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I keep wanting to call myself a horror film buff, but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate. I guess I’m not so much a horror buff as I am a slightly prudish horror romantic: I have to have good reason to believe a horror film will satisfy me before I will take the time to watch it.
Since I have foregone or hated so many of the classics that would normally be praised as the pinnacle of horror films, I feel I am qualified not to talk about the best horror films of all time, but some of the best of the 21st century, which I suppose is about when I started paying attention. (This, unfortunately, means that 1999 classics like “Sleepy Hollow,” “The Sixth Sense” and “The Blair Witch Project” will not place in any categories.) Since there’s no way to pin down the “best” or “scariest” horror film of all time, that honor being so subjective and dependent on so many aspects, I will instead honor the best efforts in a variety of horror-specific categories. (Categories that contain mild spoilers by nature are marked with asterisks for your protection.)
Best “True Story”: “The Conjuring” (’13). Just how true this account is we’ll never know, as is the nature of the beast, but dang if you don’t want it to be true just because. Honorable mention: “An American Haunting” (’05). The critics hated this one, but I thought it had a fascinating twist, and the real-life version’s claim to fame is being the only recorded instance of a spirit directly causing the death of a human being.
Best Creepy/Evil Child: “The Orphanage” (’07). The “creepy child” has become the bane of my horror-watching existence. Every film thinks they can put in a child singing “la la la” or talking to an imaginary friend and achieve instant horror gold, but it’s stupid, overdone and usually hilariously acted. If you must have an unsettling child in your film, though, take your cue from “The Orphanage,” which sparingly featured a little kid appearing, saying nothing, wearing a burlap bag over his head like Scarecrow. The best part is that he’s silent — seriously, shut up, “creepy” children. Honorable mentions: “Orphan” (’09), which features a fantastically versatile performance from “The Hunger Games” actress Isabelle Fuhrman and a twist on her character that you’ll never see coming but explains everything, like a good twist should, and “The Ring” (’02), which makes up for Samara’s tryhard dialogue with the unforgettable imagery of her emerging from the TV with her hair over her face.
Best Supernatural Antagonist: “Paranormal Activity” (’07). I know the found-footage genre is wearing out its welcome, but the demon we never see is the true star of this series (my apologies to Katie Featherston’s chest). The more you want to see him, the more important it becomes to the series that we never do. Honorable mention: “Sinister” (’12). Do you remember when Bughuul first appeared reflected in the swimming pool? I do.
Most Unbearably Suspenseful: “Insidious” (’10). I’ve watched this one at least four times now, and it’s still hard to finish it just because, even when you know what’s coming, the suspense is physically painful. (The recently released sequel doesn’t do as well on this front, but I’d still highly recommend it to fans of the original.) Honorable mention: “Silent House” (’11). It’s one of those that’ll never be that scary after the first viewing, but I seriously considered leaving the theater for this one, the tension was that bad.
Best “Last Girl/Boy”*: “You’re Next” (’11). Quietly released this year after sitting on the shelf for a while, this only-half-serious slasher film introduced a “last girl” who definitely earns her last-one-standing status. An English literature student raised on a survivalist compound in Australia, Erin (Sharni Vinson) is way more than these killers bargained for, and watching her beat them at their own game is just delicious. Honorable mention: “Cabin in the Woods” (’12). The “last boy” may not be as popular as the “last girl” trope, but Marty (Fran Kranz) is vastly more interesting than Dana, or anyone else in the movie. He may have made the most selfish decision possible at the end, but I’m a sucker for any character that everyone pegs as the ditz or the comic relief (or an obvious target for an early death) who proves everyone wrong.
Best Twist Ending*: “The Cabin in the Woods” (’12). I know I just mentioned this movie, but the twist has the double merit of being something that’s almost certainly never been done before and serving as a satirical metaphor for the audience itself. Honorable mention: “The Others” (’01). The twist may be overdone by now, but at the time, you know it blew your mind. “The Sixth Sense” wishes its ending was this unexpected (it was kind of obvious, in fact, Nightie). Plus, Nicole Kidman makes the most tragically classy heroine for a film like this.
Best Under-Seen Gems (Available on Netflix!): “The Frankenstein Theory” (’13), “The House of the Devil” (’09), “The Innkeepers” (’11), “Troll Hunter” (’10) and “The Pact” (’12). I’m ranking all of these pretty equally because they are all far from perfect, maybe not even that memorable in the long run, but any one of them is a perfect way to spend a couple (free!) hours at home with the lights off.
I still have many horror films of this century left to see, though. Recommendations are welcome; feel free to change my mind on some of these awards.