Recommended: Horror

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  • Tier One
  • Alien (1979)
  • The Birds (1963) ... I was amazed at how well this stood up after almost 40 years. The tension is doled out in tiny little portions, perfectly spaced to maintain the viewers anticipation, building to an apocalyptic (perhaps) crescendo. The visual effects are terrific, and underscored for me how much badly done CGI can detract from today's movies. As a side note, the DVD has an excellent featurette, "All About The Birds." It includes a hysterical story that involves a bunch of crows with little magnets on their feet, and a metal gutter on which they were supposed to perch.
  • The Blair Witch Project (1999) ... A horror movie that makes most other horror movies seem hopelessly stylized. I've never had such a strong sense of "hey, this is really how it would go if you took three average (even annoying and/or stupid) schmoes and stuck them in this situation."
  • Psycho (1960) ... I think this film has the honor of being the oldest movie that is able to make me jump. Not just once, but three times. And not just on the first viewing, but on subsequent viewings. As I've watched more Hitchcock, I've been surprised by how much broader his range was than I originally presumed, but of all his great movies I think this one is the centerpiece.
  • Silence of the Lambs (1991)
  • The Sixth Sense (1999) ... As a horror movie, it fails. While it has some scary moments, I don't think it's particularly scary overall. Bad marketing. Where I think this movie excels is as a love story. I've never seen my wife cry so hard at a movie.
  • Tier Two
  • Audition (2000) ... Wow. This starts out as an interesting, if dull at times, serio-romantic comedy about loneliness and this widower who reluctantly goes along with a buddy's idea to hold a fake movie audition to find him a new wife. It's pretty clear early on that all is not right with the woman he chooses, despite all outward appearances of her being the complacent, compliant, submissive stereotypical Japanese woman he was looking for. Interjected scenes of varying creepiness slowly start appearing, but the setup is still quite slow and deliberate, lasting at least three-quarters of the movie. The horror isn't unleashed until late in the game, but it bursts forth with a vengeance, as if enraged by its confinement for the first 90 minutes (or by all that societal oppression of women). I can't remember the last time I did so much squirming in my seat. After I watched it I thought to myself, "damn, I can't recommend that! That was horrifying and sadistic." Then I caught myself: horror movies are supposed to horrify, right? I think I lost sight of that with all the clever Scream meta-horror out there these days. Those movies are the amusement park; this one is the freak show.
  • The Devil's Backbone (2001) ... Between this and The Others 2001 was the year of the Hispanic-written/directed thriller, and thank goodness for it. While I'm sure you could write a paper titled "Symbolism of the Spanish Civil War in The Devil's Backbone", and while the movie was as much about the suffering war inflicts on everyone (especially children), the movie stands up well as a straight ghost story. It's not often particularly scary, although I did turn the volume down (but not off) during the excellent kitchen scene (yes, I'm a wuss). Good atmosphere, cinematography, performances, and script, and the ghost is beautifully rendered.
  • The Exorcist (1973) ... In my experience it's rare to find a horror movie with good character development, but The Exorcist is a fine example. And I love the ambiguity of the ending.
  • Frailty (2001) ... A good man suddenly has a vision of an angel that tells him his mission is to destroy "demons." He makes his young sons help him. One son thinks Dad's a hero, the other thinks he's a murderer, which makes for some really bizarre family tension. The movie does a great job of giving the impression of bloody violence without actually showing much of any. Too often these days I find myself looking at the clock during movies, but this one kept me pinned to the screen. An auspicious directorial debut for Bill Paxton.
  • The Others (2001) ... Comparisons with The Sixth Sense are inevitable. Both movies are modern day ghost stories that build up scares through small moments. Both feature excellent child performances, convincingly distraught mothers, and score serious atmosphere points. The Others was just as scary (perhaps more so), but not as tragic. The Sixth Sense was as much about love as it was about fear, and that, for me, gives it the winning hand. But both are excellent.
  • The Ring (2002) ... A very effective horror movie. Naomi Watts delivers, and the plot is tight (although it took me about 24 hours to piece together a narrative that satisfied my wife's initial plot hole complaints). Good scares, good gimmicks, good mystery.
  • Scream (1996) ... I'm a sucker for self-referential satire, and this does slasher movies (a genre I hate) perfectly.
  • Tier Three
  • Final Destination (2000) ... While it has some gore, I consider this to be more of a suspense movie than a horror movie. But I guess it's shelved under horror, and I'd have to say this is one of the few post-Scream horror movies that makes the grade. Clever and tense.
  • Joy Ride (2001) ... I figure a thriller has to primarily deliver on three levels: acting, suspense, and reasonable levels of belief-suspension. Joy Ride delivers. The most impressive thing is that the tension comes despite an incredibly small amount of on-screen gore or violence. The suspense comes from dramatic tension or pursuit, not the shining knife and splash of blood. Everyone is believable enough, and Steve Zahn is completely convincing as the annoying, trouble-seeking, and somehow still (barely) affable older brother. It's hard to innovate in the limited "omniscient indestructible psycho" genre, so there's not much new here, but the execution is quite good.
  • Red Dragon (2002) ... A good straight-forward thriller more in the tradition of Silence of the Lambs than Hannibal (thank goodness). Ralph Fiennes reminded me why he was so effective as Amon Goeth, as he again demonstrates his ability to show a little humanity in the worst of fiends. Hannibal is much better caged, but seeing him prior to his first arrest is a treat. Not a great thriller, but quite a bit of fun, and I preferred it to Manhunter.
  • Scream 2 (1997) ... See above, but for slasher sequels. Not quite as slick as the first, but still snappily written and clever.
Author Comments: 

If you're going to use these lists for recommendations, you really should read how they're organized.

"Also, what kind of sick-o hospital leaves a patient totally naked on top of the sheets!?"

One that likes Christ symbolism? :-)

Also, what happened in the ending that you liked the best? Unless you told us by referencing Boyle's commentary? Does the main guy get infected, but then cured by a full blood transfusion?

It totally diverges after Frank (the father) gets infected by the droplet in the eye. There are no army guys. The facility is the original animal research lab. Jim (our hero) doesn't kill Frank; he knocks him out with the bat and then ties him up. He tells Hannah (the daughter) that the broadcast said there's a cure here, and gosh darn it, they're going to find it. They come across this guy barricaded in a room with a heavy door and a slit in it. The guy wants nothing to do with them. He won't come out, and he won't let them in. After much cajoling, they get him to tell him the cure, which is a full blood transfusion. The catch, of course, is that somebody's gotta be the donor. After a tense blood test scene, it is determined that Jim and Frank have the same blood type. Jim convinces Selena (our heroine) to let him go through with the transfusion, referencing her desire that Hannah be more than fine, she wants her to be okay (if you remember that line). The miraculous transfusion process takes place, and we see Frank, Hannah, and Selene leaving the hospital. The final scene is Jim, infected, strapped to the operating table. The same table the monkey that was forced to watch the violent films was strapped to at the beginning of the movie. The TVs come on, the credits roll.

They tried to do this ending in post-production but couldn't make it work. On the DVD it's depicted via storyboards and Boyle and another guy reading from the script. It was surprisingly engaging, given the bare bones presentation.

Hmm, that does sound a lot more interesting to me too. Those army guys really annoyed me. And Jim's sacrifice sounds like a very cool twist.