Ding dong, the list is dead!
Walking dead, that is. Which leads us to the first of our top 10 scariest horror movies ever:
10. Night of the Living Dead
The hostage: The classic! This is a movie that pulls scary at two levels like a pro; the social commentary on race is almost scarier that the dead pricks trying to eat ya. I imagine a world where the over-armed rednecks in this movie are the only survivors and finally have the chance to live out their Libertarian dreams; I’d rather side with the zombies (what’s with the semi-colons?). The gore is top-notch and the twist at the end is a punch in the dinkbone. The only grudge I have is a personal one, in that the woman in this movie is as useless as boobies on something that don’t need no boobies. Shit, pick up a rock or hand the guy a weapon but don’t just stand there and scream like an idiot. I’m sure this uselessness is essential to the message Romero (George, not Ricky) is going for, but the lady just pisses me off. Cruella is cruel, but she’d brain a zombie while I held it off. The photos during the credits make what’s left of my soul cringe.
The cinephile: I’m surprised that the original that started it all is still the scariest for me, but here it stands. There is something about Night of the Living Dead that feels more raw, more intimate, than the others. Perhaps it is the claustrophobic atmosphere of the single, besieged farmhouse that gives it that power. Or maybe it’s the style of film. I always thought Romero filmed the movie in black and white because of budget issues. However, we learned in IFC’s The American Nightmare that Romero chose black and white film because it reflected how news was aired at the time, and he was hoping the style would give it that extra feeling of verité. I do believe he’s right. And agreed 100% with the hostage – the final scene is tragic on a number of levels.
The hostage: Fuck mean girls. Not the movie, it’s kind of fun, but the actual mean girls that inspired Tina Fey to start writing. Here you have a girl, naturally shy, tormented by an abusive, zealot mother, and then some rotten bitches show up and start some shit. This movie reminds me of Firestarter in only one way, you have this helpless child with an incredible power that can go “kablooie” at any moment. I guess the difference is that Carrie isn’t a piece of shit. The scariest thing, to me, is that Carrie’s life is a steady pipeline of fear from every direction. When she finally does start to get some traction and make some friends it all turns out to be shit. Sad, and really, really scary.
The cinephile: I refuse to spoil why this film is so high on the list, because for the most part, it’s a rather sad story about a lonely, abused girl who discovers she can defend herself (and has the thirst to), but not an overly frightening film. (Although now that I think about it, some of the stuff with her mother is exceedingly creepy.) Instead, I will tell you the story my father told me, which made me NEED to see the movie. He went to a movie and was passing another theatre when he heard a unanimous scream come from within. He asked an usher the name of the film, and the usher replied, “Carrie.” Pappy said he went back the next night, and though he wouldn’t tell me any of the horrifying details, he did tell me that it didn’t disappoint. I’ll say the same thing. I don’t care how much time has passed, I don’t care how many flicks have stolen this bit and so made it clichéd; it does not disappoint.
The hostage: Yeah, the first view of this is something special.
The hostage: “The evil is gone!” I love this movie, and one of the major reasons is that Donald Pleasence is luxuriously coated in the Oil of Olivier (big ups to Wizard People). The opening sequence is one of the all-time greats, and when the frame shifts to see Michael, it blew my 14-year-old mindgristle. The most amazing thing is how little blood there is. If you’ve seen this movie, think back and really try to remember the gore; that’s what makes it stand out from all of the pretenders, in that a shoulder is more scary than anything Jason ever did. The pacing is quick, and the whole time you’re hit with these images of a perfect, American town with just a subtle smudge of evil in the corner. I remember Shirley Jackson and Roald Dahl from high school, and they both wrote dark-ass stories about the grubby business just under the perfect surface. Also, did John Carpenter have a top-secret stroke in 1988 (during the filming of They Live perhaps) and forget what an awesome director he was? Please discuss.
The cinephile: I don’t understand it when people say this film is boring. What?! There is so much about this film that is scary, I don’t even know where to start… maybe with the opening scene, the piano twinkle as young Michael Myers looks up at his sister’s window. It isn’t what is seen in the first murder, it’s the idea that this young child has brutally slaughtered his sister for no reason. That’s what Zombie didn’t get. An abused, sad, angry young boy who loses it on his tormentors, and then turns it on innocents? Yeah… that’s the life story of every serial killer ever. It’s explainable, which is infinitely less scary than the ominous, unkillable Bogeyman. Carpenter is brilliant with the camera. When he pulls back slightly from the girls to reveal Myer’s shoulder in the edge of the frame, we understand that we aren’t watching these kids, he is. And he has bad, bad plans.
7. Nightmare on Elm Street
The hostage: Some folks may be scoffing right now, but you need to forget what this franchise turned into. The first kill is still one of the most effectively scary kill scenes I’ve ever watched, and the school hallway follow-up in the next scene is just as creepy. To me, just the idea of not being able to sleep is what feeds the terror. You can sleep and die, or you can not sleep, slowly go insane, and then die. One thing that always threw me off about this flick is how hard Craven works to make Nancy look like a sexless blob. Johnny Depp is a pretty good-looking kid, so do you think he’d be into a woman wearing her grandmother’s belly-wasted pants and some dingy sweatshirt? I’m sure it’s an important symbol of how the crisis has made her become a woman, but she looks like Dumpy’s younger sister Dumpier. Scary on a few levels, but mostly for the raw concept.
The cinephile: The one that started it all. Nightmare was the first horror movie I ever watched. I was six (or seven? WAY too young, at any rate). I was at a friend’s house. She had an older sister. I thought I was cool and brave and not at all scared by this movie (sniff). Then I got home and had to turn off my lights for bed… not so brave now, are you, little idiot? For months, I had to read to the point of exhaustion every night in order to be able to sleep. So I can confess that this high-ranking is likely a reflection of that early life experience. But I agree with the hostage on two points: 1) The first kill is downright horrifying, and even with extra money and better effects, the remake couldn’t make it half as terrifying; and 2) the idea is what is really scary about this film. A bit of info that makes the idea extra frightening? Wes Craven got the idea from a true story: a boy in Asia (I want to say the Philippines?) refused to sleep. He pleaded with his parents and stashed a coffee maker in his closet to keep himself awake, insisting that he would die if he slept. Finally his parents drugged him to put him out, and while he was asleep, he fucking died. I’m just going to pretend this viable explanation doesn’t exist (you ruin everything, Science!).
6. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
The hostage: All right, I’m using this opportunity to voice a grudge. One of the great successes of this movie is toeing the line between shock for shock value and having a sense of humor about itself. The twists and turns are so absurd at times that it’s almost comical, and then you’re hit with a shocking image or moment of perfect suspense and you feel like the biggest douche in the universe for having laughed. Hooper does a great job of distracting you from what you’ve just seen before hitting you with the next dose of gore. My grudge is against every other director inspired by this gem to create the new wave of torture porn (I’m looking at you Eli, I don’t care if you and Quentin are friends). Grandpa struggling to find his past glory with the hammer is terrifying because it is so bizarre and out of nowhere, you forget the screaming girl he’s about to use the hammer on; it’s not scary just because you don’t cut away when the hammer hits home. Love this flick, hate the pretenders that missed the great filmmaking mixed in with the shocking gore (Aja! excuse me).
The cinephile: I don’t think Hooper was going for a story here (if he was, he dropped the ball. A murderous hillbilly family?). I think he was going for pure experience; he wanted the audience to feel the terror, removed from rationality, as though the safety of the screen were not between them and the action on-screen. The reason this film is ranked so high is that we think it worked. When I watch the original Chainsaw, my heart races, I clench my hands and my jaw – all unconsciously. My body reacts as though the danger was real, even though on the surface, my brain understands that it isn’t. Hooper 1, Harker 0.
5. The Ring
The hostage: A number of folks out there might not think this is a great movie, and I understand that, but I hope we can all agree that it’s scary as balls (like frumpy, oddly shaped balls). I hate the switch in the last five minutes and it’d be better to turn the movie off when Rachel’s in the well, but the images in this flick are terrifying. The opening scene starts out like a hundred slasher movies with the two friends alone in the house, you even get an unsettling phone call, and then the tone takes a dark shift that let’s you know this ain’t no typical slasher. The images on “the tape” are the most disturbing images since Cartman tried to channel Helen Keller, but the true creepy is how the images are re-introduced (especially the horse on the ferry). Effectively creepy throughout, if ten minutes too long.
The cinephile: I’ll give it to people, the television scene is pretty dang scary, largely because of our intimate relationship with the television (teacher, mother, secret lover). But for me, the most terrifying moment is the closet scene. I think it works so well because at this point, the movie has lulled you into a false sense of security. Something creepy and strange has happened yes, but it’s over now and this is just a wake. Then you hear, “I saw her face,” and then YOU see her face and OH MY GOD, what the hell was that?! And then it’s gone. It’s very rare that what is shown on-screen is scarier than what I could imagine, but this is one of those cases. I still sometimes hesitate before opening my closet.
And let’s face it, the video is what Dali’s nightmares must look like.
4. The Exorcist
The hostage: I have to admit that the lady wanted this one lower on the list, but I held firm. I think the problem is that she is biased against possession movies because she doesn’t believe in the devil. That would make the image of a tween masturbating with a crucifix less disturbing, granted, but I think this is an objectively scary film (like Orlando Bloom is objectively good-looking). The perfect family with the perfect daughter is derailed by a force they don’t believe in, you get the mystery twist with the priest squad figuring out what’s up, and some iconic moments. I don’t really believe in the devil myself, but the idea of any supernatural force taking over my body (looking at you Professor X) scares the hell out of me. One of the few films that I find better with a director’s cut (the original effects didn’t age real well).
The cinephile: The hostage made a lot of concessions in developing this list (Paranormal Activity and The Grudge being good examples); this is one of my compromises. Because to be honest, The Exorcist wouldn’t crack my top 20 scariest movies ever. I think this is because I don’t believe in demon possession. And when I say I don’t believe, I don’t mean the way I don’t believe in ghosts… until I’m alone and it’s 3 am and what was that sound?! I sincerely mean I think the whole thing is a giant load of hooey. So while I can acknowledge the quality of the film, it’s always been much more shocking to me than scary. Seeing Linda Blair stab her genitals with a crucifix while spewing filthy language sure is shocking, but there’s nothing frightening about it unless you fear the possibility of it happening to a loved one, or yourself. Even her head spinning around – it looks so fake, it was never that effective for me (whereas her head turning around 180 degrees was an especially creepy moment – perhaps because of the prolonged awkwardness?). Still, it’s a film that most people would argue is the scariest ever, and I can respect that.
3. Rosemary’s Baby
The hostage: I love this movie! It is so patient with the reveal and the suspense is paced perfectly; as the evidence starts to mount that she has been “offered,” every single, good aspect of her life is peeled away to reveal the lie of it all. The comfort that she lives in, the achievement of any young couple’s dream, is based on the selfishness of her husband. It also has the courage that The Ring lacks, in that there is not happy, scrappy resolution; there is the most sinister look of love you will ever see, followed by a dirty feeling that won’t wash off your soul. There aren’t any stand-out, iconic scares like many of the films on this list, but the small details and ominous tone add up to an unsettling experience. Mia Farrow also deserves props for nailing the psychologically fraying young wife. Brilliant!
The cinephile: I don’t believe in the devil, so given my previous reasoning, I shouldn’t find this movie scary. This is not the case in Rosemary’s Baby because for me, the devil is the least terrifying part of this film. I know a governmental or corporate conspiracy is scary enough to most people, but there’s something in me that doesn’t trust those organizations anyway. The conspiracy against Rosemary is particularly horrifying because the people involved are the people we are supposed to be able to trust: the sweet old lady down the hall, your neighbours, your doctor. Ralph Bellamy, who plays the doctor, was so despicable and disturbing in this film that women refused to sit next to him at dinner parties. And most of all, Rosemary’s husband, selling her for a better career. These are the people in which we completely rely – to not be able to trust them, is to not be able to trust anyone. In this case, she can’t even trust herself, after she gets a look at that horrific face (one imagines) only a mother could love.
Speaking of not being able to trust anyone…
2. The Thing
The hostage: I just watched the reboot of the franchise, and it needed a reboot about as much as Psycho did. That flick missed the entire point; in fact, it was if the Scott Pilgrim chick had seen the original before shipping out (I mean, she figures everything out pretty quick). There is a crushing sense of isolation in this film, and the steady build of the pacing allows us to figure it out just before they do. I think the terror of this movie is really based in our naturally evolved fear of disease and parasitism, in that being trapped in this situation is much like an outbreak of the plague. That person you’ve been friends with for years looks healthy now, but who’s to say he isn’t a carrier and brings death with his very presence. The paranoia runs wild and the players start to eat one another, just as you or I would in their place, and we’re left with this unsettling feeling that it’s still out there, waiting in the snow for another bunch of “dumb Swedes” to unleash it. Top notch acting and spectacular effects (puppetry and robotics are always better than CGI). The cinephile: Could not agree more. Fuck CGI.
The cinephile: The absolute best of all the “one-of-us” flicks out there, in my opinion. It starts slow, and builds tension so steadily that by the end you’re ready to explode. The setting is almost a character itself – the hard, unforgiving, and completely isolated research centre, about to be plunged into snow storms for months on end, leaving those within with no hope of contacting the outside world, no hope of help. We spend 15-20 minutes trying to figure out what happened to make the Norwegians lose their shit over a dog, and the questions just get more disturbing as the crew discovers new information, especially the scene of the Norwegian camp (the one and only thing the prequel did well was to explain the horrific set-up MacReady and co. stumble upon at the camp). It is revealed that the alien can perfectly mimic any life form, and the fish in the barrel all turn on each other in perfect paranoid fashion. There are some brilliant scares, most notably for me the scene in which MacReady is testing each of their blood. The misdirect of MacReady’s focus on Garry is incredibly effective at making the audience forget any of them could be one of the aliens, leading to a great jump scare (a trick I hate when unearned). Ultimately, what is so pervasively terrifying about The Thing is the knowledge we are left with at the end: MacReady and Childs, staring at each other across the fire as they wait to die, both wondering if the other is infected but also aware that as soon as the flames die down, the creature will simply freeze and wait to be reawakened. No matter what, it will survive.
1. The Shining
The hostage: Not only the scariest, but, in my humble opinion, the best horror film of all time (feel free to argue amongst yourselves). The direction in this film is perfect, and every image is filled with doom trying to poke through the rosy surface. Any film depicting a descent into to madness is a challenge and few that try do it well (Black Swan, Full Metal Jacket, and Trainspotting are the first that come to mind), but this flick has three different characters all going mad in different ways layered perfectly together. While Danny and his sweet Da are being pummeled by the supernatural forces, mom is frayed to breaking by the psychological abuse and fall-out (played to disturbing perfection by Shelly Duvall). You are not overwhelmed with gore, but it’s effective when they go for it (see little girls and detached feet), and the real scares come from the master Kubrick showing us exactly what he wants us to see exactly when he wants us to see it. Ominous from the opening credits to the closing moment, but patient in building to an appropriate crescendo.
The cinephile: I have absolutely no reservations about listing this film as number one. I’ve seen it 83 times, and it still scares me. I’m going to give 30% of the scariness of this movie to Jack, 30% to Kubrick, 5% to the story (pretty basic haunted tale), and 35% to the music. I sincerely believe that the music in this film is vital to its success in making you want to wet your pants like a child. Just think about the opening credits – how a sprawling shot of a car driving along a mountain takes on a sinister feel with the atonal music. Or remember how it made Jack bouncing a ball against the wall unnerving. It’s so discordant, that the audience enters a scene feeling rattled before any action has taken place. There’s one scene in which Jack is reassuring Danny that he loves him and would never hurt him; the dialogue in the scene is almost sweet and tender, but between the menacing music and Jack’s wonderful mad performance, it becomes incredibly threatening. I could write on and on about Kubrick’s patient and deliberate direction, the horrifying isolated setting (sensing a theme with us?), how tense I feel anytime Danny rides that big-wheel through the hallways of the hotel, how the sister ghosts make me hold my breath, how effective I think the bloody elevator ride is (although it could have become campy or cheesy with age, it hasn’t)… I think this is a brilliant horror film. And more than that, it’s just freaking scary.
So that’s it. Back to our regularly scheduled programming. Thanks for joining us; this list was fun to think up. Leave us a comment with your scariest flick, if you’d like. We’re always looking to expand our horror horizons.
A Prelude to the List: On the Subjectivity of “Scary”
Scariest Horror Movies: Part 1
Scariest Horror Movies: Part 2
Scariest Horror Movies: Part 3
Scariest Horror Movies: Part 4