With Halloween around the corner, our film panel celebrates the bone-chilling movies no mortal can resist.
Sissy Spacek is so blond and pale, the blood is so viscous and raw, the bullying is so gleeful and relevant, Piper Laurie is so insanely religious, Brian De Palma is so flamboyantly Hitchcockian, and, in the quiet wake of a fiery climax, that concluding shot is so devastatingly placed that it levitates entire audiences off their seats to first gasp, then shriek and finally laugh as one.
Don’t Look Now (1973)
In a genre that typically finds horror in familiar places, Nicolas Roeg’s unique (and uniquely affecting) film locates it somewhere completely new: in grief, in the accidental drowning death of a child. Sexually alive yet emotionally dormant, Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie are the stricken parents, and the city of Venice is a character unto itself – labyrinthine, watery, decadent, shaped by a past that has corroded into the present. This is pure atmospheric horror, dense and enveloping.
The Exorcist (1973)
It’s curious how such a load of Manichean malarkey still has the power to scare the bejabbers out of you. In William Friedkin’s hands, Catholicism and the Devil struggle for possession of Linda Blair’s callow soul. Setting aside the bed-rattling special effects, the fright factor is definitely enhanced by the casting of Max von Sydow as the exorcising cleric. We know him from all those dark nights of the soul in the Ingmar Bergman canon; hell, crucifix or not, Max will always be the high priest of doubt.
The Fly (1986)
David Cronenberg’s remake manages to mutate a mutation. He injects horror’s classic theme of bodily transformation with a dose of smarts that elevates the film intellectually even as it works on us viscerally. So, as Jeff Goldblum morphs into “Brundlefly,” our stomach sinks but not our mind. In fact, take away the plot machinery and what’s left is a mutating force no less scary for being so mundane – aging and death. Existence is the wanton boy and we’re just the fly he kills for his sport.
Let the Right One In (2008)
Children, vulnerable or villainous, are frequent visitors to the horror scene, but Tomas Alfredson ups the ante brilliantly here. In the dead of a Swedish winter, a bullied boy meets a vampiric girl, and the eerie yet poignant result is puppy love with a sharp set of teeth. Alfredson’s frames are composed even when we aren’t, and, in the end, two very different kids are left to face the same grownup question – how to survive in a brutal world without adding to its brutality.
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Black and white and proudly showing its expressionistic roots, Charles Laughton’s film (the only one he directed) oozes a palpable menace. That’s partly because children are the targets, and largely because Robert Mitchum is their stalker. With those infamous tattoos, LOVE and HATE, stenciled on both hands, he’s a serial killer cum self-anointed preacher, and the embodiment of a fact as embedded in history as it is in the genre – the frightful marriage of horror and religion.
By now, the film has met its own horrible fate – cineastes have analyzed every single frame to death. Of course, on Hitchcock’s meticulous story-boards, every single frame does have a purpose, and none more than in the shower scene. The stark close-ups, the electric editing, the Bernard Herrmann score, the baptismal waters that cannot cleanse – no wonder that scene impaired the daily hygiene of an entire generation, and remains infinitely more gripping than all the slasher flicks it inspired.
Around her London is swinging, but Catherine Deneuve’s tortured mind is just plunging: Isolated and entrenched, she’s in freefall toward madness. No director is better with confined settings (a dominant horror trope) than Roman Polanski, and, here, Deneuve’s apartment becomes a creepy correlative of her disintegrating psyche – the real bleeds into the surreal, the walls pulse like a head’s throbbing ache. And that final close-up, a literal snapshot of trammeled innocence, my how it lingers.
As a symbol of ruinous contagion, the A-bomb has lent its metaphoric presence to countless horror flicks. But in Mick Jackson’s film, made for the BBC, the bomb is real and so are its consequences. In this hugely disturbing document of the seconds, days, months after a nuclear war, it’s the accumulation of horrific detail that appalls and truly scares us – not just the putrefying bodies but the severing of civilization’s entire network, modern man trapped in modernity’s ashes.
The Virgin Spring (1960)
Ingmar Bergman returns to the gloomy Middle Ages, but here the allegory of The Seventh Seal gives way to something much more earthy and far more unsettling. By turns vicious and serene, the film is an extended battleground where the sacred competes with the profane, quiet innocence with brutal violence, acquired faith with innate savagery, and, yes, a vengeful Max von Sydow with the angels of his better nature.
Rick Groen is a film critic for The Globe and Mail and is scared by antic persons with dead eyes, the shuttered windows of their writhing souls. Oh, and snakes, especially live ones. Most especially live ones with dead eyes.
A scene from Repulsion
The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
Guillermo del Toro has made a lot of movies, but The Devil’s Backbone is his Spanish-language masterpiece that seems to wrap his extensive imagination into a very moving and frightening cinematic poem. If I ever make a film like this, I will die happy.
The Exorcist (1973)
Universally hailed as the scariest movie of all time, and for good reason: It’s terrifying. It also boasts jolts far ahead of their time. Case in point: Would Hollywood studios today consider financing a film that features a demon-possessed 12-year-old girl masturbating with a crucifix? After almost 40 years, The Exorcist still resonates with a strange power both spiritual and secular.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
John McNaughton’s unsettling pseudo-biopic on Henry Lee Lucas remains a shocking portrayal of a week in the life of a serial killer. The film anticipated a grim new turn for the horror genre when it was made; 20 years later it remains a terrifying look into the mind of an urban prowler.
Ichi the Killer (2001)
The movie that made Japanese director Takashi Miike one of the most interesting people working at the fringes of extreme cinema, Ichi the Killer is an opera of violence that somehow manages to infuse its sadistic flourishes with depth of character and psychological insight. It embodies the spirit of cult cinema, punishing the eye with arterial sprays, severed limbs, complete vivisection and rooms so filled with blood that it literally rains from the ceiling!
The Manson Family (2003)
Fifteen years in the making, The Manson Family is underground cult filmmaker Jim Van Bebber’s kaleidoscopic, postmodern mocku-horror on the events leading up to the infamous “Helter Skelter” murders that ended the hippie era in a shower of blood. The film chronicles the evolution of Charles Manson from hippie guru to murderous paranoiac and dares to include a virtually unwatchable recreation of the killings.
The Mothman Prophecies (2002)
When it came out 10 years ago, The Mothman Prophecies was dismissed as a glorified episode of The X-Files, but today it survives as a mature horror movie – frightening, unsettling and displaying a remarkable insight into the psychology of grief. Dare to watch this alone at night.
If a child’s storybook were turned into a horror movie, Paperhouse would be the result. This little-known British offering opens the doors into a child’s psyche as she faces paternal fear, abandonment issues and anxieties about growing up. Presented in the language of daydreams and nighttime terrors, it manages to scare in a way that reminds us that we all were once frightened children.
The Reflecting Skin (1990)
This unsettling cult film winked in and out of theatres back in 1990 before fading into seeming obscurity. The Reflecting Skin is a look at prairie-life weirdness shot from the perspective of its eight-year-old protagonist, who watches his father commit suicide, his mother go mad, and adopts an aborted fetus whom he mistakes for a fallen angel. Features a then-unknown Viggo Mortensen.
Santa Sangre (1989)
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s only horror film was inspired by the life of a Mexican serial killer who murdered countless women, was tried and incarcerated, and eventually released only to marry into a life of rehabilitated bliss. In Jodorowsky’s hands, the film incorporates a heretical church of blood worship and a boy who literally becomes the arms of his armless mother and seeks revenge on those who would threaten their uncanny relationship. Bizarre, poetic and engulfed in mysticism, the film is the essence of cult horror.
Witchfinder General (1968)
Vincent Price plays Matthew Hopkins, who once led a bloody witch hunt across 17th-century, civil-war-torn England. Alternately titled The Conqueror Worm to cash in on director Roger Corman’s association with Edgar Allan Poe, it is Price’s portrayal of pathological cruelty veiled in religious mania that gives the film its power.
Rodrigo Gudiño is a filmmaker and publisher of Rue Morgue magazine. He is scared and freaked-out in equal measure by people who don’t “get” Halloween.
A scene from Repulsion
Cat’s Eye (1985)
Encompassing three Stephen King horror stories, Cat’s Eye culminates with the battle of an evil, wall-dwelling troll who steals the breath of little children – particularly a 10-year-old Drew Barrymore – and the telepathic cat trying to save her. For some ungodly reason, my babysitter let me watch this as an eight-year-old girl and for years afterward, I slept face down in the pillow, so the baseboard troll could not steal my breath.
Child’s Play (1988)
Yes, the movie about a doll that housed the soul of a serial killer. All Chucky sequels were laughable, thankfully, because I don’t think I could’ve handled another film as terrorizing as the original. I remember screaming when the batteries fall from the toy box, even though I knew all along the killer doll was alive. I never looked at a plastic smiling face the same way again.
Cloverfield is so terrifying exactly because there is no visible villain. The film tells the story of five friends reacting to some awful, horrendous, monstrous attacker. We’re right there with them, running in the subway tunnels. There’s no rewarding end, either: It’s a sad, disturbing love story. I didn’t speak for hours after watching.
Halloween 2 (1981)
I wrestle with which Halloween to mention here (except for the third, which totally jumped the shark) because they all terrorized my high-school soul. The second in the series gets the nod, though – I dare you to walk down an empty hospital corridor after watching this.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
After watching Freddy Krueger murder his victims in their dreams, I literally stayed awake for days. Wes Craven’s slasher film was unique in that this villain wears no mask, and he speaks – making him a little more real and a lot more terrorizing. What’s worse: There’s no escaping this guy! Everyone has to sleep at some point.
Made more than two decades before I was born, Psycho didn’t seem all that daunting to me. I remember my mom telling me Psycho was the scariest movie she’d ever seen – how scary can black and white get? I watched it alone, white knuckled. I think about this movie every single time I shower, even 15 years later.
The Ring (2002)
The concept that watching a video will kill you isn’t overly original or disturbing. But this isn’t about shadowy figures or attackers jumping out from behind trees – the creep factor, between the cinematography and off-kilter visuals (remember the hair brushing?) is off the charts. I will never watch it again.
The premise was almost trite – a group of horror-movie-loving kids eye-roll and sigh at a masked villain they think is pulling a prank, until he sticks them with a butcher knife. Sounds predictable and silly – until the opening scene rolls, and an innocent girl is bleeding from her throat on her front lawn, unable to yell for her parents for help. This was the teen horror movie of my generation – I still bolt every time I see someone out for Halloween as “ghost face.”
I get a lot of flak for putting Seven in the horror-movie genre, but I maintain that it’s the scariest movie ever made for one reason: Kevin Spacey’s turn as the mild-mannered killer. Seven took me deep into the mind of a disturbed, very real, murderous man, and it doesn’t get any scarier than that.
28 Days Later (2002)
Some might call this a rip-off of all the post-apocalyptic zombie movies that came before it: I’d argue it’s the perfect homage. This is a zombie attack movie that’s terrifying in its realism, and is a smart, modern take that examines the politics of survival, all while scaring your pants off.
Amberly McAteer is an online editor in the Features department at The Globe. She has irrational fears of porcelain dolls, celery and dragonflies.
A scene from Repulsion
Carnival of Souls (1962)
This little movie, made by a five-person crew over three weeks for $17,000, is proof the most unnerving films come from the unlikeliest places. Writer-director Herk Harvey was an employee of an industrial film production company. One day, driving past an amusement park, he got an idea for a movie about a woman who drives off a bridge and later turns up back in town alive. But is she?
Cat People (1942)
Filmed in 2-1/2 weeks for a budget of about $150,000 (U.S.), Jacques Tourneur’s B-movie masterpiece is a triumph of understated creepiness and suggested menace. The story of a Serbian woman who fears she will succumb to an ancient curse and transform into a man-eating panther, Cat People was made on such a low budget Tourneur was forced to generate maximum tension with minimal means. The result gave the movie at least nine new lives.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
When relative newcomer John McNaughton was contracted to make a cheap grindhouse screamer, he quickly decided two things: He didn’t have enough money to make a monster movie, and no monsters were scarier than real-life serial killers anyway. Inspired by the then-recent confessions of the killer drifter Henry Lee Lucas, McNaughton’s movie is chilling less for its actual violence than for its utterly detached tone.
I Spit on Your Grave (1978)
Meir Zarchi’s relentless movie about a writer who systematically tracks down and kills the yokel yahoos who tortured and raped her is one of the most debated horror movies. Is it a feminist, pulp revenge fantasy? Or it is a regressive, voyeuristic sex fantasy? Can it be both? By never telling you its intentions directly, it strands you in the woods with your own responses.
Let the Right One In (2008)
Tomas Alfredson’s superbly creepy story about a neglected boy (Kare Hedebrant) and his weirdly nocturnal next-door playmate (Lina Leandersson) played to the lonely kid in all of us, while at the same time teasing out our inner vigilantes and leaving us to feel ambivalent about our own taste for blood. Which is to say this movie functions on about three levels at once – at least two of them under the skin.
This creepy, unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula combines high German Expressionism with evocatively shot direction to create a movie that feels like it’s unfolding in someone’s nightmares – ours. Although the mantis-like Count Orlok is on screen for less than 10 minutes, his shadow stretches over the entire film, and over every vampire movie made since.
Peeping Tom (1960)
This was made the same year as Psycho – but where Hitchcock’s movie played like a horror-house thrill ride, Michael Powell’s British-made account of a man (Karlheinz Bohm) who killed his victims while filming them crossed a line. Banned for years, it now has the status of a towering dark-side classic. There’s no watching it without feeling implicated, and therein lies the real horror.
Roman Polanski’s film is the story of a disturbed French manicurist who succumbs to full-blown delusional psychosis when left alone for a few days. By letting the movie unfold from her point of view, Polanski put us inside the head of someone whose reality was cracking just like the walls of her apartment.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Tobe Hooper’s brutally effective low-budget shocker is about what happens when a van-load of hippies goes a-knocking on the door of a guy who is waiting on the other side with a sledge-hammer, a mask made of human flesh and a chainsaw. The night I saw it at a drive-in, nobody dared leave the car.
The Thing (1982)
For my money this is John Carpenter’s masterpiece, a remake of 1951’s Thing from Another World that reformulated Alien as an Antarctic-substation-set screw-tightener in which a mutating alien killer moves from one terrified victim to another. The sense of isolation and helplessness is palpable.
Geoff Pevere writes The Globe’s weekly Film Geek column. Among the things he is most afraid of are <QL>high-school reunions, reality television and <QL>feel-good romances.
A scene from Repulsion
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
All horror movies are about the horrors of the human body – its betrayals, frailties, breakdowns – and werewolf movies especially are metaphors for adolescence (all that moonlight energy, all that sprouting hair). So every teenager must have her werewolf movie, and this one was mine. The story of two American backpackers, the wolf that attacks them and the Brits who dismiss them, is sexy, cheeky fun, with a soundtrack that injects “moon” songs at just the right moment.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
A lurid, gothic, swooping, slithering, lightning-flashing, windowpane-rattling thrill ride – and I’m just talking about Gary Oldman. He’s the kind of (decidedly unchaste) Count who would crush the Twilight and True Blood vampires just because they annoyed him. Oldman may never see the sun, but everyone else pales beside the way he licks that knife.
Okay: I was 14, Sissy Spacek got her period in the gym showers, and everyone made fun of her, but she had telekinetic powers, and boy, did her tormentors pay – what’s not to like? The filth-obsessed mother spouting religious nonsense, the good popular kids and the bad popular kids, the hell-rains-down climax – at the prom? Come on! And then just when you think it’s over, director Brian De Palma jumps you with one of the best-ever scare shots in moviedom, and sends you shaking into the night.
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
“Why do they come here?” one of the few still-living humans asks a friend, as they survey a crowd of putrefying zombies lurching their way through a shopping mall. “This must have been an important place in their lives,” the friend answers, deadpan. Twenty-four-hour television viewing, mass conspicuous consuming, chain stores and fast-food culture were still pretty nascent in ’78, but in setting this sequel smack in the middle of them, director George Romero proved he had North America’s number. We keep proving him right.
I don’t normally like “girl in peril” movies, but the girl here is Jamie Lee Curtis, and it was clear that, even at 18, she could hold her own. The killer-in-a-mask idea was brand new. The body count was low, but the suspense was wound tight. In short, it was horror heaven. The scene where Curtis stands in a doorway, gasping for breath, as behind her, the killer slowly sits up and pulls the knitting needles out of his neck, remains one of my most pulse-pounding scream-at-the-screen memories.
Let the Right One In (2008)
The Swedish original is the first horror film I’ve liked in decades. I was dazzled by the chilly whiteness of the ice and snow, and by all that’s unsaid and left for us to infer about how this girl vampire chooses, uses and makes loyal her human companions. The climax in the pool, shot mostly in silence and underwater, is a triumph of terrifying spareness.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
This is a “freaked-out by pregnancy” movie, an “I don’t know my husband” movie and a “don’t trust your neighbours” movie, shot in the kind of claustrophobic doorways and looming corridors that only Roman Polanski can deliver. You can taste Mia Farrow’s gnawing panic and clammy helplessness at the back of your throat, and when she gives way, it’s not the devil worship that’s scary – it’s the realization that there are people who feel not only free, but entitled, to make decisions, and run your life, for you.
The Shining (1980)
This is hands-down the sleekest, most elegant, most hair-raising horror movie I know. I still remember the original trailer – hotel elevator doors open and enough blood gushes out to move the lobby furniture – and it still freaks me out. The film pushes every one of my buttons: isolated location, spooky kid, writer going crazy and intimations of unlimited menace. Admittedly, the climax is weak, but until then Stanley Kubrick spares us nothing.
The Stepfather (1987)
To me, there’s nothing more frightening than the twin ideas that people are capable of anything, and that we can’t ever really know anyone, even those closest to us, and this movie personifies that. Terry O’Quinn is alarming as the blandly “ordinary” guy whose pursuit of the perfect family takes murderous turns. I also have a soft spot for it because my husband and I used to scare each other by adopting O’Quinn’s blank affect, which once ended up with him wearing a chicken mask and me crouching behind a chair, shrieking. But that’s probably too much information.
The Stepford Wives (1975)
If you don’t think this is a horror movie, then you weren’t a 13-year-old girl growing up with a single mother in small-town Pennsylvania. The idea of a closed society reacting to social upheaval by turning feisty women into lobotomized automatons did not seem that far-fetched, and the fact that they (spoiler alert!) got Katharine Ross in the end made it that much more chillingly believable. The greatest monsters are always ourselves.
Johanna Schneller writes The Globe’s weekly Fame Game column and fears that nightmare where you’re being chased and you can’t elude your pursuer even though you’re running and running and still somehow he’s getting closer and closer and –
A scene from Werewolf in London
We asked readers to share their favourite horror movies. These are some of the responses:
Event Horizon: I didn’t sleep with the light off for a week. – Shelley Caffatos
The Omen series: Seeing the lifeless eyes of Damien as he took the lives of those around him has forever haunted me. The scene on the ice in Omen II where the man falls through the ice and is frantically looking for an opening has made me terrified of iced lakes ever since. – Stacey Gillis
The Haunting of Hill House: Imagine that you are scared to be alone, and the four walls that surround you are the reason why! That house really did want her. – Cynthia Lang
Eraserhead: This David Lynch is the only movie that ever scared me. I thought I’d died and gone to Hell the first time I saw it. – Christopher MacMillan
The 2005 remake of the Amityville Horror: Every time I see that movie I cower like a toddler in the corner. Maybe it’s because Ryan Reynolds is playing a possessed family man, and I’m torn between hating him, and really enjoying when he chops logs.– Kristen de Saldanha
A scene from Werewolf in London