Scary Scary

The New Yorker‘s Ben Greenman has listed his five scariest movies of all time — Jonathan Demme‘s Silence of the Lambs, Charles Laughton‘s The Night of the Hunter, Wes Craven’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Robert Wise‘s The Body Snatcher and David Lynch‘s Mulholland Drive.
These are all gripping portraits of inferno worlds, but big-time scary is always about triggering repressed fears with what you don’t show — with what you set loose in people’s souls by implying the presence of demons.
There was a time when I thought that Wise’s The Haunting (’63), which shows nothing, was perhaps the scariest of all time. I’m not sure now. When I was a kid I used to think that nothing was as scary as that eerie “aaah-haaah” choir sound when those people were getting sucked down into that sandtrap hole in William Cameron MenziesInvaders From Mars.

80 thoughts on “Scary Scary

  1. The InSneider on said:

    Wes Craven definitely didn’t direct TCM, it was Tobe Hooper.

  2. None of the films Greenman lists scared me. Now, that could be becauuse I didn’t see them in the theater. Movies, by and large, never scare me. I am left on the edge of my seat on occassion, and many felts have been unnerving and tense. But I have a hard time getting truly scared by movies.
    The only films that I can honestly say that scared me were Irreversible (saw it in the theater), Funny Games (saw the original on dvd, haven’t seen the remake yet), and the original Alien, which my father showed me when I was probably eight or nine years old and that movie freaked me the fuck out that night.

  3. I agree with Greenman’s listing in general and applaud the horrifying MULHOLLAND DRIVE and particularly THE BODY SNATCHER. Also, yes, ALIEN would do and THE HAUNTING is awesome.

  4. And I think the reason why I never get truly scared is that I am caught too much up in the technique of how films get made. I am always aware that there are at least 500 people behind the scenes pulling various strings, so I am never able to get fully invested in horror movies and thrillers. Like with the Saw films or Hostel and all that crap — I was more curious to see what sort of nastiness the films were displaying and how they were displaying them, rather than getting caught up in the story and the suppposedly tension filled set-ups. Now, I know those are probably shitty examples of what a scary film is, but I just can’t ever get to a place in a movie theater where a movie is going to truly make me afraid.

  5. Jacob’s Ladder scared the shit out of me when I saw it in high school. That is a seriously fucked up and excellent movie.

  6. It’s nice to see Lynch represented–he’s the scariest working filmmaker hands down.
    Scratch The Body Snatcher and replace with Cat People to keep the Lewton.
    Don’t Look Now should be on that list too, probably removing Chainsaw.

  7. The Haunting is one of my favorite scary movies. The first ten minutes where the narrator explains the history of Hill House are creepy and unsettling as hell.

  8. Any film with Zelda Rubenstein messes me up?
    When talking Lynch i’d go with Eraserhead,thats just uncomfortable viewing throughout.
    Scares-wise the only film that got to me in recent years was Neil Marshall’s “The Descent”,you have to watch it in the dark or the cave scenes lose their power.
    “Jaws”had a bif psychological affect on me as a kid,i’d be trepidatious going into the sea and always got paranoid once i was out there swimming,a film that can change the way you behave is pretty impressive.

  9. I pretty much abandoned the genre after my babysitter exposed me to The Shining, Poltergeist, and the Lady in White over the course of a three week period during the summer of 1989. I was nine at the time and those movies scared the living hell out of me.

  10. Oh… and something that still gets me to this day is: ‘Bob’ hiding behind the dresser in Fire Walk With Me.
    Fuckin’ creepy as hell.

  11. Good call on “Don’t Look Now”, Mitch, that one is really creepy. I would say that “The Exorcist” should be included, provided it’s the “Director’s Cut” that was shown several years back with the added scenes. Seriously, if we’re talking about the version where Linda Blair does the “spider walk” down the stairs – I mean, that just freaked me the fuck out at the time.

  12. Good calls on MULHOLLAND (also maybe the saddest movie this side of PATHER PANCHALI), DON’T LOOK NOW (take note — premonition is scarier than loud noises) and the original HAUNTING. Of the Val Lewton oeuvre, THE 7th VICTIM is by far the creepiest.
    Anyone here over 40 remember a 1973 TV movie with Kim Darby called DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK? Cheesy, yes, but it traumatized an entire generation of kids between the ages of 7 and 10 when it first aired. I recently remembered this flick and have since discovered the collateral damage it inflicted (pre-EXORCIST) on my entire demographic.

  13. Lynch has yet to make a full-on horror film, but when he sets out to frighten (as in ERASERHEAD and parts of MULHOLLAND DRIVE and TWIN PEAKS), no one does it better. For my part, I’d cite THE EXORCIST (the dream sequence still freaks me out), NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (the first film that ever gave me nightmares), THE INNOCENTS and THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT as among the most unnerving films of all time.
    Other personal faves — meaning I can’t watch them all that much — include Carpenter’s PRINCE OF DARKNESS, SESSION 9, the original Asian RING and THE EYE, the original THE HAUNTING, Karloff in the original THE MUMMY, and individual scenes in many, many others.

  14. Definitive list, for me:
    The Omen, Jacob’s Ladder, The Exorcist, Alien, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Rosemary’s Baby, The Thing, Blair Witch Project, The Shining, Silence of the Lambs, The Haunting, Poltergeist.

  15. ‘the haunting’ was always top of my list….and it might be too soon but the second half of ‘let the right one in’ creeped the hell out of me…..

  16. As a kid who went to see all horror and sci-fi movies in the 50s and 60s, THE HORROR OF DRACULA and the original THE FLY scared me the most. Who can’t identify with the helplessness of “Help me! Help me!”? As a adult, DON’T LOOK NOW resonates the most. The way the dwarf shakes its head before dispatching Donald Sutherland still gives me nightmares.

  17. 1. The last ten minutes of Twentynine Palms.
    2. The Exocist III.
    3. Inside.
    4. Jennifer (Bryce Mack – Snake Cult).
    5. Scorpio Rising

  18. There is a case to be made that The Silence of the Lambs is the most perfectly constructed movie ever. & I am 100% serious.
    As for scary, I found it more fascinating than scary, but I vividly remember sitting in the auditorium with my sister (weirdly enough) and seeing her arms go into a rigor mortis death grip on the armrests the moment Jame gumb answers the door at the end of the movie.
    That and the all text and theme song trailer for the addams family movie playing in front. Has there been any trailer recently that has tried something similar?

  19. How scary a movie is truly depends on the age in which you see it. In 1981 they re-released TCM in theaters. I was ten and a half. My dad would always take me to see horror movies because I begged and pleaded and showed no signs of weakness during The Shining or Scanners. I’ve since seen TCM and didn’t find it all that scary, but when I first saw it was terrified beyond believe. Half way through I wanted to leave the theater I was so scared. But I suffered until the end because I thought if my dad knew how scared I was he’d never take me to another R movie again. After that, nothing scared me.
    Of course aren’t we all forgetting the most scary movie of all time? I had nightmares for years over the Wizard of Oz. Just when it would leave my memory it would be back on TV again. The witch and those monkeys, man. Freaked me out.

  20. I found THE DESCENT to be utterly horrifying. Hellraiser made me deeply uncomfortable too. Texas Chainsaw bored me though. The sequel is vastly superior. The last 10 minutes of Devils Rejects is splendid. Alien is a classic. ummm here is a list of the to 20 Horror films in my estimation.
    Dawn of the Dead (Original)
    The Descent
    Evil Dead II
    Frankenstein
    Nosferatu
    Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
    Let the Right One In
    Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part II
    Hellraiser
    Candyman
    Halloween
    A Nightmare on Elm Street
    Videodrome
    The Fly (Cronenberg)
    Dead Alive
    Poltergeist
    Silence of the Lambs
    Re-Animator
    Psycho
    The Shinning

  21. The only thing scary about Mulholland Drive is how Lynch suckered people into buying a rejected TV pilot with tacked-on nonsense to ‘fill out the story” as a work of genius when it’s just a weak, shabby paycheck-salvaging patch job.

  22. I think the trick to good horror is a balance in how much you show. Stephen King makes the analogy that, okay, there’s a monster on the other side of the door. How much do you open the door to make it the most frightening? It’s interesting, then, that the scariest films seem to be indie/low budget, because when you give a filmmaker big studio money, they tend to open the door too wide (I’m looking at you, Dark Castle…)
    Five scariest movies to me? Ju-On, The Shining, Blair Witch Project (the first time I saw it; doesn’t hold up under repeat viewings); The Changeling; In the Mouth of Madness.
    Love Val Lewton, but his flicks are more interesting than genuinely scary. And I’d love to hear Craven and Nakata on the same stage.

  23. Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE is perhaps far more ghoulish and foreboding than Mulholland Drive.
    James Rocchi, I’ve heard many things/criticisms about Mulholland Drive but “shabby paycheck-salvaging patch job” is just asinine.

  24. Milkman:
    Right on with Exorcist III, which has what I nominate to be the scariest jumpscare in the history of film – the hospital hallway scene. Brilliantly setup and delivered.
    Scariest films for me (no particular order):
    1. Session 9
    2. Ringu
    3. Ju-On
    4. Kairo (this one takes a while to sink in)
    5. Exorcist III
    6. Texas Chainsaw Massacre
    7. A Nightmare on Elm Street (original only)
    8. Jacob’s Ladder
    9. Lucio Fulci’s Gates of Hell
    10. The Exorcist
    I know there are more, but these jumped out immediately. Kairo and Gates of Hell, which couldn’t have been made by more different directors (or be more different films) make the list because they both have such an oppressive tone that it almosts feels like the world could be ending for real. Hard to explain, but both of them affected similarly, even though I watched them about 15 years apart.

  25. I couldn’t have been more than 10 years old when my older cousin said that “Mark of the Devil” (some European exploitation flick about witch trials; I think Herbert Lom was in it and I don’t feel like imdbing it to make sure) was so scary, they gave you a vomit bag when you entered the theater. I made my Mom take me, and I must’ve seen only half of the movie, the rest of the time I had my face buried in her arm. I bet if I saw it now, I’d laugh like hell.
    I was 12 when I saw “Jaws” for the first time, and I saw the last half of it through the little glass window on the theater door from the lobby.
    And I was in the audience of the opening night of the first “Friday the 13th” when Jason (removed so I don’t spoil it for that one person out there who didn’t see it and is going to bitch and moan about me spoiling it). We didn’t see THAT coming.

  26. Ringu scared the shit out of me the first time I saw it and it’s been imitated to lessening effect ever since. The device of using ” asian hair” as some sort of harbinger of doom was terrifying in it but now it’s just a clich�. And racist, come to think of it.Night of the Hunter is really, really scary but a film that always stays with me when I’m asked the scary movie question is a 1968 BBC adaptation called ” Whistle and I’ll Come To You ” starring Michael Hordern. It’s only 45 mins and is originally a television production but it’s the most terror-inducing piece of filmmaking I’ve ever seen. The effects are less than stellar but the sense of dread and anxiety that’s conveyed, as well as Hordern’s beautiful performance make it a gem. I highly recommend it.

  27. source 188: You’re right. Lynch is such a genius that he always intended to have ABC reject his pilot, forcing him to pick up shooting later, change the character’s stories completely and throw in a haunted cabaret sequence reprising Blue Velvet while rushing to a nonsensical climax. That was his intention ALL ALONG, and my failure to see that just means I forgot my cool-kid glasses at the cafe that morning.
    Anyone with reverence for Mulholland Drive needs to read this
    (http://www.geocities.com/~mikehartmann/intnewyorker01.html ) to glimpse just how naked this particular emperor is.

  28. Ringu is a terrible film. It is effective only as a meta-narrative since most Americans saw it as a bootleg film.
    Candyman, however, holds up brilliantly.

  29. When I was a kid, Witchboard literally kept me up nights. I mean, terrifying. I’m sure it’s awful, but man, that got my 9-year-old self something bad.
    As an adult, I definitely put The Shining at the top, but also nominate another Kubrick film – Eyes Wide Shut. I’ve never felt more nervous, more hollow, more tense in any other film. And yes, those are compliments.
    Aliens, though, yeah. That was the second R-rated movie I ever saw in the theaters (when I was 10). My dad was cool.

  30. The most frightening thing I ever experienced in regard to film was my 12 year reaction to Mathilda May in “Lifeforce”. Man, did that tape get worn out.

  31. What a person finds scary all depends on what movies you saw between the ages of 8 and 14. For me, the scariest movie was the original Terminator. When the metal endoskeleton rose from the fire, I nearly shit myself. Unfortunately, as an adult, I am too aware of the artifice of movie-making to truly be scared while watching a movie.

  32. KAIRO is one of the worst films ever made. Period. I’m with Rocchi on Mulholland Drive. What a bunch of fucking garbage. Candyman brings the pain though.

  33. EXORCIST III is a seriously underrated flick. That hospital hallway scene is nearly unbearable.
    I remember not seeing TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE for years and finally watching it when it came out on the Elite laserdisc — and man, it was a lot more intense than I remembered from my earlier viewings. THE HILLS HAVE EYES (Craven’s) is also pretty fierce, although LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT is hard to watch just because it’s so gross.
    I forgot to mention KAIRO earlier — that and CURE, both from Kyoshi Kurosawa, are seriously dread-inducing flicks. He hasn’t done anything remotely as good in years, sad to say.
    As for the modern horror/procedural crossovers, I love SILENCE OF THE LAMBS to death and see it as the better movie, but found SEVEN to be creepier.

  34. I remember BURNT OFFERINGS and THE SENTINEL scaring the shit out of me as a kid. The ad campaign for THE OMEN freaked me out to the point that I spent most of fifth grade seeing the number 6 and 666 everywhere. And losing a ton of sleep over it.
    All three movies make me laugh now. POLTERGEIST still holds up pretty well, though.

  35. Not to denegrate them, but I recently watched LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL and DON’T LOOK NOW at home and was left wanting. I think the combination of hype/reputation, the home-theater experience and over-exhalted memories took a serious toll on all three. And I tackled the Val Lewton boxed set a few months ago and can only honestly say I enjoyed two of them.

  36. Aliens? Really? Alien, yes, but Aliens was too much of an action / adventure picture & that’s my only knock against it.
    I have to second MilkMan on Inside. I just saw it a few days ago – yes I am aware of the process behind the camera but I haven’t seen a more disturbing film since Irreversible. Beatrice Dalle! We’re a long way from Betty Blue…

  37. A couple months ago, I watched Inside and Them (which The Strangers completely ripped off) back to back and they scared the shit out of me. I find Kairo almost nauseatingly creepy, and I’m usually underwhelmed by J-horror.
    The scariest moment in recent film, for me, is the basement scene with Charles Fleischer in Zodiac. I know that movie has passionate fans who post here, but am I the only one who finds it deeply, primally terrifying?
    My all-time favorite scary movies are still Night of the Living Dead and Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

  38. Scariest Films of All Time:
    1) Halloween (1978) – Easily one of the most terrifying film experiences of all time. Taken as a stand-alone – few are more effective as pure terror machines.
    2)Aliens(1986) – Not so much scary as just pure intensity. There is an 80 minute stretch of this film where your nerves are jangled constantly. Pure adrenaline – and lives up to that billing
    3) Jaws (1975) – Nobody should argue. This movie scared everybody. And it still taps into very basic, very primal fears.
    4) The Ring – Take either version, but few films create atmosphere the way these do. Truly creepy films that stay with you. I jumped out of my seat.
    5) Don’t Look Now – Yea. Its still creepy.
    6) The Mothman Prophecies – Something about this movie really fried my nerves. I saw it in a crowded theatre and it have a truly nerve-wracking affect on me. I couldn’t describe it. Maybe it was something in the air that night. But even now, trying to watch it all alone…I get the heebies.

  39. Mira, thanks for being so predictable. Like D.Z., you never let me down. I’ll bet you loved the Jan de Bont version of The Haunting. Special effects, dood!
    I have to defend the original cut of The Exorcist. While the spider-walk was arguably a worthy addition (I personally found it a letdown after all the years of hype), Friedkin went overboard with the subliminals until they lost their power.
    The two or three “did I see that?” shots of the death mask in the ’73 theatrical version were just enough to really fuck with the audience. I also love the moment when Regan reaches from her bed toward the statue of Pazuzu. Chilling.
    I know it’s not horror, but Wages of Fear is pretty damned scary.

  40. Rocchi & the other Mulholland Drive bashers>>
    O.k. Fine. You hate the film, and you don’t get the ending. That’s your opinion.
    But to claim the process by which it came to be automatically disqualifies it from being a good film is a load of bollocks. Art is a constantly evolving method – often serendipitous and the product of happy accidents or forced circumstances (e.g., Kubrick’s brilliant solution to meet the R rating in Clockwork Orange.)
    I think Lynch did an excellent job of improvising given the circumstances and a great film arose from the constraints, perhaps even better than what he originally envisioned.

  41. Lynch is a great horror film director who has yet to make a by-the-book horror film (he has yet to make a by-the-book anything)… still, though the spectacular Mulholland Dr. has its frightening moments, it’s Fire Walk With Me that qualifies as one of the great modern horror films.
    As for classic horror and suspense ala The Haunting or The Innocents, I recommend 1989′s The Woman In Black, a British TV film written by Nigel Kneale… one of the most unnerving, flat-out scary movies ever made.

  42. Speaking of television movies that messed up a whole generation of kids, I’m surprised no one has mentioned Tobe Hooper’s ‘Salem’s Lot (the miniseries version). No one who saw Danny Glick hovering outside that window when they were pre-teens has ever forgotten it.
    I would also maintain that if you went into it cold, and let your defensive cynicism down, The Blair Witch Project was a savage gut-punch of a movie. True, it doesn’t hold up to repeated viewings (although the companion Sci-Fi documentary does). But that first time, wow.

  43. And to give Wes Craven his due, the first ten minutes or so of the original Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream are both brutally effective.

  44. Is there anything better than permissive fathers when it comes to horror movies. Mine insisted I sit down and watch the Exorcist when I was eight (he told my mother, hey its on tv all the worst will be edited out) and I slept on the floor for a week.
    Aliens was the first R rated movie he took me to, and I know we think of it as action now, but the intensity of the film on the big screen was really unnerving.
    Glad someone mentioned Salems Lot, that scene of him floating and scratching the window is still with me today. And the thougt of the Old Rickety Wheelchair on top of the stairs in the Changeling still gives me shivers.

  45. Horror is a genre where context is important. Many of the best films are very much a product of their time, and when I hear kids bashing them as ‘not scary’, especially films as ground-breaking as the original TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE or NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, it makes me want to punch them in the fucking face. In many cases it’s a lot like saying that Jimi Hendrix doesn’t ‘rock’ hard enough in comparison to Metallica. Stupid fucking kids, get off my lawn.

  46. The first 20 minutes of the original WHEN A STRANGER CALLS were scary as fuck. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie was horrible … until he calls her at the restaurant years later near the end.

  47. The Serpent and the Rainbow and Prince of Darkness really got to me when I was a kid, as well. Don’t know how they’d hold up today, but I can take a guess…

  48. Josh, when you talk about the power of suggestion, that last scene in Prince of Darkness, where the character is about to touch the mirror, is a great example. After everything that had gone before, I did NOT want him to touch that mirror.

  49. John Schlesinger’s BELIEVERS?
    Maybe the dumbest movie ever made.
    THE BROTHERHOOD OF SATAN scared the shit out of me as a yout.

  50. No love for John Carpenter’s The Thing? Shit, I own that film because it was that good and I can’t ever really bring myself to watch it again ’cause it scared the hell out of me so much as a kid…

  51. RIch S: You nailed it exactly on “Prince of Darkness”. First saw that in college in a really old, mostly empty theater on Halloween. It was completely dark except for the dimly lit Exit signs (none of that low ambient lighting most plexes have now). My hands were clamped on the chair arms as his hand approached that mirror. Very underrated flick.
    And for constant tension and discomfort where you almost dread each succeeding scene, it’s hard to beat “Se7en”.

  52. The oriiginal “Haunting”- no contest, damn scariest movie ever.
    Scariest moment ever: ( for me, persnally…)
    …the moment in Don Siegel’s original “Invasion Of The Body Snatchers”….Kevin McCarthy gives
    Dana Wyneter a big smooch, only to realize she’s
    no longer human, just another pod person. Cut to a close-up of him, his face frozen in revulsion and
    horror. I remember being in the theater as a kid and I actually stopped breathing as I watched this.

  53. The British version of THE DAY AFTER called THREADS is easily the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen.
    And outside of politics I’m not sure if I’ve disagreed more with anyone than in the case of the MULHOLLAND DRIVE detractors. It’s taking a lot of strength not to denigrate your intelligence.

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