A little Twitter post I made a few days ago inspired me to elaborate on a few horror movies that have particularly defined my tastes. Here’s a little bit about some of those movies.
The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter’s paranoid-driven classic about a research team in Antarctica coming in to contact with an assimilating, shapeshifting alien creature is a must-watch every time October comes around. I’m not sure when exactly this tradition came about, but I’ve been obsessed with The Thing ever since I was a morbidly curious teenager. Back then, I was horrified by the mystifying mutations the titular Thing goes through when consuming dogs, humans—doesn’t matter. Now, it’s safe to say it’s my comfort movie.
Yes, I have seen the 2011 remake… err… prequel. I’m not here to bash it (upon a recent rewatch I actually did find things about the movie I enjoyed), but I do think it’s important to draw a distinction between those two movies. The remake’s… err… prequel’s failings come from more than its lack of practical effects (a feature of Carpenter’s film that’s helped it quietly climb the ranks of the horror genre from cult slop to bona fide classic). It comes from a lack of understanding the true “horror” of body horror. It’s a topic that’s well explained in this video by The Morbid Zoo.
Anyway, an amazing watch with someone who’s never ever seen it (don’t tell them anything about this movie), and Kurt Russell has a killer beard. Good, bloody fun.
Evil Dead (1981 & 2013)
Speaking of good, bloody fun. I’m cheating a bit and including both The Evil Dead (directed by Sam Raimi) and the 2013 remake Evil Dead (directed by Fede Álvarez) because I honestly love both, and both entice and intrigue me for very different reasons.
For old-school camp, straight cheeseball horror, you can’t go wrong with The Evil Dead (just wait for Evil Dead 2 and, oh, lord, Army of Darkness). The movie is all tension until all hell breaks loose, quite literally. Bruce Campbell and his friends camp out at a cabin in the woods and read from the Book of the Dead and resurrect demons. It is hilariously horrific, and some of the effects are deliciously dated.
For what I think is a genuinely unnerving take on the story, try Fede Álvarez’s 2013 remake, a bleak and twisted retelling that just strays away from taking itself too seriously. Quite possibly the bloodiest movie I’ve ever seen. I’ll never take a hot shower or look at a electrical knife the same ever again.
For an added bonus check out Ash vs The Evil Dead (now streaming on Netflix). In my opinion, it’s a beautiful blending of these two very distinct styles for one gory, silly, and wild series.
A man grows a VHS-vagina type thing on his stomach. Need I say more? OK. Debbie Harry is in it. OK for real.
David Cronenberg’s sci-fi body horror is the movie that ignited my lifelong obsession with body horror. As a young boy, this was a particularly stirring movie, about a television programmer who discovers a broadcast with essentially snuff films… you know, sex and torture and murder and stuff. There’s a lot of sexually suggestive (did you not hear me when I said VHS-vagina?) body mutations going on. Is it real? Is it mind control? You guess. But I like it quite a bit.
If you don’t like psychosexual stories with disturbing implications about the ways in which technologies are figuratively (and literally) changing our bodies, then maybe don’t watch David Cronenberg movies. It’s kind of his thing. I’m kidding, check out A History of Violence or Eastern Promises or something.
I don’t say this to make it sound as though I am some badass, stoic presence, but I don’t react much to movies as I watch them. I’m a real shut-the-fuck-up-and-watch kind of person, but, you know, maybe you’ll get a “Danggg” or “oh” or “huh” out of me. Hereditary literally made me yell “what the fuck?!” during a very specific scene. Not kidding. My roommates at the time knocked on my door to check if I was OK, and I had to explain to them, “don’t worry, I’m just watching an incredibly fucked up movie, I’m good.”
Ari Aster’s Hereditary is one of the most disturbing, fucked-up movies I have ever seen. Midsommar (Aster’s feature after Hereditary) is great, too, but Hereditary hits me like a train wreck. Truly a disgusting, horrifying piece of cinema. Well done.
The first time I watched this movie I was stoned with my good friends in a trailer by a lake in Olympia, WA. Again, not trying to be braggadocious, nor am I insinuate that one need to be in that particular state of mind to enjoy Panos Cosmatos’s psychedelic revenge horror, but I’m just saying that’s where I was when I first watched this freaking thing. Set some context, you know? (But also, do drugs and watch this movie.)
Panos Cosmatos set the stage for Mandy with Beyond the Black Rainbow, which feels like a precursor to the particular psychedelic style that transfixes during Mandy, the film bleeding and color flooding and overlaying of images and faces and eyes. The first half feels like Black Sabbath’s “Planet Caravan,” and the second half feels like “Children of the Grave.” It is at one point dreamy and surreal, then demented and sick the next. It mystic and morbid, for sure.
Demonic biker gangs. Jesus freaks. An absolutely unhinged Nic Cage. It’s a damn near perfect movie.
The Shining (1980)
When we were kids, my siblings and I would scare our grandmother by placing our little fingers next to our heads and saying, “Redrum! Redrum!” We were truly awful grandkids. Like The Thing, Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece has become somewhat a yearly tradition come Halloween. I could quote half of the lines from the movie, can almost draw (very poorly, mind you) the movie from memorization alone, and yet it still excites me every time I watch it.
I’m actually currently in the process of reading Stephen King’s The Shining, which I’ve never read and which the film is based upon. Reading the book has given me a deeper appreciation of the movie, as I feel like there are hints of the book that come through, particularly in Jack Nicholson’s interpretation of Jack Torrance. In other ways, though, I can see why King hates the adaptation. King’s book is deeply personal, and more about the echoes and lingering horror of family trauma and addiction. In Kubrick’s adaptation, I get the sense that the true horror is domestication.
The movie, though, its behind-the-scenes lore (some of which is especially concerning; see: Shelley Duvall) and its final product is endlessly mysterious. A great movie to watch in a local cinema if around Halloween-time, when places are inclined to show it.
The Ring (2002)
Story time: I saw this movie in theaters at the height of its excitement. Packed theater, and this movie is scaring the shit out of everyone. The tension is palpable. We just hit the faux ending, so everyone is chilling out, then the turn. It’s not over, and that scene happens. You know the one (and spoiler warning, if you haven’t seen the movie). The freaking well girl starts climbing OUT OF THE TV. And the audience proceeds to collectively lose its shit. There are audible gasps and “hell no”s, and I witness one lady sprint from her sit and out of the theater. When I tell you that was one of the greatest collective experiences I’ve ever been a part of, I am not kidding. Returning home to the bulbous analogue TV staring at me as I tried to go to sleep that night was the creepy cherry on top.
In Gore Verbinski’s The Ring a journalist investigates an urban fiction surrounding an unmarked VHS tape that, when watched, kills the viewer after seven days. It’s a movie that is drenched in atmosphere and desaturated colors, and contains some of the most effective jump scares I’ve ever seen. The overarching mystery of the cryptic tape and the soggy girl in the well (which is honestly a bit dulled by the sequel) pulls you (reluctantly) through one horror-filled moment after the other.
Another quick story: When I can, and much more often before the pandemic, I like venturing off to the theater alone to cinematically treat myself. Such was the case for Alex Garland’s cosmic horror Annihilation, based of the 2014 James VanderMeer novel of the same name. I ended up seated next to a little girl—my best guess is that she was no older than eight or so. Her dad had brought her and her brother in because, I’m assuming, he’s a crazy asshole. But halfway through the movie, right around the moment when an mutant bear starts screaming (in human voices, mind you), the little girl whispers, “I’m scared.” And I was right there with her. Take the girl home, Dad!
I was a big fan of Garland’s Ex Machina, but Annihilation feels like a different breed of brooding, existential sci-fi horror. It is a movie that has stayed with me for its horror, its intrigue, its grotesque beauty, worthy of countless rewatches and deeper rumination. Just don’t take little children to it.
My dad showed this movies to us when we were just kids discovering horror movies. I suppose because it’s just camp enough that it’s not seriously scary, but it can be bloody and there are moments that, as a kid, truly scared me. Creepshow, a sort of horror-comedy anthology directed by George A. Romero, with stories by Stephen King, features five short stories all laced together as comics. (A bit of a fun irony is that I now find myself in the comics world as an editor.)
As a kid I was intrigued by these stories, about a lowly farmer who discovers a meteorite that slowly and inevitably consumes him in moss, or a mysterious crate underneath the stairwell of a university that’s carrying a monstrous secret, or a rich, egotistical man who’s fancy apartment is being overrun with roaches. They are great bite-size stories that are intriguing, cheesy, scary, and stylish.
In a way, this movie paved the way for my interest in anthologies like The Twilight Zone, True Detective, and, most recently, Guillermo del Toros Cabinet of Curiosities.
Possessor , directed by Brandon Cronenberg, is a rare gem that hit me in an extremely visceral way, in such a way that when I finished it, I immediately showed it to my partner. I immediately texted my brother (who introduced me to David Cronenberg, Brandon’s father) about it. I was disturbed but wanted to know more about this world that Brandon Cronenberg had created, a world that seems so eerily familiar to our own, so horrifyingly prescient, that it feels like, in a lot of ways, we’re living in right now.
In Possessor, a corporate assassin assumes control of other peoples’ bodies in order to fulfill her contracts. It’s a movie that feels like old-school Cronenberg: a nuanced and provocative look at how technology shapes our minds and our bodies. And for all its heady explorations and surreal imagery, it is stunningly violent. As Scaredy Cats points out in his video, it’s a movie that’s happening now. And that’s part of what makes this movie so fascinating and, well, fucked up.