50 Scariest Horror Movies: Part 4
I know, we’ve been AWOL for a long time. And obviously, it’s because my bunker was discovered and raided by prairie pirates who held us both hostage (the irony!) and forced us to perform French farce for weeks on end. Mon dieu!
It most certainly is NOT because we discovered A Song of Ice and Fire and Skyrim simultaneously. The nerdiness of that possibility is too overwhelming to consider.
Anyway, the pirates eventually tired of my Jerry Lewis and moved on, leaving us to continue our countdown of the scariest movies of all time. We’re so close now… we may even finish before next Halloween.
20. Dawn of the Dead (2004)
The hostage: For pure scary, the remake takes the cake. The little girl crouching animal-style and running toward Sarah Polley punched me in the brainbone the first time I saw it; I realized immediately that these zombies were bad-ass, and social commentary was taking a backseat to “holy shit, I can’t outrun this zombie!!!!” I love the original and concede it is a better film. The remake suffers from a few shaky performances and the commentary it makes is a tad unsteady, but the overall tone of the flick, especially if you stick around after the credits, takes bleak’s baby sister and smilingly chokes it in front of their mom. And how messed up is it that the unrepentant douchebag is Phil Dunphy? (My head assplode.) The gore rivals the original and fast zombies freak me out more than shamblers.
The cinephile: I understand that there could be outrage over this being rated as higher on the list that the Romero version – I think an argument could be made for either. But for me, Zack Snyder’s remake ekes out a win for that opening sequence. From the moment Sarah Polley’s bedroom door creaks open until she crashes into the tree, I am on the edge of my seat. Snyder ably captures the chaos and confusion such a scenario would incite, as panicked and desperate people put self-survival above all else. Even after Polley escapes the horror of watching her husband die (only to have him revive and viciously attack her), she is faced with a frenzied and terrifying world in which the entire social order has broken down overnight. Yeah, the fast zombies help rev up some tension, but for me, the picture above illustrates perfectly why zombies are horrifying – slow or fast: they get you in the end because there are just too many of them.
19. Poltergeist (1982)
The hostage: There was discussion on this one, but I think it earns this rank because it’s scary in a couple of ways: there is a supernatural force completely messing up your life, and the strain of it on your family is starting to do as much damage as the supernatural threat. The Shining is a film that plays this card even better, in that the dirt beneath the surface was there before the ghosts even came into the picture. We see the perfect family, the American Dream, unravel to an extent that the players start to eat each other. That’s creepy, and the T.V. tried to eat their kid. I must say, however, that any native ghosts that Whitey builds a house on top of have every right to be pissed off.
The cinephile: There’s a doll… that’s also a clown… and it’s UNDER THE BED. ‘Nuff said.
The hostage: Agreed! Fuck clowns and especially that clown!
18. Shutter (2004)
The hostage: Let’s clear this up, Pacey is not in this movie. Pacey is in the piece of shit remake of the same name (though Pacey was decent in said piece of shit). It’s really too bad that the female “spirit” with stringy black hair has become copied to the point of being cliché, because the first run of those movies are incredibly scary. The rip-offs sometimes lead us to forget that. The slow and ominous build in this flick is so patient, but not boring like in The Grudge. The build up to the reveal is perfectly paced and the closing image is terrifying – AND the asshole deserves it (which makes it awesome).
The cinephile: This is not just a scary movie, it’s a great horror movie. It is filled with surprising moments of terror, often involving photographs and photography, very much a theme of the film. Much like mirrors, photographs have great potential to terrify; I think it’s related to our expectation of how a photo behaves. We expect a photo to be stationary (much like we expect a mirror to accurately reflect what we see), so the unnatural action of a person or object in a picture moving is scary in and of itself. If you add frightening images to the mix, then you’re cooking with gas. Shutter, while driven by an interesting and tight narrative, is most successful in creating dreadful imagery – particularly the final shot. *shudder* (word play!)
17. Event Horizon (1997)
The hostage: AHHHHHH! I need to let you all in on my psyche a little, in that I have always had a thing for redheads. Then I saw this flick at 19 and the eyeless redhead was seared into the frontal goop of my brainbone (both clinical terms). The next time I saw Angie Everhart, SHE DIDN’T HAVE EYES! It was only for a second, but it was real and the first of many psychotic breaks. This movie is not good, in fact it’s pretty terrible, but the ghosts and scenes of “hell” are terrifying. Wrecked me.
The cinephile: This, on the other hand and as pointed out by the hostage, is NOT a great movie. I’m not even sure I’d call it a good movie. However, there is something inherently scary about one’s worst nightmares playing out in reality – which ties in to our fear of madness, in which we have no control over our own minds. In addition, these nightmares are particularly effective on-screen. Sam Neill’s not losing sleep over the thought of losing his house and possessions in a gambling spree. No, his nightmare has to involve the gouging out of eyes. Blech. I wrote earlier on how creepy eyes are… empty eye sockets trump eyes every time.
16. The Grudge (2004)
The hostage: This was another film that needed discussion between Cruella and I, but I can agree with the points she makes. My knock is that it plays a trick Paranormal Activitys live on: you walk in knowing ghosts are coming, the pacing slows down to a crawl and you became frightened of the horrible thing that is about to happen. Having said that, it’s effectively creepy in this movie. It just makes the thing a bit of a slug to sit through. The scary stuff is really scary, but the rest is just kind of boring.
The cinephile: If you’re wondering, yes, I do have the good grace to feel shame for how much this film terrifies me. Because let’s face it, The Grudge is not a good movie. Characters are paper-thin, there’s barely a plot of which to speak, and the pacing is terrible. Take out the moments for which my heart is in my throat (basically, any time that horrifying woman is on-screen), and this movie is just boring. But the visual image of the murdered woman just makes my skin crawl. It’s everything about her – the broken crawl, the rattling gasp, the fact that SHE’S IN MY FREAKIN’ BED! I honestly couldn’t sleep the night I saw The Grudge; I kept imagining her crawling up my sheets. Even looking for an image to attach above gave me the willies, and I have to scroll up or down so that the picture isn’t lingering on my computer screen.
15. 28 Days/Weeks Later (2002/2007)
The hostage: The first seven or eight minutes of Weeks: the shot of this endless wave of fast zombies chasing a terrified Robert Carlyle is haunting, and the choice he has to make in the moment? It’s unfortunate because both of these movies are terrifying in the world they create, but both movies are flawed in such simple ways that I remember them as worse than they are (I’m looking at you, “I’ll just back this car over the pile of wrecked cars” in Days). Regardless, they are scary as hell and share a bleakness with the Dawn of the Dead remake that is gut-wrenching. We had to make a deal that there would be no hard feelings if we had to make that choice, but I’m trapped in a bunker so that might be trading up (sigh).
The cinephile: Hmmm, this is a total cheat. These films are quite different and should be considered separately, but luckily this is our site and you can eat it. (I’m drunk with power.) 28 Days Later is better at creating the feeling of complete isolation – of literally being the last man on earth. It also looks into the human monster; the terrifying notion that not only must we be on guard for zombies, but that we cannot trust other people as society disintegrates. However, 28 Weeks Later has several sequences that stop my heart completely. I can think of few scenes in modern horror with the urgency of that opening number. As Robert Carlyle runs for the boat, and streams of zombies appear over the hillside, I felt completely hopeless – as though there was no point for him to keep running, because how could he possibly escape that horde? The second film is great at forcing you to face ugly questions about survival as well. Would you shut the door on your spouse if a zombie ran directly at you, likely killing him/her but protecting yourself? Could you shoot innocent civilians if it was the only way to ensure all the zombies were dead? I’m just glad I don’t have to make those decisions. And hopefully never will.
14. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
The hostage: See my earlier comment about The Grudge, because this movie is one of the pioneers. The thing is they did such a good job of keeping it quiet until just before the flick came out and really used the internet well in selling the con (remember when the internet was relatively new, and how hard it was to get quality pornography?). Again, the trick doesn’t make the movie less scary, it just allows me to feel superior while it scares the hell out of me. The acting is just bad enough to believe it’s real and what happens when you’ve been following the creek for three days and still haven’t found civilization? I’d be pretty scared. Pretty soon we’re dreading the dusk as much as the characters, which just feeds into the next day’s bickering and then one dude suddenly disappears; gone, without blood, or screams, or a corpse, or a big killer with a mask that you can actually fight (as long as you didn’t smoke weed, drink, or have sex). That’s fucking scary yo.
The cinephile: I began this list with a preamble, explaining that the hostage and I will always find what you don’t see scarier than what you do. The Blair Witch Project is the ultimate example of that form of horror. You don’t actually see anything in the film. You hear spooky stories and legends, some rustling in the woods, and people reacting as though they’ve seen something scary, but the viewer sees nothing. By relying on the realism of the found-footage style and the terror of the people involved, Myrick and Sanchez are able to build a feeling of dread without overtly showing anything on-screen. And let’s face it – whatever the witch did while she made the children stand in the corner, what you imagine is most likely worse than what the writers could come up with.
The hostage: Fuck Cloverfield.
13. Candyman (1992)
The hostage: I love this movie! Quick, think of a movie with solid acting, great pacing, a twist on a classic ghost story while making an effective social comment on racism and the fresh scars of slavery; it’s a pretty short list isn’t it? There are some concerns with the writing and some of the CGI is rough, but I think this is a good movie. You may not agree with that statement, but I hope you can agree that this movie is scary. A supernatural killer with a justified grudge and a fucking hook for a hand that you can never really get away from is creepy, and the gore is top-notch.
The cinephile: This high-ranking is no doubt affected by the zeitgeist of my childhood. I grew up in the age of Bloody Mary, and my friends and I concocted all sorts of tales of what she would do to you if you had the seeds to perform the most terrifying of tasks: say her name in a darkened bathroom three times. The horror! I still would have trouble if you asked me to do it today. And man, Bloody Mary has nothing on Candyman. His brutal legend, his bloody hook, the damage that hook does… all effectively creepy. Funnily enough though, as a budding teen, it wasn’t the legend of Candyman that scared me the most – it was the reality of life in Cabrini Greens. I became obsessed with the idea that a homicidal madman could crawl through the back of my medicine cabinet and slaughter my family (nevermind the fact that we lived in a house, and the back of our medicine cabinet faced our hallway. Kids). As scary as the nightmare was, it just can’t compete with what some people live with on a daily basis.
12. In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
The hostage: I feel like Philip K. Dick should have written this movie, because only he writes a mind-fuck this good. The line between what is real and what is not is played so well that the rest of the movie can’t live up to it. There have been a number of flicks that have played with it: A Scanner Darkly has a drug that once ingested hooks you forever and you can’t believe anything you see or hear again; a neat Canadian flick called Pontypool tried language as the means of passing a psychosis inducing virus; and the Matheson novel I Am Legend (I hate Will Smith) played with vampires as the next evolution and that the last man “surviving” is a serial killer of the new majority (and who’s right?). This movie has a book that drives you mad, and the images of madness and slipping reality are so effective it’s a shame the rest of the thing is kind of a mess.
The cinephile: As I mentioned before, madness is terrifying. In the Mouth of Madness delves into freaky questions about what it means to be sane… and could you suddenly become insane if that definition were to change? If all of a sudden, the masses were to start hearing voices, would those who can’t be ruled as crazy? Ultimately though (and as is the case in many horror films), it comes down to one horrifying scene for me: the man on the bike, who gives my willies the willies. What is it about him? The weird time/direction blur? The effective (yet obviously fake) make-up? The idea of youth trapped inside a shriveled frame? The assertion “he won’t let me out”? No, I think for me, it’s the look he gives Styles before gliding away on his bike; that empty, dead, hollow look. Gives me chills… and not in a good way.
11. Paranormal Activity 1/2/3 (2007/2010/2011)
The hostage: I’ve mentioned the trick, you know the trick, but damn if the trick doesn’t make me squirm when I sit down to watch one of these things. I swear to god the pan rack in the second film swayed the entire movie, and I’m sitting there like an idiot going “is the ghost doing that?” I don’t especially like these movies, in that the characters deserve to die for responding to a clearly real threat instead of lying to one another and sneaking in Ouija boards. You’re a skeptic, cool, but something made your wife hover over your bed for three hours and it was a little unsettling for me to watch, you should get her cat scanned or something. Having said all of that, they scare me.
The cinephile: Now this, I feel is cheating less because these films are all basically the same experience. And I know the complaints, I’ve heard them before, “the whole movie is just waiting for something to happen.” EXACTLY. So little is shown (yet so much is heard), that your brain is forced to imagine all the horrible possibilities while you wait in anticipation. But then, even though what is shown is so miniscule (the door frame moved an inch!), you still get the rush of adrenaline – the thrill of seeing something unexplainable – and that’s scary. I’d honestly give the scariest scene to the third flick: Dustin and Katie playing Bloody Mary in the bathroom. In this instance, it isn’t the anticipation, or even what you see, that is so effective. It’s in Dustin’s voice – you can hear the terror in this grown man’s voice, and it gets under your skin in a way that what is shown on-screen just can’t.
To be continued (sooner, this time)…
K and the hostage