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I’d like to preface this list by stating the obvious: These films are my own personal favorite scary movies. I’m sure you’ll cry foul at some of them, and insist that I left the “scariest” films off the list. But there are some things that don’t really scare me.
The Exorcism, for instance. I just don’t find a girl strapped to her bed shouting obscenities and barfing up Nickelodeon slime very terrifying. And Jaws. A shark? Yawn. The Shining? Yes, it has it’s creepy moments, but can’t we have one scary movie list that doesn’t include The Shining? Yes, we can: Mine. Also, I’ll add that I don’t generally find gore to be scary. Are we really supposed to be horrified when we see a steel rod jammed through Paris Hilton’s head? Because that’s not scary, it’s just hiLARious.
It’s what I can’t see or understand that’s much more terrifying to me. Basically, I’m saying Eli Roth — and anyone and everyone involved in the vapid Saw movies — can suck it. And my list — with a few exceptions — consists of movies that are extremely light on the gore. Let’s get started (in no particular order):
Session 9 (2001)
Let me just say a few words: Huge, abandoned mental institution. Admit it — just those words alone are enough to scare the bejesus out of you. Let me throw in some creepy audio tapes of psychiatric sessions with a child killer — that is to say, a child who has killed people, not someone who has killed children. How does that make you feel? Still not sufficiently creeped out? Let me throw in a couple mysterious disappearances, and a disembodied voice. How’s that? The plot’s simple enough — a team of men is hired to remove asbestos from the Danvers State Hospital (a real hospital that has since, sadly, been mostly demolished and renovated in apartment buildings, a.k.a. the fucking scariest place to live ever), but things turn eerie early on. If you like a little psychological thrown into your horror film, you could do much worse than this pot-boiler.
I’ll be the first to admit that there are few special effects from this film that, when viewed from a 2010 standpoint, aren’t really that special anymore. I cringe, and not from fear, when the paranormal team member scratches his face off in the bathroom. But awkward effects aside, Poltergeist is one hell of a ride from beginning to end. It’s also — coupled with Stephen King’s “It” — responsible for your fear of clowns. So you should thank producer Steven Spielberg and director Tobe Hooper for that.
By now we all know the plot — cute li’l blonde girl gets sucked into another scary dimension, and it’s up to her family and a paranormal team to get her back. This family dynamic infuses the film with some great tension throughout, and when this is coupled with terrifying moments — a horde of skeletons in the swimming pool, a tree that comes to life, that clown I mentioned, just to name a few — the tension explodes into a whole lot of scary. A cautious parable of suburbia as much as it is a horror film, full of tender moments as well as scary crap that will make you poop your pants, Poltergeist is one of the best — and well-crafted — horror movies ever made.
The Haunting (1963)
Speaking of well-crafted, here’s Richard Wise’s 1963 classic. It’s (rightly) considered to be one of the best ghost films in cinematic history. Again, the plot is basic: A man takes a small group of people (two of whom have a history of somewhat paranormal powers) to an allegedly haunted house. There is an extremely limited amount of visual special effects in the film, proving that it’s what we cannot see — and what we imagine we can see — that terrifies us the most. Faces appear out of designs on a wall. doorknobs turn on their own, and doors appear to bend and stretch. Robert Wise uses a stunning combination of sound effects and camera work to convey an atmosphere of tension and slowly creeping terror that really gets under your skin, and leaves you wondering if all that’s happening is real . . . or just psychological hysteria . . .
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
. . . Which is something you’ll definitely question while watching Polanski’s classic Rosemary’s Baby. Many people used to the fast pace slash-and-dash of today’s “horror” films will cry, “Ugh, this movie is so boring!” To which I reply: “Go pop your copy of Saw VXXII into your DVD player and shut the hell up.” Rosemary’s Baby requires your concentration. It requires your intelligence. It requires you to follow along and put the pieces of the puzzle together as they’re slowly revealed. A fascinating look into urban domesticity, as well as the changing, evolutionary roles of women, Rosemary’s Baby slowly unfolds itself like a dark, evil rose. Rosemary Woodhouse (an excellent Mia Farrow) and her husband settle into early wedded bliss in an apartment in a huge, imposing, Gothic NYC building (the actual Dakota, where dozens of celebrities have lived in coked-out bliss). And for awhile, all seems well. Even as strange things happen, such as the apparent suicide of a neighbor. Things soon change when Rosemary becomes pregnant (the night the child is conceived — and the morning after — are particularly chilling and confusing). The pregnancy takes it’s toll on Rosemary, physically and emotionally, until she becomes convinced that her child is part of a vast, evil conspiracy of Satanic proportions, one that may or may not include her friends and family. I have an issue or two with the way the film ends, but on the whole, Rosemary’s Baby is a film that gets inside your head and stays there for a long while.
The Others (2001)
Another slow-burning ghost story, with great performances. I think I love The Others so much because it reminds of the truly great black and white ghost films, like The Haunting and The Innocents (which is very similar to The Others in many ways, and almost made the list). In an old British manor house surrounded by fog, a widow lives with her two young children, who are allergic to sunlight. (It’s true. It really happens. I know cuz there’s a special about it on the DVD, okay?) Three servants show up inexplicably to help the woman out, and that’s when things start to get creepy. Like once-thought-dead husbands returning from the war, only acting very strange. Doors opening. Pianos playing themselves. Children becoming possessed. The usual stuff. Like The Haunting and The Innocents, the viewers go back and forth between thinking the paranormal is occurring, and thinking that the female protagonist is just a freaking whackadoo. The Others is atmospheric and moody, a very quiet storm that brews until the ending.
Event Horizon (1997)
This is pretty much the only film on this list that I haven’t seen in a very long time. However, because it’s stayed on my mind throughout the years, and since it was the only film I’ve seen in a theater that totally scared the shit out of me, it needs to be included. Now, I’m not a fan of sci-fi. Show me any of the Terminator movies and I fall asleep before the opening credits start. Show me any of the Matrix movies and I punch you in the face. Because they suck. And I hate them. However, I do love me some sci-fi horror. I don’t know why, but I do. It’s safe to say that this movie probably wouldn’t have existed without Alien, which, I will admit, is one of the best horror films of all time. But I’m not putting it on my list. Instead, I’ll include Event Horizon. I do believe it got some pretty bad reviews, most of which said it was confusing, and it kind of was, but dude — this movie almost made me mess myself. Event Horizon of course takes place in the future, and of course a team of astronaut-scientists fly to an empty spaceship that disappeared and then suddenly reappeared again. Which is always a really great idea, by the way. There’s some science-y stuff about dimensions and black holes, and it turns out, the ship had previously been sucked into a dimension that was . . . kind of evil. To put it mildly. And of course, that evil-ness has kind of stuck around to, you know, make people hallucinate about fire and people with scabby legs, and pluck their own eyes out, and become possessed. As one does in these types of films. I’m actually afraid to watch this one again — I’ve seen it exactly once since I saw it in the theater, and that was a year after it’s release — not because of how scary it actually was, but because of how scary I remember it being. I just don’t want to ruin the almost pants-poopingly fearful experience that I had.
The Ring (2002)
Yes, the remake. Oh, but all you purists are like, “What about the original Japanese ‘Ringu?’ It was so superior!” To which I reply: “Yawn.” That movie was bor-to-the-ing. Just because something is foreign, doesn’t mean it’s superior. Vegemite, for instance. I mean, yeast paste? Seriously? I thought the Japanese version — which I fully admit I saw after the American remake — was kind of inferior. But here’s the main thing that scares me about The Ring: It has horses that go ape-shit. And I have an irrational fear of horses. Now, nothing bad ever happened to me with horese. I never fell off a horse, or got kicked in the nads by one; I never stabbed a horse in the eye like Daniel Radcliffe did in that nude-y play he was in. I even rode a horse as a child, and nothing even remotely bad happened. But still. Horses are huge. And they smell fear. Like dogs. Like giant dogs that can kick you in the head and make you a husk for the rest of your life. Okay, so it’s not just the horses. It’s also the dark, depressing green hues that Gore Verbinski hangs all over the film. It’s also the disturbing art-school video that forwards the plot. It’s the way poor Amber Tamblyn’s face looks in the closet when her mom opens the door. It’s the way you think the plot’s been solved and then — even though you’re completely expecting a twist — it gets so much more terrifying. The sequel was abysmal (deer? Who the eff is scared of deer?), but The Ring remains on this list because it’s chock full of suspense and scary-crap-that-jumps-out-at-you moments. Also, the horses . . . the horrible, horrible horses . . .
What Lies Beneath (2000)
This film probably has the least amount of gore of all the films on this list. Which is a good thing. If Hitchcock had directed a movie about the supernatural — which he wouldn’t have, because he kind of hated the supernatural and thought it was a bunch of crap — it would have turned out like What Lies Beneath. I won’t mince words here: This movie is pretty slow. But it’s very effective. Michelle Pfeiffer gives a great performance, and pretty much reacts the way I would in the same situation: Given that there may be a ghost (due to doors opening on their own, photos falling, strange apparitions appearing in the bathtub water), and given that this ghost could possibly be someone she might have known who may have disappeared, she grabs her closest friend and goes to K-Mart for a Ouija board and has a seance. I would totally do the same thing. Like Rosemary’s Baby, this movie requires your attention to piece together the puzzle and follow along. Chock full of possible possessions, scenes that do for bathtubs what Psycho did for showers, red herrings, and a tension-filled climax, What Lies Beneath is a nice little ghost story for adults. Note: I’m not posting the trailer because the trailer totally gives away some of the plot. If you haven’t seen this film, rent it and do it (now!), but I beg of you do NOT watch the trailer beforehand. Trust me.
I really envy people who are watching Suspiria for the first time. This movie is so simply fascinating that it transcends horror and becomes something else — a fantasy, an experience, an orgasm for the eyes. Eye-gasm, if you will. I know that sounds pretentious, and I’d probably want to punch myself for saying it too, if it weren’t so true. Dario Argento, the director, undisputedly puts the “gore” in “gore-geous.” Filmed with a dream/nightmare-like quality, Argento beautifully assaults the eyes with bright technicolors, flowing fabrics, and set pieces/locations that seem to have floated right out of an old Disney animated classic — which makes the film seem like a horrific fairy tale. Which is the whole idea. There’s a basic plot — Suzy travels to Germany to attend a prestigious dance academy, but it turns out there are witchy, evil things afoul at the academy. Argento grabs you by the throat right from the start, with the chilling music by Goblin, the foreboding narration . . . The first 15 or so minutes are so brilliantly intense that you’ll most likely be on the edge of your seat during the rest of the movie. Suspiria is, I should add, the most overtly gory film on this list. There’s plenty of stuff to satisfy splatter lovers. Yet the gore is filmed in such a hyper-reality, over-the-top sort of way that it almost becomes a necessary part of the story. You don’t watch Suspiria for plot, or dialogue — in fact, this Italian movie has been dubbed into English (even the American star, the lovely Jessica Harper, dubbed over her lines, which was the way Italian films were made back in ’77). So just get over those issues before you fire up your DVD player. Instead, you watch this Argento masterpiece for the technicolor, dream-like, evil-fairy-tale environment he created — it’s Hitchcock meets Dali meets the Brothers Grimm. Watch this one with the lights off. And if any film on this list deserves . . . an herbal treatment . . . it’s this one.
Please. Like I’d leave Psycho off this list. Family lore has it that my dad saw this in the theater before a night of camping, and subsequently spent the night in the car because he was so terrified. I honestly can’t blame him. Serial killers of filmdom have come and gone, but they all owe a thing or two to Norman Bates, he of the cross-dressing Oedipal complex. It’s hard to imagine now how much of an impact Psycho had on cinema, and not just from a gore perspective — the censors objected to the film showing a toilet being flushed and two lovers sharing the same bed, for pete’s sakes. If you haven’t seen Psycho, and shame on you if you haven’t, Janet Leigh (who is luminous in this film) is on the lam with some stolen money. She’s sleepy, and when she sees the Bates Motel, well, it seems like the perfect place to hole up for a while. From there, the film takes a sharp turn from suspense to full-blown horror, and Norman Bates goes from being a creepy weirdo to a knife-wielding, well . . . psycho. Gus Van Sant’s abortion of an “equal” notwithstanding, Psycho holds up extremely well. Splatter fans may balk at it’s pace and lack of gore by today’s standards, but hey, kiddies: Without Psycho, Hostel II may not have existed, which would be . . . um . . . Ugh, damn you, Hitchcock!
Honorable Mentions: Alien, The Birds, Don’t Look Now, Silence of the Lambs, 28 Days Later, The Innocents, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (which almost made a spot on the list), The Evil Dead, Scream, Misery, and probably a dozen more that you guys will list. Happy Halloween!