I don’t scare easily, but these films did a damn good job of it. Represented here is demonic horror (#1, #5, #6), paranormal horror (#4, #8, #9), psychological horror (#3), supernatural plus the psychological (#2, #7), and alien horror (#10).
1. The Exorcist, William Friedkin. 1973. Critical approval: 87%. It destroyed my 11-year old psyche. It 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. Critical approval: 92%. 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 skeleton of a haunted hotel story and fleshed it out with more uncompromising terrors and a unique 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. Critical approval: 62%. 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 pronounces 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 a merciless piece of 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. The Pact, Nicholas McCarthy. 2012. Critical approval: 67%. 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.
5. The Evil Dead, Sam Raimi. 1981. Critical approval: 96%. This low-budget classic (avoid the remake) may have some laughable acting, but it doesn’t matter. In terms of relentless pulverizing terror, nothing has 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.
6. The Exorcist III: Legion, William Peter Blatty. 1990. Critical approval: 55%. 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 they are the only two rotten tomatoes on this list may indicate something about the critical inability to appreciate true terror.
7. Event Horizon, Paul Anderson. 1997. Critical approval: 24%. 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 (click on right image). This is by far the most terrifying sci-fic horror film (even more than Alien), and a bold depiction of inter-dimensional evil.
8. The Witch, Robert Eggers. 2016. Critical approval: 88%. 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. Like Alien, it’s stingy in its sightings of the title baddie, relying on oppressive environment and mental torment. My full review here.
9. We are Still Here, Todd Geoghegan. 2015. Critical approval: 95%. This is set in the ’70s, and actually shot like a ’70s horror film. The first half is an incredibly slow burn that gets us familiar with the town and characters, with lots of lingering shots of New England winter scenery. This is a remote snowy town in Massachusetts, and the characters are a married couple who move in to a house with a nasty legacy. Soon they believe they can hear the voice of their dead son (who was killed months ago in a car accident months), but they’re being fooled by the spirits of the previous residents who are starving for torment and slaughter. When one of their guests holds an impromptu séance, the slow burn is suddenly over, the shit hits the fan, and Hell comes to this little home and tears people apart.
10. Alien, Ridley Scott. 1979. Critical approval: 97%. A horror film with science-fiction dressing, and like The Exorcist a ’70s film in every way. It’s completely unlike Cameron’s sequel (an ’80s film in every way), which was an action blockbuster and made the mistake of altering the most terrifying aspect of the alien: its ability to cocoon a victim and cause it to morph into an egg/facehugger. In the sequel the eggs come from a queen alien, but Scott had envisioned a truly horrifying process by which any alien “laid eggs” by transforming captives. Cameron’s film also involved military personnel going after the alien threat, and while it’s not pleasant that they all die, that’s their job. In Alien we feel the raw terror of six civilians stranded alone in space, hunted and devoured one by one. That’s after Kane’s chestbursting, which is possibly the most insanely terrifying scene in the history of cinema.