Ah, October. The weather cools, the sun dims and the silver screen fades to black as memories of carefree summer give way to the approaching bleakness of winter. Halloween is saved until that last day of the month and allows us a final anticipatory shiver before Thanksgiving and Christmas steer our thoughts to cheerier points on the compass.
Here in the South, Halloween is denounced as a celebration of everything Satanic. But for those whose minds aren’t clouded by dogma Halloween is not at all about Satan but a harmless – even healthy – indulgence in fear. A brush with death, be it riding a roller coaster or slowing down to gape at a car accident, reminds us that we alive! It tells us the reaper’s shadow will fall on us one day, but not today.
Human beings have been telling scary stories since the day they began inventing fictions to get at their truths. Today some of those stories are played out on theater screens, computer monitors and television channels. Like all stories, some are better than others. And in October, when many of those stories turn to the dark subject at hand, some are more frightening than others.
The mechanics of moviemaking – how the scenes are filmed, the lighting, the score, the script – can make a difference between a merely scary story and a memorably frightening story. Ultimately it is the story itself, and how many of our buttons it pushes, that decides whether it makes this list.
Google “scariest movies ever made” and you’ll find thousands of such lists. Everybody has an opinion because the process of list-making, at least in this case, is subjective. In compiling this list I tried to use at least some objective criteria:
- Was the movie talked about?
- Did it kick-start a genre?
But in the end my final criterion was:
- Did it scare the hell out of me?
You may not agree, which is fine. Feel free to add to this list. If I agree with you I may modify it. Obviously this list is confined to movies I’ve seen.
Without further delay, here’s my list of the scariest movies ever made:
10. "THE INNOCENTS"
Directed by Jack Clayton, starring Deborah Kerr, released in 1961
Plot synopsis: A governess is hired to care for two children at an English country estate. Over time she believes the children are being manipulated by the spirits of the former governess and the valet, who were involved in a relationship. She forces the children to confront their possessors with dire results.
Modern audiences would not appreciate the subtle storytelling of “The Innocents” but it is a masterpiece of suggestion that builds its terror upon a languid unfolding of events. Based on the novel “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James, “The Innocents” evokes a period in England when the aristocracy adhered to rigid social and moral protocols, all of which come unraveled as the truth reveals itself. Cinematography is, as the British would say, spot on as Clayton uses distance and shadow to hint at the presence of ghosts.
Most terrifying scene: Kerr looks across a lake on a gloomy, drizzly afternoon and sees a woman dressed much as herself standing in the bullrushes, staring at young Flora.
Creeps rating: 7 (on a scale of 1-10)
9. "THE HAUNTING"
Directed by Robert Wise, starring Julie Harris, released in 1963
Plot synopsis: A timid and repressed woman who spent the prime of her youth caring for an ailing and demanding mother receives an invitation to investigate a haunted house. Uncharacteristically she accepts and is immersed in a world that both repels and appeals to her as the house seems to choose her over the others as the focus of its malevolent interest.
Hill House, the 19th century mansion alleged to be haunted, becomes an avatar for evil as an innocent and regret-filled Nell, played by Harris, seeks an adventure that will bring meaning to her drab life and Hill House provides that adventure, though not in the way Nell expected. Based on the Shirley Jackson novel “The Haunting of Hill House,” “The Haunting” never once shows the evil face of Hill House and accomplishes its scares through odd sounds, dark shadows and Nell’s internal monologue. Modern directors could take a lesson from what Wise accomplished – again through the power of suggestion.
Most terrifying scene: Nell and Theo are huddling in their bed as something monstrous smashes against their bedroom door.
Catch phrase: You may not believe in ghosts but you cannot deny terror.
Creeps rating: 8
8. "THE RING"
Directed by Gore Verbinski, starring Naomi Watts, released in 2002
Plot synopsis: When her niece dies under mysterious circumstances, Rachel must track down a video said to possess the ability to summon the murdering spirit of a little girl. That leads to the discovery of a horrible family secret long thought to be sealed in an old well.
While “The Ring” seems preoccupied with ghosts and murder mysteries the real villain is technology. A videotape reveals the horrible thing that happened to a little girl on the family’s farm. A message of death arrives via telephone. Even the answering machine isn’t immune. And when the girl arrives – it’s through the television. Based on the novel “Ringu” by Koji Suzuki and the movie “Ringu” directed by Hideo Nakata, “The Ring” reminds us that while technology can be useful and fun, it can also become the instrument of our death.
Most terrifying scene: Rachel’s ex, Noah, has been trying to determine the origins of the videotape when the little girl, Samara, crawls across the video landscape and through the TV screen, into Noah’s loft.
Catch phrase: Before you die, you see.
Creeps rating: 7
Directed by Steven Spielberg, starring Roy Scheider, released in 1975
Plot synopsis: A great white shark begins terrorizing a New England community called Amity. Local officials want the threat covered up for fear the tourists will stay away but the town’s new police chief, Martin Brody, is determined to warn people and destroy the shark.
“Jaws” sparked a national mania of shark phobia and the movie’s slogan, “Don’t go in the water,” became a catch phrase for any dangerous or terrifying experience. The shark became a symbol for that which cannot be seen and told us that despite humanity’s mastery of the planet, in some places we are not at the top of the food chain. Based on the Peter Benchley novel of the same name, “Jaws” also condemned government officials and businessmen who valued money over human life. To this day the musical score to “Jaws” is used to convey impending doom.
Most terrifying scene: Martin Brody is leaning on the transom of the boat, smoking a cigarette, when suddenly the shark appears and rears its head from the water.
Catch phrase: Don’t go in the water.
Creeps rating: 7
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Anthony Perkins, released in 1960
Plot synopsis: A young woman steals money from her employer and flees by car to meet up with her lover. She grows tired of driving and, caught in a storm, stops at the Bates Motel where she encounters the proprietor, a quiet young man who not only runs the motel but tends to his domineering mother. Later she discovers that things are not as they seem – horribly.
You wouldn’t think a movie could turn people off showers but that’s what happened in 1960 when “Psycho” was released. The movie came as a rude shock to film fans unaccustomed to unspeakably twisted characters fetched straight from the mental institution psychiatrist’s couch. Perkins’ manic evil and Hitchcock’s sly direction produced a movie that would live in our nightmares for a long time. Even the score, the cacophonic shrieking of the murder scene, remains planted in our collective consciousness.
Most terrifying scene: Marion Crane is taking a shower when a mysterious figure appears behind the curtain. The curtain is pulled back and a knife descends – repeatedly.
Creeps rating: 9
5. "THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE"
Directed by Tobe Hooper, starring Marilyn Burns, released in 1974
Plot synopsis: A group of young friends drives through the Texas wilds in their hippie van to visit grandfather’s old house. There they encounter a band of cannibals, including a vicious, mask-wearing hulk who goes after them with a sledge and a chainsaw.
Brutal violence and unrelenting terror mark “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” an independent horror film from director Hooper that slashed its way onto American movie screens in 1974. The film was shot on a $140,000 budget and took in $30 million at the box office despite being banned in several foreign countries. Jason, Michael and Freddy all owe their existence to “Chainsaw,” which pioneered the slasher genre, though by today’s standards the film is tame. Still, it made an impact, and that’s without the slick production values of a Hollywood movie. Audio levels are rough, seeming to change from scene to scene, and even the “color” of the movie shifts as if Hooper were scrounging for film stock (although this appears to have been mastered out of the DVD release). After “Chainsaw” it became impossible to drive through rural areas and not wonder what might be going on behind the quiet doors of the quiet houses on the distant hills.
Most terrifying scene: Sally is trying to help her wheelchair-bound brother when suddenly Leatherface appears and revs his chainsaw.
Catch phrase: Who will survive and what will be left of them?
Creeps rating: 10
Directed by John Carpenter, starring Jamie Lee Curtis, released in 1978
Plot synopsis: On Halloween night in 1963 young Michael Meyers catches his teenaged sister having sex with her boyfriend. Enraged, he stabs her to death. Michael is institutionalized until the night before Halloween in 1978 when he escapes the asylum and returns to Haddonfield to resume his murderous rampage. There he finds Laurie Strode, who looks like a good surrogate for his sister. But first he must do away with her circle of friends.
Audiences ran screaming from theaters in 1978 when “Halloween” was released. Filmed on a $320,000 budget, the movie grossed $60 million worldwide and advanced the agenda of horror moviemaking’s revenge slasher. Its allegorical implications were obvious: Teens who have sex die, as did Michael’s sister and Laurie’s promiscuous friends. Laurie herself, who doesn’t date, dresses conservatively and quakes at the thought of attending a dance with good-looking Ben, rises above her tormenter. Like “Jaws” and “Psycho,” “Halloween” featured a musical score – written by Carpenter himself – that continues to suggest menace.
Most terrifying scene: Lynda is lying in bed, waiting for Bob, her boyfriend, to return with a beer. They’ve just had sex. A figure with a sheet appears in the doorway and Lynda assumes it’s Bob, pretending to be a ghost. It’s not.
Catch phrase: The night HE came home!
Creeps rating: 9
3. "THE EXORCIST"
Directed by William Friedkin, starring Linda Blair, released in 1973
Plot synopsis: An actress and single mom living in a Washington, D.C., suburb begins to fear for her daughter’s soul after weird events take place and the girl’s behavior becomes unmanageable. She turns to the Catholic Church for help and two priests are dispatched, a younger man who questions his faith and an older priest who knows exactly what they are facing.
Based on the William Peter Blatty novel of the same name, “The Exorcist” unleashed a wave of religious fervor and demonic terror in the United States when it was released in the early ’70s. Its message – that the devil was not a concept but a real embodiment of evil – compelled doubters to seek the comfort of the church, no doubt equally compelled by the film’s apparent message that mainstream America’s gradual rejection of traditional values would tip the balance in the war between good and evil. Shocking special effects coupled with a raw, visceral script produced a film many people consider to be the scariest of all time. Who can forget little Regan’s head spinning around or the puke flying?
Most terrifying scene: Regan vomits green goo into the face of a priest.
Creeps rating: 9
2. "NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD"
Directed by George Romero, starring Duane Jones, released in 1968
Plot synopsis: A space probe returning to Earth brings with it a form of radiation that causes the dead to come back to life and seek human flesh. A woman and her brother are visiting their father’s grave when they are attacked by one of the dead. The woman escapes and flees to a farmhouse, where she finds other survivors hiding. Together they must defend themselves from the hordes of zombies descending on the house.
“Night of the Living Dead” is another of the low-budget, black-and-white horror movies that struggled for distribution and eventually achieved cult status. Shot for a mere $112,000 it has grossed over $30 million worldwide and has been admitted to the National Film Registry. Its unvarnished brutality and gore was criticized as an attack on the Vietnam War, but today it better serves as an allegory for the zombification of Americans through our infatuation with consumerism and mass media. Whatever the case, “Night of the Living Dead” horrified moviegoers with scenes of the walking dead munching on intestines and blasé sheriff’s deputies shooting zombies in the head. It has become a Halloween staple and solidified Romero’s title as King of the Zombies.
Most terrifying scene: A little girl, Karen, has died of a zombie bite. She reawakens and comes after her mother with a cement trowel.
Creeps rating: 10
Directed by Ridley Scott, starring Sigourney Weaver, released in 1979
Plot synopsis: A commercial freighter sets down on an alien planet after receiving an unknown transmission. There they find a derelict spaceship and something else, row upon row of what appear to be eggs. Something explodes from one of the eggs and infects a crewmember, who is brought back to the freighter for medical treatment. Later an alien hatchling emerges from the crewmember’s body and begins to prey on the remaining crew.
Few movies can match “Alien” for its unrelenting tension. From the moment the Nostromo shuttle sets down on LB426 events proceed from bad to worse, then worse, then worse again. From a storytelling perspective alone “Alien” is a masterpiece. But it is also one of those rare films where every part is executed to near perfection, from the script to the cinematography to the musical score. Scott creates a gritty, sweaty, claustrophobic world aboard the Nostromo, one where human lives are subordinate to corporate greed. Conversations overlap one another, technology fails, darkness settles in and guess what? Something is out there. “Alien” may be set on a spaceship but it is a horror movie through and through. When you are alone in the dark, and you hear a strange sound, your instinct is to ask, “Who’s there?” Most really scary movies force you to ask that question. “Alien” provides a most unpleasant reply.
Most terrifying scene: Kane is enjoying a meal after being released by the face-hugger. Suddenly he begins to convulse and a sinister, reptilian creature bursts from his chest.
Catch phrase: In space, no one can hear you scream.
Creeps rating: 10