If you know anything about me as a horror fan, it’s that I champion the underdog. While I certainly love the most acclaimed and successful genre entries, both indie and theatrical, I have a soft, mushy spot in my heart for those horror movies that try their damnedest to scare audiences silly but fall incredibly short by dint of their critical or box office reception. Granted, not all of these duds are worthwhile, more plenty of them are spectacular in their own right, unfairly maligned for sundry reasons, few of which are very convincing in my mind.
As this (interminable) year drags on, and things get more and more rotten, I thought it time to revisit one of my favorite pieces. In July, I highlighted five contemporary rotten horror movies (produced after 2010) that I actually enjoy. This time, however, I’m turning back the clock, and opening entry to any rotten horror movie, recently released or not. As was the case last time, I will only be highlighting rotten movies that, to the best of my knowledge, are disliked equally among critics and audiences. Plenty of cult classics fare poorly on aggregation sites, though if audiences are fond of them, they’re ineligible for entry here. With that metric in mind, read on below for 5 more of my favorite rotten horror movies (in no particular order).
1. The Gift (2001) – Rotten Tomatoes Score: 57%
Synopsis: In the tiny town of Brixton, Georgia where nothing is private, a woman with supernatural clairvoyance, a young beautiful socialite who has mysteriously disappeared, and an assortment of colorful characters all collide. A haunting psychological thriller, “The Gift” is ultimately a profound celebration of the human spirit.
The Gift is the best-reviewed movie on this list, and it’s the best-reviewed for good reason. Cate Blanchett is absolutely sensational as Annie Wilson, a small-town psychic roped into the mysterious disappearance of a young socialite (Katie Holmes). Across the board, the acting is phenomenal, and Director Sam Raimi maintains an ominous, gothic mood throughout. In addition, The Gift treats Annie’s psychic abilities with the respect it deserves. Psychic readings are exceptionally popular in the south and often dovetails from other deeply-felt forms of spirituality. Raimi never denigrates Annie’s gift, nor does he let that reverence distract him from some truly spectacular scares. The Gift is an underrated gem and one I definitely suggest watching if you haven’t yet.
2. Darkness Falls (2003) – Rotten Tomatoes Score: 9%
Synopsis: In Maine, the residents of Darkness Falls are all aware of the legend of Matilda Dixon, an old woman who was tragically murdered by a mob in the 1800s because the townspeople thought she was killing children. Now Darkness Falls has to contend with Matilda’s supernatural wrath. Childhood friends Kyle (Chaney Kley) and Caitlin (Emma Caulfield) return home to uncover the truth behind the legend after Caitlin’s little brother (Lee Cormie) has recurring nightmares about Matilda.
While The Gift is at the cusp of just breaking into “Fresh” Territory, Darkness Falls stands no such chance, coming in at a dismal (and frankly undeserved) 9% with 130 reviews taken into account. It’s a shame, too, because Darkness Falls is one of the scariest movies released in 2003. The introductory sequence wherein protagonist Kyle Laney (the late Chaney Kley as an adult, Joshua Anderson as a child) is first visited by Matilda, the homicidal tooth fairy, is terrifying. Director Jonathan Liebesman uses stunning sound design and an adroit balance between light and darkness to keep the audience on edge. The scene where Kyle is hunkered down in the safety of the bathroom light while Matilda wails right outside the door, only a few feet away, still sends a chill down my spine.
The rest of the movie, unfortunately, never matches the sheer terror of the opening minutes, but it is nonetheless well-acted, shows considerable craftsmanship, and boasts a truly frightening central villain. Bonus points for the visual design work done on Matilda. Even seventeen years later, the way she floats, her black, tattered robe wispy in the wind, still looks incredible. Darkness Falls won’t change your life, but it’s still a worthwhile watch– just be sure to keep the lights on.
3. The Haunting in Connecticut (2009) – Rotten Tomatoes Score: 17%
Synopsis: When their son Matt (Kyle Gallner) receives a diagnosis of cancer, Sara (Virginia Madsen) and Peter (Martin Donovan) Campbell move to Connecticut to be closer to his doctors. At first all is well, but then Matt becomes increasingly disturbed by what appears to be paranormal activity. Sara turns to a priest for help, and the ghosts are seemingly banished — but Matt’s condition takes a sudden and unexplained turn for the worse, and the lives of Sara and the rest of her family are endangered.
The Haunting in Connecticut brings absolutely nothing new to the table. All of the scares– from the haunted shower curtain to the voices in the basement– have been done dozens and dozens of times before. Outside of Virginia Madsen’s ferocious leading role as the matriarch of a frayed family, there’s nothing fresh or unpredictable in this house, haunted or not. Yet, despite the familiarity of its ghostly trappings, The Haunting in Connecticut coasts by on sheer scare-power alone. There’s one jump scare in particular that is truly phenomenal, and for as many times as audiences have seen these cobwebs and specters, the proceedings manage to be sufficiently chilling without feeling overwrought. For fans of The Conjuring movies, The Haunting in Connecticut is an early example (after Amityville) of a fictionalized retelling of an actual Warren case file. For fans of double-features, pair this with the 1991 Made-For-TV retelling The Haunted for a more subdued affair. Both are guaranteed to send chills down your spine.
4. Urban Legends: Final Cut (2000) – Rotten Tomatoes Score: 9%
Synopsis: At Alpine University, one senior student will be awarded the prestigious Hitchcock Award for best thesis film, virtually guaranteeing the winner a film career in Hollywood. Amy, Travis and Graham are student filmmakers who would love to make it big in Hollywood. But first they’ve got to survive their last semester at Alpine, a renowned film school where the competition is killer — and someone is killing the competition.
Urban Legends: Final Cut suffers considerably from a lack of Rebecca Gayheart. The original was little more than a serviceable Scream clone, a hyper-clever and self-aware slasher basking in the meta nature of its scares and narrative, but it was markedly better than most slasher clones of the nineties on account of Gayheart’s truly unhinged performance.
Final Cut, to its detriment, doesn’t have Gayheart. In fact, it doesn’t really have any characters who are all that engaging. Other than a just fine performance from an early Jennifer Morrison and a spunky-enough turn from Eva Mendes, there’s no character worth investing in, let alone caring about. Strangely enough, though, Final Cut works. Most of this is only really perceived in retrospect, however. The 2000s onward have been a dust bowl of worthwhile slasher films, movies with a substantial budget, known cast, and endless bloodshed. The contemporary indie efforts are great, but there’s something special about a slasher movie with some real weight behind it, whether the final product is all that good or not. Final Cut does deliver a few worthwhile and grisly deaths, some suitable tension, and a wild, twist-filled ending that, while incomprehensible for its diverging motives, is at least commendable for its moxie. Fans of standard slasher fare could do a lot worse than Urban Legends: Final Cut.
5. I Still Know What You Did Last Summer (1998) – Rotten Tomatoes Score: 7%
Synopsis: A year after killing vengeful hit-and-run victim Ben Wills (Muse Watson), who gutted her friends with an iron hook, college student Julie James (Jennifer Love Hewitt) is still shaken by the experience. When her roommate, Karla (Brandy), wins a vacation for four to the Bahamas, she plans to bring along her boyfriend, Tyrell (Mekhi Phifer), attractive Will (Matthew Settle) and Julie. At the resort, Julie starts receiving threatening notes and realizes Ben is still alive.
There aren’t a lot of hills I’m willing to die on, but if I had to make a choice, I might very well choose to die on this one– I Still Know What You Did Last Summer is a laudable follow-up to 1997’s I Know What You Did Last Summer. Yes, the set-up is ridiculous and contrived, Jack Black’s presence is baffling, and the red herrings are so red, they’re practically Swedish Fish, but despite all that, the movie is engaging throughout. Jennifer Love Hewitt, much as she did in the original, transcends the constraints of a prototypical final girl role, showing a degree of resourcefulness and tenderness that belies slasher sequel expectations. Moreover, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer had unconventional depth, particularly in its opening act. Hewitt’s Julie James is still haunted by the events of the previous summer, and the filmmakers construct a compelling and empathetic portrait of trauma, showing the residual effects of what it means to survive the kind of violence Julie endured.
Beyond that, the kill and gore quotient are amplified, the setting (while contrived) has never really been done again (not counting 2004’s slasher spoof Club Dread), and the cast writ large give it their all. Brandy in particular delivers an incredibly enjoyable performance, one of the rare instances a woman of color was given such a chance in the genre. By most objective metrics, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer is not a very good movie, but while technical merits are certainly important, movie watching has never truly been an objective experience. It’s deeply personal and intuitive, and what I intuit time and time again is that I Still Know What You Did Last Summer is a good damn movie.