In late September, we put out a call for readers looking for specific horror movie recommendations. It’s an offshoot of our Dear Polygon series, where we answer questions and give recs to readers like you. To our delight, hundreds of you responded. This is the fourth and (for now) final entry answering those requests, hand-picking a horror movie to watch just for you. You can catch up with the first entry here, our second one here, and our third one here.
Let’s dig in.
[Ed. note: Some questions have been slightly edited for clarity.]
I want to watch something with good practical effects (body horror is a bonus!). Subgenre doesn’t matter much to me, I’ll watch anything :) I especially love body horror as a means to explore themes about identity, society, whatever (Cronenberg is always fun). Make it gory and make me think!
Michael — I’m totally with you. I love good practical effects, especially when they’re coupled with strong social themes. I’m likewise drawn to Cronenberg’s movies, but for me, you can’t beat George Romero in this category. I’ve got a movie for you that, while often ignored in favor of the more famous earlier entries in the “of the Dead” franchise, it’s my personal favorite (and I love them all). —Pete Volk
Day of the Dead (1985)
What’s it like? It’s a George Romero zombie movie! That means in addition to gnarly zombie effects, there’s a lot of trenchant social commentary. This time around, rather than the horrors of capitalism, Day of the Dead focuses on a conflict between scientists and the military, who are enclosed in a bunker together after the zombie apocalypse.
What flavor of horror is it? Plenty of practical effects-heavy gore, with a few sparse jump scares and plenty of shambling zombies. Also lots of human-to-human tension.
Who made it? Zombie maestro George Romero wrote and directed it, of course, with effects and award-winning makeup by frequent Romero collaborator Tom Savini.
Who’s in it? Lori Cardille (whose father, Bill, was in Night of the Living Dead) plays the hyper-competent scientist Dr. Sarah Bowman, while Joseph Pilato is the aggressive soldier Capt. Henry Rhodes.
How long is it? 100 minutes on the nose.
Where can I watch? Available to stream on Peacock and FuboTV, for free with a library card on Kanopy, and for free with ads on Tubi, Pluto TV, and Crackle. It is also available for digital rental or purchase via Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play, and Vudu.
I’m looking for a horror deep cut from any era that has a good combination of body horror and psychological horror. Nothing is too extreme for me, but I love a horror film that has some purpose in its depravity, that’s communicating something to its audience, whether that be a theme, a message, or a feeling. Naturally, it should have nasty practical effects, a good score, and artful cinematography.
Amanda: Wow! You have a robust palette of taste when it comes to horror films. My compliments. I noticed in the list of movies you had already seen, with the exception of Takashi Miike’s Audition, that you hadn’t mentioned many Japanese horror films. I always leap at the opportunity to recommend this Kiyoshi Kurosawa masterpiece to anyone and everyone, but I think you in particular would really enjoy it given your desire for a film that marries depravity with thematic meaning and depth. —Toussaint Egan
What’s it like? A string of gruesome murders is occurring all across Japan, and no one quite seems to understand why — least of all the perpetrators. Police detective Kenichi Takabe is tasked with getting to the bottom of these killings, all of which involve a seemingly ordinary person murdering someone at random and carving a large X across the victim’s neck. When a mysterious man named Mamiya is implicated as the prime suspect instigating the killing, Takabe finds himself driven to the brink of insanity by a terrible secret that threatens both himself and everyone he loves.
What flavor of horror is it? Quiet and subdued, psychological and unnerving, violent and gruesomely blasé in its depiction of said violence. Cure certainly doesn’t lack when it comes to scenes of grisly physical violence, but its true strength is digging into the psychology of its protagonist as he gazes into the abyss that is Mamiya’s psyche. One cannot shake the feeling that, with every new revelation in the case, something dark and unspoken is taking hold inside of not only Takabe’s mind, but the minds of potentially all those around him. Mamiya is only a small part of something much larger and insidious, the living vector for an unseen “virus” of inexplicable cruelty injected into the bloodstream of human society. Definitive answers elude us at every turn, but this much is certain: Nothing can be done, and no one is safe. This is just the beginning.
Who made it? Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who would later go on to direct the critically acclaimed 2001 horror film Pulse. Cure preceded films such as Hideo Nakata’s 1998 supernatural horror film Ring and Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-On (The Grudge) — both of which were later remade in America — and is widely considered to be one of the most influential Japanese horror films of its era.
Who’s in it? Cure marks the first time Kurosawa collaborated with Koji Yakusho, who stars as Takabe. Yakusho would later star in several of Kurosawa’s other films, including Pulse, Seance, Doppelganger, and Tokyo Sonata, to name a few. Masato Hagiwara, who plays Mamiya, has starred in several other films, most notably 1993’s A Class to Remember.
How long is it? 111 minutes.
Where can I watch? Cure is available to stream on Criterion Channel.
I love a horror movie that knows what it is, and responds to what it is. I love a horror movie that’s not afraid of schlock, and not afraid to get weird and nasty and bloody. I want to squirm a little, I want to laugh at things I shouldn’t be laughing at because I can tell this director or crew is having a fun time making it. I want the rules to make sense, except for when it doesn’t need to because it’s a fun direction. And mixed in there I love some arty nonsense, some craft in the camerawork and the special effects. Disturb me emotionally and have me laughing in the same breath. :)
Lich, my buddy, this is a helluva prompt you’ve teed up here. There are of course several ways into this, and several truly incredible movies that would fit the bill. But I really resonated with your desire for having something that goes so hard it becomes schlocky, a craving I can absolutely relate to. Luckily, earlier this year some friends found me the perfect flick to have you agog with horror and laughter in equal measure. —Zosha Millman
What’s it like? A husband and wife who recently lost their baby decide to adopt a 9-year-old girl. My purest recommendation here is that if you can go in knowing as little as possible, you will be better set up for the wild, hysterical ride that is Orphan. Suffice it to say: Things don’t go great adopting this 9-year-old.
What flavor of horror is it? This is a movie that goes too hard in almost every direction, making it just a transcendent bit of horror “schlock,” as you say. Across its run time Orphan skews drastically from pure camp to “good lord they are going there,” and though I watched it by myself I was incapable of not yelling out to no one in particular. It’s unclear if this movie knows what it is or just magnificently tripped into being so totally what it can be. But it’s probably one of the better horror experiences I’ve had in a year packed to the gills with good horror.
Who made it? Orphan was written by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (The Conjuring 2, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, Aquaman) and directed by Jaume Collet-Serra (The Shallows, Black Adam, House of Wax). How do you argue with that lineup?
Who’s in it? The star of the show is Isabelle Fuhrman, who plays Esther, the titular orphan, and was 11 years old when she was cast. She’s backed by Vera Farmiga, who you may know from The Conjuring universe and this interview promoting that movie by talking about spiritual warfare, and The Batman’s Peter Sarsgaard. CCH Pounder and Margo Martindale are also there — which is all to say you should be too (if that wasn’t clear).
How long is it? Two hours and three minutes, every one a gem.