#10 – SAW (2004)
Directed by James Wan
Last Year’s Rank: 10
Rating: 4.5 stars
Sequels: Saw II (2005, D: D. Bousman, 3.5 stars)
Saw III (2006, D: D. Bousman, 1.5 stars)
Saw IV (2007, D: D. Bousman, 2.5 stars)
Saw V (2008, D: D. Hackl)
The original Saw was genius in the simplicity of its premise. Two men who don’t know each other wake up in a room with no idea how or why they are there. Chained to pipes in the room, with a corpse and fifteen feet between them, they’re tormented by an unseen psychopath named “Jigsaw”. And the clock is ticking with one of the men’s family to be killed if he can’t escape in time.
Part of the genius is that we know as little as the characters at the beginning of the film. We’re dropped in the middle of this situation with no clue what the hell is going on. It turns out that the tormentor is the Tyler Durden of maniacs. He wants you to stop taking your life for granted, so he devises deadly traps that are escapable if you’re willing to go far enough. And if you do survive, you’ll appreciate living more than ever.
It’s a premise played out to perfection. Mystery, suspense, horror, gore — it’s got it all. Including a twist ending that you don’t see coming.
#9 – JAWS (1975)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Last Year’s Rank: 9
Rating: 5 stars
Sequels: Jaws 2 (1978, D: J. Szwarc, 3 stars)
Jaws 3-D (1983, D: J. Alves, 1.5 stars)
Jaws: The Revenge (1987, D: J. Sargent, 0 stars)
Jaws not only scared the shit out of seasoned horror maniacs, but mainstream America as well. Most horror these days is made for a niche audience, with exceptions, of course. Jaws appeals to the masses. Is it the magic Spielberg touch? The fact it’s based on a novel? Or is it that the killer isn’t something as abstract as a psycho in a mask. It’s a shark — a prehistoric eating and killing machine. Humans have a primordial fear of sharks, captured perfectly in the opening scene. Naked, alone, and vulnerable in the vast waters, out of her element and easy picking for a predator in his home turf.
With the help of the familiar eerie theme music, the shark stops being a force of nature and become the jagged tooth-filled maw of malevolent destruction — a true villain.
The sequels got progressively worse and worse and the stories became more and more outlandish. Jaws 2 isn’t bad at all, really. It’s a decent thriller. Jaws 3-D was, of course, in 3-D, but the story and effects were so inept that a 10 year old could do a better job with a handheld video camera and twenty bucks. Jaws: The Revenge is so insanely stupid, I won’t comment except to warn you not to even bother watching it for unintentional laughs. It’s that bad.
#8 – ALIEN (1979)
Directed by Ridley Scott
Last Year’s Rank: 8
Rating: 5 stars
Sequels: Aliens (1986, D: J. Cameron, 5 stars)
Alien 3 (1992, D: D. Fincher , 2.5 stars)
Alien: Resurrection (1997, D: J. Jeunet, 3 stars)
AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004, D: P. Anderson, 1.5 star)
AVPR: Aliens vs. Predator – Requiem (2007, D: C. Strause and G. Strause)
I saw this on the big screen a couple of years ago and let me confirm what you already know: it’s scary. Maybe it’s the way that we get to know the characters before they’re gruesomely dispatched one by one. Or maybe it’s the aliens themselves with their razor teeth, cockroach-like exoskeleton, and acid for blood. But it’s probably the unrelenting suspense that begins with the infamous chest bursting scene and doesn’t let up until the end credits roll. The sequels are varying degrees of good. Aliens is a great sci-fi/action movie, which is many people’s favorite of the series. Alien 3 has a fairly interesting concept and a great director, but falls short. Alien: Resurrection is more like the second one in tone, but with some twists. And if you’re a fan of inane PG-13 horror at it’s most insipid, there’s always Alien vs. Predator. But you can’t go wrong with the first one. It’s a classic for a reason.
#7 – A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984)
Directed by Wes Craven
Last Year’s Rank: 7
Rating: 5 stars
Sequels: A Nightmare On Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985, D: J. Sholder, 2)
A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987, D: C. Russell, 3 stars)
A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988, D: R. Harlin, 2 stars)
A Nightmare On Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989, D: S. Hopkins, 1.5 stars)
Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991, D: R. Talalay)
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994, D: W. Craven, 3 stars)
Freddy vs. Jason (2003, D: R. Yu, 3 stars)
Forget the sequels and the one-liner spewing, stand-up comedian version of Freddy. The first and best movie in this series is one of the scariest films ever made. It has a great horror concept (he kills you in your dreams), a neo-classic villain (Freddy Krueger – child killer and demon), and one of the defining horror directors. You’d never find Heather Langenkamp’s Nancy in a horror movie released today, but she’s perfect for Nightmare; an everyday girl next door. The entire film plays out as Nancy’s nightmare. We never see the “real” Nancy in the movie — the girl that’s dreaming all of this. In a sense, we, the audience, are Nancy. Her nightmare is seen through our eyes. In her nightmare, when she falls asleep, she enters Freddy’s realm. But the nightmare inside the nightmare conceit allows Freddy to seemingly inflict damage in the real world and, ultimately, enter the real world. The only explanation is that what we think is Nancy’s reality – her waking world – is, in fact, just another dreamworld. Further evidence is how, at the end, all of Nancy’s friends (ie. Freddy’s victims) are all somehow suddenly alive and the nightmare begins anew. Nancy, and we, it turns out, are still dreaming.
All that aside, it’s just a frightening, disturbing movie that hits all the right notes. The sequels are varying degrees of entertaining. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is commendable for introducing a new twist to the formula and bringing back the scary, menacing Freddy, but it’s not on par with the first film. Freddy vs. Jason is a surprising fun movie, but it’s not all that scary. Worth checking out, though for fans of either franchise.
#6 – FRIDAY THE 13th (1980)
Directed by Sean S. Cunningham
Last Year’s Rank: 6
Rating: 4 stars
Sequels: Friday The 13th Part 2 (1981, D: S. Miner, 2 stars)
Friday The 13th Part III (1982, D: S. Miner, 3 stars)
Friday The 13th: The Final Chapter (1984, D: J. Zito, 3 stars)
Friday The 13th Part V: A New Beginning (1985, D: D. Steinmann, 2 stars)
Friday The 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986, D: T. McLoughlin, 4 stars)
Friday The 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988, D: J. Buechler, 2.5 stars)
Friday The 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989, D: R. Hedden, 1 star)
Jason Goes To Hell: The Final Friday (1993, D: A. Marcus, 2.5 stars)
Jason X (2001, D: J. Isaac, 3 stars)
Freddy vs. Jason (2003, D: R. Yu, 3 stars)
I struggled with where to rank this series. When I began the list, it was lodged firmly at #25. As the weeks wore on, it moved steadily up the list until last week when I placed it at #6. And I know that such a high ranking for such a cheap, poorly written, and poorly acted series could blow what’s left of my credibility, but I have to admit it. I love these movies.
When I was a kid, I wasn’t allowed to go to R-rated movies. Even so, I saw the trailers on tv and was absolutely terrified of Jason Voorhees. I actually read the novelization for Part 3 and it scared the crap out of me. So when I finally saw my first actual Friday movie (which, by the way, was the first one), I was expecting the worst. I wasn’t disappointed. I’d never seen anything like it.
The first eight movies follow pretty much the same basic formula and define 80s horror. A group of 17 and 18 year olds are in the woods to apparently party and have sex. Jason dispatches them in various creative, painful, and bloody ways until a survivor (or two) somehow defeats him.
An exception is the first movie, where we only see Jason as the ghostly image of a deformed young boy. The killer is actually Jason’s mother, taking revenge on the camp counselors who she thinks let her son drown while they were off having sex. Mrs. Voorhees is decapitated at the end of Part 1, which, it turns out in Part 2, Jason, now a man who wears a potato sack on his head, witnesses. This causes him to seek out his own revenge on a new batch of counselors, who never seem to learn their lesson that Camp Crystal Lake might not be the best place for summer employment.
The Jason that we come to know and love finally emerges in one of the better entries of the series, Friday the 13th Part III, where he finally gets his trademark hockey mask. He takes an axe to the head at the end, but somehow returns to duty for Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter. This is a solid and scary entry that begins a “Tommy Jarvis” trilogy within the series, spanning parts 4, 5, and 6. The Final Chapter ends with a 13 year old Tommy (played by Corey Feldman) chopping Jason into tiny pieces with a machete. But was this really the final chapter?
Probably not. Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning picked up the Jarvis trilogy storyline with an older Tommy recovering from his psychological trauma at a halfway house in (you guessed it) the woods. The killer this time is not Jason, but someone who uses the Jason myth to make people think it’s either Jason back from the grave or Tommy, emulating Jason’s crimes. “Jason” doesn’t even appear until the last ten minutes of the movie. They never show the killer’s face until he takes Jason’s hockey mask from Tommy’s room.
Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives is my personal favorite of the series. It’s the final part of the Jarvis trilogy, in which Tommy accidentally resurrects Franken–, uh, I mean Jason — before luring him back to Crystal Lake, where Tommy chains him to the bottom of the lake.
Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood is an odd entry in that the heroine, Tina, has telekinetic powers. No one else in the Friday universe has powers other than Jason, who seems to be immortal and super strong. Tina is able to move objects with her mind and hands Jason the biggest ass kicking he receives in the entire series. Part VII ends with Jason being improbably returned to the bottom of Crystal Lake.
Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan is a terrible misfire, and by far the worst of the series, taking Jason out of the woods and bringing him to New York, which looks suspiciously like Vancouver B.C. For hardcore fans only.
After Part VIII, Newline Cinema acquired the property from Paramount and set about trying to re-invent the stale series with Jason Goes To Hell: The Final Friday. It was a rocky start, with Jason as a slug-like creature with the ability to possess people’s bodies. You had to admire them for trying something different, but this was TOO different for diehard Friday fans and not different enough for non-fans. The last shot of the movie is Freddy’s razor glove pulling Jason into Hell.
Jason X flung the series into the far future, where Jason has been revived from cryogenic freezing. He bonds with some cybernetic technology and becomes a literal killing machine. Believe it or not, it’s better than it sounds, but not much.
The most recent appearance of Jason was in Freddy vs. Jason, which delivered on the promise of the ending of Jason Goes To Hell, with Freddy invading Jason’s nightmares so that he can control Jason, making people think Freddy is the actual killer. The theory being that if people begin remembering Freddy, it will give him the power to return to stalk children in their dreams. Only Jason’s more difficult too control than Freddy anticipated. (Completely off topic, but given that the first film of the Nightmare series was Nancy’s dream, an argument could be made that all of Freddy’s appearances are actually dreamed by Nancy. If so, then Nancy is also dreaming Jason, but is she dreaming it out of nowhere or does Jason actually exist and the knowledge of his existence is impacting her dreams? Just curious.)
There was also a television series that wasn’t specifically associated with the movies that ran for a few seasons in the late 80s called Friday the 13th: The Series. Cousins Mickey Foster and Ryan Dallion inherit a shop called Curious Goods from their Uncle Lewis. Unfortunately, Uncle Lewis was evil and sold cursed goods. So now Mickey, Ryan, and Jack Marshack must hunt down and retrieve all the cursed items sold before more bad things happen. It was originally planned that the final episode of the series would have them tracking down the final cursed item: a certain hockey mask.
Love ’em or hate ’em, you can’t deny the Friday the 13th series’ impact on modern horror. You also can’t deny that the original films featured some of the scariest soundtracks ever committed to tape. Sure, the movies have their problems. They’re not going to win any awards. But if you’re in the mood for 90 minutes of fun scares, pointless gore, and gratuitous nudity, you could do a lot worse.