[22 October 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Whenever the calendar rolls over to a certain 31 October, fright fans break out their opinions and wax poetic about the best and worst horror films ever made. While it may seem like nothing more than a rabid fanboy pastime, that fact is that it’s not an easy task. Like comedy, terror is in the heart of the beholder, too personal to be easily agreed upon. What some find frightening gives others a case of the uncontrollable giggles and it’s rare when fear can be universally applied. As a result, making any list of yeas and nays allows for lots of second guessing and subjective stipulations, especially in the arena of b-a-d. Many can’t get past the numerous nonsensical sequels that endlessly pour out of the studio system, pointing to franchises gone god-awful as their primary examples of tepid terror. For others, the offerings of the past, the low budget efforts of dollar driven distributors that did little except waste 80 minutes of the drive-in owners or matinee movie audience’s running time.
So before we present our list of the Worst Horror Films of all Time, there needs to be a few caveats. First, we cannot feature efforts from the likes of Ed Wood, Bert I. Gordon, and Roger Corman. That would be like shooting zombies in a barrel. Second, we have steered clear of the whole homemade horror/ independent fright/ direct to home video dynamic. Again, too much to deal with. Finally, we’ve attempted to avoid those movies which were made with a clear eye toward camp and kitsch. Bad can’t be “created,” it has to flow organically. That being said, our list will focus on those fright flicks that someone thought would end up producing serious scares (and, in a couple of cases, viewers agreed). But when put up against the best that the genre has to offer, these piddling examples of barely capable creeps show why they belong here in the first place.
Otherwise known as how Sheriff Hoyt got his perverted groove on. You know you’re in trouble when a prequel (Strike 1), setting out to reshape and redefine one of horror’s premiere figures (Strike 2), instead spends all its time presenting the tale of how some ancillary character became a gun-toting goon. (Strike 3). When Marcus Nispel took on the daunting task of remaking the Tobe Hooper original, he brought as much artistic and narrative invention to the mix as possible. All this dreadful retread offers is pathetic, predictable pointlessness passing itself off as dread.
In the cyclical world of horror films, we often see sudden shifts. In 2008, we went from the vile vivisection of torture porn to the undeniably hit or miss “found footage” approach. Such was the case with this tepid terror take on demonic possession. For nearly an hour, nothing happens. Then our supposedly bedeviled heroine starts giving everyone dirty looks and bends over backwards. Big deal. No pea soup. No reversible noggin. Finally, our fledgling filmmakers decide to dump anything remotely associated with reality and turn the experience into Rosemary’s Baby on a Race with the Devil holiday. Ugh.
David Cronenberg’s first Fly was such a memorable masterpiece, a perfect marriage of material and maker that only a Hollywood halfwit could think that a sequel would succeed. Even worse, they decided to junk everything that made the original so special - concepts like script, emotion, intelligence and characterization - and replaced them with Eric Stoltz and a mutant puppy dog. Right. Only a Chevy-sized can of DDT (or a second sex scene with Daphne Zuniga) could have killed the creature feature franchise more expertly than this deadly drone.
We all know how misbegotten the original idea was (Stephen King as fright writer =/= Stephen King, filmmaker) but few have really remembered just how horrendous this mess of a movie really was. It’s not that the Master of Horror is utterly and hopelessly incompetent behind the camera; in fact, his opening montage of machines going gonzo is pretty well realized. No, it’s everything after technology starts attacking that begins to fester and, ultimately, fail. A wailing Yeardley Smith provides the final nail in the klutzy King adaptation coffin.
Based on a popular video game, featuring those familiar scarefest sacrificial lambs (the zombie) and helmed by that talentless Teutonic hack, Dr. Uwe Boll, what could have been a semi-competent cult effort turned out to be one of the genre’s most mindless missteps. With sequences that seem stolen from a hyperactive TRL‘s monster music video and poorly conceived creatures that look like Cirque du Soleil artists gone gamy, Boll manages to set the entire undead film back decades with his poisonous pacing, directorial dumbness and overall lack of thrills.
Oh brother. Another found footage film purporting to be ‘the truth’ behind demonic possession. This time around, a young woman whose mother is held captive in a Vatican insane asylum grabs a cameraman and decides to play homemade detective. What she discovers is a secret cabal against exorcism, and two practicing priests who will show her the truth. Then they decide to “rescue” mom. What we wind up with is silly shaky-cam chaos followed by one or two scenes of scary movie mandates. Believe it or not, this was worse than The Last Exorcism, if that’s possible.
If it wasn’t so pathetic, it would be laughable. Former wunderkind M. Night Shyamalan finally spent the last bit of his Sixth Sense/Next Spielberg credentials making a movie in which plants went on a rampage against mankind. No, not in a Day of the Triffids kind of carnage. No, our friendly neighborhood vegetation decided to release a neurotoxin which caused humans to kill themselves. Huh? Anyway, with questionable scripting and even more specious acting, this was a truly terrible attempt at terror. Leave it to the freefalling filmmaker to make things even more unintentionally hilarious by touting this as the scariest movie ever. Huh?
As irritatingly incomprehensible as the first film was (too much cursing combined with nausea-inducing POV camerawork) this scripted follow up was much, much worse. Though famed documentary director Joe Berlinger (Metallica: Some Kind of Monster) would argue that excessive studio interference would ruin his original vision, it is hard to imagine how any initial ideas could make this movie work. It seems purposely lost inside it own insular devices. On the plus side, this completely crappy follow-up more of less killed the Witch franchise for good. Thank heaven for small miracles.
Overhyped to the point of hysteria and lacking anything remotely redeeming for the seasoned fright fan, Paranormal Activity is all smoke and one too many mirrors. It’s an accurate reflection of an audience incapable of separating truth from trickery, a waste of time in both concept and execution. Kudos to writer/director Oren Peli and the various dread websites that have successfully ballooned this minor movie all out of proportion. They have made an event out of a non-entity, a direct to DVD title that would have showed some promise had it inexplicable and unexpectedly arrived in someone’s mailbox one day.
Buried somewhere inside this absolutely pointless sequel to horror’s preeminent fright fest is a decent idea. Following up Regan’s irregular path into adolescence while the church investigates Father Merrin’s death is a parallel scenario that has a wealth of worthwhile possibilities. Sadly, director John Boorman decided to concentrate on the more psychobabble claptrap concepts inherent in the screenplay. Throw in some random locusts, a lot of Studio 54 style strobe lights and you’ve got cinema’s most stupefyingly bad scary movie.