Horror is probably the most subjective genre in cinema. For a generation, Psycho or The Thing from Another World were the scariest films they could imagine, for another they may come across as dull and uneventful. Horror is also a genre that proves the meddle of a director, as no other genre is so driven by what the audience sees (and doesn’t see). But there are five films that still give me the willies, and I think they’re the scariest films ever made. And if you’re looking for something horrific for Halloween, these should do you right.
The list, presented alphabetically:
Audition (1999) – The big thing about Takashi Miike‘s Audition is that it’s best not to know anything, so if you do decide to watch this based on my recommendation, try to sucker someone in who didn’t read this. Miike’s film is broken into two distinct halves. In the first half a lonely widower (Ryo Ishibashi) uses a phony audition to meet women, and meets the quiet, slightly damaged, but possible love of his life (Eihi Shiina). In the second half, things get complicated, and horrific. What makes Audition so scary is that the first half is a perfectly good movie about awkward love, but then things go in directions that absolutely ruin that placidity, and keep getting weirder and more disturbing. Where most horror films have two-dimensional characters, this really sucks you in, while also functioning as a commentary on sexual relations in modern Japan. This trailer probably gives too much away, but give it a look:
Audition is available on Blu-ray and DVD
The Blair Witch Project (1999) – Though The Blair Witch Project wasn’t the first “found footage” mock-documentary horror film (credit where credit is due, that’s Cannibal Holocaust), it basically took Hollywood ten year to realize what a great conceit it was for filmmakers and budgets, and we’ve seen at least four films in recent years (Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity) borrow from it with more coming. There are two things that I think make this chillingly effective. The first is that the film is a little boring. As the movie announces that the main characters have never been found, it’s telling the audience that there’s no possible happy ending for anyone, so when they’re uneventfully prancing in their hotel room and drinking, and things are just building to their inevitable conclusion, it’s building an internal tension and – for me – a sense of dread. Perhaps it’s just the recognition that wanting the film to be over is also wanting everyone in it to die. The other thing is that it understands the limited point of view to the point that when you get to the end of the film, what you see only tells you so much. I have an active imagination, and – for the most part – there are few creatures or horrific acts in cinema that can’t be dismissed. When forced to show the monster, most look like puppets or CGI. But to show a camera fall and a person standing in a corner? That creeps me out, and the film offers no easy solutions to why that happened.
The Blair Witch Project is available on DVD and Blu-ray
Don’t Look Now (1973) – Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now begins with a married couple (Donald Sutherland, Julie Christie) having sex, while it also recounts the death of their child. Their lives are empty, and filled with pain. But then she keeps seeing what she thinks is the ghost of their dead child and consults with psychics about it, while he remains skeptical and sees this as another sign in their crumbling marriage and lives. Roeg fills the movie with a claustrophobic dread, and the sense of grief hangs over the parents so it’s nearly visible. But I think why the film still disturbs me to this day it’s about being convinced of something out of grief, that something can so shake you up your faith becomes distorted to the point that you will believe anything if it gives you comfort. That, and that it might lead you to places you don’t want to go, is what still shakes me about this movie.
Don’t Look Now is available on DVD
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1976) – For most part modern horror is filled with stick figure characters who interact in ways that spell out their fates. Teenagers are basically fresh meat for whatever killer is stalking them. And though it’s fair to say that the college students in Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre aren’t drawn with anything but the widest of sketches, the reason why this is so much more effective is that if you go driving enough, there are roads that you’re on and towns you travel through that look unfriendly, and you hope you never get stuck there. Here the characters unintentionally stop in one of those spots long enough for there to be a body count. Perhaps the film was drawing from 1971′s Deliverance, which made great hay with its backwoods southern rednecks, but instead of rapists, this time the family is a bunch of murderous cannibals. Shot on 16mm (the home video of its day), it feels like a documentary and moves to one of the most heated conclusions of any horror film as it presents being stuck in a location that is hell on earth. But more than any other horror film, no one does anything incredibly stupid – there are no sex scenes – and civilization on the back roads of Texas (as presented here) is non-existent.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is available on DVD and Blu-ray.
The Thing (1982) – Though most films promise to show you horrific sights, most of those films are better at setting up than paying off. So many of the rubber-suited monsters look exactly like men in latex – and if there’s a strike against Ridley Scott‘s pretty much perfect Alien, it’s that towards the end the creature is shown in its entirety, when it was much creepier in glimpses. But the effects work in John Carpenter’s The Thing never feel like suits. Effects supervisor Rob Bottin basically went mad trying to create the effects, and the work here is still breathtakingly horrific. From dogs that split open to reveal horrific shapes, to one of the greatest set pieces in horror – where an alien takes over a man having a heart attack – every appearance and effects gag feels otherworldly. The early 1980′s was huge on practical make-up effects, and people like Bottin and Stan Winston and Rick Baker were doing career-best work. And though there are moments in the film that may look a little dodgier today in high definition, the ability of The Thing to present images that are still horrific is a testament to the tactile qualities of practical effects. They can’t be denied in the way that digital effects have yet to prove as seamless.
The Thing is available on DVD, Blu-ray and on Netflix instant.
If you’ve seen those, here’s a list of some of my favorite horror films that didn’t make the list:
- The Brood - David Cronenberg’s divorce therapy movie is probably his most chilling.
- City of the Living Dead- My favorite Lucio Fulci film, it’s gross but also has a great sense of damnation.
- Dead Alive – Peter Jackson’s early splatter comedy still delights (and just hit Blu-ray)
- Evil Dead 2 - More fun than scary, but inarguably entertaining. Along the same lines is his more recent Drag Me to Hell
- Mulholland Dr. – David Lynch at his most unsettling
- Psycho – Hitchcock’s classic still holds up
- Suspiria – Dario Argento’s tone-poem masterpiece
What’s your favorite scary movie?