What Scares Me
I say guarded because, since I love bad horror movies, bad sci fi movies, and bad monster movies, and since for me, bad is the best kind of good, I don’t take this kind of dare lightly.
How am I, of all people, to decide what constitutes a ‘good’ horror movie?
The very prospect scares me.
After thinking about ‘the list’ for way too long, I finally decided to just go back to basics and choose according to what actually frightens me. I don’t scare easily, but it does happen every so often. Keeping that single criterion in mind, the movies I’ve chosen here are movies that have actually frightened me at least once, (as opposed to movies that were so over the top I was able to eat popcorn through the whole thing and root for the monsters).
I have to be honest though: If something really, truly scares me, I just won’t watch it at all. I avoid having these specific feelings whenever possible. The reason I love bad horror is that it makes fear small and friendly. If a scary movie is bad enough, it’s practically therapeutic to watch the damn thing–and video therapy is way cheaper than paying an actual PhD to shrink your head.
For instance, it took me five years to screw up the courage to watch “Silence of the Lambs,” and when I finally did watch it, I wanted to bolt the whole time. I watched long portions of that movie through fingers held in front of my eyes. A well-made movie about a sadistic serial killer doesn’t really call out to me in a friendly way, because I know that sadistic serial killers really exist. I’ve probably married a couple of them. Some may well be relatives. That kind of scary is way too close for comfort.
Other kinds of scary I rigorously avoid are slashes movies, movies with copious and gratuitous gore, and the new sub-genre of really weird psycho-sadist movies like the whole “Saw” series. I’m not saying these movies are bad, I’m just saying I personally won’t watch them because they freak me out. You won’t see any of them on my list, but you are welcome to include them on yours.
A few years back, when “The Blair Witch Project” was first out in theaters, I went to a matinee with my spouse and my son. The Blair Witch didn’t scare me, but it did make me pretty nauseous. (If you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about–all that choppy camera work makes for some serious cinematic seasickness, which is not the same as fear, although it’s every bit as uncomfortable.)
Halfway through the movie I got up to use the restroom. Afterward, I carefully made my way back to my seat in the pitch black theater amidst all the onscreen screaming and whistling and so forth, sat down, rested my hand on my wife’s knee, and turned to say something to her, only to discover I had just sat down next to a total stranger. A stranger whose knee I was now fondling.
“You’re not Mimi!” I shrieked.
“But I could be,” she answered calmly and with a straight face.
The laughter behind me informed me that I was one row off. I sheepishly moved to my correct seat and got divorced six months later.
You can see why this whole subject makes me nervous.
Ten That Scared –
#10 The Devil’s Advocate (Taylor Hackford, 1997) Usually Devil movies are so loaded with special effects and nonsense that, for me at least, they aren’t really all that scary, but this movie about a young attorney (Keanu Reeves) who falls under the spell of a mentor (Al Pacino) who turns out to be Old Nick himself really sneaked up on me. Pacino takes his characterization of the Devil right to the edge of the William Shatner school of acting without actually going there, and watching him play with the role that way is a joy to watch. But it’s just that deceptive lightness and sly humor that makes the movie truly frightening. By the time the creepy final scene on the courtroom stairs rolls around, it becomes frighteningly clear how routine and seductive evil truly is.
#9 The Mothman Prophecies (Mark Pellington, 2002) I think Richard Gere is an underrated actor who has done some very fine and subtle work. I don’t know that this movie is an example of that, but it did scare me. Based on an actual urban legend about a paranormal being that predicts disaster (or possibly causes it), the Mothman is an unconventional monster: neither internal nor external, elusive in its own murkiness, moody, confounding, and perverse. If you’ve ever messed around with a Ouija board or gotten sucked into any other kind of spiritualist enterprise a little too far, you’ll recognize Gere’s addictive quest to prove the existence of the monster, as well as the way the thing plays with his head and uses his own flaws and personal tragedies to manipulate and frighten him. Atmospheric and subtle, this movie is not for everyone, but it creped me out big time.
#8 The Day After (Nicholas Meyer, 1983) One of my biggest fears is the prospect of watching people I love die or suffer, and this made-for-TV movie pushed every button on my mother board in that respect. We all live with the constant threat of nuclear annihilation, but we rarely play through scenarios of what it might actually be like. This movie will remind you of why we don’t do that, and the movie isn’t even as realistically horrifying as an actual nuclear event would be. Maybe world leaders should be rounded up and made to watch this movie the way teenage drivers are made to watch movies about the aftermath of car crashes in Driver’s Ed.
#7 Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979) Is this the scariest monster ever or what? For my money the monster in Alien set the standard (albeit late in the game) against which all other movie monsters will be forever judged. The fact that the monster is so tied into Sigourney Weaver’s character is perfect, as is the monster’s status as an intergalactic bitch of unbelievable venom and size. It is my longstanding opinion (maybe a I’ll do a hub on it sometime) that monster movies are almost always about women. Monsters are usually female, and as such, they are also beautiful in a strange way. It’s all about the virgin/whore, good mother/bad mother dichotomy. The bitch in Alien is definitely the mother of all monsters.
#6 Se7en (David Fincher, 1995) I know I said I wouldn’t include any serial killer movies on this list, but I can’t be trusted, so if you feel betrayed at this point, what can I say? (See discussion of mythic feminine dichotomy in previous movie description.) Also, I guess really I should have made this #7, not #6, but, oh well. David Fincher is a brilliant director and Se7en is hands down one of the creepiest murder movies you’ll ever watch–and trust me, you won’t be able to stop watching it, right up to the devastating ending. Kevin Spacey is terrific as always and Brad Pitt is perfect as the detective protagonist with a tragic flaw.
#5 Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991) I was scared of this movie the minute I heard about it–too scared to even think about watching it for five solid years. I finally relented one night when it was on network television, reasoning that all the most horrible bits would be cut out and it would somewhat safer to give it a go. Wrong. Anthony Hopkins makes Hannibal Lecter seem like he could be your history professor and even a pretty good lunch date, except of course that he’d eat you afterwards and you’d be history. Seriously, one of the scariest aspects of his performance is that we’ve all met this guy, or at least listened to him talk on TV, and now we find out he’s not a vegetarian. Who knew?
#4 The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980) All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, right? This is the penultimate writer’s horror movie–we’ve all been there, and to tell you the truth, if I was cooped up with Shelly Duvall’s character all winter in this movie while trying unsuccessfully to write, I’d want to hack her to pieces myself. All the actors in this film are brilliant, and the ghost that lives in the little boy’s mouth is one of the more alarming spirits I’ve encountered cinematically. In fact, every time I see John McCain do his “air quotes” thing I think of “Yes Mrs. Torrence” and Bobby’s talking finger. It’s not all that impossible that the man could be possessed. Red Rum ! Red Rum!
#3 Ghost Story (John Irvin, 1981) This movie scared the crap out of me, and it has one of the most impressive casts you’ll ever find anywhere: Melvyn Douglas, John Houseman, Fred Astaire, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Patricia Neal to name a few. A group of elderly Ivy League friends gather to reminisce about their prankish youngster days and in so doing raise one of the scariest movie ghosts I’ve ever seen. One scene in an abandoned house will populate my nightmares for the rest of my life. Did you know that the color of death is not black, but white? That’s why, if I ever get married again, I’m wearing red. Watch this movie and you’ll know why.
#2 Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960) I know, I know, another psychotic killer movie, but seriously, how can this one not be on the list? Anthony Perkins never stopped being Norman Bates after this film–forever after, no matter what he did, all any of us could see was Norman Bates. What is it about black and white film that lends itself so well to atmosphere? Is it just because the director has to work harder to achieve an effect and so the effects are all the more expertly constructed as a result? I don’t know. What I do know is, after watching this classic you’ll never be tempted to stay in one of those ‘quaint’ little 50s motels again. Seriously, spring for the Marriott. And leave the lights on.
#1 The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963) I saw this movie on TV in my early teens, and was so terrified I slept on the living room couch with all the lights on for two nights straight. A film version of a Shirley Jackson short story, the movie stars Julie Harris and Claire Bloom as psychic assistants to paranormal investigator Dr. John Markway (Richard Bloom). The story begins when Markway is summoned to Hill House, a decaying mansion with a long history of suicide, madness, and human tragedy. Soon it becomes obvious that all of the visitors are in over their heads, with Harris’s character getting the worst of it by a mile. I watched again this film a few years ago and was struck by the sexual tension between the women and a strong subtext about Harris’s sexual repression and likely lesbianism. That twist gave the tragic ending a different feel than when I first saw it as a teen, and threw homophobia into the scary mix. However you interpret it, The Haunting is hands down one of the best ghost stories ever committed to film and a cult classic. Skip the crappy remake–it won’t give you even a whiff of the quality of the original.
How About You? What scares you? Feel free to list the movies you personally found terrifying, or to comment on my choices if you want. It was weirdly difficult to write, and having written it, I feel strangely exposed.
But, I have a knife.