When I was a kid, I was so skittish that commercials for horror movies would give me nightmares. The instant an ad would come on, I’d close my eyes and cover my ears, counting to one hundred to make sure I didn’t see or hear anything. As I got older, I became fascinated with them. Every time we’d rent a movie (on VHS, remember those?), I’d dart over to the horror section to read the backs of the boxes. I never even considered watching one, and yet there I would be, reading the backs of all the Nightmare on Elm Street movies (in order, because that’s how I roll).
I didn’t actually watch any scary movies until high school, and even then they were mild ones like Rosemary’s Baby or Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Even in college I was pretty low-key. Over the years I watched more and more, slowly upping the scare ante, until I moved back to Oregon from Los Angeles. That was my horror movie renaissance; I spent the better part of a year watching horror movie after horror movie with my stepdad. By the time I met Chip I was a connoisseur of the nastiest, goriest shit Hollywood could produce.
But the thing is, I stopped being afraid of scary movies long ago. I watch them because they’re often funny, in either a pitch-black way or in their ineptitude. I watch them for the same kind of adrenaline rush other people get from roller coasters; gets that old blood pumping in the veins. I watch them because they’re entertaining as hell. Oh sure, I’ll jump when something pops out to scare you, but those are cheap startles. I’m talking about movies that truly scare me anymore; give me nightmares, spook me when I’m home alone. There are those rare few that get me, just so, and those are the ones I’m talking about today. So here they are, in no particular order: ten movies that scare the horror-movie fanatic.
1) The Exorcist. As an Atheist, you’d think that I would pretty much be immune to a movie like The Exorcist. Contrary to some people’s belief (and here I mean Batman), Atheists don’t worship the devil. We don’t believe in him, either. But there’s something about this movie that spooked the everloving shit out of me. I don’t know why exactly; it’s got some pretty silly moments and the effects are pretty dated. But there’s something about it. I think it’s the sense of helplessness; seeing little Regan MacNeil turning from a sweet, normal little girl into this grotesque, vile, sexualized demon is upsetting. Even before I had a child, watching her mother’s helplessness, the total inexplicable thing happening to her daughter is terrifying. Plus, despite being dated, it’s a thoroughly well-made film. You go on this terrible journey with the characters, and in the end you are remembering moments (like that little girl spider-crawling backwards up the stairs) that just make you shudder.
2) The Poughkeepsie Tapes This movie scared me so badly, I have tried very carefully not to remember it. It’s a rare film and you probably would have to look to find it. But holy shit. Its one of those hand-held camera movies, kind of like The Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield. The difference here is that it isn’t precisely a narrative. It’s a horrific pseudodocumentary; you get to watch the home video collection of a serial killer and his victims, and his slow, mind-controlling torture of them. And it’s brutal. Horrifying. Upsetting. Way too realistic for me to enjoy. Honestly, I’ve forgotten most of what happened and I have no wish to remember. I was frightened for days and I refuse to ever see it again, and I love shit like this.
3.) Jaws The malfunctioning shark (named Bruce) from this flick is pretty much legendary, and the unbelievably fake look of it was why most you don’t see it for most of the movie. Thus, Spielberg accidentally made a much, much scarier movie. The fact that you don’t see the shark more than absolutely necessary makes it a really scary threat. And, of course, John Williams’ impossible-to-forget music only highlighted it. This is one of the few horror movies I saw when I was young, and it affected me profoundly. I am still so frightened of deep water that I don’t like to even touch pictures of it. Directly because of this movie.
4) Diary of the Dead Yet another pseudodocumentary (I think “mockumentary” is the wrong term for a horror movie). Again, it’s pieced-together footage, this time of a band of people surviving a Zombie Apocalypse. Of course. It’s a George Romero movie, and he literally invented the genre. Romero movies have varied over the years and he went through a period where they were pretty weak and heavy-handed. (THE REAL MONSTER IS US! GET IT?!) Diary of the Dead brought it back. It’s the most “realistic” of the genre, and it includes things like the internet, specifically youtube. It’s more personal too, as you get to know the characters way beyond the standard clichés. Also, it scared me enough that I woke Chip up at four in the morning to walk me to my car so I could go to my opening shift at Starbucks. You know, just in case there might be zombies.
5) Halloween This one pretty much invented the slasher movie. You know, the unstoppable killing monster that goes after the sexually active teenagers, the girls running around in their underpants screaming. All the shit Scream was about. It’s pretty much a classic at this point, even if it’s also gotten a little cheesy with age. The thing about Halloween that makes it so scary hasn’t aged at all, though. Characters catch a glimpse of Michael Meyers in broad daylight in a nice safe neighborhood, but when they look again, he’s gone. That scares the fuck out of me, because I constantly catch glimpses of people or things out of the corner of my eye, and when I look again, it’s gone. Don’t lie; you’ve had this happen plenty of times too. Everyone has. Now imagine that thing you thought you saw was a psychotic killer that was going to show up in your house later.
6) The Exorcism of Emily Rose Another exorcism movie? Totally. I love Catholic horror movies; they tend to be so lurid. This one is loosely based on a real case, where a young woman died during an exorcism ritual. The movie never answers the question of whether or not Emily is actually possessed. You almost get to see two movies in one; one about a girl who is terribly ill (both epilepsy and schizophrenia are possibilities), and another about a girl tormented by demons. The thing that sets this movie apart (and makes it really scary) is Jennifer Carpenter’s amazing performance. There’s very little special effects in her performance; it’s all her and it’s terrifying. I’ve read an interview with the director (Scott Derrikson) where he said some of the crew were freaked out by how realistic some of her work was.
7) Arachniphobia AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAUGH! SPIIIIIDERS! Spiders everywhere! Spiders in the walls! Spiders crawling out of the shower head! Spiders in your shooooes! SPIDERS IN THE SHEETS WHILE YOU SLEEP! NOOOOOOOOOOooooooooooooooooooooooo!
8) 1408 I love Stephen King, but his stuff tends to be creepy rather than frightening. 1408, however, is scary as hell. It’s not gory at all; in fact it’s only PG-13. But it plays with layers of reality and perception, which is a real trigger point for me. Is it really happening? Did he ever escape? I kind of don’t know. There’s some imagery that freaks me out too – like when he’s looking across the street and waving to someone in another window, trying to get help – and realizes the other person is him waving back at himself like a fucked up reflection as someone sneaks up behind him. Yikes.
9) Quarantine Yes, it’s another shaky “amateur-cam” movie. They’re scarier because they feel more real, okay? It also is another Jennifer Carpenter movie, although this time it’s not her performance that sells it (not to say it isn’t great). This is a totally different take on the standard zombie/plague movie, and I’m really looking forward to seeing the sequel (not sure it’s out yet, but if it’s as good as the first one, expect another review like the one I did for the Hostel movies). Your standard transmitted-by-bites zombie virus shows up in an apartment building, and the police & CDC quarantine it, trapping all the victims/future zombies inside. Good protocol (although the sequel indicates it didn’t work) but imagine being in that building, with no hope of escape and more and more zombies? And the freaky “probably empty” attic apartment? The attention to detail is fabulous, the atmosphere is brilliant and the startles are magnificent.
10) Child’s Play I know, it’s silly. But I’ve always been afraid of toys coming to life. And there’s something about this one that still freaks me out, and it isn’t Drevon, the guy who plays Chucky on Hollywood Boulevard, although he’s a scary (and awesome) little motherfucker too. There’s a moment where the doll seems normal and the mom is yelling at it, and then all of a sudden it yells at her and rolls under the couch, and that moment still gives me the mad heebie jeebies.
So there we have it! Ten flicks that scare me, so you amateur psychiatrists out there can go to town on that if you want. Happy Halloween!