I’m up for pretty much anything when it comes to horror movies, but I’ll make a special point to watch anything that deals with the occult. True, witchcraft has gone mainstream—you can buy “witch kits” at Sephora, for crying out loud—but those are white witches, not dedicated black-magic practitioners sacrificing some screaming innocent on the altar of their dark lord. That’s a taboo, and therefore a thrill, that’s not going to become socially acceptable any time soon. Plus, floor-length robes and candelabras are aesthetically pleasing. I may have just revealed a little too much about which side of the magic circle I’d be on, given the opportunity. But luckily for my co-workers, who are probably eyeing me suspiciously right now, Satanic cults aren’t real—not the virgin-sacrificing kind you see in the movies, anyway.
Maybe this is a bit of a cop-out, but I’m a real sucker for meta horror movies, movies that are all about being a horror film—and not just in the name-dropping way that made Wes Craven millions of dollars with Scream. Part of it is just my smartass streak—I like watching a genre go after its own sacred, blood-soaked cows. But there’s also that, in order to be meta about something, you have to first be thoughtful about it, whether it’s Craven looking back at what Fred Kreuger was really all about with 1994’s New Nightmare, or the way Scott Glosserman’s little-seen gem Behind The Mask: The Rise Of Leslie Vernon treats the slasher-final girl relationship as a sort of extended flirtation. Plus, great horror films are all about screwing with our sense of safety, and nothing does that better than the moment when the subversiveness abruptly dries up, and all you’re left with is whiplash into outright horror. Would The Cabin In The Woods’ gloriously apocalyptic clusterfuck of an ending work half as well if the preceding 80 minutes hadn’t trained us to view its world as one that was comical and “safe”?
I love a good haunted-house movie. I can see the appeal of the “realism” of a slasher, but who hasn’t felt a weird chill in the air or noticed that something in their home is strangely out of place? The best ghost movies do something new and creative with overdone and obvious fears, playing with the realization—either sudden or prolonged—that something is wrong in what used to be a safe place. I’m specifically thinking of stuff like the reveal of the Crooked Man in The Conjuring 2 or the literal bedsheet ghost in Paranormal Activity 3. I love that moment in particular because the first time you see it is super scary even though nothing scary really happens, and like the other best moments in that series, it makes the viewer live with the dread of knowing that things are spookier than even the characters in the story realize (see also: the increasingly unsettling scenes in the first Paranormal Activity that involve the central couple sleeping through weird stuff at night).
My tolerance for horror movies has increased with age, but a scaredy-cat past has left me riddled with defense mechanisms, like the nervous titters I get leading up to the defibrillator scene in The Thing. So my eternal thanks to the Nobuhiko Obayashis, Joe Dantes, and Mary Harrons of the world for recognizing that the same onscreen tensions that produce a scream can also yield a laugh, thereby ushering the horror-comedy out of the shadows. It’s a frequently abused genre, in that unintentionally funny movies that were supposed to be scary get branded as comedies retroactively—but that’s kind of how we wound up with horror-comedy’s gold standard, Evil Dead II, so I shouldn’t complain about it too loudly.
Sci-fi and horror are the peanut butter and chocolate of the film world: two great tastes that work together magically well. While I am a sucker for the hard sci-fi of, say, Isaac Asimov, or the pure horror of, oh, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, nothing stirs me to attention more than both conventions working together, as in the Alien series, David Cronenberg’s more technologically based early work, The Thing, Under The Skin, Altered States, and so on. The precision of horror clarifies the broader sci-fi ideas at play in plenty of great games, too, such as Dead Space, Inside, and Prey. Even middling stuff—Event Horizon, or, uh, most recent Aliens movies—still work well, at least for me. Put that monster on a spaceship and I’m there.
My favorite subgenre of horror doesn’t have a readymade name, but I’m a sucker for horror movies where no one, including the viewer, knows what’s happening at first. I call them Serling stories as shorthand, in honor of Rod Serling, to denote the Twilight Zone-esque, what’s-happening-to-me format in which the protagonist and audience are equally in the dark at the beginning of the movie, and must grasp their way toward understanding what is happening and why. It’s a movie that is essentially a cinematic-length episode of his classic series: a simple setup that turns into a puzzle, going deeper and stranger until the ending gives us an explanation (usually a moral one) and a bit of a twist that justifies the narrative exegesis that has just unfolded. This category encompasses things like Cube and Triangle, and will often begin with the main character or characters waking up in an unfamiliar location, unsure how they got there, and forced to piece together the situation bit by bit until arriving at illumination of one kind or another. There are certainly non-horror versions of this basic concept, but I like the ones where something terrible has happened. Ritual, Saw, Haunter—even lame ones like House Hunting or The Clinic will draw me in with little more than the “something we can’t explain is happening, how did we get here” premise.