In July and October of last year, I highlighted five “rotten” contemporary horror movies I genuinely enjoyed. Rotten, of course, is a misnomer. Aggregate review site Rotten Tomatoes might consider them flops– and some of them have scored almost comically low– but in my eyes, they’re diamonds in the rough, gems glistening with promise and possibility, even if not fully realized.
2020 was an exceptionally difficult year for all. Indie juggernauts triumphed, but by and large, there were no new theatrical horror releases in the latter half of the year. As of right now, 2021 doesn’t look that different. While there have been limited engagements for titles like Mike P. Nelson’s engaging Wrong Turn remake, it’s still not safe (or profitable) enough to return to theaters. As such, I’ve been revisiting some old favorites, and thus present to you another five ostensibly rotten horror movies that are actually good.
As always, my metrics for inclusion remain the same. I will only be highlighting rotten movies that, to the best of my knowledge, are disliked equally among critics and audiences. That means no cult classics or movies whose legacies improved in the years since release. Moreover, the movies here needed to have a conventional theatrical release. The quantity of reviews available for most indies makes it too difficult to discern how “rotten” they really are. With that in mind, read on below for 5 more of my favorite rotten horror movies (in no particular order).
1. The Glass House (2001) – Rotten Tomatoes Score: 21%
Synopsis: After the parents of Ruby (Leelee Sobieski) and her younger brother, Rhett (Trevor Morgan), are killed in a car crash, their parents’ best friends, Erin and Terry Glass (Diane Lane, Stellan Skarsgard), become their guardians. The children hear promises of a world of opulence and California fun — all they have to do is move into the Glasses’ gated house. Before very long, though, Ruby suspects that Erin and Terry may not be the ideal guardians they seemed to be.
The Glass House admittedly doesn’t have a great deal on its mind. While the movie-within-a-movie opening is a solid jolt of energy– Prom Nightmare is a sensational faux-slasher– the proceedings slow down considerably in the two acts that follow. A fantastic Leelee Sobieski principally wanders around the titular glass house, eavesdropping on sinister conversations and pilfering a menagerie of clues credible enough to convince her that her new keepers, Erin and Terry Glass (Diane Lane and Stellan Skarsgard) have insidious intentions.
Though a failure upon release– it was unwisely thrust into theaters just three days after the 9/11 terror attacks– in retrospect, it holds up as a solidly frightening if frayed, millennial-tinged young-woman-in-peril thriller. The performances are serviceable, even Diane Lane’s somnambulant caretaker. Granted, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that Sobieski has a brother (Trevor Morgan)– he’s missing for entire sections, likely off chasing down dinos on Isla Sorna– or that, well, there are other adults occupying this world who should easily catch onto the Glass’s scheme, but they’re small quirks in an otherwise ludicrously fun horror thriller. Horror fans should know better than to throw stones when living in glass houses– the genre is unfairly maligned as it is– and this is one property worth checking out.
2. Gone (2012) – Rotten Tomatoes Score: 12%
Synopsis: Jill Parrish (Amanda Seyfried) is trying to rebuild her life after surviving a terrifying kidnapping attempt. Though she is having a difficult time, she takes small steps toward normalcy by starting a new job and inviting her sister, Molly (Emily Wickersham), to move in with her. Returning home from work one morning, Jill discovers that Molly has vanished, and she is certain that the same man who previously abducted her has returned for revenge.
Gone is another okay woman-in-jeopardy thriller, though one elevated by a genuinely frightening final act. While the resolution itself falls flat– I’ve never understood building up antagonists only to dispose of them so quickly– the build-up is sensationally scary. Amanda Seyfriend’s Jill is en-route to where her sister is ostensibly held captive. Director Heitor Dhalia dims the lights considerably; it’s practically pitch black. Jill wanders into the dark, Portland woods, obfuscated by rain and the cloak of darkness– it’s impossible to see most anything. Blair Witch style scares abound. Every cracking twig or brush of leaves is chill-inducing. It’s a bold, protracted denouement, a low-key finale steeped in real peril. For just a moment, it feels less like a movie and more like the very real and very frightening reality women face almost every day. A Lifetime-esque paranoid thriller seems an incompatible home for such a thoroughly frightening ending, but it’s here, and I’m grateful for it.
3. Untraceable (2008) – Rotten Tomatoes Score: 16%
Synopsis: Special Agent Jennifer Marsh (Diane Lane) works in an elite division of the FBI dedicated to fighting cybercrime. She thinks she has seen it all, until a particularly sadistic criminal arises on the Internet. This tech-savvy killer posts live feeds of his crimes on his website; the more hits the site gets, the faster the victim dies. Marsh and her team must find the elusive killer before time runs out.
Untraceable coasts by in large part on the legacy of the Saw franchise. Diane Lane’s Special Agent Jennifer Marsh is tracking a serial killer. Only, he’s not a regular serial killer. You see, he’s live-streaming his kills over the web, accelerating the deaths based on total viewership. The early proceedings are bogged down in techno-crime mumbo jumbo– get ready for lots of firewall and encryption talk– and the finale, like with Gone, makes quick work of the big baddie, an ostensibly masterful killer taken out in mere seconds. Mileage is contingent on one’s tolerance for graphic, extended torture sequences (in the early 2000s, it was never enough to just kill someone apparently), though, despite its faults, it’s suitably engaging. Lane makes for a fantastic protagonist, elevating the material at every turn. Techno-junkie dialogue aside, the pursuit of the killer is reasonably tense and well-crafted, accentuated by a gloom-and-doom suburban Portland. Though the message falls flat– the internet is, uh, bad or something– and the central conceit strains credulity– Untraceable suggests more people will tune in for live murder than did for Rhoda’s record-shattering wedding– Untraceable is still one slick, chilling thriller worth tracking down.
4. The Hitcher (2007) – Rotten Tomatoes Score: 19%
Synopsis: Grace (Sophia Bush) and Jim (Zachary Knighton) are a pair of college students on their way to spring break in a 1970 Oldsmobile. Blissfully unaware of the horror that awaits them, they offer a ride to hitchhiker John Ryder (Sean Bean), a killer who subsequently terrorizes the couple and implicates them in a grisly slaying.
This might be my most controversial choice. Right away, I should ntoe that, yes, the orginal is considerably better. In reworking Rutger Hauer’s malevolentally seductive hitchhiker into Sean Bean’s anonymous, “I’m killing just to kill” baddie, the delicious subtext is lost. Akin to several other Platinum Dunes remakes, violence and freneticism are deputized over nuance and patience. So, yes, there’s not a great deal here that means much of anything. Despite that, though, The Hitcher is thoroughly entertaining. The gender-swap is effective, and Sophia Bush is a worthwhile final girl. There are several standout scares– including one involving a falling car that, while ridiculous in execution, had me jumping out of my seat– and the pace never lags. Sure, it won’t stick with you long after, but for fans of the original– and vehicular slashers in general– there are worse movies to pick up on your way home.
5. The Empty Man (2020) – Rotten Tomatoes Score: 42%
Synopsis: A series of mysterious disappearances in a small Midwestern town may be linked to a supernatural entity.
The Empty Man is very, very difficult to describe, a fact evident in the perfunctory marketing material released just a week before the movie’s theatrical debut. Contractual obligations mandated a theatrical release, though you’d be forgiven for not knowing that, yes, in October of 2020, The Empty Man was playing to empty auditoriums across the country. The Empty Man scored a paltry $3.9 million at the box office and, more discouraging, a D+ cinema score, certainly not the most reliable metric, but a valuable one nonetheless in gauging audience sentiments.
The lukewarm, almost indigant, reaction is likely on account of The Empty Man really being three movies in one, a move that resultantly allows it to reach its highest highs and sink to its lowest lows. After a protraced, nearly half-hour introduction– a short film in its own right– The Empty Man shifts focus to James Badge Dale’s former detective James Lasombra (yes, that’s really his name in one of The Empty Man’s less subtle moves) and his pursuit of missing teen Amanda Quail (Sasha Frolova), unaccounted for after she and her friends, on a lark, attempted to summon the Empty Man. The legend goes that if you blow into a bottle on an empty bridge, you’ll summon him. On the first day, you will hear the Empty Man, the second day you will see him and on the third day, he will find you.
The second movie is chiefly concerned with this legend. The other teens are systematically picked off by the Empty Man, graphically killed off-camera as Detective Lasombra unravels the truth behind the legend. Soon, though, all the teens are dead, and with over an hour remaining, The Empty Man again switches gears. A teen-centric, boogeyman-slasher, one not unlike the similarly titled The Bye Bye Man, suddenly morphs into polarizing, cerebral solipsism. Truly. Evil entity entrees are light courses compared to the existential individualism packed densely in movie/act number three.
The Empty Man is technically stellar– it looks incredible– and practically begs for rediscovery. A bold, brazen supernatural procedural bound for cult classic status. It’s almost a martyr of the modern studio system, an unclassifiable genre hodgepodge intrepid in its pursuit of something different. Not all of it works, but very little of it is empty, either.