It’s that time of year again. My favorite holiday is here, and while I won’t be partaking in any costumed revelry this year (I’ll be working late at the office, ho hum), I still manage to get excited by All Hallows Eve. Well, maybe not as excited as I used to get as a child, but I’m definitely more into the whole Halloween thing than a certain French cat.
To honor this spookiest of days, here are my top five scary movies. What are some of yours?
1. Psycho (1960)
While it might be 52 years old, Alfred Hitchcock’s horror masterwork stands the test of time as one of the most elegantly constructed films in the genre. From killing the leading lady less than halfway through the film during that infamous shower scene, to Bernard Herrmann’s oft-imitated score, to Anthony Perkins’ not-so-nice All-American boy next door with a major Oedipal complex, the film never ceases to keep me at the edge of my seat. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen the film. It’s a true original (please, oh please forget Gus Van Sant’s shot-by-shot remake), and will certainly remain on the minds of moviegoers and cinephiles for years to come. And it keeps spawning new iterations, just check out Anthony Hopkins playing the Master of Suspense in the upcoming Hitchcock.
2. Don’t Look Now (1973)
Right from its first scene, Nicolas Roeg’s beautiful fever-dream of a film is an unsettling, sensual fantasia to parental guilt, love, and primal fear. It features two honest and searing performances by Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as a couple coming to terms with an unspeakable loss and unknown threat that at first seems based in the supernatural, but turns out to be very much rooted in the darker regions of a reality neither character wants to fully address.
3. The Exorcist (1973)
There’s not much I can add about this film that hasn’t been written about countless times. It’s one of the closest things one can get to a perfect horror film. It mixes the shock of Psycho with the psychological dread of Don’t Look Now, and seems to get only more unsettling upon each successive viewing. The performances are excellent, William Friedkin directs with complete command of all his cinematic tools, and cinematographer Owen Roizman lights the film in cool, moody blues. In many ways, much of the film’s success can be attributed to its screenwriter, William Peter Blatty, who adapted his own novel for the screen and added new emotional dimensions to his characters. Beyond the projectile vomit, and head-spinning scares, Blatty infuses the story with the kinds of tensions that make for the best, and most unsettling, domestic dramas.
4. Alien (1979)
Ridley Scott’s original 1979 film remains the best in the Alien franchise. While James Cameron’s sequel provided a fun escapist adventure film, and Scott’s own prequel, Prometheus, attempted to broaden out the franchise’s cinematic universe, it is this film that remains the most effective. While many say the movie is a haunted house story in space, Alien is more than that. H.R. Giger’s sexualized creature designs and set constructions make the film something of a Freudian nightmare, as the crew of the space tanker, the Nostromo, is picked off one-by-one by the mysterious phallic creature. Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley is the only one left, vanquishing the monster, but left all alone in the black void of space, with just her cat as a companion. The titular monster is one of the most horrific ever depicted on screen, and Scott’s sure-handed direction makes it more than just quick thrills –– it’s a film that stays with you long after it’s done.
5. The Shining (1980)
Stephen King famously declared that he was unhappy with Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic take on his novel. While it is different from the book and seems to function mostly as a showcase for Jack Nicholson’s manic performance, the film is a fascinating examination into the breakdown of one man’s sanity, and what that does to the wife and son who suffer from his drift away from reality. Kubrick does a great job of making the Overlook Hotel a character in and of itself, as its dark and narrow halls open as passageways for the literal ghosts of its past who drive Jack to madness.
Almost made the cut:
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
The Others (2001)
The Wicker Man (1973), not the Nicolas Cage remake…even though that was kind of horrifying for different reasons.