The Glenny Guide To.. The 10 Best Scary Movies To See Before You Die
So, once again – Halloween is basically upon us. And, like last year, I’m eschewing getting my ghoulishly goofy self AWN in favor of staying in and finishing any one of the six screenplays and two tv shows that I’m currently actively working on. I’ve always said – “Halloween is for people who achieve their life goals. And for people who like to dress like whores”. That being said, this year is particularly tough to stay in, mostly because of the fact I’ve managed to attain a pretty wicked bod and thus have the kind of physique that lends itself to ALL SORTS of sexy costumes. Although, if we’re perfectly honest, all I really want to do is dress up in my Tigger onesie because, well, OBVI.
So, while I stay in like a good boy and write, drink and occasionally post naked photos of myself on Twitter, I thought I would pay tribute to some of the best lesser-known modern horror movies (aka ones you probably HAVEN’T already seen) that have helped shaped me – both as a writer and as a cinema fan. These are the kind of movies that make me not just defend the whole genre on a regular basis, but aspire to contribute to it and, one day, become it’s impossibly abdominated King. They’re not just movies I want to equal, but ones that motivate me to want to do even better, both as a writer and a full-time scare-ntertainer.
ANYWAYS, without further ado, here are ten slices of post-1990 horror that you really MUST SEE. Not just if you consider yourself not a fan of the genre, but of cinema itself :-
10 – THE STRANGERS (2008)
PLOT – Young couple vacationing in isolated country cabin find themselves stalked by a trio of masked intruders, for no discernible reason (TRAILER).
WHY – When people ask me to name one movie that makes me want to be a genre writer, this is IT. In eighty-eight short minutes, this tale of two semi-estranged suburbanites holidaying in the countryside manages to encapsulate everything that is both great and poorly done in modern horror cinema. Now, don’t get me wrong, the good FAR outweighs the weak, but we mean it when we say this movie is only a few narrative tweaks from being MUCH higher on this list. Honestly, it’s almost frustrating to say so because The Strangers really, truly does so many things just RIGHT. Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler (particularly the latter) give incredibly engaging and relatable performances, delivering just the right amount of nuance and gravitas (abetted by an impressively well paced and structured screenplay) that makes you honestly care about them and their plight, as you’re so fully invested both in their relationship and the situation they find themselves in. And that’s what makes it all the more heartbreaking that the final thirty minutes is kind of undone by the two characters making increasingly stupid decisions that seem more concerned with furthering the plot than with anything someone with a triple digit IQ could conceivably do. There is only so many “splitting up/going back into the house/not running for help” moments that a viewer can take before they inevitably just stop caring about whether a character lives or dies. That being said, the way The Strangers not just amps up but maintains the tension throughout the picture is nothing short of phenomenal – even on a second viewing, this is a movie too scary to watch by yourself. Believe us – we’ve tried!
BEST BIT – The Masked Intruders. Besides the next entry on the list, we can’t think of a single movie in modern horror that has utilized an anonymous mask so effectively and terrifyingly. Also, the Barn scene is just perfect. For a movie built on silently escalating tension in long, deliberate takes, this scene takes the cake. And the soundtrack is just PERFECT – scariest use of Country Music since Gwyneth ‘Country Strong’ herself!
IF YOU LIKED THIS, THEN TRY – VACANCY (2007). Kate Beckinsale and Luke Wilson take a similar ‘couple against the odds’ scenario and play it out to seat-squirmingly terrifying effect. A brutally simple but ingenious concept played for maximum thrills, without ever feeling cheap. The movie may have some minor flaws, but the suspense sequences pack nail bitingly visceral thrill that is on par with the greats.
09 – SCREAM 4 (2011)
PLOT – Modern scream queen survivor Sidney Prescott releases a self help book, and finds that the demons of her past aren’t quite as dead and buried as they seem (TRAILER).
WHY – Social Commentary and Cinema Critique disguised as a Self Referential Slasher Reboot., this 11 years in the making four-quel/reboot to the almighty franchise (see our countdown of the Top Ten Reasons the Scream Franchise is pretty much GOAT *HERE*) is as maligned as it is loved by serious horror fans. Now – we’re not going to argue that Scream 4 is perfect – it’s NOT. But take away the 10% of the movie that needs major retooling (the second ending in the Hospital should be completely cut, and the hastily reshot third part of the opening scene is SO completely trite and unengaging that you really wish they had’ve kept the more cerebral, affecting and disturbing original concept instead), and you’re left with an incredibly smart, well acted horror movie that not just works as a How To Guide for modern horror sequels, but is brimming with some of the most exciting and challenging ideas seen this decade. Neve Campbell in particular gives a genuinely bravura performance and puts in some beautiful finishing touches on what just might be the single most three dimensional heroine in horror movie history. All in all, Scream 4 is the rarest of horror sequels, in that it manages to not just honour all that is great about the original, but truly build on the concept, instead of just regurgitating it.
BEST BIT – Honorable mentions go to the scene where Neve’s years of survivors guilt lead her to not just run directly INTO the house, but to go full blown Sigourney Weaver (because, when you think about it, the best defense is often a good surprise offence), as well as pretty much any scene Hayden Panettiere or Courteney Cox are in. But, it’s impossible to go past THAT ending, which (Hospital malarkey notwithstanding) which is both intellectually exciting and as bursting with ideas bananas as we’ve seen in memory. It’s just THAT GOOD.
(Bonus Points to the scrapped opening scene, which was a slight rewrite away from being the most gut-wrenching opening since Drew Barrymore’d herself – WATCH HERE).
IF YOU LIKED THIS, THEN TRY – WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE (1994). If the original Scream was the moment the mainstream Horror Movie became self-aware, then this little seen meta-gem is where that seed got planted. Not just reuniting the original cast of his 1984 Elm Street opus, but ingeniously recasting them as themselves in the modern day, Craven single-handedly invents not just the self-referential horror movie, but establishes it as a go-to genre for the thinking cinema fan. Worth seeing just for original Nightmare On Elm Street star Langenkamp’s vunerable tour de force performance alone.
08 – DRAG ME TO HELL (2009)
PLOT – After declining an elderly woman’s loan in an act of begrudging corporate subservience, a young Bank Officer is plunged headfirst (sometimes literally) into her very own personal hell thanks to a good old fashioned gypsy curse (TRAILER).
WHY – After accidentally becoming one of the most successful commercial filmmakers of the decade with the Spiderman trilogy, Sam Raimi decided to go back to his Evil Dead roots with this absolutely delightful schlock horror romp. Taking the single most B-Movie plotline since the golden days of Roger Corman himself, Raimi constructs an addictively thrilling and exhilarating carnival ride of a movie, all anchored by an affecting, engaging and ultimately kick-ass performance by the always excellent Alison Lohman (filling in for Ellen Page, who dropped out at the last minute). Combining knowingly hilarious over the top splatt-effects with good old fashioned suspense and tension, Drag Me To Hell adds up to one of the most giddily fun and unpredictable viewing experiences of the century.
BEST BIT – Thrill for thrill, splat for splat, there’s few scenes in cinema history that can top THAT Parking Garage scene. Combining steadily escalating white-knuckle tension with inventively stomach churning chills, it manages to run the gamut of seven types of horror all in five concise minutes, as well as throwing in the most memorable girl on girl action in cinema history. PURE GENIUS.
IF YOU LIKED THIS, THEN TRY – PIRANHA 3D (2009). If Drag Me To Hell tried to update the B-Movie for the modern generation, Piranha 3D revels in trying to take the same audience back to the glory days of yore, when horror ruled the Multiplex and Direct to Video market alike. Yet, the filmmakers deliriously ‘who gives a fuck’ attitude liberates the movies in a way few recent films have. Knowingly hilarious, gross, tense and enjoyable in equal measures, there are few better ways to spend 88 minutes. And, if you happen to be in possession of one of those ridiculous 3D Television mathingamies, watch it the way it was meant to be seen – for our money, barring that Jimmy Cameron Smurf Movie, this is the SINGLE BEST USE of 3D technology in movie history. THERE. WE SAID IT.
07 – DEAD SET (2009).
PLOT – A zombie apocalypse takes over all of England, with the only people left unaffected being the remaining contestants of the current Big Brother season, who are blissfully unaware in their self-contained TV studio cocoon (TRAILER).
WHY – Technically a mini-series but, at a robust 141 minutes, it’s still shorter than a lot of the over-stuffed feature films you find in cinemas these days. Played as both satire and a straight up horror, Dead Set balances its laughs, character development and commentary with suspense, surprise twists and full blown stomach-churning gore – imagine The Walking Dead if it were, you know, actually still good. We came *this close* to going with the similarly themed 28 Weeks Later or the ’04 Dawn Of The Dead remake (you know, the GOOD one) but, scare for scare, bite for bite, Dead Set has all comparable contenders beat when it comes to depth, attention to detail and sheer originality – it’s an absolutely fascinating idea and is mined for every single narrative, comedic and horror idea possible. Bonus points for the bananas but tremendously effective use of original Big Brother host Davina McCall, who plays both a hilariously fictionalized variation of herself and later a grotesquely lethal zombie version. All the cameos from past contestants make for rollickingly good fun too!
BEST BIT – THAT brutal ending. We won’t go into specifics, but the darkly realistic tone that sets the first three quarters of this apart is definitely honored all the way through to the final minutes, yet handled in an unexpected way that makes it both uncomfortable and completely satisfying.
IF YOU LIKED THIS, THEN TRY – QUARANTINE (2008). While the Zombie Horror sub-genre lately seems to be more concerned with filling out the broader corners of canvas, Quarantine mines its chills from keeping the horror confined to four very brutal walls, without every sacrificing a second of gritty realism. Jennifer Carpenter (still amazing on TV’s once amazing Dexter) commits so fully to her leading turn as a two bit TV News Reporter confined in a mysterious medical outbreak that you will be on the edge right up until the very last spine-tingling frame. It also has possibly the single scariest creatures on this whole entire list (barring those at #2, OBVIOUSLY).
06 – FINAL DESTINATION (2000).
PLOT – After a group of high school students narrowly avoid a fatal plane crash due to a premonition, they discover that death is a fate that cannot be avoided, merely postponed (TRAILER).
WHY – Hot off the heels of their success with The X-Files, Glen Morgan and James Wong put together this woozy slice of psychological horror. Half movie and half giant hall of mirrors, it’s a more subtle, disturbing and disorientating movie than the later vapid never-ending carnival ride of sequels would suggest. The ingenious premise – that one can never truly cheat fate, just delay it – is played out in increasingly clever and unexpected ways. At heart, the movie is less a slasher than a feature length mediation on consequence and fate that plays out like a giant Rubics Cube of cause and effect. By having the ultimate bad guy turn out to be not flesh and blood, but the inherent danger lurking in even the most innocent of everyday objects (a cracked mug, a clothesline, a broken seatbelt, etc..), possible doom fills every inch of each frame of the film, making even the most mundane of daily activities fraught with tension. Add to that some truly unexpected and breath-taking setpieces – as well as the nicely nuanced acting and character development (Ali Larter’s Hair and Kerr Smiths SO.T.T. TV Homosexuality renouncement aside) – and you have one of the smartest, most inventive and downright chilling horror movies of the past century. If you want something that will not just scare the hell out of you, but will continue to disconcert you for days to come then, Dannii Minogue, THIS IS IT.
BEST BIT – For sheer spectacle, it’s hard to go past the initial plane explosion, which manages to temper explosive bang for your buck with the devastating chain reaction of human trauma (both emotional and physical) that takes place as a plane full of people are slowly incinerated into the night sky. For our money though, it’s The Bathtub’ scene that takes place as one of the most chillingly observed deaths ever committed to celluloid. The way the sequence is conceived is clever enough, but it’s the way the filmmakers play it heartbreakingly straight by focussing on the horrifying minutiae of death – hands helplessly clawing to break free of an errant wire, toes futilely trying to gain traction against the impossibly smooth ceramic surfaces of a suburban tub and, finally, the way the eyes dart desperately around the room, searching in vain for any salvation, before slowly filling with both burst capillaries and hopelessness – that makes it truly haunting . Any movie can show you death, but very few truly show you what it’s like to die. By getting the audience to so fully empathise with human life, Final Destination re-establishes real value in death, and all the mundane horror that comes with. (Still, if it’s pure popcorn shock value that’s more your thing, then the scene at the movie’s midpoint where one of the characters boards a bus is one the greatest ‘BOO’ moments in cinema history.)
IF YOU LIKED THIS, THEN TRY – CUBE (1997). An ingeniously *literal* Rubic’s Cube of a movie, this inventive low budget Canadian chiller features seven strangers awakening to find themselves trapped in a rotating cubic prison. Banding together to attempt escape, they try to navigate not just the mysteries of how and why they’re there, but also the internal layers of their own personal facades, which slowly crumble as panic and survival mode kick in. The impressively high concept never lets up for the entire ride and the ambiguous but satisfying denouement stays with you a long after the credits roll. While the setting may be straight out of Science Fiction, the escalating sense of claustrophobia and unbearably tense suspense sequences (not to mention the consistently inventive character dispatches, that put even Saw to shame) are straight off Horror’s top shelf.
05 – INSIDIOUS (2010).
PLOT – A young couple move into a haunted house. After a tragic accident leaves one child trapped in a coma, they begin to realize that it may not be the *house* that is haunted (TRAILER).
WHY – It’s refreshing to say that one of the biggest horror hits of the decade is also one of the best. After kick-starting the torture porn revolution with 2004’s deceptively simple Saw, wonder duo Wan & Whannell came back with this stunning, spectral family saga. One of the best examples of how gradually increasing tension doesn’t have to equal ‘slow’, Insidious masterful turns it’s gears as it sends the plot into directions as unexpected and surprising as many of the film’s big BOO moments are. The suspense sequences are absolute top notch (and sustain the tension with a level of mastery worthy of Hitchcock himself) and the more shocking surprise moments are done by relying on *actual* surprises, instead of just intermittently amping the volume on the score. Patrick Wilson’s wooden performance aside (and we’re *not* just referring to the performance of OUR PANTS), the rest of the cast really excels, making the scares all the more affecting, because you end up really care about what happens the family. Rose Byrne is wonderfully sympathetic as the bewildered Mom and Barbara Hershey does some lovely work in what should have been a one note stock supporting role, but it’s Lin Shaye just about steals the entire fucking universe as a deceptively sunny medium. The final fifteen minutes suffer somewhat from what looks to be budgetary limitations (and don’t even get us started on the laughably abysmal sequel), but none of this detracts from the genuinely frightening monsters the movie creates.
BEST BIT – While several of the early ghost intruder sequences are unbearably tense, there is nothing that can quite top a certain jump moment in the movie’s second half for pure ‘shit your pants’ levels of surprise. Without giving too much away, lets just say you’ll probably never be able to look at Patrick Wilson’s shoulder the same way again..
IF YOU LIKED THIS, THEN TRY – THE ORPHANAGE (2007). While modern horror audiences are increasingly conditioned to their senses being bludgeoned to death by a continued stream of *BIG* moments, Guillermo del Toro’s 2007 Spanish classic is an engrossing exercise in restraint. Sharing more than a little of it’s cinematic DNA with Nicky Kidman’s 2001 Sunscreen PSA ‘The Others’, it’s all character shading and sustained tension – using it’s gorgeously ethereal cinematography and decaying travelogue locale to create a fully realized, self-contained mini universe. Top notch acting, particularly from affect-free child actor Roger Princep and Hollywood royalty Geraldine Chaplin (who gives her role a haunted humanity that laid the groundwork for Lin Shaye’s Insidious scene-stealing a few years later) helps set the film apart and really brings this sad, scary tale of tormented dead children to life.
04 – WOLF CREEK (2005).
PLOT – A trio of multi-national backpackers discover that, in the desolate Australian Outback, you can’t always rely on the kindness of strangers (TRAILER).
WHY – If Final Destination is there to unsettle you for days, then Wolf Creek exists solely to terrify the fucking bejesus out of you. Watch this once and the mere utterance of the phrase “head on a stake” will guarantee that you break out in a cold sweat for the rest of your natural born life. Not to mention the fact you’ll never be able to watch Better Homes And Gardens (or pretty much any other Australian TV show) ever again. A masterful exercise in not just suspense and sustained tension but the inherent helplessness to be found in so many everyday situations, Wolf Creek is one vacation destination you won’t be in a hurry to get back to. Bonus points for the way the writers so fully establish the characters plight and the limitations of their situations – all the obstacles hold up to real world logic and the characters actions (with the exception of one unfortunate detour into the Australia’s Funniest Home Videos screening room) ring true in a way that even Randy Meeks himself would be proud.
BEST BIT – The “Head. On. A. Fucking. Stake.” Speech. In four short words, John Jarratt manages to to truly terrify an entire generation more than a football field of fake blood ever could.
IF YOU LIKED THIS, THEN TRY – LOST HIGHWAY (1997). If Wolf Creek was the road trip from Hell, then Lost Highway is all about the long road to. As a filmmaker, David Lynch has long flirted with the horror to be found in every day situations, but in a lot of ways Lost Highway feels like the closest thing to a straight up horror film he’s ever done. Over a soundtrack that alternates between frenetic jazz and Nine Inch Nails, Bill Pullman gives a true tour de force as man losing both his marriage, his mind and, finally, his very body in this terrifically unsettling tale of bad men, bad romance and urban surveillance. Robert Blake’s terrifyingly sinister powder-faced villain is a walking nightmare, Patricia Arquette is hypnotically naked (both physically and emotionally) as a twin set of femme fatales and Lynch has rarely been in finer form the way he pulls absolute darkness out of even the most mundane of frames. In fact, the first forty-five minutes are quite possibly the greatest work he’s ever committed to film to date.
03 – WHAT LIES BENEATH (2000).
PLOT – Empty Nest Syndrome gives way to something more spiritually unsettling as a middle-aged mother starts to question not just her life but her very grip on reality, as ghosts from her past come home to roost (TRAILER).
WHY – While she may not have had a hit under her belt in a while, Michelle Pfeiffer is still very much one of the last great female movie stars – that rarest of breeds that possess both a magnetic beauty and the acting chops to create carefully delineated characters, across almost any genre. If only for her performance alone, What Lies Beneath would be essential viewing for any horror aficionado worth his salt. But the movie is as much Robert Zemeckis’s as it is hers, and the filmmaker lovingly creates an chilling, elegant ghost story that owes as much to Hitchcock as it does the Hammer Horror films of yore. Harrison Ford is well utilised in a blandly stoic Husband role and Diana Scarwid is a daffy delight as the sardonic and supportive Best Friend, but Pfeiffer well and truly steals the show – in interviews at the time, she claims her performance was inspired by Drew Barrymore’s fully developed character breakdown in her fifteen minute of the original Scream, and it shows. By baiting the audience with such a vividly created central character, Zemeckis manages to lure you deep into his Haunted House of a movie before you realise you don’t really know which way is way out.
BEST BIT – The Bathtub. Final Destination may have used the location for a hauntingly affecting death, but What Lies Beneath manages to create what might just be the most suspenseful set piece any movie has seen this century. The less said about it the better, but between a horrifyingly relatable concept and affectingly terrified Pfeiffer, you’ll think long and hard about ever setting foot in a tub again..
IF YOU LIKED THIS, THEN TRY – 1408 (2007). If What Lies Beneath is Pfeiffer’s late career Tour De Force, them 1408 is Cusacks. Essentially two hours of everyone’s favourite Boombox Enthusiast slowly losing his mind in a haunted hotel room, it is quite possibly the single most genuinely terrifying big-budget horror movie of the last decade. While other releases have made a lot more money by showing a lot less (we’re looking at you – Paranormal Activiti), 1408 is one of the rare breeds that manages to truly frighten it’s audience without having to cloak it’s terrors in quick cutaways and tricky camera angles. Watching this haunted hotel room come to life as The Cusack That’s Not Joan slowly loses his mind, you’re strapped into a roller coaster of vivid imagery and clever set pieces that never lets up, right up to the very end.
02 – THE DESCENT (2005).
PLOT – Six female adventurers get more than they bargained for when a weekend of extreme sport turns into a literal fight for survival (TRAILER).
WHY – When it comes to definitively ranking modern horror, there are a lot of alternate timelines where this would be a clear #1. Pretty much every single part of The Descent is PERFECT. A claustrophobic and bloody tale of a weekend caving expedition gone horribly awry, the film doesn’t pull any punches – the characters are capable and clearly delineated and the monsters (when finally revealed) are truly terrifying – which makes the inevitable mounting body count all the more brutally effective. They say the best horror movies continue to terrify you long after the credits roll and The Descent does just that – the way Neil Marshall’s camera captures both the sheer expanse of the caverns and the utter helplessness of all the tiny crevices in-between is both visually magnificent and likely to induce lifelong claustrophobia for all that see it through. Shauna Macdonald and Natalie (Jackson) Mendoza give two terrifically watchable performances as former friends with an unspoken emotional chasm of their own and watching it play out gives this gloriously gory monster story a real gravitas right up until the final frames.
BEST BIT – When The Crawlers finally come out to play. One of the greatest things The Descent does is eschew traditional horror storytelling tropes (slow teases, quick jumps, near misses, etc) in favour of a straight up, balls out, believably real life movie. The audiences first real visual reveal of the creatures that dwell below is enough to get a reaction in its own right, but it’s the lightening-quick bloodbath that immediately ensues that manages to be the audiences real surprise.
IF YOU LIKED THIS, THEN TRY – YOU’RE NEXT (2011). This low-budget slasher has picked up a lot of admirers this past year, with many heralding it as the new Scream. And while it’s easy to see why – both adroitly walking the line between horror and comedy without lessening the effect of either – You’re Next doesn’t manage to scale the same dizzying heights as the Craven/Williamson juggernaut, mostly due to a couple of glaring obvious script and plot problems that should have easily been fixed in pre-production. Still, hype aside, it’s a terrifically effective thriller. Sharni Vinson gives a Jamie-Lee Neve-worthy performance in a cleverly conceived role and the way the director handles some of the killers sequences are so unsettlingly creepy (particularly a long shot of the killer silently slithering out from under the bed, and a strobe lit scene in the basement near the end), that movie merits viewing just for those alone.
01 – CANDYMAN (1992).
PLOT – A graduate student discovers the terrifying truth behind a local urban legend as she fights for her reputation, her sanity and her life (TRAILER).
WHY – Because it’s the absolute gold standard of true adult horror movies, that’s why. More than two decades on, it’s still impossible to name another genre movie that manages to blend horror, suspense, pathos and heartbreakingly good acting all in one perfectly told tale with a killer story hook. Atmosphere is everything, as director Bernard Rose vividly creates a world steeped with urban decay and Urban Legends in equal measures. As the Researcher at first trying to debunk, then desperately validate, rumours of a mythological neighbourhood killer with bloodied hook for a hand, Virginia Madsen is achingly perfect – bristling with fierce intelligence, false bravado, empathy and a humanity that helps carry the movie into rarely conquered creative ground. She’s matched round for round by wonderfully nuanced script that raises as many sociological questions as it does psychological. Throw in Tony Todd’s terrifying turn as the mysterious figure who might be man or myth and you have a movie that manages to transcend the spectacle of horror to become a mediation on the darkest corners of the human mind.
BEST BIT – So many parts stand out on their own merits, but there is nothing more terrifying than those first few scenes in Cabrini Green that truly capture the palpable sense of danger and decay that Candyman traffics in. Sure, there might be a mirror-jumping boogeyman with a hook for a hand on the loose, but there’s nothing scarier than the people looking to exploit a myth for their own personal gain. The film shot a good chunk of these scenes on location in the real Cabrini Green, which lends not just an air of authenticity, but the palable sense that all of this is really real.
IF YOU LIKED THIS, THEN TRY – THE MIST (2007). If there was ever a Rolls Royce of achingly human Horror Dramas, it would be this sleeper hit from Shawshank Redeemer Frank Darabont. Firmly cementing his place as the Patron Saint of Stephen King adaptations, he takes the lesser-known tale of apocalyptic event survivors and creates something both horrifying and unmistakably human that transcends genre expectations. Containing the action almost completely to a giant Grocery Store, the story alternates between an escalating succession of horror tropes (giant bugs, mysterious tentacles, possible military experiments) and the increasingly desperate actions of the characters trapped within.