Scary movies don't deserve recognition only at the end of October, but we're grateful for this dubious American holiday in that it always confers instant legitimacy -- however briefly -- on a genre too often dismissed. Of course, studios love to take advantage of Halloween with the latest installment of a horror franchise, but the buck doesn't stop at "Paranormal Activity 3." We recommend considering these home entertainment options -- the better to be entertained while handing out cavities -- using this spooky list of 13 recent titles as their guide.
Lars Von Trier is generally considered more provocateur than horror auteur, but "Antichrist" deserves recognition as the freakily brilliant work of body horror that led genre fans to embrace it even more than the Cannes crowd. The eeriness is rooted in quietly unnerving performances by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg as a couple coping with the death of their child, but once "Antichrist" settles into a portrait of the bereaved Gainsbourg character losing her mind, chaos reigns.
"The House of the Devil"
Ti West has quickly emerged as one of the most effective young horror directors working today, not because his vision is original so much as incredibly precise: His recent movie, "The Innkeepers," cleverly uses the tropes of an '80s comedy before transforming into an utterly terrifying ghost story. But nothing so far in the West oeuvre can top his emulation of grindhouse insanity in 2009's "The House of the Devil," the slow-burn tale of a young babysitter (Jocelin Donahue) whose gig takes on a satanic twist in the explosive final moments.
The best pregnancy thriller since "Rosemary's Baby" is also, frankly, one of the most unnerving slasher movies ever made. French directing duo Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury (whose comparatively understated "Livid" is currently playing the festival circuit) held nothing back for this tale of a pregnant woman fending off a home invader who wants the child in her womb. Never released in American theaters, "Inside" contains some seriously demented imagery, but not before setting up the scares with a technical efficiency that's downright Hitchcockian.
One of the highest-grossing horror movies of the year isn't the best, but "Saw" director James Wan delivers a textbook example of old school frights with this super-fun haunted house treat. With elements of everything from "Poltergeist" to "Ghostbusters," Wan's ghoulish story of a troubled couple (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne) grappling with the supernatural force keeping their son (Ty Simpkins) in a coma builds to a series of phantasmagoric images straight out of an E.C. Comics classic. It made money, so hopefully it will make a difference: Few commercial horror movies are so perfectly enjoyable.
"The Loved Ones"
It's technically cheating to put this entry on here since you won't find it on DVD in the U.S. Committed audiences, however, can track down the U.K. copy. They won't be disappointed: Australian writer-director Sean Byrne's deliriously frightening tale of a teen heartthrob (Xavier Samuel) kidnapped and tortured by the psychotic outcast (Robin McLeavy) he wont' take to the prom suggests "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" remade by John Hughes. It's a terrifying masterpiece that turns high school drama into a literal dead zone.
Warner Bros. has been trying to finish a remake of this classically frightening Spanish horror work, produced by Guillermo del Toro, for quite some time. But it seems unlikely that anyone can replicate its skillful use of shadows and implication to create a mixture of dread and serious emotional depth. Director Juan Antonio Bayona starts his movie more as a mystery, with a woman returning to the mansion of her youth to open up an orphanage for handicapped children and then coping with her own son's mysterious disappearance. Issues of traumatic memory and nightmarish imagery converge in a near-perfect union.
"Paranormal Activity" (alternate ending)
Been there, done that. Right? Wrong. Flashback to 2008, when "Paranormal Activity" was just a made-on-a-cheap horror experiment by former videogame developer Oren Peli. Before DreamWorks nabbed the movie and turned it into a blockbuster franchise, "Paranormal Activity" wasn't just a small production; it was a different one. Pick up the DVD of this essential found footage scarefest to watch the original version that contained a more distinctly creepy ending before the studio tinkered with it (and created a handy opening for sequels).
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Then again, forget "Paranormal Activity": The best found footage horror movie of the decade is this supremely fast-paced Spanish take on the zombie genre from co-director Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, which finds a news reporter trapped in a building with doomed firefighters and fending off hordes of demonically possessed undead. Sony picked up the rights and buried it on DVD, only to release the shot-for-shot remake "Quarantine." One can get the idea from the English language version, but the original retains its visceral immediacy.
"Red, White & Blue"
British director Simon Rumley went beyond the call of duty with this microbudget look at an apparent nymphomaniac (Amanda Fuller) who draws numerous dangerous men into her world and then deals with the horrific outcome. At first more sexual drama than outright horror, the movie eventually reaches a point of no return where torture and cold revenge take center stage. Don't let the cheap look fool you; Rumley holds nothing back for the grim finale.
Ti West will inevitably show up on most top lists of recent horror, but the reason for putting him on this list twice isn't because he's just that good, but because each of his movies stands out for a different reason. "The Roost," an undervalued directorial debut that led to his ill-fated studio gig directing a sequel to "Cabin Fever," takes the form of an old-fashioned scary TV special. But the hokey black-and-white intro eventually erupts into a relentlessly stream of gory mayhem involving carnivorous bats and their rabid victims.
Troma alum James Gunn ("Super") does his roots proud with this intentional cheesy sci-fi tale about a monstrous alien invasion taking over a small town. Strong casting (Elizabeth Banks and Nathan Fillion star) as well as enjoyably gooey special effects, make this raucous take on the "Invaders of the Body Snatchers" formula into one of the best guilty pleasures to come along in years.
South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook has made far better movies ("Oldboy" and the rest of the Vengeance Trilogy are unparalleled works of genius), but his Cannes-competing vampire saga mixes sadness, warmth and gruesome showdowns, going places with graphic imagery that few recent entries in the "Twilight"-stricken genre dare to explore. And it's genuinely touching, to boot.
Rounding up a group of master horror directors and letting them run wild doesn't always guarantee great results (see: most episodes of "Masters of Horror"). But it certainly worked out well for this trilogy of shorts from East Asian auteurs Fruit Chan, Park Chan-wook and Takashi Miike, none of whom disappoint. Miike's "Box" elegantly evokes the terror of being buried alive and Park's "Cut" is a bloody crazy satire of the film industry in which a director faces revenge from a bitter extra. But nothing tops Chan's "Dumplings," an alternately gorgeous and disgusting tale of cannibalism that takes the fountain of youth saga to supremely morbid heights.