Happy Halloween: The ten scariest movies ever made
'Tis the season to be petrified, so let Derek O'Connor guide you through the creepiest flicks on celluloid. Happy Halloween!
Cinema was made for horror movies; as collective experiences go, you can't beat a room full of people having the wits frightened out of them - or better still, anticipating the next fright. No matter how many dodgy sequels, remakes or tired old rehashes deaden the senses, horror refuses to die; if the early noughties were all about torture porn extremities like the Saw and Hostel movies, recent years have favoured found-footage fright fests (notably, the Paranormal Activity series) and the welcome return of haunted house movies with Insidious and The Conjuring.
Uniquely, however, horror movies work even better when watched at home - then there are small screen sensations like The Walking Dead, Hannibal and American Horror Story. But we digress: the best horror flicks aren't about shock, or splatter - indeed, most of our Halloween faves are relatively bloodless. They're the ones that tap directly into your nightmares, and have you checking under the bed. Just in case. Here then, for the (fright) night soon to be in it, are a few frightful faves:
THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999)
The most influential horror movie of the modern age is the ultimate slow-burn: for the majority of its running time, a trio of unknown actors get lost in the woods, filming themselves, as weird things start to happen. Truth be told, it's about as scary as the dodgy home movie it's been designed to resemble. Nothing much happens. And then comes the pay-off - the very last shot, to be specific - which chills to the bone. Enjoy your next camping trip, kids.
THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974)
For years, TCM was the original video nasty - following its initial run in UK cinemas, it remained banned in Britain until 1989, along with any film with the word 'chainsaw' in the title. No, seriously. Viewed 40 years on, Tobe Hooper's backwoods indie nightmare still gets under your skin, and stays there. Inspired by the real-life exploits of cannibal killer Ed Gein (as indeed was Psycho, see below), TCM is a sticky southern shocker that explodes into wanton mayhem - most of the sickening violence, however, remains implied. Your imagination (and the soundtrack) does the rest of the work. Once seen, never forgotten, Texas Chain Saw is a total buzz-kill. Literally.
It's impossible today to imagine the impact that Alfred Hitchcock's chiller had upon its original release: here was one of the biggest directors in the world, forever pushing the boundaries of what was considered acceptable on screen with a twisted tale concerning a woman (Janet Leigh, mother of future scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis) on the lam, and a troubled young man (Anthony Perkins) with serious mother issues. It gets better: you can catch Psycho, complete with live orchestral accompaniment from the RTE Concert Orchestra, tonight (the 30th) and tomorrow (Halloween) at Dublin's National Concert Hall. If you've never seen it, we're envious.
JACOB'S LADDER (1990)
If it's an underrated classic you're after, you can't go wrong with this psychological chiller from Fatal Attraction director Adrian Lyne, concerning a troubled Vietnam veteran (Tim Robbins, never better) suffering from bizarre hallucinations in a New York City best described as hellish. The twist ending has been much imitated, but it's all about the profoundly creepy journey, best described as a waking nightmare - and we do mean that as a compliment.
The great John Carpenter has directed any number of horror classics (The Fog, The Thing and the still-underrated In The Mouth Of Madness) and cult gems (Escape From New York, Big Trouble In Little China and They Live) - his defining contribution to cinema remains this taut little masterpiece, a master class in suspense that inspired a thousand rip-offs and an ongoing series of ill-advised follow-ups. The set-up is simplicity itself: faceless boogeyman (Michael Myers) stalks good-girl babysitter (Jamie Lee Curtis, in her movie debut) on the spookiest night of the year. Best watched alone, whilst babysitting, Carpenter also composed the iconic synth-tastic soundtrack. And, as with all great horror classics, the ending kills.
THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)
The only horror movie ever to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, this adaptation of Thomas Harris's bestseller wasn't the first screen outing for suave sociopath Hannibal Lector - that was 1986's Manhunter. It remains Hannibal The Cannibal's finest hour, however, thanks to Anthony Hopkins' incandescent performance - he won the Best Actor Oscar for a mere 16 minutes of screen time. That says, he does make a meal of it, while also getting the greatest last line since 'Nobody's perfect'. Silence also kick-started the vogue for serial killers, and inspired every police procedural show ever.
Texas Chainsaw creator Tobe Hooper also made our very favourite haunted house movie of all time (with honorable mentions to The Haunting and The Changeling), although legend still suggests that producer Steven Spielberg, who came up with the concept, played a major role behind the camera. Either way, it's still one of the great suburban horror tales, the ultimate scary clown flick, and a potent reminder that budding homeowners out there should always double-check whether your property has been built on an Indian burial ground. The obligatory 'reimagining' hits cinemas next year.
A preferred fright flick of recent years is this supernatural shocker from Blumhouse Pictures, the prolific low-budget outfit responsible for the Paranormal Activity, Insidious and Purge franchises. What do we look for in a good horror movie? Some decent jumps, for starters: Sinister boasts at least three right and proper scares, not to mention a bad guy (Mr Boogie) who'll give anyone the night terrors. We know who we're dressing up as for Halloween this year - and we're even looking forward to the inevitable sequel, set to be directed by talented Irishman, Ciaran Foy.
THE SHINING (1980)
'Here's Johnny…' Author Stephen King notoriously hates Stanley Kubrick's take on his novel, which takes considerable liberties with the original text, and allows a turbo-charged Jack Nicholson to chew up the scenery at length. Here's the thing, though: The Shining remains one of the most profoundly strange movies ever made, and a stone cold horror classic, infused to the core with a foreboding sense of dread, densely packed with some of the most indelible imagery committed to celluloid. And then there's Jack, hammering away at his typewriter on a masterpiece that you really don't want to read.
Most of the best horror movies of recent years have been European, be they from Sweden (Let The Right One In), the UK (Kill List), France (Haute Tension) or even Ireland - check out Citadel, Grabbers or forthcoming chillers The Canal and Let Us Prey. This Spanish entry, about a demonic virus that turns the residents of a Barcelona apartment block into frenzied zombies, is a handheld thrill ride that taps into our contemporary fears of infection, an undead tale for the age of Ebola. As is usually the case, bypass the mediocre US remake, Quarantine, and head direct for the Spanish sequels instead, which get increasingly (and gleefully) bonkers.
THE EXORCIST (1973)
Believe the hype: the most notorious horror movie of them all remains a raw and visceral experience: for all its wilfully shocking moments, which still pack a hell of a charge, it's also a profound examination on the nature of faith, and a moving domestic drama. Discerning horror hounds might want to head straight for Exorcist III, written and directed by William Peter Blatty, who wrote the original novel - it contains the greatest jump scare in cinema. Fact.
Round the turn of the millennium, Japanese horror (or J-Horror) ruled, specialising in psychological tales of terror, urban ghost stories and generally freaking the hell out of audiences everywhere. The trailblazer was Hideo Nakata's riff on an ancient Japanese folk tale, concerning a cursed videotape that kills the viewer seven days after watching. The vengeful spirit behind the curse, a murdered teenager named Sadako, makes a rather memorable entrance via TV screen, in a sequence still guaranteed to give viewers the willies. Hollywood, a place always happy to ride any trend into the ground, later hired Nakata to direct the sequel to the massively successful US remake of The Ring. Our advice: stick with the original.
THE BABADOOK (2014)
And who says they don't make them like they used to? The Next Great Horror Movie premiered at this year's Horrorthon Festival in the Irish Film Institute (it's like Christmas for horror hounds) and is currently on release in Irish cinemas nationwide. It's an Aussie creature feature guaranteed to scare the bejesus out of you. Get a gang of mates, and go see it at the movies.
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984)
If ever there was a horror movie defanged by sequels, rethreads and a spectacularly ill-advised remake, it's Wes Craven's deliciously dark masterpiece, the movie that gave us knife-fingered scream idol Freddie Krueger, as unforgettably portrayed by Robert Englund. As the years dragged on, Freddie became a wisecracking cultural icon who bagged his own TV series (Freddy's Nightmares) before eventually facing off against hockey-masked maniac Jason from the Friday The 13th movies in 2003's anemic Freddy Vs. Jason. Go back to the original, however, a tale of a child murderer incinerated by the parents of the children he killed, who continues his killing spree via the dreams of teenagers (including a young Johnny Depp) - if they perish in their sleep, they aint waking up. Laden with disturbing imagery, Nightmare still has a raw power that should give you a few sleepless nights. Craven later gave us the Scream movies - this remains his finest hour.
ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968)
Psychological horror is always a tough one to pull off - for the filmmaker, it's much easier to chop a head off than mess with the audience's mind. Roman Polanski's classic tale is a brilliant example of less meaning much, much more; Mia Farrow gets the role of her life as a young bride who begins to suspect that her charming husband (John Cassavetes) may just have made a pact with Satan, and that their unborn child might be a right little devil - or is it all in her head?
Polanski is better known these days for the transgressions and tragedies that have haunted him in real life; this is the movie that proves beyond doubt that he's one hell of a director. An extra point for the best poster tagline of all time: Pray for Rosemary's Baby!
HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER (1986)
This micro-budget indie took four years to reach the big screen, and introduced us to actor Michael Rooker, better known these days as one-handed redneck a-hole Merle Dixon on The Walking Dead. It's a film entirely lacking in scares, jumps or even a single moment tension-breaking humour. What it does, in utterly chilling detail, is detail the life of a nomadic serial killer (Rooker) as he goes about his murderous business, picking up a partner in crime and even enjoying a tentative romance with his cohort's sister. Spoiler Alert: it doesn't end happily ever after. Henry is the kind of movie that crawls under your skin and stays there, a crudely etched portrait of the banality of pure evil. Even worse still, it's inspired by deeds perpetrated by a pair of real-life U.S. serial killers, Henry Lee Lucas and Otis O'Toole. Lock those doors.