Tag Archive: horror


By Elizabeth C. Bunce

To be honest, this was a challenging list for me.  On the one hand, there is nothing I love better than a really great ghost story, so you’d think I’d be able to rattle off a list of ‘em just like that.  But that’s the thing—the really great ones, the ones that well and truly conjure up that perfectly spooky atmosphere and transport me wholly to the Hallowe’en, ahem, spirit… well, they’re pretty rare, actually.  I’m a little bit critical; I acknowledge that.  But that’s another reason to love these lists: I’m always on the lookout for the next The Others or Watcher in the Woods.

For me, atmosphere is everything.  Strike the right spooky ambience in a film, and you can overcome any number of shortcomings—including the total lack of an actual ghost in the story.  So here’s an assemblage of ten films that get the mood right, at least, making them excellent viewing when the lights are off and the late October wind howls outside.  In no particular order…

1.  Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
Ok, I hear you.  A Harry Potter movie on a Hallowe’en list?  Well, bear with me here.  Everything franchise-related aside, Azkaban has everything you’d want in a Devil’s Night creep-fest: the redesigned, gothic Hogwarts; the ghostly manifestations of the dementors haunting the castle and campus; the homicidal maniac on the loose; and oh, yes, the werewolf!  The film also drips with backstory and dark secrets, another element paramount to a great spook story.  And did I mention the werewolf?

2.  The Others (2001)
This one is creepy almost without trying.  Nicole Kidman plays the harried and pathologically overprotective mother of two light-sensitive children, occupying a remote English manor house in the days following World War II.  Though the scares here are primarily psychological, skin-crawling elements abound (what is up with those creepy kids? And those servants! Egad!), and the story has one of the best twist endings you’re likely to find.  So pull the blinds, get away from the windows, and watch for the seriously unsettling appearance of The Ninth Doctor, Christopher Eccleston, as Kidman’s estranged (or something) husband.  I can almost guarantee you’ll want to watch this one again, straight through from the beginning, when it’s over.

3.  Watcher in the Woods (1980)
For me, this film is the archetype of everything I want in a ghost story (erm, absent the actual ghost, I mean).  This 1980 Disney offering was based on a young adult novel by Florence Engel Randall, but this is a rare case of the film eclipsing (no pun intended!) its source novel.  It follows a pair of young American sisters who are renting a haunted English manor house for the summer, and who awaken the property’s chilling secret—and its chilling landlady, Mrs. Ayelsworth (Bette Davis).  Many years ago, Ayelsworth’s daughter disappeared from the estate, in a secret ritual her now-grown friends have sworn to keep silent.  But the past won’t be buried, and the apparent ghost of Karen Ayelsworth tries desperately to communicate with our heroines.  The setting here is pitch perfect, from the foreboding house to a murky lake, to the chapel ruins with ravens stirring through the dead leaves.  I loved this movie as a child, and it’s lost almost none of its wonder, atmosphere, and suspense. (Extended DVD scenes notwithstanding.)

4.  Rebecca (1940)
This 1940 Best Picture Oscar winner is a faithful rendition of the Daphne du Maurier novel by the same name. Du Maurier’s writing, Alfred Hitchcock’s direction, and George Barnes’s Academy Award-winning cinematography are so skillful and subtle that you will swear you’ve seen the ghost of Rebecca de Winter haunting Manderley yourself—though she makes no actual appearance in the film.  While the entire cast (particularly stars Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier,) turned in top-notch performances, the disturbing heart of the film is the unforgettable performance by Star Trek alumna Dame Judith Anderson as the first Mrs. de Winter’s devoted lady’s maid, Mrs. Danvers—the archetype for every creepy British servant to come.  This is psychological horror at its best; an exploration of how our own memories are the most frightening ghosts to put to rest.

5.  Skeleton Key (2005)
I’ll admit that I didn’t enjoy this film as much as I wanted to, but the fact that someone in our house bought the DVD, and our TV is mysteriously tuned to this movie every time it airs on late-night cable, should count for something.  Set in rural Louisiana, Skeleton Key drips with Southern Gothic creep-factor: Spanish moss, an old plantation dank with rot, an aging Southern belle, evocative voodoo set-dressing, and the unmistakeable tinge of old racism.  Add a smart heroine in over her head in something she doesn’t understand, plus a satisfying twist ending, and you’ve got a solid haunter with staying power.

6.  The Sixth Sense (1999)
M. Night Shamaylan’s career has been so utterly panned by now that it’s hard to remember that we all loved The Sixth Sense, and couldn’t stop talking about one of the best Gotchas! in horror film history.  Debate all you like, but this measured, thoughtful story of a boy with a problem, and the child psychologist who goes to unparalleled lengths to help him, is a mastery of mood, pacing, and misdirection.  You can watch it as a straightforward drama, and it’s a perfectly solid film.  The characters are skillfully drawn and acted with sincerity and subtlety, and you feel for the plight every single one of them is going through: the haunted boy, the caring therapist who can’t understand that his marriage is over, the lonely wife, and the desperate mother struggling to understand her troubled son.  But it’s in the moments we peek inside the child’s terrifying world that the horror of this story comes home, and whether or not you see dead people (or saw the ending from a mile away), you know you were a little skittish walking into your kitchen alone.

7.  The Ring (2002)
In the immortal words of Bravo’s Hundred Scariest Movie Moments, “There’s nothing creepier than a decrepit eight-year-old.” And while the combined lists on borg.com seem to bear that out, this is the decrepit eight-year-old you definitely don’t want to see climbing out of your TV late at night.  It’s not immediately obvious why this adaptation of the classic Japanese thriller is so frightening—is it the disturbing iconography in the underground video?  The ghoulish backstory?  The jarring cinematography and special effects?—but it all adds up to seriously unsettling viewing.  Bolstered by a strong mystery, a determined and believable lead, and the chilling ordinariness of her investigation, the contrasting horror seems all the more convincing, no matter how far-fetched a haunted videotape may sound.  Trust me: you’ll be glad you ditched your VCR.

8.  The Turn of the Screw (1999)
Henry James’s dark, “are they or aren’t they?” tale of two haunted siblings and the devoted governess desperate to protect them has been baffling audiences for 123 years, but that hasn’t stopped people from making movies out of it.  1961’s The Innocents, penned by no less a scribe than Truman Capote, is considered a modern classic, but this 1999 BBC version starring the brilliantly-cast Jodhi May in all her sloe-eyed anxiety captures all the frightening bewilderment of the original.  It’s never entirely clear what’s bothering the children in her care.  It could be ghosts, it could be pedophiles, or it could be the overactive imagination of the governess herself—but it’s from that uncertainty that the horror emerges.  With no true resolution to the tale—no laying to rest of the ghosts, no cozy denouement now that the danger has passed—The Turn of the Screw is ultimately unsatisfying, leaving you vaguely uncomfortable yet somehow wishing for more.

9. The Fog (2005)
At first glance, there really wasn’t an obvious reason to remake John Carpenter’s classic tale of a seaside town getting a belated and ghostly comeuppance.  But unlike ill-considered remakes before and since, The Fog loses nothing in translation—and even manages to surpass the original.  One of the most vital elements of a ghost story is arguably its backstory—the chilling past that rises to menace the present—and this 2005 adaptation gets it absolutely right.  The story of a town’s ill-gotten fortune at the cost of a doomed ship of lepers comes alive (or undead, at least) in rich period details, elaborate sets and costumes, and a powerful enriched storyline, all of which combine to create a pretty much perfect ghost story.

10.  Dead Again (1991)
This may seem an odd choice for a Hallowe’en list, but this 1991 Kenneth Branagh/Emma Thompson film deftly blends film noir, gothic romance, and the paranormal in a gripping, genre-bending mystery thick with atmosphere and suspense.  In two parallel storylines, Dead Again explores a post-war Los Angeles murder mystery that continues to haunt two people into the modern age.  Playing dual roles, both Branagh and Thompson excel, first as doomed lovers Roman and Margaret von Strauss, and as their modern counterparts, trying to unravel the secret of how that epic romance ended in a gruesome murder.  With its edgy, atmospheric soundtrack racing to a shocking twist ending, Dead Again is another film that will have you hitting the “replay” button on your remote as soon as the end titles roll.

By Jason McClain (@JTorreyMcClain)

Just like comedies, I find horror movies easy to judge.  For comedies, the question is, “Did the movie make me laugh?”  If yes, it was a good comedy.  The more laughs, the better.  For horror movies, the question is, “Did the movie scare me?”  If it is yes, then it is a good horror movie.  Now, there are “horror” movies that are good but aren’t scary.  In this category are some of the greats by Alfred Hitchcock (The Birds and Psycho come immediately to mind) as well as fun movies (Scream, Dawn of the Dead (the original and the remake) and Shaun of the Dead) that are enjoyable, but don’t raise the goose flesh on my arms or the back of my neck.

For me, the scare is usually not found in physical entities.  Zombies, well, you can devise a plan for zombies.  A lot of time it will fail, but you can come up with a plan.  Sit on a rooftop with boxes of ammunition.  Create distractions.  Run or drive really fast and don’t trip or crash into a tree.  Same for crazy people and homicidal maniacs like Jason Voorhees, Leatherface or Michael Myers.

However, what in the name of H.P. Lovecraft do you do about supernatural entities?  What can you do about things that are already dead and have no corporeal form so that you can at least shoot them in the head?  What can you do with things that can’t be touched but can hold you in the air by your own head of hair?

Well, you die and it’s not pretty when it happens.  But, before you die, your mind is filled with all the possible ways you could die, and dread lies around every corner.  You don’t want to move.  You don’t want to look around.  You want to sit, with your eyes closed and hope that all the bad things will go away.  They rarely do.

Of course, you can’t help but have exceptions in life and I’m sure you’ll figure out which movie it is in my list of my ten scariest horror movies.

10.  Drag Me to Hell

This movie is a bit different than most of the movies on my list.  In it, there are the supernatural dangers like most of the rest, but in this movie they come from an old crone.  Old crones are always trouble and they seem to like to curse people.  But, this kind of danger is easily avoidable.  Don’t talk to old people.

9.  Let Me In

Forgive me.  I have yet to see Let the Right One In, but I know that I liked this one and I can tell you why.  There’s something about creepy little girls that want to eat your soul that make me want to run and hide.  I think I just came up with the name of a movie I plan to write, “There’s Something About Creepy Little Girls.”  It will be a comedy/horror/romance for the tween crowd.

8. The Exorcist 3

One of the best scare moments ever in a movie happened in this one before it got talky.  As viewers, we were just looking at one of the characters with a hallway leading to a room in the background when all of the sudden, something dark spider-walks across the ceiling.  That image still makes me shudder.

7.  Jaws

You found the exception!  You win the fear of going into the deep end of a swimming pool where of course the sharks lurk.  I mean, they can’t survive in the shallow end of a pool, that would be silly.  As an added bonus, you get to wear a mask whenever you go snorkeling in the ocean that blocks your peripheral vision!  So, you’ll always want to look where you can’t see because that’s where the 50-foot shark will be.

Oh, Steven Spielberg, you’ve made swimmers afraid of any water for thirty-five years now.  Congratulations?

6.  Paranormal Activity

I think you either love these movies or hate them because they don’t offer much in the way of production quality.  But, when you spend only $15,000 on a movie, you don’t get much in the way of special effects.  That’s what makes this movie so beautiful.  Your imagination does all the work.  A couple of cameras filming different parts of the house and the filmmakers cut to one, cut to another, cut back to one and there is something changed.  It’s so subtle but immediately you question your senses.  Did I see that right?  How did that just happen?  Then you start to feel that something is off, the hairs on your neck start to rise and you wait.  The waiting allows the tension build and you scan every inch of the video to make sure you see everything and then a door creaks open.  The sound and motion of such an ordinary action all of the sudden fills you with such dread and even after the movie ends, that sound still makes you look around as you tell yourself that ghosts and demons don’t exist.  Do they?

5.  The Exorcist

The original creepy girl horror movie as Linda Blair talks like a demon, spider-walks across ceilings and hurls bile.  I would like to posit a theory: Chinese families subject to the one-child policy that the Chinese government enacted in 1978 wanted their one child to be male because they all saw this movie.

4.  Paranormal Activity 3

How do you improve on Paranormal Activity?  You set up a camera that oscillates.  So, it moves in a direction, everything is fine and then moves back and OHMYGOSH there’s something weird.  Then, every time that darn camera angle appears on screen you expect it to find scary stuff in the background.  When it doesn’t you can’t relax because you know it will the next time or the next time or the time after that.  Add on top of that two little daughters that like to talk to demons and say “Bloody Mary” three times in dark bathrooms and you have another movie with especially creepy girls.

3.  Paranormal Activity 2

How does the second Paranormal Activity top my list?  Well, the first just has a couple.  Adults generally should have enough sense to leave the house.  The third, as much as I liked it and as it added new tricks and creepy girls, still has a bit of the novelty gone.  That leaves the middle movie and the presence of a toddler that can’t talk and a dog.  My tip to you: if you ever see a dog freaking out at a closet, you’re probably royally screwed and you should just curl up in a ball and start crying.

2.  The Shining

The basis of my fear of creepy little girls is this Stanley Kubrick movie based on the Stephen King novel.  After I saw it, I dreamed of those damn twin girls asking Danny to come play.  So, when I hear guys with their scantily clad twin girl fantasies I nod and smile and try to keep myself from running out of the room screaming.  I also don’t know if I can really ever fully trust a bartender.

1.  The Blair Witch Project

Easily the scariest movie I’ve ever seen.  Why?  It’s the only movie that made me question every skeptical bone in my body.  I went to see this movie at a theater in Denver, Colorado.  The Mayan, I believe.  I had heard just a little about it and I saw it in a packed theater with a bunch of other people hanging on the edge of their seats.  I left the theater a bit scared and happy that I had a fantastic movie going experience.  I climbed into my car and started to drive.  Then it hit me.  I had planned to go camping that night in the Rocky Mountain National Park.  I was going to go and drive up there in the dark, find a secluded campsite, strap on my head lamp, set up my tent and somehow go to sleep all by myself as the sounds of the night closed in around me.  I thought about it. I thought about it again.  Ghosts don’t exist.  I kept telling myself there is no such thing as the Blair Witch.  Then, instead of driving for an hour and a half, I drove four hours to just go home and sleep behind four walls, making sure that no one was in my apartment standing in a corner.

So, the moral of the story: don’t plan on camping after watching scary movies and for the love of all that is holy, avoid creepy little girls like the plague.  How can you tell if they’re creepy?  I don’t know.  Just avoid them all.

Don’t… look…now…

Starting tomorrow we will be featuring the top ten recommendations from each of the writers at borg.com for our favorite scary/creepy/horror/suspense films–good stuff to get you in the mood for All Hallows’ Eve next weekend.

What would your list look like?  Let us know!

Our selections are made and I had a blast reading these so I hope you do, too.  What do the lists have in common?  A few overlap, but you’ll definitely see some strange themes in common, from seaside locales to nine films featuring…creepy little girls.  I can tell you what standard horror list fare didn’t make any of our lists of recommendations:  Friday the 13th, Halloween, Saw, Scream, The Omen, Rosemary’s Baby, Poltergeist, A Nightmare on Elm Street, or Amityville Horror.

Check back here tomorrow for the first of our lists, from writer Jason McClain.

*All are now linked here:

Part 1: Jason’s List
Part 2: Elizabeth’s List
Part 3: Art’s List
Part 4: The Editor’s List

C.J. Bunce
Editor
borg.com