By C.J. Bunce
The focus of my creepy movie list is mood and surprises and re-watchability, as the setting and ambiance is what calls to me when it’s time to pull out some movies every October when each day gets darker and the wind starts kicking up the leaves. I don’t like slasher flicks, and over-the-top shock horror isn’t my thing. Movies like Hellraiser II and Phantasm may be flat-out scary, but they don’t give you much else entertaining. I like the “modern classics,” the original Friday the 13th and Halloween, but ultimately they didn’t make my list because I don’t re-watch them as much as other movies. I really liked The Ring and Donnie Darko, but ultimately they didn’t make it to the Top 10 for me, only because I haven’t had time to watch them over and over as much as most of those that made the cut. On another day the ceiling hopping raptors in Jurassic Park, non-fantasy horrors of Coma and The China Syndrome, the creepy terror in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, the stylish suspense in Hitchcock’s Rear Window or Otto Preminger’s Laura, the sheer panic in Steven Spielberg’s Duel, the nervous tension in Blair Witch, as well as the “Zuni fetish doll” segment of Trilogy of Terror and one of my favorites–the “oil spill attacking kids at a lake” segment of Creepshow 2–could have made this list for me. Every one of the shows above will make you jump when you least expect it.
So here’s where I did end up:
10. Young Frankenstein (1974). I figured any list I’d create for creepy/suspense/Halloween watching would have to reflect the classic Universal monster movies in some way. My favorite is the parody of all of them, made by the master of parody, Mel Brooks. Brooks held the classic horror films with such reverence that he re-created the original design for the Frankenstein laboratory for Young Frankenstein. Yes, I know it’s not scary. But as dark, gothic ambience is concerned, I know of no other film that did it so well, and in black and white this movie could have been made 40 years earlier–it feels like a 1930s film. It’s also a movie all ages will enjoy–kids won’t understand the innuendo in most of the comedy, but the physical humor will have them laughing out loud. I’ve watched this one so many times I have it practically committed to memory. One of the best ensemble casts I can think of performed in this one. Look for Gene Hackman in a great cameo, too. Like a funhouse, there are startling jumps here, but they are all cloaked in humor. Pull out the humor and you have a ghoulish Frankenstein story where off-camera you know the monster, with an inside joke-like smirk to the audience, is going to launch that little girl into the well after the last flower petal is gone. Not a scary film, but Transylvania never looked creepier.
9. 28 Days Later (2003). In a tie as the most recent film on my list, this is a rare occurrence where zombie-like people are actually interesting, creepy, and scary. A few weeks after an outbreak engulfs Great Britain, a handful of characters try to find sanctuary away from the sub-humans that have resulted from the disturbing virus. It doesn’t get much creepier than the plague in the single drop of water falling into Brendan Gleeson’s eye in 28 Days Later. The movie is full of characters who look like they really are feeling the panic you would feel when there is no hope left and it’s left to every man for himself. An opening scene with Cillian Murphy playing a patient who finally awakens to find an empty London was instantly a classic piece of cinema, reminiscent of the Australian film The Quiet Earth or The Day the Earth Stood Still. With the feel of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the creepy UK film Lifeforce, and a little An American Werewolf in London, the filters and UK setting for the American viewer adds to the strangeness of this movie’s vibe.
8. Prince of Darkness (1987). My addiction to the TV series Simon and Simon and series star Jameson Parker is what caused me to rent this one back in the late 1980s. It is John Carpenter’s approach that makes this one plain scary. It is almost a scientific view of what university types would do if they were encountering an invader entering our world. This time the invader is the devil, and the gateway is via a “hellmouth” of sorts made of gelatinous green goo. Forget about any prior appearance you’ve seen of Alice Cooper. He’s the coolest right here as one of the zombies creeping about to usher in the evil and trapping the researchers in their building with some very bad happenings. The classic Carpenter crew is here, too, with Donald Pleasance as the priest, Peter Jason as the doctor, and Victor Wong as the professor. The ultimate form that the “prince of darkness” takes at the end of the film is the big shocker. And, yes, there’s some gore, but ultimately this film tries to be a lot better film than straight horror, and like all Carpenter flicks, manages to succeed.
7. Final Destination 2 (2003). Although this film certainly brings in the latex blood and gore by the boatload, this movie takes the concept of “death stalking those who cheated it” further than the original film and is actually a lot more fun. It’s the first Final Destination mixed with some more carefully concocted Rube Goldberg-inspired chain reactions. Ali Larter, co-star of the first film, gets a bigger role here, trying to help the cast of “lucky” survivors. Suspense is amped up in this film, and non-stop angst, as you wonder just who and how the next guy is going to get eliminated by the seemingly random events. Lots of red herrings, but all are fun, with plenty of opportunity for you to jump out of your seat.
6. They Live (1988). I saw the premiere of this film in 1988 and the name Roddy Piper went by in the credits. I never made the connection the star was THE Rowdy Roddy Piper of WWF fame til years later. The guy could act an dhe is very cool as this character. They Live has a number of cool elements for a genre film: an outsider-type fringe hero, a sci-fi twist, surprises around every corner, a feeling of paranoia seeps in, a big revelation that makes you question what is going on around you as you walk from the theater, and cool gimmicks–contact lenses and sunglasses that let you see the truth, including some creept subliminal messages. My bias toward John Carpenter is evident on this list, but his movies are so dissimilar I just can’t help it. Oppressive government, unfair economic advantages, sell-outs–this movie is much more than another horror flick–it’s part horror, part sci-fi, part political thriller, part action flick.
5. The Birds (1963). Like John Carpenter’s The Fog and Spielberg’s Jaws, this movie takes place on the seacoast, one of my favorite locations for an eerie thriller. Alfred Hitchcock’s direction in this movie makes you feel claustrophobic, like you’re almost choking on the birds that inexplicably attack this little seaside village. In the end it all comes down to being trapped again, this time in a house. As a kid this one caused its share of jumps out of bed in the middle of the night. It must be scary if it causes nightmares, right? Some of the imagery will stick with you forever. And check out the sultry and creepy character played by a young Suzanne Pleshette. Compare The Birds and Jaws and you can see common themes and approaches the best masters of suspense use. As Tom Petty says, “the waiting” is the hardest part, and sometimes you don’t really want to see what’s coming next.
4. Silver Bullet (1985). A series of deaths in Tarker’s Mill promps a town to band together to flush out the killer. A fog shrouded forest, men splitting up, and one by one the men don’t make it out of the woods. The town becomes paranoid of the night, canceling Independence Day festivities. Enter cool uncle Gary Busey, who gets his wheelchair bound nephew Marty, played by a young Corey Haim (Lost Boys), a rocket and surreptiously fire it off despite all the adult fear. An old covered bridge, a sheriff played by Terry O’Quinn (John Locke in Lost), a preacher played by Everett McGill (Twin Peaks), and a lot of creepiness. The killer isn’t human. Hey, sheriff, don’t go snooping around in there. And a bat named Peacemaker. Probably the quietest creepy thriller in the Stephen King adaptation arsenal, that quiet makes the gotchas all the better. A perfect autumn night movie, not too much gore or irrelevant gross-outs, but the surprises are guaranteed to make you jump. Megan Follows (Anne of Green Gables) plays Marty’s older sister, who sells a good portion of the fear through her powerful expressions.
3. The Fog (1980). I was 10 years old when I saw this at the drive-in theater. It was a double feature with Phantasm and my brother and sister smuggled me in. I got no sleep that night. At the time both movies were blurred together, and I don’t know which movies the nightmares came from. Years later I realized Phantasm was just another cheesy slasher flick, but I have re-watched John Carpenter’s original The Fog too many times to count. This is my favorite ghost story movie. One hundred years ago, Antonio Bay’s founders weren’t quite as honorable as the townsfolk see them today at the town’s centennial celebration. It’s setting makes this an old sea tale of sorts. Sultry-voiced Adrienne Barbeau (yes, I like sultry brunettes in my scary flicks) plays Stevie Wayne, who works in the lighthouse as a radio jockey, also warning boats about this strange fog… inching closer to the bay. Hal Holbrook is the preacher who is slowly losing it as he realizes the truth of the town’s past. Jamie Lee Curtis is a drifter who stumbles into the wrong town on the wrong night. And there are a lot of ghosts that, despite looking like giant ticked-off Jawas, deliver sufficient creepiness. Check this out for some great atmosphere.
2. Jaws (1975). Thinking I would quickly fall asleep my folks took me to this one at the drive-in theater. I did fall asleep, but not before the opening scene. How many movies can claim all that Jaws has accomplished? Where Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho made everyone check behind the shower curtain, Jaws has kept people on the beach. There are generations now who still feel a little nervousness whenever they put on fins and take that first step in. The defining tuba theme alerting us to when the shark is really coming is forever apart of everyone’s musical vocabulary. John Williams’s score is so brilliant because most of it is a light-tempo, summer frolicking medley, so when the clashing violin scare themes arrive the contrast makes the music its own character. The fear is underscored by Robert Shaw’s ominous USS Indianapolis speech. One of the best films of all time in any genre.
1. Watcher in the Woods (1980). When I was in junior high, as a treat to students, the school would play movies on Friday afternoons, each movie split over two Fridays. I saw this movie on a full size screen in our huge auditorium, which roughly looked like the Ford Theater where Lincoln was shot. My friend Jeff lived literally next door to the woods…you could see them out his window. Jeff held his hands over his eyes for the first hour of the show and didn’t come back the next Friday for the rest. Twenty-five years later my co-worker asked me for a recommendation because he was hosting a Halloween party for his kid’s group of 10 12-year-old boys. I recommended Watcher in the Woods instantly. The following Monday he thanked me and said the boys, and he, were glued to the entire movie. Watcher was one of Disney’s first forays into something new. It’s probably my favorite Disney movie. Imagine you fall into a creek, what would be creepier than Bette Davis standing above you trying to push you down deeper with a stick? Look for a lot of ambience and mood in this one, and a few things that go bump. Bette Davis is scary here, even compared to her prior frightening performance in make-up in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? She was made for creepy roles. And, hey, that strange little girl, Kyle Richards, has her own TV show now. Note: Stay away from the original director’s cut or expanded version as it was so bad it almost canned the film in pre-production. Stick with the theatrical release.
And that’s it!
So where did the four of us end up?
Jaws gets the highest ranking, making three of our lists, and The Shining, The Exorcist, The Exorcist 3, Watcher in the Woods, The Ring, and Paranormal Activity seem to rise above the rest, showing up on two lists. Seaside locales are the favorite location for scares, with Jaws, Rebecca, The Birds, The Ring, The Fog (both the original and remake) all taking place there, and creepy little girls are the favorite subject of–count ‘em NINE–of our haunts (The Ring, The Exorcist, Let Me In, Paranormal Activity 3, Watcher in the Woods, The Sixth Sense, The Shining, Turn of the Screw, and The Others). And the supernatural wins out over monsters, saws and axes. Four movies were by John Carpenter, three by Alfred Hitchcock. The oldest movie was Rebecca from 1940, the newest came out this year, Paranormal Activity 3.
I hope you like our lists and they prompt you to check out something you haven’t seen before. Look for other lists here in the future.
And let us know what is on your list!