As a horror fan, I’m always on the lookout for a decent flick that will scare the poop out of me. Since I’ve seen so many on my quest, unfortunately I’ve become extremely jaded. Most horror films can be divided thus: 85% of them are awful, 10% okay and only 5% awesome.
Leaving out truly scary mainstream films like Jaws and The Silence of the Lambs, I’d like to share some horror flicks I thought were particularly good, whether they scared me or not, and some that actually did. Most of these are older films, since later ones don’t seem to quite know how to grab a viewer and shake him like a baby into a terrified, mewling mass.
The following are particularly good movies in the horror genre:
Let the Right One In (Swedish, 2008) d. Tomas Alfredson
12-year-old Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) is lonely and bullied relentlessly at school. When he meets fellow outsider Eli (Lina Leandersson), he finds strength in their friendship. Too bad Eli is a vampire.
Set in a frigid Stockholm suburb in the 1980s, this adaptation of the bestselling novel by Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindqvist isn’t about bloodsuckers; it’s about two misfit children seeking solace from their despair. Definitely the best twist on a vampire in years, there’s nary a sparkle to be found, just blood, snow and fire.
An American Werewolf in London (1981) d. John Landis
By turns funny and horrifying, this film was notable for the groundbreaking werewolf transformation engineered by makeup effects master Rick Baker. Two American tourists (David Naughton and Griffin Dunne) end up on the wrong deserted moor. Although it ends rather abruptly, it’s still the best werewolf movie I’ve ever seen. With Jenny Agutter.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) d. Tobe Hooper
The trouble starts when Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns), her asshole wheelchair-bound brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain, who was brilliant) and their friends pick up a crazy hitchhiker. It’s a good film because the concept is so creepy, and it takes the time to let you get to know the characters a little. Hooper skillfully builds tension with unflinching shots of Sally’s ordeal. By the climax, we really want her to escape.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) d. John McNaughton
Based on the case of true-life serial killers Henry Lee Lucas and Otis Toole, this movie is so realistic it’s extremely hard to watch. I don’t think it was meant to be strictly a horror film but it’s often classed as one because of the subject matter. It’s the most realistic portrayal of a serial killer I’ve ever seen. Stars Michael Rooker as Henry, with Tom Towles as Otis.
The Shining (1980) d. Stanley Kubrick
Some people consider this one of the scariest movies ever. Jack Nicholson stars as the barely-dry alcoholic hired to take care of a haunted Colorado hotel over the winter. Based on a novel by Stephen King, the film is deeply flawed, particularly in its characterization of Wendy (Shelley Duvall) as kind of a twit. It does have great bits from the novel and the buildup to Jack’s encounter in Room 237 sends shivers up the viewer’s spine. Also stars the great Scatman Crothers as Dick Halloran.
King got the idea for this after staying in the famously-haunted Stanley Hotel at Estes Park on a trip with his wife Tabitha (also a brilliant writer, by the way).
The top five are movies that actually scared me:
The Descent (2005) d. Neil Marshall
Not scary because of cave-dwelling creatures. This film terrifies because of the pure claustrophobia of squeezing through a tiny hole in the dark with tons of rock atop you, not knowing who you can trust or where you are, or if you’ll ever make it out alive.
Psycho (1960) d. Alfred Hitchcock
Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), mild-mannered motel proprietor with a mother fixation, meets lovely fugitive Marion Crane (Janet Leigh, mother of 80s scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis) and bloody hijinks ensue. Based on the excellent novel by the legendary Robert Bloch, who in turn based Norman loosely on Ed Gein, a notorious murderer and body-snatcher. Gein was the inspiration for Norman, Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and aspects of Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs.
Psycho spawned several sequels, only one of which was decent. In Psycho II (1983), Tony Perkins reprised his role as Norman Bates. The film also starred Meg Tilly, Vera Miles and Robert Loggia and boasted a very nice score by Jerry Goldsmith.
The Thing (1982) d. John Carpenter
One of the few remakes I actually like. The original Howard Hawks production is pretty good, but this one, drenched in the slime that was so popular in 80s horror flicks, ramps it up awesomely. The blood test scene builds so much tension you may need a sedative afterward. Stars Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Keith David and Richard Dysart. If all remakes were as good as this one, I would spend more time at the theater.
The Exorcist III (1990) d. William Peter Blatty
Trust me on this one. I only have one thing to say: head scissors. Blatty directs the third sequel to the film of his best-selling novel, The Exorcist. We’ll just pretend the second one never happened, won’t we?
This film is based on his book Legion and stars George C. Scott as Lieutenant Kinderman, the world-weary detective from the first novel. Jason Miller, Brad Dourif (Wormtongue in The Lord of the Rings), Viveca Lindfors and Ed Flanders round out the talented cast. I saw this at a drive-in theater with a motley crew of friends in California, including one very cynical man named Sandy. By the end of the film, we had our feet off the floor and were huddled on the car seats clutching each other like little girls.
Wherever you are, Sandy, I wish you well and hope you’re not still having nightmares.
The Haunting (1963) d. Robert Wise
Forget the stupid remake. This movie has it all. The eerie sets, skilled actors (Julie Harris, Claire Bloom and Russ Tamblyn – Amber’s dad) and mind-bending special effects bring Shirley Jackson’s novel to brilliant life. You never actually see what’s haunting Hill House, but to hear it pounding on the wall in the dead of night is completely terrifying.
What are your favorite scary flicks? Why did they terrify you? Share their spookiness with us in the comments!
Yes, those are some good picks. I agree that the claustrophobic feel of The Descent was particularly terrifying.
Some of my favorites:
The orginal Night of the Living Dead in glorious creepy black and white.
Session 9 –one of the best movie sets ever–an actual abandoned mental hospital in Philadelphia.
Roman Polanski’s Repulsion — a pschological thriller.
Tossing It Out
All great picks, Arlee. Repulsion is a very good movie that is hard to find. Another great Polanski film is Rosemary’s Baby. Polanski followed Ira Levin’s novel almost exactly, down to using bits of the dialogue verbatim. It has a terrific performance by Ruth Gordon as Minnie Castavet.