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Episode 35: Spiraling Into Personal Dread: We Break Down Our Top 5 "Favorite" Horror Films

Brendan’s Top Five Horror Movies:

As a kid I LOVED to talk about horror movies with other kids on the bus. I would rank them according to their scariness. I was something of a horror movie connoisseur among the other kids. The reality, however, was that I had never seen a horror movie. I was too fucking scared of the IDEA of horror movies just from VHS covers we had seen at Blockbuster. Was there anything scarier than the horror movie section at Blockbuster? When I talked about horror movies, I was talking about what I imagined they were like. I dressed as Jason from Friday the 13th a few times in my childhood, and we had a Freddy Krueger glove and mask in my attic. I felt surrounded by the culture of horror films, but I never saw one.

One time, when I was 10 or so, my brother clearly wanted to stay up in the living room to watch adult content on HBO, but he told me he was watching Halloween instead. I was so horrified that I slept in the bed with my dad (my mom was on a trip somewhere), and I pissed my pants because I refused to go to the bathroom. Hahaha.

As a young adult, I started to go in the opposite direction. I didn’t like horror movies because I found them dull. When I finally saw Halloween and Nightmare and Friday 13th as a 17-18 year old, I was kinda bored by them. I wanted to be legitimately scared, but nothing was scarier than the adult world I was coming into. The movies felt old and hokey. It wasn’t until my late twenties that I started to appreciate horror again, as an art form and not a path towards spooks and goofs.

Horror movies are kind of like standup comedy in a way. Audiences go in with a specific expectation (either fear or laughter), and some audiences are unwilling to engage with the idea of manufactured fear just as some don’t want to give the satisfaction of laughter to a comic. Fear is not something that we want to submit ourselves to, which results in this tug of war between audience and film.

I’ve found that my “favorite” horror films are the ones that send me spiraling into personal dread. It’s a feeling I hate yet I admire an artist’s ability to send me there.

  1. Hereditary (2018): 90% on RT. Ari Aster is a piece of trash. I don’t like him because he’s such a good filmmaker. I always return to this film as an exemplar of what horror can be. The dread that followed me during and after my viewing is unparalleled. Hereditary does so much: shocking imagery, gore, family struggles, intense emotional performances from its cast, a brilliant musical score, and supernatural shit!

2. Creep (2014): 90% on Rotten Tomatoes. Starring Mark Duplass and produced by Mark Duplass, this one fucked me up in a way that’s difficult to explain, because the premis is super simple and, honestly, not THAT compelling. But the movie is SO compelling.

3. Midsommar (2019): 87% on RT. Ari Aster. Ari Aster movies make me SICK. This film is incredible, and it put me into a two-week depression. “The film stars Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor as a dysfunctional couple who travel to Sweden with a group of friends for a midsummer festival, only to find themselves in the clutches of a sinister cult practicing Scandinavian paganism.”

4. El Orfanato (The Orphanage) (2007): 87% on RT. “The plot centers on Laura, who returns to her childhood home, an orphanage. Laura plans to turn the house into a home for disabled children, but after an argument with Laura, Simón goes missing.” The ending of this film is absolutely gutting. Just horrific.

5. The Ring (2002): 71% on RT. THIS is my nostalgia pick, and I’ll be honest and say that I haven’t seen it in 20 years, but that’s because of the effect it had on me as a 14 ye old. I saw it at the movie theater with my friends, and it was just TOO scary.

Stef's List

My journey with horror films is probably kind of unusual in that they were just thrust upon me. I didn’t really go seek them out. My mom’s side of the family had a kind of weird philosophy when it came to child rearing…they basically thought it was best to expose us to as many fear-inducing things as possible when we were young. I guess the theory was that as we got older, we wouldn’t be afraid to engage with things that people typically deem scary. So, we went on rollercoasters when we were too young, there are a ton of stories that we don’t have time for right now about one or all of us kids being put in situations that could possibly lead to our deaths, and our family movie nights usually included a horror film. Sometimes, they’d pick things that were “classics” to them or things they wanted to rewatch, sometimes they’d pick entirely new things they didn’t vet at all. As a result, I saw a lot of scary movies before I even got to high school but I didn’t truly get INTO IT until high school.

In high school, I made a lot of friends who were into film in general and some who were specifically into horror. We’d do a Friday movie night like every couple of weeks where we bought a bunch of Little Ceasar’s pizza and Walgreens 1 dollar movie theater candy packs and rented 2-3 movies from Blockbuster. We’d all go to my friend’s house and make the living room floor into a giant lounge area and spend the rest of the night watching and talking about movies. I can’t really remember a time when we didn’t have a horror film in the mix for those nights. As a group, it was really exciting to watch scary shit together because it kind of became a test to see who was the most fearful and what freaked someone out more than the others. Personally, for me, this time was really formative. It’s one of the first places where I got to talk about art outside of an academic setting with people whose opinions I really trusted. Obviously, as I matured, my understanding of film got better but this was the place where my critical analysis skills were being applied in a way that I think helped me become who I am today. And you know, we talked about those horror movies just as seriously. Sometimes, shit was just fun and we acknowledged that but other times, the movies we watched brought up a lot of other stuff for us.

I think that’s part of what’s interesting and engrossing about horror for me. As a culture, we have this idea that horror is doing one surface level thing or another but the truth is that it’s exposing stuff that is much, much deeper about us and about our humanity. Over the years, I’ve only come to appreciate it more and more.

Quick note: This was really hard for me! I didn’t put any slashers on my list (which means I didn’t include Scream, though that is a favorite) and all of these are American made films. I had to narrow shit down in order to get to five, so that’s what I did.

Top 5

The Blair Witch Project (1999): RT score 86%.

  • Before we get into this, I just have to say that if you saw this movie any time between its release and like 2002 and you claim it didn’t scare the shit out of you, you’re a fucking liar. The Blair Witch Project was fucking scary. I don’t care what anyone says because these assholes had me convinced this was real for like 4 years.

  • IMDB premise: Three film students vanish after traveling into a Maryland forest to film a documentary on the local Blair Witch legend, leaving only their footage behind.

  • I was reluctant to include this on my list because I don’t think Blair Witch endures the ways others do but it’s a nostalgia bomb that I think is worth it. It started the found footage craze in horror films and it also did something that I think about a lot.

  • In Blair Witch, the enemy, the thing we’re supposed to be scared of is invisible. We don’t see any witches, we don’t see any monsters…it’s just like in the atmosphere of the woods where they’re filming. The idea that something you can’t see could be hunting you is still so haunting to me because I think it’s real as hell. Most of the stuff that is killing us/hunting us/etc isn’t tangible and Blair Witch is a reminder of that.

  • I’m sure someone has written this thinkpiece somewhere, but Blair Witch just does such a good job of playing with that idea. I think it deserves some love for that.

Poltergeist (1982): RT score: 87%

  • This shit is CLASSIC. Come on! How could I not include this?

  • One of the first movies my family showed us on our little familial horror journey and it’s always stuck with me. Every time I watch it, I find something new to love about it and I think that’s beautiful.

  • IMDB premise: A family's home is haunted by a host of demonic ghosts.

  • The thing about Poltergeist that I don’t think gets discussed nearly enough is that the acting is STELLAR. Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams are really selling their parental fear, and the kids are equally great. The terror is definitely palpable.

  • It works on a variety of levels. It’s a great ghost story, obviously, but also an incredible domestic drama, about the interplay between husbands and wives and their kids. Really just great filmmaking all around.

  • It’s a miracle this film was even made! Tobe Hooper never stopped doing coke! And one thing that I love about this is that Spielberg originally wrote it as an alien horror film and sequel to Close Encounters of the Third Kind but Hooper was basically like “if you want me to do this, we’re doing ghosts!” so that’s fun.

It Follows (2014): RT score: 95%

  • I really feel like not enough people have seen this movie!

  • IMDB premise: A young woman is followed by an unknown supernatural force after a sexual encounter.

  • It Follows rocks because it subverts the ideas about sex that almost every other horror film in history pushes forward. And it’s funny because people seem to think it’s not.

  • It Follows just shows very simply that when you have sex with other people, you’re sharing in a kind of intimacy that they’ve also shared with other people. In the film, there is not judgment for this, it’s just a statement of fact. In a superficial reading, it looks like these characters are getting punished for their actions, but I think the film actually just treats them as fully-formed humans with agency and independence.

  • I also think it’s very empathetic to how it feels to be a teenager, how painful it is to grow up.

  • Since we work with kids, I think about this movie a lot. It’s a good reminder of how simultaneously beautiful and shitty it is to be young.

Possession (1981): RT score 84%

  • I really wanted to rewatch this before we did this episode just to make sure I still feel as strongly about it as I do but the fact that it popped into my head when we first talked about this is a good sign.

  • This shit is crazy!! Just a wild, unpredictable movie. You never know what terror is lurking around the next corner of the film. There are few movies that can really make me feel this way.

  • IMDB: A woman starts exhibiting increasingly disturbing behavior after asking her husband for a divorce. Suspicions of infidelity soon give way to something much more sinister.

  • I love divorced man horror cinema because it’s usually fucking bonkers as hell, and this falls into that category. Some people have posited that this is a highly anti-Soviet movie, but that’s just not the way I read it. To me, this is an absolutely wild illustration of a relationship that is just falling the fuck apart.

  • It takes some turns you won’t ever expect and the characters hurt each other in some truly fucked up ways. It’s uncomfortable and it’s kind of gross. It has all of the elements you want in a horror plus some really twisted domestic drama.

  • Very special film!!!

Alien (1979): RT score: 98%

  • I don’t think I have to say a lot about this, it’s fucking ALIEN

  • One of the most anti-capitalist films of all time…how could I not love it?

  • IMDB premise: The crew of a commercial spacecraft encounter a deadly lifeform after investigating an unknown transmission.

  • I’ve loved Alien since I was 11 years old. One of the first horror films I really latched onto.

  • Sigourney Weaver helped me realize I was gay…thanks Sigourney!!

  • Really preys on every possible fear you could ever have. It’s claustrophobic as fuck in every way possible…physically, emotionally, spiritually. You can feel the ways the characters are really GOING THROUGH IT.

  • This shit holds up so well, it’s kind of scary. Like even the effects and the scenery. It looks better than like 60% of movies that are made today.

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