This feature is Part Two (of Two) in an extensive list of highlights and heartfelt recommendations from the last 50 years of horror cinema . . .
1993: It’s no secret that I love Needful Things. Leprechaun is a camp classic, and my dual loves of Timothy Hutton and George Romero mean that I have to take note of The Dark Half (even if I don’t love it), but the 1993 title belt goes to Guillermo del Toro for his Cronos, the most original take on a vampire film since Martin, although its internal mythology and cinematic eye far surpass that of the earlier film. The details in my mind are scant, but perhaps that’s for the best since I can’t spoil anything for you.
1994: A few years back, I would have called Cemetery Man my favorite horror film of 1994. While I do still enjoy it and find the imagery haunting (and there’s a Rupert Everett shower scene that might make everything in your house pregnant), a recent discussion with other socially progressive horror fans about the film’s admittedly questionable sexpolitick has made me want to revisit the film before I give it an unequivocal go-ahead. As such, I can’t recommend 1994’s Freddy Krueger entry Wes Craven’s New Nightmare enough. Before Craven jumped feet first into the meta-slasher genre, he tested the waters with this horror film about horror films, featuring an intriguing mythology that repositions the Krueger monster in the real world, as the embodiment of an ancient and real demonic entity that has become comfortable in Freddy’s skin. Featuring the return of Heather Langenkamp, who portrayed Nancy in the original film and Dream Warriors, this film serves as the perfect capstone to a trilogy of horror, if you watch the first film, the third, and this one, ignoring the others (except for morbid curiosity about how bad they can be). Brandon even came to a similar conclusion recently.
1995: This was a terrible year for horror cinema. If 1988 was the nadir of horror sequelitis, then 1995 is a close second. And if I told you that 1995 gave us one good thriller at least, you’d probably guess that I was talking about Se7en. But I lied; there were two good thrillers! A forgotten gem, Copycat stars Sigourney Weaver as a psychologist who studies serial killers until she is attacked by a deranged Harry Connick, Jr., leaving her mentally unwell and agoraphobic. That is, until a series of killings under investigation by detectives Dermot Mulroney and Holly Hunter force her to face her terror… before her fears can figure out where she lives.
1996: It’s The Craft. I mean, you knew that it would be, right? Obviously I love Scream, and it’s the better film objectively by a few miles, but there’s so much joy in watching the ladies of this coven succumb to their dark teenage impulses while refracting and reflecting the abuses that they have suffered back onto their teachers, bullies, parents, and other tormentors. There’s also a distinctly unusual story structure at play here that can make the film feel strange when you see if for the first time, like it’s not playing by the rules of cinema, and I love that as well. I have a friend who is working on the remake of the film, should it ever get off the ground, and when he told me about it I made sure to schedule some time to talk about what he had to get right, but the truth is, The Craft should remain untouched, unless you’re slipping it out of a DVD case (or, even better, a VHS sleeve) to watch it.
1997: This was almost the hardest year to make a choice about on this entire list. I share Brandon’s appreciation for Office Killer, and I think that Scream 2 is the rare sequel that is of equal quality to its predecessor. Guillermo del Toro gave ten-year-old Boomer nightmares for weeks from just the trailer for Mimic, and a series of sequels of diminishing quality doesn’t dull the horror of the original Wishmaster. Event Horizon is the real winner of my heart, pitting Sam Elliott and Lawrence Fishburne against each other aboard a derelict spaceship whose experimental propulsion system unwittingly opened a portal to Hell (of course, as one character says, “Hell is only a word. The reality is much worse.”). The film initially garnered an NC-17 rating for its violence, prompting some of the more truly horrifying scenes to be cut down to mere seconds of screentime and presented in flashes, which really only serves to make them subliminal and more horrifying. It’s a film that actually makes you want to reconsider the straight and narrow path.
1998: The post-Scream nineties were full of imitators. 1998’s Urban Legend has a special place in my heart because of its cast (notably future Dead Like Me actress Rebecca Gayheart, the always-amazing Alicia DeWitt, everybody’s first love Joshua Jackson, and Loretta DeVine, whose role here undoubtedly inspired Niecy Nash’s Scream Queens character Denise Hemphill). I also enjoy its attempt to compartmentalize and adopt contemporary folk tales into a basic slasher revenge narrative. Halloween H20 is also a great watch, and is (in my opinion) the best nineties sequel to a horror franchise that originated in another decade, recapturing the feeling of the first film and raising the stakes. That’s all well and good, but the best Scream imitator is undoubtedly The Faculty, which combines the classic pod people/body snatching plot with a commentary on interclique politics and general distrust of authority. It’s no surprise, then, that the script was penned by Scream screenwriter Kevin Williamson, but he’s not the only notable name in this incredibly talented cast and crew: Josh Hartnett, pre-Fast/Furious Jordana Brewster, Elijah Wood, Clea DuVall, Laura Harris (who went on to replace the above-mentioned Gayheart on Dead Like Me), and Shawn Hatosy–and that’s just the teenagers! Rounding out the adults in the cast are Robert Patrick, Salma Hayek, a pre-Daily Show Jon Stewart, Famke Jensen, Bebe Neuwirth, and Mrs. White herself Piper Laurie. Also, Usher is there. It’s a shame that this one’s no longer on Netflix, because it’s the perfect nostalgic high school Halloween flick for the ages.
1999: On any other list, The Blair Witch Project would probably be the title you’d expect to see here. I mean, what does it have to compete with? Two dumb giant aquatic creature movies (Lake Placid and Deep Blue Sea)? A Carrie sequel that was twenty years too late and that no one wanted? Two separate remakes of black and white horror classics that should have been left alone (House on Haunted Hill and The Haunting)? The Sixth Sense? Ok, maybe that one. But as unassailable and iconoclastic as Blair Witch was, I’m throwing my weight behind The Ninth Gate, which may come as a surprise to those who are aware of my general dislike for Johnny Depp vehicles (in fact, I didn’t even hate Sleepy Hollow, which also came out this year; it’s actually quite a beautiful film and probably Tim Burton’s last great live action picture). The Ninth Gate is about a rare book dealer who becomes part of a larger conspiracy that seeks to reunite a series of woodcarving prints from various editions of an alchemical text in order to use the clues hidden therein to summon the Devil. It’s a great premise, and the film itself is eerie enough, even before the film categorically answers whether or not the horror facing the protagonist is truly supernatural or merely the manipulation of a reckless cabal of rich fools with cult-like devotion and bottomless pocketbooks.
2000: Ginger Snaps! Ginger Snaps! Katharine Isabelle is a delightful terror in this film that connects the blossoming of womanhood with a “change” of a more… lycanthropic nature. The scene in which one sister tries to help her sister through the removal of a painful and disgusting tail is a particularly nauseating treat. In this nickel-budget indie, everything is pitch perfect: the blandness of suburbia, the power of sisterhood, the uselessness of parents. Seek it out.
2001: Frailty was the directorial debut of the late Bill Paxton, and it’s an interesting experiment in determining which of your friends are purely rational and which are inclined to a more supernatural explanation. Of all the films that annoy me with their revelation that, “surprise,” the rational explanation of the film’s events is incorrect and the supernatural explanation is the correct one, Frailty toes the line with surprising subtlety and grace, never answering the question one way or the other and providing ample evidence for either viewpoint. Unusually, however, my favorite horror flick of 2001 is explicitly supernatural: The Others, in which Nicole Kidman and her poor, ill children are forced to confront the ghosts of the past (or are they?). Although a lot of the film’s surprises have been diminished by parody and overplay over the years (I think that TNT played The Others five times a week from 2003 to 2005), it still holds up, and it continues to reward with every viewing.
2002: The influence of The Ring on the horror films that followed in the next ten years is undeniable, for better or worse, and I was fortunate enough to see 28 Days Later on the big screen at a recent Terror Tuesday so that I could be reminded just how fantastic it is (I found myself listening to “In a House In a Heartbeat” for weeks after). It’s so good. But 2002 truly belongs to the beautiful oddity that is Bubba Ho-Tep, starring camp icon Bruce Campbell as an elderly Elvis Presley, whiling away his final days in an assisted living facility. You see, the “Elvis” who died in 1977 was actually an impersonator with whom the real Presley traded places in order to get some distance from his fame and all the trauma that accompanied it. He’s not the only supposed dead man there either: Ossie Davis plays a wheelchair-bound JFK, whose skin color was changed in order to hide him away from those who would do him harm after his “assassination.” Together, these two decrepit American icons have to fight off a reanimated mummy before it can suck the life out of every patient in their nursing home.
2003: When I started this list last year, I was genuinely perplexed as to what I should list as the best of this year, as virtually every film was complete garbage. Freddy vs Jason? The remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Darkness Falls and Dreamcatcher? I even went so far as to include Haute Tension on my outline with the assumption that I would find the time to watch it (I didn’t). But then a light appeared in the heavens and I saw A Tale of Two Sisters, a South Korean thriller about a young girl named Su-mi who returns to both her secluded family home after psychiatric treatment and to a dependency upon and protection of her younger sister, Su-yeon, against the apparent evils of their wicked stepmother. There’s more happening here than meets the eye, however, and you’re doing yourself a disservice if you haven’t caught this one. It’s also going to be the last legitimately good horror movie you’ll read about on this list for a while, so settle in.
2004: Yikes. Another shitty, shitty year. There were not one but two sequels to Ginger Snaps in 2004, neither of them really being worth the effort. I almost want to give the credit to Cube Zero, serving as the best sequel to 2007’s Cube, a fantastic master class in making the most of your budget and finding a way to make the most of the “characters in search of an exit” premise. But Cube Zero isn’t Cube, so hat’s off to you, Shaun of the Dead.
2005: When I was in high school, I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture by Juliet Snowden and Stiles White, the husband and wife team behind The Boogeyman (Snowden’s father was a professor at the college on which my boarding school’s campus was housed). It was an eye-opening experience, as the two talked about how much could change from inception to release. You got the feeling that they were embarrassed by the final product, which transposed their creepy urban horror fairy tale to a remote farmhouse, among other liberties taken with their material. Fun trivia fact for a couple of people you’ve probably never heard of and probably will never think about again: the couple first bonded over their love of Rosemary’s Baby! I’m not saying all this because their film is good, or even passable, but it is indicative of a studio push for more financially safe, viable horror fare that would haunt the 2000s with lazy special effects, tired plotlines, and actors who were moving out of their family-friendly TV programs and trying to find success in film (usually unsuccessfully; who would have thought that the person who would best survive the demise of their WB family drama would be Melissa McCarthy?). I guess I’m giving this one to Dark Water? I mean, it’s not good, but it’s always nice to see Jennifer Connelly getting work.
2006: This was the year of bad remakes. The above-cited Black Christmas and The Wicker Man got a lazy and a crazy remake, respectively, while the remake of The Omen was passable at best and the reimagined The Hills Have Eyes is utterly lacking in charm. I guess that my favorite horror movie of the year was technically Slither, helmed by future galaxy guardian herder James Gunn, but I saw it only once when it was in theaters and, though I enjoyed it at the time, I’m hesitant to throw my weight behind it. Instead, I’ll praise Pan’s Labyrinth, another Guillermo del Toro picture that I’ve always considered to be more of a “dark fantasy” along the lines of a more mature NeverEnding Story or Legend than a horror film, but I suppose its nightmarish imagery means that it falls within the purview of this list. It’s probably his most well-known film in the U.S. that doesn’t have the words “Hellboy” or “Blade” somewhere in its title, so you’re probably already well aware of it, but if you haven’t seen it before, now is the time to strike, especially as its narrative of using imagination and compassion to fight fascism is more important now than it was 11 years ago.
2007: I don’t really care for Planet Terror, but I did love Death Proof. It’s typical Quentin Tarantino: lots of talk about pop culture topics, women with their feet hanging out of car windows and over the edge of booths to be ogled, discussion of great music made by bands you’ve never heard of before, and hilariously over the top violence. But it’s also atypical in that all of the characters are women; I’m not positive, but I think this may even be the first Tarantino that passes the Bechdel Test (it’s been a minute since I saw it, but it’s possible that Kill Bill had a few lines of dialogue exchanged between Uma Thurman and Lucy Liu or Thurman and Vivica A. Fox that didn’t explicitly mention Bill, but I can’t be sure). All of the characters are women, and the film also plays with convention by allowing us to slowly get to know a group that is quickly murdered by the killer before a whole car full of new Final Girls appears to make him sorry he was born. It was also the best American, studio-produced film to come along in years (and the last for a while).
2008: Speaking of which, Let the Right One In is my favorite of 2008, as we must reach beyond our domestic crop of films in 2008 to find one that is even worth mentioning. Luckily, this one’s not only passable but superb. In this creepy Swedish vampire film that was as iconoclastic of the genre as Martin and Cronos were in their respective days, the audience witnesses a bizarre (and horrifying) love emerge between a bullied prepubescent and his new neighbor, who is more than what they seem. The same rule applies here as it did with Jacob’s Ladder: if you haven’t already seen this movie, don’t read anything else about it until you get a chance to watch it for yourself. You won’t be disappointed, although you might be a little nauseated.
2009: Our cousins in the U.K. made the best horror (technically thriller) film of 2009 with Exam, a movie about eight people in a room who are competing for a single job opening in a vaguely-defined company that is situated to do important work in a bizarre world. Functioning as a kind of pre-Black Mirror surreal speculative fiction that looks at our world as it is, but slightly askew, the narrative follows the breakdown of these applicants who are faced with the titular exam. There are only a few simple rules: no talking to the Invigilator (exam proctor) or the armed guard at the door, no spoiling their paper, and no leaving the room. Failure to comply means disqualification, which is implied to be more devastating than simply not being considered for the job, but something darker. Much like Cube before it, the minimalist setting and cast allow the film to explore the darker side of human nature in a microcosm of society while standing in opposition to an unknown force.
2010: We have to cross the channel to France for my favorite horror film of 2010: Rubber, a bizarre ode to “no reason” that follows a psychopathic tire as it winds its way across a desert wasteland and encounters a variety of armchair philosophers who make muddled statements to make about the nature of man, art, and other topics. Brandon wasn’t as much of a fan as I was, but everything in his review is nonetheless accurate, so give that a read!
2011: If you go back through my old American Horror Story reviews on Tumblr or my personal blog (I’m not linking here because, like all writers, I’m a little embarrassed by my early work), you’ll find a fair amount of antipathy for Emma Roberts, whom I eventually came to accept as a passable actress about halfway through the first season of Scream Queens (perhaps because playing an unrepentant bigot with delusions of grandeur and the moneyed background to support it is squarely within her wheelhouse). As such, her presence in Scream 4 should have bothered me much more than it did at the time, but I found her portrayal of Sidney Prescott’s younger cousin to be a good role for her, and the film is great overall. Enough time had passed that the ground from which this franchise was born was fertile again (especially after the mess that was Scream 3), and the story works great within the paradigm of being a soft reboot while also bringing back the characters that we had grown to know and love over 15 years. Neve Campbell, David Arquette, and Courteney Cox truly feel like they’ve come home after a long time away, and the additions to the cast like Hayden Panettiere, Mary McDonnell, babealicious Nico Tortorella, and Alison Brie all contribute to a film that’s better than it has any right to be, and better than we deserve. It’s a shame that Scream 5 seems so unlikely now, but if this is where the franchise has to end, then at least it went out with style.
2012: This was the hardest decision on the list. I have nothing but love for Cabin in the Woods (see Brandon’s review here). Not only is it hilarious, scary, full of Easter Eggs, and generally perfect, it’s got many of your fave Joss Whedon collaborators (even if, understandably, your least favorite Joss Whedon collaborator these days is Whedon himself), but I also have a special fondness for it since a theatrical viewing was the first treat I gave myself after completing the grueling process that is graduate school (I was in my seat an hour after I took my last exam. Still, I’m going to have to give this year’s honors to Berberian Sound Studio, a pitch-perfect deconstruction of working behind the scenes on a giallo film, especially if you’re a timid English sound editor whose only previous experience is with tenderly shot pastoral documentaries. From the moment of his arrival, Gilderoy (Tobey Jones) is a nervous ball of anxiety, experiencing culture shock in his friction with a gaggle of aggressive Italian filmmakers (who in turn grow increasingly frustrated with his nebbishness). This only grows more potent as the film on which he is working, The Equestrian Vortex, becomes more intense. His inability to stomach the film’s subject matter becomes a liability; despite being a part of the process (and thus seeing how the metaphorical sausage is made), he descends into a kind of madness that takes him to unexpected places. Both Cabin and Studio are deconstructions of the horror genre that work perfectly as examples of the genre as well, and both are well worth your time.
2013: I didn’t see Odd Thomas, which has been sitting in my Netflix queue for nearly four years now, and although I’m super intrigued by the mechanisms of the creation of Escape from Tomorrow, I haven’t managed to catch that one either. I saw The Conjuring but wasn’t particularly impressed, and although I saw the next films by the directors of the Evil Dead remake and Mama (Fede Álvarez’s Don’t Breathe, mentioned above and Andrés Muschietti’s recent adaptation of IT, respectively), I haven’t seen either of those. I’m going to have to give it to Oculus, strangely enough. I have no love whatsoever for professional wrestling, but I’m obligated to note that WWE films managed to put out a pretty decent horror film. It’s nothing ground-breaking, but it attracted my attention initially for having two actresses from two of my favorite sci-fi franchises, Katee Sackhoff (Starbuck from the reimagined Battlestar Galactica) and Karen Gillam (Amy Pond, companion of the Eleventh Doctor), as well as Australian heartthrob Brenton Thwaites. The ending, and the overall plot, leave much to be desired, but I was pleasantly surprised when, sitting in the theater, I was presented with a horror film that was (a) original, (b) well produced and edited, and (c) genuinely terrifying at parts. It’s certainly nothing to write home about, but the fact that it’s a horror movie down to its bones and doesn’t rely on metatextual references to support it makes it a noteworthy experiment.
2014: While we should all hail Babadook as the ingeniously inventive (and nightmarish) metaphor for depression and loss that it is, there’s something about the feature-length music video that is A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night that captured my heart from the first time that I saw it. I’m more fond of it than Brandon is, in a kind of inverse of our respective feelings about Neon Demon, another film that could be described using the words “feature length music video.” Demon and A Girl Walks are both mood pieces that rely on certain filmic techniques to tell a very short (if deceptively complex) narrative in a long form; after all, each film’s plot could be condensed into a three sentence recap apiece without excising any relevant details. But whereas I found Neon Demon to be a beautiful kaleidoscope of color that grew tiresome somewhere around the eighteenth hour of electronic musical droning, I was never bored by A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, while Brandon felt the opposite. Instead, I felt that 2017’s Raw was the spiritual successor to Suspiria that I wanted Neon Demon to be, while A Girl Walks is the timeless monochrome meditation that my life was missing. So, you know, take it from us(?) and watch neither, or both.
2015: People who know me personally are probably sick to death of hearing me talk about Queen of Earth, which I not only wrote about extensively just over two years ago, but also named my top film of 2015. I am sure that there are those who would object to my definition of this film as a “horror movie,” given that a surface viewing would show that the film lacks the normal hallmarks of that genre. What’s fascinating, though, is that this is a horror movie, with unsettling music, inexplicable and creepy appearances, a sympathetic and intertwined backstory for both our antagonist and our protagonist (if either of the main characters could be defined in such simple and straightforward terms). This is a thriller in which all of the violence is emotional, not physical, and that makes the film all the more haunting.
2016: It’s The VVitch. I mean, what else would it be? This one swept through the entire Swampflix staff like a delightfully distressing flu, earning a spot on every contributor’s list of best films of the year: Alli and Britnee both put it at number two on their respective lists, Brandon put it at number five, and it was my pick of the year. We’ve all written words upon words about it, so I don’t know what else to add to our compendium. Read Brandon’s review here.
2017: Barring the sudden and unexpected appearance of an unforeseeable dark horse candidate, Get Out is going to be my number one movie of the year, followed by the aforementioned Raw as a close second. As such, there’s no argument that it’s also my favorite horror movie of 2007 (again, with Raw as a close second), but I’ll be saving most of my thoughts for the end-of-the-year list. In the meantime, you can slake your thirst by reading Brandon’s review here.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond