Halloween is upon us, so now is the time to look at movies that scared us. Neither of us are horror aficionados by any means, and we definitely skip the “torture porn” gore of most recent slasher films. But despite the seemingly bottomless pit of straight-to-streaming low-grade horror films (it’s painful to sift through them when trying to see the new releases on cable), there have been quality films that were truly scary and/or disturbing. Today we take a look at the ones that got to us the most.
As I mentioned in my last post, I love Halloween and enjoy haunted houses and the whole creepy vibe of the season. Having said that, I have a definite ceiling for excessive gore. I get people enjoying being scared at the movies, or even enjoying laughing at the ridiculousness of a “Nightmare on Elm Street 5”, but some of the current horror films seem less interested in telling a story and more interested in dismembering people in the most graphic ways possible. Not my cup of tea. In any event, here are some of my memorable scary films.
The Shining (1980)
Legendary director Stanley Kubrick created one of the most visually striking horror films of all time with The Shining. The shot composition and cinematography, which helped turn the hotel into its own character, still influence the look of many films today, even shows like American Horror Story. There are indelible images in this film that still haunt my thoughts, such as the river of blood flowing through the hallway and the twin sisters appearing alive and then butchered. Jack Nicholson created an iconic character that has a permanent spot in our pop culture – even my 13-year old knows the source of the “Here’s Johnny!” line/scene. While Nicholson was magnificent, Shelley Duval was underrated as Jack’s increasingly terrified wife, while character actors Scatman Crothers, Philip Stone, and Joe Turkel were solid in supporting roles. Danny Lloyd, as Danny, created the original and best creepy-kid character (sorry Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense). The invisible friend Tony that speaks through Danny’s finger and the haunting utterance of “Redrum” still sends a shiver down my spine. Finally, I would be remiss not to mention the excellent novel by Stephen King upon which the film is based. I never understood why King was disappointed with this film since it is undoubtedly one of the best film adaptations of his novels. The 1997 remake, supposedly done in a way to please King, paled in comparison.
Bonus: Kubrick was a perfectionist and notorious for doing excessive takes. The “Here’s Johnny!” scene reportedly took 3 days and the use of 60 doors.
DJ: The Shining is a great choice. Kubrick is a great director who can film different genres but still have his unique signature intact. This is a beautiful film that still holds its scare factor today. It’s an iconic film.
1982 is known as one of the best movie years, and Poltergeist was one of many films I saw in the theater that year. I’ll never forget being in the front row in a smaller theater and sitting next to a friend who screamed at the top of his lungs throughout the film. I’ve seen Poltergeist recently, and despite a few dated effects, it holds up very well. Tobe Hooper, who also directed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), created such a menacing feel to the whole film. You never knew which part of the house was going to go after one of the family members. Stephen Spielberg produced and co-wrote the film, and his iconic vision of suburban life plays a strong role in the story. JoBeth Williams didn’t get enough credit for her portrayal as Diane, who starts the film as the average soccer mom and then has to find previously unknown strength and determination to get her child back. She’s like the suburban version of Ripley from Alien, while her husband, portrayed by Craig T. Nelson, is largely impotent in the face of the supernatural threats. Quirky character actress Zelda Rubinstein steals her scenes in what was her most memorable role as the supernatural “house cleaner” (oops – you missed a spot!). I was scared for weeks at nighttime after seeing this film, especially from the classic clown doll attack scene.
Bonus: The clown and tree sequences were both drawn from Spielberg’s own childhood fears. He also nearly cast Drew Barrymore as Carol Anne but cast her in E.T. instead, which was released one week after Poltergeist.
DJ: I liked this movie overall and it does have some scares, but I am not as big a fan as you. It’s a film I saw on video after its release and it didn’t resonate more with me than any other of its type. I saw the remake recently and it is garbage – not coming close to this one and a waste of time. What may be scarier is the alleged real life curse against the film.
The Ring (2002)
As I mentioned, I haven’t given many recent horror films a chance, people always say the original Saw is worth it, but I heard good things about The Ring and was entertained and scared by it. I just realized all three of my films feature children prominently in them – must be tied to my own cornucopia of fears I had as a child. This is definitely a psychological horror, and director Gore Verbinski, with a debt to Kubrick’s influence, does a nice job creating visuals that get under your skin. The simplistic storyline of a videotape that causes anyone to die within a week of viewing it sounds like another set-up to a cheesy straight-to-video B-movie. However, there is actually a more interesting mystery at the core of the story, one that we want to learn more about as journalist Rachel, played by Naomi Watts, tries to get to the bottom of. Watts is one of my favorite actresses working today and she definitely elevates the material with her performance. She’s well regarded by critics and her peers, twice Oscar-nominated for leading roles, but just hasn’t found that one defining role that would make her a shoe-in for Best Actress.
Bonus: The Ring was based on a Japanese horror film, Ringu (1998), and led to a number of other American remakes of Japanese horror including The Grudge, Dark Water, Pulse and One Missed Call, in addition to two inferior Ring sequels.
DJ: This is a film I was thinking about myself, creepy and pretty original outside of it being a remake. Because of its success had to put out some crappy sequels.
I must be getting older because I just don’t enjoy Halloween as much as you do. But I do like movies that generally scare me. Like you, I can’t get into a slasher film. This may be a narrow-minded view but they all seem similar to me. As a preteen, sure the first couple of Friday the 13th, Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street movies scared me. Halloween rises above those for the music alone, so freaking creepy. I look back at these and most are silly. Currently, the crop is pretty dumb too or just out to outdo the gore of the previous ones. The real world is scarier than these films. I will say though that The Witch, although overhyped, had some truly creepy moments, generally though it’s hard for a film to scare me. Real life ghost stories seem to creep me out, The Conjuring films have been ok for instance. The Blair Witch Project was ok. As a preteen/teen though everything scared me, including The Shining, The Omen and, very close to making my list, Children of the Corn. But I digress so here are the three that still affect me.
This may be a controversial pick considering this film came out in 1922, but this F.W. Murnau German Expressionistic silent masterpiece is still creepy. Murnau tried to adapt Bram Stoker’s Dracula but unfortunately could not get the rights so he changed the names and a few details and voila. He did get sued anyway and was forced to burn all copies, though luckily for film history some copies survived. Max Schreck plays Count Orlock, the Dracula character in unrecognizable make-up. He is not the suave 1931 Bela Lugosi Count Dracula, but a bald pointy-eared, long nailed, creepy as shit Count. This film doesn’t really scare me today but his iconic look is still pretty terrifying. I think kids today would be scared watching this film if they could sit through it. In 1922 this film must have been chilling. I watched this film this week and it still looks great. Unlike other German Expressionistic films of the day Murnau used real settings and it makes the terror more realistic, it sets a great mood. The iconic scenes include the ship scene, the scene of the Count looking into the camera when he is about to attack, and the great shadow work of Schreck’s character walking up the stairs. This still holds up as one of the best horror films of all time. Most Dracula films that came after never could hold up to this outside of the 1931 one. It was also remade in 1979 by Werner Herzog.
Bonus: Some horror films seem to have urban legends regarding “curses” or “weird” circumstances and this film is no different, including some sketchy deaths. The 2000 film Shadow of The Vampire was a fictionalized account that claimed Max Schreck may have been an actual vampire.
MG: You’re going way back on this one, and I love it. The German Expressionist films, like this and The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, cast such a long shadow of influence over cinematography and the general methods of making films. I do love the creepy, non-romanticized take on Dracula in this film. I wasn’t aware Herzog did a remake. Not sure I want to check it out, as this is so iconic.
The Exorcist (1973)
When I was a kid this is the film I was scared to see. Fantastical serial killers, Universal monsters, and children from the corn were just not very believable, but the Devil, that’s another story. Growing up Roman Catholic, nothing could be more chilling than Satan himself. Looking back now I can see how that was all bunk. So knowing that The Exorcist was about Satanic possession and had the reputation of it being extreme freaked me out. At some point, I saw it and it was as scary as predicted. I think the most terrifying part of it is the satanic voice that possesses Regan. William Friedkin’s direction is tight and conveys the uneasiness of the situation. Linda Blair does a fine job as Regan in really her only well-known role. Ellen Burstyn, Max Von Sydow, and Lee J. Cobb lend a great acting pedigree to more than just a genre film. The language in this film is shocking, the effects were ahead of their time, and the script comes from great source material: the 1971 book by William Peter Blatty. The book was inspired by a 1940’s real-life exorcism. I tried to read this book in my preteen years and I couldn’t get through it, the copy I owned had a cover that terrified me. Religious-themed horror films like this (Stigmata, The Seventh Sign, Prince of Darkness, The Omen) almost always get me. The Exorcist, like many other successful films, spawned many sequels and reboots, including a current Fox TV Series in its second season. The only one that I could sit through was Exorcist III with George C. Scott and directed by William Peter Blatty, it’s not great but it’s a true sequel. Iconic scenes include the head spin and the unsettling spider walk.
Bonus: This was the first horror film to be nominated for an Academy Award. Also another film on this list that had “coincidences” of death and accidents during and after filming.
MG: I was also raised strict Roman Catholic, so I regarded this film as “sacrilegious” for a good chunk of my life, having heard about the language in it and scenes like the masturbation with the cross. To be honest, I can’t even confirm that is in the film, as I’ve never sat down to watch it, although I’ve seen bits and pieces. Yeah, Satanic stuff really freaked me out too when I was young. I did watch The Omen, which wasn’t super scary, but it still bothered me after I watched it.
Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
This is the film on my list that still terrifies me today. I hadn’t seen it in years and recently watched the trailer and it gave me an uneasy feeling. This is a truly underrated film that deals with a psychological horror. Adrian Lyne’s 1990 film stars Tim Robbins as Jacob, a Vietnam veteran that has flashbacks and hallucinations. He is mourning the death of his son and has a case of extreme disassociation. As the film viewer, we often don’t know what is going on, what’s real, what’s not. We see the images he sees, faceless vibrating figures and a large creature. The vibrating effect is masterful and scary as hell. This is Lyne’s best work, even better than Fatal Attraction. Tim Robbins is also great and showcases what would become some great performances in The Player and The Shawshank Redemption. This has imprints in future horror films including heavily in The Sixth Sense. It’s too bad Lyne didn’t do more films only directing seven others and nothing since 2002. I hear there is a current plan to remake this film starring Michael Ealy. There is no chance that they will be able to create the utter horror of this film, please abandon this idea and come up with an original film.
Bonus: Macaulay Culkin, hot off Uncle Buck and just prior to his success in Home Alone, has a uncredited cameo as Jacob’s son.
MG: Another great pick as this was under appreciated and is starting to get forgotten, although I’m surprised to hear there might be a remake. I saw this in the theater, and always think of the scene where he’s being wheeled down the basement hallway on the stretcher and the wheels start bumping into chunks of flesh. Amazing visuals and overall building feeling of dread throughout. I really want to watch this again now.