Guess what: it’s still Halloween! And to get into the spirit of my favorite holiday, I’ve been revisiting some of the films that I personally have found to be the scariest movies I’ve ever seen. I’ve compiled a list of the eight horror films that have been the most effective in absolutely terrifying me. Read about my experiences with cinematic terror below, and I encourage you to comment and tell me about your own as well.
THE EVIL DEAD (1981, DIR. SAM RAIMI)
It wouldn’t be fair to say my brain wasn’t warped before I saw The Evil Dead as a teenager. I hadn’t been brave enough to face a real horror film prior to it, but as a kid, I had been fixated with the direct-to-video Moonbeam Features, Full Moon’s foray into the world of kid’s films. I had been primed as a child for what was to come. After a viewing of Silence of the Lambs in a high school class, something had awakened in me. I wanted to watch horror. I wanted to be scared. And my first instinct was to hunt down that notorious title I had heard whispers of from those who already knew the genre: The Evil Dead.
It was everything I had been promised. Frenetic, cartoonish, and gory in a way I had never seen before. People morphed and melted into disgusting puddles of mush; inhuman, gross, and indescribable. We’ve all seen it now, and it’s been raved about to the point at which there’s not much left to say. For a fourteen year old girl, being exposed to the deadites for the first time was life-changing and absolutely terrifying. It made a deep, lasting impression on me. My mind opened up to the possibilities of cinema and of nightmares. You didn’t need plentiful locations, characters, and dialogue to make a film that was interesting to watch. You needed energy and gore. And I didn’t sleep that night, and when I finally could, I didn’t turn off the lights for many nights.
Yes. I was a wimp for my age.
DEADGIRL (2008, DIR. MARCEL SARMIENTO AND GADI HAREL)
After kicking off this list with the first real fright that hooked me on horror, I’m following it up with the most recent film that legitimately frightened me to sleeplessness. Deadgirl is sadistic, depraved, and worst of all, a reflection of a real aspect of humanity. The most cynical and frightening interpretation of this film is the beautiful, naked, chained-up and undead woman acts as a tangible symbol of female objectification, who is raped and abused by a group of young men lacking the empathy to see her as real. The least pessimistic way of seeing Deadgirl is as a story about the lengths young, bored, and frustrated boys will go for thrill-seeking. It’s still awful. JT (Noah Segan) may be the most upsetting character, as the ringleader who pushes and manipulates others to join him, but by the end, any ounce of redemption his partner-in-crime Rickie (Shiloh Fernadnez) has gained dissipates in his complete failure to do the right thing.
Being a young woman, there are certain fears that are ingrained in me that this film taps into. There is a generational level to it as well; I am watching a current story about a group of people close to my age. I see things mirrored in their behavior that I’ve recognized in real life, and it scares me. Deadgirl basically hit every button it needed to terrify me.
THE ENTITY (1982, DIR. SIDNEY J. FURIE)
The Entity is a supernatural story, following a woman (Barbara Hershey) who is being randomly physically and sexually assaulted by a ghost. The logline “woman is raped by ghost” might sound giggle-worthy due to its ridiculousness right off the bat, but it’s difficult to derive much amusement from this film. The reason I’m frightened by The Entity ties in to much of the logic behind why I am so upset by Deadgirl, powerlessness and the real life fear of violent sexual acts against women. The Entity brings in a new level of not only the unknown, but the unseen and completely unstoppable. Where the villains in Deadgirl are faulted by their humanity, until discoveries are made about the malevolent spirit in this film towards the ending (which I must admit, I still haven’t made it to), there’s nothing that can be known or done. There’s no reason behind it, and because of this, it’s extraordinarily frightening.
THE EXORCIST (1973, DIR. WILLIAM FRIEDKIN)
The Exorcist is possibly the most commonly cited scariest film of all time, and this is for good reason. I watched this film young as well, right around the time I was dipping my toes into the bloody body of water that is horror film. I couldn’t sleep. I was too frightened to be alone. I was haunted by images of Regan’s contorted body; chilled to the bone at the notion of losing control, or encountering another child who had lost control of themselves in the way this girl had. I didn’t have the religious background to put the fear of the devil in me while I watched, but I understood the horror I was witnessing. Friedkin paints his films like sadistic works of art, correlating colors and images to register on your psyche, from Regan’s green vomit to the flashing demonic faces. It’s still as horrifying as ever, as a result of the true brilliance from those who crafted it.
THE THING (1982, DIR. JOHN CARPENTER)
Carpenter’s name is synonymous with genre; he’s an auteuristic master of it. Although Halloween (1978) was ground-breaking and paved the way for most of the slasher films to follow it, Carpenter achieved genre perfection in The Thing. The all male cast, led by a handsome as hell Kurt Russell, is isolated in the Arctic, knowing they’ve been infiltrated by some camouflaged creature, not knowing who is still themselves and who is not.
It’s strange to think that upon its release, audiences reacted poorly. Its mixing of science fiction, horror, and psychological terror is an ideal cocktail, and I personally see this film as the peak of special effects. Rob Bottin’s creations are a surreal mash-up of organisms that spring to life at the most tense moments, when the paranoia has finally reached its peak and you are expecting and waiting for the worst, clueless as to what direction it will come from. The timing in The Thing is so well calculated, ever after having watched it again and again, I’m still startled.
PULSE (2001, DIR. KIYOSHI KUROSAWA)
A lot of really great films came into the collective knowledge of genre buffs during the Asian horror boom that occurred in the early naughts. Everyone always focuses on Takashi Miike’s Audition (2001), Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-on: The Grudge (2002), and my personal favorite, Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (1998). Watch any film by any of those directors. Seriously. Aside from the clear cultural difference from Western horror, there was a specific thematic tone that these films emanated that was unique and I believe the thing that made them so scary. There wasn’t anything else like them. Plenty of remakes attempted to capture it, but none were ever as effective as the originals. And the most effective of all, in my opinion, was Pulse.
We honestly could just call this list item “Any Horror Film By Kiyoshi Kurosawa,” but I’m going to opt to name Pulse, as it’s the first I saw, and probably the eeriest, with Cure coming in at a close second. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s films exist in a strange ambient realm that’s difficult to take in as a viewer. They are slow, claustrophobic, and dripping with atmosphere. The universe in which they occur barely makes sense, it’s slightly off, shifting the movies into an off-putting middle ground of the unreal mimicking reality. Images are difficult to comprehend. You watch the corners of the screen, frightened of the empty space. It’s dread at its finest.
There was a point in my first viewing of Pulse in which I was so frightened, I hid from my own television, behind a couch. Just sayin’.
S&MAN (2006, DIR. JT PETTY)
By 2007, with the help of Fangoria and a few creepy internet forums, I had reached the status of a full-fledged gore-hound. My bootleg collection had everything — Nekromantik 1 (1987) & 2 (1991), The Burning Moon (1997), August Underground (2001) and its sequels, the Guinea Pig films (’85 – ’89), and even Hardgore (1976) (please don’t judge me if you know it, or look it up if you don’t. Just read the title and know, it’s real bad). I was a top-notch sicko, with one extremely important rule: nothing real. I watched the most vile and depraved things I could get my hands on, but I was only comfortable if I knew that at the end, everyone was ok. I was living in Philly, and when I noticed S&Man (pronounced ‘sandman’) in the Philadelphia Film Festival guide that year, I was immediately sold on it. A documentary about the underground horror scene and gore films? Perfect, someone has made a movie about me! I had no idea what I was in for. Soon S&Man had reduced me to a deer in the headlights, paralyzed with dread. It played directly into my biggest fear on the subject: being swindled into deriving enjoyment from the torture, or even the murder, of another person. I was so caught up in S&Man, logic went out the window.
It’s hard to discuss this film with someone who hasn’t seen it. The best way to experience S&Man is blindly and accidentally, and if the current catches you, you’re fucked. JT Petty has a knack for manipulating genre unlike any other current filmmaker, and he’s proven it with this docu-horror and his awesome horror-western The Burrowers. Even if it will be near impossible for S&Man to affect you the way it did me, it’s still a fascinating experimental portrait of a dark and bizarre little culture, and definitely worth checking out.
CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980, DIR. RUGGERO DEODATO)
My inclusion of Cannibal Holocaust on this list represents an entire subgenre of shock cinema that I just cannot brave; being the Faces of Death films, Traces of Death (1993), Savage Man Savage Beast (1975), and kin. The mondo documentary. I have written extensively on the topic in unpublished papers and unappreciated college essays, and to all those professors who asked me to cut it out and write about more respectable topics like Citizen Kane and the French new wave, suck it! I’ll never stop!
Although Cannibal Holocaust is somewhat far from these films as it has an actual narrative and is mostly fabricated, (animal slayings aside,) unlike the others, I’ve actually seen Cannibal Holocaust. And it bothered me terribly. I was in and out of the theater, white-faced and nauseated, sitting in the hallway and just trying to catch my breath. I just don’t want to see real things, and the question of whether or not they actually are real is going to upset me. The current interpretation of the “Found Footage” film is a joke compared to this stuff, passive and tamed, like a children’s roller coaster in which you sit inside of a ladybug with human eyes and a mouth. Cannibal Holocaust is one of those big metal ones where your feet hang down, and Savage Man Savage Beast is a 30 year old wooden roller coaster that hasn’t passed inspection.