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Fright Club: Best Black Characters in Horror

We didn’t want to let Black History Month slip by without recognizing the best black characters in horror. Obviously, this is actually a countdown and podcast we could have done at any time, but any particular excuse to talk about William Marshall must be taken!

Regardless of the (far too often proven) cliche that the token black character in any horror film is simply the first victim, there are many amazing characters and actors worth celebrating in this list. The all time kickass Pam Grier stars as a voodoo practitioner in Scream Blacula Scream (1973), Morgan Freeman brings his characteristic gravitas to the role of mentor cop and general smartypants in Seven (1995). Wesley Snipes combined vampire and badass in the Blade trilogy, as did Grace Jones in Vamp (1986) – and these are just a few of the candidates we will not be mentioning.

Nope, instead we present you with the five best black characters in horror.

5. Selena (Naomi Harris), 28 Days Later (2002)

When it outbreak comes – and you know it will – what you want on your team is a pharmacist (someone with some medical training) who is not afraid to use a machete. Naomi Harris was the brains and the backbone of the ragtag group of survivors in 28 Days Later. Without her, Cillian Murphy wouldn’t have made it.

The great Danny Boyle, working from a script by Alex Garland (who wrote and directed the magnificent Ex Machina last year), upended a lot of expectations, giving us tenderness in the form of the great Brendan Gleeson, and a vulnerability in the newly-acquainted-with-the-apocalypse Murphy, but the brains and the bravery are Selena’s. That isn’t to say the realities of gender inequality disappear during the apocalypse – Nope! But this is a really uncommon character in a horror film: a strong, black female survivor.

4. Peter (Ken Foree), Dawn of the Dead (1978)

When George Romero returned to his zombie apocalypse in 1978 – nearly a decade after he’d rewritten the zombie code with Night of the Living Dead – he upped the ante in terms of onscreen gore, but there were some pieces of the formula he wasn’t ready to let go of.

Two members of SWAT join their newsman buddy and his producer girlfriend, take off in a helicopter, land at a mall, and set up house while that whole zombie thing blows over. Ken Foree and Scott Reiniger as the buddies from SWAT create the most effective moments, whether character-driven tension or zombie-driven action. While the leads were flat and bland, Foree not only delivers the film’s strongest performance, but Peter is the most compelling character and the one you’re least willing to see go.

3. Candyman/Daniel Robitaille (Tony Todd), Candyman (1992)

Oh my God, that voice! Yes, Candyman is a bad dude, but isn’t he kind of dreamy?

Like a vampire, the villain of Cabrini Green needed to be both repellant and seductive for this storyline to work, and Todd more than managed both. With those bees in his mouth and that hook for a hand, he is effortlessly terrifying. But it’s Todd’s presence, his somehow soothing promise of pain and eternity, that makes the seduction of grad school researcher Helen (Virginia Madsen) realistic.

Clive Barker wrote the original story, and the racial tensions that run through the film are both intentional and required. Madsen’s raspy-voiced heroine offers a perfect counterpoint to Todd, both of them a blend of intelligent and sultry that make them more parallel than opposite.

Todd would go on to love again in the Candyman sequel Farewell to the Flesh, as well as star or co-star in countless other horror films, but it was the first time you hear that voice in this film that sealed his fate as an iconic horror villain.

2. Blacula/Mamuwalde (William Marshall), Blacula (1972)

Did someone mention awesome voices and onscreen presence? The great William Marshall is the picture of grace and elegance as Mamuwalde, the prince turned vampire.

The film is a cheaply made Blaxploitation classic, with all that entails. For every grimace-inducing moment (bats on strings, homophobic humor) there’s a moment of true genius, almost exclusively because of Marshall’s command of the screen and the character.

Though he’s often hampered by FX as well as writing, the character remained true throughout the film, even to his death. It’s the kind of moment that could be brushed aside, in a low budget flick with a lot of plot holes and silly make up. But there’s more to Blacula than meets the eye.

Blacula is a tragic antihero and it’s all but impossible to root against him. Marshall brought more dignity to the role of vampire than any actor has, and the strength and respectability he imbues in the character were not just revolutionary at the time, but were so pivotal to that particular character that he has become a legendary character in the genre.

1. Ben (Duane Jones), Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Over the years, much has been made of director George Romero’s assertion that Duane Jones’s casting in Night of the Living Dead had nothing to do with his color; Romero simply gave the role to the best actor.

Maybe so – and certainly Jones’s performance alone has a great deal to do with the success of the film – but casting a black male lead in this particular film at this particular juncture in American history is among the main reasons the film remains relevant and important today.

Jones plays Ben, the level-headed survivor holed up in a Pennsylvania farmhouse trying to wait out the zombipocalypse. Ben is the clear cut leader of this group of survivors, caring for the shell-shocked young white woman (Judith O’Dea), working in tandem with the young couple also hiding out, and engaging in a needless and ugly power struggle with that dick Mr. Cooper.

Jones’s performance is, as Romero points out, easily the strongest in the ensemble, and that work alone would have made the role and the film memorable. But it’s the kick to the gut documentary-style ending that not only marks the film’s sociological period, it is a horrifying reminder of all that has not changed in the world.

Fright Club: Future Oscar Winners in Horror

One of the most fun facts in acting is that most of the greats, even the truly greats, started off in horror. And, apparently, they all co-starred at one point or another with Keanu Reeves, whose Oscar is apparently still forthcoming. Today we look at some horror films with casts dripping with future gold.

5. Constantine (2005)

Two Oscars plus three nominations. Not for Constantine, obviously, but that’s the hardware and would-be hardware shared among the cast of this one.

We have no explanation for this, but Keanu Reeves shows up three times in this countdown, regardless of the fact that he’s never been nominated for an Oscar.

No!

Francis Lawrence (of the many Hunger Games fame) made his directorial debut with this big screen take on the comic Hellblazer. Reeves mumbles his way through the lead role of John Constantine. Destined to hell because of an early-life suicide attempt and cursed with the ability to see demons and angels in their true form, Constantine battles on behalf of the light in the hopes of regaining favor and avoiding his eternal fate.

Tilda Swinton plays the angel Gabriel! Peter Storemare plays Satan! I don’t know what else you need to convince you to waste two hours, but Rachel Weisz also plays twins, Pruitt Taylor Vince plays a priest, Djimon Hounsou plays a witch doctor, and there’s absolutely no reason any one of these people said yes to this job. Glorious!

4. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

OK, well Coppola alone has five outright Oscars and one Thalberg Memorial Award, as well as nine additional nominations. Add to that Oldman’s win and nomination, Hopkins’s win and three nominations, Ryder’s two nominations and Richard E. Grant’s nom and you have to just wonder why this movie doesn’t work better.

Overheated, overperformed and somehow undeniably watchable, Francis Ford Coppola’s take on Stoker’s classic vampire tale is a train wreck.

Keanu Reeves is awful. Winona Ryder is awful. Anthony Hopkins is so over the top as to be borderline hilarious. And yet, Coppola somehow matches that ridiculous volume and pitch with a writhing, carnal atmosphere – almost an oversaturated Hammer horror, all heaving breasts and slippery satin.

At the heart of the film is a glorious Gary Oldman, who is particularly memorable as the almost goofily macabre pre-London Dracula. Tom Waits makes an impression as Renfield, Richard E. Grant offers a nicely wearied turn as the asylum’s keeper, Dr. Seward, and the lovely Sadie Frost joins a slew of nubile vampire women to keep the film simmering. It’s a sloppy stew, but it is just so tasty.

3. The Gift (2000)

Blanchett has two, Swank has two, Simmons has one, writer Billy Bob Thornton has one plus, including Danny Elfman and Greg Kinnear, there’s another 11 Oscar nominations for this cast and crew. And yet…

Thornton co-writes this supernatural backwoods thriller, allegedly about experiences his mother had as a clairvoyant. Sam Raimi, who’d just directed Thornton to an Oscar nomination with A Simple Plan, directs a star-heavy cast: Cate Blanchette, Keanu Reeves, JK Simmons, Gary Cole,  Hilary Swank, Giovanni Ribisi, Katie Holmes and Greg Kinnear.

Blanchette is a small town Georgia fortune teller (though she doesn’t like that label). Recently widowed and raising three young boys, she’s the picture of vulnerability and Blanchette is, of course, excellent. This is one of Reeves’s stronger performances, too, as the violent rube suspected of murdering a lovely young missing person (Holmes).

Ribisi does the best by the film, which is a fun if predictable little spook show. Raimi can’t quite find his tone, and humorless horror is definitely not the filmmaker’s strong suit. Still, the cast is just about enough to make the film really shine.

2. Zombieland (2009)

Emma Stone, Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Abigail Breslin and Bill Murray each have at least one Oscar nomination; Stone’s also won one. And in a lovely change of pace, the movie they made together kicks all manner of ass.

Hilarious, scary, action-packed, clever and, when necessary, touching, Zombieland ranks as one of the most fun zombie movies ever made. How much of that is due to Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick’s spot-on screenplay? Loads. How much credit goes to director Ruben Fleischer? Well, he did stage that utterly fantastic theme park kiosk shootout of death, didn’t he?

But let’s be honest, the chemistry among the four leads, their comic timing and simple, undeniable talent is what raises this film to the highest of genre heights.

1. American Psycho (2000)

Truth be told, Christian Bale should have won the Oscar for this iconic slice of perfection. He did not, but he did win for The Fighter, with three nominations in quick succession after that. Reese Witherspoon has one win, one nom and Jared Leto has one win. Meanwhile, Chloe Sevigny has one nomination to Willem Dafoe’s four.

It this film better than all of those? Hell yes. These fantastic actors mingle in a giddy hatchet to the head of the abiding culture of the Eighties. American Psycho represents the sleekest, most confident black comedy – perhaps ever. Writer/director Mary Harron’s send up of the soulless Reagan era is breathtakingly handled, from the set decoration to the soundtrack, but the film works as well as a horror picture as it does a comedy. 

As solid as this cast is, and top to bottom it is perfect, every performance is eclipsed by the lunatic genius of Bale’s work. Volatile, soulless, misogynistic and insane, yet somehow he also draws some empathy. It is wild, brilliant work that marked a talent preparing for big things.

Fright Club: Lesbians in Horror Movies

Lesbians in horror have come a long way since Jesus DeFranco’s bloodthirsty nymphettes. In fact, we are now at the glorious point in history in which story leads can be lesbians for no particular reason—their sexual orientation not a metaphor for anything at all. They’re just characters. Nice!

There are so many great options that we had to leave many off. What were we looking for? Main characters whose sexuality is not showcased simply for titillation or as a twisted mark of the sinister. That doesn’t mean we’ve abandoned the villain, but if you’re looking for hot girl-on-girl action, well, yes, we have a bit of that, too, but who wouldn’t make out with Catherine Deneuve?

5. The Hunger (1983)

Director Tony Scott’s seductive vampire love story has a little bit of everything: slaughter, girl-on-girl action, ’80s synth/goth tunage, David Bowie. What more can you ask?

Actually the film’s kind of a sultry, dreamily erotic mess. Oh, the gauzy curtains. Catharine Deneuve is the old world vampire Miriam Blaylock—an inarguably awesome name for a vampire. David Bowie is her lover. But he suddenly begins aging, and she needs to find a replacement. Enter Susan Sarandon and her mullet as a medical specialist in unusual blood diseases and a fine actress who’s not above smooching other girls.

There are three reasons people will always watch this film: Bowie, Catherine Deneuve’s seduction of Susan Sarandon (classy!), and the great dark-wave Bauhaus number Bela Lugosi’s Dead. Together it’s a Goth Trifecta! And Goths do love them some vampires.

4. Thelma (2017)

We follow Thelma (Eili Harboe) through the uncomfortable, lonely first weeks of college we gather that her parents are very Christian and very protective.

Things could have gone all predictable and preachy from there, but co-writer/director Joachim Trier knows what you’re thinking and he plans to use it against you.

Thelma is a coming-of-age film at its cold, dark heart. The horror here lies in the destructive nature of trying to be something you are not, but here again, nothing in Thelma is as simple or cleanly cut as the beautiful framing and crystal clear camera work suggest.

Like Julia Ducournau’s magnificent coming-of-age horror Raw, Thelma dives into the issues swirling around post-adolescent freedoms and taboos in daring and insightful ways.

Thelma takes its time and lets its lead unveil a fully realized, deeply complex character full of contradictions—inconsistencies that make more sense as the mystery unravels. Though the result never terrifies, it offers an unsettling vision of self-discovery that’s simultaneously familiar and unique.

3. The Haunting (1963)

This may not seem like an obvious choice, but Theo (Claire Bloom) is a lesbian. And a great, badass character at that. That may not have been a widely held opinion when the great Shirley Jackson penned the novel in the fifties, or when the great Robert Wise directed the spooky and wonderful adaptation in 1963. But Mike Flanagan, director of the Netflix series based on the book, understood Jackson’s nuance and Wise’s subtlety and decided Theo would be out and proud. Good on ya, Flanagan.

In Wise’s original work, there is no overt mention of Theo’s sexuality, but there wouldn’t be, would there? It was 1963. Theodora is unmarried but refers to an “us” when discussing her home life. Her style, her confidence, her disinterest in being demure with the males, and the fact that Eleanor refers to her as “unnatural” all quietly make the case for us.

What’s great, though, is not just that a lead character is a lesbian, but that she’s a powerful and positive presence, and that she and Eleanor form a deep and supportive friendship. The Haunting (and Jackson’s magnificent novel) is about identity, and the fact that Theo is so very comfortable with hers is what makes this film an important addition to the list.

2. The Handmaiden (2016)

Director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) mesmerizes again with this seductive story of a plot to defraud a Japanese heiress in the 1930s.

Weird is an excellent word to describe this film. Gorgeous and twisty with criss-crossing loyalties and deceptions, all filmed with such stunning elegance. Set in Korea, the film follows a young domestic in a sumptuous Japanese household. She’s to look after the beautiful heiress, a woman whose uncle is as perverse and creepy as he is wealthy.

Smart and wicked, stylish and full of wonderful twists, The Handmaiden is a masterwork of delicious indulgence.

1. Daughters of Darkness (1971)

Seduction, homoeroticism, drowsy lustfulness – this one has it all.

Countess Bathory—history’s female version of Dracula—checks into an all-but-abandoned seaside hotel. The only other guests, besides the Countess’s lover, Ilona (Andrea Rau), is a honeymooning couple.

Effortlessly aristocratic, Delphine Seyrig brings a tender coyness, a sadness to the infamous role of Bathory. Seyrig’s performance lends the villain a tragic loveliness that makes her the most endearing figure in the film. Everybody else feels mildly unpleasant, a sinister bunch who seem to be hiding things. The husband (John Karlen), in particular, is a suspicious figure, and a bit peculiar. Kind of a dick, really— and Bathory, for one, has no time for dicks.

Caring less for the victims than for the predator—not because she’s innocent or good, but because her weary elegance makes her seem vulnerable—gives the film a nice added dimension.

The accents are absurd. The outfits are glorious. The performances are compellingly, perversely good, and the shots are gorgeous. Indulge yourself.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sFRuSbykaV0





Fright Club: Best Horror Movies of 2018

Was 2018 the lamentable year in horror that some dumbasses suggest? No! There was a wild and impressive range in independent horror and blockbuster stuff, gore and comedy, psychological scares and slashers. It was a really fun year to look back on, as we do today to rank the best in horror the year had to offer. Join us, won’t you?

10. The Ritual

David Bruckner has entertained us with some of the best shorts in horror today, including work from V/H/S, Southbound, and one of our favorites, The Signal. Directing his feature debut in The Ritual, Bruckner takes what feels familiar, roots it in genuine human emotion, takes a wild left turn and delivers the scares.

Five friends decide to mourn a tragedy with a trip together into the woods. Grief is a tricky, personal, often ugly process and as they work through their feelings, their frustration quickly turns to fear as they lose themselves in a foreign forest where danger lurks.

The film works for a number of reasons, but its greatest triumph is in making the woods scary again. That environment has become such a profound cliché in horror that it is almost impossible to make it feel fresh, but there is an authenticity to the performances, the interaction among the characters, and the frustration and fear that grounds the horror. And then there is horror—intriguing, startling, genuinely frightening horror. Yay!

9. Unsane

Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy—brittle, unlikeable and amazing) is living your worst nightmare. After moving 400 miles to escape her stalker, she begins seeing him everywhere. She visits an insurance-approved therapist in a nearby clinic and quickly finds herself being held involuntarily for 24 hours.

After punching an orderly she mistakes for her stalker, that 24 hours turns into one week. And now she’s convinced that the new orderly George is, in fact, her stalker David (Joshua Leonard—cloying, terrifying perfection).

After laying bare some terrifying facts about our privatized mental health industry, Steven Soderbergh structures this critique with a somewhat traditional is-she-or-isn’t-she-crazy storyline. Anyone who watches much horror will recognize that uneasy line: you may be here against your will, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be here.

And the seasoned director of misdirection knows how to toy with that notion, how to employ Sawyer’s very real damage, touch on her raw nerve of struggling to remain in control of her own life only to have another’s will forced upon her.

He relies on familiar tropes to say something relevant and in doing so creates a tidy, satisfying thriller.

8. Mom and Dad

I brought you into this world, I can take you out of it.

It’s a joke, of course, an idle threat. Right?

Maybe so, but deep down, it does speak to the unspeakable tumult of emotions and desires that come with parenting. Wisely, a humorous tumult is exactly the approach writer/director Brian Taylor brings to his horror comedy Mom and Dad.

Why do you want to see it? Because of the unhinged Nicolas Cage. Not just any Nic Cage—the kind who can convincingly sing the Hokey Pokey while demolishing furniture with a sledge hammer.

7. Overlord

Perhaps you don’t know this, but Nazi zombies have a horror genre unto themselves: Shock Waves, Zombie Lake, Dead Snow, Dead Snow 2, Blood Creek. Well, there’s a new Nazi Zombie Sheriff in town, and he is effing glorious.

Overlord drops us into enemy territory on D-Day. One rag tag group of American soldiers needs to disable the radio tower the Nazis have set up on top of a rural French church, disabling Nazi communications and allowing our guys to land safely.

What’s on the church tower is not so much the problem. It’s what’s in the basement.

A satisfying Good V Evil film that benefits from layers, Overlord reminds us repeatedly that it is possible to retain your humanity, even in the face of inhuman evil.

Plus, Nazi zombies, which is never not awesome!

6. Revenge

The rape-revenge film is a tough one to pull off. Even in the cases where the victim rips bloody vengeance through the bodies of her betrayers, the films are too often titillating. Almost exclusively written and directed by men for a primarily male audience, the comeuppance angle can be so bent by the male gaze that the film feels more like an additional violation.

Well, friends, writer/director Coralie Fargeat changes all that with Revenge, a breathless, visually fascinating, bloody-as-hell vengeance flick that repays the viewer for her endurance. (His, too.)

Fargeat’s grasp of male entitlement and the elements of a rape culture are as sharp as her instincts for visual storytelling. Wildly off-kilter close-ups sandwich gorgeous vistas to create a dreamlike frame for the utterly brutal mess of a film unfolding.

Symbol-heavy but never pretentious or preachy, the film follows a traditional path—she is betrayed, she is underestimated, she repays her assailants for their toxic masculinity. But between Fargeat’s wild aesthetic, four very solid performances, and thoughtful yet visceral storytelling, the film feels break-neck, terrifying and entirely satisfying.

5. Halloween

David Gordon Green’s direct sequel is, above all things, a mash note to the original. Visual odes continually call back to Carpenter, often in ways that allude to an intriguing about-face the film is leading to.

Kills—more numerous and grisly than the first go round—are often handled offscreen, just the wet thud or slice of the deed to enlighten us until the corpse gets a quick showcase. The result is a jumpy, fun, “don’t go in there!” experience reminiscent of the best of the genre.

The film takes it up a notch in its final reel, as tables turn, panic rooms open and cop heads become Jack-o-lanterns. The result is a respectful, fun and creepy experience meant to be shared with a crowd.

4. A Quiet Place

Damn. John Krasinski. That big, tall guy, kind of doughy-faced? Married to Emily Blunt? Dude can direct the shit out of a horror movie.

Krasinski plays the patriarch of a close-knit family trying to survive the post-alien-invasion apocalypse by staying really, really quiet. The beasts use sound to hunt, but the family is prepared. The cast, anchored by Krasinski’s on-and-off-screen wife Emily Blunt is amazing. That you may expect.

What you may not expect is Krasinski’s masterful direction: where and when the camera lingers or cuts away, how often and how much he shows the monsters, when he decides the silence will generate the most dread and when he chooses to let Marco Beltrami’s ominous score do that work for him.

It’s smart in the way it’s written, sly in its direction and spot-on in its ability to pile on the mayhem in the final reel without feeling gimmicky or silly.

3. Mandy

Writer/director Panos Cosmatos’s hallucinogenic fever dream of social, political and pop-culture subtexts layered with good old, blood-soaked revenge, Mandy throws enough visionary strangeness on the screen to dwarf even Nicolas Cage in full freakout mode.

Like Cosmatos’s 2010 debut Beyond the Black Rainbow, Mandy is both formally daring and wildly borrowed. While Black Rainbow, also set in 1983, shines with the antiseptic aesthetic of Cronenberg or Kubrick, Mandy feels more like something snatched from a Dio album cover.

Cosmatos blends ingredients from decades-spanning indie horror into a stew that tastes like nothing else.

Surrender to it.

2. Suspiria

Luca Guadagnino continues to be a master film craftsman. Much as he draped Call Me by Your Name in waves of dreamy romance, here he establishes a consistent mood of nightmarish goth. Macabre visions dart in and out like a video that will kill you in 7 days while sudden, extreme zooms, precise sound design and a vivid score from Thom Yorke help cement the homage to another era.

But even when this new Suspiria—a “cover version” of Dario Argento’s 1974 gaillo classic—is tipping its hat, Guadagnino leaves no doubt he is making his own confident statement. The color scheme is intentionally muted, and you’ll find no men in this dance troupe, serving immediate notice that superficialities are not the endgame here.

1. Hereditary

Grief and guilt color every somber, shadowy frame of writer/director Ari Aster’s unbelievably assured feature film debut, Hereditary.

With just a handful of mannerisms, one melodic clucking noise, and a few seemingly throwaway lines, Aster and his magnificent cast quickly establish what will become nuanced, layered human characters, all of them scarred and battered by family.

Art and life imitate each other to macabre degrees while family members strain to behave in the manner that feels human, seems connected, or might be normal. What is said and what stays hidden, what’s festering in the attic and in the unspoken tensions within the family, it’s all part of a horrific atmosphere meticulously crafted to unnerve you.

Aster takes advantage of a remarkably committed cast to explore family dysfunction of the most insidious type. Whether his supernatural twisting and turning amount to metaphor or fact hardly matters with performances this unnerving and visual storytelling this hypnotic.





Fright Club: Best Horror of the 1950s

When we first started this podcast, one hundred thirtysomething episodes ago, we devoted specific shows to the best horror movies by the decade. We started with the Sixties, but we got called on that at one point by a listener who wanted to know what we thought were the best horror movies of the Fifties.

We have finally responded to that (hopefully) very patient listener, and enlisted the help of our old friend Phantom Dark Dave. Together, we wander through the cold war movies that scared a generation.

5. Godzilla (1954)

Is Godzilla the best film on this list? No. But, more than any other film in the genre, it spoke directly to global anxieties, became a phenomenal success, and changed the face of horror.

As Japan struggled to re-emerge from the 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, director Ishiro Honda unleashed that dreaded kaiju—followed quickly by a tidal wave of creature features focused on scientists whose ungodly work creates global cataclysm.

Far more pointed and insightful than its American bastardization or any of the sequels or reboots to follow, the 1954 Japanese original mirrored the desperate, helpless impotence of a global population in the face of very real, apocalyptic danger. Sure, that danger breathed fire and came in a rubber suit, but history shows again and again how nature points out the folly of man.

4. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Director Dono Siegel was the first filmmaker to bring Jack Finney’s Cold War nightmare to the screen. He wouldn’t be the last, maybe not even the best, but what he did with this eerie alien tale tapped into a societal anxiety and quickly became one of the most influential and terrifying films of its time.

Doc Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is just home from a short trip when he’s inundated by patients swearing their loved ones are not their loved ones at all. Sure, they look the same and have all the same skills and memories, but there’s no warmth, no passion.

With this, the fear that our very nation could be overtaken by an outside force – Russians, say, for terrifyingly immediate sake of argument – working its way through not by force, but by quietly taking over each and every person in one town, then spreading from town to town to town.

It’s the kind of insidious evil that fuels contagion horror, infestation horror, even demonic horror. But Invasion of the Body Snatchers spoke to a society’s deepest fears and became a touchstone for all SciFi to follow it.

3. Dracula (Horror of Dracula) (1958)

In 1958, Hammer Films began its long and fabulous love affair with the cloaked one, introducing the irrefutably awesome Christopher Lee as the Count.

Their tale varies a bit from Stoker’s, but the main players are mostly accounted for. Peter Cushing steps in early and often as Van Helsing, bringing his inimitable brand of prissy kick-ass, but it’s Lee who carries the film.

Six foot 5 and sporting that elegant yet sinister baritone, Lee cuts by far the most intimidating figure of the lot as Dracula. Director Terence Fisher (what?!) uses that to the film’s advantage by developing a far more vicious, brutal vampire than what we’d seen previously.

Still, the film is about seduction, though, which gives Lee’s brute force an unseemly thrill. Unlike so many victims in other vampire tales, it’s not just that Melissa Stribling’s Mina is helpless to stop Dracula’s penetration. She’s in league. She wants it.

Ribald stuff for 1958!

2. The Bad Seed (1956)

The minute delicate Christine’s (Nancy Kelly) husband leaves for his 4-week assignment in DC, their way-too-perfect daughter begins to betray some scary behavior. The creepy handyman Leroy (Henry Jones) has her figured out – he knows she’s not as perfect as she pretends.

You may be tempted to abandon the film in its first reel, feeling as if you know where the it’s going. You’ll be right, but there are two big reasons to stick it out. One is that Bad Seed did it first, and did it well, considering the conservative cinematic limitations of the Fifties.

Second, because director Mervyn LeRoy’s approach – not a single vile act appears onscreen – gives the picture an air of restraint and dignity while employing the perversity of individual imaginations to ramp up the creepiness.

Enough can’t be said about Patty McCormack. There’s surprising nuance in her manipulations, and the Oscar-nominated 9-year-old handles the role with both grace and menace.

1. Diabolique (1955)

Pierre Boileau’s novel was such hot property that even Alfred Hitchcock pined to make it into a film. But Henri-Georges Clouzot got hold if it first. His psychological thriller with horror-ific undertones is crafty, spooky, jumpy and wonderful.

And it wouldn’t work if it weren’t for the weirdly lived-in relationship among Nicole (Simone Signoret) – a hard-edged boarding school teacher – and the married couple that runs the school. Christina (Vera Clouzot) is a fragile heiress; her husband Michel (Paul Meurisse) is the abusive, blowhard school headmaster. Michel and Nicole are sleeping together, Christine knows, both women are friends, both realize he’s a bastard. Wonder if there’s something they can do about it.

What unravels is a mystery with a supernatural flavor that never fails to surprise and entrance. All the performances are wonderful, the black and white cinematography creates a spectral atmosphere, and that bathtub scene can still make you jump.





Fright Club: Death + Sex

A few weeks ago we covered Sex and Death. That is, the act of sex leads directly to death. Sex kills you.

This week, as a kind of wrong-headed sibling, we talk with B Movie Bros about Death and Sex. Which is to say, the death part comes first. Either party can be dead, or both can. Reanimated corpses are fine, if that’s your thing. Just as long as at least one participant is dead.

5. Living Doll (1990)

Though few scenes go by that don’t showcase Katie Orgill’s bare breasts, this odd British import is just a sweet romance at its heart. It’s a romance between a young mortician/med student and the corpse of his unrequited love, which doesn’t sound that sweet, I’ll grant you, but between Mark Jax’s delusional naivete and the strangely tender script penned by director George Dugdale with Paul Hart-Wilden and Mark Ezra, the film may openly flirt with necromancy, but it courts true romance.

Why is Christine (Orgill) buried naked? Why does everyone hide their British accents—and so poorly? Why clutter the film with so many atrocious actors? Why is Orgill so bad at holding her breath? Who knows or cares, when Eartha Kitt plays the landlady?

The film is weirdly memorable—equally grotesque and tender-hearted. You can’t exactly look past its snail’s pace or poor acting, but it works on you. There’s not much else like it.

4. The Corpse of Anna Fritz (2015)

Young hospital orderly Pau (Albert Carbo) attends the morgue, where the famous actress Anna Fritz (Alba Ribas) awaits an autopsy come morning. He secretly texts a selfie with the body to two buddies. They show up to see the body.

Soon, three young men are alone with a beautiful, naked, dead woman with absolutely no chance of being interrupted for hours. If you’re a little concerned with where this may lead, well, you should be.

As a comment on rape culture, the film is a pointed and singular horror.

Sort of a cross between 2008’s irredeemable rape fantasy Deadgirl and Tarantino’s brilliant Kill Bill, The Corpse of Anna Fritz will take you places you’d rather not go.

And while contrivances pile up like cadavers in a morgue, each one poking a hole in the credibility of the narrative being built, The Corpse of Anna Fritz has a lot more to offer than you might expect—assuming you stick it out past the first reel.

3. The Neon Demon (2016)

“Beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”

So says an uncredited Alessandro Nivola, a fashion designer waxing philosophic in Nicolas Winding Refn’s (Bronson, Drive) nightmarish new film The Neon Demon.

The line, of course, is borrowed. Refn tweaks the familiar idea to suit his fluid, perfectly framed, cynical vision.

Jesse (Elle Fanning) is an underaged modeling hopeful recently relocated to a sketchy motel in Pasadena. Will she be swallowed whole by the darker, more monstrous elements of Hollywood?

Or is Ruby (Jena Malone) the godsend of a friend Jesse needs?

Nope. And she’s not to be trusted with the kind of beautiful corpses you might find in an LA mortuary, either.

2. We Are the Flesh (2016)

Are you squeamish?

First-time feature writer/director Emiliano Rocha Minter announces his presence with authority—and a lot of body fluids—in this carnal horror show.

A hellish vision if ever there was one, the film opens on a filthy man with a lot of packing tape. He’s taking different types of nastiness, taping it inside a plastic drum to ferment, and eventually turning it into a drink or a drug. Hard to tell—loud drum banging follows, as well as hallucinations and really, really deep sleep.

During that sleep we meet two siblings, a teenaged brother and sister who’ve stumbled into the abandoned building where the hermit lives.

What happens next? What doesn’t?! Incest, cannibalism, a lot of shared body fluids of every manner, rape, necrophilia—a lot of stuff, none of it pleasant.

Minter has created a fever dream as close to hell as anything we’ve seen since last year’s Turkish nightmare Baskin.

There’s little chance you’ll watch this film in its entirety without diverting your eyes—whether your concern is the problematic sexuality or just the onslaught of viscous secretions, the screen is a slurry of shit you don’t really want to see.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BnTY6q7bt78

1. Dead Alive (1992)

Rated R for “an abundance of outrageous gore,” Dead Alive is everything the young Peter Jackson did well. It’s a bright, silly, outrageously gory bloodbath.

Lionel Cosgrove (Timothy Balme) secretly loves shopkeeper Paquita Maria Sanchez (Diana Penalver).His overbearing sadist of a mother does not take well to her son’s new outside-the-home interests. Mum follows the lovebirds to a date at the zoo, where she’s bitten (pretty hilariously) by a Sumatran rat-monkey (do not mistake this dangerous creature for a rabid Muppet or misshapen lump of clay).

The bite kills her, but not before she can squeeze pus into some soup and wreak general havoc, which is nothing compared to the hell she raises once she comes back from the dead. Soon enough, Lionel has a houseful of reanimated corpses, some of them a bit randy.

You ever wonder where a zombie baby comes from?





Fright Club: Best Farming Horror

It’s rural, it’s isolated, it’s dirty and often brutal and bloody. No, it’s not a serial killer’s dream, it’s farming, everybody, and it is the perfect opportunity for mayhem. Now, we’re looking for working farms here. No isolated and abandoned farmhouse nonsense. And no farms that don’t really farm, instead they keep distressed drivers in their barn and train them as circus acts. (Barn of the Naked Dead, people. Watch it. Wait…no, don’t.)

No, no. Working farms, often with some kind of pharmaceutical tie-in to pay off a loan. (We’ve learned that is a really, really bad idea, btw.) Scary manure, that’s what we’re saying. And here are the 5 best.

5. Isolation (2005)

In 2016, writer/director/Irishman Billy O’Brien made an effective and lovely – yes, lovely – creature feature called I Am Not a Serial Killer. But about a decade earlier, he started down that path along a muddy, ruddy Irish roadside that wound ‘round to an out-of-the-way farm.

It’s the kind of a depressing, run-down spot that would catch nobody’s eye – which is exactly why it drew the attention of runaway lovers Jamie (Sean Harris) and Mary (a young Ruth Negga – wonderful as always). The solitude and remoteness also got noticed by a bio-genetics firm.

Down-on-his-luck Farmer Dan (John Lynch, melancholy perfection) has little choice but to allow some experimentation on his cows. He doesn’t really mind the required visits by veterinarian Orla (Essie Davis – hooray!).

But when one cow needs help delivering – genetic mutations, fetuses inside fetuses and teeth where no teeth belong. Nasty.

O’Brien and his truly outstanding cast create an oppressive, creepy, squeamish nightmare worth seeking out.

4. 100 Bloody Acres (2012)

A testament to the entrepreneurial spirit and the bonds of family, 100 Bloody Acres is Australia’s answer to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Same body count and more blood, but a far sweeter disposition and loads more laughs.

Brothers Reg (Damon Herriman) and Lindsay (Angus Sampson) sell organic fertilizer. Business is good. Too good. Demand is driving the brothers to more and more extreme measures to gather ingredients.

Interesting the way writing/directing brothers Cameron and Colin Cairnes explore sibling rivalry, but the film’s strength is in its humor: silly enough to make even the most repugnant bits enjoyable. (I’m looking at you, Nancy. Oh, no! Why did I look?!)

3.Black Sheep (2006)

Graphic and gory horror comedy seems to be the Kiwi trademark, no doubt a product of the popularity of native Lord of the Gastro-Intestinal-Splatter-Fest-Laugh-Riot, Peter Jackson.

First-time writer/director Jonathan King uses the isolation of a New Zealand sheep farm and the greedy evil of pharmaceutical research to create horror. He does it with a lot of humor and buckets full of blood. It works pretty well.

Evil brother Angus (Peter Feeney) has bred some genetically superior sheep while smart but sheep-phobic brother Harry (Nathan Meister) has been away. But the new sheep bite (a recurring problem with bio-genetically altered farm animals). Victims turn into, well, were-sheep. Of course they do.

The result is an endearing, often genuinely funny film. Cleverly written with performances strong enough to elevate it further, Black Sheep offers an enjoyable way to watch a would-be lamb chop get its revenge.

2. The Other (1972)

Director Robert Mulligan (To Kill a Mockingbird) is a master of slow reveal, feeding us information as we need it and pulling no punches in the meantime.

It’s rural 1930s, and one hearty farm family has withstood a lot. Ever since Dad died last summer, seems like every time you turn around there’s some crazy mishap. And now, the baby’s gone…

And yet, the farm still goes on – there’s always a pie in the oven and a cow that needs milking. Still, Ada (Uta Hagen), the sturdy German matriarch, is troubled. Sweet, stout young Niles seems terribly confused about his twin, Holland.

Mulligan turns to that same nostalgic, heartland approach he used so beautifully with Mockingbird to inform a stunningly crafted, understated film that sneaks up on you. He creates what is likely the most effective and troubling film you’ll see about twins.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HMmMqWkudgA

1. Wicker Man (1973)

In the early Seventies, Robin Hardy created a film that fed on the period’s hippie- versus-straight hysteria. Uptight Brit constable Sgt. Howie (Edward Woodward) flies to the private island Summerisle, investigating charges of a missing child. His sleuthing leads him into a pagan world incompatible with his sternly Christian point of view.

The deftly crafted moral ambiguity of the picture keeps the audience off kilter. Surely we aren’t to root for these heathens, with their nudey business right out in the open? But how can we side with the self-righteous prig Howie?

But maybe Howie’s playing right into something he doesn’t understand – and what would the people of Summerisle do if he didn’t play along? The ritual would be blown!

Hardy and his cast have wicked fun with Anthony Shaffer’s sly screenplay, no one more so than the ever-glorious Christopher Lee. Oh, that saucy baritone!

The film is hardly a horror movie at all –more of a subversive comedy of sorts – until the final reel or so. Starting with the creepy animal masks (that would become pretty popular in the genre a few decades later), then the parade and the finale, things take quite a creepy turn.





Fright Club: Best PG-13 Horror

Who wants to scare your kids? Because there is ample opportunity to do so without breaking any laws. Yes, year after year the cinemas are lousy with God-awful PG-13 horror (Rings, Ouija, Wish Upon, Bye Bye Man) aiming to cash in on the underaged market with jump scares and lazy writing.

But, if you look closely you can find some scary shit. Nightmares in the making. So, we looked closely…

6. The Grudge (2004)

The amazing thing about The Grudge’s PG-13 rating is the remarkable amount of violence in this film. There is a death, dismemberment or supernatural act in very nearly every single scene in the movie.

There’s also the larger, scarier idea of a contagious haunted house. You’re not just in jeopardy when you’re in it. This shit comes home with you.

The Grudge is one of the rare American remakes of J-horror that stands up, partly because the antagonists from the original are involved (Yuya Ozeki as the terrifyingly adorable Toshio and Takako Fuji as the just terrifying Kayako). It’s also a benefit that director Takashi Shimizu (who also wrote and directed the original, Ju-on) is back, and that he keeps the setting in Japan. Plus those creepy-ass sounds!

5. Insidious (2010)

Director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell took a break from each other after a disappointing follow up to their breakout 2004 collaboration Saw (Dead Silence—yeesh). The the pair were back strong in 2010 with a wildly imaginative descent into “the further.”

This is the film where Wan finds his way as a director, and a director of horror in particular. Whannell’s bold story offers plenty of opportunity to work, and the atmosphere, practical effects and clever use of jump scares has become the trademark of the filmmaker.

They are also the elements that help this genuinely frightening effort maintain a PG-13 rating. Man, this guy knows how to milk that rating, doesn’t he? That lady in black, that red-faced guy, the whole organ thing, that kid? Tiptoe through the Tulips?

The pair takes a ghost story premise and does what very few people can do well: shows us what we are afraid of.

4. The Sixth Sense (1999)

Oh, you totally didn’t figure it out. Don’t even start.

A troubled child psychologist (Bruce Willis) treats a young boy (Haley Joel Osment) carrying a terrible burden. The execution—basically, seeing ghosts in every corner of Philadelphia—could have become a bit of a joke, but writer/director M. Night Shyamalan delivers a tense, eerie product.

With his 1999 breakout, Shyamalan painted himself into a corner he found it tough to get out of: the spooky surprise ending. And though this would nearly be his undoing as a filmmaker, it started off brilliantly.

Part of the success of the film depends on the heart-wrenching performances: Toni Collette’s buoyant but terrified mother, Willis’s concerned therapist, and Osment’s tortured little boy. Between Shyamalan’s cleverly spooky script, a slate of strong performances and more than a few genuinely terrifying moments, this is one scary-ass PG-13.

3. The Woman in Black (2012)

Director James Watkins was fresh off his underseen, wickedly frightening Eden Lake. Screenwriter Jane Goldman (working from Susan Hill’s novel) had recently written the films Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class, both of which are awesome. And star Daniel Radcliffe had done something or other that people remembered…

I’d have been worried that Radcliffe chose another supernatural adventure as his first big, post-Hogwarts adventure were it not for the filmmaking team putting the flick together. Goldman’s witty intelligence and Watkins’s sense of what scares us coalesce beautifully in this eerie little nightmare.

A remake of a beloved if rarely shown BBC film, the big screen version is a spooky blast of a ghost story. It makes savvy use of old haunted house tropes, updating them quite successfully, and its patient pace and slow reveal leads to more of a wallop than you usually find in such a gothic tale. Glimpses, movements, shadows—all are filmed to keep your eyes darting around the screen, your neck craned for a better look. It’s classic haunted house direction and misdirection laced with more modern scares.

Ten points for Gryffindor!

2. The Others (2001)

Co-writer/director Alejandro Amenabar casts a spell that recalls The Innocents in his 2001 ghost story The Others. It’s 1945 on a small isle off Britain, and the brittle mistress of the house (Nicole Kidman) wakes screaming. She has reason to be weary. Her husband has still not returned from the war, her servants have up and vanished, and her two children, Anna and Nicholas, have a deathly photosensitivity: sunlight or bright light could kill them.

What unspools is a beautifully constructed film using slow reveal techniques to upend traditional ghost story tropes, unveiling the mystery in a unique and moving way.

Kidman’s performance is spot-on, and she’s aided by both the youngsters (Alakina Mann and James Bentley). Bentley’s tenderness and Mann’s willfulness, combined with their pasty luster (no sun, you know), heighten the creepiness.

With the help of cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe and supporting actress Fionnula Flanagan, Amenabar introduces seemingly sinister elements bit by bit. It all amounts to a satisfying twist on the old ghost story tale that leaves you feeling as much a cowdy custard as little Nicholas.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ISch6Fi-q0A

1. The Ring (2002)

Gore Verbinski’s film achieves one of those rare feats, ranking among the scarce Hollywood remakes that surpasses the foreign-born original, Japan’s unique paranormal nightmare Ringu. Verbinski’s film is visually arresting, quietly atmospheric and creepy as hell.

This is basically the story of bad mom/worse journalist Rachel (Naomi Watts) investigating the urban legend of a videotape that kills viewers exactly seven days after viewing.

The tape itself is the key. Had it held images less surreal, less Buñuel, the whole film would have collapsed. But the tape was freaky. And so were the blue-green grimaces on the dead! And that horse thing on the ferry!

And Samara.

From cherubic image of plump-cheeked innocence to a mess of ghastly flesh and disjointed bones climbing out of the well and into your life, the character is brilliantly created.





Fright Club: Sex + Death

I know what you’re thinking. Sex and death—that could be literally any film in the genre. Aaah, yes, but we’re not talking metaphorically or even loosely connected. Sure, the quickest way onto Michael Meyers’s or Jason Voorhees’s kill list is by having sex, but that’s not immediate enough. Let’s disregard the middle man, lose the pause, and go right to the horror films where sex and death are immediately, gorily and irreversibly linked.

Happy Valentine’s Day, by the way!

5. Killer Condom (1996)

A Troma-distributed splatter/horror/comedy, Killer Condom is an enormous amount of fun. This is a German film—German actors delivering lines in German—but it’s set in NYC. You can tell because of the frequent shots of someone opening a New York Times newspaper machine.

Luigi Mackeroni (Udo Samel) is the grizzled NYC detective who longs for the good old days in Sicily. In German. He’s assigned to a crime scene in a seedy Time Square motel he knows too well, where it appears that women just keep biting off men’s penises.

Or do they?

This film is refreshingly gay, to start with, as nearly every major character in the film is a homosexual. The run-of-the-mill way this is handled is admirable, even when it is used for cheap laughs. (Babette, I’m looking at you).

It’s fun. It’s funny. It’s gory and wrong-headed and entertaining from start to finish. Who’d have guessed?

4. Teeth (2007)

Of all the films built on the hysteria of impending womanhood, few are as specific as Teeth, a film in which a pubescent discovers a sharp set where teeth ought not be. This is a dark comedy and social satire that is uncomfortable to watch no matter your gender, although I imagine it may be a bit rougher on men.

Treading on the dread of coming-of-age and turning male-oriented horror clichés on ear, Teeth uses the metaphor implicit in vagina dentata—a myth originated to bespeak the fear of castration—to craft a parable about the dangers as well as the power of sexual awakening.

Written and directed by artist (and Ohioan!) Roy Lichtenstein’s son Mitchell, Teeth boasts an irreverent if symbol-heavy script with a strong and believable lead performance (Jess Weixler).

Weixler’s evolution from naïveté to shock to guilt to empowerment never ceases to captivate, but the story itself settles for something more conventional and predictable than what the shockingly original first two acts suggest.

3. Trouble Every Day (2001)

Backed by a plaintive, spooky soundtrack by Tindersticks, Clair Denis’s metaphorical erotic horror examines gender roles, sex and hunger. Denis is one of France’s more awarded and appreciated auteurs, so a one-time voyage into horror should not be dismissed.

A newlywed American couple head to Paris, ostensibly to honeymoon, but Shane (Vincent Gallo) is really there to re-establish connection with old colleagues Coré (Béatrice Dalle) and her husband, Léo (Alex Descas). The three scientists once participated in an experiment, and Shane needs to find them.

The film is a startling work of biologic-horror, but its existential riffs on intimacy, dominance and violence—common fare in the genre—are clearer-headed and more disturbing here than in anything else that swims the same murky waters.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oz5VlZc8tC4

2. Raw (2016)

What you’ll find in first-time filmmaker Julia Ducournau’s Raw is a thoughtful coming-of-age tale. And meat.

A college freshman and vegetarian from a meat-free family, Justine (Garance Marillier) objects to the hazing ritual of eating a piece of raw meat. But once she submits to peer pressure and tastes that taboo, her appetite is awakened and it will take more and more dangerous, self-destructive acts to indulge her blood lust.

The film often feels like a cross between Trouble Every Day and Anatomy. The latter, a German film from 2000, follows a prudish med student dealing with carnage and peer pressure. In the former, France’s Claire Denis directs a troubling parable combining sexual desire and cannibalism.

Ducournau has her cagey way with the same themes that populate any coming-of-age story – pressure to conform, peer pressure generally, societal order and sexual hysteria. Here all take on a sly, macabre humor that’s both refreshing and unsettling.

1. It Follows (2014)

It Follows is yet another coming-of-age tale, one that mines a primal terror. Moments after a sexual encounter with a new boyfriend, Jay (Maika Monroe) discovers that she is cursed. He has passed on some kind of entity – a demonic menace that will follow her until it either kills her or she passes it on to someone else the same way she got it.

Yes, it’s the STD or horror movies, but don’t let that dissuade you. Mitchell understands the anxiety of adolescence and he has not simply crafted yet another cautionary tale about premarital sex.

Mitchell has captured that fleeting yet dragging moment between childhood and adulthood and given the lurking dread of that time of life a powerful image. There is something that lies just beyond the innocence of youth. You feel it in every frame and begin to look out for it, walking toward you at a consistent pace, long before the characters have begun to check the periphery themselves.

Mitchell’s provocatively murky subtext is rich with symbolism but never overwhelmed by it. His capacity to draw an audience into this environment, this horror, is impeccable, and the result is a lingering sense of unease that will have you checking the perimeter for a while to come.





Fright Club: Divine Missions in Horror

“We’re on a mission from God.”

That might be one of many iconic lines from The Blues Brothers, but it speaks to some of the great storylines in horror—sometimes misdirected, sometimes well-intentioned, always scary. Here we pick through the many, including the dozens of tried and true exorcism flicks, to zero in on those that are truly faithful to their calling to serve God, no matter the generally disastrous, often bloody results.

5. Red State (2011)

I actually got to talk to Kevin Smith about a year before Red State was released. Our official topic was his Smodcasts, but given my particular weakness for genre filmmaking, I veered the questions toward his forthcoming entrance into horror.

He told me: “For years I’ve called myself a filmmaker, but it’s not really true. Really I just make Kevin Smith movies. I’m at that stage where I could make a Kevin Smith Movie with my eyes closed. Let me see if I can make another movie.”

That other movie was Red State – an underrated gem. Deceptively straightforward, Smith’s tale of a small, violently devout cult taken to using the internet to trap “homos and fornicators” for ritualistic murder cuts deeper than you might expect. Not simply satisfied with liberal finger-wagging, Smith’s film leaves no character burdened by innocence.

Pastor Abin Cooper spellbinds as delivered to us by Tarantino favorite Michael Parks. Never a false note, never a clichéd moment, Parks’s award-worthy performance fuels the entire picture.

There’s enough creepiness involved to call this a horror film, but truth be told, by about the midway point it turns to corrupt government action flick, with slightly lesser results. Still, the dialogue is surprisingly smart, and the cast brims with rock solid character actors, including John Goodman, Stephen Root, Melissa Leo and Kevin Pollak.

Smith said at the time: “I think we have something. It’s creepy and very finger-on-the-pulse and very much about America.”

Agreed.

4. The Conjuring (2013)

Welcome to 1971, the year the Perron family took one step inside their new home and screamed with horror, “My God, this wallpaper is hideous!”

Seriously, it often surprises me that civilization made it through the Seventies. Must every surface and ream of fabric be patterned? Still, the Perrons found survival tougher than most.

Yes, this is an old-fashioned ghost story, built from the ground up to push buttons of childhood terror. But don’t expect a long, slow burn. Director James Wan expertly balances suspense with quick, satisfying bursts of visual terror.

Ghost stories are hard to pull off, though, especially in the age of instant gratification. Few modern moviegoers have the patience for atmospheric dread, so filmmakers now turn to CGI to ramp up thrills.

But Wan understands the power of a flesh and blood villain in a way that other directors don’t seem to. He proved this with the creepy fun of Insidious, and surpasses those scares with this effort.

Claustrophobic when it needs to be and full of fun house moments, The Conjuring will scare you while you’re watching and stick with you after. At the very least, you’ll keep your feet tucked safely under the covers.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vjk2So3KvSQ

3. Nothing Bad Can Happen (2013)

This film is tough to watch, and the fact that it is based on a true story only makes the feat of endurance that much harder. But writer-director Katrin Gebbe mines this horrific tale for a peculiar point of view that suits it brilliantly and ensures that it is never simply a gratuitous wallowing in someone else’s suffering.

Tore (Julius Feldmeier) is an awkward teen in Germany. His best friend is Jesus. He means it. In fact, he’s so genuine and pure that when he lays his hands on stranded motorist Benno’s (Sascha Alexander Gersak) car, the engine starts.

Thus begins a relationship that devolves into a sociological exploration of button-pushing evil and submission to your own beliefs. Feldmeier is wondrous—so tender and vulnerable you will ache for him. Gersak is his equal in a role of burgeoning cruelty. The whole film has a, “you’re making me do this,” mentality that is hard to shake. It examines one peculiar nature of evil and does it so authentically as to leave you truly shaken.

2. Frailty (2001)

“He can make me dig this stupid hole, but he can’t make me pray.”

Aah, adolescence. We all bristle against our dad’s sense of morality and discipline, right? Well, some have a tougher time of it than others.

Bill Paxton (who also directs) stars as a widowed country dad awakened one night by an angel—or a bright light shining off the angel on top of a trophy on his ramshackle bedroom bookcase. Whichever—he understands now that he and his sons have been called by God to kill demons.

Whatever its flaws— too languid a pace, too trite an image of idyllic country life, Powers Boothe—Frailty manages to subvert every horror film expectation by playing right into them. We’re led through the saga of the serial killer God’s Hand by a troubled young man (Matthew McConaughey), who, with eerie quiet and reflection, recounts his childhood with Paxton’s character as a father.

Dread mounts as Paxton drags out the ambiguity over whether this man is insane, and his therefore good-hearted but wrong-headed behavior profoundly damaging his boys. Or could he really be chosen, and his sons likewise marked by God?

1. The Exorcist

For evocative, nerve jangling, demonic horror, you will not find better than The Exorcist.

Slow-moving, richly textured, gorgeously and thoughtfully framed, The Exorcist follows a very black and white, good versus evil conflict: Father Merrin V Satan for the soul of an innocent child.

But thanks to an intricate and nuanced screenplay adapted by William Peter Blatty from his own novel, the film boasts any number of flawed characters struggling to find faith and to do what’s right in this situation. And thanks to director William Friedkin’s immaculate filming, we are entranced by early wide shots of a golden Middle East, then brought closer to watch people running here and there on the Georgetown campus or on the streets of NYC.

Then we pull in a bit more: interiors of Chris MacNeil’s (Ellen Burstyn) place on location, the hospital where Fr. Karras’s mother is surrounded by forgotten souls, the labs and conference rooms where an impotent medical community fails to cure poor Regan (Linda Blair).

Then even closer, in the bedroom, where you can see Regan’s breath in the chilly air, and examine the flesh rotting off her young face. Here, in the intimacy, there’s no escaping that voice, toying with everyone with such vulgarity.

The voice belongs to Mercedes McCambridge, and she may have been the casting director’s greatest triumph. Of course, Jason Miller as poor, wounded Fr. Damien Karras could not have been better. Indeed, he, Burstyn, and young Linda Blair were all nominated for Oscars.

So was Friedkin, the director who balanced every scene to expose its divinity and warts, and to quietly build tension. When he was good and ready, he let that tension burst into explosions of terrifying mayhem that became a blueprint for dozens of films throughout the Seventies and marked a lasting icon for the genre.