Listmania: Top 20 Scariest Films (#10-1)

In pop culture, lists are everything. They lend a sense of order to an otherwise orderless world. From film and literature to music, critics and readers alike love to put things in tidy rows. It is with this in mind that Popdose presents Listmania, a weekly series counting down the staff’s favorite things.

Be it zombies, vampires, ghosts, goblins or ghouls, everyone has specific fear triggers. For some of us it’s murderous dolls; others prefer the supernatural, either way most of us love a good scare. It was with this in mind that we asked the staff to list the twenty films that scared the living daylights out of them. We chopped, sliced and diced the results and came up with the twenty most terrifying moments in cinematic history, at least according to frightened masses at Popdose.

And if that isn’t scary enough, the good folks at Warner Bros. have a treat for one lucky reader: a free iTunes download of the Director’s Cut of The Exorcist, featuring never seen before behind the scenes footage and interviews with director William Friedkin, actress Linda Blair and author/screenwriter/producer William Peter Blatt. All you have to do to enter is send an e-mail to Jason with the subject “My Best Recipe for Pea Soup!” All entries must be received before midnight, October 29. The winner will be selected randomly and notified by e-mail.

If you missed the first half of the list, you can catch up here:
Popdose Listmania: Top 20 Scariest Films (20-11)

So go ahead, pop the no-doze, and whatever you do: don’t fall asleep…

10. The Amityville Horror
(1979, dir. Stuart Rosenberg)
The key element that makes The Amityville Horror such a headtrip is not any particular part of the story, in truth a standard haunted house tale. Starring James Brolin and Margot Kidder as that terrorized Mr. and Mrs. Lutz, and Rod Steiger in typical shingle-munching fashion as the priest who comes to bless the bad spirits away, the thing that keeps nagging the viewer’s mind is the legend that the story was “based on true events.”

Based on the book by Jay Anson, the facts of the story have been whittled away over the years as so much “truthiness” and not so much verifiable fact of occurrence. While you’re watching, however, your powers of deduction and reason are thrown off-kilter, you find it hard not to suspend your disbelief, and all because the movie is telling you this stuff really happened. The key element then is not a paradigm-shifting ghost story; it’s the strength of a single idea planted in a susceptible mind. — Dw. Dunphy

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9. A Nightmare on Elm Street
(1984, dir. Wes Craven)
Wes Craven, while being fixated on the horror genre, is no hack. He knows how to make everything work in order to scare you, and he knows which time-tested tricks have run their course. One such trick is the super-tight close-up of a potential victim, often creeping about in the dark, trying to find a light switch, lamp or flashlight. The camera creates the claustrophobia so that boogeymen can jump out from nowhere. This trick works on an immediate, visceral level, but when you analyze it, you reckon the entire cheat that it is. Sure, you can’t see the monster lying in wait, but there’s no way the hapless victim couldn’t have.

So the brilliance of Craven’s A Nightmare On Elm Street, and his baddie Freddy Krueger, is that in his dream world he can come out of nowhere, through a wall, a bed, up from a bathtub, and because we the audience aren’t thinking about what surfaces should and shouldn’t be solid and impenetrable, the stunt succeeds almost every time. Add to that Robert Englund’s nasty performance in the picture, reduced to broad strokes in later editions of the series. His Krueger would scare the hell out of you even without the special effects, so when they’re applied, the viewer can’t help but be swallowed up by the menace. Remember: never ever fall asleep! — Dw

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8. Phantasm
(1979, dir. Don Coscarelli)
“It’s hard for me to believe that horror is the one genre the studios rely on today,” said Joe Dante, director of The Howling and Gremlins, at a recent Lincoln Center screening of his latest, independently produced shocker, The Hole. “Back in the 70s it was basically dismissed, then their B-movie content moved into A movies.” Indeed, for every big-budget Exorcist that made this list there were many more low-cost knockoffs and ripoffs and “homages” that followed in its wake, some of them legitimately scary, the lot just frighteningly poor. It was filmmakers like Dante who were able to migrate the cheap thrills and disreputable pleasures of the drive-in and the grindhouse to the studio level, in time giving the genre greater legitimacy among the bean counters and audiences more comfortable with scares rated PG-13 (the rating that Gremlins inspired) than the harder stuff.

Phantasm (1979) is a superior example of the harder stuff, like the pioneering Night of the Living Dead (1968) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) a DIY classic but unique in its own right. Its spine-tingling TV ads and radio spots tantalized me when I was 13, when its R rating put it frustratingly out of reach. The Motion Picture Association of America wanted to put it even higher, initially rating it X for its outrageous, near-surrealistic violence—exactly the sort of shocks a 13-year-old might dream up, terrors visited upon the 13-year-old protagonist of the movie. Its 24-year-old director (and writer, and producer, and DP, and editor) Don Coscarelli was still very much in touch with adolescent anxieties about sex, death, and abandonment, and when Phantasm reached HBO a year later it spoke to me…again and again, in weekend graveyard slots that I had to stay up for in the pre-VCR days (and very late nights). “If this one doesn’t scare you, you’re already dead”–and the unstoppable Tall Man (icon-to-be Angus Scrimm), his zombie dwarf minions, the “box test,” and the whole “dimensional mausoleum” thing scared me plenty.

Best of all, of course, was the flying silver sphere, that smacked into skulls and drilled into brains. Talk about a marketing hook, and water fountain conversation on sleepy Monday mornings at school. The ball was back, in three sequels to date, but nothing could equal that initial jolt. Between entries Coscarelli directed the basic cable punchline The Beastmaster (1982) and the cult hit BubbaHo-Tep (2002). He’s trying to get more Phantasm sequels or a reboot/remake off the ground—to scare the pants off my kids. — Bob Cashill

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7. The Shining
(1980, dir. Stanley Kubrick)
Stanley Kubrick knows what scares people. In The Shining, he shows one of the most frightening things that can happen to a child: watching a parent go stark, raving mad. Little Danny may have psychic powers and be able to see the twins, but he is absolutely powerless against his father’s insanity. It doesn’t matter if Jack’s illness has a supernatural cause or if the ghostly backstory is metaphorical. It’s scary.

I still have nightmares about The Shining, and I’ve never seen the end of the movie. I started watching it on cable when I was babysitting some neighbor kids years and years ago. The parents came home very late but before the movie ended, and the father drove me to my house. My sister had not remembered that I was still out and had locked the door. I stood on the back porch, pounding the door, certain that there were creepy twins behind me whispering “redrum, redrum”. My father woke up when he heard me, but he thought that maybe someone was trying to break in. He’s a big man to begin with, and he came to the door looking ready to rip someone’s head off. I screamed, he screamed, and, well, I’m still too frightened to finish watching The Shining. — Ann Logue

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6. Hellraiser
(1987, dir. Clive Barker)
Before there was “torture porn” there was the flesh-ripping excess of novelist Clive Barker’s directorial debut, a movie that in 1987 stirred horror-going audiences complacent with the increasingly slick and scrubbed misadventures of Freddy and Jason. Hellraiser is full-bodied terror in every sense of the word, a movie that starts at the intersection of pain and pleasure, then keeps right on trampling through comfort zones. Like The Exorcist I’ve always found Hellraiser more unsettling than scary; for all the blood and guts and S&M meathooks and regenerating tissue on display I hung on to every plot twist, half-eager and half-alarmed to see where Barker would take me and his heroine, Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), next. It’s a wild ride, and audiences loved its otherworldly emissaries, the Cenobites—particularly their no-excuses leader, Pinhead (Doug Bradley). And those ghastly makeup effects can reduce you to a quivering hulk of jelly.

Like the puzzle box that starts all the trouble, Barker should’ve left hell enough alone; the 1988 sequel wasn’t half-bad, but the other six (!) to date are poverty-stricken in terms of budget and imagination. A remake that has had birthing pains is due. Let’s hope it has the cruel elegance of the original, and on the human side a character to equal Kirsty’s nemesis Julia (Clare Higgins), one of the wickedest stepmothers in film history. Higgins has gone on to be the toast of the British stage, on par with Judi Dench (I saw her Tony-nominated performance in Vincent in Brixton in 2003)…but Dench has never raised as much hell as Higgins. — BC

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5. The Exorcist
(1973, dir. William Friedkin)
There are very few things that can truly frighten one more than the Devil himself, or perhaps I should say herself. While not the first film to have a child embody Satan — that honor would go to number 17 on our list, Rosemary’s Baby (1968) — and certainly not the last, it has to be the most terrifying. Watching Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) descend into the depths of hell is something inexplicably difficult to swallow. Knowing that it is based, at least part, on the exorcism case of Robbie Mannheim only serves to heighten that fear.

The crux of the story is one of faith; the question of faith that weighs on Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) and is resolved, only in his acceptance of the demon and ultimately his death. What makes it horrifying is how “real” it all seems. That reality is during crucial scenes, the actors were driven to performances that came from the very real situations they were placed in. The screams from Blair and Ellen Burstyn were the result of the violent movements of being jerked around by harnesses, the visible breath and shivering not computer generated or overacting, rather the product of the actors being filmed in a freezer; all adding to the realism of the film. It’s that reality that make The Exorcist one of the most terrifying movies ever. — Michael Parr

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4. Jaws
(1974, dir. Steven Spielberg)
Jaws is, at the core, a movie about redemption; and here you were thinking it was about a man-eating shark. In Steven Spielberg’s seismic second big-screen film, the first of the modern mega-blockbusters, there is a big old monster lurking in the water, chomping down swimmers like a movie-house patron chomps down Raisinettes, but there’s a lot more happening than just mayhem.

Cantankerous Capt. Quint, played to the mother-loving hilt by Robert Shaw is a modern Ahab, seeking revenge on the sea although we don’t realize that until a brilliant scene, with an equally brilliant monologue, spools out in the bottom third of the film. Marine biologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) is out to prove he’s not crazy and the demon stalking Amity’s waterways is a massive great white, a species that has no reason to be trolling in the region.

Most desperate of the men on-board is Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) who is balancing two levers of guilt, one from uprooting his family from their New York home, unwittingly placing them in even worse danger, and the other from the death of Alex Kintner, a young boy snatched right off an inflatable in the lagoon with a saltwater fountain of blood. Had Brody stood up to the Mayor (played with spineless exuberance by Murray Hamilton) and shut down the beaches after the first shark mauling, Kintner’s death might have been avoided. Now it is up to Brody to make things right.

Several decisions on the part of the movie makers turned out to be exactly right, although some didn’t know it at the time. The audience sees little to nothing of the shark in the first half of the film. This is mostly because the ambitious animatronic dummy shark seldom worked well enough to show it, but when we do get a good look, it is right after a joke. Catching the audience off guard like this made the shock that much more potent.

The other bold choice was not to have John Williams iconic score tease the audience. You never hear the Jaws theme unless the shark is there – no bluffing was allowed. That choice, having an eerie, silent calm until the moment of presence, ramped up the tension, which is what drives the film along. But without credible characters, with credible motivations, Jaws would only be another monster flick and not the suspense classic we recognize it to be today. — Dw

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3. Poltergeist
(1982, dir Tobe Hooper)
About a year ago, I was considering writing a post about a long-standing Hollywood mystery, and the second one to hover over the Poltergeist collective (to call it a trilogy would be incredibly misleading). The first is, of course, the “curse” of the film, the string of misfortune, mayhem and death that befell cast and crew in the latter years. The second is, who really directed the movie, credited director Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Invaders From Mars, Lifeforce) or producer Steven Spielberg?

Hooper’s films after Poltergeist prove he could handle big and glossy, so the fact that Texas Chainsaw’s docu-sloppy guerrilla filmmaking is completely incompatible with Poltergeist is a red herring. The story’s circumstances though, a seemingly ordinary suburban family thrust into supernatural shenanigans, is tailor-made for Spielberg’s ’70s and early ’80s oeuvre (and let Close Encounters and E.T. be my examples for you). There’s even one of Spielberg’s favorite camera moves – a track-shot “push in” moving straight into a character’s face.

What is unmistakable is that the film exploited, to fantastic effect, every kid’s shortlist of nightmare scenarios, from creepy clowns and the clutching motions of windswept trees, to monsters in the closet, to the specter of abduction. Craig T. Nelson’s story arc from schlubby, workaday dad to spirit-fighter comes off better than it reads on paper and, in the end, the moral of the story is never trust the TV… Especially Mr. PathMark. — Dw

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2. The Ring
(1998, dir. Hideo Nakata; US remake 2002, dir. Gore Verbinski)
It would deserve its place on this list both for its commercial significance — the first in a wave of J-horror hits to see Hollywood remakes — and for finding its paranoid mood not in elaborate digital effects but in the grainy distorted murk of consumer-grade VHS. What makes Ring a genuine game-changer, though, is the abandon with which it dismantles the usual horror meta-narrative.

It begins with the genre-standard conventions; the urban legend background, the rules for survival. Now, after laying down its rules of engagement, your standard-issue thriller calcifies into a predictable Quest Story. We know that once the heroine burns the Curséd Book, or kills the Evil Queen, or recovers the Miraculous Antidote, then Everything Will Be Okay Again.

Ring’s protagonists, though, figure everything out, and follow the Rules, doing everything that should lay the film’s vengeful spirits to rest. They should, by rights, be spared the fate that befalls so many others. But the supremely creepy closing scenes suggest that the Rules offer no protection; Evil defines the terms, and can redefine them at a whim.

The horror of Ring is ultimately outrage at the fundamental unfairness of a rigged game. In the film’s uncompromising vision, ghosts are never laid to rest, and every escape leads to another trap. The deck is stacked, and no matter how valiant and resourceful the heroes may be, the House always wins. — Jack Feerick

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1. Halloween
(1978, dir. John Carpenter)
Directed, produced, co-written and scored by John Carpenter, Halloween is widely considered to be the movie that kick-started the popularity of the slasher sub-genre of horror films. Though not the first slasher movie to include several of the genre’s calling cards, such as allowing the audience to witness the action through the killer’s eyes (Bob Clark’s 1975 classic Black Christmas was a fantastic early example of this type of horror filmmaking); virginal teenage girls as the heroine; death after having sex; the killer being invincible; and inventive methods of murder (though Halloween sets itself apart by showing very little gore),  it was the most successful and spawned many, many copycats, some of which were as successful, if not more so, than Halloween itself. One thing that sets Halloween apart, and makes it one of the best films of the slasher genre, is its ability to scare the crap out of you without bludgeoning you with graphic violence and gore. Carpenter is a master of suspense, much like Alfred Hitchcock before him, and uses that ability to great affect here.

Other than being a great film, Halloween is probably best known for launching the career of its star, Jamie Lee Curtis, and for setting Carpenter up as one of the most gifted, celebrated horror directors of the current generation. Produced on a budget of $320,000, it went on to gross $47 million stateside and $60 million worldwide, making it one of the most profitable independent films. In 2006, the Library of Congress selected it to be preserved in the United States National Film Registry, citing it as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” Damn straight it is! — Kelly Stitzel

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  • David_E

    Phantasm! Yes! Gawd, that creeped me out when I was 10. Stayed up at a buddy’s house to watch it on his VCR. I will likely have nightmares about it tonight. Working the same visual ground (in my mind) as Barker (and Lovecraft before him): long ungainly limbs, surreal imagery, alternate realities … (shudders). Thanks, Bob.

  • http://robertcashill.blogspot.com BobCashill

    You’re “scary” welcome…

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