Alien – “In space, no one can hear you scream.” That was the infamous tag-line of Aliens and summed up one of the scariest aspects of the film… the isolation of deep space. I can only imagine how terrifying seeing this movie was back when it debuted in 1979. No horror film had ever done what this one did. The crew discovers a mysterious creature that latches on to one of their faces, impregnates his insides with its larva, which literally bursts from his chest and quickly matures into a big monster that then kills everyone. Oh, and the monster’s blood is like sulpheric acid. The special effects still hold up almost 35 years later, supplemented with set and creature designs by visionary surrealist H. R. Giger. Alien is still, in my opinion, the definition of a horror / sci-fi masterpiece.
The Shining – Stanley Kubrick’s masterful adaptation of the Stephen King novel is almost difficult to watch. It’s not out of gore or torture, but in witnessing the slow and all-encompassing descent of a man into madness. Kubrick created an interesting mix of the feeling of isolation with all around uneasiness, whether from the elevators full of blood to the creepy twin girls. (To this day, I can’t look down a long hotel corridor without thinking of them.) In the vein of Alien, you are dealing with a small family left to their own devices in a giant haunted chalet in the mountains, far from civilization, so when the shit hits the fan, there is no escape. Jack Nicholson is incredibly convincing as a raving, ax-welding maniac coupled with the famous lines “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” and bursting through a door to the Tonight Show catchphrase “Here’s Johnny!” However, I have a tough time thinking of The Shining without also remembering The Simpsons parody.
Poltergeist – Stephen King’s It and this movie… no two movies did more to give my generation a fear of clowns than these. Except unlike It, Poltergeist is actually scary. I haven’t seen this movie in a long time, but I do remember how it started out pretty normal. Then there’s that creepy scene where the little girl talking to the snow filled television screen. (By the way, it doesn’t seem like TV stations ‘end their broadcast day’ anymore. They just sell that time to infomercials. Maybe its better that way.) Then things just got crazier and crazier until it reached the crescendo of full-fledged bat-shit crazy.
The Exorcist – Not until the Blair Witch Project over twenty years later was such a creepy movie made from such a simple premise. Granted, The Exorcist had a bigger budget, decent special effects (split pea soup vomit totally counts), name actors and was really good. But the premise was simple. Demon possessed little girl is confined to her bed as two priests try to dispel the evil within her. The result was one of the most memorable and freaky horror films of all time.
Halloween – John Carpenter’s original is still the gold standard in slasher flicks, so much so that I have seen it accredited with a 4 star rating from some movie critics! Before Michael Myers became a hokey clone of Jason Voorhies (tall, silent, wears a mask, tends to kill with a blade), he was a terrifying stone-cold killer, a true sociopath of no emotion and unbridled determination. Plus, that repetitive anxiety producing music, so simple but so disturbing. Michael Myers has been compared to the bogeyman. I for one would probably shit myself if I found him standing in my closet!
John Carpenter’s The Thing – In the same line as Alien’s “In space no one can hear you scream” in this movie it’s doubtful anyone will hear to scream in the desolate frozen wasteland of Antarctica. John Carpenter’s (sort of) remake of The Thing was a disturbingly creepy movie. By disturbing, I’m mainly talking about the monster… an amorphous mass of flesh and replicating DNA that can assume the forms of others… and kill you. But in terms of disturbing, it is messed up watching Wilford Brimley, the oatmeal and “dia-beet-is” guy go insane. He seemed like such a nice man too. I know this is one of the few horror movies on this list that Jonny Prophet has seen because it stars his celluloid hero and man-crush Kurt Russell.
Scream – For whatever reason, I don’t think I really appreciated this movie when it came out. It was a groundbreaking approach to the ‘slasher flick’ by having obsessive fans of the franchise become the killers they idolized. Plus, the success of Scream revitalized the horror genre in the mid-90’s. It was a cool concept further enhanced by an up-and-coming young cast (Skeet Ulrich, Neve Campbell, Matthew Lillard, Rose McGowan), plus in the opening scene they killed a character played by a big name actress (Drew Barrymore). I had never seen anything quite like it. Scream was an original approach to an extremely played out genre.
Silence of the Lambs – I am a little iffy on whether I really consider this a horror film, despite dealing with serial killers, cannibals, suits made of human flesh and lots of other gore. The film is masterful and disturbing with amazing performances by Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster. You know, nobody seems to credit Ted Levine on his portrayal of demented kidnapper and serial killer Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb. As great as Hopkins was as Hannibal Lecter, I was much more creeped out by the unpredictable Buffalo Biill. This scene can give anyone nightmares and permanently ruin a certain Q Lazarus song.
Misery – The movie that put Kathy Bates on the map was also the movie that showed us why having a number one fan can be downright terrifying. This is another one of those ‘being helpless in the middle of nowhere’ movies, this time with the added immobilization of a broken leg and the monster is an overbearing, obsessive and most definitely unstable nurse. The infamous “hobbling” scene is pretty horrifying to watch, you’re almost guaranteed to wince. However, the hobbling in the novel was actually a little worse, involving an axe and a blowtorch. Fun!
Nightmare on Elm Street – I haven’t seen every “Freddy” movie, but with each sequel they seemed to go in a goofier, cheesy horror direction (though I’ve heard New Nightmare was really good). But the first movie, the introduction of Freddy Krueger and the concept of being killed by your dreams is still makes for a scary and disturbing movie. There’s the feeling in futility in that sooner or later you will fall asleep and then he’ll be waiting. That alone makes Freddy Krueger one of the scariest and most original screen villains of all time. Just the scene of Freddy approaching, his claws running along the pipe and making that sound, is enough to give you chills.
Hard Candy – Ellen Page isn’t always the lovable Juno. Occasionally she can be a mentally disturbed torturer of online predators… as Patrick Wilson found out the hard way. There is a level of brilliance to this movie and its not just the spectacular performances of the two leads (who for at least 95% of the film are the only actors you see) but in its ambiguity. Is Patrick Wilson really a bad guy? Is Ellen Page just arbitrarily hunting down those she decides are guilty? Much like Page’s character, these are things for the viewer to decide. Hard Candy is twisted in every sense and it is a damn shame so few people have ever seen it.
Jaws – The film that made an entire generation afraid to go in the water, Jaws still brings about a nauseous sense of anxiety. A swimmer’s in the water… the daunting music begins… the dorsal fin rises out of the water… if only the swimmer could actually hear the tempo of the music begin to race like the audience’s pulse. Alas, it’s too late. Screaming and flailing, the swimmer is dragged under, the water turns red and only a severed arm rises to the surface. Spielberg’s now infamous troubles with the mechanical shark really worked in his favor. By all accounts, the fake shark may have given the film a hokey feel, but instead Jaws became a minimalist masterpiece in horror. Hell, you don’t need a mechanical shark when you have Robert Shaw’s chilling monologue!
Texas Chainsaw Massacre – I think its telling that the 2003 remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s attempt to top the original was to make everything dirtier and more gross looking. You can’t top how truly screwed up the original is. Brutal would be a good description. Some horror films held back, but not Massacre. It was twisted, gruesome, extremely cringe-worthy and scary on a level of not ever wanting to break down in the middle of nowhere… ever. Even Ed Gein, the real life serial killer and cannibal who inspired this and other films in the genre, wasn’t as screwed up as what we saw in Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Jacob’s Ladder – This is another one that many have never heard of or seen. It’s a head trip movie about a Vietnam veteran who starts having worsening flashbacks with increasing frequency until he is unable to distinguish reality from his own nightmares. Jacob’s Ladder, like a few others on this list, may loosely be considered horror. However, this movie is freaky enough to make the list for me. I recommend checking this one out if you can find it. I’m not sure its in print anymore.
Let the Right One In – This is one of the best and most original vampire movies I have ever seen. It has an amazing story, great characters and some excellent plot twists. The story centers on a lonely boy who meets a girl that seems to understand his isolation, but she has a dark secret. For a genre where vampires are all too often portrayed as brooding and sexy, it is nice to see a real love story in a most unconventional way. Of course there was a Hollywood version starring Hit-girl, but I haven’t seen it. If you can stand subtitles, then I say check out the original.
Night of the Living Dead – Everything zombie traces its roots to this low budget film by George Romero. It’s a set-up we’ve seen dozens of times since then… people holed up in a house trying to survive as hordes of the undead attempt to get inside to sell them Amway products. Or eat them. It’s hard to tell from their moaning. As the movie progresses, we start to wonder who the real monsters are when we strip away society and are faced with survival. Some may consider the original Night of the Living Dead a little cheesy with weak special effects, but it’s still extremely creepy and has a better plot than most horror films made today.
The Birds- This is, in my opinion, Alfred Hitchcock’s scariest film. What caused all the birds in town to become homicidal and try to kill every human? Did it have anything to do with the arrival of Tippi Hedren? Are the birds attacking people anywhere else? You never know. All you get is the final chilling scene where the survivors uneasily make their way to a car, all the while surrounded by hundreds of perched birds, ominously watching. It’s as if the birds are allowing these humans safe passage under the knowledge that they have lost. There were swarming killer animal movies before and have been many since, but none have been able to compare to The Birds.
Frailty – I already talked about this movie before. I hope someday it will be seen as the underrated classic that it is.
Dead Calm – This movie has always stuck with me for some reason. A couple (played by Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman) goes out to sea for some peace and quiet when they come across Billy Zane’s distress call from a sinking ship in the middle of the ocean. Zane then absconds with Kidman and their boat while abandoning Neill on the doomed vessel. It turns out Zane is a psychopath. Kidman is forced to placate Zane, including sex, to keep him from killing her and maintaining any chance of rescuing her husband, who is forced to manually pump water out of the haul non-stop to keep from sinking. It’s a disturbing movie that, like Alien and The Thing, hinges upon the idea of being surrounded by vast emptiness where there is no help coming and little chance of escape.
28 Days Later – This was one of the scariest horror movies I have ever seen. It revitalized and evolved the zombie genre with “infectious” running monsters that were no longer what you would call human, but were not undead either. The beginning of the film, where Cillian Murphy awakes up from a coma to an abandoned hospital (a scene Robert Kirkman would revisit in the first issue of The Walking Dead). This part flipped me out to no end. After leaving the trashed hospital, he emerges into downtown London, completely abandoned. I also loved the scene in the tunnel when the car gets the flat and the rats race past them… followed by shadows of the approaching infected. That scene is insane! In a tip of the hat to the Night of the Living Dead, you end up questioning who the true monsters really are when the main characters think they find salvation. The end of the movie was crazy too. You need to see it if you haven’t. The sequel isn’t bad either, but not as good as the original.
There you have it. Happy Halloween! Enjoy eating all the candy and getting dia-beet-is!
Until then, Stay Strange.