BY MATT JUSTUS
Though Halloween has come and gone, it’s still that slightly creepy time of year. This weekend, treat yourself to one of these horror classics if you’ve never seen them before. Plus, it gets dark at 4pm these days, so there’s plenty of nighttime in which to nestle in and get scared out of your wits.
10. Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922) – A loose adaptation of Bram Stoker’s classic vampire novel, Nosferatu still holds up as one of the most eerie films of all time, without resorting to any of the gore or on-screen brutality that modern films of the genre seem to require. The fact that it’s a silent film only adds to the sense of alienation that the film so powerfully evokes.
9. They Live (1988) – A lesser-known John Carpenter film, They Live follows a construction worker (played by professional wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper) as he stumbles upon a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see that a group of aliens has landed, and is using consumer culture to take over. It’s campy as heck, but the one-liners are classic, and the message still resonates. The film is also notable for containing a fistfight sequence which lasts for over five minutes straight, complete with a few of Piper’s own wrestling moves.
8. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) – By far the best entry in this series is the first, though the later movies are also notable for popularizing the killer as anti-hero – the audience is actually given more opportunity to sympathize with Freddy Kruger than with his unfortunate victims later on. However, unlike the sequels, which are just setups for elaborate and gruesome murders, the original is actually scary. Kruger is more of a boogeyman here, a force that attacks through a facet of life that is uncontrollable and therefore inherently frightening: dreams.
7. Alien (1979) – Seven people stuck on a spaceship in the middle of nowhere with a seemingly unstoppable creature that wants nothing more than to eat them and/or use them as hosts for a hideous method of reproduction. The premise is simple, but the pacing and special-effects work are what make for a truly terrifying experience. Director Ridley Scott expertly builds tension between each explosive attack, and the payoffs are well worth the wait.
6. Halloween (1978) – This is the genesis of the modern-day slasher movie – just for that, I should probably strike it from this list, as I probably should for its association with the later films in its own series (I’m still to this day trying to wrap my head around Halloween 3: Season of the Witch – what was the point of those evil children’s masks again?). The sequels do the film a disservice by trying to give Michael Myers a motive – without one, this film is the story of a lunatic escaping an asylum and brutally attacking people in his hometown without rhyme or reason. If Michael has a motive for attacking Jamie Lee Curtis’ character, there is less opportunity for us to put ourselves in her position, which is what makes the original so terrifying.
5. Scream (1996) – Scream is, at its core, a horror movie about people who watch horror movies, a brilliant deconstruction of the genre. The victims have seen Halloween, and so they know, at least in principle, what to do in the event of attack by a maniac. The script is witty and self-referential, almost a black comedy at the same time that it is a really enjoyable slasher movie in its own right.
4. The Ring (2002) – This is the film that scared me personally more than any other movie I’ve ever seen. I’ve often heard that the Japanese version, Ringu, is even better. I wouldn’t know; I was too scared to even try watching it. The film is effective without much blood and violence at all (as its PG-13 rating can attest), but director Gore Verbinski manages to make a little go a long way. He pulls out all the stops in modern horror cliché: creepy little kids, false scares, jump cuts, bizarre images which mean nothing but manage to stick in the viewer’s mind, etc., but by hanging them on the framework of a woman trying to find a way to escape imminent death and the urgent performance of Naomi Watts, they add up to the most frightening film in years.
3. Psycho (1960) – Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is a classic for several reasons. The first is its powerful tone shift after the first act, as the film switches from a thriller in the vein of Rear Window to a true horror film with an abrupt murder. Beyond this, it is remarkable as a character study of a disturbed individual, an unfamiliar and warped person who nonetheless becomes a sympathetic figure, both because we understand to an extent the reasons behind his insanity and because his reactions to the crimes he commits are similar to our own (unlike, for example, Freddy Kruger, who is a hero within his series because the viewers are supposed to want his victims to be murdered).
2. The Exorcist (1973) – Assuming that people see horror movies to be frightened and horrified, this film is probably the most successful of its type. It doesn’t rely on building suspense until the audience is cringing, waiting for something to happen. It doesn’t really prey on deep-seeded human fears, unless you’re legitimately worried about demonic possession (not that there’s anything wrong with that – I know people who refuse to see the movie because the idea scares them that much). It certainly doesn’t leave anything to the imagination. What it does is expose you to terrifying imagery, and lots of it. Of course, the film does raise questions, not the least of which is whether Regan is actually possessed at all, but during most of its runtime, all we can do is watch in awe.
1. Jaws (1975) – Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece about man vs. nature; stunningly crafted in nearly every way. Even without any of the horror elements, the film is great fun to watch, led by the powerful performances of Roy Schieder, Richard Dreyfuss, and especially Robert Shaw. As we’ve seen elsewhere throughout this list, with horror less is often more. The fact that you don’t get a good view of the shark until the end of the movie only builds the suspense – after all, the most frightening thing about sharks is their ability to strike without warning. The shot of the shark’s fin as it enters the pond on the Fourth of July never fails to send chills down my spine.