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The Playlist Team Picks Their 13 Scariest Movies

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by The Playlist Staff
October 31, 2013 12:19 PM
15 Comments
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On the off chance you haven't literally tripped over a pumpkin in the last five minutes, we're here to remind you that tonight we celebrate the single greatest excuse ever invented to get trashed and wear skimpy clothing: Halloween. But of course, in addition to its status for some as a nationwide night of consequence-free hedonistic abandon, for others, Halloween has a deeper, more rarefied spiritual function: as a time to discover the limits of rationality; to test the boundaries of your relationship with the unknown and unknowable; in short, to scare yourself shitless.

Horror movies have long held a, well, hallowed position when it comes to the weird but primal desire to peep into the abyss, and if you're searching for ideas for this week, you can certainly check out our rundown of 10 New Horror BluRays To Haunt Your Halloween, or look into the 5 Best and 5 Worst Horror Remakes, or learn how to shriek in Japanese with 10 Foreign Language Horrors or even take a look through Martin Scorsese's 11 Scariest Films. But rather than do another list this year, we thought instead we'd gather around the Playlist campfire and tell each other stories of our own personal scariest films. If you've peeled enough grapes for the eyeball bucket and staunched the bloodflow from your carving injury, why not pull up a stick and a marshmallow and join us.

"The Descent" (2005) — Kimber Myers
I am a city girl at heart; the closest I’ll get to a cave is a basement apartment, and the nearest thing I’ve done to camping involved drafty cabin with a hot plate and dusty fridge. So if “The Descent” were only about six adventurous women trying to find their way out of an undiscovered cave system, I’d be terrified enough. But in fact the moment early on in Neil Marshall’s film where Sarah (Shauna McDonald) is stuck in a particularly tight tunnel is just where I begin to unravel, and it only gets worse from there. Once the women begin to be hunted by the cave’s freaky and freakish denizens, it’s all over for me. The sounds of their primal clicking and skittering across the cave floor has me moaning, which at least provides a nice break from screaming-devolving-into-nervous-laughter. What makes it worse for me is watching the bonds of friendship between the women quickly dissolve while the ever-dwindling number of survivors discover how far they’ll go to stay alive. On my most recent viewing, I was finally smart enough to watch with the lights on, which is probably a disservice to the dark palette director Marshall and DP Sam McCurdy created. That said, I still full-on screamed a half-dozen times. And then I stopped counting. Unlike the American edit, the original ending doesn’t give any release and so I spent the rest of the night jumping at shadows and the sounds of the kids next door scurrying across the floor.

"The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (1974) — Katie Walsh
At age 21, I was cultivating myself as a horror buff and had a lot of catching up to do on the classics. That summer I was living with my grandparents and interning one day a week, so I had a lot of time on my hands, which I thought could be put to the good use of my education. By “education,” I mean walking to the local video rental store to rent horror DVDs. One night I decided to finally go for the notorious "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," which I had long planned to watch but had never gotten around to seeing... perhaps by design, even just the title terrified me. They only had it on VHS, so I rented it and took it home to watch on the VCR in the guest room. So there I watched it, alone, sitting cross-legged about a foot away from the TV (I didn't want to turn the volume up, lest my grandparents worry about the sound of screaming/chainsaws buzzing). "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" didn't scare me in the jump/scream way that slashers do. No, the jump/scream is far too easy an experience, allowing the flood of relief that comes from the reveal of fake scare, or of rooting for a final girl as she scrambles just out of reach of the killer. Nope, "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" wasn't that push and pull of suspense and catharsis, it upset me on a deeply existential level, permeating my body and brain with a sick sense of dread that lasted for days (years?). Most truly scary horror films will be successful because they tap into some kind of spiritual, existential, or physical anxiety that troubles a core belief we hold about life or humanity. For me, with "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," the scene that is still seared on my consciousness is when wayward Pam finds herself in a room where the furnishings and decorations are made of human bones and body parts. The idea of the human body being used for some purpose other than what it is intended to do is one of the most disturbing, unsettling, and just plain philosophically wrong things I can conceive of. For other people, it might be different, perhaps amputation or the emptiness of space or claustrophobia or cannibalism. For me, it’s human bone lamps. That it’s such a mundane item exacerbates the sheer wrongness of it all. And that director Tobe Hooper was inspired by real events, included the serial killer Ed Gein, makes it even worse. The grungy, dusty, worn-down, pseudo-realistic aesthetic, and the warning that "the film you are about to see is real," (I knew it wasn't real, guys) added to the simple but shockingly effective execution of this classic. "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" proves all you need is a compelling idea (and to stick to it) in order to truly scare audiences. And no, I haven’t revisited it.

"The Beyond" (1981) — Gabe Toro
A movie like “The Beyond” isn’t remembered like a movie, it gets remembered as a dream. For a short while, I was convinced I hadn’t actually seen the film as I sat down and watched the Lucio Fulci classic, but that I had shut my eyes and allowed it to play in the deepest portions of my subconscious. The picture’s story, involving a gateway opening into Hell, feels like borderline free association, with gauzy sequences melting into each other as they are guided by the spooky-inconsistent dubbing. But those images are unforgettable, as it always is with Fulci’s films; “The Beyond” is the sort of film that makes you scoff at the cheap gimmick of 3D, with the trademark Fulci eye violence here the product of an itchy tarantula, taking you inside a hellish world where man and animal are no different in their savage goals. It’s the first death that lets you know that “The Beyond” isn’t child’s play, and it starts an avalanche of nightmarish ideas that proves no one quite knew zombies as well as Fulci. As they shuffle back to life, Fulci’s zombies decay and lunge towards the screen, and there’s something existentially troubling about that never-ending horde, escaping from a transient mist as if rejected from Hell. The ending to “The Beyond” is the rare final scene that seems ambiguous at first, and more maddeningly vague each further time you see it. It is a move from the real into the unreal, a shift from what you know as a movie to a bent reality where you can’t truly move from your seat until you acknowledge that Fulci has done the impossible and shattered the boundaries between the viewer and the horror. It’s the only movie I can’t watch with the lights off.

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15 Comments

  • Josh | November 8, 2013 4:46 AMReply

    It's probably thought of more as a thriller, but Silence of the Lambs just gets me every time. Few movies have filled me with as much dread as the scenes where Hannibal escapes his cell and the ending in Bill's basement. And the "puts the lotion on it's skin" scene where Bill mimics the girl's screams just disturbs in a way I've never felt in any other movie.

  • Matt | November 4, 2013 4:37 PMReply

    I'd never heard of Kill List before, but now I can't wait to check it out.

  • huey booker blount | November 2, 2013 8:29 PMReply

    Heather O`Rourke owns the universe.

  • potion lords | November 1, 2013 12:52 AMReply

    1. Martyrs (skinned alive & more)
    2. The Vanishing (final scene)
    3. Twin Peaks (TV episode where Leland /Bob kills the cousin)

  • Sean | October 31, 2013 9:20 PMReply

    Glad I'm not the only one that got frightened by Zodiac. Something about Dealins and making the camera and lighting help create an freaky, unstable, unknown mood.

  • cirkusfolk | October 31, 2013 8:13 PMReply

    Of course classics like The Shining and The Thing would be near the top of my list, but if I chose one I didn't think would get picked by many people I'd go with Jacobs Ladder. Definitely a psychological horror film that is scary for what it doesn't show than what it does.

  • Dryer | October 31, 2013 4:41 PMReply

    Zodiac is the last great mystery thriller. Even leaving the theater at 2pm the film left you looking over your shoulder and leaving you sleepless that night at the even the most slightest of sounds. But where I got a great scare from Zodiac was watching it at night alone in a resort town home and at the point in the film where Gylenhall starts poking around in Max Fleschiers basement, a cleaning person opened the front door and walked into the living area. It was a scare for both of us. He had the wrong home.

  • jimmiescoffee | October 31, 2013 4:03 PMReply

    'zodiac' is such a fantastic, atypical choice. that movie creeps the hell of out me. eerie doesn't even begin to describe it. probably fincher's best, and one of the best movies of the past 10 years.

  • Dan S | October 31, 2013 2:49 PMReply

    For classic horror my pick is "Dead of Night" from 1945.

  • Cory Everett | October 31, 2013 3:19 PM

    Love that one! Always show it to friends whenever they haven't seen it.

  • Michael | October 31, 2013 2:02 PMReply

    Bobcat Godthwait's new movie WILLOW CREEK should be considered for next year's list.

  • Alex | October 31, 2013 1:44 PMReply

    Great list. I haven't seen The Beyond, so now I know what I'm watching tonight.

  • fyi | October 31, 2013 2:22 PM

    Not a great list per se, pretty obvious picks. But that's not the point. It's sorta like getting to know the writer's subjective thoughts on that pick. If you care...

  • MAL | October 31, 2013 1:06 PMReply

    What, no "Exorcist"? Okay, that's an easy one so I get it. One that scared the bejeezus outta me as a kid was "The Picture of Dorian Gray". It's dark noir styling and its cerebral concepts about the corruption of the soul left a permanent impression as well as planting the seed to explore in more detail the wonders and artistry of film.

  • RP | October 31, 2013 1:22 PM

    I called it my runner-up.

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