• Top 5 Creatures on the Loose Movies

    It’s a tale as old as the movies itself. Man does something stupid, or brilliant, or brilliantly stupid, and finds/discovers/invents/stumbles across a monster, and then spends the rest of the movie trying not to get eaten. I’m not talking about Japanese Kaiju movies, although they are certainly a part of the larger discussion. I’m referring to the things that are larger than humans, but smaller than Godzilla. Or, optionally, man-sized, but far from man-like. The monster in question isn’t a giant animal, either; indeed, the best of this type of movie are monsters that never were, or thought to have been myths, or just plain aliens.

    There’s also a “hunter versus hunted” component to this kind of movie. Whatever is chasing us for food triggers these primal fears within us that we typically suppress. As a country that is mythically saturated by a fear of the unknown, the Other, the Outer Darkness, these movies are at their biggest and best when they fall within the realm of the everything our ancestors feared when they huddled in their cabins for warmth. Our cabins are way better now, with wi-fi and air conditioning, but the fear never really goes away. 

    Those of you over the age of 40 will doubtless notice a lack of movies over 40 years old. Here’s why: as cool, as classic, as interesting, and as cinematically important as those movies are to the development of horror as a viable genre, in this day and age, they just aren’t very scary. And most of them, in fact, kinda suck. That we enjoy them anyway is beside the point; my love for the movie Robot Monster is well documented, but I don’t even pretend for a nanosecond that it’s very good, or has merit, or is something that other taxpaying citizens should watch. It’s like being a Mr. Pibb fan. Enjoy it all you want, but don’t try to convince the rest of us that it’s not low-grade Dr. Pepper, all right?

  • Top 5 Horror Movies of the 2010s

    The “teens” saw a resurgence in horror (draw your own conclusions as to what in the zeitgeist might possibly have increased such an interest), bringing with it a host of useful filmmaking tricks and techniques, as well as a reverence for craft and story that was refreshing to note. These more recent outings pack a punch and do not disappoint, both visually and viscerally.

    There may be something to the old chestnut that whenever there is a Republican in the White House, horror sales spike. I think that, beginning with the midterms in 2010 (when the Republican party took over Congress), we have seen a kind of cultural renaissance in horror movies, the likes of which I’ve not witnessed since the 1980s. This is partially due to the ease with which we can access them now; every streaming service has a horror themed section of curated delights every October 1st and Shudder runs year-round. We are indeed living in interesting times, and so too are the wide array of interesting takes on what a horror movie is and what it can address.

    While quite a few films stood on the shoulders of giants, others found fertile ground to plant a flag and try something new and different. Some of the most inventive and genre-bending horror movies made in this ten-year period were done so by directors who were also screenwriters, and in several of the films below, represented their inaugural outing as directors. This grab for new talent may have coincided with the proliferation of online streaming services and the need for content to satisfy the increased demand from an increasing number of new horror fans.

  • Top 5 Horror Movies of the 2000s

    Top 5 Horror Movies of the 2000s

    Y2K did not plunge us into a world of darkness and despair, much to the chagrin of all the people who’d gotten off of the grid in the 1990s and were living in the woods in a ramshackle trailer, eating beef jerky and drinking their own urine. For what it’s worth, I’m 90% certain that those were the same people who bought into every end of the world and/or conspiracy theory of the past twenty years, their theory evidently being, “I’m bound to be right about something sooner or later.”

    The first decade of the 21st century will forever be viewed through the lens of 9/11 and the changes it wrought on us psychically. For at least the first half of the decade, the biggest horror show around was the footage we watched on the nightly news. I may not be far enough removed from the “aughts” to speak with any kind of perspective about those years.

    The movies were slow to react, out of both respect and also general confusion. No one knew what to think and where to go to think it. Our framework for horror (make that “terror”) changed in one day. If I can offer any insight into what the darker corner of popular culture reflected at this time, I’d venture to say that horror movies got more personal, and more invasive. The stakes seemed higher and the playful undercurrent that was present in the 1980s and the 1990s is largely absent here. Horror got meaner. More random. More confusing. It’s not a surprise to me at all that the torture porn trend in horror started in the decade where we had to debate, as a nation, if it was okay to torture enemy combatants or not.

    Huh. Maybe I have more of a handle on the decade than I thought.

  • Top 5 Horror Movies of the 1990s

    Top 5 Horror Movies of the 1990s

    This decade, preceded by the plastic 1980s, and let down by the promise of peace that accompanied the end of the Cold War, was a cynical and increasingly angry time. The emergence of the World Wide Web was a profound thing as fans began to congregate online in AOL chat rooms and on message boards. eBay became a going concern, and a lot of movies, once thought to be nigh-impossible to track down, were suddenly just a few mouse clicks and a credit card number away. Computers were The Hot New Thing, and this was reflected in a lot of films.

    By the end of the decade, whatever goodwill the end of the Cold War generated was all used up us and most of us had figured out that the fix was in, and we were the suckers. With Communism over and done with in the early 1990s, America needed a new enemy. When one didn’t appear readily, we decided to make a new enemy; it was us. And like the hit song from the 1990s, we were our own worst enemy, to boot.

    As much as Jurassic Park, with its computer-generated and animated dinosaurs, was a watershed moment in filmmaking, CGI had a ways to go. That didn’t stop people from using it, badly, for most of the decade, until Peter Jackson and Weta Workshop improved the process dramatically to create believable characters that seemed real in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Conversely, a number of horror movies during this time were overly reliant on CGI to their detriment, while other filmmakers managed to work around the limitations of the technique or, in more than one case, jettisoned it in favor of good old-fashioned practical effects.

    What makes the movies in this decade so hit-or-miss is the studios themselves. The venerable movie maniac franchises continued to thunder along under their own weight, and other companies, with star dust in their eyes, started remaking older films, slickly produced, but not very well thought out. There were also a number of smaller studios and even smaller movies that were wildly entertaining as B-movies, but weren’t scary or even very serious. Nevertheless, some innovations and interesting things developed, maybe even as a response to the naked and unashamed cash grab, that made the list below.

  • Top 5 Horror Movies of the 1980s

    Top 5 Horror Movies of the 1980s

    Mullets, Synthesizers, and Day-Glo Swatches. Also, Dungeons & Dragons, Heavy Metal, and the ever-present threat of nuclear holocaust. It should come as no surprise that with all of that going for it, the 1980s were a kind of Renaissance for horror movies; the genre was popular on every medium from comic books to TV, in theaters and of course, the VHS straight-to-video market that sprang up to meet the seemingly insatiable need for more tapes.

    I was part of this, however briefly. My family ran a video rental store in my small town and I worked there from 1985 to 1988. It was the best of times, to be sure, and I got to see (by purchasing tapes for the store, specifically in the horror and sci-fi sections) lots of stuff that wasn’t making it to theaters in Waco, Texas, for some reason or another. Because I just liked this stuff, I was somewhat indiscriminate, which made our horror section the best, most eclectic selection in the area. As a consequence of this, many of my initial viewings of classic 1980s horror were on good old VHS magnetic tape.

    The decade was one of weird contradictions; the surface, TV family sitcom normalcy was a cover for the AIDS epidemic, a complete erosion of the public trust in government (that started in the 1970s), drugs and crime in record numbers, and the dawn of Big Media in the form of cable television. MTV told us everything was going to be all right, but if that was true, then what was U2 always singing about? Eh, who cares, the Bangles are up next. There was a lot to push back on, and horror was a battering ram.

  • Top 5 Horror Movies of the 1970s

    Cinema Verité. The death-throes of the studio system. Docu-dramas and New Age Woo conflated with UFOs, Bigfoot, The Loch Ness Monster, the Bermuda Triangle, the pyramids, the Moth-Man, and a variety of urban myths into a muddled roux of pseudoscience and fictionalized academic speculation.

    It was a great time for monsters. Or rather, it should have been. Unfortunately, while the horror movies had a wealth of history and tradition to draw on, they instead relied on quick camera cuts, shaky, hand-held footage, and confusing storytelling to hide the fact that the mutant bear was, in fact, only a guy in a suit, and not a very good suit, either.

    There was a lot going on in the 1970’s, both at home and abroad. Television had finally become ubiquitous in American households, and the networks wasted no time showing everyone the horrors of the Viet Nam war, the Manson children trials, the tragedy of the 1972 Olympics, and the Watergate investigation. Students were protesting on college campuses, and four of them were killed at Kent State. The economy was in a recession and we were in the midst of an energy crisis. Is it any wonder we needed to escape to the movies?

    Horror movies in this decade were largely reactive, and carried a verisimilitude of realism that wasn’t quite an imitation of reportage, but had enough leading headlines cobbled together to make it seem like the events could have happened. All pretense of decency was abandoned, and with it came shockingly realistic depictions of violence like what was shown (or implied) in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and The Exorcist (1973). It’s not surprising that some of the most iconic and influential horror movies of all time were from this decade.

  • Top 5 Horror Movies of the 1960s

    Top 5 Horror Movies of the 1960s

    The sixties were a decade of extremes. The joys of The Beatles and the British Invasion, the wild, cool, and swingin’  excess of Frank Sinatra’s Ratpack, the birth of Marvel Comics, the Space Race, and trippy, free-loving hippies were opposed and even overshadowed by the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Kennedy Assassination, The Martin Luther King Assassination, the Viet Nam War, and dirty, smelly, evil hippies. Historian Mark Kurlansky alleges that 1968 is when things took a turn for the sober because it was the year that television started showing uncensored and unfiltered images of the Viet Nam war and other important news from the other side of the world, and those real-life horrors certainly colored and shaped the events of subsequent decades.

    I don’t think that the sixties was ground zero for the birth of pop culture as we know it, but I do think it started to codify around college campuses and having access to more forms of mass media. Books were cheap. Comics were everywhere. Nearly everyone could read and most folks had access to a television. Airlines were flying people from Los Angeles to New York. Pop art was emerging. The Cult of celebrity was nascent. It was a groovy, happening time, driven mostly by the ever-mercurial “Youth Market” and it drove the first tentative wedge between the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers.

    This decade, then, was the battle ground between generations, as the protests on college campuses later in the decade would attest. Things changed, seemingly overnight, and the world became a darker, more frightening place. It made the Elvis movies and the Beach Romp Teenie Bopper Comedies seem more vacuous and out of place, but there were suburbs everywhere that these movies were playing to packed houses. In some ways, the decade was also the last hurrah for the American Dream; the bill of goods that Generation X would inherit bore little resemblance to what the Greatest Generation or even the Baby Boomers had access to. The myth of America had been exposed, but it would take a few decades more to fully die. The horror of the 1960s is largely about exposure, metaphorically or otherwise and commentary on our collective impressions of the status quo. We don’t know who the monsters are anymore, and that’s because we are the monsters.

  • Top 5 Horror Movies of the 1950s

    Post-World War II, American tried desperately to return to normal. The problem was, 1940 was ten years ago, before the atomic bomb, secret Communists teenagers running amok, and science greatly overstepping its bounds. The artifice of the 1950s can be seen in popular culture, at every level from newspapers and magazines on up to radio and television. The military-industrial complex seamlessly transitioned from ammunition to space-age toasters, and thanks to the G.I. Bill, everyone could afford a house and get cracking on the business of having a job, having kids, hosting cook outs, and living that American Dream.

    It was all weapons grade baloney, of course. In the midst of all this prosperity, the threat of encroaching Communism was portrayed as very real and something to fear. This was the time of the Hollywood Blacklists, the start of the Cold War, and real-life Cat and Mouse games with Russian spies.

    Is this one hell of a metaphor, or what?

    And let’s not forget the emergence of youth culture, too: rock and roll became big business, thanks to Elvis Presley kicking the door down for everyone that followed. Teenagers suddenly mattered, and that was terrifying to the establishment. Why, they’d only recently gotten control of juvenile delinquency by publicly “encouraging” (by way of televised Senate Sub-Committee hearings) the comic book companies to self-regulate, thus putting an end to crime and horror comics, presumably forever.

  • Top 5 Horror Movies of the 1940s

    Top 5 Horror Movies of the 1940s

    The 1940s found America engaged in the business of war, and for four and a half years, business was good. Then in 1945, all of the active service men came home and everyone was expected to pick up where they left off, before they had seen the atrocities of war. Most of the horror movies during this decade were produced by Universal, who had a growing stable of now-classic movie monsters to menace earnest young women, when they weren’t engaging in their own turf wars for supremacy.

    The modern world was rapidly intruding on the gothic sensibilities of the previous decade’s horror movies, so Universal obligingly dropped the monsters into a more contemporary setting. Apart from the change of scenery, the monsters still grappled with their inner demons. What the 1940s horror movies seemed to be most preoccupied with was keeping it together. This would have real and fictional repercussions a decade later.

    The optimistic propaganda of early wartime America was quickly subsumed in the aftermath of the atomic bomb drops that signaled the end of World War II and would soon usher in the Atomic Age and the Cold War in equal parts.

  • Top 5 Horror Movies of the 1930s

    Top 5 Horror Movies of the 1930s

    This is the decade where movies officially came into their own, narratively speaking, with the advent of sound, and horror movies were right there from the beginning. In fact, the studio that became synonymous with horror, Universal, produced a whole slate of horrific features whose creatures were so impactful that they remain recognizable icons nearly a hundred years later.

    Universal was carrying on the tradition of ghastly sights on the silver screen that started in the 1920s during the silent era; Lon Chaney and his grotesqueries were not far from the public’s minds, and many of the silent stars transitioned over to the talkies and continued to thrill audiences. Horror came into its own as a new kind of spectacle that only movies could deliver at the time. Now that sound was possible, the audiences could not only see the sepulchral crypt, but they could also hear the chains rattle, the coffin lid creak open, and the helpless young women in gossamer, diaphanous white gowns could all scream.

    Within reason, that is. In the middle of 1934, the Hays Code was enacted, Hollywood’s first attempt at self-regulation of their content. “Pre-Code” movies sometimes showed bare breasts (artfully, mind you) or other “shocking” scenes that were deemed grotesque and unsettling. And while there certainly some movies that benefitted from a lack of restraint, several movies listed below were made after the Hays Code was adopted and their impact was not diminished in the slightest. Most of these movies would also have a place on the cult classics list, and it’s that combination of transgressive and outré that sets them apart from other films of the decade.

    The thirties were fueled by the Great Depression, providing a relatively inexpensive escape from reality of the bread lines and doing without. Science and scientific progress are hallmarks of the era, as magazines like Popular Science and Popular Mechanics routinely featured experimental vehicles and buildings on their covers. It’s also noteworthy as the decade where Hitler rose to power overseas, producing an undercurrent of unease that wouldn’t fully be understood by the population at large until America entered World War II.