Listmania: Top 20 Scariest Films (#20-11)

Written by Contests, Film, Listmania

A Halloween draws near, the Popdose staff is counting down the 20 films that had them hiding under the covers and calling for mommy, starting with 20 through 11.

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.

So if you’ll just walk this way, because they’re coming to get you…

20. Night of the Living Dead
(1968, dir. George A. Romero)
It’s really easy just to laugh at Night of the Living Dead. The characters are largely stock figures, and the genre conventions that the film introduced seem quaint and predictable after forty years of updates and refinements (for example, the one at #19 on this list). But George Romero’s super-indie gross-out flick manages to get under your skin even while producing copious guffaws.

Like all good horror films, Living Dead uses a potentially ludicrous scenario — slow-moving but determined zombies are popping up everywhere, eating human flesh — as an allegory for the dangers and anxieties of everyday life. Not that anyone agrees on what those precisely are: audiences and critics have identified everything from capitalism to the civil rights movement to the generation gap as the “real horror” at the core of the movie’s plot. There’s something, or rather someone, for everyone in the abandoned farmhouse where the characters converge to escape the zombie onslaught: corny newlyweds, squabbling parents, a blonde ingénue… and Ben, a resourceful guy who just happens to be the only black person in the cast. Romero insists that his leading man’s race had nothing to do with politics, but rather, that Duane Jones was simply the best actor he auditioned; that may be true, but even today, the image of a “Negro” hero taking charge and butting heads with a group of scared, angry white people adds a layer of tension to the proceedings.

What really sets Ben apart from the others, however, is his commitment to survival at any cost, his lack of sentimentality or wishful thinking. What leads everyone else to his or her painful, bloody downfall is a foolish — or perhaps all too human — choice made in the grip of emotion. But this is a world in which our loved ones no longer recognize us, where our familial loyalties only lead to the most gruesome fate imaginable. No relationship is sacred; your own flesh and blood sees you as nothing more than, well, flesh and blood. And Ben, the lone wolf, the bad-ass survivor, the one best equipped to ride out the undead apocalypse? His fate reminds us that human psychology is much scarier than any movie monster…and that’s no laughing matter. — Robin Monica Alexander

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19. 28 Days Later…
(2003, dir. Danny Boyle)
A good horror movie scares the hell out of you while you’re watching it; a great horror movie gets inside your head and bubbles around there long-term. 28 Days Later has been credited with revitalizing, even reinventing, the zombie movie, and much of the credit goes to director Danny Boyle and his production team. Placing the infection subtext of the genre front-and-center was Boyle’s idea. The movie’s unique look — a horror movie shot like a European art film — also represents a departure from Boyle’s earlier films, which were art-directed to within an inch of their lives: the quasi-documentary feel of cheap, fast digital video, coupled with the guerilla-style location shooting in a spookily empty London, lends an atmosphere of oppressive dread.

But it’s the screenplay by Alex Garland that gives the film its lingering power. Garland delivers the genre thrills, the simmering tensions and bloody showdowns, while also asking some tough questions about dehumanization, xenophobia, community, and the nature of monsters. The true villains are “normal” humans who have chosen to behave inhumanly; Garland’s zombies may be inhuman, almost a force of nature, but they retain sparks of sentience. There’s a hint that they may represent the emergence of a new species, although the film never tips its hand. Unlike the later I Am Legend, which tackles many of the same themes, 28 Days Later never foregrounds its “message.” It prefers to insinuate, to suggest, to tease. To disturb.

When the film was released, much praise was heaped on the opening section, with its eerie, mournful vistas of the abandoned city, while the conclusion was largely written off as a descent into genre conventions. But for me, the film pivots on a scene near the halfway point — the moment when the little zombie boy speaks. I could write 5,000 words about that scene and its aftermath — the build-up to it, and the way the rest of the film explodes and reverses the expectations of the first half in ways both overt and subtle. I could write those five thousand words right now, at the drop of a hat, because this film is still kicking around my head — and I haven’t seen it in five years or more. There’s been a permanent disturbance in my noggin. 28 Days Later is a great horror movie . — Jack Feerick

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18. Suspiria
(1977, dir. Dario Argento)
Directed by the great Italian director, Dario Argento, Suspiria is one of the strangest, most beautiful horror films ever made. It tells the tale of American ballet student, Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), the newest student at a prestigious German ballet school. The day of her arrival, Suzy encounters another student running away from the building in a panic. After that, more bizarre things start happening and Suzy eventually becomes suspicious of the school’s faculty, wondering what kind of secret they are hiding.

Argento is known for his cinematography and for his ability to make horrific death scenes look incredibly gorgeous and the first death scene in Suspiria is the ultimate beautiful, Argento death scene. The first time I saw this film, I was struck more by his use of vivid colors to create a decidedly creepy and otherworldly atmosphere – I later learned that he achieved this affect by using a particular Technicolor process known as imbibition, which is the same process that was used on The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind. By using this process, the film is drenched in phenomenally bright color and allows the viewer to feel like he or she might be having a vivid nightmare rather than watching a horror film. But besides the fact that the kills are beautifully shot, this movie is pretty damned scary. It grabs you by the throat right away and doesn’t let go. Definitely worthy of being considered one of the best, and one of the scariest, horror movies of all time. — Kelly Stitzel

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17. Rosemary’s Baby
(1968, dir. Roman Polanski)
Rosemary’s Baby is one of those films whose legacy is bound nearly as much to the celebrity/pop-culture storm that surrounded it as to the movie’s own merits. It was Roman Polanski’s first American film, and it was still in theaters when his wife Sharon Tate was murdered by Mansonites. The movie cost Mia Farrow her marriage to Frank Sinatra, who didn’t want her working. Its exteriors – but not its interiors – were shot at the Dakota apartment building in Manhattan, which has long been most famous for a terrifying fictional birth and horrifying real-life death. The story of its production became a centerpiece of Robert Evans’ wacky and wonderful film autobiography The Kid Stays in the Picture. Etc., etc.

But forget all that, if you can, and focus on the brilliance of this highbrow classic of macabre suspense. Polanski’s subtle direction toes a very thin line, allowing us to recognize the creepiness of Rosemary’s new surroundings while still holding out a suspicion that the mother-to-be is merely imagining things. (Compare this with Taylor Hackford’s use of the camera as a bludgeon in the similarly themed The Devil’s Advocate 30 years later.) There are no scenes that truly shock as Rosemary’s Baby unfolds, just a general sense of unease that evolves into dread as we realize, with Rosemary, that something awful awaits at the end of her pregnancy. For a suspense/horror film that concerns the devil incarnate, perhaps its biggest shock is its realism. Polanski makes it easy to place ourselves in Rosemary’s shoes, with her paranoia about pregnancy pains and her annoyance at her nebbishy, bizarre new neighbors. And as evil looms over the Upper West Side, Rosemary’s Baby becomes as much an allegory for the crumbling social structure of New York City as would Midnight Cowboy a year later, or Taxi Driver in 1976.

It’s a film that, at its heart, asks the eternal question, “What if all my paranoia and neuroses turn out to be justified?” That’s why I love Rosemary’s Baby – and why I also love the idea that it could have been made a decade later with the same cast, the same setting, and the same basic story … as a Woody Allen comedy. — Jon Cummings

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16. Pet Sematary
(1986, dir. Mary Lambert)
Based upon the Stephen King novel of the same name, Pet Sematary stars Dale Midkiff as Dr. Louis Creed, a veterinarian, who moves his family – wife, Rachel (Denise Crosby), daughter Ellie (Blaze Berdahl) and son Gage (Miko Hughes) — into a house along a high-traffic highway, a pet cemetery and an Indian burial ground. While the rest of the family is visiting his in-laws, Louis’s daughter’s cat is run over by a truck. Knowing that Ellie will be devastated by the loss of her cat, Louis allows his neighbor, Jud (Fred Gwynne, best known as Herman Munster of The Munsters), to convince him to bury the cat in the burial ground beyond the pet cemetery. The cat comes back to life, but there’s something just not right about him. When a member of his family is also hit by a truck, Louis decides to give the Indian burial ground another try — only this time with murderous results.

I am not ashamed to say that this movie scared the shit out of me the first time I saw it and still creeps me out to this day (the same goes for the book). Two of the creepiest, most horrifying things I’ve ever seen on film come from this movie — Rachel’s sister, Zelda and Hughes’s performance as Gage. After seeing the film for the first time — even at the age of 12 — I was convinced that Hughes was going to turn out to be traumatized from playing this role at such a young age. Then I saw him in Kindergarten Cop, released a year after Pet Sematary and realized that movie might have had a more terrifying effect on the kid. — KS

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15. Audition
(1999, dir. Takashi Miike)
The camera never lies, right? That’s one of the unwritten rules of cinema. Genre films, especially, make a fetish of “playing fair” with the audience. Even the nonlinear, twisty mindfuck movies are generally scrupulous about leaving “clues” throughout the film, so the wised-up viewer can re-watch Memento or Pulp Fiction or The Sixth Sense and see how it all fits together — or even, if (s)he is exceptionally clever, suss out the twist before the end, as in an Agatha Christie novel. No matter how extreme the emotional states of the characters, the camera is assumed to be a disinterested, objective observer, recording things as they “really” occur.

That’s why the most disturbing thing about Takashi Miike’s Audition — more than the squicky body horror, the rush of sadomasochistic imagery, the slow tonal shift from pitch-black sociological satire to depraved gynophobia — is how gleefully it disregards that convention. During the final third of Audition, you’re never quite sure what’s “real” and what’s not. There are unexplained shifts in location; people turn into other people; utterly implausible motivations and methods have an terrible immediacy, an inexorable dream-logic. No matter how many times you watch the film, it doesn’t all come sensibly together in the end. There’s no comfortable closure. There’s no comfort, period.

Miike shatters the assumed covenant between filmmaker and audience, filtering virtually the entire film through the consciousness of his main character. The unreliable narrator is a well-known trope of modern literature, but it’s extraordinarily difficult to pull off in film, which is why most movies don’t even try. Audition dares, and succeeds brilliantly. Its peculiar genius places the viewer in the position of victim; with no solid “objective” frame of reference to cling to, the viewer is put entirely at Miike’s mercy — and he has none, ratcheting up the intensity to levels that are nearly physically unbearable.

Relentlessly prolific and aesthetically restless, director Takashi Miike has worked across many genres. The results, perhaps predictably, have been hit-or-miss. For all their visual and formal ambition, his films sometimes feel clinical. Audition, though, comes from a place of visceral terror and outrage — a feverish trip inside a mind at the end of its tether, into sublimated sexual guilt and fear of woman. It’s the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a cinematic rendering of the dream state, and like all the worst nightmares, it will haunt you for days afterward. — JF

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14. The Omen
(1976, dir. Richard Donner)
I was 11 years old when my parents let me watch The Omen on a newfangled thing we’d just gotten called Showtime. It was 10:00 at night, I was up by myself and as soon as Jerry Goldsmith’s opening title music kicked in, I was pretty much immediately scared. The movie was somewhat notorious at the time for promising a bunch of violent on-screen deaths, as anyone who gets in the way of young Damien Thorn (Harvey Stephens) is met with some kind of bizarre “accident.” That’s all part of the gruesome appeal of course, but what makes the original film so much more frightening than any of its sequels or imitators is the way director Richard Donner and writer David Seltzer build the suspense that lead up to the deaths. Part of the story involves a photographer, Jennings (David Warner) who discovers “blemishes” in his darkroom that seem to foretell in the photographs how people will die. And when Jennings presents a photograph of himself which has a large streak going through his neck and Goldsmith nails the moment — let’s just say that scene gave me chills at 11 and it gives me chills now. All of this is elevated even further by the presence of stars Gregory Peck and Lee Remick, who keep everything rooted in reality no matter how ridiculous it all might sound. — Jeff Johnson
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13. Psycho
(1960, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
I do not like being scared, especially at the movies. I was the kind of kid for whom Ghostbusters was a little too frightening. To this day I have never seen any of the Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street films. However, as my interest in cinema developed and became more serious, I realized that my aversion to fear was keeping me from experiencing many of the medium’s greatest achievements. How can one call oneself a fan of Alfred Hitchcock and not have seen what is arguably his last truly great film, Psycho? It was inevitable that Norman Bates and I would one day come face to face…and when the day came, I was every bit as freaked out as I imagined I would be.I also couldn’t stop watching him.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen the film, both at home and on the big screen. It’s hard to put myself in the place of those audience members who went into the theater in 1960 having no clue what they were about to see, but for me, knowing Psycho’s big secrets beforehand didn’t prevent the movie from weaving a serious web of dread around my psyche. After all, this is a film that shows no signs of even being a “horror” movie until a third of the way in, until…well, on the off chance that there are some youngsters out there who have managed never to have the world’s most spoiled movie spoiled for them, I’ll simply say: Psycho’s frights are all the more potent for being, shall we say, so domestic.

They’re also enhanced by what might have seemed at the time like a drawback—the fact that Hitchcock had to shoot the film on what was, for him, a miniscule budget, using the crew from his TV series. But a great artist makes art no matter what his tools, and the grainy black-and-white cinematography, limited locations, and lack of mega-stars (not to mention another of Bernard Herrmann’s genius scores) proved to be the perfect combination. Anthony Perkins’ performance is one for the ages, and Janet Leigh’s eyes are a dissertation topic all by themselves. Psycho is the ideal scary movie for scaredy-cats like me: if I’m going to give myself nightmares, the source better be not just a good scare, but a damn good film. Mother will be very disappointed if it’s not. — RMA

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12. Tie: Alien / Aliens
(1979, dir. Ridley Scott; 1986, dir. James Cameron)
These two came in at a tie — one of those coincidences that is just… plain… scary. Like the titular creature, the Alien franchise is an incredibly adaptable shapeshifter, morphing through multiple subgenres while retaining its essential character. The Cameron film is a popcorn thriller, rousing and endlessly quotable; populist military SF, right out of the Robert Heinlein playbook.

The spiritual fathers of the 1979 original, though, are more diverse — and a hell of a lot more interesting. There’s an echo of John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” in the plot; the interactions of the crew have the shaggy, improvisational dynamic of a Robert Altman movie; and H.R. Giger’s uniquely hideous designs connect the film to Lovecraft’s cosmic horrors, especially during the rescue mission that sets the nightmare in motion — the weirdly organic architecture of the ship (or is it a temple?), the fossilized giant upon his vasty throne, the eggs in rank upon rank, in the outer darkness of a dying sun; all of it inexplicable, arranged to specifics unknowable by the human mind, by an intelligence that can only be, well, alien.

What the films have in common — besides the towering presence of Sigourney Weaver, in the role that made her a star — is a certain practicality, a working-class griminess. The crewmates of Alien are less interested in scientific discovery than in renegotiating their shares of the mining haul; Cameron’s Marines are quick to remind us that they Didn’t Sign On For This Shit; and the Company is always eager to fuck people over for the potential of profit. This a pair of movies about how working people can get in over their heads very, very quickly, when left on their own out there, in the dark. — JF

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11. Let the Right One In
(2008, dir. Tomas Alfredson)
I’m not a huge fan of vampire movies, but this is by far one of the best films of that genre I think has ever been made. Equal parts frightening, heartbreaking and tender, it takes the vampire film and turns it on its earl. Based on the Swedish novel of the same name, Let the Right One In is about a bullied 12-year-old Swedish boy named Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) who befriends his next door neighbor, a young girl named Eli (Lina Leandersson).But Eli isn’t like any of the girls at Oskar’s school – Eli is a vampire.

While effectively exploring the vampire element, the focus of the story is on the relationship between Oskar and Eli and that is what makes it so special. You feel sympathy for Eli and her situation, which is what makes her actions – and Oskar’s eventual accepting of them — that much more terrifying. Let the Right One In is one of the most highly acclaimed Swedish films of the past decade and has won numerous awards and the love of horror – and vampire – film fans the world over. This year an American version of the film was released and, while it has also received positive reviews, I think I’m going to stick with the original. — KS