7 Horror Films Worth Giving a Shit About

Halloween is finally here and what better way to celebrate that here at List Off than with a list of seven of the greatest horror films ever made?

I often find self-proclaimed horror fans to be the worst fans of film. They seem to openly embrace anything contained within the genre and will often give horrible films a pass simply because they’re in the horror genre. The worst is arguing with someone who likes The Walking Dead. You can discuss the horrible writing, poor character development and lackluster storylines, and the only retort they can muster is “It’s horror. What do you expect?” I expect the same things I expect of every other film or television show. I expect it to be good and have interesting ideas for it to be worth my time.

Anyway, here are seven great films with big ideas that just happen to be horror films. Happy Halloween!

The Thing (dir. John Carpenter 1982)

If you’re living on the eastern seaboard like me, it’s hard to believe that it’s actually Halloween, as the weather is decidedly more Christmas-like. However, that makes it all the easier to get into the mood to watch one of the greatest films ever made that just happens to be a horror film. One of The Thing’s greatest strengths is the way it takes advantage of its environment. Antarctica is cold, desolate and isolated from the rest of the world. There’s nothing but ice for hundreds of miles in every direction. What could be a better setting for a horror film? There’s no hope for a timely rescue in Antarctica, no chance of braving the elements in an escape. Kurt Russell’s MacCready and the other men of Outpost 31 are trapped in a confined space surrounded by cold nothingness in every direction.

The film opens in space as a flying saucer wobbles its way towards the camera and crash lands in the snowy wastes of Antarctica. From there we cut to many centuries later as a pair of Norwegians in a helicopter chase down a dog running through the frozen desert, shooting at it with a high powered rifle. The dog eventually makes its way to American Outpost 31, but neither Norwegian gets a chance to explain that it’s not really a dog. The Thing is able to assimilate any living creature and assume their form. It soon becomes readily apparent that one or more of the men at Outpost 31 are not who they appear to be.

The Thing is an essay on paranoia and trust. It’s put together in such a way that it’s never exactly clear who is the thing and who is human nor is it made clear when certain characters were assimilated. There are visual and audio clues scattered throughout the film making re-watching the film a pleasure unto itself, but The Thing’s greatest strength is its ambiguity. Not knowing all the details is what makes this film work. Not only is it scarier and more interesting to not know for certain, but it also results in a lot of detailed discussion surrounding the film. The Thing came out almost 30 years ago and people are still arguing on who was human and who was The Thing. That’s amazing.

And the ending… Hot damn, that’s probably my favorite ending to any movie ever.

Best Line: There’s quite a few doozies but my favorite probably has to belong to Donald Moffet’s character Garry: “I know you gentlemen have been through a lot, but when you find the time, I’d rather not spend the rest of this winter TIED TO THIS FUCKING COUCH!”

Scariest moment: Probably the scene where Doc Copper loses his arms. I showed the film to my little brother about a year ago and the look on his face during that scene was priceless. It was the same look I had on my face when I saw the film for the first time when I was his age.

Hellraiser & Hellbound: Hellraiser II (dir. Clive Barker 1987 & Tony Randel 1988)

Whenever people talk about the Hellraiser films the first thing they want to talk about is the franchise’s mascot Pinhead, played by Doug Bradley. While Pinhead is an incredibly iconic and fearsome creation, he isn’t really a major element of the first two films (and the only one’s worth discussing.) I was first turned onto the Hellraiser films recently by this riveting series of write-ups and I quickly latched onto the ideas of the original two films, which serve as a single film of sorts, apart from the rest of the franchise.

The most fascinating element of these films to me is that Pinhead, and his band of creatures known as cenobites, aren’t really evil in the least bit. In fact, they’re actually kind of beyond any morality.

In the Hellraiser films there exists a puzzle box, known as the Lament Configuration. The first film opens with the villain, Frank (played by 2 different actors, Sean Chapman in the flesh and Oliver Smith without the flesh), purchasing the Lament Configuration from a mysterious Chinaman. Frank is a complete and total hedonist and he has experienced every pleasure and pain known to man. It turns out that that just isn’t enough. So he seeks out the Lament Configuration which has the potential to show him sights unseen, sounds unheard and pleasure beyond imagination. It takes him to the world of the cenobites lead by the aforementioned Pinhead. In their world pain and pleasure are no different and they proceed to tear Frank’s soul apart. Frank manages to find a loophole and escapes from the cenobite world as a corpse. When his brother and his wife move back into the house where Frank was hiding he convinces his brother’s wife (and ex-lover) Julia, played by Claire Higgins, to bring him victims so that he may feast on their blood and regrow his flesh. He is eventually challenged by his niece Kirsty (Ashley Laurence). Hellbound continues shortly after the first film ends and expands upon the mythos by showing us how the cenobites are created and the insanity of the world they come from.

The thing that is most interesting about the Cenobites is that they really don’t have any goals or plans. If humans were to leave the puzzle boxes alone, they would just be content to do their own thing in their own world. The perfect example of this is in Hellbound, when they don’t even bother to attack the mental patient Tiffany, played by young Brad Pitt lookalike Imogen Boorman. She has no yearning for sights unseen and feelings unfelt so they leave her alone. The only souls they take are the ones that are driven to search them out to sate their own yearnings. This is a truly fascinating and unique concept for horror monsters. The only true monsters in the world of the first two Hellraiser’s are those who cannot stave off their primal appetites.

Best Line: When Kirsty asks Pinhead who/what he is, he responds, “Explorers in the further regions of experience. Demons to some. Angels to others.”

Scariest Moment: Without a doubt Frank’s resurrection scene in the first Hellraiser. The practical effects work is outstanding, as Frank’s bloody and mutilated corpse rises up from out of the dirty wood floorboards.

Pet Sematary(dir. Mary Lambert 1989)

I’m not the world’s biggest Stephen King fan, but this is the first of two adaptations on this list. I rented this film for one precise reason, to be able to quote its really famous tagline while knowing how it was used in context. I was happily surprised to discovered that I actually ended up liking the film, and I was thoroughly creeped out by it as well.

The basic plot of Pet Sematary is that a young couple moves into a small country house out in Maine (those who know anything about King know that at least part of the book needs to take place in Maine.) They are thoroughly charmed by the small town, and their loveable old man neighbor, played by Herman Munster himself, Fred Gwynne. However, it turns out that just behind their house is a pet cemetery, and beyond that an old Indian burial ground. It turns out that if you bury something dead up in the ground behind the old pet cemetery, it don’t stay dead, but it may not come back the way you expected.

Pet Semetary is actually a rather interesting tale of loss and grief, and the lengths to which we go to hold onto the people we love. The first thing the father, Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff) buries is the family cat, but soon circumstances cause him to bury humans, and it doesn’t end well for anybody.

Best Line: Fred Gwynne warbles out the line that made me want to watch the movie in the first place- “Sometimes dead is better.”

Scariest Moment: Rachel (Denise Crosby) has a flashback to her childhood where she remembers her older sister Zelda (Andrew Hubatsek) who was dying of spinal meningitis. They kept her locked up in a room upstairs and her body had been reduced to little more than a skeleton writhing in the covers, moaning. It’s incredibly frightening image, and very well shot. I actually had trouble watching it.

The Tenant (dir. Roman Polanski 1976)

In the sixties and seventies, Roman Polanski directed three great horror films, Repulsion (1965), Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Tenant. While Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby are both bonafide classics, The Tenant is the most bonkers film of the trio, and in some ways that makes it the most interesting.

Polanski stars in his own film as a quiet, mild mannered Polish man who rents a Parisain apartment that belonged to Simone Choule, a young woman who had just attempted to commit suicide and is now in a coma of sorts. Polanski ends up dating Stella (played by the absolutely gorgeous Isabelle Adjani) a friend of the previous tenant, but he pretends to be a friend of Simone’s as well. Through various odd encounters with his fellow tenants and landlord, Polanski finds himself at odds with his surroundings and is constantly harassed for seemingly doing nothing at all. His paranoia steadily increases and he starts to be believe that they are trying to transform him into Simone Choule, and that there are paranormal elements at work within the apartment building. There are teeth hidden in the walls of his apartment and a secret window looking into a room full of ruins. It’s pretty bizarre.

The Tenant is one of those films where it’s not really clear whether or not what is happening on screen is actually happening. It’s very possible that all the weird occurrences are just exaggerations and misunderstandings resulting from Polanski’s paranoia. Not once as viewers do we truly know whether what we are seeing is real, and the film is constantly making us question what the events really mean.

Best Line: “I found a tooth in my apartment. It was in a hole.”

Scariest Moment: Eventually Polanski starts to wear Simone’s clothing, dressing up as her and sitting in front of his window so that all the other tenants can see him. It’s pretty freaky.

The Shining (dir. Stanley Kubrick 1980)

The other King adaptation on this list and another film that takes advantage of a cold, isolated setting, The Shining might be the most grandiose horror film of all time. I won’t bother rattling on too much about Kubrick, as it’s common knowledge to anyone who knows anything about film that he was a genius and responsible for some of the greatest films ever made, so it comes to no surprise that his stab at a horror film is one of the great ones.

The Shining details the mental breakdown of Jack Nicholson’s character Jack Torrance, while he and his wife (Shelley Duval) and son (Danny Lloyd) serve as caretakers of the Overlook hotel during the winter in an isolated part of the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Jack takes the job so he can work on writing his book, which he has not been able to complete due to writer’s block and his recovery from alcoholism. While Jack seems fine at first, he slowly begins to spend more and more time by himself, growing increasingly paranoid, and violent and he eventually begins to talk with the ghosts of the hotel, and proceeds to do their bidding.

The Shining asks some very interesting questions. Time seems to flow differently in the Overlook hotel. At one point Jack is having a conversation with the ghost of the previous caretaker (who axed his whole family to death, resulting in those creepy girls holding hands in the hallway), which goes like this: “You WERE the caretaker here, Mr. Grady.” To which Mr. Grady responds to Jack, “No sir, YOU are the caretaker. You’ve always been the caretaker. I ought to know: I’ve always been here.” The Overlook appears to be in some kind of black hole where the normal rules of time and space do not exist. The previous caretaker’s name is not even consistent. In the beginning of the film it is mentioned as Charles Grady, but when Jack meets his ghost he refers to himself as Delbert Grady. This is not a goof. Kubrick deliberately made it so that nothing in this film fits together properly. Even the geography of the hotel is impossible. The vigilant viewer will notice that there are hallways that lead to nowhere, and rooms that should not be able to exist within the confines of the hotel (this video does a great job of picking these apart.)

When it all comes down to it, The Shining is really about the betrayal of the father, and about how the sins of the past override the future. A few years ago Jack accidentally broke his son’s arm when he was drunk and his wife has never wholly forgiven him, and Jack never really forgave himself. Jack thinks of himself as a failure and in many ways resents his family and blames them for his feelings of inadequacy. Does Jack really need ghosts to tell him to kill his family, or does he just need the excuse? The real horror stems from not being able to trust the people in your life you need to rely on.

Best Line: Jack to his wife, Wendy: “Wendy? Darling? Light, of my life. I’m not gonna hurt ya. You didn’t let me finish my sentence. I said, I’m not gonna hurt ya. I’m just going to bash your brains in. Gonna bash ’em right the fuck in!”

Scariest Moment: Jack goes to investigate the one room Danny was instructed not to go in by the head cook and unfortunate wannabe hero Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers). Inside he finds a beautiful woman soaking in a tub, she gets out and they proceed to make out, but mid-kiss she turns into a disgusting and decomposing old woman.

Exorcist II: The Heretic (dir. John Boorman 1977)

I’m the weirdo that prefers this film to the first Exorcist film. Much like The Tenant I prefer this film primarily because it’s bigger and weirder than Friedkin’s original. The problem I have with standard demon possession films like the first Exorcist is that it always inadvertently becomes a story about the church and Jesus saving the day against Satan. As a recovering Catholic who suffered through Catholic school as a child, this has never really sat well with me. Exorcist II sheds off a lot of the Catholic influence in the mythology surrounding the demon known as Pazuzu and I find it to be a far more interesting film.

A few years after the events of the first film Regan (Linda Blair) seems to be doing pretty okay for a girl who was possessed by the demon Pazuzu. There are some questions being raised in the Vatican regarding the way Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) died during the exorcism of Regan, and his friend and colleague Father Lamont (Richard Burton) is sent to uncover the truth of the events and determine what it was exactly that Pazuzu was up to. He uses a device to travel inside of Regan’s dreams and he travels on the wings of a demon to Africa where Father Merrin had fought Pazuzu years before. He is brushed by the wings of the demon and is tainted, and the evil influence of Pazuzu threatens to destroy him and Regan.

We need more weirdo mainstream films like this nowadays. John Boorman was king of the great mainstream weirdo film in the seventies and eighties, releasing such gems as Zardoz (starring Sean Connery in a red loincloth and a ponytail), Deliverance, and Excalibur (fuck yeah). The only film that really exhibits this mainstream weirdo quality that I’m talking about today would be Nicholas Winding Refn’s film Drive.

The film is visually stunning and it should be impossible to check out this film based solely on its credentials. It was directed by John Boorman, starring Richard Burton, Max Von Sydow, James Earl Jones, and Louise Fletcher with cameos by Ned Beatty and Paul Henreid and fantastic score by Ennio Morricone. Exorcist II may not technically be a good film, but it’s definitely an interesting film, and I find that to sometimes be far more compelling.

Check out the trailer to get a sense of the crazy:

Best Line: Either this line spoken by Richard Burton: “You realize what you’re up against, don’t you? Evil. Evil is a spiritual being, alive and living, perverted and perverting, weaving its way insidiously into the very fabric of life.”

Or this:

Louise Fletcher’s character asks: “It’s hard to live alone. Don’t you ever need a woman, Father?”
To which Richard Burton calmly replies, “Yes.”

Scariest Moment: Richard Burton is in Africa searching for James Earl Jones, who had previously been possessed by Pazuzu as a boy. Burton finds him in a cave where he is dressed like a locust and Burton proceeds to walk to him across a bed of nails.

Phantasm I-IV (dir. Don Coscarelli 1979, 1988, 1994, 1998)

The Phantasm series is probably my favorite horror franchise of all time. I talked about some of the reasons why here, but my like with many of the other films on this list, I love that it thinks big. I don’t really care for horror films where we are simply watching a deranged mongoloid (Friday the 13th series) kill teenagers. We never even find out what The Tall Man is in Phantasm, or what his ultimate goal really is. And truth be told, we don’t need to know. Sometimes not knowing is far more interesting than a clear answer. Ambiguity can be very powerful when used correctly, especially in horror where the unknown is far scarier than what we see with our eyes.

The Phantasm films follow the exploits of brothers Mike and Jody and their awesome friend Reggie as they fight against The Tall Man, a weird old tall guy that harvests dead bodies and shrinks them down into dwarves, and sends them through a portal into a strange red world. He also uses metallic balls which can fly and drain all the blood from your body. The Tall Man seems to be indestructible and throughout the four films proceeds turn the world into a wasteland, with only Reggie in his way to stop him, and Reggie’s just a horny, bald, ex-ice cream man with a quadruple barrel shotgun.

That premise doesn’t even begin to describe how great the series is. The first film was either made by a genius or a mad man. Scenes contradict one another, and things never quite align, or totally congeal. It creates an incredibly dreamlike viewing experience and like The Tenant we are not sure that what’s happening is actually what’s happening.

The second film was funded by a studio, so it’s far more mainstream horror than the other films, focusing more on gore and horror scares, but the third and fourth film inject more of the weirdness back into the proceedings and do a great job of expanding the mythology without over explaining anything and taking away the mystery. As a whole the series feels big and epic and is without a doubt the most consistent horror franchise, with lots of reasons to watch them over and over.

Best line: In Phantasm II, The Tall Man confronts a priest and spouts, “You think that when you die, you go to Heaven. You come to us!”

Scariest Moment: In the second film Reggie porks a girl who is in love with his bald head. At the end it turns out that she was really just The Tall Man masquerading as a girl. The Tall Man has a habit of not only turning himself into women to entrap men so he can kill them, he fucks them to completion first.

What horror films did I leave out do you think are worth giving a shit about?

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Categories: Film

Author:Colin Holmes

I love movies. I love watching them and I love writing about them. My taste ranges from Jean Pierre Melville to Jean Claude Van Damme and everything in between as long as it isn’t mediocre. I’ll take a crazy failure of a movie over a middle of the road one any day. I'm an American currently living abroad in Oz and am relishing how my accent makes me sound like a cowboy to everyone I meet here.

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2 Comments on “7 Horror Films Worth Giving a Shit About”

  1. 10.31.11 at 2:20 PM #

    Poltergeist. That is all.

  2. Colin Holmes
    10.31.11 at 6:53 PM #

    You know I’ve never seen Poltergeist all the way through. I got to the point years ago where they introduced the gross looking midget lady and I was so freaked out by her being a gross midget that I turned the movie off. I’m a big Craig T. Nelson fan, so I should probably give it another chance sometime.

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