50 Scariest Horror Movies: Part 3

•December 17, 2011 • 6 Comments

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…

See Also:

A Prelude to the List: On the Subjectivity of “Scary”

50 Scariest Horror Movies: Part 1

50 Scariest Horror Movies: Part 2

50 Scariest Horror Movies: Part 4

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

50 Scariest Horror Movies: Part 2

•December 7, 2011 • 6 Comments

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!)

50 Scariest Horror Movies: Part 1

•November 26, 2011 • 6 Comments

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!)

A Prelude to the List: On the Subjectivity of “Scary”

•November 11, 2011 • 6 Comments

Well, I don’t think either the hostage or I really understood what we were taking on when we decided to make a list of 50 horror films. It took us days to just agree upon whether or not we wanted to go with “Best” or “Scariest” horror movies. No doubt, best is easier. There are objective markers to use – plot, acting, writing, directing, use of special effects, etc… not so when making a list of the scariest. Unfortunately, it also means that most “Best of” horror lists are pretty predictable.

“Scary” isn’t an impartial evaluation – it’s a gut, emotional reaction. Fear isn’t rational or logical, and it often stems from our past experiences. Thus, scary tends to be much more personal and different for each individual. Several years ago, I saw The Grudge (2004), and am ashamed to admit that it scared me to the point I had to sleep with the lights on that night. I’m ashamed of this because, apart from the ghosty bits, The Grudge is not a good movie; the pacing is terrible, the story incidental, the acting (sorry Buffy!) just passable. And yet I still get tense when I hear the rattle in her throat, or imagine her crawling up my sheets under the covers. The Grudge would never make a list of the best horror movies, but the scariest… I told this to a friend, and he scoffed at me, stunned that a horror maven such as myself would be cowed by this film, which he found laughably bad. I, impressed by his clear bravery, asked the last movie that really scared him. His response: Darkness Falls (2003). Wait, what? You mean the one with the Tooth Fairy? No, seriously though. I was shocked, because I found that movie to be a massive disappointment in the fear department.

But that’s “scary” for you. It doesn’t have to make sense. I can’t tell you why watching a psycho slasher go on a rampage doesn’t raise my heart beat a tic, whereas matching ghost girls bidding me to play with them forever makes me hold my breath. Which one do I have a better chance of encountering, and therefore should fear? But alas, emotions don’t seem to pay much attention to rationality. So I expect some will read the list with a feeling of shared kinship, and others will think us batty. It’s ok if you think we’re crazy; we are.

One caveat: neither the hostage nor I find gore to be scary. It can enhance a scary movie, or deliver a great shock, or make you squirm uncomfortably in your seat, but it is not scary to us in and of itself. I think too many movies are made by people under the impression that if you show a lot of gore, you’ve made a scary movie. We’re more about what you don’t see than what you do. While we obviously love a good massacre, as anyone who reads the site can attest, the films we find scary are more about atmosphere and tension. Now, when you can find a flick that manages to pull off both a genuinely creepy atmosphere and excellent gore… that’s the holy grail. But we think torture porn flicks like Martyrs (2008) and High Tension (2003) rely too heavily on trying to shock you and don’t focus enough on trying to scare you. No offense to people who like those movies – we enjoy them too! They just won’t be making a list of films we find scary.

So we continue to work on the list (to be honest, actual life stuff has been crazy lately, which gets in the way of the important stuff. Like horror movie lists). We hope to have it soon.


50 Scariest Horror Movies: Part 1

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!)

Wow! Did I ever start a domestic?

•October 31, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Good day all,

So have you ever worked long and hard to establish peace with an enemy, only to get excited by a joint project that will end up destroying you both? That’s what my bold statement the other evening kind of did. You know how it is; it’s a pumpkin carving party, you’ve had a couple beverages, you decide that io9’s list is way off in a few places and get punchy. To put such a short time frame on such a serious endeavor (blood was spilled arguing if Jason Voorhees will even make an appearance or if we go 50 “best” or 50 “scariest”). We will keep duking it out and have our first 10 to you in the next few days.


The Hostage