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A Horror Acclimation Syllabus

Updated: Jan 18

Feeling left out because you haven't seen Get Out? Seeing flower crowns everywhere and wondering what that's all about? Do you just smile and nod while your friends talk about Toni Colette being robbed of an Oscar?

You're not alone. We are living in a golden age of horror, and while old-hat horror fans like me are thrilled to see the genre hitting a more respected movie echelon, some people are struggling to figure out how to enjoy good cinema that also may scare the pants off them (thank you to one of my favorite podcasts, Reply All, for the idea for this post).

Allow me to humbly present my Horror Acclimation Syllabus, a 14-film program progressing from mildly queasy to deeply disturbing horror movies that are also all genuinely good films.

A note at the beginning: If you are really nervous about scary movies, start with older horror. The Exorcist broke barriers when it came out, but our acclimation to special effects has pushed many of the older classics down the list of actual scares. Starting with something like The Omen, Dead Alive, or Evil Dead is a great idea to start out your syllabus because it will give you a good idea of the roots of horror and horror storytelling without ultra-realism or jump scares. Once you're comfortable with these, you can move on to more modern takes.

1. Pontypool (2008)

Pontypool is an original twist on the classic zombie flick. Taking place almost entirely inside a Canadian radio station, the story is engaging and the dialogue zips you right along as the tension builds slowly.

Rotten Tomatoes: 84%

Scare Rating: 2/10

Horror Type: Psychological/Monster

2. Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)

A sardonic take on the LA art scene, Velvet Buzzsaw takes characters you love to hate and (slight spoiler) knocks them off in creative ways as a spirit of a tortured painter seeks vengeance via art. It's fun and surreal and features a bespectacled Jake Gyllenhal living his absolute best life.

Rotten Tomatoes: 62%

Scare Rating: 3/10

Horror Type: Gore

3. Get Out (2017)

That's right, the first heavy hitter is already in your grasp. Get Out sits comfortably between horror and thriller, and is a great introduction to scary movies that have something to say. The cast is perfect and the complexity of the dialogue is worth a re-watch or two.

Rotten Tomatoes: 98%

Scare Rating: 4/10

Horror Type: Psychological

4. A Quiet Place (2018)

A Quiet Place is the first true monster movie on this list, and one of the few that I can really recommend. When it comes to horror, monster movies often make the mistake of revealing the Scary Thing too early, taking away the dread and allowing a tangible target for our fear that can then be defeated. The intrigue of A Quiet Place lies in the premise of the monsters and follows through solidly with good, smart characters and world-building.

Rotten Tomatoes:

Scare Rating: 5/10

Horror Type: Monster

5. Creep (2014)

Admittedly, there's a bit of a gap between this one and those preceding, scare-wise. Creep is one of the best examples of found footage, which keeps you on edge by design without too many actual jump scares. The movie is one long skin-crawl and you never quite know what's coming.

Rotten Tomatoes: 89%

Scare Rating: 6/10

Horror Type: Found Footage

6. The Babadook (2014)

Nightmare, Aussie, bisexual icon. The Babadook is all this and more. On a more serious note, this movie relies on real emotional turmoil overlaid with supernatural elements to create a film with a 98% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Rotten Tomatoes: 98%

Scare Rating: 7/10

Horror Type: Psychological

7. Us (2019)

Jordan Peele's heavily metaphorical parable gets more or less straight to the scares as body doubles ruin a family vacation. The focus of the movie isn't as clear as Get Out, but Lupita Nyong'o's performance alone makes this movie worth it. The premise feels deliberate and original, and even though it isn't airtight at times, you can't say it isn't a fun ride.

Rotten Tomatoes: 93%

Scare Rating: 7/10

Horror Type: Psychological

8. Would You Rather (2012)

Would You Rather is as far into the "torture porn" genre as I tend to recommend, which is about ankle-deep (for the extreme ends of this, see Saw, Hostel, etc.). Brittany Snow stars as an older sister desperate to fund her younger brother's cancer treatment by accepting a role in a sociopathic game. The movie leans heavy into gore but also takes some time to develop its characters, which makes it worth the watch.

Rotten Tomatoes: 59%

Scare Rating: 7/10

Horror Type: Gore/Violence

9. As Above So Below (2014)

Ben Feldman is distractingly charming in this found-footage quest into the Paris catacombs. A young professor seeks to finish her father's quest for Nicholas Flammel's stone (yer a demon, Harry!) and brings a crew with her through a maze that may or may not be leading directly to Hell. This movie is genuinely enjoyable, fairly unpredictable, and actually scary, especially if you, like me, are extremely claustrophobic (check out The Descent for a similar vibe).

Rotten Tomatoes: 26%

Scare Rating: 8/10

Horror Type: Found Footage

10. Silent Hill (2006)

A successful example of video game-to-film adaptation, Silent Hill never lets up on the tension. Although critically panned, I found it to be just trope-y enough to be enjoyable and unpredictable enough to be scary. This pick may not be for everyone - the plot is slightly muddied by unhelpful dialogue and the special effects are very early 2000s - but I love a movie that leans into the spook and never gives you a break.

Rotten Tomatoes: 31%

Scare Rating: 8/10

Horror Type: Gore

11. It Follows (2014)

To say I love this movie is an understatement. Completely original, gripping, and accompanied by one of the most incredible horror scores since Psycho, it tells the story of a monster that stalks its victim slowly but tirelessly until they are given a choice: keep running forever or pass it along to someone else. Set in a timeless version of Detroit, a group of teens tries to stop the cycle before it catches up.

Rotten T0matoes: 96%

Scare Rating: 8/10

Horror Type: Monster

12. Midsommar (2019)

The genius of Midsommar is in its atmosphere: a horror movie set entirely in the daytime. The endless sun of Swedish summertime sets the scene for a gut-wrenching break-up that draws every horrible thought you've ever repressed to the surface. Visually stunning and flawlessly acted by Florence Pugh, the movie earns its explosive finale. As a bonus, catch William Jackson Harper in his now typecasted role as "man in danger due to his obsession with his PhD subject area".

Rotten Tomatoes: 83%

Scare Rating: 8/10

Horror Type: Psychological

13. Suspiria (2018)

While I'm a fan of both the original and the remake, I recommend the remake because it lets up slightly on style in order to tell a slightly more coherent story. The body horror here is some of the most visceral I've seen, but is done in a way that makes it difficult to look away. If you do need a break during the movie, try to figure out which three roles Tilda Swinton plays.

Rotten Tomatoes: 65%

Scare Rating: 9/10

Horror Type: Gore

14. Hereditary (2018)

Ari Aster's family drama sits at the end of this list because of the feeling it leaves you with. I would compare it to Requiem for a Dream in the sense that once I finished this movie, I knew I was not going to rewatch it any time soon. I thought about it for days afterward. It is both scary and viscerally upsetting, with some of the best acting you'll see in anything approaching horror.

Rotten Tomatoes: 89%

Scare Rating: 10/10

Horror Type: Psychological

And there you have it! Keep in mind that film and scares are subjective, and I can't tell you with 100% certainty what will scare you or not. But if you do want to try out this list, I hope you have some fun and spooky times ahead!

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