There’s nothing like a nasty curse inflicted on seemingly innocent people, which leads to brutal, often gruesome deaths. This week’s release of Paramount’s Smile is the latest to wreak havoc – this time with a creepy facial tick (See the above trailer). The following films rank as the best of the modern era. A few ground rules: all films selected are English language since, if not, J-horror would take up most slots. Also, the curse must be focused on the victims, not the killer (sorry, Chucky). Added points if there’s a ticking clock involved, like, say, “seven days” before one’s demise.
*** The following contains mild spoilers for the films listed.
Can we curse ourselves? Is guilt a form of being cursed? As Dr. Stephen Murphy, who was inebriated during a botched surgery, Colin Ferrell displays both over-confidence and shame, often in the same scene. Filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster) has compelling observations on class and the dysfunctional people we become trying to hold on to such notions. (Kidman’s role as a dutiful spouse is a prime example.) As a fatherless young man hell-bent on justice (and cruelty), Barry Keoghan’s Martin is no supernatural or otherworldly foe. And all the more terrifying.
4. Happy Death Day (2017)
Arguably, the best time loop movie since Groundhog Day, Happy Death Day stars Jessica Rothe as mean girl coed “Tree” who keeps waking up in some randos dorm room over and over, which is already a curse, amirite? Every night she gets stalked and killed by a masked weirdo. Can she learn the university’s layout a la GTA V and finally defeat the knife-wielding psycho, thus breaking her birthday curse? By far the funniest film on the list, Rothe is never not hilarious. Writer/director Christopher B. Landon continued his brand of horror/comedy with a sequel, Happy Death Day 2 U and Freaky, a body swapper (another curse!) which starred Vince Vaughn. Still, the original Happy Death Day remains his best effort. Bring on Happy Death Day 3D!
3. Drag Me To Hell (2009)
Sam Rami’s last truly great film. Christine (Alison Lohman) is a loan officer who wants a promotion so badly that she’s willing to deny Mrs. Ganush, an elderly gypsy (Lorna Raver), an extension on her home’s mortgage to show her boss that she can be “tough.” Big mistake. It may not be politically flattering to center the whole story around an “ancient gypsy curse,” but veteran actress Raver is inspired casting. As Christine tries to undo the curse that will literally drag her to hell in a matter of days, Rami gleefully puts his leading lady through absolute mayhem. Lohman really goes for it. A parking garage and a rain-soaked grave are among the best set pieces in the legendary director’s catalog of thrills. Also, ever the moralist, hats off to Rami for sticking with THAT ENDING.
2. The Ring (2002)
If The Blair Witch Project ushered in the era of found footage, certainly The Ring (based on the Japanese hit Ringu) did the same for plenty of the cursed-themed films in the last two decades. A huge hit at the box office ($250 million) that spawned two not very good sequels, The Ring stars Naomi Watts as a mother who’ll stop at nothing to protect her son Aiden (David Dorfman) from dying in seven days. Although he calls her Rachel instead of mom, her ten-year-old needs her help after watching an unmarked VHS tape that, by all accounts, looks like a goofy student film. Yet tell that to the victims who, after viewing said tape, received a call from a woman saying “seven days” and, a week later, died horribly. Verbinski’s style, confident dour tone, and unrelenting sound design make The Ring a modern horror classic.
1. It Follows (2014)
Is David Robert Mitchell’s breakout a metaphor for STDs in a post-AIDS world? Or is the film that, um… follows high schooler Jay (Make Monroe), whose latest tryst becomes a chain of unbroken gory deaths, a statement on trauma and anxiety? Who knows, but Mitchell’s film wonderfully used an 80s-like synth score to keep viewers entranced. The premise is simple: once you sleep with someone, “IT” will follow and eventually kill you unless you pass it on by sleeping with another. The rules might be a tad sketchy (why not just fly a plane to Vegas?), but It Follows remains the most thoughtful, engaging, and darn scary entry of all in a sub-genre of cursed films of the modern era.
Bonus: All The Final Destinations
The Final Destination series (a new installment was just announced, yay!) may lack the subtly or nuanced acting of some of the films on the list, but boy, are they a blast to watch. Okay, so the fourth entry ain’t great but at least there are some good deaths). With that in mind, the opening freeway scene of FD2 remains an all-timer. Death has a plan, a design, and even though Ali Larter would defeat plenty of zombies in Resident Evil, there’s no way to brute force beat death. Even trying to put a bullet in the head won’t work. Not if death thinks it’s not your time… yet. Just remember to heed every word coming from the Candyman himself, Tony Todd.
If you’ve seen all these terrifically creepy curse-themed flicks, check out Smile on the big screen as one way to kick off spooky season for 2022.