Columns > Published on October 31st, 2014

Ten More Well-Written Horror Films

Happy Halloween everyone! If you're like me—a lover of the macabre and an all-around weirdo—then today is basically Christmas for you. This is the day adult-you hearkens back to childhood by donning a costume, gorging on miniature-sized candies, and letting the devil in for a little while. Or, you might be hitting up a few of your favorite cemeteries in honor of Halloween's more ancient traditions. Or, you might be staying in with those aforementioned candies, a loved one (or a few) and watching horror movies all night long. I'm actually doing all three, but if you're looking for some fright films that stand out in a sea of cheesy monster fare, pointless torture porn, and the same damn movies you've seen about eight hundred times now, then have I got a list for you.

We've been down this road before. Last year, I offered up ten well-written, spook-tacular goodies for your viewing pleasure. Just like Freddy, Jason, Michael Meyers, Chucky and all the franchise movie monsters, the list has returned from the grave! Just like last year, I've narrowed my scope to include only original screenplays and no adaptations—so you won't see any discussions of The Exorcist, Rosemary's Baby, The Shining, Pontypool, Let The Right One In, or Dellamorte Dellamore aka Cemetery Man, among others (much as I would love to talk about those films). Remakes are also out, so no The Devil's Backbone or We Are What We Are. I've also tried to steer clear of more famous titles like Halloween, Alien, Scream and A Nightmare on Elm Street (because if you're reading this, I doubt you need convincing on the greatness of those films). And yes, I've made some exceptions, just so we're clear.

And now...Let the terror AND intellectual appreciation of good screenwriting commence!!!

1. 'Kill List' (2011)

Writers: Amy Jump & Ben Wheatley

Director: Ben Wheatley

Where to start with Kill List? For me, talking about this film is a bit like trying to talk to a crush when you're in high school—you get overly excited and flustered. It's just so damn good. It's also difficult to talk about because filmmakers Jump and Wheatley load their narrative with plenty of surprises. Labyrinthine is a good single-word descriptor for Kill List—and of course, I mean this both from a plot standpoint and a psychological one. Protagonist Jay (Neil Maskell) definitely tumbles into a twisted world he doesn't understand. We, the audience, watch the events unfold through his eyes, and thus we become just as confused and horrified as he is (fear of the unknown). Moreover, Jay is filled with rage, and perhaps it's skirting this close to his violent anger that elicits the most terror in the audience. Whatever the source, Kill List doles out serious unease at every turn, so make sure you've got some Adventure Time cued up to cleanse the palette afterwards. 

Best Dialogue Exchange

[Just after Jay snatches Justin's guitar away from him]

Justin: God loves you.

Jay: Does he? Well tell God from me, if you're the type of people he hangs about with, stay out of my way. No more guitar, mate. Not in restaurants. There's a time and a place, and your time and place is a very isolated location where no one's likely to be for about a fucking hundred years. Okay? 'Cause Jimi Hendrix you ain't. 

[amazon B0083H6AJC inline]

 

2. 'Haunter' (2013)

Writer: Brian King

Director: Vincenzo Natali

This is a simple story, all things considered, but one rather ingenious in its simplicity. We essentially have a classic haunted house narrative involving a suburban family's battle against a malevolent ghost, whereby the family receives assistance from a benevolent spirit also occupying their home. However, writer King shifts the perspective from the living to the dead, and tells the story from the benevolent spirit's point-of-view. This conceit sustains itself well throughout the film as we accompany perpetual 15 year-old Lisa (Abigail Breslin) on her quest to unlock the mystery of the bad ghost and figure out ways of contacting her corporeal doppleganger before it's too late. I will admit there are a few hinky moments in the third act, but they're not enough to sway Haunter's charm. A solid spooky movie all around.

Best Dialogue Exchange:

Carol: [consoling an upset young boy] Lisa, tell your brother everything is okay...

Lisa: I'm gonna go finish playing the clarinet in my room. Let me know when the mac n' cheese is ready.

[amazon B00FYV7W9W inline]

 

3. 'The Awakening' (2011)

Writer: Stephen Volk & Nick Murphy

Director: Nick Murphy

This BBC production oozes class, from its gorgeous, muted-color cinematography, the grandiose mansion setting, the talented actors (including Imelda Staunton), and of course, the tight-knit, whip-smart screenplay by Volk and Murphy. Like all great horror, the film utilizes supernatural elements to explore broader cultural themes. The Awakening is as much about a boy-ghost haunting a giant homestead as it is about the dangers of both staunch skepticism and blind faith, guilt, grief, mental instability, and the after-effects of war (the narrative takes place in 1921, just after World War I). The film also features a fantastic main character, Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall), a ghost investigator and debunker; and thus, because she's a person of relative power, the film also explores sexism—all while giving us a solid mystery in a little over an hour and a half. Quality stuff, to be sure.

Best Dialogue Exchange:

Mallory: There have been other sightings. The boys believe—

Florence: Boys believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. I'm sure some of them even believe in God.

[amazon B0097C0AUC inline]

 

4. 'Teeth' (2007)

Writer/Director: Mitchell Lichtenstein

Our second female teenage protagonist on the list is much different from the first. Whereas Lisa from Haunter was a Goth kid and seemingly a-religious, Dawn (Jess Weixler) is the epitome of the blonde All-American girl; she also LOVES Jesus. But make no mistake, writer-director Lichtenstein isn't suggesting this love is a good thing. Rather, he explores the ways in which the kind of religious fundamentalism that encourages sexual ignorance ultimately robs individuals of, well, their individuality. Dawn knows so little about her own body, she's completely unaware of the titular teeth hidden away inside her vagina. You might think this is a woman-demonizing gore-fest about a dick-chomping hooha monster, but (thankfully) you'd be wrong. Teeth is a seriocomic subversion of a woman-demonizing myth that is purposefully designed to make dudes squirm, not so much because of the idea a woman could castrate you during intercourse, more so because us men regularly treat women like shit, and maybe we've been a part of that all along. Don't get me wrong, Teeth is entertaining (and, at times, nasty), but there is a lesson to be learned here, so bring your thinking caps.

Best Line of Dialogue:

Teacher: The prevailing theory is that it would have been born with an incipient...rattle-like mutation that would have developed over thousands of years of evolution, but we don't know for sure...It's also possible that it happened exactly as you said, and that one day, a baby diamondback was born with a fully formed mutation that just happened to be extremely important to its survival.

[Dawn sneaks in late into the classroom.]

Teacher (cont'd): ...Dawn. This is about you. And you missed it.

[amazon B0013D8L7M inline]

 

5. 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari' (1920)

Writers: Carl Mayer & Hans Janowitz

Director: Robert Wiene

This classic from the silent era is known most prominently for its expressionistic set design and chiaroscuro cinematography, but The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is also an excellent psuedo-zombie narrative, a tale that could have easily sprung from the mind of Edgar Allan Poe. Short and straightforward, sure, but loaded with meaning. It's a story-within-a-story-within-a-story that intermingles waking and dream-like states, ultimately forcing the audience to question their own perceptions of reality. This dichotomy is personified in the somnambulist Cesare—neither alive nor dead—who has the ability to predict the future, but only when he is awakened from his slumber. What's unnerving is, his prophecies come to pass, thus further distorting reality and awareness by subverting our understanding of nature (the future cannot be predicted). There is a reason The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari became a classic, and it goes well beyond style and contemporary shock value.  

Best Line of Dialogue:

Man: Spirits surround us on every side...They have driven me from hearth and home, from wife and child.

[amazon B00N5ND6PU inline]

 

6. 'Jacob's Ladder' (1990)

Writer: Bruce Joel Rubin

Director: Adrian Lyne

For me, madness is terrifying, particularly that of the hallucinatory variety—the idea that you couldn't know whether the nightmarish visions you encounter are real or merely inside your head. Like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Jacob's Ladder captures this idea beautifully, planting the audience smack in the middle of Jacob Singer's (Tim Robbins) mental dilemma and distorting the line between reality and imagination (or, dream). The images Jacob sees are both unsettling and inventive—the faces of loved ones distort; his wife dances among a blood-slathered crowd, reptilian tail swishing in some kind of sexual rapture; a man's head shakes so violently it becomes a blurry ball of flesh. The visions intensify, and much of the plot involves Jacob's efforts to quell them, despite his ever-loosening grip on reality and his ability to control his own life. A truly haunting, unnerving, and ultimately beautiful film, with a twist ending so expertly handled, you'll instantly hate any other movie that attempts anything remotely similar (if you've seen it, you know what I'm talking about).   

Best Line of Dialogue:

Louis: ...If you're frightened of dying and...and you're holding on, you'll see devils tearing your life away. But if you've made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the earth.

[amazon B003TRMLM6 inline]

 

7. 'Ginger Snaps' (2000)

Writers: Karen Walton & John Fawcett

Director: John Fawcett

Following the huge success of Scream, teenager-driven horror comedies with snappy dialogue were all the rage for several years. This little indie gem from Canada came at the tail end of all that, just before the ultra-violent torture porn craze stepped in and brutally dismembered intelligent screenwriting. This combined with the fact that there were some pretty terrible Scream knockoffs made Ginger Snaps somewhat of a forgotten movie. It does have a strong cult following, however, and with good reason: it's quite excellent. While I'm a fan of Wes Craven's ghostface slasher pic, it  does take a good amount of disbelief-suspending to accept that popular rich kids could speak so cleverly. Ginger Snaps gets it right—the weirdos and outcasts have the best dialogue and macabre knowledge, while the rich popular kids, well, act pretty much like the rich popular kids I knew in high school (with one exception; see the Best Line below). The film is infinitely quotable, as IMDB can attest. It's funny, but also horrific in several places, and it perfectly captures Stephen King's argument that werewolf narratives are inherently about the letting-loose of our wilder, Dionysian impulses. Sure, the creature effects on display aren't even Howling good (which isn't that good), but that hardly matters—this movie isn't really about lycanthropic beasts anyway.

Best Line of Dialogue:

Jason: I'm up to some whack shit right now. I'm way out on the corner of Fucked-Up and Evil.

[amazon B00JJOY41E inline]

 

8. 'Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil' (2010)

Writers: Eli Craig & Morgan Jurgenson

Director: Eli Craig

This is hands-down one of the funniest movies I've seen in a while. It's premise is simple: what if the "evil hillbillies in the woods" weren't evil at all, but just regular-Joes trying to clean up their new "summer home"? What if the idea these guys could be brutal backwoods killers existed only in the minds of a group of dumb college kids who've seen one too many horror movies? What if the college kids' attempts to fight the "evil hillbillies" basically resulted in their own, gory "suicides"? That's the conceit of Tucker and Dale, and man, does it pay off well. The comedic writing here is top-notch, and one-liners, extended set-ups/punchlines, and general silliness abound. Jurgenson and Craig also pay homage to some famous scenes from horror history, including a reference to Leatherface's "chainsaw dance" (spurred on by swarming bees!) that literally had me in tears. This movie is right up there with Shaun of the Dead and Cabin in the Woods.

Best Line of Dialogue:

Tucker: Oh, hidy ho officer, we've had a doozy of a day. There we were, minding our own business, just doing chores around the house, when kids started killing themselves all over my property.

[amazon B005HI4LLY inline]

 

9. 'Braindead' AKA 'Dead Alive' (1992)

Writers: Stephen Sinclair, Fran Walsh & Peter Jackson

Director: Peter Jackson

Long before he made epic fantasy films involving loads of CGI, long before the days of ghost movies starring Michael J. Fox or bizarre love stories starring a young Kate Winslet, Peter Jackson made gross-out comedies like Meet the Feebles, Bad Taste, and this movie, Braindead, otherwise known in the states as Dead Alive. Now I know this is the fourth horror comedy on this list, but it must be included for the shear fact most of its jokes arise from seriously nasty and absurd scenes of gore—including a kung fu-trained priest battling undead greasers, a rather destructive zombie baby, and a third-act melee with a lawnmower that is perhaps the bloodiest thing ever committed to film. The visual effects are most impressive for such a low-budget picture, and they're used brilliantly here. This isn't just nastiness for the sake of being nasty—well, it is, but it's high-concept, artistic nastiness that out-grosses Return of the Living Dead (another of my favorites) by leaps and bounds. By the time the credits roll, your mouth hurts from laughing so much, but your brain kinda hurts too, because its having trouble accepting what you just witnessed—did that movie really just happen? Yes, brain, yes it did. 

Best Line of Dialogue:

Father McGruder: I kick ass for the Lord!

[amazon B005DCJ1A0 inline]

 

10. '28 Days Later' (2002)

Writer: Alex Garland

Director: Danny Boyle

I know some people love to hate on this movie because it started the "fast zombie" craze, but we can hardly blame Garland and Boyle for trying something new. I mean, why not fast zombies? Hell, they didn't even call the undead ghouls "zombies" in this movie, after all. The originality behind the same-old storyline is commendable in and of itself, but the film also manages to tell an engaging narrative about maintaining hope in a thoroughly desolate world, with rich and interesting characters to boot. And like so many outstanding horror tales, this one sheds light on the monstrosity that is mankind. The ragtag military boys in the mansion toward the end of the film are far more terrifying than all the Rage Virus-infected, fast-running cannibals combined, and they continue to terrify well after your first viewing of the film. So yeah, haters gonna hate, but this movie's a classic for sure.

Best Line of Dialogue:

Selena: Have you got any plans, Jim? Do you want us to find a cure and save the world or just fall in love and fuck? Plans are pointless. Staying alive's as good as it gets.

[amazon B000VDDWEC inline]


And so another chapter comes to a bloody and satisfying end. Make sure to shout out your favorite well-written horror movies in the comments section. I hope you have a terrifyingly good Halloween, and perhaps we'll meet again next year...

About the author

Christopher Shultz writes plays and fiction. His works have appeared at The Inkwell Theatre's Playwrights' Night, and in Pseudopod, Unnerving Magazine, Apex Magazine, freeze frame flash fiction and Grievous Angel, among other places. He has also contributed columns on books and film at LitReactor, The Cinematropolis, and Tor.com. Christopher currently lives in Oklahoma City. More info at christophershultz.com

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