You can keep your Christmasses and your Thanksgivings. I couldn’t care less about the Valentine’s Day or the Superbowl. As far as I’m concerned, Halloween is king: with scares a plenty and horror movies as far as the eye can see.
Normally, I would devote this time to singling out a singular masterpiece of the genre: something like Halloween, highlighting the very best that the season has to offer. The problem is, though, that there are simply too many outstanding films worth mentioning. Contrary to popular belief, the horror genre is a rich and shockingly deep field of terrors, especially when you branch outside of the works of a single decade or country.
So this year I’m going to give you something a little different. Rather than focussing on one film, I’m going to present whole franchises of them. And no, the winning franchise isn’t going to simply be the one with the best entry into the genre (sorry, Psycho). It’s going to be the one that most consistently delivers spine-tingling scares and unnerving narratives.
So reader beware, you’re in for a scare.
Number of Movies: 6
Best Movie: Paranormal Activity 3
After finally getting around to watching the first Paranormal Activity, I would have never guessed that I would have a single word of praise for any of them. The movie was nothing short of terrible. It was ninety minutes of non-tension leading up to a poorly executed jump scare that was spoiled in all of the trailers. The characters were equally loathsome and obnoxious, the narrative was lacking and nothing about it was in the least bit entertaining.
But call me a masochist, because I somehow ended up watching the entire series. And, despite my initial misgivings about the series, I actually started to like them. The second movie was an above average horror film that delivered everything that the first film promised: reasonably developed characters, an interesting narrative and actual scares. The third one – a prequel set during the first two movies’ victims’ childhoods – was the best of the series, adding considerable depth to the story beyond your standard ghost story.
The fourth film failed to live up to the franchise’s new high standards, but at least had an ending unnerving enough to be mostly worth the effort. The Marked Ones was just plain weird. It was a time-killing spin-off intended to keep the franchise going while Blumhouse got its act together with The Ghost Dimension. It failed to feature the family that we’ve exclusively followed until now and its only tie-in back to the franchise was wibbly-wobbly ending that came entirely out of left field. But for all of its faults, The Marked Ones was still a pretty enjoyable ride, especially for long-standing fans of the series.
The real question then becomes, how was The Ghost Dimension? It’s out in theaters right now and is supposed to end the main narrative of the series. For Paranormal Activity fans, it’s a worthy installment whose quality falls somewhat in the middle of the franchise. It’s not quite as good as either 2 or 3, but considerably better than 1 or 4. It meaningfully ties The Marked Ones back into the main franchise, making it more than a narrative footnote in the series, and caps off the now 6-film story in a satisfying, if slightly strange, way.
Friday the 13th
Number of Movies: 12
Best Movie: Friday the 13th (2009)
It strikes me as more than just a little odd that my experience with the Friday the 13th movies so closely mirrors my experience with the Paranormal Activity movies. I started watching these when I first started getting into horror in high school, and hated every last one of them. I only kept watching them because I figured that they simply had to get better at some point: franchises don’t make double digits worth of movies without at least one of them being good, right?
Well, as it turns out, they do. It wasn’t until I saw Cinema Snob‘s reviews of the movies last year that I decided to give the franchise a second chance, and even then only begrudgingly. The weird thing was, though, that I immediately started enjoying myself (at least for the first six movies).
Although the first movie had a lot of issues – and I really do mean a lot of issues, from hackneyed camera work to thinly written characters to unsatisfying kills – its good qualities ultimately make up for its pitfalls. The fact is, Friday the 13th was made at a time when the slasher genre wasn’t set in stone. Psycho had set the stage, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween and mostly worked out the kinks, and then came this movie, a scant 2 years following Carpenter’s masterpiece.
While it certainly fails to live up to the other great slashers of the 70s and 80s in its own right, Friday the 13th is the least predictable of them all. Although spoiled today by its cultural ubiquity, the fact that the killer was Jason’s mother was meant to be a final-act surprise (same as “I am your father” and “I see dead people”). All of the weird shots and even some of the hammy acting all serviced this end: adopting the killer’s point of view in order to keep the viewer from knowing her identity. The fact that the killer is a woman is an additionally welcome touch of novelty amidst a sea of Freddy Kruegers, Michael Meyers, Charles Lee Rays and, yes, Jason Vorhees.
As I went on through the rest of the franchise, I realize that the first three movies make a satisfying trilogy, focussing on a psychologically scarred boy growing up in the woods, trying to avenge his mother’s death with anybody who he comes across. The second three movies make for an even more interesting trilogy: about the impact Jason has had on others’ lives (other than ending them), complete with the best scenes and scares from the entire original franchise.
And although even I have to admit that 7-10 were all several shades of terrible, they were, if nothing else, at least as unique as they were stupid. 7 followed around a psychic who had premonitions of Jason’s kills (and sometimes blurred the lines between premonition and reality). 8 traded in the sprawling wilderness surrounding Crystal Lake for a claustrophobic cruise ship and the urbanscape of New York. 9 featured Jason as a body-hopping ghost and 10 shot him into space (and revived him in the far future). And Freddy vs Jason was… well… Freddy vs Jason: a monster-mash that was, if nothing else, needlessly fun.
As blasphemous as I’m sure this is to say, the remake was easily the best installment of the entire franchise. Seriously. The first three movies are condensed into the first twenty-something minutes, all before the title card crops up. The rest of the movie cherry-picks the best aspects of the rest of the original franchise while also reimagining Jason as a deranged survivalist who doesn’t quite understand the concept of death.
A Nightmare on Elmstreet
Number of Movies: 9
Best Movie: A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors
I will go on record saying that A Nightmare on Elm Street, and its sequels, is the only time when Americans figured out how to make a good ghost movie. Despite how it initially appears, Paranormal Activity is about a demon. The Amityville Horror, 13 Ghosts, House on Haunted Hill and most recently The Gallows are all terrible (the originals and remakes alike) and all fail to live up to their reputations in the popular mindset. Even Poltergeist (old and new alike) is merely okay. Only Freddy Kruger’s succeeded at nailing the idea of a marauding spirit out for revenge.
The first third of A Nightmare on Elm Street represents the very best of the entire horror genre. It’s menacing, stylish and darkly imaginative. The dream sequences are as comical as they are frightening and you can never quite predict what somebody like Kruger will do next, and its terrifying.
Although the first sequel as a serious misstep for the franchise (trying to take Freddy in a more traditional direction via possession and haunting a fixed location), it quickly corrected itself with Dream Warriors. The third movie featured the most imaginative kills, the most frightening showdowns and the best mix of the hilarious and the horrifying. The Dream Master and The Dream Child, while both good, started to show some seriously diminishing returns on their premise and saw Kruger inscreasingly becoming a parody of himself.
For any less of a franchise, Freddy’s Dead would have spelled a definitive end to the series (both by way of its poor narrative and definitively killed off antagonist). But Wes Craven still had a few tricks up his sleeves, and the entirely unexpected New Nightmare breathed new life into the post-mortem franchise. It set itself in the “real world,” where a latter day Nightmare on Elm Street sequel’s cast is being terrorized by a definitively real Freddy Kruger. Although the idea was definitely a stretch, its perfect execution made it a hit with critics and fans alike.
Although not the franchise’s best (like it was with Friday the 13th), 2010’s A Nightmare on Elm Street remake was a shockingly good entry into the series. Say what you will about remakes’ lack of imagination, but this one worked. Jackie Earl Haley gave the character a darker edge than he’d ever had before. Kruger’s burnt makeup was outstanding – a haunting portrayal of what an actual burn victim would like like – and the narrative returned the character to his conceptual roots as a child molester. Toss in some of the best lines of the franchise (“What are you screaming for? I haven’t even cut you yet”) and you’ve got everything you’ve ever wanted out of a Freddy Kruger movie.
_____ of the (Living) Dead
Number of Movies: 9? (since the first movie’s in the public domain, it’s actually pretty hard to keep track of)
Best Movie: Dawn of the Dead (1978)
This was the horror franchise that started it all, at least for me. Night of the Living Dead so fascinated me as a child (some might even say traumatized) that it launched a lifelong love of the macabre. And although its had its share of pitfalls along the way (mostly by way of its remakes), its held up as the most singularly unnerving thing that I’ve ever seen.
Romero has in no small way shaped the popular conception of what a zombie is. Before his 1968 film about the dead rising from the grave to devour the living, zombies were religious oddities more than a apocalyptic scourge of ghouls. They were people – ordinary people – whose soul had been removed by a witch doctor, transforming them into a mindless slave (best depicted in 1943’s I Walked with a Zombie). They had nothing to do with the dead, with cannibalism or about infection.
While Night of the Living Dead introduced the world to Romero’s personal brand of zombies, Dawn of the Dead exploded the idea outward from an relatively isolated plague to a global scourge. It wasn’t just something that was happening in rural Pennsylvania, but everywhere. It wasn’t just something that some good ol’ boys with some hunting rifles could wrap up in a night, but a relentless assault on our way of life that was not going to ebb anytime soon. Day of the Dead, and later Land of the Dead, confirmed this. Zombies were the new normal and we were lucky enough to still be alive to see it.
The fascinating thing, at least about the first movies, is that the zombies are never the real danger facing our intrepid band of heroes brought together out of desperate necessity. Sure, they’ll kill you if you give them half a chance, but they’re easy enough to kill, or hide from, or flee. It’s humans – ordinary, everyday, living humans – that were the real danger. Breakdowns in society and communication, in-fighting between survivors, that’s what allowed the zombies to expand beyond localized outbreaks. That’s what kills the survivors once they’ve gotten their bearings. That’s what lets the zombies in. Everything else – the living dead included – is just context.
Number of Movies: 9
Best Movie: Hellbound: Hellraiser II
When all is said and done, nothing delivers what it promises like Hellraiser. Its antagonists, the Cenobites (alternatively “Theologians of the Order of the Gash”), are otherworldly monsters built from the bodies of the damned, twisted into perverse mockeries of men that can no longer distinguish between pleasure and pain (seeking only “sensations”). They are summoned by the desires of their willing (if ultimately naive) victims and give them exactly what they ask for: sensations beyond measure (“pain and pleasure, indivisible”).
If Paranormal Activity is carrying the torch for world-building in horror, they picked it up from this franchise. Hellraiser introduces us to a simple enough concept: monsters summoned by a magical puzzle box that will torture you for an eternity in their hellish realm. Its sequel, Hellbound, brings us into that dimension and shows us that Cenobites aren’t born, but made from their victims. The third film, Hell on Earth, expands on the exact mechanations governing the cenobites and the full extent of their power when unfettered by morality. Bloodline, although more than half stupid (courtesy of being half-set in a space station designed to kill the cenobites), was also half brilliant (with scenes set in the past depicting the creation of the cube and continuing the franchise’s narrative where Hell on Earth left it off).
The next four films – Inferno, Hellseeker, Deader and Hellworld – are where the franchise ultimately lost its way. Rather than interesting stories with the same fascinating characters, they used Pinhead’s iconic visage to pad out otherwise unrelated, straight-to-video horror movies. None of them are worth the effort of seeing, as they’re all equally terrible (even if the ending for Hellworld is actually pretty awesome).
Revelations, as it turns out, is actually the series’ best kept secret. Although the found footage segments about a frat guy’s Mexican Spring Break are about as stupid as they sound, the scenes with Pinhead in them are nearly as good as anything from the first three films. Although Doug Bradley was perfect for the roll of Pinhead in his prime, his age had more than caught up with him and his character was looking tired and flabby in later films. So while missed, Stephen Smith Collins’ baby-faced take on the leasd Cenobite was a refreshing decision on the film’s part.