Horror has almost always been a very strange guilty pleasure genre for me. I became rather interested in the genre when I was six and I snuck a sneak peek at my sister’s videocassette of Wes Craven’s Scream 2. I didn’t get past the first ten minutes. However, as my tolerance increased, much like that of a future alcoholic, I became obsessed with horror films of all kinds. Some were quite memorable and remain my favorites while others were stupid and forgettable. I watched scary movies so often, in all iterations; I began writing a book about the history of the horror film at age 12. (Yeah, I didn’t go out much…) I kind of grew out of my very long horror phase when I was 15, but my love of all things horror has been forever fostered by my own interest in the morbid and the macabre. From classics like Dracula to modern torture porn like Saw, I have seen many a scary movie. And in honor of Halloween, here is a list of my favorite scary movies (in no particular order):
It’s been so long since I’ve seen the theatrical cut and it is so often I watch the Director’s Cut, I don’t really remember the former. (It’s the same with the Lord of the Rings trilogy.) Of course, anyone movie buff in their right mind would have William Friedkin’s horror masterpiece at the top of their list. While its philosophical musings, its fantastic screenplay (from original writer William Peter Blattey) and its top notch performances are all great pieces to the puzzle, the centerpiece is its visceral thrill. The feelings you experience while watching this film are almost incomparable to any other film. It just chills you to your very core. You may find yourself whispering, “Why, God, why?” Which is exactly the point.
Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of the Stephen King novel was kind of dismissed at the time of its release. Only recently has it been reevaluated, and with good reason. Despite its somewhat mainstream tone, it is still, at heart, a Kubrick film. While I watch it, I constantly notice new things and ask myself why Jack Torrance (a raging, rampaging Jack Nicholson) was so compelled to go insane. What made him so susceptible to going nuts? And look at the gorgeous scenery. And you will find some of the most beautiful, haunting tracking shots ever on film. (It was the first time Kubrick used SteadiCam work.) Torrance’s descent into madness is one of those iconic scenarios, and him peeping through the door cackling “Heeeeere’s Johnny!” is one of the defining moments in cinema.
Scream is a strange film in which it was very much marketed towards a mainstream audience and has very commercial tendencies, and yet retains artistic and cultural integrity. It’s a horror film that knows exactly what it is and why it works. It’s a slasher film that goes back and spoofs all those dumb clichés from the 1980’s and then rubs them in your face and then uses them again to scare you. Why? Because the film knows why those conventions worked and how to use them. The opening sequence with Drew Barrymore is definitely one of the most iconic moments in a horror film. Props to screenwriter Kevin Williamson for making postmodernism really cool. (You know, besides Tarantino.)
I am in the minority, apparently, for thinking that the better half of Robert Rodriguez’s and Quentin Tarantino bloody homage to exploitation films was the latter’s car chase movie. A lot of people preferred Rodriguez’s zombie flickPlanet Terror, but I found it hard to take seriously outside the “homage” circle. With Tarantino’s throwback to Vanishing Point and other car chase flicks, itfelt like a real movie. It felt like something you could go see in a theater and not know it was done for ha-ha’s. I enjoy it partly because of the dialogue, for Tarantino’s dialogue is always sharp, nuanced, and fun to listen to; the other reason, of course, is because of the bad ass car chase in the second half. Tarantino is under the impression this is his “Women are Badass Movie”, but he seems to be giving a little too much reliance on that. Aside from the fun conversation, it is indeed a “serial killer movie where the killer uses a stunt car”. Kurt Russell is great as Stunt Man Mike, and Tracie Thoms is like a female Samuel L. Jackson. And that is a very good thing.
Remember the days when there was only one Saw movie? Me neither. But, back in 2004, that was the case. Thank God. Saw technically doesn’t bear the torture porn label that its successors do. In a way, the violence is portrayed more in a Se7en-esque way (albeit, slightly more graphically). Its violence does not faze me because its reliance is less on visceral thrill and more on mood and writing. Yes, this is me saying that Saw was relatively well written. Think back, though. The first one was very clever, rather realistic, and, while the dialogue was negligible, it was scary. I find it to be chilling and interestingly moralistic. Until, that is, it begat about a thousand sequels. Then it just became stupid and laughable.
Unlike the previous entries in Wes Craven’s Nightmare franchise, this one is actually interesting. Toying with the same kind of postmodern/meta ideas he’d work with two years later, this one takes place in the real world, where Heather Lagenkamp is an actress who has a son and whose husband is working on a new Freddy Krueger movie. Robert England is an actor whose demons are about to consume him. And Lagenkamp’s son is acting weird, of course. Although this seems mildly plain at first, what one should realize is that it is an astute examination of the influence of horror films on youth and whether they affect behavior. WHAT? Craven making psychological and cultural connections? Yes, indeed, and it is fun and scary and brilliant! No, really, it is the scariest of the entire franchise.
There’s nothing like some good old claustrophobia to lighten the mood. Rock climbing girls get stuck and there are strange, bizarre bat people around. Totally convention and predictable, right? Well, no. Rather than using the same conventions that one would assume they would use, they, instead, go the smart route and channel the fears in your inner psyche. No annoying trick shots here, folks! Nothing but pure adrenaline and moody settings. And go for the Director’s Cut, just so you know, because the ending is so much better.
What would a horror movie list be without something from the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock? Psycho is one of his grand masterpieces, burrowing itself into the cultural psyche and refusing to get out. Norman Bates is completely insane, yet one of the most interesting characters in film history. The shower scene is probably the most iconic and recognizable scenes in film history. There is so much going for this film that has been written about countless times. Just go see it.
This short film was part of the Asian horror anthology Three…Extremes and it is my favorite of the bunch. Seemingly, more than the other two, this film was meticulously orchestrated to have a specific tempo, tone, and unsettling feeling. The film doesn’t even both trying to tempt you or lull you into a false sense of security. Instead, it just dives in. It is, in essence, an Asian Sweeney Todd, although; maybe even a little more disturbing. The slow camera movements linger on facial reactions and let every ounce of fear seep in. It is a powerful, scary film.
This may not technically count as “horror” in the technical sense of the genre, but you have to admit, it’s a damn good film and it is, if anything, one of the most thrilling movies of all time. Smart screenplay, great direction, and excellent performances are what make this film so fantastic. (Side note: Jodie Foster’s accent is completely believable.) Anthony Hopkins plays Hannibal Lecter in a star making performance, one that oozes an incredible creepiness and discomfort. Lecter likes to play mind games, and this intelligent screenplay plays along with you, toying with all of your preconceptions of the characters and storyline.
I heartily think Johnny Depp was robbed during Oscar season when he did not win for his portrayal of Sweeney Todd, aka Benjamin Barker. Tim Burton’s masterful adaptation of the stage musical by Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince is a delightfully macabre musical. Although its color palette is filled with bleak and washed out colors, the performances and songs couldn’t be more colorful. The violence is operatic and as choreographed as a ballet number, but its chills are genuine. Thus, you should definitely attend the tale of Sweeney Todd…
Out of all of the films I have listed so far, funnily enough, this seemingly innocuous choice of horror film delivers the hardest punch out of all of them (with the possible exception of The Exorcist). Guillermo del Toro’s layered fairy tale is drenched in symbolism and is a film you can go back to time and again and discover new things about its story. But why, of all the films, is this the most powerful? Del Toro blends reality and fiction with clever allegory and heart, making its content all the more intense and meaningful to the audience, similarly with The Exorcist. If anything, the two films could work, somewhat, as companion pieces, each asking the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Del Toro’s masterpiece is creepy, unsettling, and, above all, beautiful.
This little art house film by Darren Aronofsky became a smash hit because of one scene. Audiences, though, failed to realize how deep the film actually went into the mind and the madness of Nina Sayers and why exactly it was so well done. Admittedly, as noted by several critics, it does sometimes play off like a schlocky horror movie. However, its use of symbolic imagery, characterization, choreography, and cinematography give insight into how insane this film was. The shaky camera work, though normally distasteful personally, is actually a plus, adding to the sense that the audience is descending into madness withNatalie Portman. It’s all about pressure and insanity. A thematic sister to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, Black Swan is an intense work of art.
I love this film because it allows me to say such brash things as, “Twilight can suck it.” But FW Murnau’s silent spectacle was a technically illegal adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. Max Schrek, who was apparently ugly anyways, plays Count Orlock, and makes one of the scariest vampires to ever hit the screen. The moody tone and the excellent scenery make this film a classic. Also check out Shadow of the Vampire, a fictional account of the making of the film where Malkovich’s Murnau hires Willem Dafoe’s Schrek, who just plays a really good vampire…or does he?
It isn’t as meta or self-referential as Scream, but what self-aware humor there is makes for a very funny and entertaining movie. Filled with callbacks and homages to the zombie subgenre, Zombieland is an amusing ride. Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin all give very fun and light performances. It’s definitely the kind of movie you’ll put in after scaring yourself to death with the other films.
Honorable Mention That Technically Does Not Count:
While Zombieland walks the line between comedy and horror (primarily on comedy), Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein is nothing but comedy. A brilliant homage to the Universal Horror films of the ‘30s, Brooks’ film is a pitch perfect comedy that hits every single right note and then some. It is one of the funniest films of all time, with Gene Wilder, Teri Gar, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, and Madeline Kahn at the top of their game. You can’t not love “Puttin’ on the Ritz” or “Frau brucher!”
So that is my list of my favorite horror movies to watch on Halloween. I hope you have a Happy Halloween yourself and have fun.