October is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “31 days of horror.” Don’t bother looking it up; it’s true. Most people take that to mean highlighting one horror movie a day, but here at FSR, we’ve taken that up a spooky notch or nine by celebrating each day with a top ten list. This article about the best final horror movies by great directors is part of our ongoing series 31 Days of Horror Lists.
Quentin Tarantino has said that he wants to retire before he gets too old and his movies become uncool. He’s of the belief that many directors’ late-career work isn’t as strong as their earlier output, and he doesn’t want the quality of his films to deteriorate. Fair enough. Of course, that’s not the case for every director. Just look at Martin Scorsese, for example. He’s still killing it and shows no signs of losing his touch. While it’s true that many filmmakers do go downhill toward the end of their careers, plenty of others still produce awesome movies right up to the end.
This list — which was carefully curated by Chris Coffel, Valerie Ettenhofer, Brad Gullickson, Rob Hunter, Meg Shields, Jacob Trussell, Anna Swanson, and yours truly — honors the horror filmmakers whose final contributions to the genre were top notch. It’s worth noting that some of them are still alive, although it’s highly unlikely that they’ll ever direct another scary movie. Others went on to make other films after their final forays into horror as well, but this exercise is only concerned about their farewell fright flicks. So here are the best final movies in the genre from some of our favorite horror filmmakers!
10. Frankenstein Unbound (Roger Corman, 1990)
Roger Corman gets the job done. He’s all will, and he doesn’t need the talent or the money to make it happen, but if you give him a little of either, he’s bound to concoct something compelling. Frankenstein Unbound doesn’t really have the cash, but it does have John Hurt and Raúl Juliá. These guys live to go full-ham, but even their best ham is better than most folks’ filet mignon. Spinning off a goofy but utterly earnest novel by Brian Aldiss, Corman’s film celebrates Mary Shelley’s gothic creation in the manner you would expect from the director of The Poe Cycle. It’s garish, loud, and passionately not subtle. Your tastes will accept it or not, but if it charms your palate, it will do so with great gusto. (Brad Gullickson)
9. Survival of the Dead (George A. Romero, 2009)
A year before The Walking Dead changed zombies as we know them, George A. Romero had one final word to say about the relationship between humans and the living dead that he reinvented more than forty years earlier. Similar to how Dawn of the Dead shows that vacuous consumerism could affect not only our lives but our deaths, too, Survival of the Dead aims to prove that even after we are undead and gone, humanity’s desperate thirst for conflict to provide meaning in their lives will persist, like a generational feud between warring families that spills into the afterlife.
In retrospect, there’s a benign optimism in this film that is genuinely refreshing after a decade of the bleak zombie aesthetic that’s come to typify the subgenre this century. As Romero’s films have always said: the world wouldn’t stop turning once the dead rose from the grave. We would just have to get used to a whole new way of life. It may not have the same shine as his original trilogy, but in Romero’s final movie, his ethos about the living dead is still strong and loud. And we miss it all the time. (Jacob Trussell)
8. Shock (Mario Bava, 1977)
While the astute nerds in the audience may have noticed that Rabid Dogs was released in 1998 (thanks to legal wrangling after the producer’s bankruptcy), Shock was indeed the final movie that Mario Bava ever made. Filmed in the summer of 1977, Shock tells the story of a young couple who move back into the wife’s former home. Any warm returns are spoiled when her late first husband possesses her adorable young son. This spiritual perversion leads, of course, to some horrifying incestuous overtones, demonic feel-copping, and all manner of psychological warfare.
With a rad score by prog-rock maniacs Libra, some of the most disturbing images of Bava’s career (and that’s saying something), and a final act that’ll curdle your blood, Shock is a maniacal punctuation mark on a killer career. As far as Italian Horror is concerned, Shock is the ooky-spooky bridge between what came before it and what was to follow. (Meg Shields)
7. Lord of Illusions (Clive Barker, 1995)
Clive Barker is the best horror director who never was. That’s a strange thing to say considering that he directed three features, one of which (Hellraiser) is widely regarded as a genre classic. Unfortunately, his other directorial efforts flopped and he hasn’t been able to get his other projects off the ground since then. In recent years, health issues have made him focus on writing and other non-film projects. However, his movies have gone on to find strong cult fan bases who are ravenous for more Barker joints, and it’s a shame we’ll probably never see another new one.
Lord of Illusions is the black sheep movie in his oeuvre. It doesn’t have the same towering influence over genre cinema as Hellraiser, and it hasn’t been reappraised on the same level as Nightbreed. In my opinion, it’s a better movie than the latter. Based on Barker’s short story “The Last Illusion,” the plot centers around a Philip Marlowe-esque private investigator who finds himself involved in a mystery involving magic, fanatical cults, and demons. It’s terrifying occult horror funneled through the lens of noir, and it’s the best example of this underappreciated subgenre. (Kieran Fisher)
6. The Ambulance (Larry Cohen, 1990)
Larry Cohen was the director equivalent of punk rock. He refused to compromise his art, and he didn’t give a damn about the law when it came to making it. Who needs permits to stage high-speed chases and public brawls when you can just film them without getting caught? That’s one of the reasons why Cohen was such a legendary director. The other reason is the quality of his work, especially in the horror realm.
Cohen liked to depict society’s helpers as villains in his horror movies. In Maniac Cop — which he wrote, only to distance himself from it later as he didn’t direct and edit it — a police officer causes chaos in New York City. The Ambulance, meanwhile, turns paramedics into minions of a corrupt organization that performs bizarre experiments on human beings. The movie is more fun than scary, but it boasts an entertaining mystery and contains all of the biting social commentary, action, and DIY sensibilities you expect from a Cohen movie. There’s also a legendary Stan Lee cameo for good measure. (Kieran Fisher)