There's no more inspiring time of year for me as a fiction writer than autumn--particularly September and October. Halloween looms in the darkness igniting my imagination with the flames of horror and dread. The wind howls as the temperature dips filling us with chills both physical and psychic; the days grow greyer and night encroaches ever closer upon the day.
It's a time that's geared perfectly towards snuggling under a cozy blanket with popcorn and watching horror movies. It's a genre that I grew up around as my mother would always rent movies or watch them on television while she conducted her daily chores. I can remember sneaking glances of B-horror movies like The Wishmaster and classics like The Hills Have Eyes while she ironed or folded laundry.
My personal taste in movies (horror, in particular) is as eclectic as my musical preferences and I believe stems from an inborn desire to blaze my own path in whatever I do. Though I can appreciate the classics in both cinema and music my favorites tend rarely to reflect the most popular of hits. As such, my personal list of favorite dark movies is at once multifarious and indicative of an inclination towards films that resonated with me--ones that I enjoyed instinctively and instantaneously regardless of their success at the box office or their ratings on IMDB or Rotten Tomatoes.
**MINIMAL SPOILERS MARKED WITH AN ASTERISK PAIR AHEAD!**
Anyone who attended Marine Park Junior High School in the nineties knew Mr. Perl. He always rode his bike to school and was one of the most popular teachers in the school thanks in large part to his wealth of knowledge and depth of interest in movies, horror in particular. I was lucky enough to take his class and was introduced to a slew of incredible films including the directorial debut of one Steven Spielberg--an awesome thriller called Duel. Based upon a Richard Matheson (of Twilight Zone fame) short story, it serves as the ultimate warning tale against road rage.
What makes the movie work is the ever-growing sense of dread and danger that builds throughout the film and ultimately ends without ever seeing the face of the driver; the true terror comes from the circumstance rather the identity of its progenitor.
#30 STIR OF ECHOES
This one flew under the radar for the most part but it's my favorite Kevin Bacon film because I remember his performance capturing the terrifying sense of mania experienced by the main character as he descended slowly into perceived madness. I'm pretty sure I saw this one at the movies (Knapp Street UA FTW!) and so it has a special personal relevance as an adolescent evening adventure. I can still picture both the lovemaking scene and the creepy ass appearance(s) of the otherworldly figure that serves as the central plot point.
This one works for me because its focus is fairly narrow but the real horror comes from the impact that the situation has upon not just the protagonist but upon his relationship with his wife as well; his fear of losing his sanity resonated with me at an integral time in my own emotional development.
#29 THE BIRDS
Hitchcock is a master of cinema in many regards but my favorite of his contributions is The Birds. Though the practical special effects seem dated by today's standards the ever growing sense of dread that he manages to manifest in the movie is exceptional. Also, the visuals at certain points--portentous moments that seem to imply that the end of the world is approaching--are terrifying in their own right.
The impact of this one is apparent as soon as one steps outside and sees a murder or crows perched upon a power pole and telephone lines!
This one is a relative newcomer to my catalogue but its impact was both immediate and long-lasting (as soon as the movie ended I began my hunt for an authentic replica of the Krampus bell and began looking forward to watching it with the children one night before Christmas). It's a pretty straightforward modern horror film though its execution places it more in my wheelhouse. I believe that comedy and horror go hand-in-hand and the performances in this film manage to capitalize on both (though the humor is inherently dark and occasionally situational).
The visuals are strong, the subject matter is unique as far as this list is concerned, and the overall effect (including an ending that generates quite a few questions!) made this one an instant favorite for me.
My relationship with this movie is a complicated one: I had expectations that went unfulfilled but what ultimately replaced my preconceived notions was an awesome, unsettling cinematic experience. Much in the vein of other films **SPOILER ALERT** where characters are picked off one by one, there is an inherent element of mystery that keeps viewers engaged. Where this film draws its greatest strength though (apart from the phenomenal performance of its lead actress) is from the ever-mounting sense of dread as the situation devolves perpetually towards its inevitable albeit surprising conclusion.
This is a film that maximizes the minimization of setting changes and characters; what you see is what you get right from the beginning of the movie. Excelling amid those constraints is difficult but remarkably rewarding when the end result is as successful as it is here.
Definitely want to add this t-shirt to the collection now from the folks at Teepublic.com!
#26 THE FOG
I'm a sucker for inclement weather when it comes to my movies and my photography (I love dark clouds, in particular). The Fog employs this in spades while also utilizing minimal jump scares and excellent lighting to proffer the implication of impending doom. The film gradually develops but then sustains an elevated level of tension that persists right through until the end thanks in large part to the music, which serves to create an environment of ambient eerieness.
A John Carpenter classic that features one of his best soundtracks.
Any movie that accomplishes its genre-specific tasks while also bucking those conventions and inciting deep thinking on my part is a winner in my book. Identity's premise revolves around that very premise as the horror that unfurls through the plot also unravels the underlying mystery that fuels the film. John Cusack provides a consistently excellent Cusackian performance amid a seemingly inexhaustible slew of plot twists that entertained and enthralled me the entire way through.
#24 GET OUT
Speaking of plot twists and convention breaking, Get Out isn't simply one of my favorite horror movies--it's one of the most well-executed movies of all time. Another film where the horror stems more from the circumstance and inborn traits than anything else, Get Out made my skin crawl not just as a social commentary (for which it serves as exemplar) but also as a legitimate scary movie. Jordan Peele managed to set the bar ridiculously high for himself and I can't wait to see what he follows this one up with down the road.
#23 THE VISIT
This is definitely a case of low expectations being absolutely obliterated by the end product. Like most people, I had long since given up on M. Night Shyamalan after having my interest piqued by films like The Happening and The Lady in the Water only to be let down with a resounding thud. Truth be told, the only interest I had in The Visit stemmed initially from the characters' names (my kids call their grandparents the same thing as the children in the film). I wanted to see it more as a goof than anything else and I was thusly shocked by how engrossed I became in the movie and how well executed it was.
In short, it hearkens back to the best elements that made Shyamalan popular in the first place including his emphasis on the vulnerability and humanity of his cast and some well-executed plot twists that were at once telegraphed but still surprising.
Scream is another one of those coming-of-age moment movies that holds a special place in my heart. I remember going to see it in the theater and, more than twenty years later, I feel like it captured the zeitgeist of the mid-to-late 1990s. The premise itself isn't particularly novel nor is the cast, which capitalized upon the mega-popularity of its younger stars like Neve Campbell and Matthew Lillard as well as those slightly ahead like David Arquette and Courteney Cox.
The home invasion/stalker aspects always strike a chord with me and the mystery involved with the killer's identity was a great one with an awesome reveal. This one's just a really well-done movie by one of the giants of horror, Wes Craven.
#21 THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU
I think this one appealed to me more on visual and conceptual levels than purely upon plot and performance. I remember finding the aesthetics striking and the subject matter horrifying but intriguing. I should probably read the original H.G. Wells story at some point but I feel like it would be a different experience from the film. I know that this one is notoriously reviled not just by audiences but even by those involved with its production but I loved Val Kilmer in it and Marlon Brando was just creepy as all hell.
Se7en goes beyond the realm of dark thrillers and ascends directly into the upper-echelon of all-time greatest films. It has its own iconic moment and quotation akin to Pulp Fiction, Fight Club, and the Sixth Sense, and features a cast of megastars that is loaded with incredible performances. I'm a fan of the so-called Seven Deadly Sins and so their inclusion as central plot elements allured me immediately; their implementation of course serves as the foundation for one of Hollywood's greatest thrill rides.
#19 I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER
This movie is the epitome of right moment in time influences. It came out right when I was hitting my stride in adolescence and so the themes and situations of the movie resonated deeply; the fact that the screenplay was written by Kevin Williamson served only to enhance my connection with it. I had no idea at the time that the Dawson's Creek dude had any involvement with the movie whatsoever but having watched it recently twenty years removed from that initial viewing, I'm dumbfounded by the fact that I didn't pick up on it (the vocabulary in the dialogue!!!).
I remember one moment in particular at the very end of the movie--an instant of pure surprise that I still laugh about when I picture it. I had gone to see the movie with my best friend James and we anxiously awaited the inevitable jump scare towards the film's conclusion. When it failed to materialize when we expected, we both went to relax only to find ourselves scared out of our seats...literally. We each jumped about a foot out of the seats and landed on the floor, probably scaring each other with our screams as much as the jump scare did on the screen.
Also late-'90s Sarah Michelle Gellar. Enough said!
#18 THE VILLAGE
A lot of people loathed this film and its out-of-left-field twist but that latter point is precisely why I loved it. This movie felt like one glorious Twilight Zone episode and the monster costumes were absolutely terrifying. I thought the performances were great (again, thinking of it as a modern Twilight Zone episode), the plot was concise, and the reveal was awesome.
#17 THE THING
I didn't see this one until recently (either late last year or early this year) and I was impressed with not just how well the horror was employed but with how incredible the practical effects were. You simply do not see things like that utilized in modern cinema and it's a shame because you can't get certain things out of CGI effects. One of the best **SPOILER ALERT** pick em off movies with sci-fi and supernatural elements. The ending too is one of the best ever given its lack of clear resolution. Another Carpenter classic.
Full disclosure: I was TERRIFIED of aliens as a kid. From a psychoanalytical perspective, I think it stemmed from an innate fear that I have of not being in control and so the thought of these beings infiltrating my home (a supposed safe place) and then rendering me incapable of fighting back while they probed away was panic inducing. It's why I've never seen movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Fire in the Sky, and the Fourth Kind. It's also why I found Signs to be as terrifying as it was despite being panned by most media outlets and M. Night fans alike.
Another instance of subject matter superseding performance and even plot!
#15 FROM DUSK TILL DAWN
The vampire genre is engorged with failed attempts to capture the terror of the phantasmagorical blood suckers. From Dusk Till Dawn takes a markedly different approach in that **SPOILER ALERT** it doesn't even address the plot element until deep into the film. In fact, arguably the creepiest and most unsettling element of the entire film is Quentin Tarantino's portrayal of Richard.
Still, the movie's action and horror elements are executed perfectly and are enhanced by the aforementioned late development of the primary conflict. Plus, it features possibly the greatest monologue in movie history courtesy of Cheech Marin--a character named Chet Pussy delivering a vaginal litany at a bar called the Titty Twister.
Inane and profane all the way, baby!
#14 NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD
This is one of my mother's all-time favorite movies and with good reason: it's arguably the greatest zombie movie of all time. It was revolutionary for its time having a black male lead actor and **SPOILER ALERT** his untimely demise is one of the most gut-wrenching moments in cinema history. The black and white aesthetic serves to enhance the darkness of the film and helps to build the overwhelming sense of despair that pervades.
Definitely the best of the best, genre-wise.
#13 28 DAYS LATER
Much like the realm of vampire movies, the zombie genre is rife with missed opportunities. 28 Days Later bucks certain conventions though and does so to great effect most notably in the way the infected move at breakneck speed--something that was rarely seen in films that featured the slow steady shuffling of the undead. I would shit my pants if I saw something like a Rage-infected individual barreling down upon me at breakneck speed!
For fans of The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later (and even its sequel to a lesser extent) serve as a great precursor to the awesomeness of Kirkman's universe.
Profferer of one of the greatest mindfucks in movie history, Saw was a revelation when it came out. Even its first few sequels were incredible as they built upon the foundation laid by the original. A psychological thriller whose gore and visual horror was surpassed only by the visceral emotions elicited by the plot, Saw remains an all-time great. I would go so far as to say that its iconic, "OH SHIT!" moment is even more jaw-dropping than the Sixth Sense's.
#11 PARANORMAL ACTIVITY
I really enjoy movies that enable me to suspend by disbelief and to buy wholesale into the premise; few movies did so more powerfully for me than Paranormal Activity. As someone who routinely experiences things that defy explanation, I was already predisposed towards buying into the movie's raison d'etre; then, when the similarities between the film and my own life started piling up I found myself thoroughly spooked out.
The best films (and especially literature) transport their viewers/readers into the story--incorporating rather than inculcating to achieve the intended result. With Paranormal Activity, I felt like they weren't just telling a story but rather that they were telling my story--a sense that was strengthened by the whole found-film aspect. This one still gave me the creeps months later.
#10 THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT
The second of three consecutive found film horror movies, the Blair Witch Project was the first and best of the genre. When it came out (as the nascent Internet had yet to become the de facto source of news), word-of-mouth was still the primary form of spreading information. The idea that this film was found was rendered all the more believable by the incredible grassroots and guerilla marketing employed by the studio and the film's makers.
The execution of the premise was damn near perfect with instances of genuine terror responses by the cast (the tent scene, in particular) and, as an avid hiker, it's one that still freaks me out every time I'm in the woods and I find some sort of copycat creations like the little men made of sticks or incongruent man-made structures situated in the middle of the forest. Its power lies in its plausibility despite the supernatural implications and that ending...sheesh.
#09 CLOVERFIELD / 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE
Though they are two completely different films with only the most tenuous of connections between them I felt it prudent to combine them into a single entry since the things I like about one film are mirrored in the other. The first Cloverfield was a motion sickness-inducing whirlwind of a thrill ride that maximized the usage of indirect terror (so much so that, for people who hate the film, the majority seem to **SPOILER ALERT** abhor the only close up shot of the monster). Since I was eleven and first saw The Stand on TV, I've been hooked on the post-apocalyptic premise; the closer to reality the better.
Cloverfield allowed me not merely to juxtapose myself with the cast but actually to put myself in among them. Their terror became my own as I envisioned myself reacting to the same unbelievable set of circumstances that they faced. Its relatability then served as its greatest strength for me.
10 Cloverfield Lane, conversely, was an intense thriller that built up perpetually throughout the movie finally exploding (literally and figuratively) along the way. The psychological stress that the movie puts on the viewer is astounding and is phenomenally executed. It's one of the rare movies that necessitates a second viewing to allow for greater processing and comprehension of the sum total of hints, details, and loose ends that all are tied neatly together by movie's end.
The original television mini-series is second only to The Stand for me in terms of sheer awesomeness. As a film though the 2017 iteration of Stephen King's clown classic takes things to a whole new level. The cast and the requisite performances are all tighter--the sense of terror and dread rendered all the more horrifying in the face of pure unadulterated evil. I can't wait for this one to come out on Blu-Ray so I can watch it with my little ones!
#07 THE PROPHECY
Few movies had as profound an impact upon me as The Prophecy did. First, it was recommended by my brother who, at the time, I saw precious little of and so the film served as a tether for me--a connection point that bridged the many gaps that separated us. Second, it furthered my love affair with apocalyptic material that began with The Stand. It also made me an instant Christopher Walken fan courtesy of his performance as the angel Gabriel.
Much of my debut novel, The Lion in the Desert, was influenced on some level by the first and third Prophecy movies. They also got me thinking more deeply about religion (or specifically the relationship between a creator and its progeny) and cosmology--two of the primary themes of my Kosmogonia series. Just a great, great movie and the first to make me terrified of all-black eyes!
Ravenous sums up my taste in movies and music perfectly. It exists as an improbable impossibility--an odious olio of disparate elements that amalgamate into a melody of dissonance. Ravenous is at once campy and terrifying--stultifyingly inane and riveting. Its moments of levity leave you feeling unsettled and uncertain but its horror pervades throughout. Robert Carlyle is absolutely MASTERFUL and the supporting cast is elevated by the collective performances of Guy Pearce, David Arquette, Jeffrey Neal McDonough, and especially Jeffrey Jones.
This movie is perhaps best summed up in its soundtrack--the main theme of the primary protagonist, Captain John Boyd:
If you've never seen this one then I cannot recommend it highly enough!
#05 DARK CITY
Kiefer Sutherland is not often praised for the diversity of his acting ability but, as the son of evil guy par excellence Donald Sutherland, it should come as no surprise that the former can nail the odd creepy performance. Dark City came out a year before The Matrix and, for me, serves as its spiritual predecessor. Its aesthetic is dark--its subject matter and themes even darker.
One part Matrix, one part Inception, and one part the Fifth Element, Dark City is a phenomenal amalgam of deep-thought and dark imaginings. Great, great movie.
#04 THE MIST
Not much to be said about this one: the ideal visual representation of the greatest novella of all time. Simply put, this is the movie I always dreamed of seeing since I first read The Mist as a kid. It manages to elevate the source material simply by altering the ending--one that will shock and awe audiences for all time (and one that Stephen King himself said he wished he had written).
#03 THE NINTH GATE
This movie features my favorite Johnny Depp performance of all time. A seemingly straightforward plot gradually obfuscates as it becomes infused with occult and supernatural elements. The mystery aspects coalesce beautifully with the dark overtones as the rare book dealer finds himself handling way more than he bargained for. I just love the way the plot unfurls; it's like a roller coaster ride where the ascent feels like it takes forever only to be supplanted by an enormous rush as gravity takes over.
#02 EVENT HORIZON
Few space horror films are as genuinely terrifying as Event Horizon. The movie makes use of all of the hallmarks of great atmospheric horror movies imbuing the plot with an ethereal sense of there's-something-more-going-on-here. It's hardly novel in its premise but rather excels in its execution with INCREDIBLE performances by both Laurence Fishburne and Sam Neill (more on him in a moment).
This one stands out because of the horror of its nightmare-inducing visuals as well as the terror invoked by this idea of interdimensional possession (which is slightly Lovecraftian in its own right).
#01 IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS
The best John Carpenter film of all time. In The Mouth Of Madness is a massive mindfuck that generates one memorable moment after another. Sam Neill's greatest acting performance comes only a year after Jurassic Park and three before another great horror stint in Event Horizon. This movie combines the best aspects of a powerhouse trio of horror heavy hitters: John Carpenter's directing and soundtrack creation, Stephen King's exploration of small town terror and psychological horrors, and the inimitable H.P. Lovecraft's penchant for combining the ordinary with the impossible--the mundane with the monstrous.
It wasn't until my most recent viewing of this film a few months ago that I realized why I'm perhaps innately inclined to adore this movie: **SPOILER ALERT** it's essentially about a writer whose work will bring about the end of the world all while muddying the waters of reality and sanity. It combines all of the things that I love not just about horror movies but of fiction writing itself. Watching it is the most meta of experiences and it serves as a perpetual source of inspiration!