Ever since the horror genre gained legitimacy in the 1970s with such classics as “The Exorcist,” “Halloween,” “ The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “The Omen,” it has continued to grow and expand to include more sub-genres than one can keep track of. The horror movie has become a meta-genre unto itself.
I spent the first 20 days of October watching at least one horror film a day. For the purpose of trying something new this year, I stayed clear of the classics. We know them well and they have been written about regularly by far greater scholars and fanatics than me. Watch them again, most are as every bit as great as you remember them.
Even with that in mind, parameters were needed in sifting through the semi-recent crop of scary movies. So the following titles were made in the past few years and are available to stream via Netflix. Surprisingly, none were terrible. Then again, few ranked as very good to great. I used a school grading system and will try to explain each as neatly as possible.
“The Autopsy of Jane Doe” (2016)
A father/son own a funeral home/morgue and also serve as their small town’s medical examiners. When a sheriff drops off the corpse of a young woman, they encounter a stiff unlike anything in their jaded experience. The gruesome quotient is high.
“Bird Box” (2018)
This was the talk of the town last year, so we’re glad to arrive late rather than never. Sandra Bullock leads this stacked cast through an invasion/infestation that causes people to commit suicide upon making eye contact with predators. There’s a very human side to the story that makes it work so well.
“The Black Coat’s Daughter” (2015)
Two girls are left behind during winter break at a private school, where they are forced to encounter an evil spirit. The cinematography is awesome in creating the desolation of a vacated New England boarding school during the gray season. Emma Roberts gives a career-making effort as Joan, the more troubled of the pair.
Identify theft has been a topic for some years now, but what if said identity is that of erotic web cam performer? Madeline Brewer stars in this horror mystery that could easily be filled with cliches but isn’t. The nudity isn’t over the top either. Instead, viewers are kept wondering until the end.
“Deadly Detention” (2017)
The B-horror version of “The Breakfast Club?” It might have been pitched that way. Instead we get every teen stereotype ratcheted up high and a cheap thrill around every corner. Still, this may appeal to pre-teens dreaming of the fantasy/allure of high school.
A boy in a bubble due to an auto-immune disease seeks treatment in a place known for curing such disease. Both Eli and viewers get the feeling something is seriously amiss here as soon as his parents bring him. Is it the kind but creepy girl that lives down the street? The Doctor? While shy on action and big fright, this one keeps you guessing. As middle of the road as they come.
“Gerald’s Game” (2017)
The first of the three Stephen King appearances on this list and among the best. I’ve been screaming to anyone who will listen that Carla Guigino is one of the best actresses of her generation since seeing her on Broadway in “Desire Under the Elms.” She proves herself again here. Kinky romance goes horribly wrong when she finds her husband dead and herself chained to the bed at a remote lakehouse. This might be the most complete film on this list.
“Haunting on Fraternity Row” (2018)
Aside from drugs/alcohol/nonconsensual sex, an evil spirit has taken over a fraternity house during it’s biggest party of the year. Seems the house was built on some sort of ancient blessed/cursed ground. The plot is rife with cliche and contrivance but still manages a few scares that will throw you back in your seat. Shanley Caswell plays the movie’s moral center and is well on her way to becoming a headlining actress. She brings logic and nuance to this otherwise pile of dumb.
“House of the Witch” (2017)
Teens enter a house they know they shouldn’t. The whole town knows they shouldn’t. What could wrong? A thousand previous movies have mined that question. I guess it’s a compliment to say I expected this to be worse.
“I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House” (2016)
An ailing author living out her final years in a haunted New England house. A level-headed nurse is brought in to assist her. This movie artfully dances between worlds/realities/facts/fiction/terra firma/dreams. I’d watch this again. Bonus points for Lily’s choice of Grateful Dead shirts. This one fires on all cylinders.
“In the Tall Grass” (2019)
Stephen King’s second entry. It would be easy and not entirely wrong to draw a direct comparison to his eternal “Children of the Corn.” However, nothing is what it may seem in this tall grass and your mind will be sufficiently played with until the end. Strong turn from Patrick Wilson. Based on a novella King wrote with his son.
“Mercy Black” (2019)
A woman is released from a mental institution after serving 15 years for stabbing a classmate at the behest of something/someone known as Mercy Black. Her freedom is short lived when she realized she must protect her nephew from the same something/someone. A genuinely well-done horror film.
“The Open House” (2018)
This is all over the place but somehow works. A teenage sprinter sees his father killed in a fluke parking lot accident. So he and his mother go to stay in a relative’s chalet, which you guess it, is up for sale. The creepy realtors have nothing on the creepy neighbor and who/whatever is blowing out the hot water heater pilot light in the basement. Buy beware.
“Ragini MMS2” (2014)
Because no Halloween list is complete without an American porn actress turned biggest Bollywood star. What the what? Sunny Leone’s rise to queen of Indian moviedom is an intriguing one. Even more fascinating is the lengths Bollywood film companies will go to include her in their films. Yes the movie kicks of with a song-and-dance number before settling in to a plot that….. Nevermind. You are either going to find Leone mesmerizing and watch the entire film or hate on her and not give it a chance. It doesn’t deserve a chance but count me among those that find Leone enchanting. (If you’re looking for nudity, you won’t find it in any Bollywood productions. But you already know where to find it).
“The Silence” (2019)
In “Bird Box” it was eye contact. In “The Silence” it’s noise that will do you in when apocalyptic creatures come swarming. This movie was well acted and done with warmth and heart. It’s hard not to root for the good guys in this one.
“Train to Busan” (2016)
A South Korean zombie apocalypse movie that takes place on a train. Haven’t Hollywood studios tried some variation of this a few dozen times. You bet. And none of have done it with the feeling of humanity — in all its confusion and fulfillment — as “Train to Busan.” There are at least a dozen characters we come to understand completely (yes, in a zombie movie) and life lessons are sprinkled throughout. This came highly advised by film aficionado Dan Hickey, who knows film better than anyone I know. No surprise it is the best on this list.
Another (Hickey) recommendation, this anthology has four short films, all worthy of attention, all written and directed by women. “The Box” is the creepiest. “The Birthday Party” is most likely the most fully formed and the one that will get the most attention.Why? It was written and directed by Annie Clark (her music name is St. Vincent). “Don’t Fall” is meh. “Her Only Living Son” closes on a high note. These short film anthologies are great for the horror genre.
“The Vault” (2017)
There are weirder things at play than Taryn Manning’s face tattoos and James Franco’s mustache in this enjoyable bank heist film. Things get nice and confusing when the supernatural figure into the bank’s catacombs.
“13 Cameras” “14 Cameras” (2015 and 2018)
Surveillance. It’s our new reality. Act with the understanding you are on camera. So, it would be easy to ditch this pair as nothing new. A landlord sets up his properties to spy on them and his tenants. Hardly intriguing. Not so fast. A bonafide creep/villain has been created in Neville Archambault’s Guy, the landlord. I was still thinking of this repulsive character weeks after watching the two films. There might be gratuitous “t&a” but that will easily be forgotten and replaced by the sleaziness of Guy.
“47 Meters Down” (2017)
As contrived as can be. Two sister on spring break in Mexico. A free-spirit and an uptight stress ball. Meet some local guys who convince to explore the bottom of the ocean from the comfort of their buddy’s expedition company. Needless to say, they run out of oxygen. It doesn’t take much imagination to guess the rest of this. Even the deep sea camera work is boring.
King’s final appearance wraps up our fright-fest. A farmer and his son (simpletons to be sure) kill his wife/mother in an effort to reverse their financial failures. Instead, they awaken the supernatural. King has always had a masterly way with this kind of story. And here the movie does his tale justice. Not your typical Halloween movie, but a strong one anyway.