My Top 10 Horror Films

In the latest issue of The Black Napkin, I have a poem called "Horror Movie." The piece uses horror film tropes to discuss youth and romance, but writing the poem also had me think about why I love watching horror movies. I'm a big horror fan, and I've enjoyed watching scary movies since I was a kid. To celebrate the publication of the poem, I thought it would be fun to discuss my Top 10 Horror Films.

10. Last  House on the Left (1972)
Wes Craven's directorial debut fascinates me. It bravely mixes comedy and brutal violence, telling the story of two girls who are kidnapped and assaulted by a band of degenerates. The film is bloody and bold, but it can also be funny, sweet, sad, and smart. As a retelling of Bergman's The Virgin Spring mixed with counter-culture anxiety, it grips me with every viewing.

9. The Fog (1980) 
John Carpenter took the film industry by storm with Halloween--arguably the most iconic scary movie of all time--but I always prefer to watch The Fog, his exquisite and under-appreciated follow-up. It features wonderful performances by Jamie Lee Curtis, Janet Leigh, and Adrienne Barbeau, as they run from vengeful ghosts emerging out of a mysterious fog. The film features Carpenter's exquisite visual style, and the practical effects foreshadow how his genius would expand with later films.

8. I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)
I was a 90s kid, so the post-Scream resurgence of teen slashers shaped my horror tastes. Though most would claim Scream is a better film, I always preferred to watch Kevin Williamson's adaptation of Lois Duncan's beloved novel. This movie--a conventional slasher about teen guilt--works because of the charming, good looking, and talented cast. My favorite is Sarah Michelle Gellar (a horror icon who makes another appearance on this list), but Ryan Phillippe, Freddy Prinze Jr, and final girl Jennifer Love Hewitt also carry this film with skill.

7. Halloween H20 (1998)
Another post-Scream slasher, this is my favorite of the Halloween franchise for one big reason: Jamie Lee Curtis kicks slasher-butt as an older, wiser, and (eventually) stronger Laurie Strode. There's a great moment in this film when she's had it and decides to stop running, going after Michael Myers to end her nightmare.

6. Creepshow 2 (1987)
It was hard picking an anthology film for this list, but Creepshow 2 is the one that kept coming back to mind. The follow-up to George Romero and Stephen King's hugely successful first anthology film, it features three live-action tales bound together by animated narrative about a comic book fan escaping bullies. I especially enjoy "Old Chief Wood'nhead" and "The Raft" as the best of the three tales, but my favorite part of the film is the animated interludes, which are great representations of late 80s/early 90s animation.

5. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
As this is Wes Craven's second entry as a writer/director on my list, I should note that he is my favorite horror auteur. This film is among his best, capitalizing on our fear of nightmares while creating one of the greatest horror villains of all time: Freddy Krueger (peerlessly played by Robert Englund). It's a smarter film than most slashers, and it doesn't hurt that it features an adorable Johnny Depp in his film debut.

4. Gremlins (1984) and Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)
I find it impossible to separate these films, so I'm not going to. Both helmed by horror-comedy master Joe Dante, Gremlins and Gremlins 2  masterfully mix scares and humor. The first film works as a legit horror film about the terrors of the Christmas season (just watch that awful scene of the Gremlin in the Christmas tree, or listen to Phoebe Cate's infamous monologue), while the sequel flips the bill as a slapstick satire on corporate culture with horror overtones. Both are a delight.

3. Poltergeist (1982), Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986), and Poltergeist III (1988)
Again, I'm going to cheat a bit and talk about these films as one unit. Yes, they decrease in quality as the films progress. However, I enjoy watching the trilogy as a whole because I am interested in how it explores hauntings, worries about 80s corporate culture, and family. Also: Zelda Rubinstein's Tangina is my favorite horror character, and Tangina's arc would not be complete without the third installment.

Let me take a minute to defend  Poltergeist III (the first two films need little defense): the script is clumsy, but the film is so lovingly made. It features impressive practical effects--especially with mirrors--and some sharp direction. Also, I adore that Tangina becomes the hero of the franchise by the end of the final film. The smallest, oldest female character ends up having the most power. If that's not a pro-feminist anti-ageist message, I don't know what is.

2. The Grudge (2004)
This Sarah Michelle Gellar vehicle about an American dealing with the culture shock of moving to Japan (and ghosts) is the first horror film I remember watching in the theater. I was a huge Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan, and I was excited to see her in another horror property. I was not the only one, because the movie became a surprise hit.

It works for a variety of reasons. First (unlike the Japanese original on which its based) it focuses on Americans moving to Japan and working through their relocation anxiety; is there anything more terrifying than moving some place where you cannot speak the language or read the alphabet? It is also beautifully shot with great creature effects, and Gellar carries us through the film. She's likable, strong, and caring. We want to see her succeed, and we are willing to get scared along the way. I would argue that this is the most terrifying film on the list.

1. Elvira Mistress of the Dark (1988)
Okay, okay. So maybe this film tips more towards comedy than horror, but it features great creature effects, funny gags, and macabre icon Elvira. It follows the horror hostess to a conservative town where she has inherited her aunt's rundown house. Along the way, she discovers a spell book, faces a devil-worshipping uncle, and almost gets burned at the stake. It's a campy delight and I watch it every Halloween because it has respect for horror conventions, but also sees the absurdities in the genre.


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