Miami isn’t exactly a small town, but growing up there in the ’90s, it was downright provincial when it came to hunting down my favorite movies. And those have always been horror movies — the more traumatizing, the better. I rifled through the slim “suspense” section at Blockbuster with its seemingly carefully organized shelves choosing (and gambling on) titles based on their lurid cover art, with a little help from the clerks — devouring Children of the Corn, the junky-looking original Pet Sematary, and eventually The Silence of the Lambs and Suspiria. When my parents gave in and bought me a VHS copy of The Witches, I wore down the tape until it showed fuzzy lines, disturbed and delighted in equal measure each time I hit play to take in Anjelica Huston’s heaving, perversely sexual performance as the head witch who was out to exterminate all children.
But I knew there was a whole deranged world out there I was missing. When I could finally drive myself, I ventured to the area’s only real arthouse theater in South Beach and paid student admission (the ticket taker didn’t seem sure I should be there at all, but relented) to watch a special screening of Jean-Luc Godard’s stunning, hilarious, cannibalistic parable Weekend, in which the bourgeoisie are quite literally torn limb from limb. Like the Blockbuster employees, the smarty-pants cinema programmers shaped my twisted cinematic aesthetic.
My eyes were open.
Thanks to a dizzying abundance of streaming services, it’s gotten a lot easier to discover grisly movies and shows. But for those of us who seek out being scared — for whom the armchair confrontation with our deepest fears and delicate mortality can be weirdly life-affirming — these services are still limiting. Netflix and the other big players, in their algorithm-driven pursuit of world domination, have left horror fans with a threadbare selection of classics (buried under more family-friendly fare) alongside scattershot, unintentionally laughable “Psychosexual Dramas Featuring a Strong Female Lead”-type groupings.
Luckily, Shudder fills this hole. Started in 2016 and owned by AMC Networks — whose channels, including AMC and IFC, have proven their genre bona fides with the likes of The Walking Dead and Preacher — the streaming service doubles down on its niche. Unlike competitors, Shudder is curated by actual humans — specifically, Sam Zimmerman and Colin Geddes, whose geeky knowledge is evident all over the offerings. With the help of AMC’s capital and licensing ability, they’ve created a library spanning decades of little-known gems and seminal classics (available for $6 a month) that’s without comparison online. (Shudder is also experimenting with largely untested originals like the new Creepshow reboot, which is at least a sign that AMC is serious about this gambit.)
Have you only seen the crummy sequels to Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Halloween (1978) and not the opiate-strength originals? Not familiar with the influential Italian giallo horror movement, named for the country’s yellow-covered pulp novels, in which bright red blood pours out of necks with the glittering stylization of fashion spreads in cult objects like Deep Red (1975) and All the Colors of the Dark (1972)? Shudder goes deep into these oft-ignored corners of the genre.
These essential movies are helpfully grouped into thoughtfully assembled “collections” on Shudder’s site and app: “Psychos and Madmen,” “Zombie Jamboree,” “Queer Horror.” (Queer people have had an extensive impact on horror, and it’s nice to see the recognition. The superb 2014 French thriller Stranger by the Lake plays like Hitchcock trying his hand at the group gay sex on Fire Island.) And those looking to get their kicks from campy ’80s fare like Chopping Mall (security robots are coming to get you!) and The Slumber Party Massacre (a sexy sleepover gets a visit from a power drill!) — rather than whatever overwrought nonsense is happening on the latest season of American Horror Story — will find plenty of options on Shudder. More recent movies like wunderkind director Ti West’s brilliant The House of the Devil (2009) regularly outdo much of the new conceptual indie crap being churned out on other streaming platforms.
Even when it fumbles (some of those indies and foreign imports are still, well, not good), what’s most obvious about Shudder is that someone behind the screen cares about the creepy stuff they’re funneling your way. For another kid in Miami or Trenton or Indianapolis or Fresno today, the service is a chance to peek into something horror-heads like me used to dream about: an enlighteningly fucked up education, right at your fingertips. In other words, a revelation.