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The Playlist Team Picks Their 13 Scariest Movies

Features
by The Playlist Staff
October 31, 2013 12:19 PM
15 Comments
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"The Blair Witch Project" (1999) — Jessica Kiang
With so many undeniably brilliant films here, it's humbling to have to admit that when I think about fear in the cinema, I don't go to Kubrick or Friedkin or Roeg or even to slasher or to giallo, instead I see that pre-millennial version of myself squirming away from the screen in abject, unprecedented terror at the image of Mike standing in the corner at the end of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez's "The Blair Witch Project." But just as you can't pick who you love, you can't pick what scares your face numb, and so braving the derision of the consensus that seems to have retrospectively agreed that it's like, totally lame, I state for the record that this was the film that broke me. It may not be the best scary movie ever, but it was the movie that was best at scaring me. Bear in mind, while contemplating the purchase of a pair of jelly shoes and worrying about Y2K, or whatever I was doing in 1999, I had really never been genuinely scared by a film—I mean, I'd jumped and been momentarily creeped out by stuff , but nothing had ever wormed its way into my brain and lain across my torso like a cold dead thing. And after two horror courses as part of my film degree, I was pretty sure I was invincible. Hearing about it first via its innovative (for the time) viral campaign, I had duly snickered over the reports of people "thinking it was real" and at the stories of faintings and I dunno, hearts exploding during screenings—God, people could be such pussies! Ha. Joke was on me. Palms sweating, blood rushing in my ears, I remember pulling out all sorts of tricks to try and calm myself: for a while I only looked at the top right hand of the screen; I started reciting high school poetry under my breath; I went to the bathroom (which I never do mid-movie); the last 10 minutes I watched through my fingers with my thumbs in my ears; none of it worked. It was inside my head. And worse, somehow, was my isolation: at one particularly unbearable crescendo moment (handprints), I glanced, choking on my own pounding heart, at my friend Ado. He was yawning. Now, I had earlier peeled a banana for this guy because he has some sort of phobia about banana skins, so, yeah, he's afraid of fruit, and he was yawning through the film. I felt so alone. Yes, a good portion of my reaction was probably that it was one of my first encounters with shaky cam (some poor chap a row ahead actually vomited). But that doesn't take away from the film's uncanny achievement: while for many it's little more than a punchline about snotty crying, and genre aficionados roll their eyes and delete my number from their phones when I tell them, in "The Blair Witch Project," for reasons I can't explain, I absolutely met my horror Waterloo.

The Shining” (1980) — Rodrigo Perez
So, I’m not a huge proponent of articles that essentially shame yourself—“10 classic movies I’ve never seen,” "10 amazing movies that I secretly hate,” etc.—you’re not doing anyone any favors here other than an audience that’s probably laughing at you. Most confessions like these usually only serve to underline your ignorance so it’s best to leave them in your unpublished wake. But contradicting this notion somewhat, I've chosen “The Shining” as notable to me personally, because it was a movie I hated the first time I saw it as a kid (believe it was early high school). I thought it was grossly over the top, totally un-subtle, just a torrent of shrill horribleness. Being a Stanley Kubrick fan already, I mostly thought to myself, “Gee, what happened to him here?” (in my ignorant-at-the-time meager defense, it also opened to mixed/negative reviews; here's Variety's original negative review). Which is ironic now because since then “The Shining” has become easily the scariest movie I’ve ever seen (close runners-up are “The Exorcist” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”). It just creeps me out to unholy levels. It’s also got a wicked sense of humor, and, perhaps more powerful to me than outright scary, an uncanny power to unnerve; it's so disquieting it almost undoes your equilibrium. This is what “The Shining” does to me, it makes me deeply anxious—there’s certainly been an occasion or three when it's come on late at night and in its more frightening scenes I've screamed bloody murder for the remote and changed the channel. In truth, not all of “The Shining” is even that scary. The first half's devilish Jack Nicholson conversations with ghosts are wickedly and deliciously evil, yes, but it's later, as the movie rises to its crescendo, and that freakishly discordant Penderecki music comes on, that the hairs on the back of my neck begin to stand up and I become progressively more unhinged. And those scenes alone—plus those super fucking creepy flash shots of the twins and the bear suggestively kneeling at the butler’s feet, oh Christ, that will give me nightmares for weeks. And props to Shelley Duvall who just gives sheer sheet-white terror an unforgettably alarming face. Not remotely the most original pick, but clearly that's not the point here.

"Jaws"

"Jaws" (1975) — Erik McClanahan
Steven Spielberg’s best film can’t be fully described as a horror movie, but it’s nonetheless terrifying. So much so that, upon seeing it on TV repeatedly at a young, impressionable age, it made me afraid to swim in the deep end of swimming pools. Soon as my feet couldn’t touch the bottom, I was sure a giant Great White (“that’s a 20-footer”... “twenty-five”) was going to pull me down and make me its lunch. Silly as it is to think about that being a legitimate fear for a young boy, the film still retains its power to scare, continuing to flood my psyche as an adult. Just the idea that in the ocean you are helpless... at the bottom of the food chain, and you can’t possibly know what’s beneath you. Spielberg exploits this very basic fear, playing the audience like a harp from hell. The fact that the mechanical shark didn’t work, of course, turned out to be a blessing for the production, forcing a very young Spielberg to obscure the terror and hide the shark for most the film. Though when it does rear its head, the nightmarish images are burned in your memory for life. After seeing this film, it’s hard not to think about John Williams iconic score, or again, just how helpless you are, every time you go swimming in the deep. Or at least it has been for me. “Jaws” is also a wonderful adventure tale, brilliantly structured, shot, acted and made up of characters and indelible moments that get you to care about the people and heighten the tension, for fear one of them could be picked off at any moment. Some may find it quaint by today’s standards, or maybe you’ve forgotten just how great this film is. I recommend you revisit it, but not right before you go swimming.

"Poltergeist" (1982) — Diana Drumm
As a child goth wannabe who didn’t know it, I was obsessed with death and darkness, which, compounded with a precocious appreciation for classic films, made for an over-the-top appreciation of Boris Karloff and Vincent Price. Around the Brownie campfire or just waiting for the school bus, I was the go-to-gal for the macabre, taking inspiration from “Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark” and “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” and receiving a few complaints from parents. Suffice it to say, I relished the feeling of spine-chilling creepiness. So when my mother turned on “Poltergeist” and said, “It’s a pretty scary movie,” I was pumped. Roughly 8 or 9 years old, this was my first modern (post-1960s), real (not "Scooby Doo") horror movie. I had no clue. To this day, I still get creeped out by trees too close to windows and little tow-headed children staring into static-ridden televisions. But don’t we all? Even so, the most scarring moment for me was when the flesh peeled off of one of the paranormal investigator’s faces. I had not yet seen “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (not-so-coincidentally, “Poltergeist” was co-written and co-produced by Steven Spielberg) and most other flesh melting/pulling I had seen was in the context of a very distant costume horror, not someone’s bathroom in the suburbs. The flying furniture and dinnerware seemed old hat. Demons talking to children? Been there, done that. Oh, a skeleton in a pool. Scary. Yeah, that lady from “Teen Witch” was creepy, but hey, that was her job… But a man staring at speedily decomposing, maggoty meat and then going to the mirror to witness not only his flesh rotting but his own hands pulling it off (spooky production note, the hands were Spielberg’s) was the most disturbing thing I had ever witnessed, and possibly seen since, excluding “The Human Centipede” and its graphic ilk. “Poltergeist” was on TV a bit ago (considering the season, it’s probably on right this very second, too) and that scene has stood the test of time in giving me (and many, many others) the creeps. Even just thinking about it… Oh, there’s that chill up the spine and grimace on the face (and that’s not even going into “The Poltergeist Curse”). Happy Halloween, everybody!

"Don't Look Now" (1973) — Drew Taylor
Being a lifelong horror fanatic, at a young age there were movies that you were simply able to read about but never see (either because the movies were obscure and out of print or your parents just wouldn't let you). "Don't Look Now," starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, was one of those movies. It was written about endlessly as one of the scariest movies ever, and when I finally got my hands on a copy (a weathered, secondhand VHS number), I was pretty excited, not just because it was a holy grail of horror that my eager little eyes had never gotten to feast upon, but because there was also just as high a probability that I wouldn't like it. That it would be too slow or old-fashioned or that the lore that had surrounded and built up on it would far outweigh the actual content. Boy, was I wrong. The movie had a palpable sense of atmosphere and dread (later I would learn that it was based on a piece of material that was written by Daphne du Maurier, the same woman who came up with "Rebecca" and "The Birds") that disquieted me and the sex scene, graphic and expertly put together, far outweighed the flashes of nudity that I had seen in other movies (like "Die Hard"). But the ending of "Don't Look Now" is what really destroyed me, and probably everyone else. It led to sleepless nights and endless anxiety. If by some wild twist of fate, you haven't seen it, I am not going to give it away here, but it is something that will stick with you, whether you want it to or not. As forbidden cinematic fruit, "Don't Look Now" was, and is, deliciously terrifying.

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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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