by Swami Bhaktividenta Prabhoopaadaa (South).
I recall being traumatized on Friday nights growing up, as that was the night that the BBC unleashed its Hammer Horror Double feature. Frightmare I believe they called it. I had sleepless nights after watching The Mummy and couldn’t take Curse of Frankenstein beyond the laboratory scene when the monster first twitches to it’s hideous after life.
Yet, their remained a ghoulish, burning curiosity and a perverse desire to be scared witless – a desire which was to be fulfilled by three movies in particular that had a tremendous impression and were the cause of many a sleepless night. Movies that had one checking “behind the bush” and in the back seat by habit of self-preservation and of course a film that had one’s heart leaping out upon seeing a shadow lurking underwater while swimming – it mattered least that one happened to be swimming in a public indoor pool, such was the irrational fear that had been created by a mere piece of celluloid.
It certainly isn’t an easy task putting together some names of movies that managed to truly terrify. Perhaps it would be a better bet to try and remember sequences from a variety of movies that managed to evoke horror……but for the sake of pigeon holing, here is a list of movies that we feel managed to cause a flutter or two.
By far and away the three most terrifying movie experiences I have had were watching The Exorcist when 14 years old at the Plaza cinema in Karachi. It was the late, late show, and Karachi was a buzz with this new film and the shows were packed and full of excitement. To make things even more unbearable, the projectionist had an accomplice turn up the sound to full blast whenever Mercedes Cambridge’s bellowing voice appeared on the soundtrack. Never in my movie going life had two hours been more relentlessly harrowing……..I hardly watched anything at all, yet was utterly traumatized. Being a twisted and demented individual, I returned the following night to get my fix of terror!
That experience of watching The Exorcist was for me the most horrifying movie watching experience that I have ever had…….and I had to wait a five year or so later to enjoy a similar terror-ride. This time it was John Carpenter’s Halloween, a film that had gained a bit of a reputation in the UK and had been running and running and running at the Odeon Kensington to increasing crowds. Word of mouth had it that this one was a killer……..but we only reluctantly went after an evening’s tennis – unchanged and unenthusiastic. Yet 90 minutes later one had been completely electrified by the sheer relentless tension of Halloween. There were up to 700 people in the audience that night at the Odeon in fashionable King’s Road and you could actually physically hear the signs of momentary relief from the unbearable tension sequences, or then collective shocks. The scene where Laurie (Jamie Lee) gets up thinking she has dealt Michael a death blow, followed by Michael slowly getting up – had the Chelsea audience in raptures of terror. Again, the kink in my persona meant that I trudged far and wide through town the very next day all the way from South London to Baker Street where I simply HAD to repeat the experience and the sheer adrenaline rush I got from being terrified insanely during Halloween.
The third film that had a distinct impression on one was a very clever little cheapie called The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Here was a film that was devastatingly upfront and had a cheap docu-feel to it lending it an eerie authenticity. It was a nightmarish experience and contained some of the most harrowing scenes put on celluloid – yet that’s where Tobe Hooper plays his trump card. The film is extremely violent, but only in the viewers mind and what he constructs in his own mind from the visual stimulation. Hooper uses a very clever ploy of suggestion rather than show actual violence. After viewing the film, one feels as though one has witnessed a bloodbath, yet there is hardly a drop of blood in evidence and all the horrors have been cleverly conjured up by director Tobe Hooper within the viewers mind by his ability to manipulate and suggest. It’s a relentless rollercoaster of a horror ride.
Anyway, here goes the list of what the Swami considers to be the scariest films of all.
The Exorcist (1973)- So much has been said and written about this movie that we hardly feel that our two bits will make the slightest difference, YET, we are among the few people that actually find the opening sequence as brilliantly effective and crucial to setting the tone for what is to follow. This is a marvellous horror film – one that could have ended up being laughable had it been treated differently. Though there were reports of modern audiences laughing during recent screenings in Britain where the film had been ridiculously banned as a “video nasty” for several years – one also laughs when nervous or tense. The film is a quarter of a century old yet still has the power to scare, an achievement in itself considering all the horrors of this century are not in monsters and creatures that suck blood and devour human flesh. There is far too much real, tangible horror around us in our everyday lives for us to feel threatened any longer by a Dracula, a Frankenstein or indeed Satan. The Exorcist is, by a whisker the most frightening experience that we have enjoyed in a cinema.
Most Memorable Moment: well, that voice!
Halloween (1978) – visually stunning, poetry in motion of a terror ride with nothing much happening, yet the tension is almost unbearable. Perhaps the most imitated movie of the last twenty years or so, it has lost the power to shock because we audiences have become so accustomed to the “rules” of the horror movie genre as cleverly pointed out to us in “Scream”. BUT, Halloween was indeed the first, or nearly the first to take the stalker idea to unprecedented, murderous heights. Halloween is THE classic Psycho on the loose horror movie of all time. The gliding visual point of view camera, the tinkling eerie score, the use of shadows and oh that agonizing, stark tension. What a huge masterpiece.
Most Memorable Moment: “he’s still not dead” – and any of the stalking scenes after Michael escapes from the sanitorium are incredibly tense.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) – Left me shell shocked for several days. The first death scene is so absolutely shocking and presented with such cold starkness that it’s almost too real to be bearable. Followed by such shockers like the girl being slowly let down onto a meat hook which is hooking into the back of her head. She tries desperately to climb off the hook, but to no avail. There was an expectancy of such brutal horror materializing from nowhere in this film that even an open doorway into the darkness of night presents a terrifying prospect. There are elements of black humour here, but obscured by the monstrous horrors on display. It just takes the sound of that grotesque chainsaw sputtering to life to make the hairs on one’s neck stand up. The film is an incredible terror ride, and more incredible for the fact that having watched it and felt as though you have just visited a slaughterhouse, there is hardly a drop of blood shown in the entire movie. Tobe Hooper has created a masterpiece of horror that suggests so much outright violence and mayhem that you can swear that you have seen it, even though you haven’t. Indeed, the most terrifying aspect of the movie is actually embedded in the name itself, another masterstroke of triggering the mind to all sorts of horror’s. A brilliant movie in every sense and one of the greatest horror movies ever.
Most Memorable Moment: one of many is Leatherface’s first appearance – pure shocking majesty.
The above films are in a category of terror way above the rest of the list which is presented in an order that tends to change with mood from time to time. Note that there is no place for either Scream, IT, Saw, Hostel or The Conjuring, probably because the writer has become immune to scary movies over the years…but the search for a new height in terror goes on and on…it’s a disease, a terrible curse!
The Vanishing (Spoorloos) (1988) A brilliant film about our obsessions and the frequently blurred margin between genius and madness, sanity and sickness, normalcy and lurking madness, and the devastating premonitions that we all have, that go quite unnoticed. A twisting, winding psychological journey, utterly compelling, with the most devastating climax scene ever (recently borrowed in a dire Hollywood thriller). Whatever you do, please don’t reveal it to your friends, and please, please however desperate you may be, under no circumstances watch the horribly compromised Hollywood remake made surprisingly by the same “sell out” director. The original remains one the truly great psychological horror films ever made. Sublime. Most Memorable Moment: the haunted Rex Hoffman finally finds out how he lost his girlfriend – one of the most harrowing and bone chilling scenes in cinema.
Psycho (1960) – The “Mother” of modern horror. A superlative, utterly compelling shocker, superbly acted, directed and scored. It has certainly lost some of its power to shock over the years as it has become established as an internationally recognized icon and one of the most parodied and “borrowed” sources for stuff like TV commercials and other movies. Yet, it remains THE class act among horror movies and has, like the other horror classics to stand up to a million repeat viewings. Each new viewing brings forward something new to admire and focus on, such is the depth of Hitchcock’s masterpiece shocker. Laced with cyanide black humour and another of Saul Bass’s fabulous title sequence which stand a world apart, still. Bernard Herrmann’s score is undoubtedly the most influential one in movie composing history – there can be little argument on that topic. His genius elevated this film to its incredible heights and it is in his shadow that Pino Donaggio developed into a wonderful, let’s face it, clone of Herrmann in all those De Palma homage to Hitch. Most Memorable Moment: Something or someone is moving up to the shower very ominously indeed! – the brilliant bit before the knife comes down.
Exorcist 3 (The Legion) (1990) – OK, so most people HATE this film and we think the reason is that most people went to see it expecting the same kind of stuff that was on display in the fantastic first instalment. There must have been some trepidation after part 2, but most people had managed to somehow expunge that atrocity from memory. Yet, when Exorcist 3 came out, it was a huge disappointment to so many people because there was none of the possession stuff in evidence. That aside, the film is terrifically scary if you can manage to follow the admittedly convoluted plot. The idea is terrifying, and it logically connects with the first film and indeed was written by the author of The Exorcist as the legitimate follow up. William Peter Blatty, the author of what is said to be the fifth biggest selling novel of all time in the US, directed this instalment. He has managed to create feeling of pure menace. A film that is disturbing and unsettling and has some genuine shocks and is probably the “newest” of the films that has managed to scare us just a wee bit. It’s no classic, and the last five minutes are risible, but otherwise there is a lot of malevolence seeping through this film. Its dark and brooding and we feel, very scary indeed. Most Memorable Moment: hard to say really; the confession scene is particularly effective.
The Haunting (1963) – and before you all stop reading any further…I am referring to Robert Wise’s terrific black and white masterpiece from the early 60’s and not Jan De Bont’s 1999 mockery. In this movie, Wise manages to breathe life into his haunted house from the very opening frames of the movie. The house virtually comes to life and looms ever ominously – casting black, jagged shadows in the most awkward and unnatural manner. The movie is choc-full of atmosphere and is surely the most chilling haunted house film of them all. Remarkably, Wise went on to make a fortune directing The Sound of Music which to numerous people is even more frightening a prospect then The Haunting! Most Memorable Moment: Holding hands!
Don’t Look Now (1973) – A brilliant psychological horror film. All menace, brooding evil, shadows, visions, colours. Great use of colour to represent evil. A corrosive, uncomfortable sort of experience…. subtle, but ultimately devastating horror film. Works as much on the surface as just below it, and that horrifying ending is a gutting experience. A masterfully sinister experience, reeking of evil and those forces unseen. Most Memorable Moment: That grinning vile thing that reveals finally reveals itself!
Jaws (1975) – Needs no introduction nor any further acclaim. This movie was as frightening as any and had sequences that were pared down horror of the most brilliant kind. Exhilarating, terrifying and thoroughly entertaining with a killer soundtrack to boot. Despite the numerous non-scary sequences, those that are scary are bloody scary and certainly propel this movie into our top horror’s list. Remember the guy who was chomped on the raft? well, I went to College with him – what a sad life, when your main claim to fame is having gone to College with a fellow (Jeffrey Voorhees) who was devoured in Jaws. Most Memorable Moment: the head scene is just a huge shock but the really scary scenes are when the shark in menacing – surely the opening scene and the scene with the two fishermen and the rubber tyre.
Tourist Trap (1979) – Bizarre film that creeps into the top ten is a hybrid of some of the best modern horror films. Trap is a blatant cross between Psycho, Texas Chainsaw with Carrie thrown in for good measure. Pino Donaggio score is wonderfully effective in evoking a thoroughly creepy atmosphere. A very low budget, yet stylish and well-crafted little shocker deserves a much wider audience than it ever received. The reason it flopped so badly was because the insane censors gave it a PG. rating which meant that no one looking for a horror film went for Tourist Trap. What were they thinking is all I can offer, as Trap is clearly a pretty terrifying experience. It loses steam towards the end, but there are sequences in the film that rank with the best, so it scrapes into the top ten of great horror flicks. Most Memorable Moment: “Davey” appears and does his impersonation of Carrie while Pino Donaggio does his Hermann thing to sublime effect.
RINGU (1998) An eleventh position has been especially created, not for The Blair Witch Project nor certainly for The Sixth Sense but for the sensationally scary new wave of horror that has come from Japan in the form of Hideo Nakata’s magnificent RING. This modern tale of an “urban legend” doesn’t contain a drop of blood and barely any violence yet it manages to create an atmosphere of total dread and intensity and mounting terror. The idea of a “cursed videotape” might well be laughable, but Hideo Nakata’s treatment and the great acting and script turn this from a potential laugh-fest into the creepiest film for ages. The music, as in most of the best horror films, does a fantastic job in heightening the mood of terror. Never before have drones and screeches sounded so eerie! Then there is the classic scene that comes as the climax of the film – pure, unrelenting and mesmerizing horror. A scene that instantly rates as among the strongest and most memorably nightmarish ever. Horror that gets the hairs on the back of one’s neck bristling in fear – a rare treat! Watch out for RING 2 – a rare sequel that equally as effective as the original. Most Memorable Moment: The relieved professor settles down to finish some work after the harrowing experiences of the week before…..then that sound, that dreadful, whining sound starts up causing a huge shudder… and the TV starts up, then you (the audience) watches transfixed along with the guy in the movie a most ghastly, broken figure climb out a well grotesquely edging forward, twitching, edging forward in the most unnatural and ominous manner – face obscure by a shock of long black hair, the head convulsing ever so slightly……this sight and the accompanying music as terrifying as anything seen on screen not only in the last 20 years but ever!
Haute Tension (2003) – Stunning New Psycho-Slasher Horror flick with a twist from prodigiously talented rookie director Alexandre Aja of France was the hit of the Sitges Film Festival 2003 and is an instant horror classic despite its indigestible twist ending. The film manages to seize its audience in a vice like grip from the early stages and simply won’t let go. A thrilling, nerve-shredding and terrifying 95-minute roller coaster ride cum homage of great horror films of the past like John Carpenter’s Halloween and Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre – Haute Tension is the first classic horror film of the Millennium. Most Memorable Moment: The Killer arrives at the farmhouse…and… the horror that follows.
Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986): an unflinching, horrifying and brilliantly acted portrayal of a serial killer at work.
Wake in Fright (1971): set in the Australian outback. a curious and powerful film about the insidious power of a mob and its ability to transform the human into the subhuman.
The Witch (2015): has moments of unrelenting tension.
Suspiria (1977): Enter a world of blood soaked dreams, glass and metal shards, pounding rhythms, lots of wailing and screaming and kaleidoscope colours; enter the world of Suspiria.
Paranormal Activity (2007): the simplest of ideas executed quite brilliantly. Reality TV meets horror with spectacular effect.
The Blair Witch Project (1999): Loved and hated in equal proportions this was one of those films that reshaped the horror genre and did so on the basis of some classic horror tactics of “What you don’t see is way more terrifying than what you do”. Bare bones but highly effective. Another simple idea executed expertly.
The Tenant (1976) – Roman Polanski’s slow dive to madness is terrifying in a very different, very bleak, depressing way.
Les Yeux Sans Visage (1959) – Haunting and very unsettling fable like horror film about a surgeon who having destroyed his daughters face in an accident then tries to reconstruct her beauty. The only film from the 50’s which still carries an “X” rating in the UK. A gem of a film, with its twisted, surreal feel aided by the grotesquely appropriate carnival theme that the composer employs so beautifully for the movie.
Black Christmas (1975) – Canada’s Bob Clark who scored a huge hit with the delinquent Porky’s first made a name for himself with this edgy stalker film. A ground-breaking and very influential horror film which was a couple of years ahead of the field. One of the best of the Psycho-on-the-loose genre.
Shivers (1976) – David Cronenberg’s award winning horror nasty! A VD like virus spreads like wildfire through an apartment complex leaving victims as insatiable sex starved zombies! Excellent idea, reflecting basic human behaviour. Are we all like the zombies from Shivers just below the surface? Frighteningly real! Introduces a most bizarre and truly despicable turd-like virus creature……..Yuk!
Night of the Living Dead (1969) George A. Romero’s nihilistic black version of the future absolutely reinvented the entire horror genre which had been dominated by the Dracula’s and the Werewolves and Mummy’s etc. Suddenly gone were the spooks, the haunted houses, the vampires, and the creatures replaced by a gritty realism….”when there is no more room left in Hell….the dead will walk the earth!” A magnificent horror classic
The Evil Dead (1982) – Sam Raimi demolished convention and went straight for the gut with this little shocker of a film. Borrowing on elements from other classic horror films, The Evil Dead then goes into serious overdrive. May have lost some of its potency with time, but when it came out, it was truly shocking. A demented, joyously nasty, completely OTT horror feast. Splendid. The recent remake was a pretty torrid ride as well and a worthy successor to the original.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) – Wes Craven who has become the current King of Horror, first scored a huge hit with this brilliantly innovative horror film where the audience was completely caught off guard by his merging of dreams with reality method. It worked spectacularly well and audiences world-wide who had grown jaded watching the same kind of horror films were quite stunned by this dream within a dream within reality type of stuff. One of the most influential horror films of the modern era and also one of the best.
John Carpenter’s The Fog has moments of incredible style and tension but the overall experience is somewhat uneven. Yet the best bits of this film are up there with the very best and the film is worthy of a mention among the mentionable! Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 is arguably (along with Halloween) the director’s finest work – the tension is unbearable. It’s not really a horror film as such, but for those who like their film’s taut with the tightest tension – it doesn’t get much better than this. Another one that springs to mind is Phillip Noyce’s pared down exercise in tension – Dead Calm.
Carrie ought to be elevated to classic status by now, even if it was directed by much maligned (“pilferer” of Hitchcock) Brian De Palma. This was a hugely stylish, brilliantly acted and directed masterpiece of grand Guignol, fairy tale style gothic horror. Some sequences such as the entire bucket of blood sequence are the most brilliant ever for the entire genre. The editing, the music, the acting, De Palma’s direction is perfectly on song and the film ranks as an all-time horror classic – at least in our book it does!
Though flawed and uneven, De Palma’s Dressed to Kill was also a hugely enjoyable and stylishly over the top slasher film that contained several delicious sequences that elevate it to memorable status. The entire prelude to and the elevator scene and its aftermath are hugely enjoyable and later the scene when Bobby strikes in front of the inmates at the hospital and then disguises herself as a nurse to stalk Nancy Allen while she prepares for a shower…….the nurses foot in the door scene….aaah vintage De Palma (and Donaggio of course).
When a Stranger Calls (1980) has one of the best horror preludes of all but falls rather flat after the killer opening. Se7en (1995) is a film that creates a mood of immense dread and has that killer pay off and ranks as one of the most influential serial killer films of all time setting a template for the genre that has been imitated over and over again. Se7en remains a class act.
We must have overlooked some movies, some deliberately some by error…..this remains an endless and evolving process!! The next classic might be just around the corner.