50 Scariest Horror Movies: Part 2

And the list continues…

40. The Haunting (1963)

The hostage: I don’t care what anyone says, the most effectively scary version of the Hill House story is the written version by Shirley Jackson. The second scariest is this beauty from 1963. Obsessed scientist type trying to prove the existence of ghosts in the classic, haunted house. The mood is tense from start to finish, and it takes the time and effort to let the mood develop. I always look at this one like “it’s old, it’s not scary”, and then I find myself with white knuckles at the end. It does lose points for young Luke, the annoying pussy of a skeptic. Also, if the remake starring Mrs. Michael Douglas were a two year old child I would steal its candy.

The cinephile: For me, both the novel and this film come down to one scene: Nell and Theo are asleep when the ghosts begin their nightly activity. Nell, feeling Theo climb into her bed for reassurance, grabs Theo’s hand and grips it tightly. They ride the disturbances out together, until at last the spirits leave. Nell says something, prompting Theo to flick on the light beside her bed… from across the room! Theo had never left her own bed. I read this scene late at night while in bed, and had to go watch a movie to scrub it from my mind. My bed was no longer safe. The dread is no less palpable in the film version. *shudder*

39. Peeping Tom (1960)

The hostage: I’m ready to hear a lot of folks question this film and its being here. The notion of an artist (because this guy is about the art much more than the kill) filming you reacting to him killing you is wonderfully twisted. And the quest for that perfect shot is what drives him. This flick also does a great job of getting you on Mark’s side early, leaving you in the unsettling position of defending/rooting for a murderer. Fave scene is the blind mother, but the real kicker is how much scare there is for so little gore. Bonus points for getting the directer blacklisted as too extreme and ending his career.

The cinephile: Yeah, maybe because I went into the film knowing that it destroyed Michael Powell’s career, I expected a lot more blood. Or sex. Depraved activities of some kind. Especially as it was released the same year as Psycho (1960), and deals with basically the same subject matter. But in retrospect, I understand why it horrified people so much. Psycho never asks the audience to understand the killer, or empathize with him. Peeping Tom is a thrilling and fascinating movie, but it requires the viewer to identify with an ugly perspective. Mark’s preferred method of slaughter is particularly disturbing.

38. An American Werewolf in London (1981)

The hostage: I have to admit that I don’t find the werewolf genre terribly scary, or even that interesting (sacrilege, I know). Top of your head, name five terrifying werewolf flicks. See? The only element I ever found scary was being the guy that’s bitten. Oz on Buffy did this as well as any werewolf I’ve seen, and this flick nails that terror. Knowing that you are cursed, not wanting to become the monster, and eventually destroying all you love; it’s a real kick in the balls. In this case you’ve got your decomposing friend taunting you through the whole thing. One of the great opening sequences as well; blurs in the fog.

The cinephile: When I was traveling in Europe with my sister, we had a moment that so mimicked the opening scene in An American Werewolf in London, it felt surreal. We entered a local pub in Cardiff, and every person in the bar turned to us and stared, silently. I remember having a single moment of panic – the recognition of our outsider status and realization that if trouble were to start, we wouldn’t automatically know where to go for protection. I felt a sense of helplessness. The fear of one’s body being taken over, as described by the hostage, is heightened in this film by David’s foreign surroundings, a strategy similarly employed by Argento in Suspiria (1977).

37. House of the Devil (2009)

The hostage: What’s the only thing better than an ass-kicking, heavy-metal-blasting horror flick from 1986? A 2009 movie that looks and feels exactly like an ass-kicking, heavy-metal-blasting horror flick from 1986. The first kill in this flick is the most wonderfully blunt thing I have ever seen, sideswiping you right out of the slow build. There is something about Satanic cults that just screams 80s; in fact, I remember Ozzy Osbourne and Judas Priest reading their songs in court to prove they weren’t brainwashing kids to worship Satan and/or commit suicide. Al Gore’s wife did that shit. Crazy. This movie catches that paranoia and then ramps it up to the worst fear those paranoids could’ve dreamed up for a conclusion. Awesome.

The cinephile: The scares in House of the Devil come almost entirely from anticipation. Much like Paranormal Activity (2007), you spend so much of the film waiting for something to happen, that it is all the more jarring when it does. The violence is unexpected, brutal, and brief. Not being religious myself, and certainly not believing in Satanic possession, does not detract from the fear that my body could be violated so intensely by those who do believe.

36. A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)

The hostage: I will scream this from the rooftops: “Jee-woon Kim’s balls are huge!” This guy is one of my favourite directors in the world and he can rock a ghost story. This flick is as much about the damaged family as it is about the ghost, but it still scares the hell out of me. The direction is just that; it leads you through the story with an expert hand that shows you exactly what he wants, when he wants to. It has a lot of the conventions of the Asian ghost story, but it does the conventions perfectly. You should also check out everything this guy has made.

The cinephile: I agree, if you haven’t already gotten the message from this site, please watch all of Jee-woon Kim’s movies. I will see anything the guy puts out there, and A Tale of Two Sisters is the film that started it all. My first Kim experience. Part of the reason I love this film is for how completely different it is from his other work. With expert restraint, he tells a psychologically spooky ghost story. He slowly builds tension through atmosphere, content to let the story unfold at its own pace. I love when directors aren’t worried about boring their audience. And I’m always traumatized when an ankle is grabbed from underneath a bed, or a cupboard, or a car… a hand from under anywhere is always scary. Period.

35. Alien (1979)

The hostage: I can already hear a large segment of you starting to bitch about how low on the list this is. The movie I would ask you to refer to is Pitch Black, the first and best of the Riddick movies. The fear from both movies comes predominantly from the fact that this group is marooned. The setting does most of the work and the monsters become almost secondary, which is smart writing but detracts from the scary (just one cracker’s opinion). I agree with the lady (gasp) that both have an action feel, with Ripley and Riddick stepping up as the leaders facing the supernatural threat. The only reason folks croak is because they don’t listen to the leader. Scary moments, but 35 is about right for me.

The cinephile: Growing up, I always considered Alien to be an action movie. I think it might be because Aliens (1986) is so clearly an action movie, and it was one of my favourites since I was a wee pup. I saw it before I saw the first film, so I must have gone into Alien with preconceived notions that shaped my interpretation of what I saw. Because looking back, it is obviously a classic monster movie, with a fascinating and powerful lead, a wonderfully deadly creature (acid for blood?!), and a horrifying sense of isolation and helplessness. It also boast many of the forehead-slappingly flawed trappings of the horror genre. For instance the moment Dallas swears by the need to stick together, followed immediately by him dividing everyone up. Genius.

34. When a Stranger Calls (1979)/When a Stranger Calls Back (1993 – first 30 minutes only

The hostage: It is almost criminal how completely off the rails both of these movies go. The set up is so effectively done that it makes my stomach tighten thinking about it. The pacing of the opening sequence, especially in the first movie, is perfect. It is a slow, steady build and it just keeps pulling the suspense tighter. I have never been a teenage girl babysitting, but that extra twist of being responsible for another person, but not quite being an adult yourself is creepy to me (see Laurie Strode). Incredibly free with the scary, until they start to suck completely.

The cinephile: Really, only the first 30 minutes of each film deserves mention here. I like to pretend the remainder of each doesn’t exist, much like the Star Wars prequels. I think the hostage nailed what is so scary about the babysitter killer scenario: Not only are you just capable of caring for yourself, now you’re responsible for the life of someone else. You’re alone. And now some d-bag is calling you to creepily ask if you’ve checked the children. Or some shadowed figure keeps knocking on the door asking to use the phone, and wait a minute, wasn’t that door locked the last time I checked?! Babysitters are vulnerable to begin with. In both these movies, the house – the safe place – is infiltrated. It is no longer secure – it is the source of the danger.

33. Drag Me to Hell (2009)

The hostage: Some say I have a flair for the dramatic, but I ascribe to the idea that this movie is one big eating disorder. Most of the scares end up having something to do with Christine’s mouth, which is less sexy and more disgusting than it should be. The whole confrontation leading to the curse, the drive to succeed and most of Justin Long (your 26-year-old professor) are pretty lame, but everything about the demon pursuing her is spectacular. The key lesson is that desperation renders kittens expendable, and you should just give the button to the prick at work.

The cinephile: This film is predominantly about how much of a beating (emotionally and physically) Alison Lohman can take. First of all, that gypsy hag is fierce and disgusting. How much bodily fluid can come out of one person? She always pops up just when I’ve started to let my guard down (much like the paperboy in Better Off Dead [1985] and the chihuahua in Hot Shots [1991]). I relax and BAM! She’s in Christine’s bed. And while I’m used to the idea of a ghostly presence turning on a TV and rearranging some chairs, there’s something extra scary about one that will (or more to the point, can!) beat the shit outta you and toss you around like you’re nothing.

32. Freaks (1932)

The hostage: I love this movie. It is scary both in comment and image, and the best comparison I can give is Lord of the Flies. That book essentially boils down to “are humans naturally good with moments of greed and evil, or are they naturally evil with moments of generosity?” I happen to be an optimist, but both Tod Browning and William Golding make brilliant arguments to the other side. We normal people are the monsters, we think ourselves superior and mock those weaker and different and then kablooie, you’re a chicken lady. Spectacular direction and performances, but the true brilliance is how the freaks take so much shit with good nature (meaning the norms deserve the payoff when it comes).

The cinephile: “One of us! One of us! Gooble gobble, gooble gobble!” Only if you’ve seen this film will you understand why that ridiculous phrase is so terrifying. Tod Browning ensured this film would be legendary and enduring with one brilliant move: he cast real circus sideshow freaks. I have to admit, with much shame (as I always try to be so PC), but people with deformities can be really eerie to me. I know it’s beyond their control, but I think it has to do with how similar they look to what I’m used to, but how drastically different at the same time. So yes, I find the freaks in the movie scary in and of themselves. I’m a bad person. But the real fear in this film stems from what we don’t understand, and how that ignorance can lead to horrifying results. In Freaks, Cleopatra and Hercules mock, ridicule, and humiliate Hans and Frieda, never imagining that they could be proud – that all the freaks could be proud – or that they would defend their pride. Moral of the story: never underestimate the little guy.

31. Dark Water (2002)

The hostage: Some statements are so consistently true that you may feel the urge to tattoo it on your forehead. This is one of them: the American remake is a piece of shit. Steaming, on a cold morning, battling the frost as the sun rises (brown with hints of green). The original Japanese, however, is more awesome than Guitar Wolf cutting a flying saucer in two with a samurai sword pulled from a guitar (yes, that awesome). Very traditional, female ghost with black hair, but consistently creepy and brilliantly paced. There is something inherently creepy about hair, like a natural repulsion when you see it in food or an unconditional cringe when a large bug lands in it (like those creepy, flying beetle things). The use of hair is so effective your skin will crawl for a week.

The cinephile: I’m not sure what happens in translation, because I know both the Japanese and American version are very similar, but the Japanese film is so much scarier to me. Is it the ending perhaps? Hollywood has this annoying tendency to need to shove in that happy ending, so we can go home and pretend that everything always works out in the end. Not scary. It’s so much more effective to have real stakes – to know things will not be sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows after the climactic battle. Let’s cover our horror bases: spooky little girl ghost? Check. Something in the elevator with you when nothing should be in the elevator with you? Check. The lingering thought that maybe you’re losing your mind after all? Check. Dark Water is a tight ghost story. With a kid actor. Who didn’t annoy me at all! That earns it a spot on my other, much shorter list: children who can act.

To be continued…

See also:

A Prelude to the List: On the Subjectivity of Scary

50 Scariest Horror Movies: Part 1

50 Scariest Horror Movies: Part 3

50 Scariest Horror Movies: Part 4

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

~ by K. Harker on December 7, 2011.

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