When’s the last time you saw a truly frightening movie? For that matter, how many truly frightening movies can you name in, say, five minutes? Besides The Exorcist, I mean. I can think of maybe four offhand, seven or eight if I have another hour to think about it.
So I’m always a bit skeptical during the Halloween season, when movie pundits start picking the scariest movies of all time, such as this top 25 list from Time’s Richard Corliss. Demonstrating that 25 films may be about 15 too many, the list includes such fright-fests as Bambi; the zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead; and the 50-second Arrival of a Train in La Ciotat, which, when shown in 1896, had certain members of the audience thinking the train on the screen might run them over. Now, these may have been all groundbreaking films in their own way, but scary they were not.
It’s facile to say that they don’t make scary movies any more, but it’s almost true. Since the mid-1960s, horror has not been that large a genre. While the past 35 years have given us hundreds of films and sequels devoted to shock and gore and the unconventional use of power tools, a movie that can instill true fear — and keep you jumpy long after it’s over — is difficult to pull off and all too rare. I’m not sure 25 of them even exist.
Which leads me to my own little list. I can’t say they’re the most frightening movies ever made — like comedy, horror is pretty subjective — but I’d expect them to rank well above Bambi on the old Fear-o-Meter. My main criterion is this: They’re the sort of movies I still wouldn’t want to watch alone.
First, The Innocents, the 1961 movie starring Deborah Kerr and based on Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw. Briefly, a governess comes to suspect that her two young charges are being possessed by pair of malevolent spirits. The foreboding builds in every scene, but subtly, with none of the horror cliches that tend to reassure us that it’s only a movie. This is often labeled a psychological thriller, but don’t believe it. It’s a ghost story, and a damned good one. Highly recommended.
The Japanese film Ringu, and to a lesser degree its American version The Ring, are two movies that can make your blood run cold (although not quite so much now that they’ve been mercilessly lampooned in Scary Movie 3). When you finally get around to seeing the monstrous Samara, emerging in jump-cuts from a big-screen TV, it’s one of the great moments in film horror. Two bad both films are fatally dated by the use of a VHS tape as the key plot device.
The Thing. Is this movie really 25 years old? It still seems as fresh and terrifying as the day it was released. At an isolated Antarctic research station, a shape-shifting organism begins culling the crew. Will Kurt Russell get out of it alive? John Carpenter explores the classic aliens-are-among-us theme better than any film has done before. It’s one of the few remakes that’s not only better than the original — the original is actually laughable by comparison. As I recall, the monster in that version was played by James Arness.
Finally, Salem’s Lot (1979), which is a unlikely pick for two reasons: It was a made-for-TV mini-series, and it starred David Soul at the height of his cheesy power in “Starsky & Hutch.” But for my money, it’s one of the best vampire movies ever made. Yes, it had Hutch, but it also had James Mason, who exuded sophisticated evil in every scene. The film’s chief vampire had nothing in common with the sex symbols who inhabited the role before and since; he was totally vile and totally evil, and it was no coincidence that he resembled that other great vampire from 55 years earlier, Nosferatu. The image of an undead child scratching at the second-floor window of his brother is still as creepy as they come.
But as I say, horror is subjective, and what keeps my head under the covers at night might not do the same for you. Also, what used to be scary sometimes cannot stand the test of time. I mentioned The Exorcist above, but that groundbreaking film has been undone by countless parodies; the sight of Linda Blair’s head executing an awesome 360 is now more campy than creepy. Too bad; it was a classic.
What movie, or movies, stick in your mind as the scariest of them all?