Another eclectic list, this one featuring PG-rated family classics next to more disturbing fare of both the supernatural and real-life variety. I like that this part of the list runs the gamut from movies I've loved my entire life to movies I first saw as an adult. While a few stretch the definition of horror pretty far, they were a huge part of my early love for monster movies, as I'm sure they were for many of you.
20. GHOSTBUSTERS (IVAN REITMAN, 1984)
As I wrote recently, Ghostbusters might be the defining movie of my generation. Just about everyone my age has seen it, loves it and can quote it at length. One of the keys to the movie's enduring appeal is that, in addition to being one of the funniest comedies, the horror movie moments are actually quite creepy. A lesser movie might have made the demon dogs haunting Dana Barrett's apartment building or the ghost in the library basement cartoonish and silly; instead, the movie's effects team, led by Richard Edlund (Star Wars, Poltergeist) make ghosts and ghouls as frighteningly believable as in any horror movie. This tension makes the laughs bigger, too - the "He slimed me" line, in particular, is a cathartic laugh the first time one sees the movie, as Slimer's attack plays like straight horror. Even the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, as ridiculous as he is, is a legitimately nightmarish idea - run into Mr. Stay Puft in real life, and you, too would be terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought.
19. THEY LIVE (JOHN CARPENTER, 1988)
More sci-fi than horror, They Live still hinges on a horrifying concept - what if Republicans were literally alien conquerors in disguise who have brainwashed us into complacency? It's a premise worthy of a self-published conspiracy tract, and Carpenter doesn't mean for us to take it too seriously. At the same time, the movie is slyly intelligent about the systems that encourage us to be passive consumers. Carpenter has said that he made They Live at a point when he was fed up with Hollywood and opted to work with a low budget in exchange for creative control. The result is one of the purest expressions of Carpenter's cynical, anti-authoritarian worldview, and a movie that has more to say about the evils of capitalism than your average left-leaning documentary. Plus, it has bug-eyed aliens, "Rowdy" Roddy Piper and
18. GREMLINS (JOE DANTE, 1984)
The only movie on this list that can usually be found in the family section of video stores (see, kids, they used to have these things called video stores...). It's easy to forget that Gremlins caused quite a stir when it was released for its scarier moments, like the gremlin that is gruesomely killed in a microwave or the scene where the gremlins kill the town's resident mean old lady by hotwiring her stair chair, sending her flying through the evening sky. Gremlins was actually originally written as an R-rated horror movie, before producer Steven Spielberg decided it'd work better as a comedy. There's something hilariously self-lacerating about Spielberg's input, as the movie sees a character even more cute and cuddly than E.T. spawning those horrific green monsters. With its idyllic small-town setting, Gremlins basically starts as the quintessentially Spielbergian film before turning completely anarchic, with director Joe Dante giving his love of Chuck Jones and creature features full reign (and with Gremlins 2, Dante would really get to go nuts). There's a reason that Gremlins sparked enough outrage to lead to the creation of the PG-13 rating - it's a genuinely subversive take on both small-town values and blockbuster entertainment, as much of an act of punk rebellion against good, clean entertainment as any of the R-rated movies on this list.
17. BEETLEJUICE (TIM BURTON, 1988)
Like Ghostbusters, Beetlejuice is a horror-comedy that works because it plays the horrific moments straight. The premise of a nice, recently deceased couple (Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin) trying to scare away the yuppies (Catherine O'Hara and Jeffrey Jones) that bought their house is a hilarious one, but when they try to scare the couple (who cannot yet see them) by ripping off their faces and poking out their eyes, it'd be pretty horrifying in any other context. Beetlejuice also has one of the greatest cinematic takes on the afterlife - it's neither beautiful nor terrifying, just more of the same, endless waiting rooms populated by bureaucrats and middlemen. And of course, an undead con artist who has seen The Exorcist 167 times (played brilliantly by Michael Keaton).
16. DEAD RINGERS (DAVID CRONENBERG, 1988)
One of David Cronenberg's most frightening movies, Dead Ringers is also unusual in that it's almost completely free of genre tropes and plot devices. Cronenberg's movies are almost never about the supernatural, but Dead Ringers also features no bodily transformation or mutant children or sex zombies. It's just a movie, loosely based on a true story, about twin gynecologists Eliot and Beverly Mantle (Jeremy Irons), their destructive relationship with an actress (Genevive Bujold) and their subsequent spiral into drug addiction, insanity and self-destruction. The movie's as tragic as it is disturbing - its scares are derived entirely from witnessing how even the most rational mind can turn against its owner. Irons is amazing in both roles, and though the movie is less violent than most of Cronenberg's films, the sense of psychic violence in the movie is devastating. And Beverly's experiments with new surgical tools for "mutant women" - well, perhaps it's best that this is the rare Cronenberg movie that doesn't go all the way.
15. The Fog (John Carpenter, 1980)
John Carpenter's follow-up to The Fog is a subtler but no less creepy experience than its predecessor. An old-fashioned ghost story about a sea captain and his crew who return from beyond the grave, shrowded in fog and vowing revenge on the descendants of those responsible for their deaths 100 years earlier. Carpenter creates incredible atmosphere out of the ever-present fog, the barely-seen ghosts and the beautiful, haunting northern California locations. I've seen The Fog countless times, and it's still a great pleasure to watch the terrific ensemble case - including Hal Holbrook, Adrienne Barbeau and Jamie Lee Curtis - react to the fog's encroaching menace, with most of the cast ending up together in a climax that plays like a ghostly version of Assault on Precinct 13 set in a church. Carpenter chose to reshoot parts of The Fog, adding more gruesome bits and overt scares, after his original rough cut of the film seemed too mild. Those moments are fun, but though The Fog isn't as intense as Halloween, it's just as enjoyable in its own way - it's scariest in the in-between moments, in the drawn-out anticipation of something terrible, and in Carpenter's gorgeous widescreen compositions.
14. THE EVIL DEAD (SAM RAIMI, 1981)
While I was always a fan of The Evil Dead - the first time my best friend and I watched it with kids, we nearly passed out from hysterical laughter when the movie abruptly cut to this song accompanying the end credits - I always considered a lesser movie than its two more polished sequels. The "a-ha" moment came when I saw a late-night 35mm screening with an enthusiastic crowd a few years ago, and found myself actually getting freaked out for the first time by a movie I'd already seen several times before. All of the things that signs of a low-budget, handmade production - the sometimes amateurish acting, artlessness of the production design and DIY special effects - actually contribute the movie's unnerving atmosphere. It feels reckless and unpredictable, like you're in the hands of a natural born showman who also might be a bit of a nut. All low-budget horror filmmakers today aspire to make The Evil Dead, but while that magic of all the elements coming together in just the right way might be a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, it also doesn't hurt to have the kind of insane commitment the filmmakers gave to make The Evil Dead work. The Evil Dead is always what I'll point to when people say that Raimi sucks now, as its DNA can still be found in his big-budget tentpole movies (Rachel Weisz literally turns into a deadite at the end of Oz: The Great and Powerful). His movies don't always work, but he's never stopped being the kid from Michigan who will use every trick at his disposal to entertain us.
13. NEAR DARK (KATHRYN BIGELOW, 1987)
While I'm a fan of The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty was my favorite movie of 2012, I also hope that Kathryn Bigelow might return to the kind of sharp-witted genre deconstruction she did so brilliantly in Point Break and, especially, Near Dark. Like The Lost Boys, Near Dark (which was released soon after Schumacher's film) is about a young man (Adrian Pasdar) who falls for a girl (Jenny Wright) and is drawn into her surrogate family of vampires. But while The Lost Boys is a very fun crowd-pleaser, Near Dark is a more ambitious and thematically complex film, using the southwestern locations to position its vampire family as a modern incarnation of Old West outlaws (Lance Henriksen, Jeanette Goldstein, Bill Paxton and Joshua Miller, all terrific). The mixture of western and Gothic archetypes finds each casting surprising light on the other. It's also a thousand times sexier than Twilight and features an extended scene of the vampires preying on townies at a bar that is one of the best sustained horror setpieces I've ever seen, not to mention Paxton's perfect delivery of the line
12. THE DEAD ZONE (DAVID CRONENBERG, 1983)
While David Cronenberg's adaptation of Stephen King's book about a man who wakes from a years-long coma is generally well-regarded, it's overshadowed a bit by the same year's Videodrome and some of the director's other, higher-profile movies. It's a shame, because while The Dead Zone may seem one more conventional on the surface, it's one of the director's very best films and thematically of a piece with the rest of his work. Christopher Walken is great as Johnny Smith, the mild-mannered schoolteacher who discovers he can see into peoples' futures by touching them, which proves to be much more of a curse than a gift. As Johnny discovers his gift's ultimate purpose, the movie builds to an ending that has echoes in several Cronenberg films, from The Fly to Cosmopolis. It's heartbreaking in a way that few horror movies, with a chilly New England atmosphere (though the movie was actually shot in Canada) and at least one gruesome, Cronenbergian death scene involving a pair of scissors. And Martin Sheen's performance as Greg Stillson, a Senatorial candidate whose "aw shucks" persona conceals his very dangerous aspirations, still resonates today - I won't mention any of the seemingly populist but possibly dangerously extreme modern-day politicians who invite comparisons to Stillson, but I'm sure you can think of a few.
11. FRIGHT NIGHT (TOM HOLLAND, 1985)
Fright Night is neither the first nor the last horror movie to feature a protagonist that is basically a surrogate for the horror fans in the audience, but it's probably the best. The movie is a riff on Rear Window, its Jimmy Stuart a horror-loving teen named Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) who suspects that his new neighbor (Chris Sarandon) might be a vampire; he's right, of course, and he tries to enlist the help of local creature features hosts and faded horror star Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall). It's the Vincent character, who laments that the kind of movie that made him a star went out in favor of "demented madmen running around in ski masks, hacking up young virgins," that makes Fright Night really special. It's a movie that goes out of its way to celebrate a style of horror that was anachronistic even in 1985. The movie features state-of-the-art effects (supervised, like Ghostbusters, by Richard Edlund) and plenty of gruesome moments, but at heart it's a valentine to Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and the Hammer and Amicus classics the filmmakers likely grew up on. And as Jerry Dandrige, the vampire next door, Sarandon is one of my favorite movie vampires. He's everything a good movie vampire should be - charming, seductive, sexually ambiguous, , and clearly having a lot of fun being a vampire.