The scariest horror movies get under your skin and trigger goose bumps. They affect you psychologically and emotionally, creating a sense of dread that’s remembered long after you leave the theater or turn off the television.
The best horror movies creep up on you until you can’t turn them off, even after they’ve ended. There is a sense of isolation in all of the top scariest movies. Sometimes the characters are stuck in one location. The hero is boxed in until there is nowhere to turn but face the evil foe, entity or creature. Anything from a young boy to supernatural spirits to creatures from another planet.
The list of memorable horror movies range from a circus family in “Freaks” (1932), a possessed house in “Haunting” (1963), a relentless Leatherface in “The Texas Chain Massacre” (1974), a shark in “Jaws” (1975), spirits in “The Evil Dead” (1981), a boogeyman like Freddy Krueger in “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984), a deceptive Hannibal Lecter in “Silence of the Lambs” (1991), and a creepy Asami in “Audition” (1999).
The following ten horror movies (with a bonus thrown in) succeed in keeping their audience on the edge of suspense with relentless terror and a tone of dread that never lets up until the end credits. These stories crawl into the minds of their audience and feature endings that beg to be seen again. If you dare.
All of these horror movies are available in different editions on dvd (best edition is suggested with each entry and Blu-ray noted if available) at stores/websites like Wal-Mart (www.walmart.com), Best Buy (www.bestbuy.com) and Barnes and Noble (www.barnesandnoble.com) or online websites such as Amazon (www.amazon.com), Overstock (www.overstock.com) and Deep Discount (www.deepdiscount.com). Keep in mind new editions will eventually include digitally remastered pictures and sounds, especially on Blu-ray.
It seems like an obvious choice and doesn’t have much horror by today’s standards, but “Psycho” never fails to keep the audience’s interest even after all these years. Director Alfred Hitchcock made many great classics like “Rear Window” and “North by Northwest” but is best remembered for this black and white film that builds up as it goes along. At the time, it was an innovative move on Hitchcock’s part to kill the lead character halfway through the movie. He left you no choice but to be involved with crazy Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). The scene in the office between Norman and victim-to-be Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is quiet but eerie with stuffed birds above Norman’s head reflecting his odd choice of words. Witness the smile on Norman’s face when her car finally sinks into the swamp. What a relief! The psychology in the movie, as well as Hitchcock’s suspenseful direction, has kept this film fresh and relevant and marked the dawn of a new era for horror movies.
(2-disc Special Edition, Universal Legacy Series)
The Exorcist (1973)
The scariest film of all times, “The Exorcist” slowly gets under your skin and shell-shocks you by the end. Director William Friedkin builds the suspense almost like it a chase film. “The Exorcist” is not an action movie but works its story in similar fashion. That the story involves an innocent young girl (Linda Blair) being possessed by an evil entity simply makes it worse. When that low gravel male voice emerges from that little girl, the audience has the creeps while feeling sorry for the young girl and wanting to save her. Friedkin and author William Peter Blatty do not let the audience off the hook and turns up the heat, adding disturbing vomit and head-turning on the poor girl. Quick shots of a demon figure unnerve the audience further and the tension becomes unbearable. An emotionally draining film, it’s next to impossible to watch “The Exorcist” without being disturbed.
(25th Anniversary Special Edition)
The Omen (1976)
The 1970’s had many movies dealing with possession and “The Omen” is yet another example of a movie that starts a little slow…..and then the nanny hangs herself for everyone to see. So nice of her, but Gregory Peck doesn’t seem too concerned at first. That changes when his wife (Lee Remick) ends up in the hospital and a relentless reporter (David Warner) makes a good case that something is not quite right with his son (Harvey Stephens). Director Richard Donner allows the story to build suspense. The tension increases once a priest (Patrick Troughton) dies in a horrible fashion. This movie also features the nanny from hell (an excellent Billie Whitelaw) and dogs that want to do more than chew a toy. They add to a creepy sequence in a cemetery. The deaths are inventive (watch out David Warner) but never at the expense of the story. Peck gives a believable performance as he slowly realizes what he needs to do. The shot of the smiling kid at the end is the icing on the horror cake for “The Omen.”
(2-disc Collector’s Edition; also available on Blu-ray)
Another movie about possession, “Carrie” is a great character-based movie with superb performances from the entire cast, including a young John Travolta, but this is Sissy Spacek’s movie. She plays the title character with equal amounts of sympathy and aggression. Her nutcase of a mother (the sublime Piper Laurie) has no compassion for her daughter. That does not end well, and what a way to go. The horror starts small (a cup on a desk at school goes flying) and builds up effectively. By the time all hell breaks loose, Carrie locks the door to the gymnasium and things come alive. If you had gallons of pig blood dropped on you in front of an audience, you might too. “Carrie” makes you care about the heroine even when she takes her revenge. “Carrie” has the best finale of any horror movie. Director Brian De Palma starts a beautiful scene set during the day: Amy Irving walks with flowers, opens the gate and….the audience JUMPS! Even after you’ve seen this movie a few times, that last scene never fails to frighten.
(Special Edition; also available on Blu-ray)
Halloween (1978)/The Thing (1982)
The magic of Director John Carpenter’s movies is the unknown and relentless suspense and he has a way of building terror. “Halloween” set the standard for all villains on the loose to follow. It’s the way Carpenter places his camera that allows the audience to participate alongside Jamie Lee Curtis. Even in the day shots, is that Michael Myers? He is everywhere, around the corner, you never know. Creepy images abound such as Michael standing in a doorway with bed sheets covering him (except the eyes). The last half hour as Jamie tries to escape from Michael never lets up. Four years later, Carpenter goes further with “The Thing.” The movie is remembered for its gooey effects, and they are very effective. That damn spider creature is unnerving, but what really works is the psychology of not knowing who is possessed by the alien creature at any given time, since it mimics human form. Kurt Russell and the rest of the male cast never know who to trust. Stuck in the Antarctic, the men have nowhere to go. The movie plays on being totally isolated. The ending becomes a quiet tragedy of men unable to trust each other and needing to do the right thing. Music in both movies, Carpenter for “Halloween” and Ennio Morricone for “The Thing,” also adds an undercurrent of dread.
(2-disc Divimax 25th Anniversary Edition for “Halloween” and Collector’s Edition for “The Thing” & also both are available on Blu-ray)
A classic example of a monster loose in a house is transported into outer space, “Alien” remains the textbook on how to build suspense. Director Ridley Scott’s background as a production designer pays off as he creates a weird and creepy world. The audience meets the crew of the Nostromo, a working bunch who just want to go home when they get the call to investigate a mysterious planet. They bring back a specimen on board the ship-not a particularly good idea. At first all is quiet. Then the crew has some dinner and….what the? This disturbing scene remains a defining moment in horror movie lore. The second half of “Alien” builds dread like few movies before or since, as the crew try to find the creature roaming around their spaceship. When Tom Skerritt encounters the full size alien in an air shaft, the audience only sees a glimpse of the creature but it’s enough to send their nerves sky high. The final, an eerily quiet confrontation between Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the alien creature, shows how to maximum suspense in a closed environment. “Alien” takes its time but that’s exactly what makes it work, a slow and suspense build up.
(2-disc The Director’s Cut)
The Shining (1980)
Director Stanley Kubrick moves the camera, and the audience with it, throughout the strange place that is the Overlook Hotel. “The Shining” starts off slow but soon shows that Jack Nicholson really just needs a little time to write his damn story, but “all work and no play” and the spirits within the walls take over Jack’s mind. Poor wife (Shelley Duvall) begins to worry about her son (Danny Lloyd), who has a propensity to see twin girls who are quite dead and stalking him at every corner. The great sound effect of Danny’s little bicycle on the floor is but one example of how Kubrick creates suspense. Room 237 becomes the centerpiece for the film’s creepiest scenes and “redrum” doesn’t sound right coming from the mouth of a young boy. The winter produces another element of isolation, especially at the end in the wonderful maze. The audience is not always sure what is going on and that is part of the fun. “The Shining” marks Nicholson’s first full on “Jack” performance but it works for a story of a man losing his mind. The movie can be deceptively quiet at times only to suddenly shock its audience. “The Shining” combines psychology and terror in equal amounts.
(2-disc Special Edition; also available on Blu-ray)
The Vanishing (1988)
The least horror type of movie on the list, “The Vanishing” may do the most damage. The way this film gets under your skin is unexpected on first viewing. It starts well for a young couple, Rex (Gene Bervoets) and Saskia (Johanna ter Steege), on their way to a vacation. They stop at a service station and she disappears. Rex never stops looking for her for the next three years. Then he receives postcards from her abductor, a rather normal man, Raymond Lemorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu). Raymond draws in Rex, who is desperate to find out what happened to his lover. What happens from that point on drags the audience in with a man desperate for a resolution. There are very little typical horror chase scenes but Director George Sluizer has something else in mind. Like an Edgar Allen Poe tale, the movie features a villain whose reasoning is disturbing for being simple and all too real. The ending leaves the audience emotionally exhausted and discomforted. “The Vanishing” (“Spoorloos” original Dutch/French title) is truly a mind game, a puzzle that forms the utmost suspense.
“Se7en” begins in a gloomy city and ends in a bright desert with tension that never lets up. Director David Fincher creates a dreary city filled with evil and lots of rain. The evil master criminal (Kevin Spacey) behind the seven sins doesn’t reveal himself until late in the game, when he’s ready for his final act. Spacey has an air of malevolence in his performance that pushes the film to the nth degree just when it needs to. Until then, it features gruesome deaths (more off screen than on), forcing Morgan Freeman’s cynical detective and Brad Pitt’s innocent counterpart to solve the murders. The clues are perfectly revealed and the chase scenes (in the rain, of course) maintain an atmosphere of inevitable dread. It all builds up to a sensational finale that obligates the audience to chime in with Pitt’s dilemma. That damn box. “Se7en” is a fully formed dark puzzle of a movie.
(2-disc New Line Platinum Series; also soon available on Blu-ray)
The Ring (2002)
Curiosity killed the cat, except for nosy reporters who must know the truth. Naomi Watts is one such pesky reporter who thinks a video can’t possibly kill people-until she watches it herself and begins to unravel the creepy mystery behind it. Once her son sees the video too, the clock starts to tick louder. She has less than a week to find out the truth. Director Gore Verbinski does a great job creating a consistent tone of fear as the mystery unfolds. A scene in a well with Watts looking for something in the water and the obscure but terrifying videos keep the audience on the edge of their seats. When creepy little girl Samara (Daveigh Chase) pops out of a television set to chase after Martin Henderson, the hairs on your arms really stand up. The story ends with our heroine forced to make a difficult moral choice in order to save her son. “The Ring” builds suspense and creates an atmosphere of dread while revealing an ominous story.
These great horror movies have many things in common, including forcing their audiences to deal with fear and death psychologically as well as viscerally. They begin slowly, introducing scarred heroes and manipulative villains as the stories take shape. Their tone is consistent and full of dread, with a sense of inevitability. Isolation plays a big part in pitting the characters (and therefore the audience) into a corner they cannot easily escape from. These movies are psychological nightmares that leave an emotional imprint on the viewers long after the credits roll.