To start this series of film picks off I’ve decided to begin with that most popular of genre, horror. I’ve tried to avoid ones that are run-of-the-mill that you would normally find making it onto most lists in other publications, but I’ve also attempted to offer films that aren’t too specialized, that only hard-core fans of a certain ilk will like. There are no mega-cheap B-Movies with cheese galore, or the super low-budget creature-feature, to be found here. This is a list of films that anyone into horror should be able to appreciate if they are willing to be a tad more adventurous and are the sort of flick easily overlooked while rushing to see the latest popular Hollywood affair.
I have scored each film 6.5/10 or higher and they vary quite a bit in budget. I’ve tried to choose the interesting but not necessarily challenging in order that you can simply enjoy the experience if you wish, without having to spend ages trying to work out what you’ve just watched, yet hopefully with just enough depth that they leave their mark.
#01. American Mary (2012)
Katharine Isabelle plays a medical student, Mary Mason; a young woman who has a bright future as a surgeon but is in debt thanks to the loans she’s taken out to get her through med school. She has a tough surgeon teacher who picks on Mary whenever given the chance which is only adding to Mary’s stress. The only way Mary can think to make extra money is to work as a lap dancer but while she’s being interviewed by the owner, an emergency arrives in the shape of a badly cut-up worker.
The club owner had seen from Mary’s resume she was a trainee surgeon and asks for her help, offering her a few thousand dollars if she’ll attend to the man’s badly injured face. Mary agrees and successfully stitches the guys face back together. She leaves the club with her dignity intact and a few thousand dollars richer. Soon afterwards, a woman phones Mary’s cell, asking if she will meet up to discuss performing some unorthodox surgery on one of her friends, but Mary refuses until she’s offered $10 thousand just to meet and talk about it.
Mary is eventually drawn into the world of body modification where she starts to earn serious cash but the teacher who has been riding her hard begins to notice she has lots of new clothes and invites her to a party that is usually for doctors only, so a flattered Mary attends. Soon after arriving, she finds herself being raped and filmed by a doctor who has spiked her drink with a drug and after this happens, Mary quits medical school and starts to make fast cash, all the while plotting revenge.
The torture involves some gruesome stuff but what is more interesting about American Mary is the back-story where we get to meet some truly bizarre individuals who aren’t actors but the genuine article. A woman who wants to complete her transformation into a Barbie Doll and another who has had tons of surgery to look like Betty Boop. We see some actual procedures being carried out and also witness people with forked tongues, horns and various other modification. Mary has her rapist kidnapped where she uses him as a guinea pig, and what’s done to him is horrific. Mary is now very popular but she has a cop snooping around her which leads to a great climax.
This movie I scored an easy 8/10, and is a great film from the talented Soska sisters. Well worth the effort.
#02. Excision (2012)
The pretty AnnaLynne McCord is almost unrecognisable with her drab makeup in Excision, as she plays Pauline, a high school kid obsessed with surgery but in a most twisted way. She constantly fantasizes about performing extreme surgical procedures but they also include her having blood-soaked sexual encounters with the dead and the living.
Her younger sister, Grace (played by Ariel Winter, who is famed for the huge amount of voice-overs she does on popular animations) is dying of cystic fibrosis, and her mother (Traci Lords) is always disappointed with Pauline. Her father just goes along with whatever his overbearing wife says but Pauline is determined to please her mother one day. Pauline decides to have sex and chooses a popular boy by simply approaching him and basically telling him she wants to lose her virginity to him. This encounter pleases Pauline but grosses out the boy.
We see Pauline preying several times and telling god what’s on her mind which was rather amusing. She’s also made an enemy of the young girl who lives across the street which becomes key to the story. Throughout Excision we see Pauline’s bizarre fantasies which eventually lead up to a shock ending that you won’t forget in a hurry. The acting was not too bad throughout and McCord gave a subdued but standout performance in this film. Be prepared to be sickened in writer/director Richard Bates Jr’s vision.
I scored this film 7.5/10.
#03. The Loved Ones (2009)
The Loved Ones is an Australian film that has seen the stars of this horror become well-known in Hollywood, like Xavier Samuel (Plush, Adore) and Robin McLeavy (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter). Lola, AKA Princess (McLeavy) has a crush on a boy at school, Brent (Samuels). She asks Brent to the prom but is turned down because Brent already has a girlfriend, but Lola won’t be dissuaded that easily.
Brent goes hiking and ends up unconscious after he falls. He awakens to find himself tied to a chair in Lola’s home at the dinner table, where he’s forced to wear a party hat with Lola’s father and catatonic mother sitting there. The father refers to Lola as princess and it’s clear he’s completely unstable. They proceed to torture Brent in all manner of ways, which include a power drill plus hammer and nails. But this isn’t just about Brent being abused as there are darker secrets within the house and Brent soon finds out he’s far from the first victim this crazy family has “invited” into their home.
The father does everything and anything to please his insane daughter and just one of the methods of torture involves injecting some sort of household cleaning fluid into Brent’s neck, making him unable to speak. The cop tasked with finding Brent lost his own kid a few years back and takes the case seriously as there have been a few high school kids that have gone missing over the years. Just how sick and twisted father and daughter are is soon revealed and Brent must try to escape or the same fate as the others await him.
This was another hard film to watch because of the violence involved and the torture but it’s also one of the best of this genre. The acting in this is first-rate and I scored The Loved Ones 8/10.
#04. The Woman (2011)
The Woman was the first film I’d ever seen with the talented Scots actress, Pollyanna McIntosh (Filth), where she plays a feral woman who lives in the wild, eating raw meat and fish. She’s spotted one day by a seemingly respectable family man out hunting, who then captures the woman and chains her up in his storm shelter. He tells his wife and children he plans to tame her and make her civilized but his motivations are far from noble. After cleaning her up and beating her, he proceeds to rape the woman whenever the mood takes him. His son is a chip-off-the-old-block and he too abuses the woman when he thinks no one is watching him slip into see her. He tortures the chained woman in various and cruel ways but the daughter feels sorry for the captured woman but can’t do anything about it.
Sean Bridgers plays the patriarchal Chris Cleek, the man of the house who rules with a heavy hand. His son is sadistic and his daughter is withdrawn, which we assume is at least in part, because of the father’s behaviour and the fact he’s clearly mentally unstable. The star of director Lucky McKee’s debut film, May , the mousy Angela Bettis, is the wife and she’s almost as withdrawn as their young daughter. She has to quietly stand by as her husband and son brutalize the woman, which is often hard to watch. This film caused a huge stir at the Sundance Film Festival when it was first shown, with a lot of walkouts by people disgusted by what they were witnessing.
This is a very violent, gore-filled movie with an ending that puts most horrors to shame. The acting was extremely good by the entire cast but Pollyanna McIntosh was utterly convincing as the feral woman. I loved the ending of The Woman, although, this was a difficult film to watch. If you can stomach realistic gore and abuse, and like to see some real hurt put on the abusers, when it comes time for some revenge, then this is a must see if you’re serious about your horror. I gave The Woman a 7/10.
#05. Maniac (2012)
Elijah Wood stars in Maniac, with the screenplay from a true master of horror, Alexandre Aja (High Tension, The Hills Have Eyes), and directed by Franck Khalfoun, both of whom have worked together in some of the most memorable horrors in recent times. This film is a remake of Joe Spinell’s 1980 version and sees a psychopathic mannequin store owner scalp and murder innocent young women. He staples the scalps to the mannequin’s heads, he keeps around his house and in his bed; holding conversations with them.
Frank (Wood) has managed to keep his urges under control until he meets Anna (Nora Arnezeder), who asks Frank to help with her exhibition but Frank can no longer fight the urge to stalk, scalp and kill women which we see through his eyes with some clever POV shots. The scalpings are quite horrific and watching everything through Franks eyes made this film all the more shocking with Wood giving a great performance. This film won’t be to everyone’s liking because the entire film is shot from the killers POV to allow us to see exactly what Frank is seeing, and we also get to hear his thoughts. If you put in the effort you’ll find Maniac a most rewarding horror. I scored this 7.5/10.
#06. Would You Rather (2012)
Director David Guy Levy’s Would You Rather is another interesting movie that, while not completely original in many respects to its contemporaries, it adds some interesting twists along with some decent performances to make this an ideal candidate for this list. There are other horrors where a group of unsuspecting folk are brought together and have cruel things happen to them. In this case, the people have to do the things to either themselves, or each other. Hence the title, Would You Rather.
The protagonist, Iris (Brittany Snow) is in need of fast cash to help out her ill brother and has been invited by Shepard Lambrick (Jeffrey Combs) to join in a game with several other players who are also in need of financial assistance, where they must perform certain tasks until a winner is decided. The winner will be given all the cash they need by the insane millionaire, Lambrick. There is of course a catch. They each get a turn to hurt themselves or one of the other participants which begins with simple electrocution.
As the game proceeds, so does the cruelty as they are asked to whip, stab and maim each other and/or themselves but if they try to leave the game, they will be shot. If they don’t decide within a specified time, one of the acts is carried out anyway. The goal of the game is to be the last person standing (or capable thereof) so they can win the prize.
The whole situation is rather bizarre but for a low-budget film it boasts some solid talent with Jeffrey Combs stealing the show with his wonderfully over-the-top performance. Some of the things the people have to do are as unbelievable as the plot but this is an effective gore-fest that does exactly what it sets out to do; horrify and entertain. I scored this 7/10.
#07 Chained (2012)
Chained was quite and interesting story that used its mostly single location well. It tells the story of a serial-killer who uses his taxi cab to abduct and murder women. Bob, the serial-killer is played by Vincent D’Onofrio and gave one of the best and chilling performances I’ve seen from the actor as he really embodies the part well. D’Onofrio, I’ve found, is at his best playing this type of character and using his bulk and quiet manner is most convincing .
He picks up a fare, a woman and her nine-year-old son, and after murdering the mother, enslaves the boy naming him Rabbit. Rabbit is attached to a long chain and only allowed to eat the scraps left over after Bob has had his fill and is brutalized if he doesn’t follow every instruction to the letter. He watches as Bob abducts women, bringing them to his secluded home; toying with them before finally murdering them while Rabbit watches on helplessly and then forced to clean up the bloody mess.
Rabbit grows up an enslaved, beaten prisoner and we watch him grow into a cowering young man who sees all and learns, as Bob’s plan to make him his unwilling accomplice in his acts of atrocity begin to take hold. Most of Bob’s victims plead with Rabbit to help them escape, which mostly go ignored (as he too is in a precarious, terrified position) until finally one woman touches him emotionally enough to get him to act, but not all goes to plan. Has Rabbit been affected too much by all the carnage and murder he’s witnessed and been forced to participate in, to even effect an escape? This was a solid 7/10.
#08. No One Lives (2012)
No One Lives tells the story of a group of thieves and killers who, thanks to a highly-strung gang member, pick on an apparently innocent guy having lunch with his wife in a bar. What they don’t realise is the innocent-looking guy is anything but. He’s a crazed serial-killer wanted by the police who’ll stop at nothing to get what he wants and now revenge is the only thing on his mind after the rogue gang member kidnap the couple and take them back to a hideout. They get a shock when they find a woman tied up in the trunk of the couple’s car.
The gang are holed up in a house after a home raid goes ary and they have to murder an entire family but things are about to hit the fan, big time. The kidnapped couple are at one location, being watched by a huge knuckle-dragger while the woman from the trunk is taken to where the gang are lying low. They soon learn the woman is actually an heiress to a fortune who’s been missing for years and decide to try to cash in on the reward but they don’t count on the man (who we never learn his name) escaping and coming after them.
His revenge is brutal as he picks them off one by one using various methods, one of which is to feed one of them into a woodchipper. We don’t really get much in the way of a backstory as to why the unnamed man (Luke Evans, The Hobbit) behaves the way he does but we do get to witness how he imprisons and then brainwashes the abducted heiress (played well by Adelaide Clemens), using some slightly unorthodox and weird techniques, which I found as intersting as it was somewhat unbelievable. 8/10
The final pair, both released in 2009, have a lot in common in that they feature a scary little girl. I’m sure we all remember just how effective a scary girl can be after watching the The Ring‘s Samara crawl her way out of a TV so effectively, and neither of these last two disappoint.
#09. Case 39 (2009)
Case 39, with a decent budget of $27 million, stars Renée Zellweger, co-starring Bradley Cooper, and is admittedly more mainstream than the rest on this list but remains one of my favorites. The scary girl, lilith, is played brilliantly by Jodelle Ferland (Twilight Saga), who can do ‘chilling’ very effectively.
Emily (Zellweger) works as a social worker in an office which is understaffed, with heavy workloads, but one more case is pushed on Emily by her boss. Case number 39 is about a kid who may be being abused by her parents. Emily goes to Lilith’s home to speak to the parents but they both act bizarrely. When Emily asks the parents questions regarding Lilith’s well-being, the father whispers each answer to his wife so she can repeat them to Emily. Lilith also tells Emily her parents want to kill her which Emily reports to her boss immediately. The Parents are called into the office to look into these grave accusations but both parents act normal and Lilith denies telling Emily about her being in danger.
Late one night Lilith phones Emily begging she come and save her as she’s in danger so Emily calls on her policeman friend to come and assist. What they find when they arrive is Lilith crammed inside an oven, about to be cooked alive. After a fight, the parents are on the floor and Lilith is rescued by the cop but with no one but the state to look after Lilith, Emily decides the girl should stay with her.
After accidents start to happen when Lilith is nearby or when a girl gets her arm broken in school, Emily starts to investigate the parents to try to find out what really happened and doesn’t like what she’s learning about innocent little Lilith. Her associate (Cooper) has a one to one with Lilith to hopefully diagnose the kid but ends up shaken by the experience telling Emily it’s the first time he’s ever felt threatened by a child before. 9/10
#10. Orphan (2009)
Orphan also had good performances by the cast with Vera Farmiga and a young Isabelle Fuhrman adding to the vibe of this horror. Kate and John (Peter Sarsgaard) have a son and daughter but lose their new baby, so decide to adopt and end up with nine-year-old Esther. The girl appears a little precocious at times but otherwise normal. Things start to go wrong between Kate and John but Kate begins to suspect Esther could be behind everything that’s started happening.
Kate reaches out to the orphanage who first sent Esther to the US, and while she’s waiting to hear back, Esther is roping her new stepbrother into murder and possible death. Esther is most definitely not all she appears to be, with a kicker of a secret I wasn’t expecting. Vera Farmiga and Isabelle Fuhrman’s performance help make this a better film. Peter Sarsgaard plated dad but didn’t have as a significant role as the ladies, although, there is a scene that made me start to questions Esther’s real motivations.
This one you need to see if horror with a nice twist at the end is your thing. I gave this 8/10.