1. The Cabin in the Woods - A metahorror deconstruction of the genre with some nods to Bataille's theories of human sacrifice and a fair dash of humor. A carnivalesque celebration of destruction and bloodletting. A condemnation of humanity for its love of that very same destruction and bloodletting in the arts. A wink to just about every horror film of the past 40 years. People talk about Scream as the great postmodern, self-aware horror movie, but Cabin does it all better.
Quotable moment: "These fucking zombies. Remember when you could just throw a girl in a volcano?"
2. The Mothman Prophecies - This is what we strive for when we write weird fiction and cosmic horror: a generally incomprehensible and potentially menacing universe chock full of forces that exist far beyond the control of mere human beings. Mothman fully realizes such a universe and then sets us spinning within it, wondering just how very small and limited we truly are.
Quotable moment: John Klein: "I think we can assume that these entities are more advanced than us. Why don't they just come right out and tell us what's on their minds?"
Alexander Leek: "You're more advanced than a cockroach, have you ever tried explaining yourself to one of them?"
3. Session 9 - Is this a haunted asylum movie or a study in cinematic atmospherics? Is this a film that involves demonic possession or the slow erosion of a man's mind to its basest frustration and rage? The answer is, "yes," and it's glorious. Some might say the real star is the abandoned asylum where the film was shot, and I wouldn't necessarily argue that point.
Quotable moment: Doctor: "And where do you live, Simon?"
Mary Hobbes: "I live in the weak and the wounded... Doc."
4. Pontypool - Probably the smartest zombie film you'll ever see. Hanging its hat on semiotic theory, it asks us to consider whether we make language or language makes us. It considers the ways we make meaning and whether something insidious could take up residence in that matrix. And if none of that sells you, well, Stephen McHattie's performance as a bombastic DJ is mind-blowing.
Quoteable moment: "Ok, kill isn't kill. Sydney, kill isn't kill. It isn't kill. Kill isn't kill. Kill isn't kill. Kill isn't kill. Kill isn't kill. Kill isn't kill. Oh, god. I don't know, I don't know. I don't know. Uh, uh, ok. Kill is blue. Kill is wonderful. Kill is loving. Kill is baby. Kill is Manet's Garden. Kill is a beautiful morning. Kill is everything you ever wanted. Kill is, kill is, uh, kill is kiss."
5. Antichrist - The yin and the yang. Chaos and order. Nature and civilization. Female and male. This is a film that tries to interrogate some of the classical binaries of our existence and the conflicts that ensue when these binaries merge. If you think that sounds esoteric, it is. But it's also graphic and horrifying and might explain some of the eternal violence in our world.
Quotable moment: "Nature is Satan's church."
6. The Mist - An adaptation of a Stephen King movie that doesn't suck! I know, it's rare, but here you have it. The Mist takes Lovecraftian horror and pushes it to its nihilistic extreme -- the universe wants to eat you, people want to beat you into the ground, and hope? Well, that's a cute concept. Oh... and it all works pretty well as an extended metaphor for depression, too.
Quotable moment: "As a species we're fundamentally insane. Put more than two of us in a room, we pick sides and start dreaming up reasons to kill one another. Why do you think we invented politics and religion?"
7. The Ring - Many people prefer the original Japanese Ringu, but I like the American remake for its pacing. Through a relatively simple ghost story, here's a movie that critiques mass media, social media, and our impending future of irrevocable interconnectedness. It's even more prescient now than it was twelve years ago. And don't tell me that Samara creeping through the tv in herks and jerks isn't creepy as hell.
Quotable moment: "See, when you live on an island you catch a cold, it's everybody's cold."
8. Pulse (Kairo) - As opposed to The Ring, here I think the original is far superior to the American remake. Once again, we're dealing with technology and the spectral, only in this film the plot takes a turn toward cosmic horror and the apocalyptic.
Quotable moment: "Death was... eternal loneliness."
9. The Strangers - Is anything more unnerving than a knock on the door in the middle of the night? The Strangers answers emphatically, "NO." A parable of sorts, here's a movie that isn't going to mince morality, largely because it presents us with a world where morality has no place and random violence -- inescapable, ever-lurking, and probably right outside your door -- is the natural order. But it's just a movie... right?
Quotable moment: Kristen: "Why are you doing this to us?"
Dollface: "Because you were home."
10. The Descent - Few movies are capable of capturing the sheer terror of claustrophobia. This one does. A katabatic journey into the domain of flesh-eating mutants and natural pitfalls (like hundred-foot drops and unforgiving granite walls), here's a film that's guaranteed to make you forever wary of descending into even your basement.
Quotable moment: "I'm an English teacher, not fucking Tomb Raider."
11. Let the Right One In - Just LOOK at this movie. Its cinematography is beautiful, catching the starkness of Scandinavian winter perfectly. And the narrative? It feels like something Hans Christian Anderson might have co-written with Edgar Allan Poe. It's probably the only "tender" movie on this list, but make no mistake -- even in striking beauty and heart-rending innocence there lies monsters, as this film is keen to show us.
Quotable moment: "I'm twelve. But I've been twelve for a long time."
12. Mama - A dark, dark, dark (have I mentioned dark?) fairy tale, like the Grimm Bros. at their grimmest. Perhaps the ultimate warning against helicopter parenting, this one deals in the power of motherhood -- both biological and adopted -- and the inability to let go (of your children, of your parents, of the past).
Quotable moment: "A ghost is an emotion bent out of shape, condemned to repeat itself time and time again."
13. 1408 - Holy shit. A second Stephen King adaptation that worked? No way. 1408 is remarkable because does two things simultaneously -- it shrinks the haunted house setting to a single room while expanding the haunted house narrative beyond the bounds of temporal restriction (in other words, there was no "incident" that created this haunted place and no exorcism that might foreseeably end the haunting). What you have is insular, inescapable, infinite torture.
Quotable moment: "There's a sofa, a writing desk, faux antique armoire, floral wallpaper. Carpet's unremarkable except for a stain beneath a thrift-store painting of a schooner lost at sea. The work is done in the predictably dull fashion of Currier and Ives. The second painting is of an old woman reading bedtime stories - a Whistler knockoff - to a group of deranged children while another Madonna and child watch from the background. It does have the vague air of menace. The third and final, painfully dull painting, the ever popular "The Hunt". Horses, hounds and constipated British lords. Some smartass spoke about the banality of evil. If that's true, then we're in the 7th circle of hell. It does have its charms."
14. Inside - Here again we have a shout out to the horrors (see also, insanity) of maternity. How far would YOU go to protect your child, avenge your child, or simply have your child? The answer for most people might well veer into disturbing, nigh unthinkable, territory. As such, here's a film that challenges you to consider whether parenthood is just a half-step away from psychosis. A disclaimer: this one is extremely graphic, but if you can reach past the gore, you'll find a movie more deeply unsettling than viscerally shocking.
Quotable moment: "My child. My baby. Finally inside me. No one will take him from me. No one can hurt him now. No one."
15. Detention - Oh, metahorror, how I love thee. Here we have... well... the plot is almost impossible to summarize. A group of high schoolers -- many of whom are aware of their narrative place and chararacterization in a (sort of) horror movie -- are stalked by a slasher-type killer who's emulating a slasher from a fictional movie within the movie. Got that? Okay. Now add time travel. Good? Now include some alien interventions, which include genetic splicing. Still with me? Now dash with hyperkinetic editing and add pop culture references from the 80s and 90s. That's Detention. It's about as close to bizarro as you're likely to see on film. (And don't let Dane Cook scare you away -- he's actually tolerable in his role.)
Quotable moment: Americans hate chickens. For example, KFC serves popcorn chicken to assure to their customers that the chicken was blown to bits... Americans want chickens to die!
16. Lake Mungo -A girl drowns in a lake. Then her family begins experiencing strange phenomena. Okay... so you suspect this is going to be a simple ghost story, right? Wrong. Lake Mungo takes you to a much more amorphous place. Shot in documentary style, the film's atmosphere skirts the surreal, at times entering almost Silent Hill-like territory while its narrative would feel right at home as a Twin Peaks spinoff. All of which is to say: this is not just a ghost story -- it's a study in the many ways death unsettles us.
Quotable moment: "Alice kept secrets.She kept the fact that she kept secrets a secret."
17. Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon - Another metahorror film, this one deconstructs the slasher subgenre and tries to answer all those burning questions you've always had about your favorite masked murderers (like how do they seem to be able to move with preternatural speed even though it appears that they mostly just saunter along?) Gleefully tongue-in-cheek, it's equally comfortable critiquing and parodying slasher flicks as it is hacking up its own victims.
Quotable moment: "I'll tell you: never hang out with a virgin. You got a virgin in your crew, either get somebody in her pants or get the hell away from her."
18. Teeth - And speaking of gleefully tongue-in-cheek, we have Teeth, an homage to the mythical vagina dentata. At its base, the film tackles issues of female sexuality, patriarchal domination, and the coming-of-age of young women writ large. Teetering precariously between these serious issues and a seemingly absurd premise, Teeth manages a highwire act, both promoting the empowerment of women and serving as a unique monster movie.
Quotable moment: "The toothed vagina appears in the mythology of many and diverse cultures all over the world. In these myths, the story is always the same. The hero must do battle with the woman. The toothed creature can break her power."
19. Spiral (Uzumaki) - Weird. Weird weird weird. Not David Lynch weird. Not Alejandro Jodorowsky weird. But weird, nonetheless. Classical weird. Cosmic horror weird. This is a movie about a town that becomes obsessed with spirals. Though that may seem a relatively innocuous (even banal) premise, the atmosphere the film builds is all menace and otherworldliness. And the culmination of the obsession? Well... let's just say it fits the subject matter of the film.
Quotable moment: "A vortex is the highest form of art."
20. Suicide Club (Jisatsu sâkuru) - Another Japanese film that warns against the power of technology and, more specifically, social media, as teens begin to commit suicide en mass. Although it's potentially a representation of the adolescent mind as fearfully glimpsed by adults, what really makes this one stand out is its unspoken apocalyptic undertone and its ultimate ambiguity -- and perhaps those qualities are precisely what being a teenager is all about.
Quotable moment: "Because the dead shine all night long."
21. Slither - I'm a sucker for sci-fi horror. You combine some body horror with Lovecraftian cosmicism (hmmm... sounds like The Thing here) and infuse it with humor (okay, Thing comparisons stop there) and a dash of 50s sci-fi kitsch, and you have Slither.
Quotable moment: "I've been around a million years! You think you can fuck with me?"