I enjoy Mark Kermode’s film reviews and share a lot of his tastes, especially in horror films. What others find scary, he often finds banal and silly. There are no cheap-thrill blockbusters like The Conjuring and It Chapter 2 on his list of 10 films that really scared him.
Here they are. He excludes The Exorcist from consideration, which would be his #1, since he has analyzed the film to death many times.
1. The Vanishing (1988). (The Dutch film, not the ’93 American remake.) The final scene had Kermode in a state of abject panic that no other film (save The Exorcist) has ever achieved. It “scared the life out of him and scarred him”. Just talking about the film freaks him out. It involves being buried alive.
2. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Kermode calls it as close to pure terror as you’ll ever find in a film (save The Exorcist).
3. The Haunting (1963). Unlike the ’99 remake, this haunted house classic nails it. It’s all to do with understatement and what you don’t see, which is an art lost in most of today’s horror films that drown in the overt.
4. Onibaba (1964). This Japanese historical horror drama terrified not only Kermode, but William Friedkin, who made The Exorcist, so that says something right there. It’s a nightmare vision of psycho-sexual bestiality, set in a 14th-century Japan of feuding warlords, where a woman and her daughter-in-law are forced to murder and loot weakened soldiers to survive. Then the older woman starts forcing her daughter-in-law into ugly carnal acts while wearing a demonic mask. The film has been interpreted over the years as a karmic tale, Buddhist parable, or Hiroshima parable, and all three are valid; it’s also bloody terrifying.
5. The Babadook (2014). The croaking noise made by the Babadook. (This was true of The Grudge too, which I thought scarier than The Babadook.)
6. Audition (1999). One critic was so scared at what he was seeing on screen that he said the police should investigate the circumstances of the film’s creation; that’s how much it freaked him out. I agree with Kermode that Audition is a great film, but it didn’t really scare me or have me panic-stricken in any way.
7. The Descent (2005). People in confined spaces in underground caves. Kermode has never been so claustrophobic as in watching the crawl-through scenes in this film. I agree with him entirely.
8. The Witch (2015). The demonic goat rising up on its legs really got under Kermode’s skin.
9. Nosferatu (1922). The image of the shadowy figure going up the stairs gave him nightmares.
10. Buried (2010). The rising panic that you get from seeing this guy trapped in a confined space throughout the whole film builds and builds.
Here are mine, also excluding The Exorcist, but The Shining too. Those two are in a class all by themselves.
1. 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.
2. Channel Zero: “The No-End House”. Season 2, 2017. 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 scary and disturbing material I’ve seen on TV.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. The Witch, Robert Eggers, 2016. I agree with Kermode here. Critics love it and audiences hate it, but that’s because today’s audiences are so stupid they think Hereditary and The Conjuring are the scariest things 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.
8. The Grudge, Takashi Shimizu, 2004. For a PG-13 film The Grudge is downright pulverizing. I sat in my theater seat literally cowering with fear. By the final scene I’d reached the point that if the damn movie didn’t end, I’d become a gibbering lunatic. And it’s strange, because The Grudge isn’t the kind of movie you’d expect to be genuinely scary. Production-wise it’s not the most impressive, and I thought it would be like The Ring, which didn’t scare me at all. And Sarah Michelle Gellar? “Buffy” doesn’t inspire confidence in quality horror. But it sure did a number on me. The premise is a haunted house, that once you come into contact with it, the revenant haunting it will never stop hunting you down.
9. The Descent, Neil Marshall, 2005. I felt the same way as Kermode. There are claustrophobic scenes in this film that had me panic-stricken. The first 40 minutes are the best and scariest part, showing these women clambering through choking tunnels, swinging across bottomless chasms. Then it turns into a creature horror, which isn’t bad, but not nearly as effective as it’s first half.
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.