Are you tired of cookie-cutter sequels? Are you craving something original and creative in your horror offerings? The Scariest Things is right there with you. We celebrate and honor the weird and wackier side of horror. Horror is a genre that is filled with two things: The same ol’, same ol’, and also mondo bizarro.
The temptation of producers to rinse and repeat and cash in has a long and dubious history with horror. But, horror also provides the opportunity for filmmakers to take BIG chances. Smaller budgets not only provide the opportunity for greater profits but also allows provide opportunities for bolder ideas.
It’s the Blumhouse and A24 models when you think about it. Give the director enough of a budget to get creative, give some aspiring actors a chance, and have the freedom to explore new ideas. If the idea flops, you’re not out much money, in Hollywood terms. You don’t need lots of digital after-effects and A-list movie stars to get horror fans to go see your film. If you are a creative mind starting out in Hollywood and are looking for a conduit for wild ideas, go for the weird. Go for horror.
We covered the best of the bizarre from 1920 to 1989 in a previous Dead List, so we are picking up the baton here and releasing the bizarre offerings from 1990 to … right now!
An orgy cult. How bad could it really be? Should be kind of fun, actually, right? Nope, not unless you intend to have your body absorbed in the mass of writhing bodies. Not in Brian Yuzna’s Society it isn’t. He set out to make a body horror satire about class struggle. The rich eat the poor… literally. This movie was pretty divisive, and was a flop in the US, but found a more receptive audience in Europe. There is a very high yuck factor here, and it stood no chance with a mainstream audience, but it remains a popular favorite for gory B-Movie aficionados.
In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
This movie is the rough equivalent of a story by H.P. Lovecraft run through a Stephen King filter and produced by John Carpenter. Sam Neill becomes an investigator of a hugely successful author, Sutter Cane, whose books have been driving his readers psychotic. Further investigation uncovers that Cane’s work has opened a portal to the Old Ones, coming to reclaim the Earth. Time loops, reality loops, and lots of meta-reflections spur on the insanity. In a decade marked by a lack of horror creativity, this movie is loaded with high concepts and brilliant execution.
David Cronenberg’s cynical blending of media consumption and bio-organic transfiguration is evident in so much of his work. Existenz is Cronenberg’s take on the banality and subtle destructiveness of video games. Like Videodrome and Naked Lunch, the film is populated with fleshy mechanical objects. In this case, the video game controllers are connected to people through an umbilical cord. The game, eXistenZ, is a virtual reality simulator that distorts reality and can pass on infections from machines to humans. Pure, and uniquely David Cronenberg.
Spirals. Lots and lots of spirals. A man becomes obsessed with the spiral patterns he encounters in everyday life. From the whorls of a snail’s shell to the whirlpools he can create in his soup. This leads him to want to crawl into a washing machine and experience the pattern himself, which kills him. Soon the whole community becomes infected with this mass spiral hysteria. The patterns start occurring everywhere, and the townsfolk get wound up in a world of twisted reality. This hallucinatory work was based upon a popular surreal manga concept by Junji Ito of the same name.
The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001)
From the mind that gave us the savage and bloody Audition and Ichi the Killer comes… a horror-comedy musical? The Happiness of the Katakuris is the bonkers idea of a family trying to turn the remote White Lover’s Inn into a successful bed and breakfast. The problem? It’s next to a toxic waste dump, and all their guests die from murder, suicide, or accident. The family will occasionally break into song and dance, with some claymation provided for additional surreal zaniness.
Black Sheep (2006)
Think of the gentlest animal in the world. Think, of a sheep. Then think of said sheep as a savage bloodthirsty monster. Leave it to the Kiwis to conjure up a wacky comic idea like this. The lamb is now the lion, thanks to a greedy shepherd doing some genetic tinkering in trying to produce a sheep with a fluffier fleece. Like zombies, if the sheep don’t completely consume their victims, they infect their human victims turning them into a mutant were-sheep strain. The highlight of the movie? Watch a sheep bite the junk off a man. Baaaaa!
Mad science has rarely been so uncomfortably sexy. Adrian Brody and Sarah Polley are a pair of ambitious scientists who have spliced together various animal genes including human DNA. The result is Brin, a blasphemous creature that holds many physical secrets, and a multitude of ways to survive… and kill. A good rule of thumb? Don’t have sex with a genetic experiment. This movie will twist you into knots of anxiety. But, like a freeway pile-up, you can’t help but watch the horrors unfold.
The Human Centipede (First Sequence) 2009
Infamous. Scandalous. Disgusting. Unthinkable. The Human Centipede’s central concept is so gross that it challenges your taste in movies. A mad scientist captures a trio of unwitting victims and proceeds to stitch them anus to mouth in a chain connecting their digestive systems to create a conjoined set of triplets. It’s all pure madness. For shock value, you will be hard-pressed to top The Human Centipede (First Sequence). Spoiler alert: This movie is a big downer, if the concept doesn’t scare you off, the nihilistic ending might.
Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)
Beyond the Black Rainbow is one of the most stylistically striking horror films you will run across. It carries the sterility and austerity that would resemble THX 1138 or Tron, and is bathed with the color palette of Dario Argento, and the nihilism of peak Stanley Kubrick. The art direction sets up the visceral violence in a way that punctuates the key moments of the film. The story of a telepathic woman escaping from an underground cult commune bunker proved to be very confusing for a lot of critics, but the power of the artistic vision is undeniable, and the movie was the announcement of the arrival of a great horror visionary in Panos Cosmatos.
This Dead List was created partially with this movie in mind. You don’t get much more surreal and absurd than a story of a telekinetic killer rubber tire that has a crush on a young woman and will kill anyone who interferes with its obsession. On top of that, the movie has a meta-referential framework that continually breaks the fourth wall, with an on-screen audience offering commentary of the strangeness of the plot. Director Quentin Dupieux proudly wears the mantle of the French New Wave into the 21st Century. Jean Luc Godard, eat your heart out.
John Dies at the End (2012)
More Don Coscarelli! He doesn’t do a whole lot of films, but whatever he does is zany and hugely entertaining. John Dies at the End is an adaptation of the David Wong novel about two friends who take the wrong hallucinogenic drug, “Soy Sauce” which allows them to travel between dimensions. The convoluted plot introduces a talking dog, a monster made of meat products, a drug dealer named Bob Marley, time cops, and demon insects. It is, in a word, bonkers. And Coscarelli is just the right man to stitch together these wild concepts. You have to see it to understand it.
Rape is a horrible trigger event employed perhaps far too often in horror films. Oftentimes, rape is used as a catalyst for action, often a revenge motive, but it can become the very embodiment of exploitation in film. Teeth turns the revenge concept into a pre-emptive twist. Young Dawn (Jess Weixler) has teeth where most women don’t. It is a freaky mutation, but it proves handy when dealing with unwanted and aggressive advances of men. Imagine if this was standard biology for women. Permission and consent would come bearing teeth, and the world would be oh-so different!
The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
The Cabin in the Woods is a stealthy movie. It invites you in with conventional trappings, namely the evergreen “Cabin in the Woods” trope, where young collegians go to have a good time in the remote wilderness and are subjected to horrors when they get there. But everything is not what it seems. Under the veneer of the classic theme is a wicked dark satire, with a prevent the end of the world multinational corporation running ritual sacrifices by way of horror movie tropes… almost ALL of them, and having some betting pools on the side. More than Scream, more than Scary Movie, this movie manages to capture what we love about the genre.
Guilty pleasure, anyone? I didn’t say that all of the movies on this list were GOOD movies, but were much-loved and influential movies. That is very much the case for Sharknado, which takes the preposterous conceit that a tropical typhoon could pick up schools of sharks (and apparently ONLY sharks) which ups the danger factor of a cyclone, which should be scary enough as it is. This is, of course, pure hokum. Silliness to the extreme, and the film embraces goofiness. The graphics are pretty shoddy, to be sure, but it isn’t about production values or acting. This is about the concept, and whether audiences will go see a movie about sharks in a tornado… and apparently, they will.
The Lure (2015)
Two beautiful sirens, Golden and Silver spend their evenings as strippers and singers in a 1980’s Polish nightclub but have to retire to bathtubs to reconstitute their natural mermaid forms. They also have to satiate their need for human flesh, returning to the sea to hunt the unwary, lest they turn into sea foam. If fairy tales are the original horror stories, then The Lure is a modernized take on the classic Little Mermaid tale, except with eating people. There is a love triangle that threatens to consume the band, in more ways than one, and undercurrents of acceptance and persecution. Be ready for some strange Polish music video musical numbers as well.
Who knew that kaiju movies could go independent high concept? Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis star in this curious film, wherein Gloria (Hathaway) is a hard-luck alcoholic trying to get her life back together. Across the globe, in Seoul, a gigantic monster has been crashing through the city wreaking house. It turns out, this monster is a product of Gloria’s id, and is a totem of her struggles. Her childhood friend Oscar (Sudeikis) who has helped her back on her feet, but is also has been friend-zoned to the point of jealousy apparently also has a giant robot totem, also in Seoul. Hathaway was looking for a way to get an absurd Being John Malkovich-like film as a way to kick start a slow point in her career, and for her, that movie turned out to be Colossal.
Dave Made a Maze (2017)
For raw creativity and nuttiness, Dave Made a Maze has hit a high standard. The film took home best narrative feature prizes at The Florida Film Festival, Sitges Film Festival, Slam Dance Boston Underground, Calgary Underground, and the Saturn Awards, just to name a few. Dave (Nick Thune) has created a maze made out of cardboard in his New York flat. From the outside, it looks just like a big appliance box, but on the inside, it is a huge cardboard labyrinth, filled with deadly traps. Dave gets lost in the maze, and his loyal friends and curiosity seekers foolishly enter the maze, only to get lost and picked off by the cardboard creation.
Nic Cage is Red Miller, a lumberjack bent on revenge against the cannibalistic biker gang cult who kidnapped and killed his girlfriend, Mandy. Sometimes a little Cage goes a long way, but there are times when you want the full Nicolas Cage, and Mandy is one of those moments. This Panos Cosmatos production bursts from the screen with trippy, color-saturated, manic energy, which just so happens to be the platform that Cage flourishes. Break out the chainsaws, this is going to be a lot of fun!
Annihilation is an intellectually challenging piece of horrific science fiction. The Jeff VanderMeer book from which this is based is practically inscrutable, with none of the characters named (just professions given) and the metaphysical mutations that the investigation team encounters adding a layer of mystery sauce on top. The film has a bit of a more straightforward narrative but still explores what lies beyond the veil of the shimmer. Hybridized creatures. The reconstitution of life as a melding of plant, animal, and human are all on display, none more terrifying than the bear thing. For a story of this complexity, having the likes of Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Tessa Thompson starring in it sure helps.
Another weirdo concept from Quentin Dupieux. A down-on-his-luck man, on the move, Georges (Jean Dujardin), has been convinced by his recently purchased fringed deerskin coat that it should be the only jacket in the world. Wait. What? In order to provide cover for his collection and destruction of jackets, Georges claims to be a filmmaker even though he has no idea what that entails. Before too long, he changes tactics from asking for jackets and turns to murder to satisfy the deerskin jacket’s desires. Ah, that old classic tale!
This one is all about the twist. James Wan’s return to horror starts out as a fairly familiar story as Madison (Annabelle Wallis) witnesses the horrific deaths of people within her circle. But what feels like a ghost story or even a possession story takes a dramatic and radical turn at about the 2/3 marker, with a jaw-dropping revelation. It turns what was a bit of a snoozer into a “what the hell am I watching?” atmosphere. Wan channels Basket Case in a most unexpected way and made for one of the biggest moments of 2021 horror.
Jordan Peele is now in the first rank of horror directors, and he did it by writing hugely original stories. Nope is everything we wanted, and nothing that we expected. The trailers would indicate an alien abduction film, but the looks were deceiving. Aliens? Greys? Think again. The reveal of what is in that mysterious cloud was a doozy. Add in a curious murder-minded chimpanzee as a side story and the wild final stunt to close the film and you get a highly entertaining dose of pure Jordan Peele.
Something in the Dirt (2022)
Benson and Moorhead have a knack for doing the quiet cosmic horror film. Trippy and contemplative, this is by far the funniest movie they have made together, the filmmakers also star as an odd couple who become fascinated with strange phenomena that occur in their humble Los Angeles apartment complex, both fed by secrets and obsessions that lead them down some pretty dark paths. The narrative logic is tenuous at best, but the pair are always entertaining on screen, and this is by-in-large a two-man stage drama with mysterious floating objects. It also comes down to this: Fear the Pythagorean Theorem. Back in your head, you knew that was evil, didn’t you?
One of the more Gonzo concepts out there arrived in 2022. Wes (Ryan Kwanten), is a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown, distraught from a recent breakup. He finds himself stranded in a roadside rest stop bathroom with an amorphous evil cosmic entity communicating to him through a glory hole in a toilet stall. Yep. That old familiar nugget. It actually is a concept that holds up pretty well, as Kwanten and the entity, voiced by the inimitable J.K. Simmons, debate Kwanten’s mental stability and the fate of the world.
Skinamarink came out of nowhere to become something of an underground sensation in the opening moments of 2023. Following a story in which two very young children find themselves alone in their home, with an ominous presence asserting its influence on the house and the kids, this lo-fi retro horror taps into primal childhood fears. Our Joseph Perry describes the haunting qualities of Skinamarink as “Familiar household objects disappear, move around, and take on diabolical qualities. If you think this sounds like the film deals in the usual supernatural tropes, you would be wrong, as the off-putting quality and surreal sense of sheer weirdness that (Director) Ball creates with Skinamarink puts the film in a class by itself.”
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