Halloween is just around the corner and cinemas are filled with scary movies of varying degrees of quality. (My local cineplex is showing the “Conjuring” sequel “Annabelle.”) I started thinking about some of my favorite scary movies. Of course, there are sub-genres within the greater “horror” category. The last 15 years have been especially kind in this regard, with new categories emerging such as “found footage” (“The Blair Witch Project,” “Paranormal Activity”), “torture porn” (“Hostel,” “Saw”), even “horror comedy” (“Zombieland,” “This is the End”).
I tried to come up with a list that encompasses several sub-genres. Slasher, zombie, vampire, haunted house, serial killer…I covered most of the bases. You will see that after each film on my list, I’ve also recommended similar movies that you might want to check out – they could be by the same director, of the same genre, or with a similar narrative/visual style.
Enough babbling. Here are my top ten favorite horror movies:
1. Psycho (1960): Not only is Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” the best horror film ever made, it’s also one of the best films in any genre. It is an ageless black-and-white classic with nary a false note. The actors are perfectly cast, the all-strings music score (by Bernard Hermann) is genuinely unsettling, and the film’s two murders are brilliantly edited. I also dug the film’s tongue-in-cheek, spoiler-free marketing campaign, something Hollywood doesn’t do anymore. We miss you, Hitch! If you’re not familiar with the story, consider yourself lucky. I won’t reveal any crucial plot details here, except to set up the premise: Arizona real estate secretary Marion Crane (Oscar nominee Janet Leigh) embezzles company funds, then hits the road in panic. She isn’t a bad person, however, and when her conscience gets the better of her, she tries to do the right thing…except it may be too late. No doubt you’ve heard the name Norman Bates mentioned in conjunction with “Psycho.” As commanding as Janet Leigh is in the film, it is Anthony Perkins – Norman himself – who lingers longest in your memory. Perkins brings the right touch of sympathy and dread to his tricky role, and his work here remains one of the greatest performances by any actor…ever. If you like this, see also: “Identity” (2003), “The Birds” (1963).
2. Halloween (1978): “Halloween” stands alongside “Friday the 13th” as one of the two “great” slasher movie series. (“A Nightmare on Elm Street” hasn’t aged well.) I put “great” in quotes because these movies can never achieve their full potential on such low budgets. The sequels can be especially low-brow. That being said, slasher films comprised a large part of my formidable, movie-watching teenage years. I still watch “Halloween” – the original John Carpenter film and not the mean-spirited Rob Zombie remake – every October without fail. It is the best of a crowded sub-genre, and it holds up remarkably well. Stephen King considers this one of the scariest films ever made, and I’m inclined to agree with my favorite novelist (two of his own film adaptions show up further down this list). Jamie Lee Curtis makes a great scream queen as Laurie Strode, an all-work-and-no-play high school student who is stalked by masked asylum escapee Michael Myers while babysitting on Halloween in the previously-sleepy town of Haddonfield, Illinois. She knows something’s up yet her friends don’t believe her…and it could be at their own peril. Like the aforementioned “Friday the 13th” (which missed the cut but not by much), the music and mood are pitch-perfect. And “Halloween” does for small town America what “Friday the 13th” did for the woods: scares the daylights out of you. If you like this, see also: “Halloween II” (1981), “Friday the 13th” (1980).
3. The Silence of the Lambs (1991): Who doesn’t love – or at least respect the hell out of – this astonishing film? It is an ambitious thriller about not one but two serial killers – one a transsexual who wears the skin of his female victims, the other a chianti-drinking doctor who eats his. If you don’t know the deeper (spoiler-free) story by now, “Buffalo Bill” just abducted another victim – the daughter of a prominent politician – and the pressure is on to find him. FBI trainee Clarice Starling (a very good Jodie Foster) is sent in to interview the incarcerated Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter (an unforgettable Anthony Hopkins) to paint a psychological profile of how serial killers think. Mind games ensue and Starling, Lecter, and Bill get more than they bargained for. Violent, gory, probing, intelligent, and even funny, “The Silence of The Lambs” won five Oscars – Best Picture, Director (Jonathan Demme), Actor, Actress, and Adapted Screenplay. This is the horror movie as prestige pic, and it’s little wonder that an acclaimed novel (by Thomas Harris) was the basis for such a brilliant tale. Scary good. If you like this, see also: “Hannibal” (2001), “Slaughter of the Innocents” (1993).
4. Carrie (1976): “Carrie” (based on Stephen King’s first published novel) has the best “final scare” of any movie on this list. I won’t give away the ending if you haven’t seen the movie, but it’s a doozy, and it still gets me even after 10+ viewings. The 90-something minutes building to that moment are a balanced blend of blood, terror, comedy, even pathos. Sissy Spacek earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination as Carrie White, a wallflower of a high school student tortured by her peers and demeaned by her evangelical zealot of a mother (Piper Laurie, who was also nominated for her work here). Carrie experiences her first menstrual cycle and thinks she is dying. As “punishment,” crazy momma locks Carrie in her prayer closet, inhabited by the scariest Jesus in film history. If that isn’t scary enough, Carrie also has the power of telekinesis, and woe be any classmate, teacher, or prom attendant that pushes Carrie’s buttons when she truly has had enough. This is a genre highlight from the 1970’s, and stands as one of director Brian De Palma’s best films – before he starting ripping off his own work, certainly. The strong cast also includes John Travolta and Nancy Allen, both of whom would re-team with De Palma five years later for the noir film “Blow Out.” If you like this, see also: “Firestarter” (1984), “Carrie” (2013 remake).
5. The Shining (1980): “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” So readeth the latest manuscript by Jack Torrance – writer, husband, father, and winter caretaker of the Overlook Hotel. Jack (played by a real-life Jack – Mr. Nicholson) is slowly going out of his mind – by alcoholism, by his wintry isolation, and by the ghosts haunting the high-altitude Colorado hotel. This movie being based on another early novel by Stephen King, there had to be ghosts…and something extra as well. That something extra is the titular element, a “second sight” belonging to Jack’s Big Wheel-riding son, Danny. This movie being directed by the late Stanley Kubrick, there had to be disregard for the normal rules of pacing and restraint. Audiences are treated to nearly 2.5 hours of tracking shots. The hotel’s elevator doors open and a river of blood pours out. A naked old woman rots away in a hotel room bathtub, and we see her in full frontal detail. But Stephen King + Stanley Kubrick = a cinema masterpiece. It has always fascinated me that King was notoriously unhappy with Kubrick’s film, because a) nearly everyone else loves it, and b) both the author’s books and the director’s films get better with age, like a fine red wine. Blood red, perhaps? If you like this, see also: “The Others” (2001), “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999).
6. The Frighteners (1996): Poor Frank Bannister. First, his wife died. Then, he started seeing ghosts. Next, he tried capitalizing on his “gift” by setting up a paranormal ghost-busting business…except no one took him seriously. Lately, he’s started seeing numbers mysteriously burned into people’s foreheads. Now, those same people are turning up dead. Has Death Itself come to Frank’s small town…or is Frank insane? “The Frighteners” was supposed to be one of the box office smashes of 1996, the film that would reinvigorate star Michael J. Fox’s career, and the movie that would introduce American moviegoers to New Zealand’s talented Peter Jackson (later of “LOTR” fame). Instead, the movie flopped. I don’t get it. This movie is an extraordinary piece of genre filmmaking, with a unique story and some truly inventive special effects. Okay, so the tone is a bit inconsistent (it starts out as slapstick comedy, then turns to all-out horror roughly 40 minutes in). Still, a cooler and more original genre film you’ll be hard pressed to find. If you like this, see also: “Dead Alive” (1992), “Re-Animator” (1985).
7. The Exorcist (1973): Once again, great cinematic horror is the product of an acclaimed novel. “The Exorcist,” directed by William Friedkin and based on the 1971 novel by William Peter Blatty (in turn inspired by a supposed actual event), remains one of the best films from the 1970’s. Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, and Jason Miller are all terrific as the mother and priests of 12-year-old Regan McNeil, possessed by a demon. As young Regan herself, newcomer (and Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee) Linda Blair is a revelation, vomiting pea soup, spinning her head 360 degrees (okay, that obviously isn’t really Blair), and doing unspeakable things with a crucifix. Seeing “The Exorcist” at least once is a cinematic rite-of-passage for everyone. It remains one of the only genre films to receive a Best Picture Oscar nod (along with 9 other nominations). “The Exorcist” is a master class in pacing, characterization, and production values (for its time, especially), and it is a reminder about the importance of acting to a film’s success. Interesting side note: The film is notably pro-Catholic, even though its main character, Regan’s mother Chris (Burstyn) is an Atheist. If you like this, see also: “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968), “The Conjuring” (2012).
8. Interview with the Vampire (1994): Like “The Shining,” “Interview” is another horror-movie-as-high-art production.This time, the source material is a novel (a whole series, actually) by Anne Rice. The casting of centuries-old vampire Lestat caused quite a stir in Hollywood, particularly when Tom Cruise was chosen. Rice was initially horrified, though she later took back her words. I once read something about Cruise’s film choices, and the article described him as “not edgy, but willing to flirt.” This film is an excellent example of that description. Cruise’s Lestat is pale, thin – emaciated, even – lonely, and more than a bit effeminate. But the movie isn’t really about him. The vampire of the title is Louis (Brad Pitt), Lestat’s most personal conquest and the saddest blood sucker this side of TV’s “Angel.” The first half of this film is run-of-the-mill, though elevated by stunning production design, makeup (those veins!), and period world-building. The second half, however, is delightfully weird, and features blink-and-you’ll-miss-them turns by Stephen Rea and Antonio Banderas. If you like this, see also: “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1992), “30 Days of Night” (2007).
9. Night of the Living Dead (1968): “They’re coming to get you, Barbara.” This deadly serious (no pun intended) zombie film about a group of strangers trapped in a farmhouse as an army of undead lumbers towards them is a seminal, midnight movie favorite. The film spawned one remake, two sequels, and at least one remake of one sequel, but this black-and-white genre classic is the movie that started it all. It is also a how-to lesson in low-budget, independent filmmaking, costing just $114,000 and grossing more than 100 times its budget. The movie caused quite a stir at the time of its release – the graphic violence was criticized by many, as was the decision to make the lead hero a black man (well-played by Duane Jones). Although no big deal on either count by today’s standards, “Night of the Living Dead” is a classic, if only for its racial and gender subtext, and deserves to be seen at least once. If you like this, see also: “Dawn of the Dead” (2004 remake), “28 Days Later” (2002).
10. The Cabin in the Woods (2012): My list concludes with a one-of-a-kind, postmodern curiosity that pays homage to the horror genre by dissecting it and turning it on its head. Although from the beginning you appear to be watching a requisite nubile-coeds-in-the-woods slasher movie, additional scenes revolving around two lab coat-wearing techs (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) that appear to work for some mysterious organization suggest that things are more apocalyptic than unsuspecting moviegoers may otherwise suspect. The cabin-dwelling coeds are ably played by five relative newcomers, although…is that really Thor himself (Chris Hemsworth) as Curt, the motorcycle-riding jock of the group? I won’t say much more than that, as this is one of those everything-is-not-as-it-first-appears movies that rewards the surprised viewer. Just go with it. Trust me. If you like this, see also: “Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn” (1987), “Scream” (1996).
What is your favorite scary movie, Loyal Reader? Disagree with my list? Let me know by leaving a comment below!