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HOOKED ON HORROR: 10 Films That Shaped Jerry Smith

For this list, I wanted to highlight 10 films that you don’t hear me talking about on Twitter 24/7. I’ve been very vocal for almost 40 years about how much I adore John Carpenter’s Halloween, so to list that one would be a no-brainer.

Instead, this list focuses on films that, for one reason or another, made me realize at different times of my life how much I love the horror genre. From the ‘70s to films that were released in the past few years, I tried to include ones that left me an instant fan.

I know I promised lesser heralded ones, but let’s be honest, did you ever expect me NOT to include at least one Halloween film on this list? Hey, I said I wouldn’t list Halloween ’78, but nobody said anything about Halloween 4. Enjoy and please, by all means, comment with 10 films that made YOU realize how much you love horror!

10.) The First Power (1990)

This one is the equivalent to a Stefon skit from SNL; it simply has it all: Satanic serial killers, Lou Diamond Phillips, people jumping off an insanely tall building and landing on their feet, homeless people doing backflips off of tables, psychics, and Bubba Gump himself, Mykelti Williamson. Revolving around Phillips as a detective hellbent on stopping a devil-worshipping murderer, The First Power wastes no time in giving viewers a wild time, with the Satanic baddie being resurrected with the ability to jump into the bodies of various people. Half police procedural, half exploitation weirdness, the film also features something near and dear to my blood-soaked heart: the film’s antagonist using a ceiling fan to try to kill our hero. A wild, off the wall flick, this is one to look out for if you have yet to see it.

9.) 10 To Midnight (1983)

Another serial killer movie with a heart of exploitation gold, 10 To Midnight is classic Charles Bronson. This one follows the legend as he searches for a serial murderer who stalks and kills women who reject his advances. It’s basically Bronson vs. Incel and I am here for it. I grew up loving this one and while I watched it with my grandmother because I loved Charles Bronson and Cannon Films, I think my grandma was into it to see Gene Davis’s ass, which is in this movie almost as much as Bronson. 10 To Midnight is a really tense, excellent cat and mouse thriller/horror films that keeps you as a viewer, on the edge of your seat, as Bronson’s Leo Kessler plays a game of who can one-up each other with the film’s serial killer naked man, Davis’s Warren Stacy. Stacy is the epitome of the anger over being put in the friend zone guy and Bronson’s character uses that against him so much that it brings a smile to your face, the amount that the detective taunts the antagonist is so much fun to watch. One hell of an ending too, 10 To Midnight is a grimy flick full of angry men, once of which has a date with a pistol at the end, in a sequence that makes you stand up and cheer.

8.) Lisa (1990)

I discovered this one as a tween, having walked by the enticing VHS cover more than dozen times before I took advantage of the “five movies for five days for five bucks” promotion my local video store liked to run (my father’s wallet did not love that promotion) and gave it a shot. A cautionary tale focused on the dangers of talking to strangers, Lisa follows TGIF’s own Step By Step darling Staci Keannan as the film’s title character, a 14-year old whose mother forbids from dating before she’s 16. Wanting to rebel, Lisa begins being infatuated with a mysterious man she meets and soon (after some sketchy DMV antics) beings calling him. Sooner than you say, “I see where this is going,” the man reveals himself to possibly be a serial killer stalking women around the area.

Directed by Vice Squad/Poltergeist III helmer Gary Sherman, LISA is a great example of the seedy yet somewhat safe stalking horror films of the ‘90s, something you’d find on the VHS shelves and would rent based on the cover. It’s a fun film that thankfully is now available to watch via Prime, so readers, do yourselves a favor and give it a look.

7.) At the Devil’s Door (2014)

I caught this one at the Fantasia Film Festival one year and was an instant fan. Already having loved Nicholas McCarthy’s previous film, The Pact, when I saw At the Devil’s Door, it solidified the fact that McCarthy was becoming my favorite filmmaker working in horror today. A slow-burn tale of the lives of three women being affected by the influence of the devil, this one is an eerie, creepy as all hell movie that plays in the sandbox of the 1970’s aesthetic more than the MTV-like editing of today’s output in horror. Anchored by excellent performances by Ashley Rickards, Catalina Sandino Moreno and the late Naya Rivera, At the Devil’s Door pulls the rug from under its viewer more than once and injects a Psycho-like twist into what is already in this writer’s opinion a modern classic gem. There’s a scene involving The Crow and Lost Highway‘s Michael Massee that gives me the absolute creeps in a satanic and eerie way.

6.) Mikey (1992)

I love the hell out of killer kid films and this one is in my top five films found within that subgenre. Starring Blank Check legend (and pop-punk frontman) Brian Bonsall as well…Mikey. A boy who is the pipsqueak equivalent to Terry O’Quinn’s Stepfather role, Mikey is a kid who goes from foster home to foster home, enjoying each one until they collide with what he wants. It’s your classic setup for a film like this and Mikey plays like a direct to video or HBO-like flick, giving quite a few memorable moments. Bonsall is great as the evil title character and the film also features Hellraiser’s Ashley Laurence and Return of the Living Dead/F13: A New Beginning‘sMark Venturini as a detective trying to figure out just what’s going on with… Mikey!

I was compared to this kid quite often growing up, which says a lot.

5.) The WNUF Halloween Special (2013)

This is a film that I hold near and dear to my heart for so many reasons. I can’t even remember how I discovered this one, but did a few years ago and am eternally grateful for having found it. A faux-documentary-like newscast special, The WNUF Halloween Special is the BEST example of tapping into what made the 1980’s so much fun to live through, with the cardboard box Halloween costumes, the smell of fall in the air, and the ambiance of going trick ‘r treating in the middle of the Satanic Panic-era of history.

Built as a special broadcast, the film also gives viewers authentic feeling commercials that act as bridges between the build up to the special and the live airing of a Geraldo Rivera-like special that takes a DARK turn.

The WNUF Halloween Special special is on my list of films I love to recommend to every single person I know and it’s a blast to watch. One of my best friends showed it to a group of friends in 2018 and it was the last film we watched together before he fell ill and passed away unexpectedly not too long after, so this one can’t help but bring a smile to my face when revisiting. What a gem of a movie.

4.) We Are What We Are (2013)

In 2013, I was going through my (at the time) absolute worst while covering Austin’s Fantastic Fest. I had lost the passion for writing and for most things at the time and had to pull myself out of my hotel room bed to hit an early morning press screening of Jim Mickle’s We Are What We Are, a remake of the 2010 film Somos Lo Que Hay. Uninterested in even functioning, I sat there at the Drafthouse theater, with a few mimosas and a pizza to myself and experience easily one of the most profound theatrical experiences I’ve ever had. There’s a quiet approach to Mickle’s film, a tone that allows itself to breathe while putting forth a somber, rain-filled aesthetic that sinks its hook into your emotions.

Maybe it was the insane amount of stress I was under or hell, maybe it’s just THAT good of a film, but We Are What We Are is one of the few films that brought me to tears, and that was just within the first 20 minutes. There’s a tragedy to the film, a story of familial rituals and traditions, something that the movie’s two lead sisters (played by Ozark’s Julia Garner and You’s Ambyr Childers) try their darnedest to escape but cannot. Anchored by one of the best genre performances of the past ten years, courtesy of Fender Bender’s Bill Sage as the patriarch of the family, this one hits you in the gut, over and over again, until the unexpected finale, in which the sisters simply cannot run from who they are, We Are What We Are is a great film that allowed me to fall back in love with film and horror and caused me to pull myself back up. I love it.  

3.) Halloween 4 (1988)

It took an act of God to make me not write about John Carpenter’s 1978 classic Halloween, but I’d be lying if I said this list was safe from the inclusion of my favorite franchise of all time. My love for Dwight H. Little’s 1988 Halloween 4 is almost on par with my love for the first film and there’s so much to latch onto. Right from those opening credits, where we’re transported into the fall season by a montage of pumpkins, scarecrows and the wind in the air, Halloween 4 wastes no time in bringing you into the vibe of Halloween, before giving us the return of Michael Myers.

Now chasing his niece Jamie (Daniel Harris), Myers is more brutal this time around and that’s met by the return of another favorite, Donald Pleasance as Dr. Loomis. Featuring some of my favorite sequences in the entire series (the gas station scene is an all-timer), Halloween 4 builds on the feeling of the season, while also bringing Myers into the night filled with smoke and ambience. We’re given love triangles, mean-ass schoolyard bully kids, some gnarly bangs on Jamie and my personal favorite part of Halloween films: unnecessary deaths (poor Ted Hollister). Alan Howarth’s score is a favorite of mine and you’d be a liar if said the twist ending didn’t make your jaw drop the first time you experienced it.

2.) The Blackcoats Daughter (2015)

Taking two things I adore (slow burn horror and satanic possession films) and putting them both into one of the most effective horror film’s I’ve ever seen, Osgood Perkins’s The Blackcoat’s Daughter is not only an excellent movie but in my opinion, the best A24 film made, thus far. Following three (or it seems) young women in a boarding school, this one gives one of my favorite performances of all time, thanks to Sabrina’s Kiernan Shipka. It’s a film about the gradual deterioration of a character, a deterioration that, thanks to ol’ Mr. Devil, affects all three characters.

A great example of sound design, music and performance working hand in hand to tell a horror masterclass in tension, The Blackcoat’s Daughter gets under your skin and lives there, building and building, until one hell of a payoff, one that leaves you speechless and with a thirst for more. Plus, it also features the best usage of the phrase “Hail Satan” ever.

1.) Malevolence (2004)

And now we get to this movie. Stevan Mena’s Malevolence is to me, the second best slasher film of all time. A great example of the From Dusk Till Dawn approach of beginning as one genre before flipping the script on its viewer, this film starts off as a robbery gone wrong film, before eventually venturing into a scary as hell flick involving a group of good and bad guys being picked off, one by one, by a hybrid of Michael Myers and Friday the 13th: Part II’s sack head Jason. Mena has such a knack for building tension in this film and it’s downright terrifying. I love films that have small budgets but big ideas and Malevolence is that kind of film, every penny is on the screen and the music and aesthetic are evocative of John Carpenter’s Halloween, in the best of ways. You care about the characters being stalked and killed in this one and that helps the overall vibe of the movie, it’s easy to bite your fingernails and be on the edge of your seat with this one.

Mena would eventually make a prequel and sequel to Malevolence, with 2010’s Bereavement and 2018’s Malevolence 3: Killer, so pick the entire trilogy up, grab some popcorn, turn off your lights be terrified, because this one’s a doozy.

Written by Jerry Smith

Writer. Director. Drinker of Dr. Pepper.
John Carpenter is my religion. 666.

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