“Kill List” (2011) — Cory Everett
As someone who grew up in a house filled with Universal Monsters memorabilia, one of the more disappointing aspects of growing up is that scary movies just aren’t scary for me anymore. As a kid, I was absolutely terrified of vampires and just walking past the horror aisle at the video store could prompt a panic attack and nightmares for weeks. As an adult, I still love horror movies and can appreciate them for a variety of reasons, but they rarely work on me. Over the last decade or so, I’ve seen countless horror films and though I often rile myself up into a state of apprehension when the lights go down, the films invariably find a way to deflate that tension (usually sooner rather than later). The only exception in recent years that never broke the spell for me was a film that defies simple genre classification, Ben Wheatley’s “Kill List.” I’d heard the SXSW buzz and knew it was supposed to be “intense” and “disturbing” and that it had literally made one of our writers feel sick afterwards and that was enough to put it on my Must See list without reading or watching anything else about it. When it finally came around about 6 months later, I knew almost nothing about it other than to brace myself for the worst. The film centers on a former soldier pressured by his wife and their grim financial situation to take the occasional job as a contract killer. I tensed up from the opening frames expecting a shocking outburst of violence or moment when all hell breaks loose to match the wave of pre-release hype, but Wheatley smartly keeps building the tension with an off-kilter tone and an accumulation of small unsettling moments without letting his true designs unravel until the final scenes. Violent but not gratuitous, the easy rapport between leads keeps the film alarmingly watchable even as the rug starts to get pulled out from under you and you’re not even quite sure what kind of film you’re watching anymore. By the time you realize what’s going on, it’s already too late. To further describe what makes this film great would be to rob you of the pleasure of seeing it for yourself.
“Zodiac” (2007) — Charlie Schmidlin
One of my constant anxieties in life, likely similar to many others, is not following through with any one project or commitment, and throughout the entirety of David Fincher’s masterful 2007 film “Zodiac,” you get the sense that he’s charting out his own vision of a taskmaster’s ultimate hell. Recounting the decades-long investigation surrounding the San Francisco Bay Zodiac murders in the late-‘60s/early-‘70s, Fincher fills every frame with information—dates, names, faces and sounds, and leaves his impeccable cast (Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr.) to sort them out for any shred of relevance. However, it’s in the moments of space across his 162-minute film that Fincher uses to evoke an unforgiving fatalism against optimism that lingers long afterwards. The terse stabbing of the couple by the lake, Gyllenhaal’s crawling descent into a suspect’s dimly-lit basement—both are heart-stoppingly built up and shuttered in their own right, but the film’s most searing scene for me is one that combines technical brilliance and a chilling isolation. The nighttime taxicab murder, in which the Zodiac killer shoots a cabbie from the backseat and escapes the scene, is framed from just outside the vehicle; Fincher’s camera slowly pulls back as Vanilla Fudge’s schoolyard-rhyming tune “Bang Bang” rings above panicked phone calls to the police. It’s one of the few more overtly horrific notes in Fincher’s film, but the director’ incessant documentation of the case elsewhere (added on in his superior Director’s Cut) only drives home the larger, terrifying fact that the real killer was never found.
“Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) — Kevin Jagernauth
In general, I’m not much of a horror fan and I don’t tend to gravitate toward the genre. The most remarkable thing to me about the original “Friday The 13th” for example, is how boring and poorly made it is; that it ever spawned a single sequel, let alone a still ongoing franchise is beyond me. So, needless to say, otherworldly phenomenon or ruthless, savage killers don’t send a chill up my spine, cinematically speaking. Rather, the most frightening thing to me is when the seemingly ordinary is exposed to be something truly nefarious and dreadful, which is why Roman Polanski’s truly nervy “Rosemary’s Baby” gets me every time. While the movie has its fair share of “scares” (for lack of a better word) late in the picture when all the demonic plot threads start closing in, it only works because the build up to Rosemary’s (Mia Farrow) revelation is so shattering (and heartbreaking). Polanski sets the tone right from the start, seeming to shoot scenes just slightly tighter than they should be, boxing Rosemary into a claustrophobic world, one she shares with her husband Guy (John Cassavetes), who seems to be hiding something right from the start. And that sense of being unable to escape, even if the threat isn’t immediately apparent, combined with a growing sense of paranoia is truly scary stuff. Now mix that concoction with the emotions of a newlywed and mother-to-be, it’s potent, compelling, riveting and edge-of-your-set material, one that’ll make you question your own grip on reality.
“An American Werewolf in London” (1981) — Ben Brock
It isn't the most frightening film ever made, or even the most frightening film on this list... but John Landis' constantly wrong-footing horror-comedy is still a pretty interesting experience, especially when you're 13 and your teacher decides to show it to you and your class. It was an eye-opening couple of hours: extraordinary (and award-winning) werewolf transformations, shower sex and Nazi-zombie nightmares, with naïve me, after each moment of unexpected terror, asking my neighbor (who'd seen it before) if the worst was over, only for him to reply “oh no, there's still the scene in the Underground to come...”. (Actually, the single scariest moment for me is when the body in the woods opens its eyes.) How our teacher got away with it I'm not sure, but we were as grateful as only a group of 13-year olds who've just discovered 1980s Jenny Agutter can be—and I, at least, was slightly scarred. “An American Werewolf in London” keeps up the fear in part because it mixes preposterous but still powerful shocks—see, for instance, the bit where the monster-SS burst through the windows of a house—with scintillating gruesome effects, real humor, an outstanding soundtrack (every song has the word “moon” in its title), Muppets references and genuine poignancy (and a depiction of England endlessly amusing to actual English people). It's a reminder, too, that horror runs on the same few cues, and the right music, the right sound effect, the right shadow can chill you, even in the middle of a scene that seemed like it was going to be comic. So remember: Stay on the road. Keep off the moors...
“The Thing” (1982) — Oli Lyttelton
I don't entirely remember when I first saw John Carpenter's "The Thing." I'm pretty sure that, due to having my head almost continuously in film-related magazines and books from the age of about eight onwards, I'd had some of the film's more horrific images revealed for me long before I ever saw them in context. But whenever it was that I finally saw John Carpenter's masterpiece—probably my single favorite horror film, and one of my favorite films period—the previous illicit glimpses didn't stop me from being entirely freaked out by the whole. The rare worth-a-damn remake (of Howard Hawks' worthwhile, but somewhat dated 1951 film "The Thing From Another World," based on the novella "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell), it's scary on the level of the original, "Body Snatchers"-derived film—the idea that anyone could be one of Them, and about to turn on you at any minute. But then it piles on a remote, desolate Antarctic setting, which of all the places in the world, is the one I'd least like to die in. And then, it layers in Rob Bottin's still-astonishing visual effects, in which human (and animal) bodies are melded, distorted and shown to contain horrifying secrets. With Kurt Russell leading a cast of grizzled character actor favorites, and John Carpenter at the very peak of his game, it's something I return to annually, despite it putting the willies up me every single time.