50 Scariest Horror Movies: Part 3
30. Rec (2007)/Quarantine (2008)
The hostage: Typical set-up with a nice twist on the convention. Rec is probably the better of the two, but the gore and scares are better in the American version. I have to disagree with the lady’s point about jump scares, because the fear, for me, comes from the fact that the people tasked with saving you (police, paramedics and the like) are locking you inside and solemnly watching the “exposed” expire. There’s a real social commentary in that, comparing the immediate threat of the monsters while trying to escape to the prolonged threat of the authorities already seeing you as an acceptable loss. The Crazies plays that card a little. The iconic scene, in both versions, is our heroine being dragged away in night vision by an unseen hand; effective.
The cinephile: We’re cheating! Both versions of the film ranked as one, but I think we can get away with it, because the films are far more similar than they are different. There’s nothing new in either movie. More found footage, another take on the zombie/rage virus, people trapped in a building with a threat… most of the scares come from moments of surprise, such as an elderly woman abruptly running at one of the firefighters, screaming and clawing at him. It’s unexpected, and often loud, and most of the time, out of focus as the cameraman reacts (or flees in terror). I know a lot of people are annoyed by this kind of camera work. Sometimes it annoys me too, but in Rec, I think it’s scarier, because I’m never sure exactly what’s happening. It keeps me alert and on edge.
29. Psycho (1960)
The hostage: The classic, and one that brings up an important point addressed in the lady’s preamble that tries to define “scary.” If you love the modern, torture-porn reboots plopping to the ground lately, you will watch this film and mock the scary. You are ignorant. . . whoa, don’t get defensive, I said ignorant, not stupid (though the jury’s still out). The closing scene, the all white room and the one person conversation holds such a powerful, psychological kick to the mind that it sets the bar. The scary in this film is sophisticated and polished in such a way to make gore moot, much like Peeping Tom (a film I find scarier than Miss Crabbypants 2011). Also, who among us hasn’t paused, for a moment, when you think you hear something mid-shower when home alone? You are afraid, in that moment, because of that fat, British bastard. The best film on the list. Oh, and Gus Van Sant should be waterboarded.
The cinephile: I (reluctantly) have to agree with the hostage about the shower scene. It may seem dated, but last week I was home alone, showering, when I thought I heard someone climbing the stairs. The hostage was locked up tight in the cellar with plenty of whiskey to keep him complacent, so I knew it couldn’t be him. And I had a moment of real terror. Hitchcock captured the vulnerability of the shower perfectly. I mean, what are you going to protect yourself with? Soap and a Lady Bic? Shampoo in the eyes? Not much you can do at that point. But the scariest moment of Psycho for me is the final scene – no, the final shot, as Hitchcock slowly zooms in on Bates’ eerie grin and we gain an understanding of the true extent of his madness. I think he would hurt a fly. Filthy liar.
28. Black Christmas (1974)
The hostage: This film is nowhere as good as Halloween, but there is a shit-tonne of this movie in Halloween. A classic slasher about a group of girls living together at university, tossed with a couple of problem drinkers and trimmed with an escaped killer in a pear tree. Sidebar: there was a story about a 50-year-old dude in Japan that lived in a lady’s attic for a year without her knowing; eating her food and using the bathroom when she slept or was at work and hiding when she got home. She finally bought a nanny-cam and caught him. This is like that with more killing and blood and glaven. My favourite moment is when the chick from SCTV tells Margot Kidder off for being drunk; brilliant.
The cinephile: Yeah, Bob Clark gets no respect. He’s made two of my favourite Christmas movies in Black Christmas and A Christmas Story (1983). And while we could debate the actual origin of the slasher flick for days, and I’m pretty sure the Italians were making these kinds of movies long before they migrated West, Bob Clark never even gets a mention in the discussion, despite the fact that Black Christmas predates Halloween by several years. No disrespect to Carpenter – you’ll notice Halloween gets much higher billing on this list – but I just wish Black Christmas got more recognition than it does. Because there are some seriously scary things going on in this flick. A clearly insane killer hiding in the attic, calling his victims from inside the house, babbling nonsensically in different voices about “Billy”… just try to imagine opening your roommate’s door to find her slaughtered in her bed, and turning slightly to find this staring at you through the crack of the door:
27. Jaws (1975)
The hostage: I will refer you back to my early comments on Psycho. The statistical probability of being eaten by a shark is so ridiculously small that it’s not that scary, but a great storyteller can gin up the fear in such a way that a statistically insignificant threat becomes terrifying; think international terrorism. Iconic moments abound, but I’m a “bigger boat” man myself. Again, who among us hasn’t been swimming, hell even at the pool, and thought about Jaws. It ties in to some innate terror from our aquatic ancestors and Spielberg packages it perfectly.
The cinephile: I’ve mentioned it before in my review of Razorback (1984), but I think Jaws was saved by Bruce, the dysfunctional shark robot. Spielberg had originally planned to feature the shark much more prominently in the film, but had to rethink when the robot turned out to be a malfunctioning pile o’ junk. The result is a tense and atmospheric film that relies heavily on how much you don’t see, which as I’ve mentioned, is always scarier to me than a film that throws everything in your face. Who didn’t catch their breath the first moment they saw the entire (and huge) shadow of the shark gliding under Quint’s boat? And any film that can claim credit for creating an international and pervasive phobia deserves some serious credit.
26. Ringu (1998)
The hostage: I would suggest that the Japanese original is a better film, and ghost story, than The Ring; predominantly because of the forced “twist” that the American flick had to tack on. This one is also a little more typical of the East Asian, long-haired, female ghost cliché. The scene that sticks out, for me, is crawling out of the television. It’s the one moment done scarier than in the American flick. There is a subtlety and patience to the whole notion of being “cursed” in this film that’s interesting and really works effectively. See them both and write back, telling me how full of shit I am.
The cinephile: Much like the hostage, I find Ringu to be better (but not scarier) than the American remake. The premise is so ridiculous that it shouldn’t be effective at all: a video tape that kills you? What’s next, a homicidal laundry folding machine? (This just in: I’m being told I’m behind the times on ludicrous, murderous, inanimate objects.) Maybe it’s the mundane nature of the object, or the fact that you’d probably watch the tape anyway, thinking it inconceivable that what you saw would lead to your death. Or maybe it’s based on a fear of technology; the idea that we’ve become completely reliant on items we don’t understand (unless we’re technical engineers, anyway), and what we don’t understand can hurt us. I’m not sure. But it’s spooky as hell. Really, there is something so creepy about eyeballs:
25. The Vanishing (1988)
The hostage: All right. This is a question I used to ask with friends over a pint to size them up: “What, if any, word in the English language has no negative connotation – can’t be twisted in a negative way?” You’re thinking “love” right? Some dolt always says “love” and you have to point out that obsession is, in fact, too much love. Anyone had a stalker out there? They fucking love you, and in their poor, broken brain you love them too. This is a movie about obsession and one man’s bottomless need to know what happened. The way the story is told stretches it out so well and the conclusion is, well, terrifying. This one is a Randy Savage, flying-elbow-drop to the brainbone.
The cinephile: The hostage nailed it: this is a film about obsession. A couple on vacation stop at a gas station, and the woman is kidnapped. To the man, she has just disappeared without any explanation, and that more than her disappearance eats at him. It’s not that he’s cold or unaffected by the loss, but his grief is lost in his driven need to understand what happened to her. He becomes obsessed to the point that the need to know overpowers any common sense or concern for his own safety. Forget the American remake, which cops out on the most horrifying element: the man’s final realization. That end scene is a kick to the gut in the Dutch version; in the American version, it’s a candy-cane walk off into the sunset.
24. Dawn of the Dead (1978)
The hostage: Sooooooo good. I may offend a few with this, but I doubt it; Romero can be a little blunt at times, but this flick is the one time he balances the gory with the scary and the social commentary in perfect unison. I find the comments on consumerism and human nature as scary as the zombies; I mean, at least zombies are predictable. It’s another catch-22 of whether it’s better to face the instant zombie threat or fight other humans for dwindling resources; it makes me frowny-face.
The cinephile: Again, this is not a list of the best horror movies, or this film would be much, much higher. I adore this movie. It’s a witty, gory, surprising, and clever comment on materialism and consumerism. But it’s not as scary as some of the films that we list higher. Dawn of the Dead does a fantastic job of capturing my argument for why I find slow zombies scarier than the rage/fast zombies: it doesn’t matter how many you kill, it doesn’t matter how long you hold out, it doesn’t matter how well protected you are – they’ll get you in the end, because there’s too many of them. There really is no escape. And to Tom Savini’s credit, the scene in which the biker is disemboweled was seared into my mind as a kid (well, an older kid – I don’t think I saw this one too early on).
23. The Descent (2005)
The hostage: I hate this movie’s set-up, but I watch it every two or three months, like clockwork, because it’s so bloody scary. The inter-play of the relationships and interconnected pasts of the characters is really interesting, to the director, cause I don’t give a shit. And an experienced spelunkers just chose a random crack in the ground she heard about, without running it by her fellow experts, or telling anyone where they were going, or, well, you get it. Implausibility and annoying love triangles aside this is a creepy flick. Claustrophobic in mood with perfect gore to support the scares and tension. Theatrical ending if you can get it, because the others I’ve seen are just… really bad.
The cinephile: I loved this movie when it came out. I felt like I could relate to and understand the people on-screen, which is kind of an uncommon occurrence when watching a horror flick. And at last, the women in a horror movie were complicated and interesting – not perfect, by any stretch, but substantial as characters. It’s kind of just gravy to me that the movie turned out to be genuinely scary too. I mean, the premise that Juno would lead the group down to an uncharted cave without notifying anyone on the surface is just stupid. But the idea of being trapped below the earth, with no hope of or plan for escape is bad enough. Add to that scenario a pack of ravenous creatures perfectly suited for their underground environment, and our heroes become prey pretty ripe for the slaughter. There’s also the added element of the darkness – we rely so heavily on vision that the idea of losing it as a sense in such a perilous situation is über scary.
22. Session 9 (2001)
The hostage: I am sure that this film is not an accurate portrayal of Dissociative Identity Disorder, and I don’t care. The different voices creep me the hell out, the impending sense of doom chokes you, and it’s so patient in letting that ominous mood develop. There is almost no violence in this film seen directly, it’s all implied, but it lines up perfectly when things go sideways. Any story that starts with “abandoned mental institution” gets points from me, but this one has asbestos that needs to be removed on top of it (whoohooohohoooo).
The cinephile: See?!! Abandoned insane asylums are ideal settings for horror movies. Session 9 takes full advantage of the surroundings while telling a story completely different from what you would expect. As the hostage explained, this old asylum is in need of asbestos removal, and a crew is hired to come in and clear it out. One of the crew members finds a series of recordings of one of the patient’s old sessions (1-9), and becomes fascinated with the case. The recordings tie back in to the central plot beautifully, and are responsible for the scariest moments of the film as far as I’m concerned – most particularly, the voices. Simon’s collected and sinister voice stayed with me after the movie had ended. Even thinking about it now gives me the willies.
21. Hellraiser (1987)
The hostage: I’ll be right up front: this movie, in my humble opinion, is kind of a piece of shit. I like that they are exploring the whole “sin” of lust and taking it to an extreme, it’s a hard concept to do well without regressing into exploitation flick territory, but this movie doesn’t do it that well (see the Reavers from Firefly for a better example). Having said that, Pinhead and the Cenobites are terrifying. The scene that always sticks out is the hooks, and the lovely damage they wreak. It’s a funny cautionary tale to me, in that there are there demons waiting out there for anyone that gets too caught up in extreme experiences. It’s okay to dabble, but if you really give in to your urges these fuckers will show up and spank you for it. I’m sure it ties back to Reaganomics and Glenn Beck somehow.
The cinephile: This film is actually two movies. One is a crappy family relationship drama with bad acting and even worse hair. The other is a freaky story about pushing the extremes of human experience in all directions; with euphoric pleasure must come agonizing pain. The Cenobites are not only physically grotesque, but the sadistic joy they take in inflicting pain is so disturbing, even more so that their frightening appearance. Also, there’s something extra creepy about that scene right after Frank has resurrected himself (at least partially). He’s really only half-baked at that point, and scrabbles after Julia using his arms and dragging his fragmented back half behind him – ugh. *shudder*
To be continued…