5 terrifying films that turn horror tropes on their heads

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See? Even the vampires are yawning. Photo: Belladonna Productions
See? Even the vampires are yawning. Photo: Belladonna Productions

How many ghost movies have you seen? How about werewolf or zombie flicks? With filmmakers churning out copycats constantly, the horror formula can get a little stale.

We’re here to help. This is Cult of Mac’s fourth list of horror movies for your consideration (be sure to check out the classics, monsters, and anthologies from the past few days), and this time we’re tipping you off to movies that take those old standard tropes and put an interesting spin on them. But don’t worry — they’re not so different that they aren’t still horrifying.

Yes, he does wear that hat the entire movie. Photo: Ponty Up Pictures
Yes, he does wear that hat the entire movie. Photo: Ponty Up Pictures

Pontypool (2008)

Director: Bruce McDonald
Runtime: 93 minutes
Availability: Netflix (streaming), iTunes

Are we done as a culture with zombies yet? No, of course we aren’t. But if you’d like a movie about mobs of mindless and murderous ex-humans that isn’t just the same old thing, check out Pontypool. It stars Stephen McHattie (Watchmen) as a radio shock-jock banished to the eponymous sleepy town in Ontario. And then zombies show up.

This film has a really weird version of a zombie virus that’s pretty difficult to describe. I don’t want to spoil it here, but I’m pretty confident in saying that you’ve never seen this before.

Pontypool takes place almost entirely inside the radio station as McHattie goes about his normal day until the outbreak slowly creeps in. It makes the movie feel claustrophobic, if a little stage-playish, and the tension builds slowly and deliberately as zombie news slowly takes over the broadcast.

It’s a cool little movie once you accept the weirdo disease.

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Yeah, ghost hunters. Just go on into the basement. Photo:  Dark Sky Films
Yeah, ghost hunters. Just go on into the basement. Photo: Dark Sky Films

The Innkeepers (2011)

Director: Ti West
Runtime: 101 minutes
Availability: Netflix (disc and streaming), Amazon Instant Video, iTunes

Speaking of slow burns …

The Innkeepers, directed by Ti West (who made The House of the Devil and the only good segment in VHS), is a haunted-house movie that takes place not in a creepy mansion on a hill or in some secluded and empty building, but in a hotel right in the middle of a city. It’s not the best neighborhood, granted, but you could definitely call the police to save you from ghosts if you had to.

The Yankee Peddlar Inn is about to close, and two employees decide that it’s their last chance to confirm their suspicions that the place is just lousy with spirits. Things start out normally enough; they have normal conversations and help the few guests they receive, but The Creepies start squirming their way in slowly.

It’s an effective movie with some great characters and really creepy moments. Plus, Kelly McGillis (Top Gun) is in it. I dunno, does that sell anyone?

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It's a father-and-son story, kinda. But every once in a while, the father and son have to decapitate something. What did you do with your parents? Photo: Belladonna Productions
It’s a father-and-son story, kinda. But every once in a while, the father and son have to decapitate something. What did you do with your parents? Photo: Belladonna Productions

Stake Land (2010)

Director: Jim Mickle
Runtime: 98 minutes
Availability: Netflix (disc and streaming), Amazon Instant Video, iTunes

Hey, people who got all excited when I mentioned Kelly McGillis up there? Guess what? She’s also in Stake Land, an undead-apocalypse movie about a grizzled vampire hunter training his young ward in the business as they make their way to a place called New Eden.

It’s an interesting combination of things, and it’s very subdued and methodical with some occasional bursts of action and ultraviolence. You could describe it as “The Road with vampires,” and you wouldn’t be far off. But mostly, it’s just a good little character-driven movie with some great makeup effects and performances.

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Angela Lansbury is so great, you guys.
Angela Lansbury is so great, you guys.

The Company of Wolves (1984)

Director: Neil Jordan
Runtime: 95 minutes
Availability: Netflix (disc)

The Company of Wolves, on the other hand, is neither subdued nor subtle, and it’s pretty gross and weird throughout. Director Neil Jordan (Interview with the Vampire) adapts writer Angela Carter’s short story from a screenplay that the two of them co-wrote. (Carter is best known for her feminist retellings of fairy tales. Check out her collection The Bloody Chamber if you want to see some crazy and often hilarious takes on the shopworn stories.)

As for this movie, it’s a creepy telling of Little Red Riding Hood. And it has some really interesting and effective transformation scenes. Plus Angela Lansbury (Murder, She Wrote) plays Riding Hood’s incredibly creepy grandmother, and that alone is worth the watch.

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Look at her -- she's talking to a bug right now.  Photo: Titanus
Look at her — she’s talking to a bug right now. Photo: Titanus

Phenomena (1985)

Director: Dario Argento
Runtime: 110 minutes
Availability: Netflix (disc), Amazon Instant Video

We’re finishing up here with the well-trod slasher subgenre, which as you know is about some non-entity stalking around and murdering young people until their identity is revealed (or not, if they want to make a sequel). Phenomena (released in the U.S. as Creepers) comes courtesy of Italian director Dario Argento (Deep Red) and stars a pre-Labyrinth Jennifer Connelly as a girl who just happens to be able to communicate with insects.

Is that weird and seemingly random? Absolutely. But it does a lot to add some newness to the tired business of “someone” stabbing all of those young people to death. And Argento frames and films the story as a modern and dark fairy tale, so it’s easier than you’d think to take the bug thing in stride.

But it’s mostly the slasher movie, and the bugs only enter in occasionally and logically until the end, when it comes to bear in a truly memorable final showdown with the killer. It’s definitely worth checking out.