A true-crime writer finds a cache of 8mm home movies films that suggest the murder he is currently researching is the work of a serial killer whose career dates back to the 1960s.
I always appreciate it when a horror movie puts as much effort into its story as it does its scares. Scott Derickson’s “Sinister” is great because it’s actually a pretty compelling mystery with well fleshed out characters, while so many other genre films are essentially a showcase for creative jolts.
Writers Scott Derickson and C. Robert Cargill thankfully limit the found footage segments only to scenes in which Ethan Hawke’s character, Ellison Oswalt, is watching 8mm films he finds in the attic. This way, we get the first person, “Blair Witch” style moments, but since the rest of the movie is shot traditionally, the storytelling doesn’t have to suffer.
The 8mm sequences are truly terrifying. They feel like genuine footage, even when we’re seeing something totally insane, but the accompanying music gives them the feeling of a nightmare. They keep building and building until we’re begging for Oswalt to turn the projector off.
“Sinister” also makes great use of technology that most of us are aware of, like video files and film reels, to create a few scares that will stick with me for a long time. Its central villain is a truly frightening and iconic horror mascot, likely to inspire Halloween costumes for years to come. The movie is a classic horror construct with a modern spin, and despite some logic gaps here and there, I can’t help but think it’s destined to become a classic.
7. Evil Dead (2013)
Five friends head to a remote cabin, where the discovery of a Book of the Dead leads them to unwittingly summon up demons living in the nearby woods. The evil presence possesses them until only one is left to fight for survival.
Commercials for horror movies frequently use phrases like “don’t see it alone,” implying that the movie is so scary that you’ll want to see it with a partner or with friends. I’d highly advise against seeing “Evil Dead” alone. Not because it’s that scary, but because it’s so damn fun that you’ll want to share that joy with as many people as possible.
I love “Evil Dead” so much. I haven’t found one person who agrees with me on this, but I think it’s better than the original 1981 film. It’s such an ugly, grizzly, disgusting movie, and yet I had a smile on my face the entire hour and a half. It reminded me of classic, schlocky horror like the “Friday the 13th” series, so utterly ridiculous and in your face with the insanity that it makes for perfect Halloween party viewing. I found myself laughing so hard and so often just because I was overwhelmed that this was really happening on screen.
Be warned, though. This is the complete opposite of a crowd pleasing horror film; it’s as if it wants to actively scare away 60% of viewers, so utterly disgusting and graphic that I wouldn’t be opposed to providing barf bags at each screening. But that 40%, who grew up loving gruesome, disgusting horror, will fall in love with this if they give it a chance.
6. Grave Encounters
For their ghost hunting reality show, a production crew locks themselves inside an abandoned mental hospital that’s supposedly haunted – and it might prove to be all too true.
“Grave Encounters” does quite a bit wrong, to the point where I wasn’t sure how I felt about it at first. But months later, enough of it has stuck with me that, despite the flaws, I’d be inclined to recommend it, especially around this time of year.
Yes, this is another found footage movie. Just by saying that, you can probably guess what most of its issues are. The reliance on this technique forces characters to make dumb decisions, filming everything way beyond the point when they logically should have just abandoned the cameras. And since it isn’t shot traditionally, the characters are so undeveloped that as I’m writing this I can’t even remember any of their names.
But the core concept, sending a ghost hunting crew into a real haunted house, is downright brilliant, and many of the key scares are genius to the point that I still remember them vividly. In the end, it’s a classic Netflix horror movie: probably not worth spending money on, but when streaming it for free, you’ll get enough out of it to be satisfied.
5. The Conjuring
Paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren work to help a family terrorized by a dark presence in their farmhouse.
“The Conjuring” was without a doubt the most hyped horror movie of the past few years, making over $300 million at the box office on a $20 million budget. A huge amount of the hype revolved around the fact that despite having no gore or nudity, the movie was rated R simply because it was so scary.
I don’t think “The Conjuring” is even the scariest movie on this list, but it’s an undeniably effective movie. Like “Sinister,” the story develops in an interesting way, though director James Waan is mainly interested in getting us from one set piece to another.
What struck me most coming out of “The Conjuring” was how simple it was. The majority of the plot essentially plays out exactly how you’d expect it to just based on the plot description. That’s not necessarily bad, because there are a few great and unique scares, but I could understand not getting into this movie for being too cliché at times.
But despite a familiar plot, “The Conjuring” really hits nearly every single note perfectly, even if it never knocks it out of the park or blows our socks off. James Waan relies on some classic tropes like creepy dolls, the dark spaces under our bed, and the mysterious basement. While he doesn’t always put enough of an interesting spin on these ideas to make us feel like it’s something brand new, Waan always executes these familiar ideas as effectively as they’ve ever been on screen.
In the end, “The Conjuring” is exactly what you would want out of a haunted house movie. No more, but no less, either.
4. The House of the Devil
In the 1980s, college student Samantha Hughes takes a strange babysitting job that coincides with a full lunar eclipse. She slowly realizes her clients harbor a terrifying secret.
Ti West is one of the most interesting modern horror directors, even if not all of his films knock it totally out of the park. “The House of the Devil” is perfect for fans of classic horror like “Halloween,” right down to the opening title displayed in yellow text over a shot of a babysitter walking down the street. Nearly every single thing about this movie (the soundtrack, the slow zooms, the cinematography) is meant to emulate a lost ’70s film that someone just managed to track down and release. Even the tag line itself reads, “Talk on the phone. Finish your homework. Watch T.V. DIE!”
Like “Halloween,” though, “House of the Devil” is an incredibly slow burn. The majority of the movie revolves around establishing the atmosphere, and the fear that something might happen, rather than what’s actually happening on screen. Really, the vast majority of this movie is things not happening. But for those okay with a slower movie, the payoff is actually pretty worth it. Ti West is a big fan of the slow build; sometimes it works out, and sometimes it doesn’t. “House” is an example of it working, if you’re willing to be patient with it.
3. V/H/S 2
Searching for a missing student, two private investigators break into his house and find collection of VHS tapes. Viewing the horrific contents of each cassette, they realize there may be dark motives behind the student’s disappearance.
The followup to the original 2012 found footage horror film, V/H/S 2 might actually be one of the best horror sequels ever. Like the original, it contains a series of short films, surrounded by a wrap around story where a group of people discover a bunch of strange VHS tapes.
Unlike the original, though, this time there are only four shorts rather than five, and the movie runs roughly a half hour shorter. Though I think the original hits its high notes more often, this is arguably a more consistent movie, with a better sense of how to incorporate the wraparound story. This time it’s much more streamlined, while still developing the series’ canon in an interesting way.
The second segment, “A Ride in the Park,” is probably the weakest of the series: essentially just a zombie movie from the perspective of one of the zombies, but that isn’t really enough content to last for as long as it does while still being interesting. The rest of the segments, though, are absolute classics.
“Safe Haven” is the best of the entire series, and one of the best horror shorts of all time. It’s worth watching the entire movie just for this, and I plan to watch it every Halloween for years to come. The last segment, “Slumber Party Alien Abduction,” is great as well, and one of the first depictions of aliens I’ve seen in a while that’s actually quite creepy.
By the end of V/H/S 2, unlike many other horror sequels, I was absolutely dying to see the next installment. It’s a great, classic Halloween time series, and I really hope we have it around for years to come.
2. Paranormal Activity 3
“Paranormal Activity” should have never had a sequel. I talked about the original in last year’s article, and as much as I love it, it seemed very clearly like a stand alone film, not only because of its ending, but because it seemed so utterly impossible to repeat the same stunt over again.
Despite this, the “Paranormal Activity” series has managed to give us a pretty solid string of horror sequels so far. The clear stand out is “Paranormal Activity 3” which, while definitely not as scary as the first one if only because the novelty is gone, is so creative with its scares that I have a great deal of respect for it.
On the one hand, the movie is the same formula you would expect even if you’re only vaguely familiar with these movies: people go to sleep, film themselves, and creepy stuff happens. On the other hand the directors, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, put a lot of interesting spins on that to the point where it feels like they’re always trying something new, even two sequels in.
In one brilliant example, they have a character strap a camera to a oscillating fan. As some seriously creepy stuff is happening, the camera is moving back and forth, so after we catch something, we have to wait another few seconds to get a second look. It’s a brilliant move to keep the audience in suspense and constantly trying to figure out what we should be looking for.
The movie shows us very little, relying on our natural fear of what we can’t see, while still being an incredibly fun Halloween time viewing experience.
A family looks to prevent evil spirits from trapping their comatose child in a realm called The Further.
“Insidious” isn’t just a modern horror classic; it’s a horror classic, period. Watching it for the first time was a very special experience. Along with my first viewing of movies like “Paranormal Activity,” it felt like what I imagine it was like to watch “The Exorcist” for the first time, surely knowing that this is a movie that horror fans would refer back to for years and years.
The first half of “Insidious,” most fans seem to agree, is near flawless: a creative take on the haunted house genre with creative scares, creepy imagery, and all while being incredibly subtle. About 45 minutes in, there’s a clear turning point after which it’s not nearly as subtle. This has lead many fans to feel like the movie lost them in the second half.
I couldn’t disagree with them more. While the first half is undeniably scarier, the second half is fast paced, fun, and creepy as hell. Some of the imagery of the house in The Further, involving a group of still bodies, will stay with me forever. It’s an inconsistent movie, maybe, starting in one arena and finishing in another, but at the same time, it shows us things that no other movie has shown us before, at least in this way. In an age of movies which feel largely like retreads, seeing such a fresh concept in such a scary movie is truly refreshing.