25. ”Event Horizon” (1997)
Famously a bomb on release that was savaged by critics like it was, well, any other Paul WS Anderson film, it took a few years for us all to realize how good “Event Horizon” actually is. And by “good” we mean “absolutely bloody terrifying” in the way that only films that play cleverly in the arena of insanity, guilt, self-deception, and hallucination, preferably in space, can ever really be. Detailing a doomed expedition to investigate the distress signal sent out by the titular ship, which had been believed lost, it finds Captain Miller (Laurence Fishburne) and his crew, including Joely Richardson, Sean Pertwee, and Jason Isaacs, along with the Event Horizon’s original engineer, Dr. Weir, played by Sam Neill, pulled into a dimension of “pure chaos.” On board, confronted with evidence of a massacre, one by one the crew starts to see phantasms from the past, the ghosts of repressed guilt, as they slowly turn psychotic, especially Dr. Weir, whose attachment to the ship he designed seems to devour him. Sadly the film, so remarkably tense and deeply creepy for so long, loses steam in its final stages when, instead of embracing a “2001” or “Solaris” or “Sunshine“-style and its black-hole weirdness, it attempts an unsatisfying genre resolution that feels lifted from a much less inventively frightening film.
24. “Dellamorte Dellamore”/“Cemetery Man” (1994)
Compared to our current undead-saturated times, the 1990s were relatively light on zombie movies, but one of the best of the relatively sparse bunch was “Dellamorte Dellamore” (released in the U.S. as “Cemetery Man”), almost the dictionary definition of a midnight cult classic. Based on a book by “Dylan Dog” author Tiziano Sclavi, and directed by Argento protege Michele Soavi, it stars Rupert Everett as a lonely Italian caretaker in a cemetery who tries to stop the dead from rising, even as he’s haunted by echoes of a young widow (Anna Falchi) he loved before she was killed by her dead husband. It’s perhaps understandable that the film didn’t find a wider audience outside of Italy — it melds influences from classic giallo and the European comic-book world with Sam Raimi-indebted gruesome horror comedy, Italian political satire, and a smattering of “Vertigo.” There’s even some “American Psycho” in there — it’s never entirely clear how much of what we’re seeing is real, as Everett’s hero (and he’s at his Byronic best here) starts to gun down the living as well as the dead. The film’s attitude to women is decidedly less than enlightened, but that aside, this is a rich and enormously enjoyable horror-comedy classic.
23. “The Exorcist III” (1990)
Whether through countless imitations, or the various sequels (including, famously, two attempts to film a prequel with the same cast by two directors), almost all attempts to live up to “The Exorcist,” one of the most acclaimed and popular horror flicks in the history of the genre, have failed miserably. But the major exception is “The Exorcist III,” which survived a tumultuous production and poor reviews to now be regarded as a fitting follow-up to the original, in part because it departs so far from it. Written and directed by original “Exorcist” author William Peter Blatty, and based on his book, “Legion” (the title was changed, and a late, extraneous exorcism scene added, at the insistence of studio executives), the film tracks a string of murders following the pattern of The Gemini Killer (Brad Dourif). What’s baffling Lieutenant Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb in the original, George C. Scott role) is that the Gemini was executed fifteen years earlier. It’s a familiar set-up, but Blatty’s execution is smart, sensitive, and restrained, adding an unusual degree of texture to a movie like this while still keeping the scares — Dourif is terrifying, and there’s one jump gag in particular that’s among the best ever. It doesn’t match the original, but then, what does?
22. “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” (1994)
Kevin Williamson gets the lion’s share of the credit for popularizing the meta-horror with “Scream,” but his director on that movie, the late, great Wes Craven, deserves at least as much: not only did he helm that movie, but two years earlier, he did something just as interesting (and with his name in the title, no less) with “New Nightmare.” A sparklingly clever soft reboot of the “Nightmare On Elm Street” series that put Craven on the horror A-list, it sees original star Heather Langenkamp playing herself, on the verge of returning to the franchise for a new movie, but finding her young son Dylan behaving strangely, and soon realizing that Freddie Krueger is breaking out from the movies and tormenting his creators. It has its flaws — some of the acting isn’t great, particularly when Craven himself cameos in an exposition dump — but after a succession of increasingly silly sequels, it does restore Freddy to his original darker, terrifying state, rather than a wisecracking anti-hero, and he is all the scarier for it. Furthermore, it has some truly interesting things to say about the way that both horror and fame can impact on the lives of those who create and live through it. Arguably the best of the franchise, including the original.
21. “Braindead” (1992)
We may now know Peter Jackson as the man who’s made a mint off turning J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Hobbit” books into blockbuster gold, but it’s easy to forget that the man’s early movies are gloriously deranged, stomach-churning stuff: the kind of balls-out fare for which the term “midnight movie” was invented. “Braindead,” known as “Dead Alive” here in North America, is perhaps the grisliest and undoubtedly the funniest of Jackson’s unofficial trio of gross-out horror classics, which also includes the immortal, unholy “Bad Taste,” and his demented musical “Meet the Feebles.” The film opens on some faraway island, where monkeys are being raped by rats, thus spawning the horrific monster-hybrid known as the Sumatran Rat-Monkey — there are more transgressive shades of Jackson’s “King Kong” reboot here — and then the action quickly shifts to modern-day New Zealand, to the story of a timid man living with his unbearable, bullying mother, and how one fateful bite from the Sumatran Rat-Monkey can unleash a torrential surge of hellish consequence (not to mention a veritable sea of bodily fluids). Taking its gonzo, black-comic violence from Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead” trilogy, “Braindead” is more funny and appalling than actually scary, but the movie’s feverish, unimaginably gory finish — which has to be seen to be believed — is enough to catapult it into the annals of modern horror legend.