There’s a reason why Hollywood types usually call January “dump month.” For decades now, this has been the time of year when studios release their low-concept, lowbrow, lowest common denominator movies. And why not? Everyone’s eyes are all on the big Oscar contenders, which typically expand their releases throughout the month, so that all of these terrible horror movies, family comedies and z-grade action thrillers can slip out unnoticed or, at best, act as counter-programming to all the classy dramas cluttering up the multiplexes.
But the danged thing is, sometimes great movies still come out in January, even if it’s only by accident. Studios have an annoying tendency to underestimate their horror movies in particular, so the films that nobody expects to be great can occasionally turn out to be all-time classics of the genre… or at least be entertaining as hell.
So, in an effort to take back January’s good name, here are our picks for 13 great horror movies that came out at the beginning of the year. These movies defied our expectations of January releases, if not at the time they came out then at least eventually, as their cults gradually grew.
THE STEPFATHER (1987)
One of the great Reagan Era horror movies. THE STEPFATHER stars Terry O’Quinn as a serial killer who marries into a family, tries to live up to the conservative American dream, and then goes on a murderous rampage whenever his wife and stepchildren reveal they have flaws. Then, he does it all over again. His latest daughter suspects something is deeply, deeply wrong, and the suspense hits Hitchcockian levels as we wait for O’Quinn – giving one of the most intimate and horrifying performances in genre history – to go nuclear on his nuclear family.
Bob Balaban directed this deliciously perverse horror comedy, about a young boy who wonders if his wholesome parents are actually feeding him human flesh. Randy Quaid is particularly creepy as the child’s too-good-to-be-true father (decades before we knew how creepy he was in real life), but more importantly, Balaban’s sitcom sensibilities clash in just the right/wrong way with watching your parents have a hot, wet, blood orgy.
One of the most entertaining b-movies of the 1990s was also one of the very first movies of the decade. TREMORS stars Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward as loser fix-it men in a podunk desert town who run afoul of precambrian monsters that burrow underground and trap the residents of Perfection, NV atop their houses. Now they can either try to escape or risk starving to death, an unusual dramatic situation that director Ron Underwood milks for everything it’s worth. With a smart script and a great supporting cast (particularly Michael Gross and Reba McEntire as lovable right-wing gun nuts), TREMORS boasts laughs and scares aplenty.
HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER (1990)
Most movies romanticize violence, intentionally or otherwise, but no one could say that about HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER. John McNaughton’s punishing, uncompromising drama about a sociopath, played eerily by Michael Rooker, treats every sadistic event like it was nothing. The realism is shocking, and the damn near lack of interest the title maniac has in the violence he doles out is vile. The scene where Henry and his accomplice Otis (Tom Towles) watch a video tape of their latest home invasion, as vapidly as they’d watch an old rerun, is one of the most disturbing scenes ever captured on celluloid.
THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE (1992)
Nestled halfway between erotic thrillers and old school suspense, Curtis Hanson’s THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE is the unsettling story of a family that doesn’t know it’s been infiltrated by a maniac. Rebecca De Mornay, sexy and insidious, is the new nanny in a seemingly idyllic household, but she has a sick agenda that threatens to tear this unsuspecting family apart… maybe even literally. Classy chills and slick direction elevate Hanson’s film above its many psychological thriller competitors from the early 1990s.
MAN BITES DOG (1993)
The mockumentary was still a new and novel genre when MAN BITES DOG premiered, and despite the film’s many imitators, it still feels as fresh and grotesque as it did in the early 1990s. A documentary film crew follows around a nihilistic mass murderer, determined to remain objective but increasingly involved and culpable in their star’s despicable crime spree. As the members of the crew begin to die, one by one, the survivors each promise to finish the film in their respective names, never admitting that the best way to honor their memory would be to stop. Where does journalism stop and human decency begin?
DEMON KNIGHT (1995)
The first TALES FROM THE CRYPT movie is still the best. William Sadler plays a man sworn to protect a vial of Jesus Christ’s blood from a charismatic ghoul, played hilariously by Billy Zane, and fights off an army of hell beasts along with the residents of a rundown hotel. Jada Pinkett Smith, Thomas Haden Church, CCH Pounder and the inimitable Dick Miller co-star in this clever, fast-paced, action-packed horror thriller which may or may not be improved by the silly little bookends in which the Cryptkeeper goes Hollywood.
FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (1996)
After their successful sophomore features PULP FICTION and DESPERADO, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez took a break to collaborate on this genre-bending vampire crime caper. Few knew what to make of FROM DUSK TILL DAWN when it came out, but everybody knew that it was “cool.” It was cool that George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino were fugitives who kidnapped Harvey Keitel and Juliette Lewis, snuck into Mexico, and ran afoul of stripper vampires. It was cool that visual effects guru Tom Savini co-starred as a badass with a penis gun. And it was cool that Salma Hayek served Tarantino beer from her foot. FROM DUSK TILL DAWN is a slick and memorable film that never really achieves great artistic heights, but it never tried to. It focused on fun instead.
Gregory Hoblit’s noirish supernatural thriller seemed like a step down for Denzel Washington when it came out in the late 1990s, but FALLEN has developed a small but devoted cult following in the years that followed, and with good cause. Washington stars as a detective who discovers that the serial killer he’s been searching for is actually a demon who can transmigrate to different human hosts. All it takes to infect a person is a little touch. This kicks off a nightmare scenario in which our hero must find a way to stop the unstoppable. FALLEN boasts unique set pieces, an impressive supporting cast (John Goodman, Donald Sutherland, Elias Koteas), and a gut punch ending that sticks in your craw.
FINAL DESTINATION 2 (2003)
A lot of slasher sequels try to one-up the original with higher death counts and more elaborate kills, but in the case of FINAL DESTINATION 2, it’s a formula that works. David R. Ellis directs this Rube Goldberg movie, in which a group of strangers accidentally cheat death (in one of the terrifying car accident ever filmed), only to find death itself coming for them one-by-one. Watching the ineffable hand of fate manipulate the world around these unwitting victims is an impish thrill, and the unexpected ways in which they each meet their gory end are – to a one – a morbid joy to behold.
After the SAW franchise, Eli Roth’s HOSTEL is probably the most iconic torture porn movie. It may also be the best. Roth lures you in with a typical “dudes on vacation” scenario, only to plummet his protagonists into a hellish factory where they are tortured to death by men who… well, that’s the whole point, isn’t it? Who would be despicable enough to want these poor bastards dead? And who would actually get off on watching them tortured to death?
Oh right, it’s you, the horror movie fan. You should ashamed of yourself. (Scary, huh?)
Michael and Peter Spierig wrote and directed this smartly conceived sci-fi/horror hybrid, which posits that in a world where vampires are real, who wouldn’t want to be a vampire? So now the majority of the human population is a night-dwelling nosferatu, and real human blood – which vampires need to survive – is a dwindling natural resource. Ethan Hawke plays a scientist charged with solving the blood problem before the vampires of the world starve to death, and Willem Dafoe plays the anarchic human rebel with a plan to save or possibly kill them all. DAYBREAKERS may be an on-the-nose allegory for these troubled times, but it draws apt parallels and dramatizes them in an entertaining, badass way.
JOHN DIES AT THE END (2014)
From PHANTASM and BUBBA HO-TEP director Don Coscarelli hails this offbeat horror comedy, about two friends who take an experimental narcotic and wind up able to travel between dimensions, through time, and whatever else the baffling and wondrous plot demands of them. Meat monsters, hero dogs and ultra-violence ensue. Based on the hit novel by David Wong, JOHN DIES AT THE END is the hallucinogenic version of SUPERNATURAL you never new you always wanted, and it delivers on that kooky promise in practically every scene.