It’s raining as I write this, and that helps to accomplish Halloween just about as well as anything else. Some rain—some fog if you can get it—a crispness to the air, maybe a fire roaring in the fireplace, and some ghost stories. I enjoy reading quite a bit more than the average person, but if that’s not your bag, there are always scary movies.
I love those, too.
The problem with scary movies, though, is that there’s a ton of shit out there. No field is more replete with schlocky garbage than the “horror” genre. And while sometimes I can get behind something mindless with a lot of blood and guts, usually I want something that genuinely makes me afraid to turn the lights off and head to bed.
So I’ve compiled a list of horror films that actually scare me. Movies that instill a bit of dread or unease, the kind of picture that sticks with you… at least until sunrise.
Now that I own a home, I don’t trust anyone knocking on my door, regardless of time-of-day. Oh sure, it’s probably just some Jehovah’s Witnesses trying to give me a Watchtower, but it could also be like this film. The premise is simple and timeless. A group of masked intruders terrorize a couple at a lake-home with predictably violent results. The Strangers fear works on two primary levels: A) the inability to stay safe in a place of safety (your home), and B) those fucking masks. Masks are just the worst.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Though not as fleshed out (get it?) as every single undead film that followed it, this is the flick that launched a thousand zombie-ships. It drags throughout, and features remarkably prehistoric makeup and effects, but I’ve been terrified of this movie—specifically the opening with the ridiculous Johnny and his sister Barbara—since I first saw it as a very young man. Few things cinematically are as startling as the initial appearance of a walking corpse, goofy Johnny’s early demise and Barbara’s absolute terror.
The tagline is, “there’s something wrong with Esther,” and holy hell, is there ever. Though it flew a bit under the radar upon release, this classic tale of “evil kid adopted into new environment” comes with a huge reveal and is, at times, pretty psychologically terrifying. If you’ve been considering adopting a nine year old Estonian orphan, I strongly encourage you to watch this film first. It could mean the difference between life and death.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
While it’s not the first “slasher” flick—many give that distinction to the inferior Black Christmas—it’s certainly one of the categories better early offerings. Combining elements of multiple horror sub-genres, this murderous tale of a large, flesh-masked maniac and his inbred family preys on both the psychological horror of isolation and abandonment, as well as the non-psychological horror of being killed to death with a chainsaw and possibly eaten or turned into a garment.
Don’t let the fact that David Caruso is in this picture keep you from seeing it. Session 9 is a solid thriller about an asbestos crew working in a decrepit, long-abandoned insane asylum. After the group—already teeming with internal strife—uncovers recorded audio sessions from a deeply disturbed former patient, shit starts to get weird in a hurry. Insane asylums (this one was filmed in the very real, very scary Danvers State Mental Hospital in Massachusetts) are always good backdrops for discontent; when the residual evil permeates the previously sane, it’s doubly entertaining.
Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Because this is such a masterpiece of a movie, many are reluctant to define it as a horror film. And that’s fine, I get it. You don’t want your fancy Oscar winning movie sullied with such low-brow company. But the facts remain: this is a movie about a cannibalistic, sadistic doctor who aides a young FBI agent as she tracks a creepy, penis-tucking, would-be transsexual serial killer who is making a suit out of lady-skin. Pretty goddamned scary, if you ask me.
For a period in the early 2000’s, every American horror film was based off of a slightly older Japanese horror film, primarily because the Japanese are—at times—horrifyingly insane. The Ring is easily the best of the “J-Horror” remakes mostly because of the absurdity: it’s about a videotape (SO ANTIQUATED!!) that, after watching, results in the death of the viewer. And although the premise sounds pretty laughable, the atmospheric fright and haunting visual imagery—SAMARA CRAWLING OUT OF THE WELL—make it a must-see.
Based off of the equally-as-scary Stephen King novel with the same title, Pet Sematary deals with mans’ eternal inability to handle mortality. It’s also a collection of scary individual scenes, even removed from the sum of their totality. The expired patient with the gaping head wound. The toddler with the scalpel severing Herman Munster’s Achilles. The flashback of the Indian burial ground’s first (un)successful interment, a young man who died in WWII. Zelda, the dirty-secret sister who died in a backroom, ravaged by meningitis. I’m kind of scared just recapping this, to be honest. Let’s move on.
What’s scarier than a large, undead black guy with a hook-hand who’s prone to eviscerating victims? A large, undead black guy with a hook-hand who eviscerates people, is composed internally of angry bees and lives in 1992’s most notoriously awful housing project, Chicago’s Cabrini Green. Based off of Clive Barker’s excellent short story “The Forbidden,” Candyman visits the intersection of urban legends in conjunction with a communal mistrust of outsiders. (Think, “no-snitching” or “snitches-get-stitches” before the pervasive mindset was well-known outside of the urban community.) It’s also got a really freaky theme song and a large, undead, hook-handed killer.
The Shining (1980)
I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like The Shining, and with good reason. Like Silence of the Lambs, this is an amazing film front-to-back, that doesn’t get tied down by the genre itself. It’s a great horror film, sure, but it’s also a great FILM-film, period. It doesn’t sounds like a million dollar idea when you succinctly summarize it—failed, alcoholic writer goes crazy in haunted hotel and tries to murder his family with an axe—but the acting, directing, setting and suspense take a simple premise to previously unrealized heights of terror.
Based on a real case of alleged “demonic possession,” The Exorcist sets the bar for all other horror films. I didn’t see the full thing until the theatrical re-release in 2000, but I’ve seen it many times since. (The re-release—available on a remastered 2010 Blu-Ray—is a must see, if only for the infamous “spider-walk” down the stairs, a pants-pissingly frightful scene cut from the original production.) Plagued by real off-screen incidents and post-release controversy, the film was nominated for 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Quasi-Subliminal Appearance of a Demon Face That Will Forever Haunt Your Dreams.
So, those are my Halloween flick-picks. What about you? What movie am I missing? What movie am I ridiculous for including?