I don’t scare easily, but these films and TV entires did a mighty damn good job of it.
1. The Exorcist, William Friedkin, 1973. It destroyed my 11-year old psyche and still gives me nightmares. It’s the mother of all horror films. Somehow Friedkin came up with exactly what you’d imagine a demon to look and sound and act like, as it beats the shit out of a 12-year old girl from the inside out. She speaks like the damned, pukes buckets of green, and reams herself bloody with crucifixes. Two priests intervene with a long ritual that kills them both. The girl is saved, but the power of good over evil is far from clear. Some continue to insist that The Exorcist is unspeakable, and I respect why. It couldn’t have made in a decade other than the ’70s (the influence of Bergman’s Cries and Whispers is astonishing), and it is a simple fact that there will ever again be a movie so frightening and well done. For all these reasons, it’s my favorite film of all time, let alone horror film.
2. The Shining, Stanley Kubrick, 1980. Stephen King hated it so much he made a “corrective” version for TV, but not half as good. Kubrick hit a home run because he took the frame of a haunted hotel story and fleshed it out with more uncompromising terrors and a particular tone that doesn’t let you tell yourself things are going to be okay. The result may be more minimalist than what King intended, but it’s sure as hell more effective. Scenes I took to bed too often: Danny’s vision of the two hacked-up little girls in the hallway, the look on Wendy’s face when she discovers Jack has been typing the same sentence over and over for weeks, Jack’s face appearing in a hotel painting in the final shot after he dies. Especially that last. Every frame of this film, every intonation of the score, is part of a brutal overarching terror.
3. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, David Lynch, 1992. David Lynch’s darkest film contains scenes in Laura’s bedroom so terrifying they make parts of The Shining look tame. It was misjudged in the ’90s based on expectations from the TV series, and anyone who still doesn’t like it should listen to Mark Kermode, who rightly calls it a masterpiece. The question of whether Leland is an innocent man possessed by an evil spirit, or a garden variety sexual molester is ambiguous: “Bob” could be a hallucination or an actual demon. Fire Walk With Me is brilliant psychological horror and a character piece in contrast to the TV series’ focus on town intrigue and multiple-character dynamics. It’s an intensely personal film and a switch in tone that works wonders in the context of a two-hour prequel. The key is getting a distance from the TV series before watching it.
4. Channel Zero. 3 seasons, 2016-2018. This anthology series starts over each season with an entirely new plot and cast of characters. The stories are really weird and demented, well scripted, brilliantly directed, and they don’t flinch at all from showing horrible acts. Season one’s “Candle Cove” is about a puppet show that only little kids can see on TV, and which turns them into homicidal killers. Season two’s “No-End House” is about a haunted house with each room scarier than the previous. And season three’s “Butcher’s Block” is about two young women who join a family of religious butchers (they eat human beings) who live in a perverse version of Alice’s wonderland. Season two is the one that gets me. The college kids enter the haunted house looking for cheap thrills, but it turns into a prolonged nightmare that yields some of the most terrifying material I’ve seen on TV.
5. The Pact, Nicholas McCarthy, 2012. This is way underrated. It’s about a haunted house, but with a truly terrorizing twist. It turns out there is indeed a ghost in the house, but also a real-life psychopath living in the cellar, and he has been there the whole goddamn time. When you learn this and reflect back to the start of the movie when some of the “ghostly” assaults began — the open closet door, the jar of food on the floor, Annie being levitated and thrown against the walls, the other girls disappearing altogether — you realize that only some of this was the ghost. That’s frightening on many levels, and the sort of thing Peter Straub pulled off in his novel Lost Boy, Lost Girl, especially with the secret room with spyholes, and the room of caged torment. Psychopathic horror usually doesn’t scare me (classics like Psycho are suspenseful but they don’t give me nightmares), but McCarthy blends the psycho with the supernatural in ways that are unnerving in the extreme.
6. The Exorcist III: Legion, William Peter Blatty, 1990. When I saw the film in the theater, I remember being so terrified by Lieutenant Kinderman’s first sight of Patient X that I was panic stricken. We see the wasted figure of Jason Miller (Father Karras) who we know from the first film should be dead; the sight of the possessed priest is a horrifying revelation. An acquaintance of mine once made the following comment: “The Exorcist III and Event Horizon are the two absolutely most creepy movies I’ve ever seen, because you can’t imagine anyone making these films if they didn’t 100% believe in manifest evil. They pull no punches whatsoever and carry a tone which says, ‘This is not entertainment. This is a glimpse into the dark side.’ I cannot say that other films have struck me this way.” That’s a very insightful observation. While I don’t believe Legion is scarier than the first Exorcist, in some ways it’s more deeply unnerving, and yes, Event Horizon (below) falls into that same category. The fact that these films did poorly at the box office says something about the mainstream preference for cheap thrills over true terror.
7. Event Horizon, Paul Anderson, 1997. This was panned by critics who had the wrong expectations for a sci-fic film. Today it has a major cult following. It’s basically The Shining in outer space, set on a ship that’s equipped with a gravity drive that sends you to hell. As the crew explores the ship, an evil presence begins to exploit their darkest personal secrets and torture them with hallucinations. The scientist who created the Event Horizon soon realizes that it’s penetrated beyond the boundaries of the universe and in to hell itself. The crew members stumble on incredibly frightening footage of the ship’s previous crew, which shows them killing and cannibalizing each other in some kind of demonic fury. This is by far the most terrifying sci-fic horror film — more than even Alien — and a bold depiction of inter-dimensional evil.
8. The Witch, Robert Eggers, 2016. Critics love it and audiences hate it, but that’s because today’s audiences are so stupid they think The Conjuring is the scariest thing since The Exorcist. It’s set in Colonial New England (1630s) before the Salem Witch trials, and establishes the reality of the witch right away, so there is no possibility of misunderstanding the terror as being all in the mind. The film is about a girl whose baby brother is snatched (and killed), her other young brother molested and possessed (and killed), a freaky black goat which her younger siblings bond with (and which kills her father), and a wretched mother who blames her for everything (and whom she is forced to kill). All of this is carried on a Puritanical atmosphere of isolation and hideous shame. The Witch is organically terrifying, and relishes in the delights of hidden evil. It’s stingy in its sightings of the title baddie, relying on oppressive environment and mental torment. My full review here.
9. The Evil Dead, Sam Raimi, 1981. This low-budget classic (avoid the remake at all costs) may have some laughable acting, but it doesn’t matter. In terms of relentless pulverizing terror, few films have ever matched it. Demonic possession is my #1 scare anyway, and the trio of ladies are basically adult Linda Blairs, with voices and makeup jobs straight out of hell. The legendary scene in which Cheryl gets raped by a tree still brings my jaw to the floor. Linda eating her own hand is another unspeakable that today’s scriptwriters could learn from. The Evil Dead sequels had better budgets and special effects to prop them up, but they’re essentially comedy-horrors. The first film is dead-serious and doesn’t make you laugh at all. It came out in ’81 but it’s a ’70s film at heart — in some ways a triumphant last gasp of hard-core horror before Freddy Krueger became a hit.
10. The Man from Nowhere. James Hill, 1975. In the year 1976 I watched Once Upon a Classic, hosted by Bill Bixby. I was seven years old, long before I even knew what a horror film or TV show was. This “kids” horror story scared the fucking shit out of me, and for years I have wanted to watch it again to see how my adult mind processes it. (The DVD is only available in the U.K.) It’s set in 1860 England with a very effective Gothic atmosphere, and tells of a young orphaned girl who is sent to live with her uncle in his castle. When she arrives, she is stalked by a man in black who appears and disappears, telling her in threatening tones to leave. She is terrorized by this figure, and so was I. He stalks her everywhere and eventually even manages to break into her room in the castle, where he corners her. Another scene that gave me nightmares is where the man in black appears under Alice’s bedroom window around midnight whispering up to her in menacing rasps, “Alice! Alice!” Neither her uncle nor the housekeeper believe her when she cries to them hysterically, and it gradually becomes apparent that the housekeeper is using the man in black to scare Alice away in order to prevent her from inheriting her uncle’s fortune. Here’s a clip of Alice’s first encounter with the man.