by Gabriel Valdez
I recently conducted a poll regarding artists’ and filmmakers’ favorite horror movies, and the results aren’t what I expected at all. Now, this poll is about as scientific as my foot, so take it with a grain of salt, but it ended up being a tale of three very different movies:
Now, I wanted the artists themselves to define what “favorite” meant, and when pressed, I described it as “the movie you’ll berate your friends about until they sit down and watch it” and “the movie you’ll watch when you get home after a hard day and pull over yourself like a warm horror blanket.”
Playwright and critic Chris Braak, who wrote not just one, but two of the best articles of this past year, broke the question down into categories: which is the best movie, which is scariest, and which one does he like to watch the most?
“The scariest horror movie experience I had was the American version of The Ring (I know people like the Japanese version better, but subtitles completely destroy the horror experience for me).
“The horror movie I can and will most readily watch is John Carpenter’s The Thing, which I will put on any day of the week.
“I think the technically most superior horror movie in terms of script, direction, acting, &c. is The Exorcist.
“Actually, also An American Werewolf in London is tied with both The Thing and The Exorcist in both of those categories [rewatchability and most well-made].”
He added that The Ring‘s strength lies in showing how closely horror and surrealism relate.
Jeff Holland, who also writes for Threat Quality Press, listed about a dozen movies, including calling The Thing “the Snickers of movies” for how much its appeal has grown over the years. Ultimately, though, he settled on The Fly as the “bar-none scariest movie I have ever seen…it remains as potently unnerving as it was to 80’s audiences.”
(That’s two Things so far.)
Not everyone stuck to American films, however. Painter Ashley Zuggerman, whose retro-styled artwork harbors a threatening, off-kilter sensibility, immediately listed Japanese horror Audition. It’s “such a subtle movie and it lulls you into thinking it’s just a weird romance drama. Then when you relax it hits you with the last 20 minutes that just freaked me out.”
Our own editor Eden O’Nuallain backed her up. “Audition is the creepiest movie after the lights come on. It’s not cause it’s so shocking or different from something else, but cause 80% of it is so normal and uneventful.”
(Two Things, two Auditions.)
Jack-of-all-trades filmmaker, photographer, writer, illustrator, and model Cassie Meder might be my favorite Fantastique artist, with a macabre and witty sensibility. “Let the Right One In is one of my favorites across the board. Alien is at the top of the list for everything. And the Marble Hornets series is a great one to watch around this time of year for indie enthusiasts.”
Actress Rachel Ann Taylor offered Jacob’s Ladder and Alien as “the most surreal and the most horrifying, one-two. Most awesome double-feature ever. Leave a bowl of candy out, disconnect the doorbell, and drop-kick any kid that knocks; this is what’s on and I’m not leaving the couch.”
Actress, event producer, and model Alyson Rodriguez Orenstein had this to say: “My favorite horror movies are a lot like me, over the top & terrible – but entertaining! (That’s why I’m a horror host!) Some of my faves are The Gate & Killer Tongue.”
The Gate, by the way, is an awesome 80s movie starring a baby Stephen Dorff facing off against both his sister’s sleepover friends and the mouth of hell opening in his backyard. I have an older sister, and it’s no contest which of those things is more evil.
I’ll paraphrase the plot for Killer Tongue, or La lengua asesina, from IMDB: a woman hiding out with four pastel poodles in a gas station (with loot from a heist) waits for her boyfriend, who’s in prison. A meteorite crash transforms the woman into an alien with a “gigantic voracious tongue” and her poodles into four drag queens. Also features a mute nun transformed into a sexy drum majorette.
On the list of things that are fantastic, that is now near the top, and I think I’ve got to ask Alyson for movie advice more often.
Film/theatre critic Roy Sexton, who’s been a great supporter of our site, offered The Shining, Scream, and Psycho, but added “sometimes the best ‘horror’ movies are those that deal with the terror of the mundane and, if that’s the case, one of the best recent examples for me would be Prisoners.
Erin Snyder, a film critic and satirist whose absolutely fricking essential holiday-season blog Mainlining Christmas is gearing up, pointed out, “Ah, horror. There’s probably more experimentation done there than any genre outside of animation.” Despite this, he said he never got into it because of the gore. Nonetheless: “Alien. Hands down, the best horror movie I’ve ever seen.”
(Alien just took the lead at 3, which doesn’t matter since it’s not a competition.)
Shawn Main, who works for tabletop game designers Wizards of the Coast, might have had my favorite answer: “I have a bunch of horror movie favorites, but the warm blanket for me is all the old Simpsons ‘Treehouse of Horror’ episodes. I’ve fallen asleep to those episodes more times than I care to count.”
Oddly enough, I caught a marathon of them yesterday and stayed through a few. It definitely felt like throwing on a warm blanket – reassuring, safe, worry-free. That’s definitely a feeling I don’t get from much TV or movies anymore.
Joe Laycock is an expert in religious studies who focuses on how we inculcate folk tales and the supernatural into modern society. His answer? The Exorcist:
“It was the first horror film nominated for best picture. It also created a popular turn toward actual exorcism in the United States. Ed and Lorraine Warren (from The Conjuring) owe their entire careers to that film.”
Now, I don’t know much about them, so when I asked if they only started after The Exorcist, he corrected me:
“The Warrens started a ghost-hunting society in 1952. Their first “case” involving demons was in 1971 – the year The Exorcist came out. But their big break was the Amityville Horror cast in 1975, which was highly derivative of The Exorcist. In fact, the Jesuit who consulted on The Exorcist also consulted on the first two Amityville movies.”
He added that the Warrens weren’t con artists, but believed in what they were doing. The Exorcist simply created conditions in which more people listened to what the Warrens had to say. Since Catholics couldn’t get exorcisms from priests, the Warrens acted as brokers who connected outside priests who were willing to bend the rules.
(Alien 3, Thing 2, Exorcist 2, Audition 2.)
Our Aussie correspondent, Olivia Smith, stood up for her home country with Picnic at Hanging Rock, a mystery surrounding the disappearance of several schoolgirls and their teacher during a field trip. She called it “everything you need to know about Australia in one movie. Our country’s beautiful, we’re hysterical inside of it, and we’re loyal to racial homogeneity at the exclusion of our senses. What’s horrifying is our repression and the sense in the back of our minds that we don’t deserve to be here, that Australia’s against us, and that which is most unnatural and displaced here is us. It’s not the feeling of getting lost. It’s the realization that you’ve been lost for a long time already.”
Kyle Price-Livingston does something in comics but I don’t know exactly what, so now I feel pretty bad about it. He’s an awesome personality whose answer was immediate: “First thing that springs to mind is The Descent. I love the combination of creature feature, morality story, and Woman-vs.-Wild survivalism. Plus the main cast is basically all women, none of whom end up topless.”
The Descent was actually written first for a male cast, and when the director converted it to an all-female ensemble, he thankfully made all of this many changes to the script: 0.
Bryan DeGuire is a producer whose most recent, the animation “Hitler Dinner Party” for Bob Odenkirk, appears on Funny or Die. Bryan extolled the virtues of Rosemary’s Baby: “Slow burn dread unnerves me more than big shocks. But ultimately, what I find horrific about it is not the supernatural element, cause the devil doesn’t exist except, ya know, metaphorically. The true horror is how Farrow’s character is betrayed by her husband. The way the people we love can hurt us the most is a much more terrifying idea than any boogeyman. Plus, ‘he has his father’s eyes,’ is such a great f*cking line. I know that Polanski is a morally problematic director to admire, but I agreed wholeheartedly with that essay you wrote a few weeks back about fandom, Mel Gibson, etc.”
Model and cosplayer Emily Smith (aka Luna Lovely) offered a different viewpoint. What’s her go-to, warm blanket of a horror movie? “Human Centipede. Or Human Centipede 2.”
While that’s not my cup of tea (actually who knows, I’ve never seen it), what I love is that everyone has their go-to movies, their favorites that serve as a cinematic home base that they can always go back to.
Actress Carter Churchfield, who owns and operates the World War II Red Light District Tour in Honolulu, and who I appreciate for having a horror sensibility just outside the mainstream, had trouble narrowing it down to The People Under the Stairs, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and La Casa Muda. She settled on The People Under the Stairs, because it’s the one she likes sharing with her friends the best.
Actress and filmmaker S.L. Fevre, a regular contributor here, insisted two classics are still the best: The Shining and The Fly.
Horror aficionado Ellen Dulaney cited Sympathy for Lady Vengeance as revenge horror, as well as Reanimator, before remembering something even better and naming her favorite: Swedish vampire tale Let the Right One In.
(Alien 3, Thing 2, Exorcist 2, Right One 2, Audition 2, Shining 2, Fly 2)
Actor Keith Ward, soon appearing in Beyond Hello, listed The Thing, Alien, and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, but wanted me to know when he was a kid, it was movies like The Wolf Man (1941) and The Invisible Man (1933) that first captured his imagination. He especially encourages folks to check out Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer because it’s “genuinely disturbing, despite being made for a shockingly low budget.”
Documentary filmmaker Amy Beth Grumbling, producer of Heaven + Earth + Joe Davis offered Dead Again, The Orphanage, and Scream.
Film/theatre critic J.P. Hitesman offered up The Fog.
Model and make-up artist Sarah Belmont gave us a Clive Barker appearance on the list with Hellraiser.
Writer Jesse LaJeunesse wrote me such a personal and heartfelt response, we’re going to feature it later, but his answers were the 1931 Dracula, Night of the Living Dead, and The Ring.
We left most of our own writers for last.
Alt-model and singer Cleopatra Parnell, on break from music video reporting while she’s got a session contract, couldn’t decide between The Ring and The Shining, but said Twin Peaks outranks them both.
Our creative director, paleontologist by day/critic by night Vanessa Tottle, insisted on messing the entire count right up, by liking The Ring, The Thing, and Let the Right One In.
(That’s Alien 4, Ring 4, Thing 4, Right One and Shining right behind them at 3. Audition, Exorcist, Fly at 2. Totally not a competition.)
I feel bad being the one to break the tie on this not-a-competition (what am I talking about, I’m the one who edited it this way.) I love all three films. If we were going for total franchises, it’d be Alien hands-down for that initial trilogy, which I marathoned before knowing what marathoning was as a 5th grader. Watching Alien-Aliens-Alien 3 inside 24 hours of each other cracked my head open about what storytelling on film could show you.
In a very slight way, Alien opened my mind to understanding an experience beyond my own, that of physical violation and powerlessness. I wouldn’t identify this until I started encountering it in others’ experiences, but Alien opened a path to comprehension much younger than I would’ve otherwise encountered it. Because of that experience, Alien 3 for all its flaws still holds up as the single bravest anti-climax in franchise filmmaking. It upset many fans, but Alien was never meant to make anyone happy.
Similarly, The Ring is probably the most singularly terrifying movie I’ve ever seen. That movie doesn’t make your hairs stand on end, it yanks them out at the roots. I can’t think of anything as scary, or that made me look behind myself in the dark for days on end. It remains the only movie I’ve ever seen in the theater two days in a row.
All that said…if we’re going purely on favorites, purely on the warmest, most comfortable horror blanket I can find, it’s The Thing. I remember my mom not letting me watch Total Recall as a kid because there’s a scene in which a villain is decapitated. It’s really not so bad, as those scenes go. Days later, she sat me in front of John Carpenter’s gory, blood-soaked The Thing, a remake that flunked in theaters, that grew a cult following, and that finally became so widely viewed it spawned a surprisingly good prequel movie and sequel video game.
About an Antarctic research station besieged by a shape-changing alien, The Thing is dominated by men in beards (there are no women in it). It may be Kurt Russell’s best performance, and its blood-test scene remains the tensest horror sequence in film history. Moreover, it’s a gift that keeps on giving – as I grow older, I view it differently, and realize how very much it has to say as a metaphor for how men view “the other” or “the feminine” as an invasion of what it is to be “a man.”
Even its tagline, “Man is the warmest place to hide,” hints that The Thing is a unique breed of identity horror hiding behind the façade of a creepy, gory blood-out.
My favorite three are John Carpenter’s The Thing, the uniquely frightening and touching Spanish-language ghost story The Orphanage, and hit-or-miss Italian horror-maestro Dario Argento’s best film, the effectively mixed-language Deep Red.
I’m a little surprised no one mentioned Jaws, but I suppose that’s viewed more as a classic adventure movie than a horror movie nowadays. I was very tempted to list Duncan Jones’s sci-fi masterpiece Moon, since I don’t think anything’s ever left me so mentally agog by its conclusion. And, of course, there’s Requiem for a Dream, which might be the best but is no one’s favorite because it so completely and effectively tears down everything its viewer can believe about redemption.
That’s our list. Totally not a competition.
Happy Halloween, everybody, and remember: All’s well that ends well.