Unca Timo's Cartoon Fun Club!

And now for something completely different...

For your viewing pleasure, I present to you a selection of animated shorts.  Let thoughts be inspired, let the feels be felted, bathe in the beauty of spareness, of clutter, of unfettered creativity.  Behold and enjoy!

You may want to bookmark this one and come back to it rather than trying to watch them all at once.

The Man Who Had to Sing - 1971
Written by Nedeljko Dragic
Directed by Milan Blazekovic

This Yugoslavian cartoon managed to sneak out from behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, which certainly goes a long way toward explaining its perspective.  That, however, should not be seen as an excuse for us to overlook how it's applicable to life in our society today.  I have described this cartoon and Chuck Jones' "One Froggy Evening" (sadly unavailable due to Warner Brothers' approach to digital rights management) as the 2 most important things that young people need to understand about our world before leaving school, and I was only kind of kidding.

Why Man Creates - 1968
Written by Saul Bass & Mayo Simon
Directed by Saul Bass

This film won the Academy Award for Documentary Short Subject in 1968.  It's from Saul Bass who created some of the most iconic posters and title sequences for film in the mid-20th century.  He was also largely responsible for designing the shower sequence in Hitchcock's "Psycho."  Why Man Creates reflects his mastery both as a creator, and as one who has spent a lot of time examining the very act of creation.

Paperman - 2012
Written by Clio Chang & Kendelle Hoyer
Directed by John Kahrs

Another Oscar winner.  That seems to be the mood I'm in.  Paperman really struck a chord with a lot of people, using the digital animation technology that we're used to seeing for 3D animation, but presented in a retro 2D style.  It's a sweet, simple boy-meets-girl tale that will make you wish it was really that sweet and simple.

Munro - 1961
Written By Jules Pfeiffer
Directed by Gene Deitch

Munro was Pfeiffer's reaction to his experience serving in the Army.  In it, a 4 year old by is drafted and trained as a soldier.  His protestations fall upon ears deafened by obedience to bureaucracy.  It won an Oscar for Animated Short.  Man I love those cartoonists from the 60s.

Balance - 1989
Directed by Christoph Lauenstein & Wolfgang Lauenstein

One of the things that animation does, perhaps better than any other format I can think of, is to present metaphors in motion.  Balance had that covered in spades.  Despite it's simplicity, it's universality and potency were clearly enough to win it an Oscar.  This should forever change the way you hear the phrase "fair and balanced."  Consider this added to the list of things that young people should know before leaving school.

Mr. Hublot - 2013
Written by Launrent Witz
Directed by Laurent Witz & Alexandre Espigares

Mr. Hublot is a quirky little fellow who has to turn the lights on and off a specific number of times before leaving his home in a dense urban landscape of crumbling machinery.  He clearly likes his life to be "just so."  So it comes as a bit of a surprise and a challenge when he decides to share his home with the stray he takes in off the street.  Beautiful stuff here, and yes, an Oscar winner.

The Lost Thing - 2010
Written by Shaun Tan
Directed by Andrew Ruhemann & Shaun Tan

The Lost Thing is a fairly straight adaptation from Shaun Tan's book of the same name.  It tells a fairly straightforward tale of a bot who finds an unusual creature on the beach, then determines to help it find its home.  Okay, it serves metaphorical purposes too.  Yes, it won an Oscar, but I was already a fan of the book, so there; I'm not just picking Oscar winners for the sake of showing off.

Varmints - 2008
Written by Marc Craste from his Book with Helen Ward
Directed by Marc Craste

Another authorial adaptation of a brilliant book, Marc Craste's Varmints is a heartbreaking work of sheer beauty.  It's a powerful parable about industrialization, the loss of hope and nurturing nature; giving back the life that it gives to us.  It wasn't even nominated for an Oscar, which seems a real shame.  It's amazing.

Well that's about all the time we have today, kids!  Stay in drugs and don't do school!  We'll have to do this again sometime soon.  There are a whole lot more wonderful works of animation out there to share and discover!

The Best Hauntings & Ghost Stories on Film


You and your attractive young family have just moved into your dream home; a big old place, Colonial, possibly Victorian.  While fixing the place up, you discover some lost treasures of past generations; an odd old photo album, a cobwebbed rocking chair... a music box.  The house is drafty, as old houses often are, and doors seem to open and close on their own.  It creaks a bit, especially at night, but you'll get used to that in time... even if it does sound like footsteps in the attic.  Who's calling your name?  Surely you're just too tired, with all that's been going on.

It'll be good for the kids, living out here in the country with plenty of room to run around and scream all they like.  They're already making up new stories about the kids who lived here long ago.  Such detail!  How vivid.  Wait, where is Mary Ann... WHERE'S MARY ANN?

Now me, I'm of the opinion that ghost stories are the best and scariest in all of the broader genre of horror films.  You're certainly free to be wrong about this.  While I certainly enjoy the hell out of creatures, I rarely find them scary because they're not real.  And while I've definitely found some slasher-type horror that I really enjoyed, I don't rock the gore, and the concept of serial killers is just a little too real for me (ridiculous portrayals notwithstanding).  Somewhere in the middle, and yet over to the side, we have ghosts and hauntings.  I don't necessarily believe in ghosts, but neither do I fully disbelieve in them.  They don't merely straddle the line between real and unreal, they are the unknown.  This makes them the essence of fear itself.

Could there be ghosts or other restless spirits?  There could be.  Could there be something in the house?  There could be.  Could there be something more terrifying than you've ever imagined be right behind you, waiting to turn your heart to ice?  There could be.  Could you be losing your mind?  You could be.

This is why a creaking floorboard is scarier than a zombie gnawing on a liver.  Sadly, in our all-too-human compulsive need for resolution, even our ghost stories tend to become overly explicit in their final acts.  We want so badly to know, even when that thing in the basement is unknown, and unknowable.  In forgiveness of our humanity, I'm giving a little bit of a pass to some of the films that might go a bit overboard to satisfy the more concrete curiosities in the cinema complex.

So here, in no particular order, are some of the very best entries of the best sub-genre of horror cinema.

Carnivale - 2003
Episodes 5: "Babylon" and 6: "Pick A Number"
Written by Daniel Knauf, Dawn Prestwich & Nicole Yorkin and Daniel Knauf & Ronald D. Moore, respectively
Directed by Tim Hunter and Rodrigo Garcia, respectively

These two episodes form one of the most chilling and unexpected ghost stories I've ever seen.  The series was great in the first place, but this particular chapter in the lives of a Depression-era traveling show was a truly impacting gut-punch.  Led by their mysterious and unseen "Management" to the dried up mining town of Babylon, about which no good has been said, events turn from bleak to disastrous.  After a rough night of drinking (for many of them) one member of their entourage goes missing, waking up to find himself dumped deep in a labyrinth of a crumbling mine shaft.  Meanwhile, the Carnivale opens -- at first to little response, before a dark mass of grimy and sullen-faced miners pour in.  A subtle anger simmers in them, stirring ill-ease within many.  After one of the burlesque dancers drops her drawers, things intensify, and the miners nearly drag her from the stage.  Shortly afterward, she turns up dead with "HARLOT" carved into her forehead.  This unleashes a frantic hunt for someone responsible, or someone to take the blame and pay in blood for the carnies' rage.  What follows is some dark behavior on the parts of all parties involved, and the final fate of the dancer's spirit is flat-out bone-chilling.

The Shining - 1980
Written by Stanley Kubrick & Diane Johnson
From the book by Stephen King
Directed by Stanley Kubrick

I've read that Stephen King disliked Kubrick's interpretation of his book because it placed a greater emphasis on the psychological terror and downplayed the supernatural.  This is, of course, exactly what makes The Shining THE greatest haunting movie of all time, so Stephen King can suck it.

The madness, the claustrophobic camera, the twins, the thing in the tub, the maze... pure classic.

The Others - 2001
Written & Directed by Alejandro Amenabar

The Others is just plain spooky.  A tightly wound mother (Nicole Kidman) and her two children inhabit a perpetually fog-bound country estate somewhere in England.  What's more, someone or something else seems to be in the house with them.  Amenabar plays it slow and creepy as he adds elements of strange mystery which build toward the startling conclusion.

The Ring - 2002
Written by Ehren Kruger
from the Film by Hiroshi Takahashi
from the Book by Koji Suzuki
Directed by Gore Verbinski

I haven't seen this movie in quite a while because, frankly, I'm scared of it.  This is one of the most pant-crappingly scary ghost stories ever committed to film.  It certainly benefited from being the first Japanese-originated ghost story that most American audiences ever saw.  The foreign nature of the ghost made the whole thing just that much stranger and unsettling.  It was pitched to audiences a little bit like an urban legend derived slasher, with an emphasis on the videotape that leads to the unavoidable death of anyone who views it, but that was only the gateway to the bizarre, disturbing and HOLY SHIT GET IT AWAY FROM ME haunting that was to follow.  Even the picture you see here is making me a little uneasy.

Note: The kind of people who get fussy about that sort of thing insist that the Japanese version is better (small surprise, knowing them), but of the three big Japanese ghost stories that got prompt American remakes (The Ring, The Grudge and Dark Water) the less fussy consensus seems to be that Verbinski's version is the best American version; just as good, or close enough to validate the advantage of not placing a layer of text in between nightmare and viewer.

Dark Water - 2002
Written by Ken'ichi Suzuki & Yoshihiro Nakamura
From the book by Koji Suzuki
Directed by Hideo Nakata

Another of the Big 3 Japanese ghost stories, I felt that Dark Water had far and away the best story, if far fewer out-and-out scares.  It, nevertheless builds up a much deeper and more personal horror, masterfully manipulating parental fears.  There's the more overt physically protective fear seen through aspects of health, safety and the specter of abduction, but much subtler fears about letting them feel alone, afraid or unwanted, about providing for them and being someone they can be proud of, and about damaging their psyches for life.  It's a simple and masterful tale of haunting built around a mother and daughter who have to move into a low-rent apartment while the mother struggles to become strong and independent during a pending divorce.  The apartment's ceiling leaks, and as the water stain spreads, so to does the growing sense of dread.  This just might be a perfect ghost story.

Note: There seems to be a consensus of more than just the sort of people people who get fussy about that sort of thing that the Japanese version is considerably better than the American one with Jennifer Connelly (which is a shame, 'cause... Jennifer Connelly).  I've only seen part of the American version, but I expect this is true.  It's hard to imagine an American version would maintain the more delicate plucking of the fear strings that makes the Japanese version so absolutely special.

Sinister - 2012
Written by Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill
Directed by Scott Derrickson

This one is a little bit of a cheat since it's not technically a ghost story, although it behaves like one for most of the movie.  It does, however, fully qualify as a haunting, and one of the most chilling movies mine eyes have ever beheld.

Ethan Hawke plays a true-crime writer who, like a dick, moves his family into the "murder house" that he's researching for his next book.  The shit gets real when he discovers a box of old home movies in the attic; home movies with a... sinister twist.  Derrickson ignites a slow burn of creaky floor boards, "what was that?" jolts and dreadful revelations that had me questioning my judgment for viewing Sinister on a cold winter night.  The burn explodes with a bit of overkill in the last 5 minutes, but I guess that's what the kids like these days.  It's like watching Baryshnikov dance for 80 minutes, then rip the seat of his tights while taking a bow and stay for a five minute curtain call.  Great, but oh jeez, can you believe...?

The Conjuring - 2013
Written by Chad & Carey Hayes
Directed by James Wan

The Conjuring is like the modernized version of the 1970s haunting/possession movie.  This is perhaps not so surprising when you consider that it's based on a case file from paranormal investigators/potential charlatans Ed & Lorraine Warren, who were also involved in the Amityville haunting.  Further enhancing the spirit of the archetypal haunting, there's the big creepy old colonial farm house with a big creepy old tree, a music box, a demon doll, plenty of bumps in the night and a witch to blame.  It really is kind of back-to-basics haunting, but refined by Wan's heavy/stylish hand for modern audiences that have been trained to respond to ominous tones and jump scares in specific ways.  It builds a really excellent sense of growing fear and danger for most of the film.  The ending seemed a bit much to me, but with that kind of tension, it's generally expected that one will find release in the climax, so to speak.

Insidious & Insidious: Chapter 2
Written by Leigh Whannel
Directed by James Wan

Like Wan's The Conjuring, Insidious does a good job building up the sense of danger throughout and then overdoes the finale with a fairly contrived journey into the "spirit world."  Insidious 2 picks things up immediately after those events and takes the story much deeper, including backtracks to the first film that give in a much richer context.  It repeats the spirit world silliness, but now that it's an established contrivance of their narrative universe, it works, and like the rest of the movie, deepens the meaning and context.  Not only is Chapter 2 as-good-or-better than the first, but it makes the first one better by fleshing out the story, which is perhaps one of the greatest shocks a horror movie ever delivered.

Read the full article here: A Very Scary Pairing.

The Innkeepers - 2011
Written & Directed by Ti West

I've registered a number of complaints about movies that overdo their finales after slowly building up fear throughout.  The Innkeepers is the remedy to that plague.  It's a lean production that could almost have been (but mercifully wasn't) assembled as a found footage film.  During its last week in business, the last two employees of the Yankee Pedlar Inn tend to their last few guests, and investigate the old rumors of its haunting.  If it had been found footage, it would have been required to make some very specific decisions about what was real and what wasn't.  With its more traditional but naturalistic style of narrative, certain questions must remain about what they, and we are experiencing.  The spookiness builds slowly to a tragic conclusion that continues to rely on fear as its most important special effect.  It might be a bit too subtle for viewers whose taste in horror skews to the obvious, loud and bloody, but those with a palate for organically grown fear with fewer artificial fillers will find a lot to savor in The Innkeepers.

The Haunting - 1963
Written by Nelson Gidding
from the book by Shirley Jackson
Directed by Robert Wise

Given the way that movie scares have become almost codified, I had my doubts whether a movie from before my time could be effective.  Well, Robert Wise is no slouch, and he directed The Haunting between West Side Story and The Sound of Music.  Fifty years later, The Haunting remains as stylish and emotionally engaging as its neighboring musicals, respectively.  It takes the most basic haunted house premise; a group of strangers meet to stay in a legendarily haunted house and gather proof, but adds an unexpectedly personal element to it.  One of the ghost hunters has more reasons than the others for being there.  While stagey at times, the set decoration creates an excellent sense of the weirdness of the place and the practical effects are used, well, effectively.  The creeping sense of madness remains fresh after all this time, and all the training we've had from the evolution of the genre.

What Lies Beneath - 2000
Written by Clark Gregg (yes, Agent Coulson)
Directed by Robert Zemeckis

This is a rock-solid ghost story with plenty of delicious twists and turns.  It's also a classic example of the literal & metaphorical meanings of "the past coming back to haunt you."  Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford are a couple who have moved out to their lake house, and soon fall into the grip of a hand from beyond a watery grave.  Who is haunting them, and why?  Danger comes in both the living and deceased varieties, and tension abounds.  One nice thing about What Lies Beneath is that it's not populated by idiots, as so often occurs in horror.  It benefits overall from the presence of top-quality talent on both sides of the camera.

Fragile - 2005
Written by Jaume Balaguero & Jordi Galceran
Directed by Jaume Balaguero

Calista Flockhart is a pediatric nurse with a past sent to work in a children's hospital with a past.  The hospital is in the process of being shut down, and only the most delicate children remain while a new place it prepared for them.  Unfortunately, something or someone is not prepared to let them go.  Rumors of a decades-prior scandal intersect with the children's "lively imaginations" to hint at something more than interpersonal drama on the ward.  It's a well-shaped haunting narrative with a classical feel to it, although it really overdoes some of the supernatural conflict for my tastes.  It's much spookier when it sticks to subtlety.

The Ward - 2010
Written by Michael & Shawn Rasmussen
Directed by John Carpenter

A young woman is picked up by police, slumped in front of the farmhouse she just ran through the woods to burn down.  She, Kristen soon finds herself in a mental hospital with four other young women, each struggling with their own particular conditions, and the ghosts of their past.  Something is in the ward with them, and it's angry.  Kristen will have to solve the mystery of her own mind, if she can survive the mystery of the ward long enough.  The Ward is creepy, sure, but it also leans on a strong sense of mystery to drive it through, and many of the pieces that seem not to fit simply haven't fallen into place yet.

Read the full article here: Ghoul, Interrupted OR One Slew Over The Cuckoo's Nest

Alone - 2007
see link for writing team
Directed by Banjong Pisanthanakun & Parkpoom Wongpoom

This twisted and twisting tale of haunting from Thailand centers on a pair of Siamese twins... who also happen to be conjoined twins (see, 'cause they're from Siam... and... why doesn't anyone enjoy this joke as much as me?).  Pim and Ploy were eventually separated, and only one of them survived.  Now, called back to Thailand due to her mother's illness, the past has come calling in more ways than the metaphorical.  Is it survivor's guilt or something more?  If that's not enough to hook you, then revealing any more simply won't help.  From the same team as 2004's Shutter (also good), Alone is simply creepier with a fuller, more developed story.

The Changeling - 1980
Written by William Gray & Diana Maddox
Directed by Russell Hunter

George C. Scott was the kind of actor you could believe had lived enough to accrue some pain.  He takes that pain and loss to a ridiculously huge Seattle mansion for some solitude while he gets a little composing done, but discovers he's not alone.  Is it just the nagging absence of his wife and child, or something in the mansion's own troubled past?  I'll go ahead and tell you, it's the latter, centered around a hidden room with an child-sized wheelchair covered in cobwebs.  Some incredibly creepy moments here, including a haunting music box before they started turning up every-damn-where.  The story throws some depth and neat twists into the mix, giving it a real emotional richness.  Even the vintage of the film seems to add to the spooky texture.  This is a strong case against remakes.  They'd cast some butt-chinned 30 year old if they made it today.

A Chinese Ghost Story - 1987
Written by Gai Chi Yuen
from the Book by Songling Pu
Directed by Siu-Tung Ching

A Chinese Ghost Story is based on one of the most popular tales from 17th Century Chinese author Songling Pu's classic Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio.  The story has been adapted in a variety of ways over the years (I, for one, also own a manhua (the Chinese word for manga (the Japanese word for comic books) adaptation of the tale) with certain elements intact and others changed or moved around.  The 1987 version, however, is a much beloved classic in its own right.  A hapless tax collector on the road makes the mistake of camping out overnight in a haunted temple.  There, he meets a beautiful young woman and falls in love.  Unfortunately, she turns out to be a ghost charged with collecting souls for her master, and therein lies much drama, comedy and kung fu.  Two sequels continue/vamp on the same themes (ACGS2 is the funniest, as I recall) but neither they, nor the 2011 remake seem to have captured the "breakthrough" gestalt of Ching's vibrant and energetic original.

A Chinese Ghost Story: The Tsui Hark Animation - 1997
Written by Tsui Hark
Directed by Andrew Chan

...Except maybe this one!  This is my personal favorite version, and one of my favorite animated films ever.  It uses some of the same themes -- specifically the hapless tax collector and the beautiful ghostess -- but thanks to the magic of animation, it's able to delve far deeper into the supernatural world.  "Delve" or soar, as the case might be.  The spirit world is a candy-coated amusement park of strangeness.  Characters have strongly defined, unique designs.  There's just a constant over-the-topness about the whole spectacle, and yet it has the most solidly defined storytelling of any adaptation.  I love this film.  It literally changed my life as an artist a writer.  It's really not scary and is perfectly suitable for kids.  Especially weird kids.

Okay, now the bad news; it looks as if this film has fallen out of print, so I wish you the absolute best of luck in tracking it down.  That's not sarcasm.  I want you to see it.


Stir of Echoes - 1999
Written & Directed by David Koepp
from the Book by Richard Matheson

Following some lighthearted experimentation with hypnosis, Kevin Bacon starts seeing dead people.  One dead person in particular; a teenage girl, in and around his Chicago home.  He becomes obsessed with finding her and learning what happened, which causes conflict with his family, and draws the attention of those who would prefer that the past remain... buried.  It's not the scariest ghost story and it doesn't add much new to the field, but it's well told and carries an emotional impact.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer - 2000
Season 4, Episode 18: "Where The Wild Things Are"
Written by Tracey Forbes
Directed by David Solomon

For all her dealings with the supernatural, Buffy rarely encountered ghosts, and in fact, this episode is not strictly a ghost story, but it does center around a pretty disturbing haunting.  During a college party at the house shared by a secret squad of monster-hunting military commandos (it sounds less silly in context), the sexual energy between Buffy and her super-soldier boyfriend (natch), awakens some dark energies from the house's past, and these energies start to expose themselves (so to speak) to the other party-goers.  While Buffy and Riley's focus on each other draws them into a trap, it's left to the rest of the Scoobies to experience the more disturbing manifestations and suss out their cause.  No, it's not that scary of an episode, but it puts a few fresh and flourishing twists into the old haunted house trope.

Haunter - 2013
Written by Brian King & Matthew Brian King
Directed by Vincenzo Natali

Lisa is like a lot of 16 year old girls.  She feels trapped with a family that drives her nuts and every day seems like it's the same with nothing ever getting better.  As it turns out, Lisa is not like a lot of teenage girls.  Lisa is dead -- a ghost trapped in her house with her family, and she's the only one that understands that things are not okay.  Haunter combines a lot of elements that seem familiar from other places, but it does so in an original way that tells a story not-quite-like anything else.  The only thing stopping Haunter from being more than an "honorable mention" is the familiarity with which much of the action is displayed.  Briefly; there's a deadline of sorts and a chase, and they end up feeling more like a "thriller" than "horror."

Apartment 143 - 2011
Written by Rodrigo Cortes
Directed by Carles Torrens

Following the death of their respective wife and mother, a father and his two children move to the city to get away from bad memories and toxic energies.  It turns out that something angry has followed them to their new home, and the father calls in a team of paranormal investigators to help solve the mystery of what haunts them.

Now, for my money (bear in mind I have no money), Apartment 143 outdoes the Paranormal Activity films of which it's accused of knocking-off.  There's just more to it, in every possible way except budget.  The story is much deeper and more personally engaging.  The characters are more interesting and better performed.  The haunting aspect is better developed and executed.

The Haunting in Connecticut - 2009
Written by Adam Simon & Tim Metcalfe
Directed by Peter Cornwell

Some ghost stories are already halfway to success simply by bundling a great set of creepy elements into one package.  The rest is left to the execution.  The Haunting in Connecticut succeeds strongly on the first factor, but it just doesn't quite get there on the second.  It's like batting a double, making it to third, and then getting tagged out trying to steal home.

A family moves into a big, creaky old house, which just happens to have once been a mortuary.  For some reason, there are still photographs of the dead from nearly a century ago, and though locked (and then mysteriously unlocked) the embalming room in the basement is still full of all kinds of antique mortician's equipment.  Okay, not totally logical, but creepy as Hell, right?  The family's eldest son starts seeing and hearing things, but struggles to keep it to himself lest he be disqualified for the experimental cancer treatment he's undergoing, which is why the family took on a second mortgage to move there in the first place.  As the story unfolds, they discover that the house was site to even darker dealings than the mere management of the recently departed.

Lots of creepy, but sadly the execution gets kind of cluttered and heavy-handed in places. Some of the acting is also, shall we say, without nuance.  A handy rule of thumb is that when Kyle Gallner is in the scene, it's pretty good, but when he's not (Martin Donovan, Virginia Madsen) you'll find yourself impatient for it get back to him.

And that pretty much lays this one to rest!

I hope I didn't spoil too much for some people, and I hope I didn't play it too coy for others.  I try to encourage the viewing, but I don't want to spoil the discovery.  Now go, get haunted by some good movies!

This list is subject to updates pending new information.

The Unusual Suspects

OR Axe and Ye Shall Receive


For the longest time, it was the psycho-killer, axe-murderer movies that kept me away from horror movies in general, specifically, it was the popular franchises of my high school years; Friday the 13th and Halloween.  I hadn't really seen them, or had only seen parts, but there was just no appeal there.  While I find serial killers to be disturbing enough, I find it even more disturbing that people are fans of them and want to watch murders committed in lurid detail.  Add to the realistic side of this some highly UNrealistic film treatment, and it's just a recipe for ugly stupidity.  I actually did enjoy the first 2 or 3 of the deconstructionist Scream series, primarily because it injected cleverness into the whole formula.

That said, in the interest of fairness, I did finally watch a few of the [ahem] "classics" which I was assured were better than the rest, as well as a number of fresher takes on the "slasher" sub-genre of horror.  Here is a round-up of some of the stabby-stabby murder movies I've seen in the last six months or so.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre - 1974
Written by Kim Henkel & Tobe Hooper
Directed by Tobe Hooper

Discounting Psycho, this is really where it all began, and I'm not sure it's fair to hang the legacy of slasher movies on Psycho.  It's a pretty bare bones affair ( no pun intended) with the prototypical five young people on a doomed trip to the country.  The pick up and get rid of a dangerously unbalanced hitchhiker, receive warning about their isolated-house-near-the-lake plans by a creepy old-timer and stick their noses where they don't belong.  In fact, when the first 3 of the 5 youngsters technically trespass in someone else's home, it's kind of hard to feel bad for people who simply refused to pay attention to the fact that they were in Texas and reap the consequences.  In fact, they're all so unlikeable that you really have a hard time caring what happens to them.  It's really not until the third act that the film gets particularly interesting, once we're down to our last survivor.  This is where director Tobe Hooper really starts to direct hard toward the sense of fear.  It's also where the bigger picture comes together and we understand who and what Leatherface's family are.  Up until that point, my interest in the film was mostly academic.  After that point, I decided I was willing to give TCM2 a chance.

Weapon of Choice: axe, meat hook, chainsaw (natch), hammer

Halloween - 1978
Written by John Carpenter & Debra Hill
Directed by  John Carpenter

Crazy kid goes to mental hospital, becomes crazy adult, breaks out and stabs a bunch of people while wearing a creepy mask.  What Texas Chainsaw Massacre introduced, Halloween codified.  Unlike TCM, however, there's no personality in this one.  No creative kills.  It's like Old McDonald on a killing spree, with a stab-stab here and a stab-stab there.  There was ONE thing that impressed me about it, and that was a shot before the killing got started.  Before everyone knows who Michael Myers is and what he's up to, he stalks Jamie Lee Curtis, and in one shot, stands on the sidewalk in broad daylight.  THAT was the scariest thing in the movie.  A nightmare out in the open, fully lit, right in front of you.  It was a welcome diversion from all the stabs in the dark that have been the bread and butter of the slasher genre.

Weapon of Choice: butcher's knife

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 - 1986
Written by L.M. Kit Carson
Directed y Tobe Hooper

This is one weird-ass movie.  Not in the "oh so surreal" sense, but as an odd sum to its combined parts.  After the original TCM, I found myself primarily interested in learning more about psychotic family of cannibalistic white trash, who really didn't get their due until Act 3.  It was only then that TCM took on a comic element, albeit a dark, perverse sort of comedy.  The sequel certainly gives the Sawyer family more screen time, and more of that blood-caked comedy, particularly the "how the hell is he alive" crazed hitchhiker brother now known as "Chop-Top."  While he capers about like Gollum on a fish bender, family troll Leatherface gets his own subplot where we learn that he's really just a sensitive simpleton behind that face mask made of faces.  There are two other non-Sawyer primary characters.  The one we get plenty of is Stretch, the radio DJ who records a phone call from a couple yuppie punks who run afoul of Chop-Top & Leatherface on an ill-advised outing.  She becomes the object of Leatherface's perverse affections.  The other is Dennis Hopper as Lefty, a former police detective whose obsession with tracking down the chainsaw killers who murdered his nephew and drove his niece insane made him a laughingstock in law enforcement.  We don't get enough of him and his quest for vengeance, but his role in the film's climax certainly helps to make up for this.  There's an odd balance of factors at work here.  The humor & satire, the gore (much more explicit than the original), the parts that go on too long and those that don't go on long enough, the places where it's totally self-aware and the places where it's totally UN self-aware, the quotable lines; it all adds up to strong "cult fave" material.  There's also the fact that it's a Golan & Globus Cannon Film; of which I was frequently reminded though numerous little low-rent 1980s touches.  Like an abdomen ripped open with a chainsaw, there's a lot going on in here... but much of it isn't pretty.

Weapon of Choice: chainsaws, hammer, hand grenade

Session 9 - 2001
Written by Brad Anderson & Stephen Gevedon
Directed by Brad Anderson

Session 9 has been included on a few "Best Ghost Story" lists online, but they are liars.  There are no ghosts.  There, I just ruined it for you, but no more than the "shaggy ghost story" format with a lame twist ruined it for me.  An asbestos clean-up crew is called in to clean up an old, abandoned mental asylum on a tight schedule.  There are all kinds of rumors about the place, and they eventually discover some very creepy tape recordings from old therapy sessions.  The stress of their schedule, their own personal problems and the spooky tapes have them all on edge when one of the crew members disappears.  It's all ghost story build-up, filled with tedious hazmat banter and a mental break payoff.  I get that it was supposed to be a shocking twist, but it felt completely unearned.  All the creepy narrative was irrelevant and the boring filler turned out to be the real "story."  Yes, as a matter of fact I am irritated about getting jacked around.  Sure, it does a clever job of misdirection, but it just adds up to a big fat "meh" as a story when it turns out not to be what it totally swore that it was, you guys.

Weapon of Choice: orbitoclast

May - 2002
Written & Directed by Lucky McKee

May is an awkward girl.  This is framed in a flashback to her as a cross-eyed child made to wear an eye patch, which isolated her from other kids from Day One of kindergarten.  That explains some of her loneliness, but upon reflection, her oddity may have had more to do with her high-strung mother, who gives May a semi-creepy handmade doll to be her best friend, but won't let her take it out of its glass case.  So as a sweet and gentle but very poorly socialized adult, May's attempts to reach out to people become more off-putting as her desperation to connect increases.  Every time she thinks she's made a human friend, they pull the rug out from under her, and something is bound to get broken.  This is one of the most heartbreaking horror movies I've ever seen (stay tuned for another), and when May's psyche breaks as well, it's almost hard to blame her.

Weapon of Choice: scalpel

Freddy vs. Jason - 2003
Written by Damian Shannon & Mark Swift
Directed by Ronny Yu

The thing I liked about Freddy vs. Jason is that, if I was going to watch a Jason movie, at least this one had Freddy to lend some personality to it.  If I cared more about either franchise (or at all, about Friday the 13th) then I'm sure I would have gotten more out of the fan service here.  What remains is vastly stupid and deeply misogynistic (particularly the horrors visited upon the excellent-in-other-things Katharine Isabelle's character).  I have sometimes enjoyed the Elm Street films, but Freddy just seems particularly rapey this time.  Sure, if I were a not-terribly-bright teenager hopped up on purple drank, I might see the appeal of the ultraviolence, but I'm not, and there are just certain sacrifices of logic and taste that I am no longer able to make.  Well-made crap, for what it's worth.

Weapon of Choice: machete, bladed glove

High Tension - 2003
Written by Alexandre Aja & Gregory Levasseur
Directed by Alexandre Aja

The French slasher Haute Tension gambles everything on a single twist which I will not reveal here.  The premise is that two college girls, Alex and Marie, head out to Marie's family's house in the country to get some studying done over the weekend, but suddenly an axe-wielding maniac shows up and starts killing off Alex's family.  Alex is captured and it's up to Marie to save her.  This sets up a taut game of cat and mouse as she evades the killer while trying to get close enough to make her move.  This leads to the big twist via a fairly large leap of faith in the narrative.  One's ability to make this leap will determine the extent to which one enjoys the movie.  On the one hand, it IS a pretty stunning reveal and as long as you're letting a movie be a movie, it's all fair.  However, the twist DOES feel unearned and inadequately explained, which adds up to more than your usual nerdy nitpick.  I can see both sides of both sides, so I had a pretty good time, but I'd also hesitate to fully recommend it.

Weapon of Choice: straight razor, cabinet, shotgun, radial saw

Dread - 2009
Written by Anthony DiBlasi
from a Story by Clive Barker
Directed by Anthony DiBlasi

A couple college students team up to do a documentary/thesis study into the subject of fear and things get out of hand.  It turns out that one of them was witness to his parents' axe murdering as a child, and this has left him ridiculously and obviously unbalanced to everyone except the characters in the movie.  Dread wants to be an intelligent movie, but without ever using any actual intelligence.  It boggled my mind how everyone was willing to give trust and enormous amounts of slack to a character which has been pretty overt about his disintegrating psyche.  It tries to end with a shocking finale, but sanity demands that the police, which much surely exist SOMEWHERE in this town, should be following the trail of blood to his door at any moment.

Weapon of Choice: axe, revolver

American Mary - 2012
Written & Directed by Jen & Sylvia Soska

Less than half-way into American Mary, I made a silent pronouncement to myself that its star was destined for big things in Hollywood.  It was only after I finished the movie and checked IMDb (per my compulsive tendency to do so) and realized that said star was Katharine Isabelle that I remembered that I had made the exact same declaration while watching her as a teenage werewolf in Ginger Snaps.  She brings an innate personality and charisma to these roles which I have to assume comes from her, herself, much the way a, say, Jennifer Lawrence does.  They share a similar magnetism.

As Mary, she plays a med student with a promising future and lot of sass.  Desperate circumstances lead her to an involvement in meatball surgery for semi-organized criminals.  This, in turn, puts her in contact with a walking plastic surgery nightmare whose ultimate "after" picture is Betty Boop.  Through her, Mary gets involved in the world of extreme body modifications, and a personal tragedy drives her away from school and deeper into the underworld.  She helps one woman to become more completely the "doll" that she wishes to be, removing the visible lady-bits that Barbie wouldn't have, splits tongues, removes limbs, creates diabolic beasties...  In Nietzschian fashion, Mary's time with monsters has a monstrous effect on her psyche, and it starts to consumer her.

This was a truly horrific horror flick.  The gruesomeness of the body modifications is all the closer because it's something that actually exists, and I don't just mean Joan Rivers.  While initially someone that we want to like, Mary's descent is disturbing on a number of levels, but particularly because so much of it comes about from completely understandable choices.

Weapon of Choice: scalpel

Maniac - 2012
Written by Alexandre Aja & Gregory Levasseur
Directed by Franck Khalfoun

This remake of 1980's Maniac is written by the team behind Haute Tension.  It's a much more straightforward venture and wears its twist up front.  Elijah Wood stars as the titular maniac, the socially awkward owner of a mannequin refurbishment shop.  He's also quite the active serial killer; seeking out, killing and scalping beautiful young women and attaching their scalps to the mannequins with which he's populated his home... and psychotic delusions.  The twist is that virtually the entire film is shot from the first-person perspective of Frank, our killer. Not only does this make the violence particularly lurid, but it makes us complicit in his crimes.  When Frank, mid-murder, screams at the specter of his mother in his head "WHY ARE YOU MAKING ME DO THIS?" he's also screaming at us.  By inhabiting his eyes, we give him life, and our anticipation drives him to kill.  It's a deeply effective conceit.  Where "found footage" films lend a certain reality to their events by placing us within them, putting us inside the killer draws us even closer -- disturbingly close.  It wouldn't work as a sub-genre the way that found footage has (to degrees), but it works here to create a complex experience from a fairly simple story.

Weapon of Choice: knives

The Seasoning House - 2012
Written by Paull Hyett, Conal Palmer & Adrian Rigelsford from an idea by Helen Solomon
Directed by Paul Hyett

I've mentioned truly horrific horror flicks and heartbreaking horror.  This one is both.  Set amid war in the Balkans, a deaf teen girl is stolen from her home as she witnesses her mother's murder by soldiers.  She is taken, with a number of other girls, to a ramshackle house in the country to serve as forced "prostitutes" (in reality, enslaved rape victims).  Seemingly due to the large birthmark on her face, and presumably her deafness, she is singled out from the group by the house's owner and operator.  Rather than serving as a "prostitute," she is made to work as a servant, delivering food in a bucket and worse, forced to give the other girls the heroin injections which keep them docile and dependent.  If it sounds unpleasant, that's because it is.  This is real horror.

Where it becomes more storylike and less of a sad statistic that we casually ignore is when "Angel" (so nicknamed for the necklace she wears) discovers that she can unscrew the air vents and crawl about between the walls and floors.  She uses this technique to visit the one girl in the house who recognizes her deafness and can communicate with her in sign language.  When the same group of soldiers who kidnapped her and killed her mother arrive to use the house's services, Angel witnesses her new friend's brutal death -- an accepted cost of doing business with savage killers.  Giving little thought to her actions, she attacks the soldier with a fileting knife, setting her on a desperate course of survival and revenge.  Despite the intense violence of the second half, it's nowhere near as disturbing as the first.  This is the real nightmare lived, to degrees, by millions of people in the world today.  Some may call it exploitative.  I call it necessary.

My only complaint would be the abuse of unfortunate coincidences that befall her toward the end.  By that point, I had already abandoned any hope of hope as a viewer, so anything less than watching the light go out in her eyes seemed like a victory of sorts.

Weapon of Choice: fileting knife, broken glass

So there you have it.  I learned a lot from these films.  I partly learned that I've been right about slasher horror all along.  Some of it IS abysmally stupid.  I also learned that I'd been wr-- that I'd been wro-- wrrr--  I learned that it didn't have to be that way, and that fascinating stories could be told within the loose confines of stabby death movies, giving us something new and inventive beyond the means of evisceration. 

Isn't that part of what we watch movies for?

The 10 Best Zombie Movies (for People Who Don't Necessarily Like Zombie Movies)

I'm not even going to dance around it.  The fact is, I have not been a lifetime horror fan.  As it turns out, there have been quite a few that I've liked along the way, but they seldom made me want to get deeper into the genre.  On top of that, I've been even less interested in zombie movies.  Until recently, they've predominantly been products of the lowest production values and the sparest creativity.  Gore for the sake of gore is rather a bore.

So what business do I have making a list of "Best Zombie Movies" anyway?  Well, if you're a hardcore zombie junkie, you don't need this.  You'll watch anything and you already know what you like.  I'm not approaching this as a zombie fan, but as a film fan, so my picks won't necessarily reflect the priorities of the hardcore fans.  The biggest example of this is the exclusion of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead.  While it's considered THE seminal zombie movie and (to be fair) pretty much established the sub-genre by itself, I just didn't LIKE it, and I found all the praise of its subtext to be vastly overstated.  It does, however, set the pattern upon which future zombie movies would expand.  In short: the newly dead rise from the grave and eat the living.  Fleeing strangers seek refuge.  They're gradually picked off either by zombies or their own paranoia.  One or two might survive, but chances are they'll get killed anyway.  Much as with punk rock, The Sex Pistols may have been the founders, but The Clash were the masters.  Deal with that.  Bring on the masters...

28 Days Later... - 2002
Written by Alex Garland
Directed by Danny Boyle

The Gold Standard for modern zombie movies.  While not strictly the first movie to feature "fast-movers," it was the one that popularized them.  They certainly enhance the sense of threat, but 28 Days doesn't make them the focus.  It, like many of the best ones, places the emphasis on how humans manage to survive each other in the presence of such a sudden and soul-jarring disaster.  It's interesting to me that, in the absence of hot-and-cold-running firearms in England, the story so strongly centers on protecting humanity in more ways than the physical.  Also that "Rage" is the super-contagion creating mindless killing machines.

Warm Bodies - 2013
Written by Jonathan Levine from the
Book by Isaac Marion
Directed by Jonathan Levine

Now this is something different.  Told from the perspective of a teenaged zombie who is surprised to discover that he has a perspective.  He develops thoughts and feelings, particularly concerning a living young woman.  They team up, realizing that there might be more to the whole zombie thing than eating brains or being target practice (respectively), and that realization threatens the stability of both their worlds.  It's funny.  It's sweet.  It's everything that hardcore zombie fans hate.  It dares... to have hope.  (gasp) *choke*  My only complaint is that the "Bonies," zombies who've lost all hope and become dessicated, skeletal corpses, run faster than both the regular zombies and the humans, which just makes no sense whatsoever from a biological standpoint.  Being little more than skeletons, they don't have the muscles to run fast.  They do play an important role as the ultimate threat, so I guess there's that.

Open Grave - 2013
Written by Chris & Eddie Borey
Directed by Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego

I sort of hate to include this one here because it's much better if you go into it not knowing that there are zombies, and you definitely should not expect it to be a "Zombie Movie."  On the other hand, you're unlikely to see this film without having it recommended, and it deserves to be seen.  A man awakens in a pit full of dead bodies with no idea who he is or how he got there.  He finds his way to a nearby house where a group of people is similarly afflicted.  Trust is in even shorter supply than answers.  In addition to setting up a tremendous mystery/thriller, when it does reveal its "Z" connection, its an aspect of such stories that we have rarely, if ever, seen addressed before.

The Battery - 2012
Written & Directed by Jeremy Gardner

This little indie places the focus squarely on survival.  Two former baseball teammates have stuck together ever since the outbreak, and over time it becomes clear that it's less out of any particular bond between them, and more a matter of just not wanting to be alone, and really not having any better ideas than going on.  In an unusual character twist for a z-flick, Mickey refuses to kill zombies, and doesn't show much of an instinct for survival at all.  Ben continues to carry him, and it helps that the zombies are old-school brain-dead slow-movers.  After so long together, it's clear that they're reaching the end of their ropes.  Mickey escapes into his headphones as much as possible, and Ben is starting to take a little too much glee in the zombie-slaying.  When they intercept a radio transmission from a xenophobic stronghold of survivors, Mickey becomes even more dangerous to their team as he tries to establish contact with the woman on the radio.  This is a quieter piece which nevertheless builds the tension as bad choices and bad luck collide.

Dawn of the Dead - 1978
Written & Directed by George Romero

I may not care for Romero's foundational Night of the Living Dead, but as disappointing as I found that one, I thought the next one, Dawn of the Dead, delivered.  Here, the social satire is on full display as four survivors take refuge atop a shopping mall where the zombies still stroll because it's all they can remember how to do.  With swarms of slow-walkers, the threat is much better represented than in the first, and the threat of other humans is considerably ramped up as well.  The humor is abundant, and the characters are actually likeable.  Anyone seeking a foundational zombie movie would get everything they needed here.  Romero's Dawn of the Dead is so seminal that the Dead Rising video game is basically a direct riff on it.  Also, there's...

Dawn of the Dead - 2004
Written by James Gunn from the original by George Romero
Directed by Zack Snyder

Given that Snyder's films tend to be visually impressive, but ultimately dead things anyway, it's unsurprising that this is in many ways his least disappointing film.  In fact, it's the humanity shown that makes this a worthwhile (if much less brilliant) remake.  This time, a larger group of survivors affords more opportunities for interpersonal drama... and loss.  While there was a pregnancy in Romero's Dawn, Snyder's sees it through to its unholy conclusion in the film's most unforgettable scene.  This Dawn served as an effective, uncomplicated base for the new zombie trend that was to follow.  I'm not saying it sparked it, but it provided a handy return to basics.

Shaun of the Dead - 2004
Written by Simon Pegg & Edgar Wright
Directed by Edgar Wright

Now this is one of the films that helped spark it (along with 28 Days Later).  Zombie movies seem particularly well-suited to comedy for some reason.  Perhaps it's the inherent absurdity or the opportunities for extreme behavior.  Maybe it's just whistling past the graveyard.  Notice the homage to Dawn of the Dead in the title.  Pegg & Wright's Shaun uses the zombies as metaphor for the dead end that not-quite-so-young-anymore Shaun has reached in his life due to his unwillingness to wake up and smell the choices.  Filled with quotable lines, Shaun of the Dead launched the international careers of Pegg, Wright and Nick Frost.

Zombieland - 2009
Written by Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick
Directed by Ruben Fleischer

Speaking of how zombies are well-suited to comedy, Zombieland definitely favors the comedy side of the family.  Good ol' boy Woody Harrelson joins a particularly twitchy Jesse Eisenberg on a cross-country trek post outbreak.  They run into Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin as another duo of survivors.  Neither duo wants to trust the other, but they just might need each other.  The rules of Zombie Survival are discussed, Twinkies are the ultimate food in post-civilzation America, and Bill Murray steals the show, appearing as... Bill Murray.

The Cabin in the Woods - 2012
Written by Joss Whedon & Drew Goddard
Directed by Drew Goddard

Okay, this barely qualifies as a zombie movie, but there ARE zombies, and it IS a great movie.  As has happened time and again in ages past, five young people go to a remote cabin and unleash a terrible evil.  The evil they happen to unleash in this case is an inbred frontier family of living deadness.  The blood begins to flow... but there's more going on here than meets the dangling eyeball.  Though frequently overlooked as such, this is a fully qualified entry in the greater Whedon family of quality entertainments.

ParaNorman - 2012
Written by Chris Butler
Directed by Chris Butler & Sam Fell

Norman Babcock is like a lot of kids his age.  He's fascinated with monster movies; zombies in particular.  Norman is NOT like a lot of kids.  Norman sees dead people.  Everywhere.  All the time.  This tends not to endear him to his classmates at school, and frustrates the hell out of his family.  When his crazy uncle dies, it falls to Norman to perform the ritual that will protect his town from the curse of a colonial era witch or the dead will walk again.

Norman does not perform the ritual.

Mayhem ensues, and everyone has a lesson or two coming their way.  ParaNorman is a funny and touching work of stop-motion animation from Laika, the studio behind Coraline and The Box Trolls.

Honorable Mentions:
Maybe not great films, but ones that offer something fresh or interesting to the zombie library.

Deadgirl - 2008
Written by Trent Haaga
Directed by Marcel Sarmiento & Gadi Harel

I almost forgot this one because it's so unsettling.  A couple of teenage boys explore a long-since abandoned asylum, discovering a locked door buried behind a hallway crammed full of old equipment and refuse.  Behind the door, they find the body of a girl in much better condition than her surroundings.  To their surprise, she's not exactly dead... but not exactly alive either.  What follows is, shall we say, some of the poorer behavior of which opportunistic teenage boys are capable.  The tension and fear at work in Deadgirl hinge primarily on human behavior.  Their secret discovery builds conflict between them, and the tinder of conflict grows until something has to ignite it.  While relatively light on the gore, Deadgirl is probably the most genuinely horrific film on this entire list.

Dance of the Dead - 2008
Written by Joe Ballarini
Directed by Gregg Bishop

A zombie plague strikes on the night of the senior prom and it falls to the schools dateless misfits to rescue their classmates, or at least achieve a little cathartic release on what remains.  A fun, funny high school flick with lots of head-smashy goodness.

28 Weeks Later - 2007
Written by [see link for writing team]
Directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo

This loosely related sequel to 28 Days Later is in nowhere near the same class as the original, but taken on its own terms, it does tell a unique story.  It's a more traditional zombie movie with the hook being that it focuses on the members of a single family and their recurring bouts of terror as England experiences the cleansing, and recurrence of the "Rage Virus." 

World War Z - 2013
Written by [see link for writing team]
Directed by Marc Forster

WWZ is rumored to have had a troubled production, and it shows.  While possessing many flaws, the fact remains that WWZ is a high-budget mad spectacle, and for that alone, it's worth a viewing.  Granted, some of this spectacle also qualifies as flaws -- such as ridiculously fast-moving zombies forming a giant mound to reach the top of a stories-high protective wall which should be beyond both zombie logic and basic physics, but it's undeniably freaky and cool nevertheless.  It also follows the efforts to sort out the cause and develop a cure, which is an aspect that we rarely get to see.

This list is subject to change pending further viewing.