Any dedicated horror fan knows that many of the best scary movies out there are loathed by film critics. But here at The Lineup, some of the most devastating pans (“it’s gross,” “it’s pure sadism”) are the highest compliments! Revel in these terribly reviewed, and terribly terrific horror movies.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho shocked audiences all over the country when it was released in 1960, with its sex, scandal, and violence—but that wasn’t enough for critics, who couldn’t agree on whether the movie was guilty of being too gruesome or just plain boring. Time magazine’s reviewer wrote that the shower scene was “one of the messiest, most nauseating murders ever filmed. At close range, the camera watches every twitch, gurgle, convulsion and hemorrhage in the process by which a living human becomes a corpse.” Sounds compelling to us!
Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s classic novel has long been a darling of movie snobs. That wasn’t always the case. At the time of its release, critics were at best ambivalent. And King himself and his fans point out that the movie takes too many liberties with the original source material.
Most critics seemed to take issue with Nicholson’s over-the-top performance. Variety carped, “the crazier Nicholson gets, the more idiotic he looks.” Writing for The Chicago Tribune, Gene Siskel felt the movie was “disappointing ... Jack Nicholson parodies himself while Kubrick fails to provide any thrills.” Seriously? At the very least, that woman in the bathtub is “thrilling.” Within the next 10 years, the critical tide reversed, eventually leaving The Shining ranked amongst the all-time best horror movies.
1997’s Event Horizon has a rather dismal score of 35% on Metacritic. Critics felt that the movie could’ve used a better script, and despite its visual effects, “the dialogue is silly and the plot is a mishmash,” David Sterritt wrote for The Christian Science Monitor. Roger Ebert put it more frankly: “The screenplay creates a sense of foreboding and afterboding, but no actual boding.” We have to disagree. Thanks to excellent performances by Sam Neill, Laurence Fishburne, and Joely Richardson, Event Horizon is a modern sci-fi and horror classic. It’s never boring, and some of the imagery is downright terrifying.
It’s a good thing Michael Myers doesn’t read his reviews–if he did, he might have a bone or two to pick with these critics. Nearly all of them acknowledge the first movie as a masterpiece but could do without the sequel. “Halloween II is a retread of Halloween without that movie’s craft, exquisite timing, and thorough understanding of horror,” said Roger Ebert in The Chicago Sun Times. But horror fans have a soft spot in their hearts for endless sequels, and Halloween II, which takes place in a terrifying setting (A HOSPITAL), has some truly horrifying scenes ... our personal favorite? Death by therapeutic hot tub!
1989’s Pet Sematary marked the first time Stephen King wrote the screenplay for one of his films, and critics pointed out that they’d very much wished he’d let someone else write it. “The result is undead schlock dulled by a slasher-film mentality,” Variety wrote, “squandering its chilling and fertile source material.” Ouch. But from the terrifying undead toddler wielding a scalpel to the bloody apparition of Victor Pascow, this movie is stuffed with enough brain-searing imagery to haunt your dreams for years.
Related: 10 Scariest Stephen King Movies
It’s shocking to discover that critics were so virulently opposed to the soon-to-be classic, John Carpenter’s The Thing. “It is too phony looking to be disgusting,” Vincent Camby wrote for The New York Times. “It qualifies only as instant junk.” Hey, sometimes you’re in the mood for junk food, and we’re not even sure that’s a fair assessment. To be honest, the idea of there being some top-secret monster virus out there in Antarctica just waiting to melt all our faces off doesn’t seem so unbelievable at this point.
The Wicker Man
Neil LaBute’s remake of the 1973 film is pretty much universally loathed by critics. “Given the names and the casting of [Nicolas Cage],” Jack Matthews wrote at New York Daily News, “it is shockingly bad.” A.O. Scott went so as far to insult LaBute’s directing skills, saying he was “never much of an artist with the camera,” LaBute “proves almost comically inept as a horror-movie technician.” Then he leveled the worst insult for a horror movie: “It’s neither haunting nor amusing: just boring.” Here we have to take issue with her use of the word ‘amusing.’ At the very least, Cage’s bonkers, over-the-top performance makes this movie worth a watch.
The terrifying idea behind Final Destination–that death will come for you no matter what–still holds up nearly two decades later. Critics at the time felt differently. “Starts by cheating death and ends by cheating us,” Jay Carr wrote for The Boston Globe. Walter Addiego, at the San Francisco Gate, had a simpler review: “Stupid.” Who hasn’t felt that sinking bad feeling with no rational explanation? The scene in the airport still leaves us with our hands to our mouths. And let’s just say we’ve been extra careful getting out of the shower since this movie hit theaters 18 years ago.
For some, this home-invasion thriller, starring Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman, is one of the scariest movies ever made. There are people who still shudder at its mention. For certain critics, though, The Strangers just went too far–and into poor taste territory. “All it offers is sadism, pure and simple,” Michael Sragow wrote for The Baltimore Sun. “A horror film with a moral,” Wesley Morris wrote for The Boston Globe, continuing “No matter how nasty a gang of murderers is, the moviemaker calling the shots is ultimately worse.” Seriously, anything that upsets critics this much, to us, is certainly worth watching. Its sequel, The Strangers: Prey at Night, was released in March 2018 and seems to be experiencing the same critic-audience divide.
This tale of a killer ghost ship starring ER’s Julianna Marguiles had potential, but quickly became the laughing-stock of movie critics. Manohla Dargis, writing for The Los Angeles Times, wrote: “See evil. See evil run. Run, evil, run all the way to cable television purgatory.” Were there some serious plot holes? Sure. Did we see this movie for the first time on said cable television purgatory? Maybe. That doesn’t take away from its memorably terrifying scenes, though, like the one involving a ballroom full of people and an industrial-strength wire slicing through the air.
With its ridiculous gore and wacked-out premise, it’s no surprise that Saw divided movie critics 50/50. Okay, more like 75/25. This is a movie that will always belong firmly to the fans. But most of the critics’ pans could also be interpreted as feathers in the filmmakers’ caps. For Rolling Stone, Peter Travers wrote, “it’s gross as hell.” Mark Holcomb, at The Village Voice, said “with its toilet-bobbing and blood-spurting and Elwes’s fey, Vincent Price-like mugging, Saw succeeds in capturing something like Takashi Miike by way of William Castle. Happy Halloween, indeed”.
Feature still from "The Strangers" via Rogue Pictures