Michael Myers. Freddie Krueger. Jason Vorhees. The Blair Witch.
This Halloween, the new king (or queen) of fright will be crowned.
The criteria for what makes one movie scarier than another is different for everyone. For this list, the films will be chosen and judged by the “what if” experience.
What if a murderer dressed as his mother killed travellers who visited his tiny roadside motel? What if a schizophrenic man thought actual government implanted bugs were living under his skin. What if the devil inhabited the body of a little girl?
Essentially, this is my list. Yours might be different. But the motion pictures on this list are truly must-see films.
Here’s a list of the top five best scary movies in cinema history, starting with…
5) “Halloween” (1978)
Directed By John Carpenter
This is the original, not the 2007 update directed by Rob Zombie, although his version holds some merit because of his unique directing style.
Any worthwhile Halloween movie list must have “Halloween” on there somewhere.
The story takes place over one night – Halloween – as a masked lunatic, Michael Myers, escapes from an insane asylum in suburban Illinois and murders teenagers. His ultimate target is his own younger sister.
The music alone, scored by director John Carpenter, is one of the major standouts of this film. That simple, ringing piano sound is one of the all-time memorable movie standards, always copied, never duplicated.
Another notable piece to the “Halloween” puzzle is the introduction to the talents of Jamie Leigh Curtis, daughter of “Psycho” shower-scene star Vivien Leigh. In this brilliant piece of casting, Carpenter got a fresh face and wonderful young talent at the same time tipping his cap to his cinema icon Alfred Hitchcock. She went on to star in box office hits such as “True Lies” and the remake of “Freaky Friday.”
The movie also gave popular culture the Michael Myers mask. Legend has it that the limited-budgeted costume and wardrobe department scrambled to find a mask for the villain to wear. “Star Trek” was big at the time, and when a crew member came out of a local costume shop, he had a mask of William Shatner in his hand. They spray-painted the face all white and tussled the hair and the rest is history.
“Halloween” will not only scare you (the closet scene is THE scariest), but it will entertain even the most informed film critic. It’s genius filmmaking by one of horror’s greatest directors.
4) “Arachnophobia” (1990)
Directed by Frank Marshall
Hollywood has yet to make the quintessential fear of snakes movie, but with “Arachnophobia,” they hit the nail right on the head for all of those who fear spiders.
When this film hit theatres in the early nineties, it was billed as somewhat of a comedy, with John Goodman featured primarily in the trailers delivering punch-lines. But for moviegoers who can’t stand eight-legged creatures, this was as scary as it got.
“Arachnophobia” starts in the jungle where a scientist and colleague stumble upon a new species of deadly arachnid. It looks like a tarantula, but it’s bite is deadly. The colleague is bitten, dies, and his body returns to his small town in the States in a makeshift wooden coffin. What everyone in the doesn’t know or realize is that the furry little critter hid inside the box and travelled with the body.
When the spider arrives, she cross-breeds with a common house spider in the barn of the new big city transplant, Dr. Ross Jennings, played brilliantly by the underrated Jeff Daniels. Of course, Dr. Jennings has a deep-seeded fear of spiders stemming from his childhood run-in with the creature. Thousands of spiders take over the town, killing residents one by one in scary and inventive ways.
Two of the kill scenes involve popcorn and the simple act of putting on slippers.
After watching this, you’ll check your shoes and food (and everything else, really) for the spider that’s never there but always feared nonetheless.
3) “Se7en” (1995)
Directed by David Fincher
“Silence of the Lambs” laid the groundwork for psychological horror movies that can also be very artistic and actually great cinematic films. “Se7en” director David Fincher, working from a flawless script from Andrew Kevin Walker, picked up where Jonathon Demme left off in “Silence” and made quite possibly the darkest mainstream movie ever.
Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman star as detective partners trying to solve a serial killer case where the victims are being murdered because they’ve committed one of the seven deadly sins accordance with Dante’s “Inferno,” hence the title. The killer uses the crimes of pride, lust, gluttony, sloth, wrath, envy and greed in his method of dispatching the victims in gruesome ways.
“What’s in the box?” This is the last line Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt) screams at the killer. It’s the line that rings in your ears for days and weeks afterwards. It’s the most interesting and exciting and perverse endings to one of the greatest films ever.
The identity of the killer is revealed in the last few scenes. I’ll give you a hint — this actor is one of the best in the business, a multiple Academy Award winner who just nails this demented role.
The most gripping and intelligent scene takes place before the climax. In fact, it’s the preceeding scene where Mills, Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and the killer are driving in a police squad car to the supposed location of the last victim. It’s a charged scene with perfectly heavy dialogue. It’s the whole point of the movie. It’s where the actors (three all-time greats) are the complete personification of their characters.
Morgan Freeman turns in his one of his career-best performances, and the cast is rounded out Gwyneth Paltrow (who was Brad Pitt’s then real-life girlfriend) and the great R. Lee Ermey, who you might recognize from “Full Metal Jacket.”
You’ll enjoy the title sequence played to Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer,” which sets the creepy tone for the entire film.
When watching this picture, turn off the lights.
2) “Paranormal Activity” (2007)
Directed by Oren Peli
…on a budget of $11,000, and it went on to gross over $100 million in the US alone. Like the “Blair Witch Project,” this film benefits from the low budget and unknown actors.
Some film critics would balk at putting such a recent movie this high on an “all-time” list, but those old-fashioned rules shouldn’t (and don’t) apply to a list like this.
The plot of “Paranormal Activity” is a simple one. A young couple buys their dream home in the suburbs, and when they think their life is perfect, things go bump in the night. The movie is spliced together from footage from the couple’s home video camera. It’s grainy and shaky and poorly shot, but all on purpose. It’s meant to look like it’s spliced together from the footage captured by the weary couple who are just too freaked out do nothing. They set up the camera to film the spirit as it haunts them nightly.
The reason this film lands so high is because its realism. It looks and feels like it’s actually happening. We don’t know the actors, so we aren’t confused by their public personas or previous film roles. We just focus on the action happening.
The movie device of using a handheld camera that looks amateurish was used before “Paranormal Activity,” but no one has ever used it better.
Oren Peli uses simple special effects, but therein lies the creepiness. When ghosts supposedly haunt in real life, they do so subtly, according to their victims and witnesses. And that’s where Peli succeeds in this film. He draws out the inaction for so long and pays it off with a door slamming or a loud noise, and that’s it. He doesn’t apologize for it. He moves on the next scary scene which always tops the last, but by tiny increments to build tension.
It’s a deceptively well-directed motion picture that will keep you on your toes when you’re trying to fall asleep at night.
1) “Jaws” (1975)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
This is the Cayman Islands. We have sharks. They are usually diver friendly reef sharks or nurse sharks that pose no threat to swimmers and vacationers. Great White sharks normally prefer the cooler waters off the coast of South Africa and Southern California, but what if…? That’s ultimately what great horror films are: “what if” experiences.
When the film was first released, it sent panic into the hearts of all beach bums and surfers. People stayed out of the water in fear of being devoured by a 25-foot Great White. In reality, shark attacks are a very rare occurrence, and fatalities from shark attacks are even rarer. But, for a moment, let’s believe the hype like they did in 1975.
Police chief Martin Brody (played by the late, great Roy Scheider) moves his family to Amity Island off the coast of New England. He patrols the shores in the summer while the small town awaits the arrival of Fourth of July tourists. Then something starts attacking swimmers, prompting marine scientist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss in the role of his career) to come to the island to investigate. When they find out that it’s been a Great White shark that’s hunting people, fearless fisherman Sam Quint (Robert Shaw, who beautifully channels Captain Ahab and groans in his melodic Irish accent) sets off with Hooper and Brody to kill the beast because the town mayor refuses to close the beaches and lose money.
This film marked the introduction of the Hollywood blockbuster, the summer studio tent pole picture, the big-budget actioner that captivates all ages of audiences worldwide. It also turned Steven Spielberg into the king of Hollywood, sending him down a unprecedented path in Hollywood, and paved the way for filmmakers like James Cameron and Michael Bay to produce huge summer hits.
The brilliance of Spielberg’s direction in “Jaws” was a mistake. The mechanical shark, nicknamed “Bruce” after Spielberg’s attorney, gave the crew problems everyday of filming. It wouldn’t work properly underwater, where Spielberg originally intended to shoot. So, he was forced to shoot above the water. And it was this trick that spooked audiences so much.
The camera hovered just above the water level so the audience could just almost see what was happening under the water. It turned out what the audience didn’t see was scarier than the actual thing. Spielberg let the viewer’s imagination fill in the blanks, and he scored the biggest hit of his career (the film earned over $260 million in the US) that took him 18 years to top with 1993’s “Jurassic Park.”
The film has since become one of the classics. It turned 35 years-old this summer, but it’s not dated or old-fashioned in any way. It’s great cinema that is timeless.
And it earns Bruce the crown as king of fright for this Halloween season.
In case you’re wondering, I didn’t forget about these films, they just didn’t make the list, but are all incredible films that entertain and scare: “Psycho” (1960), “The Shining” (1980), “The Exorcist” (1973), “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974), “Bug” (2006), “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” (1986), “Carrie” (1976), “28 Days Later” (2002), “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991), “The Blair Witch Project” (1999).