What makes a scary movie scary? Writer Dan Grant takes a look at ten of the scariest films ever made in an attempt to answer that question.
“Hey… you wanna see something really scary?” says Dan Aykroyd in Twilight Zone: The Movie before turning into a flesh-eating demon. It’s one of the best openings to a horror film because you least expect it from a guy like comedian Dan Ackroyd. What makes the scene even better is the demon make-up being so horrifically creepy – a face of someone long-time dead, released from the ground with the stench of decay and the moist, worm-bitten skin of a corpse.
Audiences have been delighting is scary movies since the early part of the 20th century when Nosferatu was drinking the blood of his helpless victims. But the beauty of horror is how it affects people in different ways – The Exorcist is the scariest film ever made for a lot of people, while others find it oddly amusing. Likewise, The Sixth Sense has become the poster child of recent horror cinema for its effective scares, but in some quarters it is thought of as mediocre. The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, REC and a host of other horror films have divided audiences. So what makes a scary movie scary?
Writer Dan Grant takes a look at ten of his favourite horror films and asks the question: why do they scare him so much?
10. The Gates of Hell (Fulci, Italy, 1980)
Lucio Fulci is Dario Argento’s protege who some believe is an even better director than Argento. Count yours truly in that camp. Fulci makes similar films to the master but some of them, especially this one are better than anything Argento has ever made. When you have zombies that not only eat your brains but they strip you of your flesh, use a drill to find your brains, induce people to throw up their insides and then make the earth turn black, you are dealing with some very serious individuals and a brilliant man behind the camera. I find Italian horror films to be different that American ones. They are more visual, they are more disturbing and they pay much more attention to detail. This is the pinnacle of Italian horror.
9. The Changeling (Medak, Canada, 1980)
Discover More: The Changeling (Review)
I hadn’t seen many haunted house movies before this one but after experiencing how The Changeling made me feel, I had to go out and rent as many of the haunted house classics I could find. The Changeling is everything that The Haunting (1999) should have been. This film creeps you out and sometimes more than you can handle. Where as The Haunting used 80 million dollars worth of special effects, The Changeling used lighting, sound, subtlety and an intriguing and scary story to achieve the ultimate in horror, scares, chills, and shivers.
George C. Scott plays a man who has just recently lost his wife and young daughter to a freak accident on the highway in the dead of winter. He leases a rather large house supposedly for some solitude so he can work on his musical piece. But then strange things begin to happen. At first he passes them off as just an old house having a personality of its own. But when the noises persist at the exact time of day and for the same amount of time, he gets suspicious. After doing a little research, he realizes that not only is the house haunted, but it may be trying to tell him something. And this is where the story becomes creepy. I haven’t really felt a sense of unease in many movies. The Blair Witch was one of them, and The Changeling made me feel similar to that experience. What this film does to perfection is uses what it has to its advantage. There are lots of darkly lit rooms, strange noises that apparently come from the upstairs bedroom, and bouncing balls. The Changeling is a scary movie and it would have been without the ball, but when you put the ball into the scenario, you are frozen with fear. And for the first time in the film when the ball comes into frame, Scott looks petrified. Before this incident, he seemed bewildered, almost curious. He couldn’t understand why all this was happening. But after the ball, he is frightened. Even if whatever it is that is haunting this house seems to be somewhat friendly towards him, he is still scared.
I found myself yelling at the screen, “Get OUT!” I wanted them to leave the house. That is the sign of good film making. My recommendation is to watch this with all the lights off on a stormy night. You will be afraid.
8. The Amityville Horror Part 2 (Damiani, USA, 1982)
I always get some raised eyebrows when I mention this film as one of my favourite horror films. But the reality is that this is much scarier than the first and it is a very well made film. The first film concentrates on the family moving into the house years after the Montelli murders, this film tells the story of how they were murdered. The theory is that the house possessed the son and he went on a violent murderous spree. This film does a perfect job of perpetuating that myth. The first hour is absolutely terrifying. It has so much atmosphere and chilling scenes that I couldn’t understand why people hated this film so much. The room in the basement is dark and dingy and the camera works to make you feel that something is in that house with them. When the mom is ironing and she feels something touch her arm and then the wind, that was a perfect scene. It was frightening. But the highlight of this film is when the family minus Sonny goes to church. It is here that Sonny gets stalked by an unseen force. When he goes up the stairs and then down and then back up again into his room, it bothered me and it literally gave me chills. The camera work is so creative that you really can’t tell where the demon is. Is it on the ceiling, behind him, in front of him, where? That was a brilliant sequence in the film and it solidifies this film as one of the ten scariest films of all time.
7. The Last House on the Left (Craven, USA, 1972)
Watching Last House on the Left is an exercise in terror. Wes Craven wrote, directed, produced and edited this film, and although it is scary, it has to be said that it is without a doubt the most disturbing film I have ever seen. I have seen Salo, Men Behind the Sun and Cannibal Holocaust and they can’t match the intensity of this film. To watch films that degrade human beings is tough. This film degrades, dehumanizes and reduces them down to peons or trash that you toss out the window. This was 1972. The climate was changing then and this film reflects the anger in society at the time. It’s brutal, tough to watch, unflinching in its approach. This is Craven’s second best film and one that many haven’t seen. The remake is good but it can’t duplicate the sheer gut wrenching terror that this film has in abundance. Although this has a “happy ending” where the parents get their revenge, by the time it happens you have been dragged through 90 minutes of sheer desperation that you just want it to end. A word of caution, it is not for the faint of heart.
6. Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Hooper, USA, 1974)
This film was a dark disturbing look at a family gone mad. They have no reason, no remorse and no pity for doing the things that they do. The only thing I can even think of is that they have all worked at a slaughter house and the daily grind of taking an animal’s life has desensitized them to the value of life, whether it be human or animal. I found it quite interesting that the film goes into great detail on how a cow is killed. Because what that does (besides gross us out) is show how sadistic a process it is to get our meat from the animal that it came from to the cellophane wrappers in the grocery store. When these butchers do the same thing to the humans in the story, it becomes more real, more disturbing and more eye opening. It makes the characters helpless. And it is easy to live vicariously through the characters in this film, especially the main character (Sally). You can see how mad she has become by going through what she has. She has been brutalised in almost every way you can imagine. Physically, she is a mess, but psychologically she would never be the same after her experience. Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a rare film that shows that you don’t need special effects or even a large budget to make a scary film. All you need is some ingenuity, a vision and a horrific story. Texas Chainsaw Massacre has all three.
Fancy more horror: check out Top 10 Films’ Best British Horror Films
5. Nightmare on Elm Street (Craven, USA, 1984)
Fred Krueger, as we all know, was a child molester who was hunted down by the local Elm Street parents after he beat the court system on a technicality. They trapped him in his basement and lit his house on fire and then watched him burn. Somehow he comes back and haunts their children’s dreams and murders them while they sleep. This sets up the premise of the film. Writer-director Wes Craven said he got the idea while reading a story in an Asian newspaper about kids dying in their sleep and telling their parents that they knew something bad was going to happen to them in their dreams. It is an interesting concept and because it is done to perfection here, it has now become one of the cornerstones of American horror. There are few horror films that are better than this one. This is perfect on every level and it actually makes one of my top 50 films of all time. Wes Craven is a genius. He has the propensity to make an iconic film once every decade. This is his crowning achievement. “Come to Freddy….”
4. The Ring (Verbinski, USA, 2002)
Discover More: The Ring (Review)
Let’s just get right to the point. The Ring is the scariest horror film I had seen in 20 years. Horror had been enjoying a healthy revival at this time and that was in part to phenoms like Scream, The Blair Witch Project and The Sixth Sense. That is a good thing. What isn’t so good is some of the cheap crap that has come out since then. For every film like The Sixth Sense and Blair Witch, you have a plethora of other films that have no idea what true horror is really about. Too many film makers think the best thing to do with horror is make a rockin’ hardcore soundtrack and give us buckets of blood because this disguises the fact that most of them can’t pace a film or invoke true chills. Gore Verbinski’s The Ring returns to the roots of horror and pays homage to the early greats like Halloween and Psycho but almost goes a step past the greats, not quite but almost.
The Ring does something that only a handful of horror films have done, and that is it stays in your subconscious hours and days and weeks after you watch the film. Gore Verbinski and Ehren Kruger have combined to make a masterpiece of modern horror that goes beyond anything that has come out for the last twenty years. This film is that good. For a guy who grew up loving films like Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street, I have been yearning for a film like this. A film that not only is a great scary film but a film that is a pure kinetic experience, one that makes me look behind me at my silent television sitting in the corner of the room. Is Samara there? When my radio begins to go haywire and search for stations on its own, is that Samara? The Ring may have it’s roots in Japanese horror, but it owes much of its pedigree to all horror greats of the past, whether they are American, Canadian, Japanese or Italian. There is a bit of it all in here and the results are a vigorous energy that cannot be duplicated by any film of the last 20 years. When you have a girl crawling out the TV, I’m not sure how you get over that petrifying fright.
3. Halloween (Carpenter, USA, 1978)
John Carpenter took a low budget film and he scared a generation of movie goers. He showed that you don’t need budgets in the 8 or 9 figures to invoke fear on an audience. Sometimes the best element of fear is not what actually happens, but what is about to happen. What was that shadow? What was that noise upstairs? He knows that these are the ways to scare someone and he uses every element of textbook horror that I think you can use. I even think he made up some of his own ideas and these should be ideas that people use today. But they don’t. With the advent of CGI, many modern film makers no longer see the need to use lighting and detail to provoke scares. The effect is not the same. You can’t be scared by a giant special effect that makes loud noises and jumps out of a wall. It’s the moments when the killer is lurking, somewhere, you just don’t know where, that scares you. Halloween succeeds like no other film in this endeavour. There is no better film out there that uses every horror tool available. There is very little gore in this film but the lighting and the soundtrack, including the ominous main theme are enough to stay in your mind days after you watch it. It has not dated itself and this is the true paradigm to which all horror films should compare themselves to.
2. Jaws (Spielberg, USA, 1975)
Discover More: 10 reasons Jaws might be the best film ever made
Simply put, this is the best film ever made and it makes my number two scariest film of all time. This film is the personification of fear.
I saw this film when I was about 8 years old. And what I remember most about it, is thinking that I had found the most frightening film that I had ever seen. When I asked my parents if there really was a Jaws and they reassured me there wasn’t, I still thought they were lying ( and they were, he does exist, I’m sure of it ). To this day, almost 30 years later, I am still frightened to go swimming. I have been to the Caribbean many times. In my youth, I went to the Bahamas with my high school graduating class and once to Acapulco for March Break. Neither time did my classmates or friends venture into the water because of me. ” Did you know that most shark attacks happen in three feet of water of less? ” I asked them. Needless to say the hotel pool was well utilized on both trips.
Jaws is perfect on every level of film making. It has incredibly well developed characters, so well that we feel their fears and their bravado when we are supposed to. The direction is some of the best I have ever seen. We are but marionettes in Spielberg’s fingers. When he wants us to feel, he pulls our strings and masterfully we feel scared or horrified or even amused. A perfect example of this is the killing of the Kinter kid, the second death of the movie.
The scene starts off shortly after Chrissie Watkins is killed. There are people playing on the beach and in the water. Brody ( the police chief ) is sitting tentatively, on edge, waiting, fearing something is going to happen. He hears screams from a young girl. But of course they are playful screams. Then we see a man playing fetch the stick with his dog. Finally we meet Alex Kinter. He goes out on his raft into the water. Then we see the shots from under water. It’s as if something is approaching. We’re really not sure if we are being teased here or not. But then we see a stick floating in the water and the man calling out for his dog. But he is not there. Then we see more kids splashing and then we cut to a shot approaching the Kinter boy on his raft from under water. And the music. And then…… well, we all know what happens. Now that is a director masterfully manipulating us.
Jaws stands up to and surpasses any film these days that is considered brilliant and it eclipses anything that came before it. This film should have cleaned up at the Oscars. Besides that, it is the one film that scared me more than any other film did, until 2004.
1. Open Water (Kentis, USA, 2003)
I had been dying to see Open Water ever since I first heard about the raves it got at the Sundance Film Festival. Being scared of the ocean, I found the premise terrifying. I first saw Jaws when I was about ten years old and it has stuck with me. To put it mildly, it scared the you-know-what out of me. Jaws is one of the most primal movies out there and it not only attacks your conscious, but your subconscious as well. I know that the chance of getting attacked by any shark, let alone a Great White the size of Bruce are slim to none, but that hasn’t stopped me from refraining to set foot in the ocean for 20 years. So having said that, you can begin to understand how and why Open Water is the scariest film I have ever seen. It attacked me at every level, eventually metamorphosing me into a child clinging to the chair beside me and lifting my feet off the ground as I watched the film in the theater. Primal emotions are surreal because you forget that you are human and it leaves you at the mercy of what haunts you. Sharks haunt me, and they eat away at me, literally and figuratively. This is a film that gets inside of you and it won’t let go. Fear of the unknown has to be the worst state of mind, and this film captures the desperation of what it is like to be isolated, helpless, and at the mercy of nature and the wild. On a subconscious and conscious level, this is a mind bending experience.
The story is that two married divers get stranded in the middle of the ocean when their diving expedition leaves without them. They are faced with the grim prospect of surviving in the middle of the ocean and are surrounded by sharks. There is no CGI in this film. Those are real sharks swimming around the two actors. When the fins break water in front of them, those are real, curious 10 foot sharks in front of them. That was enough to turn me into a helpless child. This is not a better film than half of the films listed on this publication, but it is scarier. When you are terrified of the villains in the film and those villains get perilously close to the characters, it’s like having a fear of spiders and watching dozens of them crawl all over your skin. I have seen Open Water twice. Once in the theater and once at home. Both times had the same affect on me. I won’t be seeing it a third time. I might wind up in the back of an ambulance with heart failure. This is the scariest film I have ever seen.
Honourable Mentions include:
The Blair Witch Project – See out Top 10 Found Footage Horror Films here
Paranormal Activity 1 and 2
Friday the 13th The Final Chapter
Your turn – what is the scariest film you’ve ever seen?
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