Things are kind of rotten right now. The general state of the, well, world doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, and even the most optimistic of outlooks suggest that things will stay rough, and perhaps grow considerably rougher in the weeks and months to come. In times of inordinate stress or unease, like many of you probably do, too, I seek refuge in the horror genre, and difficult as it can be at times, I try my damnedest to make the best out whatever I have.
That philosophy applies equally to the movies I watch. More than most of my peers, I’m willing to overlook even the most blatant of flaws and find something worthwhile in most everything. Whether the movie is simply bad or absolute, full-throttle garbage, there are probably things in there that I liked, and oftentimes, things I liked quite a bit. It’s a running joke amongst my friends, particularly with my almost daily “I rated…” IMDB tweets that only rarely dip below four or five stars. I have a hard time scoring things lower, not because I’m reticent to give criticism (I was and still am an academic and much of the beat is criticism of other work), but because I just simply like most things. I don’t know why it is or how it came to be, especially since my friends and family have no qualms straight up demolishing a piece of art they dislike, but it’s the way it is.
With that in mind, I thought it worthwhile to revisit five rotten horror movies (based on their Rotten Tomato critic score) that I actually enjoyed. Expectedly, most horror movies fare poorly on aggregation sites, so I imposed some arbitrary, anecdotal parameters– first among them, including only films disliked by both critics and audiences. For instance, while 2009’s Friday the 13th remake scored only 26%, most horror fans consider it a fun, if flawed, return of their favorite hockey-masked killer, with its audience score sitting at a not great, but respectable 46%. Moreover, I decided to include only films released theatrically within the last decade. VOD releases are an entirely different beast, and given the sheer volume available, it’s considerably more difficult to observationally determine how popular or unpopular they really are. Those metrics in mind, read on below for five of my favorite rotten horror movies released since 2010 (in no particular order).
The Turning (2020) – Rotten Tomatoes Score: 12%
Kate Mandell takes a job as a nanny for two young orphans at an isolated Gothic mansion in the Maine countryside. She soon learns that the children — Miles and Flora — are emotionally distant and unstable. When strange events start to plague Kate and the siblings, she begins to suspect that the estate’s dark corridors are home to a malevolent entity.
This might be especially controversial, but after 25 years in the closet, I know a bit too much about keeping a secret concealed and I have absolutely no interest in doing that anymore. Yes, I liked The Turning. Not only did I like it, but if it were a schoolyard crush, you might say I “like liked” it.
The Turning has the honor, of course, of not only scoring a paltry 12% on Rotten Tomatoes but also getting an F Cinemascore, a feat shared by January 2020’s other big genre release (though the less said about that the better— I still have some standards).
I will readily admit that The Turning is awkwardly staged, narratively anemic where it matters most, and even with the most generous of concessions, simply does not have an ending. The film collapses under the weight of its own supernatural storyline, and there are entire stretches of screen time that blatantly contradict what came before, and not in a clever, subversive way, but in a “we’re making this up as it goes along” kind of way.
All that said, and while I’m certainly in the minority on this one, I was never bored (my one eternal benchmark for any movie). I found the acting, particularly from Mackenzie Davis, compelling, and the 90s-drenched grunge aesthetic courtesy of director Floria Sigismondi was so fantastic, I wish it were adopted by even more horror movies. It doesn’t hurt, either, that I’m a huge fan of the source material, regardless of how much the script strays from Henry James’s manuscript. I’m a simple man in that sometimes a modestly-budgeted ghost story set in a big decrepit manor populated by attractive zeitgeist actors with serviceable scares is just enough for me. It’s not too hot, and not too cold— it’s just right. I firmly believe that in retrospect, The Turning will be viewed more favorably. Maybe not as a good movie, per say, but as something that offered more than the reactions at the time of release suggested. Even if it isn’t, I’ll still have my copy, and I’ll be happy. Sometimes, that’s all you need.
The Pyramid (2014) – Rotten Tomatoes Score: 14%
Father-daughter archaeologists Miles (Denis O’Hare) and Nora Holden (Ashley Hinshaw) discover a unique pyramid that has been buried beneath the Egyptian desert for 5,000 years. Accompanied by a newswoman (Christa-Marie Nicola) and her team, the archaeologists enter the tomb and promptly become trapped. Hopelessly lost within the pyramid’s labyrinthine structure, the group faces deadly perils that threaten their escape, including collapsing floors and bloodthirsty predators.
I’m not sure if it was by design or just a fluke in my local Regal’s sound system, but when I first saw The Pyramid in theaters, the jumps sent me into absolute orbit. Sure, they were cheap and were only there to overcompensate for bad acting, staging, lighting, and writing, but they were nonetheless effective. The equivalent of a theme park haunted house, the scares were ephemeral, but the jolts were fun in the moment. Plus, it’s pretty much a slasher movie about Anubis slaughtering a bunch of stupid archeologists who make the crew of the USS Prometheus look positively brilliant in comparison.
Yes, it makes no sense that Anubis would just be de facto chilling in the base of a pyramid for all those years, particularly one that looks suspiciously like a cheap set in a studio backlot, but when he suddenly appears left of frame and rips a man’s heart out to judge his worthiness to enter the afterlife, I’m inclined to ignore every problem that preceded it.
The Curse of La Llorona (2019) – Rotten Tomatoes Score: 29%
In 1970s Los Angeles, the legendary ghost La Llorona is stalking the night — and the children. Ignoring the eerie warning of a troubled mother, a social worker and her own kids are drawn into a frightening supernatural realm. Their only hope of surviving La Llorona’s deadly wrath is a disillusioned priest who practices mysticism to keep evil at bay.
The Curse of La Llorona, like much of James Wan’s Conjuring-adjacent universe, is regarded as something of an unintended consequence in the horror community. Think of it like setting a bowl of cat food on your front porch for a fuzzy little feline friend, only to find several days later that while, yes, that cat did get some food, they also brought with them a raccoon, a feral child, some possums, and an obstinate armadillo. You asked for the cat, not the whole critter cabal.
The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2 are widely-accepted as good movies, and even if Wan’s stylings aren’t to your liking, there’s craftsmanship and integrity to the proceedings. The spinoffs, however, are perceived as little more than perfunctory cash-grabs, opportunities to slap a familiar name on the most shallow of properties (i.e. ghosts and demons) and milk that mere association for more money than the Warner Bros. executives know what to do with. And, well, that’s not necessarily wrong (I mean, why else would there be 3 Annabelle movies?).
Still, even the most cynically conceived of commercial properties can yield some value, and in the case of La Llorona, director Michael Chaves does a commendable job of aping Wan’s filmmaking style. There are some solid scares, a genuinely frightening central specter, and at least an attempt, however shallow (and whitewashed) to render the perennial franchise spook show as something transnational.
If anything, The Curse of La Llorona demonstrates the sheer potential of the Conjuring-Verse. Picture a franchise where international creators put their unique spin on haunts distinct to their culture. The opportunities are limitless, and while deeply-flawed, The Curse of La Llorona is the first step in something that has the potential to be truly remarkable.
The Strangers: Prey at Night (2018) – Rotten Tomatoes Score: 39%
Mike and his wife Cindy take their son and daughter on a road trip that becomes their worst nightmare. The family members soon find themselves in a desperate fight for survival when they arrive at a secluded mobile home park that’s mysteriously deserted — until three masked psychopaths show up to satisfy their thirst for blood.
I’ve often expressed the sentiment that some modern horror movies, strange as it sounds, try a little too hard. I’m all for innovation and subversive narrative techniques, and I understand that in as bloated a creative era as ours, it’s almost a necessity for filmmakers to break the ostensible mold, but I do sometimes long for more movies whose aspirations are nothing more than to give the audience a good time.
The Strangers: Prey at Night is just that kind of movie. There’s no larger narrative or thematic purpose beyond feeling scared while 3 masked maniacs slaughter a family staying overnight at an RV park. What elevates the movie, though, beyond its modest ambitions are some pretty great acting (particularly from Lewis Pullman), a banging 80s soundtrack, and Johannes Roberts’s stylistic homage to Carpenter that maintains the integrity of his directorial techniques without ever feeling like a cheap mimic.
Yes, the characters make stupid decisions, but that’s congenital to the genre, for better or worse. Moreover, when judged within the context of the first Strangers movie, it’s hard to make the argument that the central family here fares any worse than James or Kristen in the first. All things considered, the movie is a good time. It feels like it was plucked straight from the 80s in the best way possible. Throwback slashers are all the rage now, and while most can ape the look of the lo-fi body count movies of yesteryear, few can ape the mood and general feeling quite as successfully as The Strangers: Prey at Night.
As Above, So Below (2014) – Rotten Tomatoes Score: 26%
Archaeologist Scarlett Marlowe (Perdita Weeks) has devoted her whole life to finding one of history’s greatest treasures: Flamel’s Philosopher’s Stone. According to legend, the artifact can grant eternal life and turn any metal into gold. When she learns that the stone is hidden underground in the Catacombs of Paris, she assembles a crew to guide and document her historic mission. As they begin their descent, the team-members have no way of knowing that they are entering their own personal hell.
This is one I was reticent to include at first, in large part because in the time since release, a lot of genre fans have (in my opinion, rightfully) reconsidered their first reactions and concluded that As Above, So Below is so, so much better than people said it was at the time of release. In fact, more than any movie on this list, I think this is one that fans could reasonably aver to be a modern classic. The concept is phenomenal, the acting is good, and while the found footage genre was on its last legs at the time, As Above, So Below showed how much more could be done with a great setting and a little innovation. Above all, though, the movie is scary. Not only is it exceptionally tense and frightening, but the scares linger beyond the theater, and it was in those moments where I first started to think that this movie was something special.
It nonetheless resides in a weird niche. Every genre fan I’ve suggested it to has enjoyed it immensely, while my recommendations to more casual audiences have been met with derision (my friend’s dad is still bitter over the $2 he spent to rent it from Redbox on my word alone). That kind of polarization, while sometimes warranted, can also be a hallmark of a true cult classic, and in this case, I’m inclined to think it’s the latter.
There you have it. These are just five of my picks for rotten movies that, well, aren’t quite so rotten. The beauty of the genre and this is a sentiment I’ve expressed before, is that what doesn’t work for one person will likely go over exceptionally well for another. Even if these movies didn’t work well for you, you likely have a few movies of your own that you’ve seen whose poor reception boggles your mind. Everyone responds to everything differently, and in a genre as diverse as ours, we should be more open to dissenting opinions and our endearment toward movies perceived as less than. These movies are like little birds abandoned in their nest—all they need is for someone to love ‘em.