It takes a lot to disturb me. That’s not a macho thing, just a bare fact. I’m generally pretty numb to intensity in film. That being said, there have been a few movies in the day that, for one reason or another, fucked my shit up. Sometimes the movie’s just that scary; other times something was touched on that was personal for me.
The following films, in no particular order, all share a single, common trait: they, for whatever reason, all caused me to sleep for at least one night with a light on, when I was younger and more fearful of the dark things that creep in shadow.
- The Exorcist – If you’re tempted to say “But the Exorcist wasn’t scary!” then stop right now, because you’re clearly a liar, and you’ve completely compromised your reliability. “The Exorcist” is horrifying, and a solid example of a truly timeless movie. The themes it covers – faith, love, commitment, struggle – still resonate heavily, forty years after its premiere, and the film’s intelligent exploration of supernatural themes has yet to be surpassed in terms of quality. Plus, JESUS CHRIST; Demon Regan is still one of the all-time creepiest images ever committed to celluloid. The head-turning scene – the first one, I mean, when the demon traps the mother in the room with her possessed daughter – left me terrified of the darkness in the largely empty theater I was watching it in. Later, during a jump scene, a few girls in back screamed, and I’ve never been more relieved to hear screams in my life.
- The Evil Dead – The cartoony and hilarious sequels sometimes make people forget how bone-chillingly terrifying the first film is. Halfway in, the characters are whittled down to just one man, ALONE, in a cabin, in an entire FOREST, trapped in a spot of light amid an ocean of isolated darkness, completely cut off from any form of help. Trapped, as the corpses of his friends rise, possessed by hellish demons intent on shredding his flesh, destroying his sanity, and damning his soul. The stark darkness of the film and its overall theme – that “everything dies,” to quote star Bruce Campbell – is harrowing, and no comfort or resilience comes from re-watching it, no matter how many times you restart the DVD.
- The Texas Chain Saw Massacre – A film that reputedly left some viewers in a state of shock after seeing it, and I can understand why. One is left feeling like they’re watching a horrible carnival of depravity as the family of grave-robbing, cannibalistic murderers butcher and consume the young kids who wander onto their property. The true disturbance comes from realizing that this is a sustained sickness, that this depravity has gone on so long that the family has not only normalized it, but actively endorse the vileness with perverse pride and false virtue. The movie has a peculiar quality of realism to it, as though this is a horror that one has every possibility of stumbling upon while going about the errands of their day, in small town America.
- Child’s Play – CHUCKY. I was mortally afraid of this little goblin until I was thirteen, and even now, his image still elicits a certain amount of nervousness in me. The little bastard has the creepiest face imaginable. And save your bravado; for all your talk about how you’d handle a doll-sized psychopath, you’re likely to keep that knife of his in the forefront of your mind as he maniacally swings it in front of himself, slashing madly at your legs, lopping off fingers as you vainly try to defend yourself. And as the knife goes into you, again and again, that freakish, sneering, wild-eyed face will be the last horrible thing you’ll see before you finally close your eyes.
- The Innkeepers – An initially light and disarmingly engrossing movie, “The Innkeepers” starts out as light entertainment, as you meet the main character and her coworker, two employees of a hotel that is slowly preparing to shut down. The first half of the film has quirky character development and engaging humor that borders on gentle comedy – and it leaves you completely unprepared for the fear that comes in the second half. Initially the film revels in everything that makes the idea of ghost hunting so intriguing for most people, and then shifts the tone from our fascination with ghosts towards our deeper feelings of horror about them. The effectiveness comes because the film knows exactly how to come after you: by showcasing virtually every dark, horrific scenario that’s ever run through your mind when you’re somewhere dark and alone. The exact nightmare images that run through your mind in those moments play out onscreen, driving a white-hot lightning bolt of recognition through your screaming subconscious.
- The Silent House – Forget the fuck-awful American remake. This astonishingly-filmed Uruguayan horror movie will imprison you in whatever bed or chair you watch it from until daybreak. Filmed in one continuous take, by a cameraman named Pedro Lopez (who is able to play his camera like a goddamned flute), the film opens as a father and daughter prepare to spend the night in an old, neglected house, which they intend to fix up for sale. Quickly the girl is cut off from her father and his friend, as whatever dark presence shares the home with them begins to stalk her through shadowed rooms haunted with memory. The Silent House is terrifying, heartbreaking, and breathtaking, and the final image will leave you doubting your own perception of the world.
- The Amityville Horror – Though the legendary ghost story is now largely considered falsified, the story itself, taken as fiction, is still terrifying. The themes alone that it explored were unsettling – families turning against one another, the perceived invasion of family units by step-parents, the disconnect between parents and their children, the helplessness of parents to protect their brood from forces greater than themselves – these are deep and cutting themes that strike us on a basic, instinctive level. The film’s RIDICULOUSLY unnerving soundtrack added to the tension, and just hearing it from the other room is enough to make you want to check the shadows with a flashlight. The windowsill hand-smashing scene is cringe-inducing, and the youngest daughter’s friendship with “Jodi” is chilling, as the actions the girl says her imaginary friend encourages grow more and more destructive. And during the film’s climax, as George Lutz fights to save family and dog from the evil presence of the house, the stare of a demonic pig – “Jodi” – drives home how truly unholy the forces at work against the family are.
- The Silence of the Lambs – The entire film is a tour de force into the rotten core of human depravity, and it’s brilliantly done. From the unflinching portrayal of the inhuman patients Dr. Lector shares his confinement with – and none of them are human, not anymore – to the shock-inducing scenes of Buffalo Bill’s psycho-sexual torture and madness, one scene truly stood out for me, and drove home the depth of evil that Clarice Starling was up against, from both sides: as she investigates an abandoned storage unit, and opens a long-unused car, she discovers, impeccably preserved, a human head, casually stored with the rest of the junk. The film operates on a level rational minds have to reach to comprehend, and that no one can truly understand, unless they never want to sleep again from the dread such knowledge would bear.
- Hellraiser – I feel like this one needs little explanation. “Hellraiser” is a warped tour de force of depravation, mutilation, and decomposition. Those three themes are evident in every frame of the film – from Frank’s unwholesome desire for his niece Kirsty, to Julia’s lust for what is, essentially, a walking corpse, and finally to the deterioration of all things good and virtuous by film’s end. The Cenobites were so visually startling that they became instant icons in horror, with Pinhead’s surreal, nightmarish visage eternally linked to pulse-climbing terror. The uniqueness of the Cenobites – creatures neither good nor evil, but simply nihilistic and carnal beyond human comprehension – disturbed audiences as much as it horrified them. For my money, I can’t imagine anything looking more horrific than Butterball and the Chatterer, though Pinhead unnerves me more for the feeling of calm, torturous precision he exudes. But what really turned my stomach to ice when I first saw this movie was the Engineer, an utterly unholy monster that scaled walls and gave Kirsty Cotton her first glimpse of the perversity she was up against.
- A Nightmare on Elm Street – People forget why this film was so effective. Yes, Fred Krueger’s horrifying face helped, as did that unbelievably sadistic glove of his. And the idea that you will die if you fall asleep – making your dark fate completely unavoidable – carries a deep dread with it. But what hit my fear button for this flick is how spot-on Craven was in presenting common nightmares on the screen. The ground turning to mush as you try to run, strangers who are always faster, always stronger than you, can always reach you, worlds where gravity means nothing and anything can menace you – these are presented organically and graphically, and as you watched, you subconsciously realized that the dark figure that stalked your nightmares had been Krueger all along, and that you’ll never be truly safe in your bed again.