Just in time for Halloween, a THR film critic — and devoted horror buff — ranks the movies that have terrified him most.
10- Ringu -1998
Some people prefer the U.S. remake, but Hideo Nakata’s original version of The Ring is an eerie and often terrifying exercise in J-horror filmmaking that would influence copycats for years to come. Reviving a genre that had been waning throughout the mid-90’s, Ringu drummed up fear in fresh ways, relying on haunting imagery rather than violence and gore. To quote Warner Wolf: “Let’s go to the videotape!”
9- Paranormal Activity-2007
Oren Peli’s micro-budgeted box office smash wasn’t the first-found footage film to try and scare the bejesus out of viewers, but it cleverly updated that conceit to the digital age. Relying on the simple use of a home video camera installed in a suburban bedroom, it managed to provoke primal fear out of the seemingly mundane, depicting a young couple’s gradual unraveling at the hands of hidden supernatural forces.
It may not seem so frightening today, but Alfred Hitchcock’s groundbreaking slasher flick absolutely terrified audiences upon its initial release in 1960, becoming the most profitable film in the Master of Suspense’s career. With at least three scream-inducing scenes – the infamous shower sequence, the murder on the stairway and the ending – Psycho is a primer in artful low-budget scares with maximum impact.
7-Don’t Look Now-1973
A deeply troubling study of parental grief, Nicholas Roeg’s 1973 occult thriller follows a husband and wife haunted by their dead daughter amid the canals of gothic Venice. Perhaps more famous for its explicit sex scene than for its frights, the film nonetheless employs jump-cuts, flashbacks and other stylistic devices in disturbing ways, returning time and again to the unforgettable image of a little girl in a red coat.
6-The Shining- 1980
Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s 1977 novel is less about shock scares – although it has a few – than about creating a sustained atmosphere of psychological dread. Conjuring up some of the most memorable images in horror history (the twins in the hallway, the blood in the elevator, “Here’s Johnny!”), it remains one of the genre’s aesthetic highpoints – a masterpiece of brooding visual terror.
5-The Exorcist- 1973
There are definitely some scary moments in this 1973 sensation, but what’s most frightening about The Exorcist is its brutal portrayal of a 12-year-girl’s complete mental and physical breakdown at the hands of Satan, while her mother stands helplessly watching by her side. Alongside William Friedkin’s unnerving direction, the fog-filled imagery of Owen Roizman and electro theme by Mike Oldfield would both go a long way into making this an unforgettable viewing experience.
The ominous piano music is one of several ingredients that render this John Carpenter slasher a bona fide classic nearly four decades since its release, where it grossed a whopping $70 million. Taking every kid’s favorite holiday and turning it into a gory nightmare, Halloween has often been imitated but rarely surpassed. While there are plenty of jarring moments throughout, its most harrowing aspect is the repeated image of a sadistic killer roaming the streets of picture-perfect suburbia
3-The Blair Witch Project- 1999
Few viewers were left unscathed by this massive indie horror hit, which ingeniously utilized faux-found footage – shot on video and 16mm – to follow a group of film students trying to document an alleged witch phenomenon in backwoods Maryland. Employing one of the genre’s cardinal rules that the less you show, the scarier you make it, directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez would inspire hundreds of imitators, but none of them would whip together a movie so straightforwardly fearful.
2-The Texas Chain Saw Massacre- 1974
The goriest tangent of the horror genre was spawned by Tobe Hooper’s vicious foray into deep Texas, where a group of college friends find themselves prey to a clan of psychotic cannibals. Relying less on classic jump scares or sound effects than on the shocking sight of a flesh-eating family and their collection of power tools, Massacre is a movie that leaves you battered, bruised and slightly nauseous after each viewing.
It’s rarely classified as a horror movie, but this Austrian home invasion flick remains one of the most terrifying, if not traumatizing, films ever made. Ostensibly the story of two young psychopaths who terrorize a family on vacation, Funny Games is really about how bringing fear to the viewer is a question of pure cinematic manipulation, with director Michael Haneke thwarting expectations at each turn and forcing us to suffer the consequences. Next time a neighbor asks to borrow an egg, lock your door.