It’s Halloween week and since we are a movie site, we are under some kind of unspoken obligation to provide our dear readers with a list to fit the festivities. You may remember a similar list popping up two years ago, in which all current contributors voiced an opinion and the final results represented a collective agreement. Since I was not a contributor at that time, Tapley asked me to offer up a new take this year.
A little backstory on my relationship with scary movies seems appropriate. I was raised by two Christian parents who were very protective of the images that I put into my head. When I was six years old, I was playing at a friend’s house when he suggested we watch “Beetle Juice.” Knowing that it was a potentially objectionable title, I called my mom and asked if it was okay and she said it was not. Kids being kids, we watched it anyway.
What did I think of it? It scared the crap out of me. So much so, that I understood why my mom didn’t want me to watch it and actively avoided scary images on my own free will from then on. When one or two infiltrated me, such as “Ghostbusters,” I was always a little rattled. As I’ve grown, I’ve only become slightly less sensitive to these types of images and only actively seek out scary films if I hear there is a lot more going on to make it worthwhile.
I’ve already mentioned in my Life Without Oscar column that I’m not one for the horror genre in general, mainly because a typical effort values short-term titillation over long-term intellectual or psychological probing. Of course, there are exceptions and the films below represent the best of them. They are all films that reach beyond the easily manipulated human desire to be excited by imaginary danger and touch on deeper, darker fears that can manifest into ones subconscious that never go away. In other words, these films can fuck you up.
One caveat. I decided not to include any film that was already mentioned in the top 20 posted by this site two years ago. No use repeating ourselves, even though “The Shining” and “The Exorcist” are obviously still mandatory viewing.
10. “Scream” (Wes Craven, 1996)
Okay, okay, so maybe this one won’t exactly fuck you up. Unless you happen to be 14 years old and seeing more or less your first real horror movie in the theater trying to impress a girl, like I was. At that time, the film scared me so much that I slept on the floor in my parents’ room that night (yes, at 14). Now, it’s a rewatchable favorite that arguably not only changed horror films forever but gave birth to a new type of self-aware cinema that came to dominate much of the teen-targeted films of any genre in the new millennium. The opening scene alone is smart, funny, chilling and subversive.
9. “The Butcher” (Claude Chabrol, 1970)
Here’s a novel concept. A film about some mysterious killings going on in a small town where the mystery is more or less solved in the opening frames by the title. Luckily, the mystery is not the appeal and Chabrol instead focuses on the relationship between a teacher and the butcher, both in desperate need of a connection, only one slowly starts to understand that the other is kind of a psychopath. This is the type of horror film that understands how scary the simple act of a light turning on or off in the next room can be without the aid of bombastic score and sound effects.
8. “Images” (Robert Altman, 1972)
Psychological horror is in some ways, a cop out. Given license to do almost whatever a filmmaker wants, he or she can just chalk it up to the character’s insane point of view. Altman certainly toes the line here, with his tale of Susannah York slowly losing her marbles in a remote cabin. Stripped of his trademark overlapping dialogue and interloping characters, Altman has to focus on his visuals and his four lead characters, both of which are extremely developed and interesting. The slow zoom of York watching herself from the top of a hill is as creepy as it gets.
7. “Les Diaboliques” (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955)
Clouzot is widely regarded as the French Hitchcock and this film is probably the most astute example of that honor. Legend goes that Hitch even phoned the publishing house seconds after finishing the source novel only to find that Clouzot had phoned 30 minutes earlier and snapped up the rights. All for the best, since it’s unlikely that Hitch could have done better, even with some of his own trademarks like slow building tension, taboo sexual undertones and one of the most surprising and satisfying climaxes in movie history all on display. Simone Signoret simply burns the screen.
6. “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (Francis Ford Coppola, 1992)
I actually did see this one when I was about 10 years old at a friend’s house and some of the images were instantly burned into my brain. Chief among them was the shot of a werewolf having sex with Sadie Frost, which simultaneously appealed to my burgeoning lust and horrified me. That, of course, is the essence of Dracula, and Coppola’s balls to the wall adaptation nails the sexiness of the sadism. Yes, it’s over the top, but it’s consistent and infinitely fascinating in the way that Coppola insisted on using only special effects that could have been around in the late 1800s when cinema was invented and Stoker’s book was first published.
5. “The Blair Witch Project” (Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez, 1999)
I haven’t seen this film since opening night in the movie theater and I’ll never forget how hostile the audience was at the end. Eleven years later and almost every major indie success story in genre filmmaking has the “found footage” technique pioneered here. Then and now, “The Blair Witch Project” stands tall in both its conviction to its conceit and its dedication to minimalism. Then and now, its place in the history of movie marketing and behind the scenes storyline threaten to overshadow just what an effectively scary piece of filmmaking it is. Myrick and Sanchez had an idea and realized that the perfect way to realize it was to show as much of the characters as possible and as little of everything else as possible.
4. “The Vanishing” (George Sluizer, 1988)
Like “Les Diaboliques” and countless other fantastic foreign thrillers, Hollywood has offered up their own shit remake of this that is a must avoid, but notable in that director Sluizer presided over both versions. The original version, filmed in his native Holland, is a stunning exercise in tension that, again, shows little interest in mystery. A woman is kidnapped early on in the film and from that point on we follow both her kidnapper and her boyfriend and nervously await the moments when their paths will collide. Even when they do, the film is calm and articulate. Exactly the traits often given by witnesses when asked to describe actual serial killers and psychopaths. It offers up questions more than thrills, but when the question is, “What would you do in this position?,” it’s just as easy for the hairs to stand up on the back of your neck.
3. “Don’t Look Now” (Nicolas Roeg, 1973)
Nicolas Roeg began his love affair with dissociative editing in this film about a couple dealing with the loss of their young daughter. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie are at the absolute top of their games and bring unexpected dignity and depth to their crumbling relationship that has all the resonance of the similar circumstances portrayed in “Ordinary People,” but gets less respect for also including thriller elements and a knife-wielding dwarf. A terrifying knife-wielding dwarf, I should add. The technical elements of the film are absolutely top notch, from the aforementioned editing highlighted by a famous sex scene, to the rich cinematography taking full advantage of the Venice locations.
2. “Eyes Without a Face” (Georges Franju, 1960)
All I need to write about this film is the actual plot synopsis. A brilliant surgeon, Dr. Génessier, helped by his assistant Louise, kidnaps nice young women. He removes their faces and tries to graft them onto the head on his beloved daughter Christiane, whose face has been entirely spoiled in a car crash. All the experiments fail, and the victims die, but Génessier keeps trying. Now all I need to say is that Franju executes that synopsis perfectly and tastefully and you should already be terrified. Throw in an absolutely bizarre and maniacal score by Maurice Jarre and you’ll never sleep again.
1. “Seconds” (John Frankenheimer, 1966)
When it came time to rank these films, I wasn’t really sure which criteria to lean towards. The best overall films that happen to be scary? The scariest films? In the end, I simply decided that no film unsettled me more after viewing it than “Seconds.” So amazingly adventurous in its plotting, structure, cinematography and editing, I had assumed it must have been Frankenheimer’s first film before Hollywood got a hold of him and he started to “know better.” This is science fiction at its absolute best, using fantasy to hold a terrifying mirror up to our most universal flaws — in this case, fear of mortality and narcissism, brilliantly embodied by a revelatory Rock Hudson.
That’s my story. Share your thoughts in the comments section.
[Photos: Criterion Collection, Dimension Films, Pathfinder Pictures, MGM, Columbia Pictures, Artisan Entertainment, Paramount Pictures]