I’ve loved scary movies since I was a kid. While growing up I couldn’t get enough of Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, Chucky, Ghostface and the many movies inspired by them (and the ones they were inspired by as well). In the past two decades, I’ve seen all kinds of creepy creatures, spooky spirits, and memorable maniacs. Which is probably why narrowing the vast catalogue of the scary movies I’ve seen down to just five is brutal.
While I was originally making a list that was going to include just my five favorite horror movies, I changed my mind fairly quickly. Horror, in my opinion, is one of the most diverse and divisive movie genres out there. There are so many different subgenres that it can be almost overwhelming to try and find something scary to watch, especially during the age of movie streaming we’re in now. The types of scares can also make or break a horror flick depending on the viewer. Some people like jump scares while others prefer more thought-provoking ones. I wouldn’t be too shocked if a couple of my favorites turn out to be the wrong kind for some of you. That’s why I asked Zac, Lauren, and Jon to throw in their top five as well. With a list from all four of us, you’re bound to find something you’ll love.
And with that, here are Middle of The Row’s favorite horror movies!
Zac’s Honorable Mention: mother!
No, this isn’t a troll pick against Ben (though, there isn’t a much better way to unsettle him, in the way a horror film can, than mentioning mother!), but I think it should qualify as a horror film. This film is built upon a home invasion/haunted house premise, supernatural elements are at play, and the final act is littered with horrific imagery and behavior. Sounds like a horror film to me. Plus, Darren Aronofsky does an incredible job of putting us into the titular mother’s head (played by Jennifer Lawerence), as I felt every beat of anxiety and terror alongside her as her home descends into madness. That said, it still sits outside my final five for a couple of reasons. It is very new (though, I have seen it twice, and it holds up.), and time needs a little more to settle this one. That said, I think this will surely become a cult midnight classic in the years to come as a truly bonkers masterpiece.
Lauren’s Honorable Mentions
Let’s face it, any of you who have listened to our podcast know that I suck at making “Top Blah-Di-Blah” lists ranking my favorite anything. I put a video-game on my “Top Movies of 2017” list, for crying out loud! Because of this, it should be no surprise that as I write this I still haven’t decided on my top 5 horror films of all time, so I definitely don’t have an honorable mention pegged down. Which is why instead of picking one movie, I’m just going to share the horror film scenes, or scenes of any genre, that have scared me and/or stuck with me to this day. Here goes!: just another beautiful day in the neighborhood intro to the zombies in Dawn of the Dead (2004), crawling away from the velociraptors in the kitchen of Jurassic Park, the claustrophobia of the collapsing tunnels in The Descent, the final moments of hopelessness in Open Water, the footage from the killer tape in The Ring (I still avert my eyes), the killer hidden in plain sight opening of Scream 2, getting killed in the shower in Final Destination (hope you didn’t expect me to say Psycho) Mischa Barton throwing up in what was supposed to be a little boy’s sanctuary in The Sixth Sense, and, of course, when Elliott and E.T. first meet in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (and any other scene where the camera is on E.T., really).
Jon’s Honorable Mention: The Village
I realize I might get flack for introducing an at most “horror-tangental” film on our list, but please believe me when I say: I freakin’ love this film. While others may pan the hokey lines, predictable ending, and lack of plausibility, what stands out to me is the tone and patience the movie has in the way it delivers its scares, and the strength of the acting of Bryce Dallas Howard and Joaquin Phoenix. The themes of love, loyalty, and faithfulness amidst an unknown malevolent force is a constant in all good horror films. #comeatmeinternet
Ben’s Honorable Mention: IT (2017)
The 1990 adaptation of Stephen King’s novel about a group of kids fighting for their lives against a monstrous clown may have been the catalyst for my coulrophobia, but the 2017 remake made it so much worse. While it may be too early to tell if IT 2017 has the staying power of the other movies on this list, it’s easily the scariest I’ve seen this year. IT also managed to make me laugh almost as many times as it scared me, and has some of the best child actors I’ve seen in a long time.
And I’m just gonna throw this out there: Clowns would still probably scare me even if King’s novel never made it to film.
Zac’s Number 5: Alien
Ridley Scott’s film is timeless. It could have been released today and the craft would stand up to any other director’s best work. The slow build up towards the piece by piece decimation to the crew of the Nostromo is done with pitch perfect execution, and Scott makes every shot look incredible. Full of twists, shocks, and finishing on a fist pumping finale, Alien works because we care about everyone involved, and hate to see them go. The mystery around the xenomorph and what it is isn’t the only thing that compels the audience here as the corporate/capitalist intrigue that runs under the film fuels tension and fervor among the crew. And, for as great as the design and set pieces built around the xenomorph are, the best and most shocking scare in the film doesn’t even involve it. That speaks to the depth that can be found in Alien and why the film has now spawned five direct sequels/prequels that are still coming out today. Alien is one of my favorite films, period, and one of the horror genre’s best.
Lauren’s Number 5: Scream
This list wouldn’t be complete without the movie whose killer loved to ask the question: “What’s your favorite scary movie?” Scream might not be my answer, but it’s the first horror film I ever saw, making it the catalyst for my love of the genre. Yes, it’s a nostalgia pick, but it’s also just a great slasher film that started a series that both made fun of and lovingly employed the “rules” of the genre. Better yet, it had a killer who wasn’t seemingly unstoppable or perfect in their role as a murder machine. There’s something super satisfying in seeing a killer get kicked in the nether region by their victim, and even though most people still end up like Drew Barrymore in the haunting opening scene, at least they did their best to not allow their lives to be taken easily. They went down fighting.
Between the final girl elements of the final scene, the surprise to the killer’s identity reveal (something that wouldn’t shock me now, but at the time I was all “they can do that!?”), and peak performances from the actors that make Scream’s ending one of the best.
Jon’s Number 5: IT (2017)
IT was the first horror film I saw in theaters in…well perhaps ever. I still remember seeing parts of the original TV miniseries when I was a kid and being deeply affected by some of the scenes. The juxtaposition of the friendly with the foreboding was too much for my young mind.
In retrospect, Tim Curry’s depiction of Pennywise, though iconic, was campy beyond end. Peter Skarsgard comes at the role with far more malevolence. From the first scene in the sewer with Georgie, through each of his individual hauntings of the Loser’s Club, Skarsgard balances the playfulness of a clown with the sinisterness of this immortal being with great “scare.”
Additionally, IT doubles as a coming of age tale with extremely compelling child actors who play off of each character’s unique qualities and characteristics with complete ease.
Ben’s Number 5: Jaws
The tale of Police Chief Martin Brody hunting for a giant shark that’s eating the residents of Amity Island is the stuff of legend. Aside from being the first summer blockbuster, having JAW-dropping (sorry) practical effects that still hold up fairly well today, Jaws is famous for another reason: It scarred a generation of beachgoers when it first hit theaters, and still makes people wary of swimming in open bodies of water to this day. Jaws loses a bit of its fear factor after watching it twenty-plus times, but I still vividly remember the pure terror I felt during my first viewing. While it’s labeled as a thriller, I can’t think of any other movie that has consistently scared people the way Jaws has for over forty years. When I’m in the water, which is incredibly rare now, I usually can’t help but hear John Williams’ suspense-building score speeding up and swim for dry land as fast as I possibly can. Du-dun.. Du-dun.. Du-dun-dun-dun.. Dun-dun-dun-dun.
Zac’s Number 4: The Exorcist
The most successful horror film of all time, William Friedkin’s epic is remembered for its later half and titular exorcism, but it is the preceding horror of character building and mythology making that makes the film work as well as it does. The film is, at its heart, a character study first and foremost, letting us get to know its characters and relationships, so that when the vomit starts flying we feel like we can smell the stench alongside Fathers Merrin and Karras. The pain of a child being sick, with no cure in sight, is a timeless feeling of dread and terror, and we become so sympathetic with Regan’s plight that we can’t help but root for the devil to be cast out of her. Friedkin even gets tension out of the stuff he doesn’t show, building every piece of the film to the perfectly executed conclusion. If you’ve never seen this film with a crowd, I highly recommend you seek it out next time it rolls in your town. Being in a room with a couple hundred people, this film’s terror working on everyone at once, is what elevated this film to the top tier for me. You can only then understand the power this film had when it was a runaway success when it first released.
Lauren’s Number 4: Deep Blue Sea
I know I should probably feel embarrassed for picking Deep Blue Sea, but I’m not. There’s only so much bleak hopelessness I can take from the horror genre without needing to up my meds, which is why instead of going with the other two contenders for this spot (The Descent and [Rec]), I’m going with my guilty pleasure pick that I actually enjoy watching more than once a decade. Move over Jaws! If Deep Blue Sea is on TV, I’m watching it. It has LL Cool J, Samuel “I’ve had it with these motherf’n sharks in my motherf’n underwater research facility” L Jackson, and sharks who defy the laws of nature thanks to their enlarged brains. One of my favorite lines in this movie is “8 feet, give or take a centimeter,” so if you set your expectations to the level of thought that went into that sentence of dialog then you too can have a fun time watching a group of people being hunted down by great white sharks who don’t see being indoors as an obstacle.
Jon’s Number 4: Audition
The entirety of this film was unsettling and confusing until the very end when it was flat out upsetting. This was my first foray into authentic Japanese horror, and what an experience it was. The extended setup towards that last scene was creepy at times, boring at times, and even heartwarming. All this made the reveal at the end so much more uncomfortable and visceral. Highlight: my buddy Drew saying “No, not the eyes, not the eyes, not the eyes, not the eyes…dang. She went for the eyes.”
Ben’s Number 4: The Thing (1982)
The Thing combines themes from mystery killer “whodunit” and creature features to create something much greater than the sum of its parts, and one of the most paranoia-inducing films ever made. Not only are the protagonists forced to try and find a way to kill an extraterrestrial being while cut off from the world in their arctic research station, they must also keep an eye on each other because one of them may very well be that extraterrestrial being. The alien’s ability to shapeshift into its victims creates a feeling of distrust between the heroes, and also gives us some of the greatest practical effects ever seen in film. If I asked a group of five or more people who had seen The Thing before to tell me THE iconic transformation sequence, I’d be surprised if I got less than three different answers. While it may be a little on the gross side at times (not gore-hound gross, though), I would highly recommend The Thing to anyone who isn’t too squeamish.
Zac’s Number 3: The Cabin in the Woods
Drew Goddard’s film, slicing apart the genre at every turn, loving embraces and supports every trope it makes fun of. The film asks, why do people act the way they do when they are in a horror movie and where do all of these terrible monsters come from, really? The film’s brilliant answer lies in its cold open, a couple of white collar technicians serving the greater good to appease our satanic overlords. Obviously. The film is not only sprinkled with scares throughout, but it is also very funny and full of great performances from everyone involved; from pre-Thor Chris Hemsworth to the Merman. The Cabin in the Woods also, somehow, delivers on every promise of an idea it puts out there. In the film’s bananas and fantastic final act, it introduces us, and our main characters, to an idea of, “Wouldn’t it be awesome if it…” did a certain thing? But you tell yourself, no way, that could never happen, and then it fucking does. And it is fucking incredible and more than you could ever ask for. Yeah, that doesn’t happen all that often in the movies.
Lauren’s Number 3: 28 Weeks Later
Choosing 28 Weeks Later over 28 Days Later feels a lot like choosing Aliens over Alien, and in both cases I’m not ashamed to say I’d go with the sequel that gives us more action. The slow build to understanding the threat is cool and all, but when it comes to zombies that can hit you like a tsunami, the faster paced story feels like the wiser choice. Which is why the intro works so well. In the first minutes of the film the tranquility of a quiet meal between husband and wife (and other survivors) is broken when the rage zombies answer the call of the dinner bell, and in a moment of panic we see a man fall to the cowardice understandably brought on by overwhelming terror, a decision that will inevitably haunt him, and spur him on, for the rest of this hopes-of-returning-to-normal-dashed-in-a-moment meets Cloverfield meets World War Z movie.
Oh, and it has a great theme song too.
Jon’s Number 3: The Babadook
I saw this movie over the summer and I am unashamed to say that as a 28 year old man, it left me reeling for days. While the allegorical nature may remain a turn-off for some, the strength of this film exists in the tone and acting. Director Jennifer Kent crafts terrifying scenes, where the focus of the horror is not simply in just the unknown, but the extent of evil that our closest loved ones are capable of in their more distressed states. More than the actual entity that is the Babadook, the unraveling of single mother Amelia is the most horrifying aspect of this film.
I’m still kinda confused why The Babadook is the LGBTQ icon though.
Ben’s Number 3: The Orphanage (El Orfanato)
The Orphanage is one of the few horror movies that managed to elicit multiple strong emotions in me aside from fear. Yes, the “mother searches for her child in a scary setting” shtick is nothing new, but The Orphanage is the only one that really put me in the mother’s shoes. I felt confusion, frustration, and heartache as much as I did dread and anxiety, mainly because of its star. Belén Rueda’s portrayal of a mother teetering on the brink of insanity with fear for her missing child hits all the right notes, and makes her one of the most believable horror movie protagonists I’ve ever seen. While she’s great through the entire film, it’s her acting in the finale that solidified her (and the movie) as one of my all-time favorites. Rueda displays all of the previously mentioned emotions exquisitely in The Orphanage’s brilliant climax, which caught me completely off guard. I was so certain of how it was going to end, and was stunned when I discovered that I wasn’t even close. I remember sitting on my couch in disbelief for quite some time after seeing it for the first time. Not many horror films, or films from any other genre for that matter, have left a lasting impression as strong as The Orphanage.
Zac’s Number 2: Under the Skin
Another unnerving and atmospheric entry into my list, propulsed by Mica Levi’s haunting score, Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin follows an alien (Scarlett Johansson) who is on a mission to harvest humans for, something. The movie is never that explicit, but it is full of haunting sequences, both inside the alien’s seductive lair and outside it. What starts a flip on the all too true male predatory instinct, watching Johansson’s alien size up men for the slaughter, evolves into a discovery of humanity; both in flesh and mind. While the alien might stop it’s hunting, Glazer keeps the tension alive by making sure that we know she is still being hunted for breaking from her female prison of male bidding, before befalling a fate that is more terrifying and real to life than most horror films dare to go.
Lauren’s Number 2: You’re Next
As I mentioned above with Scream, the horror films I lean towards are those that give their protagonists moments of triumph as they fight back against their attackers. I’m all about the final girl trope. You’re Next takes this one step further; not only does Erin have a fighting chance of making it out of this ruined family reunion alive, the home invaders should probably be afraid of her in a “I’m not locked in here with you, you’re locked in here with me” sort of way. She’s like a much scarier Kevin McCallister in her resourcefulness, setting traps and weaponizing anything and everything she can get her hands on.
Jon’s Number 2: Saw
Despite what this series has evolved into, the first remains a classic in my book. Combining elements of traditional slasher films and neo-noir crime films, the clock races for Cary Elwes, Director Leigh Whannell, and Danny Glover as they try to survive and stop the Jigsaw Killer’s horrible game. The twists that are revealed at the end are powerfully set up, but more so is the exploration of morality and human nature. Horror films are always better when you have a thoroughly developed antagonist, and the philosophical nature of the Jigsaw Killer’s torture makes them that much more compelling and even relatable.
Ben’s Number 2: The Witch
Let me start by getting this out of the way: The Witch won’t please every horror fan because it’s not a horror movie in the traditional sense. I think of it as a slow burn thriller with elements of horror. It takes its time to let you slowly watch the effects of isolation, paranoia, and what may or may not be witchcraft take hold of a 17th century Puritan family. The slower pacing doesn’t mean I wasn’t constantly on the edge of my seat though. Every scene is a laced with visuals, lines, or sounds that are meant to make you uncomfortable, and it works brilliantly. I sincerely hope we get more thoughtful horror movies like this in the future instead of the gore-fests that are so common nowadays. While The Witch may not be right for everyone, it certainly cast a SPELL (not sorry) on me with its sound design, cinematography, and crazy ending. If you’re looking for a truly unique horror flick, The Witch is as good as it gets.
Zac’s Number 1: The Shining
I stand by my statement after watching The Shining for the first time all the way through, alone in my bedroom, that it is the scariest movie I’ve ever seen. Stanley Kubrick’s mastery bleeds through the camera (and elevators) by getting inside your head the way the madness burrows into Jack’s, unnerving you at every turn as things just get more and more out of hand at Overlook Hotel. Mesmerizing you with his camera work and bizarre imagery, Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel (an adaptation King hated by the way) will keep you on the edge of your seat from start to finish. Even the seemingly innocuous scenes in the early going are somehow filled with unsettling dread. A masterpiece of the genre, and a horror film through and through, The Shining takes my top spot as best horror film of all time.
Lauren’s Number 1 Pick: The Cabin in the Woods
One word: unicorn.
Jon’s Number 1: The Ring
I must have seen this movie about 20 odd times before I ever actually saw the ending. I’m pretty sure that made the ending that much more terrifying. Everything about this movie is perfect in terms of horror: building suspense with unsettling imagery, main characters who you want to cheer for, and cinematography that puts you at the edge of your seat. That iconic scene of
NEVERMIND MY REAL NUMBER ONE IS THE STRANGERS THIS FILM IS TERRIFYING BEN WHAT HAVE YOU MADE ME WATCH
Ben’s Number 1: The Strangers
First off, sorry Jon because OH MY LORD THE STRANGERS IS HORRIFYING!
You know what’s way scarier than any supernatural entity or grotesque monster? Something that can actually happen. The events that take place in The Strangers seem unreal because of the titular villains’ depravity and motive, but are in fact terrifyingly possible. Nothing about a couple being stalked by masked assailants in their summer home is otherworldly. Human-on-human violence is a real horror, and it can happen to anyone. While The Strangers definitely stretches the phrase “inspired by true events” to the absolute limit (give it a google), everything that happens in the movie is totally plausible. And although there are many other home invasion movies with human antagonists, The Strangers is in a league of its own. I remember wanting to shout warnings to the people onscreen multiple times during my first viewing, but stayed quiet because I was so scared for myself. That’s as immersive as any movie, horror or otherwise, can get. And while I won’t say what it entails, the ending absolutely MESSED. ME. UP. The palpable suspense and fear created by The Strangers made it the first and only horror flick that made me want to be anywhere but my own freaking home. That’s why it’s my favorite horror movie of all time.