Chump Scares: Horror Movies to Avoid

There are a few movie genres that I will obsessively support, despite their poor batting averages. #1 on the list is horror – I watch at least one terrible haunted house/slasher/zombie/demonic doll picture per week, as part of a perpetual quest for that transcendently good scare. So why not put that wasted time to good use? Why not warn you, loyal reader, to not go down into that dark, musty basement … and watch The Prodigy?


Chump Scare #1: Ma (2019)

A promising premise – a middle-aged black woman (Octavia Spencer, too good for this shit) opens up her basement so a bunch of privileged white teens can get their drink on – is ruined by the warped priorities of its filmmakers. Writer/director Tate Taylor rushes through every disturbing revelation about “Ma,” despite the fact that a) her motivation is the engine of the whole story; b) every other character here is Saltine-bland; and c) the struggles of a woman of color do not exactly lend themselves to the 30 Rock smash-cut treatment. Taylor spends significantly more time outlining the mother-daughter dynamic between Boring Teen #1 (Diana Silvers, sleepwalking) and her single mom (hey, it’s Juliette Lewis!). It would be offensive if it wasn’t so bafflingly stupid. This is where I mention that Taylor directed The Help, and admit it’s my fault for expecting more.


Chump Scare #2: The Prodigy (2019)

Where to start with The Prodigy? How about the description from the Netflix DVD slipcase: “In her much-anticipated foray into the horror-thriller genre, Taylor Schilling stars…” Like you, I’ve been on pins and needles for years, waiting for the perfectly okay actor Taylor Schilling to leave prison dramedy behind and FINALLY make a goddamn horror movie. And, dear reader, our thoughts and prayers have paid off. Schilling stars in The Prodigy – a done-to-death possessed-kid story full of borrowed ideas from classics like The Omen and The Babadook, and crappier forebears like Audrey Rose. The more her son starts to act like the Hungarian serial killer who has taken up residence in his body (He asks for paprika at dinner! Spooooooky!), the more Schilling … doesn’t change. Maybe I missed a scene that showed her character popping opioids, but she is inexplicably chill for what felt like an interminable 92 minutes. I’d rather listen to Prodigy than see this one again.


Chump Scare #3: Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich (2018)

As someone who grew up watching the charmingly cheap, straight-to-VHS Puppet Master movies, as marathoned on TNT’s MonstervisionI was initially excited at the prospect of a self-aware reboot. Something that retained the campy flair of the originals and added some winking, fan-service humor. But even though it has the dependably hilarious Thomas Lennon in its lead role, The Littlest Reich doesn’t offer much in the way of either. Lennon’s mopey comic book store employee is there as a stand-in for the aging nerds of the film’s target audience, so he gets a half-baked, sure-to-be-murdered love interest and whisks her off to a Comic-Con-style event for collectors of dolls designed by a Nazi puppeteer. These Nazi demon puppets then start killing minorities, because they’re Nazis. This feels wrong for obvious reasons. But even more so in the context of this universe. The puppeteer from the original films, André Toulon, was an enemy of the Third Reich who infused his puppets with the souls of friends who died in the struggle. Which made it feel pretty good to root for those bloodthirsty marionettes back in the day. I have no clue what made these filmmakers think we’d want to cheer on some Nazis this time instead. There are most definitely not good puppets on both sides.

Franz List: Horrors!

Hey, Franz here. While horror movie-related lists are a dime a dozen in October, I can’t refrain from making one myself. I did get more specific than just listing the scariest flicks of all time, however (He’s Just Not That Into You would’ve been in the top five for sure). Here are ten horror movies that are just fun to watch – we’re not talking about directors digging into your psyche to mine your deepest fears, or trying to make you think at all for that matter. “A hell of a good time” is the only criterion.

10. Dead Silence (2007)
In movieland, grizzled cops have predictable vices – booze, acting like a loose cannon, and … that’s about it. But in Dead Silence, Donnie Wahlberg plays a grizzled cop whose obsession is grizzliness itself. The character, Detective Jim Lipton, is more prone to pulling out an electric razor than a gun. It’s an awesome running gag amidst a beautifully idiotic, post-Puppet Master plot line, a steady reminder that the filmmakers aren’t taking their vengeful-ventriloquist-from-beyond-the-grave story seriously.

9. Halloween V: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989)
While the first two installments of the Halloween saga were genuine thrillers, with Michael Myers playing the relatively believable role of a psycho ward escapee on a killing spree, ensuing sequels got progressively more unrealistic, and more fun. Halloween V is my favorite, if only because Donald Pleasance, who plays Myers’ long-time psychiatrist Dr. Sam Loomis, is at his sweetest and frailest, trying with all his might to convince the authorities that Myers’ niece has a psychic connection, that she knows he didn’t die when he fell down that mine shaft at the end of Halloween IV. His earnestness garners some genuine sympathy in thoroughly stupid surroundings.

8. The Brood (1979)
A horror movie designed to freak out a generation of privileged, self-absorbed therapy addicts, this 1979 David Cronenberg weirdfest tells the story of a psychotherapist who invents a way for his patients to create physical manifestations of their negative feelings. Which, of course, leads to bloodthirsty troll children in adorable winter coats wreaking havoc at the whim of their “mother,” played by an understandably dazed Samantha Eggar. It might be overlong and hard to follow, but The Brood’s uber-twisted Grapes of Wrath-acid-trip ending will wake you up right quick.

7. Silver Bullet (1985)
After a paraplegic Corey Haim murders a werewolf priest by shooting him in the face, the girl who played Anne of Green Gables turns to him and asks “Are you alright?” He responds, “All except for my legs. I don’t think I can walk.” Cue the laughter. Oh yeah, and Gary Busey is there.

6. Bones (2001)
The clichés at the center of Bones sound too daunting to overcome. Snoop Dogg plays a ’70s numbers runner called Jimmy Bones, whose spirit haunts his old nightclub in the form of a red-eyed dog. But as Jimmy’s beloved neighborhood crumbles under crack’s ironclad grip, Jimmy’s spirit gets pissed, and his movie gets wildly entertaining. This is Evil Dead-meets-Superfly, pairing gallons of fake blood, arguments with severed heads and out-of-leftfield parallel universes with real ghetto commentary and a feasible love story. Snoop clearly relishes the role, and is magnetic throughout. And while the surprise ending isn’t necessary, that doesn’t make it any less cool.

5. Santa Buddies: The Legend of Santa Paws (2009)
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul; He guides me in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake. Even though I sat through Santa Buddies, a movie about a post-apocalyptic future in which packs of talking dogs fly around the world every Christmas, spewing Christian propaganda and perpetuating black and female stereotypes everywhere they go, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

4. The Gingerdead Man (2005)
Gary Busey’s second appearance on this list is for a horror-comedy masterpiece that takes the rules from Child’s Play and applies them to a six-inch high gingerbread man. After psycho killer Millard Findlemeyer gets the death penalty, his witch mom mixes his ashes into some gingerbread dough, which she drops off at a bakery where Sarah Leigh (hilarious!) works – the woman whose testimony sealed Millard’s fate. Of course, somebody bakes the dough into a cookie shape, the cookie kills the shit out of people even though all you’d have to do is stomp on him or spray him with a hose, and everything is left open for a hopefully endless string of sequels. Plus, there’s the ultra-convenient 70-minute running time – you can watch this puppy on your lunch break.

3. Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)
As dark and imaginative as Gremlins was – it remains the ultimate cautionary tale about the evil that lurks inside all very cute things – the sequel is much more fun. Director Joe Dante returns for The New Batch, and does all the crazy stuff he probably wanted to do in the first, Chris Columbus-penned film, ending up with an anarchic, horror-comedy gem. When Gizmo shows up in a state-of-the-art NYC office building (where his old owners Billy and Kate both happen to work), he gets wet and spawns a brand new litter of havoc-wreaking bi-ped lizards. As the Gremlins infiltrate research labs and TV studios, become super-intelligent and transform into bat- and spider-like creatures, they create a chaos that’s both hilarious and cathartic – if only today’s massive corporations could be taken over with such ease and panache.

2. Sleepwalkers (1992)
Of the reams of junk that Stephen King has slapped his name on, the screenplay for Sleepwalkers is his campiest, most gloriously tossed-off accomplishment. A small town is terrorized by a mother and son who are telekinetic, vampiric shapeshifter werewolves that must feed on the life force of virgin women to survive. Director Mick Garris delivers it all with the requisite wink and a nudge, creating two of the most unforgettable horror/comedy moments of all time – a graveyard fight with a corkscrew-in-the-eye coup de grace, and a climactic slow dance between the main character Tanya and the half-dead monster Charles. Not to mention a catchphrase that should’ve took the world by storm – “Stop looking at me, you fucking cat!”

1. Trick ‘r Treat (2007)
This straight-to-DVD effort is the easily the best Halloween movie of the 21st century, and stands up there with anything John Carpenter has churned out over the years. An anthology of horror story vignettes that weave together in wonderfully clever fashion on one eventful Halloween night, Trick ‘r Treat gives us spooky urban legends, vengeful ghosts, werewolves, a sadistic principal, and Sam, a tiny trick or treater in a creepy, burlap bag Jack-o-Lantern costume. Writer/director Michael Dougherty lets us see the events unfold in provocative, Tarantino-esque ways, without overcomplicating things – amidst the swirl of converging plot lines, Dougherty anchors everything on the crippling guilt of one old man. So while Trick ‘r Treat is loads of fun to watch, it’s also an important reminder for horrorphiles – nothing is scarier than a story told well.