The 10 Scariest Movies of All Time
And by scariest I don't mean the most violent and gruesome, though they sometimes coincide. Nor do I have in mind brilliantly disturbing films like The Silence of the Lambs and Seven which belong more properly to the thriller genre. I'm talking about true horror films which frighten on such a primal level that they linger in the psyche long after the credits close, give nightmares and make you afraid to be alone in the dark.
I love a good horror film but don't scare easily. I'm sure it has something to do with being messed up by The Exorcist when I was 11 years old -- it makes everything else in adulthood seem like Disney in comparison. But here's a list of ten films that have freaked me out and still manage to unsettle me. Six involve the supernatural (1, 2, 3, 6, 7, 10), two the psychopathical (5, 9), one science-fiction (8), and one hard to categorize, dealing with a breed of savagely evolved humanoids in an intense claustrophobic environment (4). Six were released between 1973 and 1981, pointing back to the golden age of the '70s when terror was so original and hard-core, not teen-friendly at all. I include critical approval ratings from Rotten Tomatoes, and then my own "fright level" grading on a scale of 0-100.
(1) The Exorcist. 1973. Critical approval: 85%. Fright level: 99/100. This one messed me up so badly when I was a kid that some nights I just lay paralyzed in bed thinking about it, afraid to fall asleep for the inevitable nightmares. Since then, of course, it's become my favorite horror film. From the documentary-style opening in Iraq, to the suburbs of Washington D.C., we get a tale of demonic possession so harrowing and well-acted, and which dares to inflict incredibly vulgar torture on a 12-year old girl. She's saved in the end, but only after a long ritual in which the two priests are killed, calling into question the power of good over evil. Some people needed psychiatric help after seeing this, and I doubt there will ever again be a movie so frightening.
(2) The Shining. 1980. Critical approval: 87%. Fright level: 95/100. Stephen King hated it so much he made a "corrective" version for T.V., but not half as good or scary. Kubrick hit a home run because he took the skeleton of a haunted hotel story and fleshed it out with more uncompromising terrors and a unique tone that doesn't let you tell yourself things are going to be okay. The result may be more minimalist than what King intended, but it's sure as hell more effective, and that's what any true horror artist aims for. Scenes I took to bed too often: Danny's vision of the two hacked-up little girls in the hallway, the look on Wendy's face when she discovers Jack has been typing the same sentence over and over for weeks, Jack's sinister face appearing in a hotel painting in the final shot after he dies. Every frame of this picture, every intonation of the score, is part of an overarching terror that only Kubrick could have realized on screen.
(3) The Evil Dead. 1981. Critical approval: 100%. Fright level: 93/100. The acting is appalling, but everything else about this low-budget cult classic makes the perfect tomato-meter score understandable. Five people go out to a cabin in the woods and, one-by-one, become possessed by the most hideously terrifying demons you can imagine (aside, of course, from the one in The Exorcist). There's bold stuff here -- most infamously, before the possession-attacks start, one of the women getting raped by a tree -- and the film amounts to an assault on the viewer's senses in a way rarely seen these days. This one still gives me occasional nightmares.
(4) The Descent. 2005. Critical approval: 84%. Fright level: 92/100. Six women go spelunking in an unchartered cave, get avalanched inside, and then assaulted by strange nocturnal humanoids. The U.S. theatrical version butchered the ending (by allowing one of the women to make it out alive), but the DVD thankfully has the original U.K. version (the last woman only dreams of getting out, but remains trapped with no hope of finding an exit). Harks back to the raw brutality of '70s horror films, but there's a particular focus that makes this one so terrifying for me to watch: the claustrophobia. Some scenes have me literally shuddering, they're that effective. The sequel is no slouch either in terms of fright level, though it's unfortunately not as good a movie on whole for its poor character development. This film hits a home run on all fronts.
(5) Halloween. 1978. Critical approval: 91%. Fright level: 90/100. It gave birth to the soulless teen-slasher genre -- and is definitely the most imitated horror film of all time -- but as first out of the gate it did everything right, with minimal gore. There's nothing supernatural here, though Michael Myers seems like a ghost, appearing out of nowhere, watching, stalking, haunting from a distance. The original sequels are trash, but oddly enough I loved Rob Zombie's hard-core remake and sequel (though critics panned them) for the way they delved into Michael's traumatized childhood and did homages to Carpenter's original in impressively unexpected ways -- and then veered off and did something completely original. They're as searingly graphic as the classic is pure and ethereal, and I recommend either for whichever mood you're in. The original obviously holds pride of place for dethroning Hitchcock's Psycho as the most frightening slasher.
(6) The Exorcist III: Legion. 1990. Critical approval: 62%. Fright level: 89/100. Woefully underrated, and the true sequel to The Exorcist based on Blatty's novel Legion and directed by the author himself. The story takes place fifteen years after the first exorcism, though the girl Regan isn't involved. The demon expelled from her has exacted revenge by allowing the soul of a dead serial killer to reanimate/possess the corpse of one of the offending priests (Damien Karras), who then becomes an instrument of death -- killing people in various creative ways (the kid who gets crucified on a pair of oars, with ingots pounded into his eyes, was memorable). The mystery culminates in a short exorcism at the end, and once again two priests die: the new exorcist and poor Karras a second time as he's finally liberated from the spirit of the "Gemini Killer". I'm stunned this film isn't on more top-10 lists.
(7) The Grudge. 2004. Critical approval: 39%. Fright level: 87/100. A rotten tomato, but I don't care what the critics say. It's a damn powerful film that had me cowering in my seat and actually made me want to leave the theater. And it accomplished this, incredibly, by PG-13 standards. Set in Japan, it's about the ghost of a woman who was murdered by her husband and is out for non-stop revenge, haunting the house they lived in and preying on innocent people who enter. For those who escape the house, no distance is safe -- she hounds and eventually kills them anyway (in one especially terrifying sequence she stalks a woman to her apartment and appears suddenly in bed with her under the covers). Often misleadingly compared with The Ring (which didn't scare me in the least), this film is relentless and doesn't have a happy ending. I was hearing the ghost's croaking over my shoulder for days.
(8) Alien. 1979. Critical approval: 97%. Fright level: 85/100. Ridley Scott knew what he was doing by keeping the alien mostly out of sight and making us project our imaginative fears. This is a far more scary film than James Cameron's sequel, which focused on graphic action and ass-kicking and made the fatal mistake of altering the most terrifying aspect of the alien: its ability to cocoon a victim and cause it to morph into an egg/facehugger. In Aliens all eggs/facehuggers come from a queen alien, but Scott had envisioned a truly horrifying process by which any alien, regardless of gender, "laid eggs" by transforming captives. Cameron's blockbuster also involved military personnel going after the alien threat, and while it's not pleasant that they all die, it's their job to die defending others. In Alien we feel the raw terror of six civilians stranded alone in space, hunted and devoured one by one.
(9) Inside. 2007. Critical approval: 91%. Fright level: 84/100. Hailed as an instant classic, it's the most gory film I've seen after Passion of the Christ. But that's not why it's so scary. The film is about relentless obsession, as a woman traumatized by miscarriage stalks the woman who caused her car accident -- and who was also pregnant during the crash but didn't lose her baby. The stalker has decided the woman owes her that baby, and so invades her house, viciously terrorizing her (and massacring all who come calling) until finally performing a hideous "caesarean section" with a pair of scissors. This is a French film, highlighting how badly America is doing these days by comparison.
(10) The Omen. 1976. Critical approval: 84%. Fright level: 81/100. I usually hate seeing biblical apocalypses used as future-blueprints (I'm looking at you, Tim Lahaye), but this anti-Christ drama is exceptional and creepy as hell. Here we have the beast rising in a "sea" of politics, amidst the "Roman empire" of the modern common market ("Seems like a stretch," Damien's father tells the journalist, an amusing understatement to those of us who read Revelation historically), so he can grow up in a position to incite global warfare and unleash Armageddon. Nero Caesar may have been the historical 666, but he's got nothing on little Damien -- I mean, this kid was born of a jackal and can make his own nanny hang herself, right? The horror is artistically subtle, the drama convincing, and it suggests the devil's power is unstoppable. Skip the entirely pointless remake.
For other "most scary" lists, see Entertainment Weekly (a top-25), Consumer Rated (this one actually has The Exorcist III: Legion on it, and at the same slot as mine), The Huffington Post, Horrorphile (a top-13), Live Science, MSN, and Haunted Hamilton (a top-100).
Especially worth checking out is The Big List of Scary Movies, based on averaging other lists found on the web (like those above), and so it perhaps stands as the most objective. It ranks over 90 films based on the averaging points. No surprise The Exorcist (2570 points) and The Shining (2232 points) came out on top; these have to be the scariest movies of all time by any objective standard. But I think The Ring (1340 points), Poltergeist (756 points), The Blair Witch Project (572 points) and Don't Look Now (287 points) are vastly overrated; they didn't scare me at all.
UPDATE: See also my ratings of The 10 Most Disturbing Movies of All Time.