50 Scariest Horror Movies: Part 1

Finally! Finally we got our act together and made the fucking list. It was not easy. There was much debate and disagreement. But at last, we have for your review, the horror movies we find to be the most gut-churning scary films out there. Before we start, a few caveats:

1. This is a list of the scariest, not best, horror movies. We make no guarantees as to the quality of each film. Some are excellent, others downright stupid. But all have given us the visceral reaction to fear that is my main hope whenever I pop in a horror flick.

2. We don’t find gore scary. Too many movies rely solely on gore or torture, believing that makes a movie scary. To us, it may make a movie uncomfortable, or even disturbing, but it’s not scary. I don’t go home and have to turn my lights on, I don’t have to look under my bed, the movies don’t activate my imagination. We believe what you don’t see is almost guaranteed to be scarier than what a filmmaker can show you.

3. Personally, I hate ranking. I hate making stupid little niggly distinctions between films to somehow conclude that one is better (or in this case, scarier) than the other. So this is a general ranking. #5 will definitely be scarier in our minds than #37, but is #11 actually scarier than #12? Eh. At that point, it’s a matter of preference.

So here we go, from the top on down.

50. Friday the 13th(s) (1980, and so on…)

The hostage: I honestly feel like this is like an “honorary mention” or lifetime achievement sort of thing. There are tense moments in each of these movies, less in each picture as you move down the line, but I don’t see them as terribly scary. Cruella’s a bit of a realist in saying avoid Camp Crystal Lake, but what if you go into space or happen to be in New York City for the same 15 minutes Jason is there? I was held in more suspense, as a kid, about which of the girls would gear down before being killed horribly. I always thought Christian fundamentalists were behind these flicks. There’s a real “do any bad shit and you die” vibe, and then only white, Christian virgins are left to live happily ever after. Now that future is scary. Like South Park heaven.

The cinephile: To be honest, I’ve never found Jason Voorhees to be all that terrifying. Maybe it’s because (at least for the first seven films), all you had to do to keep from being killed was avoid Camp Crystal Lake. Problem solved. BUT I can recognize that he is a horror icon for a reason (creative kills and great gore), and the first installment has one great scare worth the price of admission. Stealing a page out of Carrie‘s book, Friday the 13th waits for us to let our guard down at a seemingly peaceful ending before throwing out an unexpected (but not unearned) jump. And Kevin Bacon’s death may be 35% responsible for my pervasive fear of the Man Under the Bed.

49. The Devil’s Backbone (2001)

The hostage: You can write this is stone, gold bond it and have whatever deity you believe in, if any, bless the following statements: fuck Facists in all forms right in their stupid ears, and little kid ghosts are scary. It’s a very bleak world in tone and stock, and then is ramped up with a stellar, traditional ghost story. Brilliantly shot and edited, in fact, one of the “best” flicks on the list.

The cinephile: This is simply an eerie ghost story. I can’t think of a specific scene that I found scary; it’s more like a general feeling of dread throughout. I think Guillermo Del Toro does his best work in Spain. He seems to have much to say about the Spanish Civil War, and he does so through his films. The Devil’s Backbone not only presents us with the supernatural fear of a ghost, but also with the hard realities of war, the helplessness of being a child, and the threat of fascism.

48. The Cell (2000)

The hostage: This movie is a piece of shit. If Vince Vaughn, the idiot cop, had just followed the lead on the bizarre rack (you know, police work), you would never have to jump into the killer’s mind. Having said that, Tarsem (seriously, that’s Miss Teen Pretentious 2011’s name) has a great eye. Everything in Vinnie D’s melon is effectively creepy, except the CGI lizard face on the kid – I kinda want to kick him. The best scene is the hand crank (though the horse is pretty crazy too). I consider it revenge for the Psycho remake.

The cinephile: The hostage is harder on this movie than I am, although there’s a lot to complain about in The Cell. Vince Vaughn as a serious actor. Jennifer Lopez as a serious actor. A sometimes ridiculous plot with giant holes, as outlined by the hostage. It is also responsible for some of the more horrifying imagery I’ve seen put to film. The director, Tarsem Singh, is a visual genius, although he apparently borrows heavily from other sources in creating his nightmare world. Still, this inner universe he has created for Vincent D’Onofrio’s profoundly tormented serial killer is pretty much exactly what you would expect to exist inside a killer’s twisted mind. I find the scene in which Lopez discovers his doll display to be especially effective.

47. Pet Semetary (1989)

The hostage: The kid, that’s it. I know the lady will talk of Zelda and the general idea, but the kid is the only thing in this movie that really scares me. I actually break out laughing every time Herman Munster tells the dad about the graveyard simply because of the spoof about the K-13 in Asspen (which is, in turn, a spoof of Better Off Dead. Big ups to John Cusack). Where was I? Oh yeah, the kid, that’s it.

The cinephile: The concept alone is terrifying, despite what the hostage says. What if, in your grief and despair, you resurrected a dead loved one only to have to kill them again when they “come back wrong”? The movie does not live up to the concept, but there are two elements that earn it a spot on this list. The first is anything involving Zelda, who terrified me as a child to the point that I could not sleep with my door open (I couldn’t help but see her climbing my staircase to come get me). Maybe that’s more about guilt, because as a young girl, I knew I would want that monster dead too, even though she was my sister. (To be fair to little me, I wasn’t aware that spinal meningitis doesn’t turn people into twisted freaks.) The second is the scene in which Gage severs Judd’s Achilles tendon from under the bed, which I’m pretty sure is 48% responsible for my fear of the Man Under the Bed. Sometimes dead is better.

46. The Fly (1986)

The hostage: David Cronenberg could direct Little Bo Peep and that shit would terrify me. This guy has things in his brain that make me shudder, in a “scary overweight guy in a van hanging out at a pre-school” kind of way. A great take on the classic with stand-out special effects and a sense of decay you can’t wash off for weeks. Sidebar: I used to like Geena Davis, and a lot of her movies, but I have grown to hate her. I watched A League of Their Own recently and kind of wanted to punch her in her smug face the whole time. Goldbloom’s the bomb (like Affleck in Phantoms).

The cinephile: Great gore, great acting, good storyline, and the documented transformation from man to insect. Blech. Also, given that having children is already high on my list of nightmare experiences, there’s a birthing scene that amps up that fear to new, disgusting levels.

45. The Evil Dead (1981)

The hostage: Tree rape, nuff said.

. . . just kidding. The rest of the series turns so clearly to comedy that this is the only one we could include without cries of Raimi bias. There are a million cabin in the woods movies, but this goes from slow to absolute mayhem with steady dread. It is scarier than most of its kind and deserves this spot, and I will leg wrestle any motherfucker that disagrees.

The cinephile: I know most horror fans would put the Evil Dead movies in the horror-comedy camp, and I definitely feel that way about Evil Dead II (1987) and Army of Darkness (1992). I also think The Evil Dead is definitely the weakest in the series. But there are some seriously chilling scenes involving the possessed cabin-goers, particularly the one in the cellar, and the eerie one who sits cross-legged on the floor and giggles maniacally. It has something to do with that painted-on grin she wears – it makes the demon beneath all the scarier.

44. House on Haunted Hill (1999)

The hostage: This movie is also a piece of shit. The first hour or so has the potential to earn the title, and enter Dawn of the Dead (2004) territory as a remake nearly worthy of the classic it is based on, the holy grail of remakes. Then they start with the CGI and it all goes to hell. That twitchy-assed doctor wandering around the abandoned, mental institution like a puppet in a Tool video scares the hell out of me, and then that bowel movement of a final act just wrecks it all. It’s like finding a four-year old piano prodigy, and then drowning it.

The cinephile: Is there anything scarier than old insane asylums? There’s something about the combination of madness and the cruel practices of old institutions that makes the building seem destined for ghostly activity. The ghosts in House on Haunted Hill are very creepy – the use of the security camera footage is especially effective. Unfortunately, the end turns into a disastrous explosion of CGI cheesy effects that pretty much ruin the flick, because let’s face it: vague shadowy doctor figures = scary; a giant killer smoke cloud = ridiculous. Yes Lost, you heard me – ridiculous.

43. Child’s Play (1988)

The hostage: Laugh all you want, but that doll is creepy. This is another one that loses cred for the absolute joke the franchise became, but the first movie goes for it and pulls it off pretty well. Imagine your kid being right when he says his doll is possessed, and then you have to convince a cop that you aren’t insane. That moment, a convention among horror movies, when the character doubts their own sanity scares the shit out of me. I think it’s tied to a fear of dementia or Alzheimer’s. Sidebar: Go back and watch any movie with Chris Sarandon from the 80s. He looks kind of like a child molester doesn’t he? Or maybe a gay, serial killer stalking a victim is a better analogy. Feel free to comment.

The cinephile: Dolls are terrifying. Dolls that talk and/or move are even worse. Dolls that talk and/or move on their own are the worst. There’s plenty of fun cheese in the Chucky movies, and Charles Lee Ray quickly becomes a joke, but the original still taps into that fear that the childhood toys we love so dearly may harbour us ill will – that little Timmy isn’t safe in his own room. The scene in which Karen flips Chucky over to reveal an empty battery pack, and Chucky’s head whirls around to spout off one of the clichéd Good Guy lines, has traumatized me since I saw it in a clip on TV when I was 8. I’d say that scene is 52% responsible for my debilitating fear of dolls.

42. The Crazies (2010)

The hostage: That scene in the hospital is the one that gets me, just like all of you I’m sure. There is a scare, however, that a lot of people overlook. This is what the government, shit, any government with the resources, would do. There is probably some serum in some bunker, somewhere that could turn us all coo-coo, bananas, crazy pants, and if it ever got out they would kill a ton of people to keep shit from turning into 28 Weeks Later. It would be the right choice too. It scares me that some Gomer Pyle asshole could drop a box in a military installation near me and the government murdering me is the best solution.

The cinephile: I like The Crazies. There are a number of ways one can tell an us-against-our-loved-ones story: zombies, witchcraft, possession… of all the ways it could happen, a virus seems the most plausible. A secret government/military weapon virus, you say? Sure, why not. Short of immunization (something tells me they were out of those shots at the clinic), people cannot protect themselves from a virus, and anyone could be infected. And when they go crazy in this movie, they go crazy. Like eye-sewing-shut crazy. Light-your-family-on-fire crazy. Puncture-people-with-a-pitchfork crazy. Which is, I know, the scene most people would think of, but I’m partial to the car wash sequence. Car washes make me feel vulnerable, as though I couldn’t escape if I had too. Someone get on that already: a killer car wash.

41. Suspiria (1977)

The hostage: I don’t really find this that scary, which I know is a no-no among Argento lovers, but the Italians, in general, are more about gore than scares. There are certainly some tense moments, and the idea of those claiming to be working in your best interests in a conspiracy against you is scary (much like Rosemary’s Baby), but it doesn’t jump to my mind when I think scary movie. Great horror flick though.

The cinephile: I feel like a horror turncoat when I write this, but I don’t really find Argento’s work to be that scary either. He operates a lot within the slasher genre, which is fun but rarely incites terror in me. And I’m sorry, but witches? When have witches ever been scary? Still, he’s a horror god, and delivers some of the best gore available, so he had to be represented on this list. Suspiria is probably both his best and his scariest work, from what I’ve seen. He’s good at conveying to the audience that feeling of loneliness and isolation that people can feel when they encounter strange or frightening situations in a foreign country. And the first kill is just a work of bloody art.

We’ll have the next section up soon. Until then, see also:

A Prelude to the List: On the Subjectivity of Scary

50 Scariest Horror Movies: Part 2

50 Scariest Horror Movies: Part 3

50 Scariest Horror Movies: Part 4

50 Scariest Horror Movies: Part 5 (Top Ten!)

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~ by K. Harker on November 26, 2011.

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