I approach each new horror movie with the intense desire that it will scare the ever-living shit out of me; to be freaked out, to lose sleep, and to have it linger in my mind for days after. I am often disappointed, but here are the ones that were best at delivering the frights I crave. Of course, what makes something scary is a very subjective thing so I hope this list will stir up some healthy debate and perhaps some counter lists. Get ready for a long one, folks.
5. [REC] - 2007
When a TV reporter and her cameraman are filming a piece on firefighters working the night shift, they follow along to an emergency call at an apartment building, and soon all hell (and zombies) breaks loose. Filmed in first person Blair Witch/ Cloverfield/ Paranormal Activity style, this Spanish film is frantic and claustrophobic as you'd expect, but I think it works very well here.
You might recognize the premise if you've heard of the movie Quarantine, an American remake made a year later. Having watched them both the same day, I can state without hesitation that [REC] is the superior film and that Quarantine is nothing but a scene for scene remake with the occasional cheesy addition. Grow up and read some subtitles, people.
Anyway, this movie holds the distinction of being the only zombie movie that's scared me. There is a great buildup of suspense in the early portion of the film and then it takes off at full speed and you really feel like you're caught up in the panic and desperation of the situation.
The real reason the movie makes the list is because of the last fifteen minutes or so when the reporter and "you" (the cameraman) end up hiding in some forgotten rooms in the upper portion of the apartment building. What plays out in the darkness is so goddamned scary, and so unlike the rest of the film that I was thrown totally off guard. I'd like to say more but I'd rather not ruin it for you. All I know is that it is truly nightmarish, and I haven't been able to watch it again since. I even have goosebumps now just thinking about it. Frig.
4. The Exorcist - 1973
Look, I'm not going to waste time telling you what the story is to one of the most well known horror films of all time. I don't think it's the scariest movie ever made, but I do think that it remains shocking, twisted, and dark, even today.
The film naturally scared me most the first time I saw it. It still freaks me out on repeated viewings, but not like the first time around. I hesitated putting it on the list because of that. I wanted to put together the movies that scare me even now, not just when I was a kid.
Ultimately it deserves to be here because the movie is such a high quality of horror. The vomiting, the head spinning, the twisted voices, the spider walking; it's all scary and unforgettable. And because of the strong performances and the film's pacing, a growing sense of dread is always in the background of the film while all this other horrific shit is occurring. In the final act, I honestly feel afraid for the characters. Lately I've seen other exorcism related films popping up, and all have been weak by comparison. In fact most horror films lack the originality and unsettling goodness that The Exorcist brings to the table.
3. The Ring - 2002
Remember two entries ago when I bitched about Quarantine and that people should just stick with the foreign film? Well, time for a switcheroo! The original Japanese Ringu is scary, creepy, and introduced us to a whole new genre of horror, but I like Gore Verbinski's The Ring more. The killer videotape, the well, and the surprising ending all make this a memorable scary movie.
I went to the theatre alone to watch The Ring, and it was one of the best cinema experiences I've ever had. It was a one-of-a-kind group experience where everyone in the audience is collectively scared together and the air is thick with tension. At one point I screamed in fright and shock, and that has never happened to me before or since. I was not the only one freaking out; I could hear strangers around me shrieking, gasping, and in some cases sobbing. After the film I walked home in the dark, nerves shaken thoroughly, and I'm certain that if my TV had been showing static when I got home my heart would have fucking exploded.
Which brings me to the main reason why The Ring is so good at being scary. Because it develops horror from very innocuous things: TV static, videotapes, phone calls, and girls with long hair. Managed in the right way these things all become terrifying in and outside of the film. Most horror movies are about the fear of something or someone lurking in the shadows waiting to get you, but with The Ring (and much of modern Japanese horror) the thing is an unstoppable Evil. Evil that can't be outrun, fought, appeased, or reasoned with. It will just get you no matter what. Even if you're just hanging out with friends or chilling out in your spacious apartment in the middle of the day. That freaks me out.
2. Pet Sematary - 1989
A family moves into a house in a small rural community, and shortly after a tragedy leads to unexpected horrors when a father makes some terrible decisions in his desperate grief.
Early in the film we see the family's infant son nearly get hit by a car, and we get continuous warnings from their neighbour, Mr. Crandall, about the dangers of the road they live on, and how it's killed many a pet. Despite the foreshadowing, when the family's cat and son are killed, you still feel surprised. Partly because the foreshadowing seemed so ridiculously obvious, and partly because it's frustrating to see the family doing nothing to avoid it. Even though I know from the word go that it's going to happen, it's so goddamn painful to watch the son heading out onto the road with the father frantically chasing after him. It's the fear of being helpless.
In his grief and madness the father buries his son in a mysterious burial ground that has the power to reanimate the dead. But the dead don't come back the same. So you've got sort of a zombie movie, but not really. I have to tip my hat to this movie for having the balls to kill an infant. You rarely see that sort of thing even in horror films. And you certainly never see infants getting killed, having their graves defiled, coming back to life as a murderous baby, and being killed again by a loved one. That's messed up on several levels.
However, Pet Sematary is not about blood and gore, but about feelings of helplessness, grief, and guilt. The film is frightening because it plays on our fears of death, and losing loved ones. In many ways the movie reminds me of the short story "The Monkey's Paw", where a loved one is wished back from the dead and the choice is immediately regretted. We can relate to this yearning to undo the past, and the film scares us with a nightmarish "what if" scenario.
And if that's not enough, the film also throws in a terrifying cat, the ghost of a mangled teenager, an unsettling funeral scene, and some freaky flashbacks of the mother looking after her grotesquely emaciated dying sister. If this film doesn't scare you on some level, I am shocked.
1. Pulse (Kairo) - 2001
If you haven't noticed, all the films in my list have had American remakes, sequels, or both, and my number one is no different. I want to make a careful distinction here that I'm talking about the original Japanese film and not the godawful American remake of the same name.
The film is about a group of students who are investigating a paranormal website and its related suicides. If the movie Feardotcom popped into your head please push that right the fuck out. Feardotcom was an unwatchable piece of garbage. Kairo is a masterpiece of horror.
The movie is not about violence, gore, and all the other usual horror staples. It's all about mood and atmosphere. It creates an amazing sense of loneliness and hopelessness while still remaining terrifying, and I don't know how the director pulled that off.
I watched the movie alone in the dark and it was nearly my undoing. I think the movie is called Pulse because I reached levels of stress and fear where I could feel my heartbeat in my head. Jesus Christ, this movie is tense. You know that feeling in a movie where the suspense keeps building and building until finally something jumps out and you scream? Well this film lives on that razor edge of tension and nothing ever jumps out. No killer doll, no psychopath with a knife, no monster with claws. It just keeps edging closer and closer and the anxiety keeps growing and growing.
I not going to pretend that everyone will like this, because the movie is long, slowly paced, and confusing. In some ways the movie has an apocalyptic feel to it, where it seems like the characters are the last people on earth, wandering around in the forgotten corners of an urban wasteland. Combined with the score and cinematography, it's beautifully haunting.
For me it's the scariest movie I've ever seen because it gives me such a chilling sense of dread, isolation, and a terror of the unknown. When you watch it, you get that sinister feeling that something is watching you; that death and despair is looming over you. Images and ideas from the movie lingered with me for weeks after. Pulse is terrifying, dark, and an exceptionally strong psychological horror film and I really want to watch it again...I just haven't worked up the nerve.