Today is Halloween. Instead of dressing up in some skimpy outfit and parading around town, I figured I’d share something even scarier with you, a list of my favorite “scary movies”. Please note that I’ve used “my” as a descriptor. I don’t expect everyone to agree with my picks, but that’s part of the fun. I also think it’s important to note that favorite doesn’t equate to best in my mind. I know some find it odd that I’d make such a distinction, but my favorite movies aren’t always the best movies I’ve ever seen. A great example is National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. It’s one of my favorite movies, but I have no delusions that it’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. Some probably think I’m crazy for making the distinction between favorites and best, but it’s how my mind works.
I have been thinking about this post for some time and as such I’ve gone over a lot of movies in my mind that I’ve watched and tried to decide which ones were my favorites. To start with I’d like to mention a few of the ones that were left on the cutting room floor.
Honorable Mention: Two films that really creeped me out or disturbed me, but aren’t favorites (more or less because they terrify me) are House of 1000 Corpses and The Exorcist. The first was created by Rob Zombie. It’s probably the only movie I ever remember watching and immediately feeling dirty. I’m not kidding when I say I felt like I needed to head to church after finishing the movie. I can’t really recall whether or not I was scared or just kind of creeped out and disturbed by how strange it was. How weird is it? There’s a clown in it who runs a fried chicken joint, as well as a guy named Dr. Satan. Oh and you must see what happens to Dwight Shrute.
The Exorcist is one of the movies my mom warned me not to see. She mentioned how much it bothered her, but being a modern teenager I had to see how cheezy the “horror” film from years bygone really was. Well, I probably should’ve listened to my mother. At the time I wasn’t bothered by the movie, but to this day I only need to start thinking about Regan MacNeil and I get the heebie-jeebies. I know it sounds silly to some, but I was genuinely kind of worried about being possessed. It was terrifying to think that there really wasn’t much you could do other than bring in a priest to remedy the situation. I could handle a ghost moving my furniture around, but having a demon inside my body, not so much.
So, on to the favorites:
Land of the Dead/Diary of the Dead: I don’t know if these really qualify as horror films, they’re both zombie movies and the extent to which people are scared of the undead varies, but I like them. I’m sure there are much scarier zombie flicks out there, but I really enjoy these two films from Director George Romero. The main reason I enjoy them is they offer social commentary in the form of “mindless” zombie fun.
I won’t delve deeply into the social comments made in each film, but needless to say I was able to write two term papers on Land of the Dead, including the final paper for my Movies and Politics course (if I get brave I’ll post it for you guys to read: warning it contains spoilers). In the broadest terms, Land of the Dead deals with consumerism and class in American society. Although I wrote a final paper on Land of the Dead, I think I’m a bigger fan of Diary of the Dead, even more so since the rise of social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. Diary of the Dead raises questions about the role of objective journalism in an age classified by nihilism. Basically if there’s no agreed upon right or wrong, who’s to say what’s really true?
Paranormal Activity: Recently Paranormal Activity 3 has been dominating the American box office. I haven’t seen this most recent entry or the first sequel in the franchise, but the original is on my list of favorite scary movies. I actually saw the first movie alone and enjoyed it, but wasn’t bothered by it. A few days later I went to see it with a friend on Halloween and the ensuing discussion got me pretty damn freaked out. How freaked out? I slept with the light and tv on for awhile.
Paranormal Activity, with it’s bumps in the night and unseen terrors, is exactly the type of movie that really scares me. Sure slasher films are fun and I get some thrills from them, but for a movie to really scare me it usually involves some sort of supernatural element. Perhaps it’s the Protestant in me, but movies dealing with the supernatural, whether it be ghosts or demons, really get to me*. The original Paranormal Activity really messed me up, not only because it dealt with ghosts/demons, but because the crazy shit happened to the protagonists in the daytime. Usually I equated daylight with safety, but no more. Seeing a swinging chandelier in the foyer will now send me running under my covers any time of day (or night).
The Ring: My freshman year of college The Ring was taking the college crowd by storm. I don’t think I was really scared by the concept, I wasn’t too afraid of watching a viral VHS tape that would kill me (I’d already moved onto DVDs). The thing that scared me the most were the images on the tape. The sequence of images shown in the video that got you the infamous phone call, while not all scary, were so random that the overall effect was unsettling. Maybe the filmmakers put subliminal messages in the video to create fear in viewers, but whether they did or not I got creeped by the clip.
The biggest reason I love The Ring (besides Naomi Watts), is that it took an everyday item and made it scary. I remember being up late one night, the cable cutting out and the television displaying “snow” accompanied by it’s usual cacophony. I bolted for my parents’ room (I was still a freshman in college) and waited outside until I heard the soothing voices of regular cable programming. By associating television and “snow” with a creepy girl crawling out of your tv set the creators of The Ring were able to scare viewers long after they had left theaters. Bravo. The key to being a successful scary movie, for me, is if you can keep the fear going in an audience once they leave their seat. If you associate an ordinary, everyday object with your film, viewers won’t view it the same for weeks. They’ll more than likely tell someone about this and boom, you’ve grown your audience without spending a dime.
Pet Sematary: What scares me the most about this movie is they didn’t spell cemetery correctly and it’s caused subsequent generations to undervalue the importance of spelling and grammer. J/K. I wasn’t really allowed to watch horror movies growing up, but I do remember hearing my older cousins talk about this movie when we were kids. I didn’t see it for the first time until high school. In fairness, my parents made the right call in not letting their five year old watch this big screen adaptation of Stephen King’s novel. It freaked me out the first time I saw it and still does. I couldn’t imagine how messed up I’d be if I’d seen it as a child.
The first time I watched Pet Sematary I began watching after the first 10-15 minutes, but after that first viewing I have never been unable to un-see Pascow with his damn head busted open talking to the living. After seeing the movie in its entirety Pascow’s image was replaced with several others as the most terrifying from the movie. All I can say to the filmmakers is “no fair”. You keep me coming back to the movie for the scares and moral lessons.
Scream: I was originally going to say the entire franchise, but honestly I figured why not dwell on why I love the original. This was probably one of the first “scary” movies I ever watched. I tried watching it one night in our basement with my sister and her boyfriend, but the opening scene was too intense and we had to wait to watch it until the next day. I watched the opening scene just before writing this to make sure it’s still as terrifying as I remember and it is. The movie hooks you within the first five minutes, but the substance that’s in the first Scream is what keeps me coming back.
In one of my film classes we discussed genres and the evolution of a genre. Scream, for me, represents the final stages of the evolution of a genre, parody. Basically the idea is a genre will eventually come to a point where it makes fun of itself and then someone will come along and reestablish conventions for the genre. I think Scream served as the parody for 80s slasher films such as Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street, the striped shirt wearing janitor is even named Fred! The movie’s acknowledgement of genre conventions was fun & refreshing. I think Scream serves as a wonderful introduction to the slasher genre as it does a great job of mixing horror and comedy.
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon: I know many have been critical of Netflix’s lack of quality movies on their streaming service, but I owe Netflix a debt of gratitude for introducing me to what is one of my favorite scary movies. The best way to describe the film is probably as Scream in the form of a documentary. The film follows a man who is preparing to become a serial killer in the vein of Michael Myers and Fred Krueger. In order to build up his legacy, the man, Leslie Vernon has agreed to allow a group of college students to shoot his exploits as a documentary.
This is such a fun and clever movie. It could possibly be my favorite scary movie. It’s that good. The movie has all the thrills of your typical slasher flick, but it is laced with humor and insight into the genre’s conventions. On another level the film serves as a critique of our society and sensationalist journalism. Of course this level is not played up so the film isn’t too preachy, it’s just a fun look into the mind of a serial killer without being too heavy. If you watch any movie on this list tonight, let it be Behind the Mask.
^^Quick note, I wouldn’t say my list has been in any particular order, but I’d say these next two and Behind the Mask are probably the top 3. I can’t name a true favorite, but the top 2 are a notch above the others, followed closely by the exploits of Mr. Leslie Vernon.^^
The Descent: In 2006 I remember hearing about a wonderful British horror film called The Descent. I saw trailers and couldn’t wait for it to hit US theaters. How pumped was I for the movie? Instead of going out on the town after my college graduation I went to see The Descent**. I must admit I was pretty surprised that I ended up loving the movie so much after waiting so long to see it. Usually I end up being somewhat letdown by movies that are so hyped by myself and the media (looking at you Sucker Punch).
There are several things I love about the movie, but the pace is probably what makes the movie work as well as it does. The film does a great job of setting up the story before anything really crazy happens. The film also works because of how it’s filmed. The movie is about a group of women who go spelunking and the terrors that lie in wait in the caves. The lighting design for the movie really helps build up the tension and heightens the sense of claustrophobia. By the time the women encounter a creature you’re already on edge, being able to really sympathize with their fear. This should be one of the first movies on the list you watch. When you do watch it, get the unrated, extended version. That ending really helps take a wonderful film to another level.
The Haunting: By far the oldest movie on my list, you could really argue it’s the best of the entire bunch if only for it’s ability to stand the test of time. This is an extraordinary film. I can’t remember when I first saw the movie, but I remember being mesmerized. What makes the movie so great is it is doesn’t rely on cheap thrills. There’s no open fridge door followed by a non-threatening character or madman chasing teenagers. This is straight up, crazy shit going down in an old house terror. If I had to compare it to another movie on my list it’d be Paranormal Activity.
As mentioned before, the ultimate test for me as to whether or not something is genuinely scary is how long it is impacting me after viewing it. This movie and it’s final sequence has been stuck in my head since I first saw it many many years ago. This movie is a testament to the fact that you don’t need extreme visuals to create terror. With the proper use of visuals and sound you can create a truly terrifying film without once showing a ghost. Some probably wonder why A Nightmare on Elm Street didn’t make my list. A main reason is that the effects are now outdated and serve as a distraction that breaks the willing suspension of disbelief. The Haunting doesn’t rely on extravagant visuals or effects. It scares you with sound and simple visuals. This reliance on viewers using their own imaginations to build the terror should serve as an example to Hollywood that always showing us what is chasing the protagonist isn’t always the best choice. If you want to see how to make a scary movie, set your DVR to record The Haunting when it airs Monday Night (Tuesday Morning) at 1 AM Central on Turner Classic Movies. Whatever you do, please watch the original and not the 1999 version, even though it is in color!!
Have a "spooktacular" Halloween!!
*Disclaimer: I once saw an apparition in a hotel room in West Virginia, so it’s the fear of seeing something again that really bothers me.
**Yes ladies, I am still available!