Thanks in part to its (awesome) synth soundtrack reminiscent of heyday films, its anachronistic setting, and its focus on teenage sexuality, It Follows was like everything we were familiar with but had never seen before. Jay goes on a date with her boyfriend and engages in some consensual sex, but shortly after he tells her that she now has a curse where a being will follow her at a walking pace; if it catches her, it will kill her, and then kill the person who gave her the curse. There’s a wonderful sense of dread throughout the entire film—every person walking in the background is suspect, not everyone believes Jay’s story, should she pass on the curse or not? The cinematography feels wonderfully dated, yet fresh. Everything about this film feels as though it’s old, but new—lending itself toward that anachronism that it’s going for. There’s a lot of subtext that the film is going for, multiple meanings that could be at its walking heart, but, in the end, it’s a movie that will follow you long after it’s over.
- The Final Girls (2015). What Tucker & Dale did for hillbilly horror, The Final Girls attempted to do for the slasher genre—in a more meta fashion. Five college students attend the screening for Camp Bloodbath, a slasher film from the 80s starring Max’s now-deceased mother. During the screening, a fire breaks out and the group escapes through the screen and into the film itself. To survive and make it back to the real world, they’ll have to navigate the tropes of the slasher genre and make sure the final girl stays alive. This ensemble cast holds up fairly well and each of them delivers a little something different to the film: Taissa Farmiga, Malin Akerman, Nina Dobrev, Adam DeVine, Alai Shawkat, and Thomas Middleditch all deserve special kudos. The cinematography is really interesting in the way that it plays with color and the almost VHS format of its appearance is crazy awesome. Additionally, although its premise has been done to death, its meta-humor and satirical take on the slasher genre at least brings something new to the tropes. The mother and daughter relationship between Max and Nancy is also a highlight of the film, and it leads to a climax that makes me cry/laugh every time. If you enjoyed slasher films, it might be worth giving this comedic take a try.
- The Shallows (2016). Animal horror, as I’ve said, falls in between two categories: shlock and genuine horror. For the most part, movies in this subgenre are closer to trash or campy thrills than true to life terror. The Shallows, for the most part, succeeds in bringing a sense of reality to a story about a surfer stranded on an island and the beach, held captive by a shark. It has some crisp cinematography that’s nicely juxtaposed with the use of some GoPro footage as well. Blake Lively delivers a believable performance and literally carries this film by herself, which is hard to do. Her co-star, Steven Seagull, delivers some much needed comedic relief to cut the tension. Like Jaws, our antagonist monster is hidden under the waves and not seen for most of the film. Surprisingly, when it is seen the CGI isn’t terrible! There are some needless subplots to pad the run time and plenty of false starts on a climax, but overall the focus is on the girl, the sea, and the shark. There’s some surprising moments of body horror thrown in that you wouldn’t quite expect, and I found myself gritting my teeth during several scenes. The score is a bit of a letdown and some aspects could have been improved on or changed but, for the most part, this is an animal horror film worth seeing more than once.
- The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016). IFC Midnight does a good job of distributing lesser known festival films to the general public, and they’ve been doing an amazing job lately. This indie flick follows Tommy and Austin Tilden, a father and son coroner duo, who are called to perform a late night autopsy on a mysterious Jane Doe; however, as soon as they begin the standard procedures weird things begin to happen and they discover this isn’t your average body. While this film could have delivered a horrifying zombie-type narrative, it instead chooses to unspool a night of dread. Emile Hirsch and Brian Cox deliver nice performances as the father and son, and they have a genuine comradery that I found believable in their banter. Olwen Kelly, who plays Jane Doe, is absolutely fantastic and creepy in her stillness and you expect her to get off the table at any moment. The set-up and payoff throughout the film works really well and, even though the climax does feel a little rushed, there’s a nice sense of ambiguity to the ending that I don’t mind. If you’re looking for films that haven’t gotten the attention they deserved in the mainstream then check this one out.
- Get Out (2017). This was a bit of a surprise. I remember seeing the trailer for Get Out and getting super hyped because it was a fun premise and looked super engaging. Apparently, other people thought so too because it’s already one of the highest grossing horror films of all time—and it’s not a remake or part of a franchise. The film follows Chris, a black photographer, as he meets his girlfriend’s white family for the first time; it turns out that they may not be as tolerant as he’s been led to believe. First off, this film is rich in symbolism and the tone is spot on for the entirety of the movie—it doesn’t let off of the unnerving vibe that something is wrong until you know for sure that something sure is. Luckily, there are some moments of levity and the humor is perfect for the moment. Jordan Peele’s writing leaps off the screen and asks questions, threatens assumptions, and makes you think—which is more than a lot of films do these days. It’s a gorgeous film as well, and Daniel Kaluuya does an amazing job as Chris. The supporting cast all build the film nicely, and the garden party scene is an excise in tension. Definitely watch this film; it’s a new classic.
- IT (2017). Some would call this a remake; however, as the previous version on screen of Pennywise the Clown was a mini-series, it’s a bit of a gray area. The new adaptation of Stephen King’s 1,000+ page novel has now been split into two parts, and this is the first. Five children are taunted and hunted by a killer shape-shifting clown in their small town, and learn that they may have to depend on themselves rather than on adults on authority figures. I’ll say that a bigger budget did wonders for the cinematic appearance and the scope of the film in general. The kids do a great job and, when things are awkward, it’s more the fault of the script than their own. Bill Skarsgard does a decent job of distancing his performance from Tim Curry’s and making it his own, and he’s nicely intimidating and scary when it counts. While I wouldn’t call IT the scariest film I’ve ever seen (partly due to the guy behind me laughing at every jump scare that might have been effective), it has an excellent atmosphere and uses its setting well. However, due to its length and the needs of the narrative, the film fails to properly develop some subplots and really neglects Mike. I also understand the star power of Finn Wolfhard, of Stranger Things fame, but the narrative felt skewed in his favor at times when it could have focused on characters that will play a bigger part in the second chapter. That said, overall it’s an amazing study in terror, a nice improvement, and (from what I’ve heard) a decent adaptation.
So there you have it: The Classics, The Heyday, The Experiment, The Resurgence, and The Renaissance. We’re living in a new age of horror and I’m sure that no one can predict where we’re going to next. There are some exciting projects on the horizon—additions to The Conjuring franchise, a new Halloween, The Meg—and I can’t wait to see what’s going to jump out and scare audiences next.