A couple months ago the all things media rag Entertainment Weekly composed a list of the “20 Top Horror Films of the Past 20 Years” (http://www.ew.com/ew/gallery/0,,20284496_20284497_20295591,00.html)
And my friends and I found ourselves…unimpressed. After collectively slightly cocking our heads we decided to produce our own definitive list. Our process was thorough, paring down individual lists into 1 master list. While you will see some similarities between our list and EW you will note that movies that aren’t really “horror” are omitted (Shaun of the Dead is a great movie but it is primarily a comedy; Silence of the Lambs is primarily a psychological thriller, same with From Hell). Finally the 5 of us sat down together to discuss our Top 20; both our similar picks and perhaps a random barb tossed in for glaring differences. We give you OUR Top 20 Horror Films of the Last 20 Years!
KEN: I honestly think the American remake is better than the original from
MARY: Totally agree with ya Ken; one of the few remakes of my adored “J-Horror” genre that I actually like more than the original. From the twisted images of the urban legend-esque “tape” that will kill you 7 days later upon viewing it, to the creepy face-mangling that signifies a victim, to the terrifying confrontation between Samara and Martin Henderson (Naomi Watts’ love interest), this movie is pretty much perfect. Could’ve been a little shorter at the end though.
HEATHER: This was pretty much a straightforward thriller – no monsters, no gore – just a scary urban legend apparently come true. While I understand the purpose of a videotape being at the center of the story, for me it makes the terror a little less effective in this age of DVD media. The clips of what originally seem to be random and unrelated scenes are creepy, even before the audience is clued in to what they mean. The horror is only intensified as the story behind the tape is revealed.
ERIC: I love seeing the twisted faces of the victims after the girl comes out TV in this movie…I loved it so much!
JD: Yeah, those faces are what creeped me out the most. I’ll never forget when you see that first girl’s twisted face…yikes! Then there is the one photo where a guy’s face is all warped; yeah I just don’t ever wanna accidentally see that in one of my photos like ever.
Seriously, I think this is pretty close to being a perfect horror film for me. It doesn’t really go for the cheap pops, but tells an interesting, creepy story about normal people screwing each other over in order to not die due to their own curiosity. Samara doesn’t really scare me though the locations and scratchy cinematography did wonders.
2. The Sixth Sense
MARY: I didn’t see this until maybe 2 months after it came out and I was well aware of the “surprise” ending but that didn’t cease any fear that I felt as Haley Joel Osment encounters dead people of young and old. By far M. Night Shyamalan’s best film and most creepy at that.
JD: I agree. M. Night hasn’t come close to a complete film since this one and I still get a jump or two out of this even after repeated viewing. Sixth Sense really worked for me because I got sucked in to caring about Haley’s character. He wasn’t a douche like the people you hope will die in a Friday The 13th and other horror flicks. Between the tugging at my emotional strings and the overall originality of the story, I paid such close attention that when it was time for a scare I really got it big time.
KEN: I didn’t see it coming and I don’t believe anyone who says they did! It almost feels like something Hitchcock would have done.
HEATHER: This is another flick that when first watched, has an unexpected ending that changes the entire feel of the movie…though I still feel it is more of a thriller than out-and-out horror. I immediately wanted to re-watch it to put all the pieces together that were so obviously there, but the audience didn’t know to look for them. This film wouldn’t have been nearly as successful had Osment’s character been an adult instead of a child. I also agree that this movie is infinitely better than any of Shymalan’s other creations.
MARY: You’re right in a sense Heather that is not straight-up horror but I think the dead people concept does lend itself to the horror genre.
HEATHER: True. I still consider this a horror flick, and actually had it on my original list of picks. The reason I consider it less conventional is that it makes you actually think some, instead of simply scaring you with visuals or “bumps in the night.”
ERIC: Another movie using the element of “not knowing what’s happening next” made the film excellent! Great movie!
3. Dawn of the Dead (Zach Snyder’s)
HEATHER: It didn’t take long to realize this was a Zack Snyder film (I saw Watchmen before ever seeing this flick) and that was a good thing. Here, the speed zombie is done right. A single shot to the head will kill them, but they’re so fast and so numerous, it’s a difficult task to take on. There’s also no “partial-zombie-ness;” the tiniest bite brings on the full fledged infection. The suspense and drama are only heightened when our survivors bicker amongst themselves…Because we all know, you’ve got to stick together to make it through a horror film.
ERIC: All I can say about this movie are three words, “Running Fucking Zombies.” Apparently, in the afterlife people are superhuman, who knew…
JD: “28 Days Later” may have started it, but this Romero-remake brought it to the masses. I remember clenching the entire first time I saw this film. It isn’t out-and-out scary in the traditional horror genre sense and that is why it works for me. Would I want this film to become reality? Hell no! That in itself puts the horror factor on another level to me. Between zombies and being forced into intimate situations with people you’ve only just met, Snyder really does make it more about characters than the potential for spectacle. Highlights for me are almost anything that Ving Rhames says and the Richard Cheese “Down with the Sickness” montage. If only Snyder would have done the other installments.
MARY: If only George Romero could actually direct a movie, it might look like this. This film is the most fully realized Zombie film, and tells an actual story not simply of survival, but of interpersonal relationships. With several well developed characters and plot lines I feel like they all point to one simple truth of the human condition.
KEN: Running zombies. It’s all about running zombies in the new millennium.
4. 28 Days Later
MARY: Why are Zombies even big culturally right now? I would say it’s because of this movie. Yes it is THAT important. Someone please check the timeline, but every NeoZombie film has drawn deeply from the ideas presented here. Most importantly 28 DAYS LATER introduced the Zoombie, a Zombie made 1000x more terrifying because it moves faster than you can.
HEATHER: I do like the newer concept of the “fast-moving zombie,” but what I didn’t like was the speed of infection. Part of the fun of zombie movies is seeing the disease slowly take over its victim. I found myself generally bored by this particular film and thought there were a good amount of holes throughout it.
ERIC: Hmmmmm…What can I say about this movie? It’s a freaking awesome movie! Just imagine waking up almost a month later and the world shot to hell. This movie is scary to me b/c I believe this could actually happen someday.
JD: Wait, you genuinely believe a zombie apocalypse is on the horizon? Anyway…this one came from one of my favorite Directors, Danny Boyle. For me he just has a really great eye for what to put on camera and all his films tend to be character-centric. This is really a small film despite the scope. In fact, the zombies are only a vehicle for Boyle to show how creepy humans can be with each other when faced with an extinction-level event.
KEN: It's relentless, visceral, and just all-around frightening. The shots of Cillian Murphy wandering around the deserted streets of
5. 30 Days of Night
JD: I was hyped for this one from the moment I finished reading the comics! 30 Days of Night was such a departure from all the “kewel” vampire films that have been coming out for years now. Stuff like “Lost Boys” and “Dracula 2000” or “Near Dark” where so many of the vampires are mouthing off cool one-liners or just showing how much we humans aren’t nearly as cool…this wasn’t like any of that. The vampires here were almost like a full-fledged alien race set on ridding the world of humans and taking the planet for themselves. What we get as a result of that is a total slaughter, the height of which is definitely highlight number one for me. Much like zombies, we’re once more dealing with a classic mode of horror so full on fear isn’t what the viewer will get; though, how these suckers (intended!) chomped down upon a victim was quite nasty.
HEATHER: What makes this particular vampire flick so appealing and scary is the idea of being stuck – not only by the confines of a tiny town in nowhere
KEN: Even once you get past super-charged bloodbath of the vampires’ initial assault on the town of
6. Blair Witch
HEATHER: I can’t come to a conclusion of whether I love or hate this flick. My opinion of it changes with each viewing, depending on the mood and setting I’m in at the moment. This whole movie is what you make it. The scariness is in how much stock you put in the story and how far you let your imagination wander. You never see what is actually scary, you have to imagine it. If you’re not in the right mindset, it won’t be scary. I will say that I won’t be camping in the woods with my friends any time soon, which I guess makes the film effective to an extent.
KEN: I know I’m probably in the minority, but I just did not care for this film. I think the same way some people can hate a horror film for having too much gore, you can hate a film for having too many moments where you don’t see what’s going on. The whole “psychology” of it gets a little overbearing for me.
JD: This is an odd one for me. When I first saw it, I wasn’t all that horrified while sitting there in the theater. But once I got home and was alone? I was paranoid beyond belief! It played on me in such a subtle way that stuck with me and proceeded to haunt my mind for a good few days. Eventually I got over it, even watching the whole film alone in my home. Is this everyone’s cup of tea? Nope. But for those of us who like psychological horror over graphic this is one of the big ones.
MARY: Upon my opening viewing of this film in the theater, I spent the last hour with my head turned to the side whilst softly crying. I proceeded to sleep on the couch outside my parent’s room for the following week. I have watched BLAIR WITCH several times since but I still don’t think I have viewed the ending in its entirety. I daresay this film launched the “reality” movement in media, mixing word of mouth with fake web sites and false documentaries, inspiring other films such as CLOVERFIELD.
ERIC: The reason this movie is scary is b/c it’s from 1st person point of view. As time went on, I grew to hate this movie b/c my last name is Blair and people use to always say, “Hey Blair Witch”
7. Final Destination
ERIC: I think this movie kind of reintroduce guts and gore to the big screen. Don’t get me wrong, there were movies before that were gory but this one was so over the top. I loved it!
KEN: The idea of death coming back for people who should have died in a horrible accident was pretty inventive. Furthermore, having the main character be male got audiences away from the "final girl" cliché.
HEATHER: I almost didn’t like this movie before I even saw it, but I’ll give almost anything a chance once and tried to keep an open mind. I simply couldn’t get into the concept, as I believe when it’s your time to go, that’s it – you can’t change it. So get on the plane or don’t get on the plane, if you’re meant to die on that day, it is going to happen regardless of what you do. I didn’t feel connected to the characters in any way and therefore didn’t care that they would be meeting their demise.
MARY: What can be scarier than a force of nature, no need for a person or demon to fight, that is just make believe bull shiv. Death is not some silly skeleton in a robe, it is all around us… dun dun duh!
8. The Mist
HEATHER: I’m a big fan of King’s written work, but am often disappointed with
MARY: This movie had such potential. If it actually went where it was hinting at the whole time, I might have enjoyed it. Instead horrible CGI and a ridiculous ending ended up angering me more than scaring or thrilling me.
JD: I didn’t really think the effects were bad or that the ending was ridiculous. For me there was just enough CGI because that wasn’t what this film was really about. I’m starting to really see what modern horror is and that would be something to the effect of what happens between people when they’re all plopped into a totally screwed up situation. I honestly think it was worse being in the market than it was being out in the mist. At least out there you knew what you were dealing with and how to combat them. Plus, I hate insects so any time I get to kill huge ones is a plus for me. Could there have been more here? Perhaps about what went wrong to open this dimensional hole? Sure, but I think that much like “The Green Mile” Director Frank Darabont works better with less.
KEN: The horror in The Mist definitely lies in how character-driven it is. It’s truly frightening to see how quickly the people trapped in the supermarket are influenced by Marcia Gay Harden’s fanaticism, and it makes Thomas Jane’s struggle to protect his son and friends that much more immediate. Then of course, there’s the ending. It’s always nice to see an American horror film that’s willing to “go there” so to speak.
MARY: STARSHIP TROOPERS is the right way to do giant insects via CGI. And an army-based hallucinogenic fog; a test done on a small town for the benefit of our evil government would’ve gotten to me more in the end.
HEATHER: I have to agree with JD – the monsters are not what’s meant to be scary… it’s almost never that way with King’s stories. The horror is the human reaction to a situation that seems to have NO possibility of a good outcome.
KEN: You have to love the ingenuity of the first Saw, even if the franchise has overstayed its welcome. Nothing was scarier than the ending, as all the pieces fall into place for one of the main characters. I honestly couldn’t sleep after seeing this movie the first time.
HEATHER: Most people view this as just another gory flick, but I found it quite original. It’s not simply senseless hacking up of random victims. They are chosen for reasons, set in intricate traps and actually have a chance to escape. This being the first film of the series, the viewer has no idea what is really going on – the completely unexpected ending leaves the audience begging for sequels to answer their questions. I’m almost always in the minority in my belief that this series has NOT outrun its welcome and there are still too many unanswered questions – I already own and repeatedly watch the first five and will do the same with any and all additional films in the series.
ERIC: Saw, to me isn’t the traditional horror movie but more of a psychological horror flick. B/c the movie just fucks with you and then “Oh! This guy just gets up and leaves the room” at the end.
JD: Flat out, I’m not a fan of this series. With that said, I can still readily admit that the first Saw is the best Saw. All the others are just films that build elaborate mouse traps which have the viewers cheering for the characters do die. I don’t grasp the concept of a series where the only person you have any small connection to is the villain and even then, you don’t really care about him, you just kind of respect him for all the warped shit he does to people. That first one though, it was a gem and it was in your face. Just like Eric said, in those final moments when the film ends…you just can’t believe he was there the whole time and that makes it awesome.
MARY: The 1st SAW was the indie one and benefits from that. But I called the dead guy being the villain! I truly did! And I like the 2nd SAW better which might be blasphemy to the “true” original fans.
JD: Is Saw II the one with the girl in the pit of hypodermic needles? Oh my God, that nearly made me puke! I totally never want to see that again.
MARY: That’s the one JD – my queasiest moment watching a film! BLECH!!
10. White Noise
KEN: An interesting concept, but I just didn’t find it very scary. I can’t even remember most of it now.
JD: Ken, I believe in ghosts and sometimes EVP. With how Keaton bites it at the end I just felt that this was so close to being what could actually happen in the real world. Yeah, no matter how many times I watch this it scares the holy hell out of me. The voices, those damned shadow figures and all the unheeded warnings? Ugh. I’m getting the chills just thinking about it.
HEATHER: I like it because it was a ghost story without being a typical ghost story. What makes it get to you is that if you’re a believer in the film’s concepts it could really be happening around you at any moment. Unless you’ve decided to use the technology available to capture it, you may never know just what lurks around on a regular basis. The quick flashes of apparitions and bumps in the night are things we all think we experience when we’re home alone, but do we dare let our minds wander to what they might actually be?
MARY: How many times must Michael Keaton be warned before he finally gets what’s coming to him? DON’T MEDDLE!!! That is the moral of this story! GHOST HUNTERS should take this movie to heart – watch out Grant!
11. Candy Man
KEN: I love this film for its simplicity. Not that parts of it aren’t complex, but it is rather straightforward in its themes and the story it’s trying to get across. It has an almost theatrical feel to it that I really appreciate. Not to mention Tony Todd creating a black horror icon that was further away from Blackula than we could ever hope.
ERIC: Because of Candy Man I will not look into my bathroom mirror in the pitch dark and say, “Candy Man…Candy Man…Candy Man” Yes, I am a grown man now but I still feel like this movie is too scary for my blood
MARY: I’ll take the urban myth of “Bloody Mary” over this film any day!
JD: You would, Mare!
12. Drag Me to Hell
MARY: Sam Raimi’s finest film since ARMY OF DARKNESS. Some scenes are frightening and build suspense; others are just downright disgusting- anyone have a ruler I can borrow? You don’t mind if I just put my teeth here while I write the rest of this do you? And it’s out now! So go rent / buy this movie NOW !
KEN: From the film’s opening flashback, I should have known all bets were off! Raimi brings back all his old school tricks with this one, making a film that succeeds in being equal parts horror, and slapstick humor. There’s definitely a lingering dread after seeing the film, even if said film features what is, essentially, a Looney Tunes gag.
13. Exorcist III
JD: This is my all-time favorite horror film. Satan films are my thing and this one really just stands out among the “Omens” and “Rosemary’s Baby” due to all the visual horrors. It may be simple like a suddenly evil-morphed statue in a church or that fraction of a second scene in the hospital with the huge sheers but there’ll be something to creep out anyone in Exorcist III. On top of tying into the original (and classic) Exorcist, this one brings back our favorite priest in a way we’d never expect. George C. Scott’s taking over the role of Kinderman is a vast improvement but this film wouldn’t be anything without Brad Dourif’s career-making performance. Many people haven’t seen this installment due to the immense suckage of Exorcist II and that is a shame.
HEATHER: This was an edge-of-the-seat thriller for me – always wondering what’s coming next. For those who’ve seen this movie, I think two words can sum it up: scissor scene. When one single image from a film is enough to forever haunt my dreams, the film is a success.
MARY: Exactly Heather! I dig this movie for the scissor scene alone – EEK!
ERIC: I always seen pieces of this movie and the piece I seen were always so dark and scary. I will never forget the priest’s voice. I need to buy this movie.
14. Ginger Snaps
MARY: I just saw this movie about a month ago and absolutely loved it. A great low-budget film that takes advantage of quick cuts to mask that lack of special effects. The dialogue sounds so real and the story is both scary and funny. Upon seeing previews, I feel like JENNIFER’S BODY totally aped GINGER SNAP’s style.
ERIC: I never heard of this movie or seen it before but every time I look at the name, I think of actual ginger snaps snapping in my hands.
KEN: Lycanthropy used as a metaphor for puberty is nothing new, but it’s rarely seen from a female perspective. And watching the film, you can see the parallels being drawn are somewhat more effective when it’s a female. And ultimately, a bit scarier.
MARY: The franchise is cool because it keeps the girl’s the same but takes places in different time periods / configurations of the same werewolf story.
15. House of 1000 Corpses
MARY: The most perfect and beautiful scene in modern horror comes with this film, when our main villain shoots a kneeling officer in a expansive long-shot that makes me praise Rob Zombie as both a talented musician and master filmmaker. Zombie can play homage to horror any time he wants after viewing this amazing debut.
HEATHER: I first watched this film essentially alone in the dark, around Halloween… and nearly bit through my thumb in fright. My fear of clowns was a factor, though Captain Spalding has become a favorite of mine and probably the only clown I like. The family aspect of this film makes it all that much more disturbing.
JD: So far this is as close as I’ll get to having an
HEATHER: Scream goes back to the teen slasher genre, but does it right and is not overly cheesy. It was particularly upsetting for me because the stalker films are what really get me (and keep me looking over my shoulder and sleeping with the lights on for weeks).The characters know all of the cliché horror movie elements, but choose to ignore some of them anyway… causing me to jump on more than one occasion.
JD: I get so jealous when I watch this movie. Kevin Williamson unleashed a script that was so smart that half the filmgoers didn’t even grasp that this was deconstructing what a horror film was right in front of their eyes. It gave us so many of the plot elements we already knew of because they’d become staples of the genre and showed the audience that even if the characters in the film knew these same things…they’d still be dead. We were deliberately served the familiar but Williamson did it in a way that not only still surprised us, but left us wondering. As a writer, I dream of creating a scene like the famous “rules” when they’re all watching Halloween. It was like the photo of a man holding a photo of himself holding a photo of himself holding a photo for infinity. It was pop culture post-modernism at its best and still managed to give us a new icon in the form of that horrid mask. Now if only there were just two “Scream” films and nothing else, maybe it’d still be considered a good series.
ERIC: Scream introduced a new era of horror. Nothing supernatural, no monsters, no boogieman, just a few guys reenacting what they see on movies. The true horror of this film is the element of “not knowing what’s happening next.”
KEN: This movie came out at the perfect time, when it was cool to be so self-aware and referential. Not to mention the total fake-out of Drew Barrymore plastered big as day on movie posters, only to have her be the first victim before we even see the opening title card!
17. What Lies Beneath
HEATHER: This was a classic concept done right. There is a dark, secret past that we are discovering in bits and pieces. That secret isn’t even necessarily the scariest part. What had me jumping were the little things – the sounds in the darkness and glimpses out of the corner of our eye that we all experience and cause our minds to go to movies such as this. You get that feeling you’re being watched, that someone else is there, that you swear you closed that door but now it’s open even though no one else is around.
KEN: I had never fallen asleep in a theater, until I saw this film
JD: Really? I thought that his was pretty messed up, especially with Harrison Ford in such an unconventional role. Rare is it in the horror genre to have such huge stars in a film and still keep the story important enough for you to believe that all bets could be off. As I said earlier, I’m a believer of ghosts so when a film is done right and keeps the CGI to a bare minimum it really works for me. Believe it or not, a door shutting on it’s own with no musical accompaniment will do wonders to terrorize me.
MARY: This movie is definitely creepy.
MARY: Boobies and gross torture. Not scary.
KEN: I liked that this was a very different take on slasher movies. They play with a lot of clichés and flips them into something new, and characters you’d think you’d be following throughout the entire film actually get picked off in short order. For a second, you have to really wonder how it’s going to end
HEATHER: Liked/hated at the same time (haha): Originally, I refused to even see this film. The previews and trailers alone had me terrified to the point that I didn’t think I could handle it. But I bucked up, broke down and watched it – only to be proven right. Gore does not usually bother me, but the torture techniques showcased here were so real, I was hurting just witnessing them on screen. It also made me nearly ill to recall that I had, in fact, stayed in a hostel while visiting
19. Event Horizon
MARY: Ever the glutton for punishment, I saw this twice in the theater (and hid my eyes both times) and even attempted to read the novelization of the film. Couldn’t finish it though…scared me too much!
JD: I really didn’t appreciate this one enough when I originally saw it in theaters and remember leaving thinking it sucked. A viewing or two at home and now I’m in a totally opposite belief. I think this is really a difficult breed, the sci-fi horror film. There aren’t many true success stories here and even this film didn’t set the world afire considering it grossed about 20M less than the cost to make it. DVD people, watch it. What cracks me up a little bit is that Director Paul Anderson is also the guy who Produced the recently release “Pandorum” which looks just a little similar to Event Horizon.
MARY: The idea that the ship tortures each victim in a way that is catered especially to them makes fighting it off even more difficult. It is the isolation of the vessel and the horror that is inflicted that is so terrifying.
20. Devil’s Rejects
KEN: Proof that when he really focuses, Rob Zombie can make a pretty effective horror film. The look of the film is just beautiful in its grit and grime, and Zombie proves that he understands character and story development. Besides, I’m a sucker for “Highway Horror”.
MARY: Another great gem by Rob Zombie, but in my opinion not nearly as poignant as his first horror outing.
HEATHER: One of the few sequels that hasn’t fallen victim to the sequel curse. This is gore and violence but not just for the sake of gore and violence. The audience is again brought into the world of this family and just how deranged they are. The simple idea that there just might be people out there like this is frightening enough. There is no predicting what they might do, as it seems nothing is off limits in their minds.
JD: Count me as the lone dissenter here. It certainly wasn’t a horrible film, but in contrast to the high creativity factor of its predecessor this one just falls very short. There are too many generic horror movies that this one resembles and perhaps that was Zombie’s intent, to make a dirty 70’s-looking highway horror film. As a sequel it just didn’t work for me and as a horror film overall I just found it lacking in the creativity that the Director often exudes.
Nailing down what people find scary is often a crapshoot, but it’s always interesting to see what people will connect with. Horror as a genre tends to work via the trend. One movie will unexpectedly break the bank and soon after we’ll have five variations on it’s theme to choose (or not choose) from for viewing. If the recent success of Paranormal Activity is any indication (even ending the Saw franchise’s streak of #1 box office openings), audiences may be looking towards a more back-to-basics, “less is more” approach. It’d also be nice to see a return to anthology horror films, like Trick R’ Treat, which has finally been released, albeit straight to DVD. It’s mean-spirited, effectively creepy without being needlessly gory, and even a bit funny. It’s just the movie to get you in the Halloween spirit…especially if your tastes run more hardcore than say, “A Nightmare Before Christmas.”
So in the meanwhile, lock all your doors, keep the lights on and unless the killer’s already in your house, check out some of our picks and see for yourself what’ll scare the holy hell out of you.