Northlanders name their scary-movie picks
Local filmmakers, artists and a Ghostbuster talk the best horror remake, creepiest suspense and more.
In honor of withering foliage and acknowledging the dead, the News Tribune asked Northlanders to “name your movie pick” from a family-friendly fright, to the best horror remake and more.
Here’s what we had to say.
The most psychologically violent thriller
In 1997’s “Funny Games,” a neighborly drop-in turns brutal as two young men break in and break down a family of three in their upscale lake home. These sadists dish their soul-crushing abuse with a pinch of politeness, making this shakedown all the more sinister.
Writer/director Michael Haneke leads with the psychological abuse, as mom and pop try to navigate this worsening hostage sitch while trying to shield their young son from further trauma.
Haneke expertly contains the physical violence off-screen, leaving your mind to fill in the horrific blanks.
Expect tennis shorts, gaslighting, breaking the fourth wall and (trigger warning) brief animal abuse.
Haneke released an English-language remake in 2007 starring Naomi Watts and Tim Roth. I prefer the German-language original. A foreign setting and language barrier added to the feelings of isolation and helplessness prompted in this film.
Also, sadism in German seems extra terrifying.
Beware the white gloves.
— MELINDA LAVINE, News Tribune features reporter
The most impressive contemporary horror franchise
There's only one season of Netflix’s “Chambers,” but it's haunting with a twist I didn't see coming. Our protagonist is a Dine woman who has a heart transplant early in the season. While we get to know her, her family and her community, we also get introduced to the heart donor. Along with tackling heavy topics like classism, cultural appropriation and misappropriation, we get a glimpse into horrors and repercussions of blood quantum.
Watch to see how our main character grows into her new heart.
Honorable mention: My favorite part of the horror genre is how societal values are reflected in these types of movies, and Jordan Peele (“Us,” “Get Out,” “The Twilight Zone” reboot) is the voice horror has been missing. With attention to detail, playfulness with shadows and other classic-horror cinematography, Peele's vision and talent is long overdue with horror and science fiction. With Peele, you get the classic scares and creepies along with a narrative that highlights real-life horrors.
— HANNAH SMITH, Heart Berry business manager
The best humor + horror mixer
“What We Do In the Shadows” is a perfect mixture of funny and scary (if vampires scare you). It was made by Jemaine Clement (“Flight of The Conchords”) and Taika Waititi (“Jojo Rabbit”). I’m a big fan of mockumentaries, and this is one of the better ones.
It’s about vampire housemates trying to cope with the complexities of modern life and show a newly turned hipster some of the perks of being undead. It was also the opening-night film at the Duluth Superior Film Festival a few years ago, which is where I saw it.
I’d also like to shout out my favorite Duluth horror filmmakers Brandon Cole, Shane May and Sasha Howell! I recommend watching anything by them!
— NICK HANSEN, Duluth-born filmmaker
A remake that outdoes the original
I'm going with "Let Me In" (2010) which is a remake of the Swedish film "Let the Right One In" (2008). I cheated a bit here since I love the original just as much as the remake, but I picked it as a way to trick readers into watching both versions.
The film centers around a boy who is being brutally teased at school and whose home life leaves him feeling ostracized and lonely. He is befriended by a young girl who — and I’m not giving too much away here — turns out to be a vampire. I’m actually not a huge horror fan and I’m a big wimp when it comes to scary movies, but “Let Me In” and its source material are incredibly compelling beyond the regular tropes of this genre. The tension that is created in these films goes beyond the typical scenes of dangers hiding in darkness, implicating the viewer into questioning where your allegiances lie.
There is real horror in the supernatural violence, but it is always balanced with the real world terror of bullying. Much of the film is set outside in ice and snow and builds discomfort through our own bodily understanding of harsh weather. The brilliant acting of Chloë Grace Moretz, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Richard Jenkins keeps the tension at a low, dreadful tenor, exactly what you want for an October movie viewing experience!
— ANNE DUGAN, artist, educator, Free Range Film Festival director
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The most impressive makeup/effects
“Alien.” From the chest-bursting scene to that part where they plug the android’s head back in, his eyes sort of twitch open and then he tells them what they are up against.
I should go watch it again to make sure I’m remembering it correctly, but I’m too scared.
— JAMEY MALCOMB, News Tribune sports reporter
The best underrated suspense
Set in an abandoned state mental hospital, “Session 9” is the low-budget suspense/horror film you may have missed. While the movie centers around an asbestos removal team working a big cleaning job, the star of the show is Danvers hospital itself.
It's sprawling. It's dilapidated. The paint is peeling off the walls, and evidence of what past patients have been put through is all around. It's the perfect setting for a creepy film. While watching, it's impossible not to think of local abandoned sanatorium Nopeming, with its rumors of hauntings and paranormal activity, itself being the setting of TV shows on the topic.
As the characters dig further into their surroundings, their experiences and discoveries add to the mystery of the hospital’s past. Is the place haunted? Is it cursed? Are the random sounds you hear from squatters?
There are some jump scares and a little gore, but “Session 9” is more slow-burn psychological horror that makes excellent use of an existing location and keeps viewers strung along, waiting to see what secrets the hospital keeps.
— LAURIE CARROLL, media librarian, Duluth Public Library
The best use of the paranormal
Although the viewer doesn’t see anything paranormal unfold on screen, a presence can be felt throughout “The Blair Witch Project.” The characters believe it, and the filmmaking is so effective that the audience also chose to believe it. I was one of the moviegoers in 1999 that believed that the events unfolding onscreen were real, and that’s a major accomplishment!
Also an honorable mention for “The St. Francisville Experiment.” Believable found footage is nearly impossible these days, so hats off to these filmmakers for creating REAL terror on the big screen.
— MATT RASMUSSEN, Duluth filmmaker, Ghostbusters North member
First film to make you sleep with the lights on
I went blindly into "Scream," when it was released in 1996. My high school friends and I were home from college, and I got to the theater late and had to bumble to a mid-row seat. Drew Barrymore was already making popcorn, on the cordless phone, AND THEN IT ALL STARTED HAPPENING. I never got a chance to settle in, crack my Junior Mints, get my bearings. Instant mayhem. It's such a deceptively scary movie because it's also so self-aware and funny. But this one ruined me for years.
— CHRISTA LAWLER, News Tribune features reporter
Scary cinema’s best-kept secret
I saw the film “Candyman” (2021), and it was everything that I loved about scary films, and the artistic vision and integrity brought it into a genre of its own.
— JONATHAN THUNDER, Duluth multimedia artist and filmmaker
The most well-made foreign thriller
“Train to Busan” is one of the more popular Korean films out there worldwide, with good reason. It's an accessible entry point into Korean filmmaking. It's a zombie movie, but wasn't tackled in a way where it's just shooting zombies and surviving — it's believable and forgive the pun, it's more fleshed out than what you might be accustomed to.
There's the characteristic dark humor and plot twists, depth to characters and moments where you probably will cry, wondering the whole time how something as typically absurd as a zombie apocalypse could make you feel so emotionally invested and intense.
Don't stop with “Train to Busan”! Most of my life, I thought I actually hated watching movies. During the pandemic, I fell into the rabbit hole of Korean cinema and was absolutely moved by the artistry, quality and storytelling, all of which often far surpass anything you could find in mainstream American movies. Do a quick YouTube search for recommendations in any genre and you won't be disappointed.
— MOIRA VILLIARD, Duluth visual artist
The best science-fiction-based suspense
John Carpenter’s “The Thing” follows an Antarctica-based research team who are being hunted by a shape-shifting alien that takes the form of its victims.
I believe film viewing can be enhanced by the atmosphere. In 2016, I was filming a paleontological expedition in Antarctica. At night, we would gather and watch films from a laptop in the community tent. I had the pleasure of watching this Antarctica-based science fiction film with a group of paleontologists. After that night watching “The Thing,” I would spend my free time judging the changes in behavior of my fellow crew members. Who was human and who was a shape-shifting creature from beyond the stars? Were the 20 hours of daylight making me paranoid? Was Julia left-handed last week?
Maybe watching “The Thing” while actually in Antarctica got the best of me.
One of the nice things about living in northern Minnesota is that the weather is basically the same as Antarctica. I recommend waiting for some snow, pitching a tent in the backyard, gathering family and loved ones, and watching this 1982 science fiction classic.
After you're finished you can silently judge your family, instead of the usual silent judgments about their political beliefs. Maybe they’re extraterrestrial imposters?
“The Thing” is an all-time favorite for me. With shape-shifting creatures, Kurt Russel, Keith David and an Ennio Morricone score, it is hard to beat.
— MATT KOSHMRL, Duluth filmmaker
The best horror anthology
In the setup for “Asylum” (1972), a young man travels to an asylum for a job interview where he meets the warden.
A few days prior, the warden tells the young man that the former warden had to be admitted as an asylum patient. He tells him to enter and ask patients how they went insane. If the young man can deduce which of them used to run the asylum, the job is his.
The thing I love about this movie is the way in which it involves the audience in the protagonist's struggle. As you watch, you'll ask yourself which of the patients could be the one our hero is searching for, and you'll look for clues as each story unfolds.
I really had a blast the first time I watched this, and I made my best attempt to emulate the premise in my own anthology movie, “Gravedigger Dave's Halfway House.” In it, Gravedigger Dave challenges the audience to determine which Northland ghost stories are true, and which are made up.
Similarly, “Patient Seven” (2016) takes place in an asylum, and a doctor makes it his mission to determine which of his patients are lying about being insane. It's a tried and true method for setting up an anthology movie, but “Asylum” does it best.
— KEITH HOPKINS, Duluth filmmaker and author
Best family-friendly fright
I will submit “Coraline” by director Henry Selick as my family-friendly fright. It is an adaptation from a Neil Gaiman book. I've always loved fantasy and stories that bring us into other worlds.
— DAHEE KIM, Duluth filmmaker
An old-school, spooky show that still holds up
I didn’t grow up with “Goosebumps” or “Twilight Zone,” but while searching for an old-school TV series, I found the original 1969-1970 run of “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!”
It’s certainly not the funniest show or the best thing produced by Hanna-Barbera, but there’s a charm that makes the characters lovable and the basic formula watchable.
Of course, the monsters are never real. In the final act, they rip off the masks, and it’s usually some character we met earlier who’s trying to steal money. Would dressing up as a monster make a thief more successful? As this show proves, no.
Scooby-Doo is a memorable dog, but I always admired the Hammer Horror-esque tributes, and the outdated ’60s lingo and culture. I especially love the episode “Jeepers, It’s the Creeper,” which is easily the best in the series. It has the best slapstick, the goofiest story and one of the catchiest songs. (Seriously, look up “Daydreaming” by Austin Roberts.)
It’s built more like a comedy than a scary-themed series — there’s even a laugh track, and somehow this animated series was performed “live” — but during Halloween, I like playing an episode before starting the main horror feature.
Does it hold up? If you’re a fan of the classic horror tropes and the recognizable Hanna-Barbera cliches, then yes.
— JUSTIN WILTON, Duluth film vlogger
This story was updated at 11:30 a.m. Nov. 15, 2021, to reflect the 2021 release of "Candyman" is scary cinema’s best-kept secret. The News Tribune regrets the error.