It is time for my sixth annual list of the best movies at least ten years old that I arbitrarily watched this past year. There isn’t much of a method to the movies I choose to watch, some of which are re-watches and others I’m seeing for the first time. The common themes that emerged from this year’s list are psychological horror, literary adaptations, twist endings, plus a lot of Johnny Depp and Keanu Reeves.
1. Angel Heart (1987)
Angel Heart is a gripping horror noir, maybe the best film I’ve seen in that particular sub-genre—a sub-genre I wish there were more movies within (such as The Ninth Gate from last year’s list). This film, written and directed by Alan Parker, is based on a novel by William Hjortsberg titled Falling Angel, which I have not read. Mickey Rourke plays a private detective in the 1950s who is hired by Robert De Niro (playing an oddly mysterious figure) to find a missing person. Without too much spoilers, each witness Rourke questions subsequently turns up dead, and satanic cults and voodoo are involved. The movie works great both as noir mystery with a surprising twist, and also as psychological horror with genuinely dark and disturbing moments.
2. Event Horizon (1997)
I saw Event Horizon once years ago (when I was voraciously watching every science fiction movie I could find) but was not impressed. I liked the science fiction aspects but was turned off by the horror. That was before I became a massive horror fan. Upon re-watching Event Horizon this year, I loved it. It perfectly blends science fiction and horror, in the vein of H.P. Lovecraft, and as I wrote in this post, it utilizes both cerebral and visceral horror. Though I wish it tilted more toward the cerebral side as there were one too many jump scares with loud sounds and music, which became annoying after the twelfth time. Event Horizon is one of the best film examples of “cosmic horror,” dealing with the interdimensional terror of black holes. Deep space is such a great setting for horror, and other than this and the Alien movies, there aren’t enough great films in that genre.
Though I wouldn’t exactly call Event Horizon a “great” film. It has a great concept, atmosphere, and set-pieces, but the movie as a whole is not quite great. It’s ultimately a B-movie, but a really good B-movie. Perhaps with a better director and script it could have been elevated to greatness (or if its production wasn’t rushed by the studio and the director’s cut wasn’t destroyed). As a science fiction horror movie set in space, the obvious comparison is Alien, but Event Horizon is actually more like Solaris meets The Shining. Event Horizon is essentially a haunted house in space. Horror may be the best genre for space stories, as opposed to hopeful adventure or romance, because when you think about it space is horrific. Not only can no one hear you scream in space, life itself cannot survive in its oxygen-less void. As Lovecraft said, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown,” and outer space is the ultimate unknown.
3. F for Fake (1973)
Orson Welles was so far ahead of his time in the art of filmmaking—and so influential to those who came after. He invented much of modern filmmaking, particularly with this film and its hyper quick-cut editing, which has become ubiquitous in modern movies. Welles stated that this was not a mere documentary but a new kind of film—some call it a film essay. Then there’s the actual subject matter which is fascinating. It’s all about magic, trickery, forgery, deception, acting, and art itself. The movie is about art forgery but in a meta twist is an art forgery in itself.
4. The Dunwich Horror (1970)
I wasn’t expecting much from this film based on the H.P. Lovecraft story of the same name, mainly because I’d never heard of it before (the movie). I was surprised by how good it was. It’s not completely faithful to the source material, but it still incorporates much of Lovecraft’s mythos, including the infamous Necronomicon and the great Old Ones. In fact, this might be the best direct film adaptation of a Lovecraft story that I have seen. The lead actor, Dean Stockwell, plays a very creepy Wilbur Whateley. It features haunting psychedelic imagery, which you wouldn’t necessarily associate with Lovecraft but actually fits the film quite well. Perhaps I haven’t been searching in the right corners of the internet, but this movie should have a larger cult following, and it deserves a much higher rating than its current 5.4/10 on IMDb. There is admittedly some stiff acting by a few of the supporting characters, and there is one extended fight scene that may seem laughable to modern audiences, but I actually enjoyed how lo-fi and gritty the fight scene was, without the extra sound effects and quick-cut edits that we’re used to seeing in modern action.
5. The Machinist (2004)
I remember liking this mystery movie when I first saw it, but that was so long ago (about 15 years) that I didn’t remember the plot. So all the twists still worked on me this time around. One thing I did remember was Christian Bale’s extreme body transformation, which might be the most disturbing aspect of the movie. He plays a machine factory worker with insomnia and amnesia. The Machinist is like weird Hitchcock—or less weird David Lynch. I felt the urge to re-watch this movie while writing Work for Idle Hands, as both are mysteries about factory workers (but with very different twists).
6. A Scanner Darkly (2006)
I really wanted to love this movie based on the Philip K. Dick novel the first time I saw it, which would have been a year or two after it originally came out. And I did love the rotoscope animation aesthetic created by director Richard Linklater, and some of the concepts, scenes, and visuals—but overall the movie left me wanting more. There’s less overt science fiction than most of PKD’s other work (aside from the suit that continually changes your identity and the future drug “Substance D”). This year I read the book for the first time (about an undercover narcotics cop investigating himself) and hoped I would like the movie more afterward, but I basically felt the same way (about both the book and movie). The movie is fairly faithful to the book, so my issues lay with the source material. A Scanner Darkly includes interesting topics such as the failed war on drugs, powerful pharmaceutical companies, and split-brain syndrome, but the parts felt greater than the whole and didn’t come together into a complete satisfying story. Ultimately, I like and appreciate A Scanner Darkly (both the book and the movie), but it’s not my favorite PKD. Though I remain open to the possibility that this is the type of book/movie that I could come to understand and appreciate more deeply upon further re-reads/re-watches in the future.
7. Johnny Mnemonic (1995)
I saw this movie once before, maybe 15 years ago when it was already ten years old, but I didn’t care for it then. I had high expectations considering it was based on a short story by William Gibson, and I’d recently read his great cyberpunk book Neuromancer. But upon re-watching Johnny Mnemonic, I found it to be better than I remembered. It’s not a great film by any means, but it is classic cyberpunk (another of my favorite genres that I wish there were more movies in). It was especially interesting to watch Johnny Mnemonic this year considering the movie is set in the year 2021—though it is a very different vision of 2021 than our current reality. Alas there are no uplifted cyborg dolphins…yet.
8. The Mothman Prophecies (2002)
This movie is based on the nonfiction book of the same name by John Keel, based on his experiences in real life involving alien-like entities (termed the Mothman and Indrid Cold) who supposedly gave him prophecies of future disasters, including the collapse of the Silver Bridge in Point Pleasant, West Virginia. (Yes, this is actually based on a true story—or at least Keel’s account of the facts.) I was inspired to see the movie after watching the TV docuseries Hellier last year in which the Mothman and Indrid Cold were mentioned, plus the Weird Studies podcast did an episode on Keel’s book, which I would eventually like to read myself. I know the movie took a lot of liberties in fictionalizing the events to make it more dramatic and cinematic, which I found somewhat disappointing. Keel’s actual account of the events is so weird and captivating in itself that there was no need to fictionalize it any further for the sake of entertainment. Though the movie was entertaining as a supernatural mystery.
9. From Hell (2001)
This is an adaptation of the Alan Moore graphic novel directed by the Hughes brothers. It’s a fictionalized story of a detective (Johnny Depp), investigating the Jack the Ripper murders. SPOILER ALERT: There is a grand conspiracy involving Freemasons and the occult. From Hell is another movie that I saw many years ago but had virtually no memory of. I decided to re-watch it since I’ve gotten more into horror since then, especially occult horror. The movie is better than I remembered it. It’s flawed—I think it could have been a masterpiece with a better script. I have not read Moore’s comic (yet) but I imagine, at 500 pages, it has much more depth in its story, plot, themes, and characters. Perhaps the film adaptation would have worked better as a television miniseries.
10. Secret Window (2004)
Based on a novella by Stephen King, Secret Window is a solid psychological thriller about a writer suffering from writer’s block while also being accused of stealing a story. It’s not the best portrayal of writer’s block (at least as I’ve experienced it), but it had a good twist and a great (dark) ending. Once again, I saw this movie years ago, but it held up on the re-watch despite anticipating the major twist.
Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):
- The Arrival (1996) – A decent sci-fi conspiracy, but not to be confused with the sci-fi masterpiece Arrival (2016).
- Black Narcissus (1947) – I watched this movie because Weird Studies did an episode about it. And while I can admire many aspects of the film, which were visually ground-breaking for its time, I struggled to get into it.
- Constantine (2005) – Mediocre adaptation of the comics; could have been better if they went for a more subtle noir feel, rather than making it big budget action, especially in the 3rd act.
- The Dead Zone (1983) – Two big names, David Cronenberg directing a movie based on Stephen King’s book, but I don’t think it’s either’s best work.
- Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) – This is similar to Dune in that it’s an adaptation of a great classic book by a great visionary director Coppola/Lynch, but each resultant movie is…not great—but they are interesting and worth watching. While not bad, Dracula is no Godfather. For more on what I thought about Dracula, see my “Best Fiction Books I read in 2021” post (coming soon).
- Dune (1984) – See my post on Dune vs. Dune vs. Dune.
- Grave Encounters (2011) – Found footage movie of a ghost hunter reality TV show crew spending the night in a supposedly haunted abandoned mental asylum.
- The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) – An underrated Cohen brothers movie—not their best, but even lesser Cohen brothers is better than most other directors’ best.
- Identity (2003) – I first saw this movie years ago and liked it as a twisty whodunnit thriller, but I liked it less this time around. It’s built entirely on the twist, and once you know it, the story falls apart on repeat viewings (as opposed to Secret Window and The Machinist).
- The Last Lovecraft: Relic of Cthulhu (2009) – A somewhat entertaining horror/comedy based on the Lovecraftian mythos.
- A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) – This is one of those classic horror movies that I had never seen before, though of course I was familiar with Freddy Krueger and even dressed up as him one Halloween when I was too young to have seen his movies. It certainly earns it’s R-rating with lots of blood and gore. The concept of being hunted by a killer in your dreams was intriguing, but the execution was cheesy at times. It overly relied on visceral horror and slasher tropes as opposed to the cerebral horror of the dreamworld concept which could have been developed further. I had higher expectations since this movie is so beloved, but overall the experience was a mixed bag for me.
- The Relic (1997) – It’s like a poor man’s Jaws, set in a museum with a giant lizard monster. I would have liked it better if they spent more time on the mythology of the South American relic and the archeologist who discovered it in the jungle rather than jumping straight to the Chicago museum.
- The Shrine (2010) – A decent horror movie about a cult in a small European farm village with a twist ending.
- Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) – This David Lynch film was well-made, well-acted, well-written, and I can admire it for that, but ultimately the subject matter was so disturbing that it turned me off. It’s not a movie I’d ever want to watch again. (I chose to watch it since Weird Studies did an episode about it.) I saw the original Twin Peaks series a few years ago before the new series came out, and I liked it better than this movie version (which is a prequel to the series), but I did not love Twin Peaks as much as many other Lynch fans seem to.
- Uzumaki aka Spiral (2000) – A hypnotic Japanese horror movie about people who are driven insane by spiral shapes that keep appearing around their town.