Scary can mean a lot of things to different people, though I maintain that anything can be scary with the right perspective. What about basset hounds, you may ask? Sure, a basset hound isn't intrinsically scary. But if you found yourself in a room full of about 60 basset hounds, and they were all completely quiet and staring right at you, you would be rightly creeped out.
But I digress. What follows is a little something for people who might be looking for something to view this Halloween weekend. You're not going to find the big daddies of the genre here, for the most part. Films like Halloween, The Shining, Psycho, and Jaws all have their devotees and their charms, and they can be readily had by anyone with a video-store membership or library card.
These are the 13 moments in all of movies that scare me most. Maybe some people will disagree, and that's fine. But maybe there's something in one of these films that'll make your heart quicken—or even better, make you think about what scares you and why. Beware of spoilers, and enjoy.
13. PET SEMATARY (1989) Mary Lambert's nasty, nihilistic take on Stephen King's dark-side-of-life-after-death novel has several particularly gruesome and creepy moments (Achilles tendon, anyone?). But is there anything that compares to wife and mother Rachel Creed's memories of her sister Zelda, confined by spinal meningitis to a dim room in the back of the house? It's a minor part of the plot, but Zelda is why this film remains as horrifyingly potent today as when it was first released.
12. MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944) When it comes to the dark veneer of the traditionally staid community, David Lynch and John Carpenter have nothing on Vincente Minnelli. I'll never forget the Technicolor nightmare of Margaret O'Brien as little Tootie traversing her darkened neighborhood. It echoes in Carpenter's own Halloween, in the dark places on familiar streets. Children, you see, are allowed to be scared. Adults, however, with our jobs and obligations, are not. But a good scare reduces everyone to their childhood self again.
11. THE HAUNTING (1963) Robert Wise's take on Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House is one of the most graceful and elegant ghost stories ever made, and its enduring lesson to all future films of a dark and suspenseful nature is that implication really is much stronger than displaying something completely. In this black-and-white Cinemascope minefield of subconscious terror (G-rated, nonetheless), there's a moment of boundless horror when a shifting light source slowly turns a section of bric-a-brac next to the terrified Julie Harris into a monstrous, quasi-demonic face. It doesn't roar, it doesn't detach from the wall, and if you were of a completely assured countenance, you could say that it was still only a small fissure.
But people of completely assured countenances don't understand the art of fear, even as the strange geometry of Wise's Hill House would doubtlessly frustrate their certainties. In the darkness, Harris grasps the hand of her roommate, Theo (Claire Bloom), only to be met with a cold, clutching grip. The house’s unseen terrors are finally too much, and she turns on the light—whereupon she learns Theo is on the other side of the room. "Oh God," she says, "what was holding my hand?" Delicious.
10. STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME (1986) The things that scare us are deeply personal things. Granted, multitudes of differentiated fears can be reduced to anxiety about death— that's something universal. But the weird fears, the phobias, this is when you get into the uniquities of people. Me, I have personal issues with spiders, elevators, and whales. Thanks to our friendly local brown recluses and black widows, I maintain that it is not unreasonable to be afraid of spiders if you live in Tennessee. Likewise, people do die in elevator accidents all over the world (though thankfully not very often). But why whales? Especially living in Tennessee?
All I can say is that whales best embody the creeping unease that keeps me from going in any body of water of which I can't see the bottom. The idea that below me an unseen something dwarfs me—it is nearly unbearable. The time travel sequence in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home illustrates this unnamable feeling. A featureless human body, suspended in space or underwater; behind/below/beyond it, coalescing into view, a giant cetacean. It speaks volumes without saying a word, the image forever burned into the hippocampus—the part of the brain where nightmares live.
9. FOUL PLAY (1978) Librarian Gloria Mundy (Goldie Hawn) sets about shelving some errant books after having closed the library she works at. Of course, she isn't alone, and the teasing quality of the pas de deux that she and a chloroform-wielding albino assassin are dancing through the shelves becomes almost maddening with tension. The grace note arrives when she removes a book from the shelf, revealing the killer's eye, staring back at her. Because of this scene, the two and a half years I spent working at a used bookstore were neverending exercises in the most cruel kind of fear; even today, every tome I take from a shelf is done so with a steady hand, for fear that there's someone right on the other side waiting, watching.
8. THE KEEP (1983) The horror of trespass is a particularly effective one when dealing with a sense of entitlement. The sudden or gradual realization that the terrain is unfamiliar, that one no longer holds the upper hand, or that not listening to a warning is going to reap a terrible price—all these are examples of the horror of trespass. A lot of times, it goes talon in talon with the Embrace of the Monstrous (see A Nightmare on Elm Street and Candyman below), not always consensually. Equally visionary and ridiculous, Michael Mann's adaptation of F. Paul Wilson's monsterpiece The Keep is a flawed gem that contains what may be my favorite single shot in all of film history.
Some German soldiers, occupying a Romanian fort during World War II, have started investigating the hundreds of crosses that line the interior walls. "Never touch the crosses," the blind caretaker had warned them, but if they had listened to the caretaker, there wouldn't really be a movie, now would there? Hundreds of nickel crosses are embedded in stone blocks, except for one… this cross is silver. And this block moves. The soldiers explore where this newfound passage leads, and we find a cavernous space. The camera pulls back from the ever-smaller soldier and his flashlight, further and further away. At last his flashlight is but a tiny dot near the top of the frame, and we pull back further still, as gradually we can see walls around us. When the camera stops its movement, we are hundreds and hundreds of feet away, motionless in murky earth as something hideous arises. That shot is a masterful representation of one's sense of self, world, and physical space being challenged by something monstrously greater.
7. PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987) "This is not a dream.” Now immortalized on DJ Shadow's Endtroducing… (as well as albums by Marilyn Manson and, ahem, DJ Nomi), the mysterious transmissions from the year 1999 in John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness never cease to send a chill up the spine. A tracking shot along the front gate of a church, which hides a cosmologically horrifying secret, ends with a mysterious dark figure emerging in triumph from the building's interiors. Like the phantom beacon on Alien's planet LV-426, the image beams, in this case back through time, in hopes that someone will understand its dire portent.
6. THE SENDER (1982) John Doe #83 (Zeljko Ivanek) is a young man admitted to a mental hospital with a severe case of amnesia and suicidal tendencies. Unbeknownst to the hospital staff, he is also capable of broadcasting his dreamlife directly into the minds of those around him. This means that reality becomes pretty much meaningless. Of course, think the higher-ups at the hospital, what John Doe #83 needs is a slight dose of electroconvulsive therapy. It's okay, you see, because he'll be sedated. He won't feel a thing.
What happens when the hospital staff activates that ECT machine is something you can't easily describe. I'll say this: it is impossible to envision the world that Chris Cunningham creates in his art and film without this particular sequence. It is a graceful chaos of motion and raw physical power, and certainly one of the finest FX setpieces in the history of filmmaking. Like its younger brother in 1982 horror, The Thing (see below), The Sender does things that no computer could approximate. But great effects are not necessarily scary. What lingers about this sequence is the effortless shift from clinical reality to photovoltaic nightmare without tipping its hat once. It is simply masterful.
5. SUSPIRIA (1977) There is an instance of awareness for any animal in mortal danger—a specific point at which the phrase “life or death struggle” becomes an analysis, not a hypothetical. Dario Argento's mad fairy tale Suspiria serves up one of the finest, as ballet student Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper) finds herself abandoned in her school’s sinister dormitory, as the whole school has gone to the theatre. She calls one of the few outsiders she can trust, only to lose the phone and the lights in a vicious storm. The lights return; the phone does not. And that's when Suzy realizes: "I'm next." She'll gear up and wage battle, to be sure, but the finest moment in this hallucinatory nightmare is Harper's when the phone fails—there for but a flash, and then gone.
4. THE THING (1982) At an Antarctic research lab, the crew is told they are going to explore a spooky building. "And why are we going there," the men ask—a good question when a shape-shifting monster is devouring anyone within reach. Research scientist Kurt Russell points to the remote shack, where a light burns from within. "Because," he says, "when I left there yesterday, I turned the lights out." The matter-of-factness is what sells it: he could just as easily have said, "Gentlemen, here comes the shit," or, "I know where some alien horror is…" It's a moment of visceral fear that nonetheless gives us a glimpse inside the character. Not with a bang, but with a whimper.
3. A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984) First we see that Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) has been cut, badly, and her arm is bleeding. But with her other arm, from under the sheet she pulls a rumpled brown hat—the hat belonging to long-dead child-killer Freddy Krueger, burned alive by the neighborhood parents. Attention, both in the onscreen Katja Sleep Clinic and from the offscreen viewer, naturally fixes on Nancy, But watch her mother's reaction to that hat. Marge Thompson (Ronee Blakley) sees a real-life souvenir of the horror of trespass, while her daughter looks near-giddy with the possibility of what has just happened; she can bridge between the worlds of the conscious and the unconscious. This is the embrace of the monstrous.
2. ALIEN (1979) Yeah, I know: the monster bursts out of John Hurt's chest and people lose their fucking minds. It's a milestone of shock, but is it really scary? Sure, it encompasses cancer and anticipates HIV fears in a particularly visceral manner, but does that chest-bursting provoke intense dread? As if anticipating this, the film (in its original version, not the 2003 “director’s cut”) follows up that sequence with a one-two punch of abject terror, starting with the protracted sequence where Harry Dean Stanton's Brett searches for the ship's cat and finds only alien nastiness.
But that's just the first part, because Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt—the biggest star at the time, and thus the least likely to die) has an engagement in the ship's air ducts. The sound is a mesh of Jerry Goldsmith's sinister strings for the movie Freud, the pulse of an agitated heart, and the beeping of his tracking device. The most chilling moment is folded into the other sounds, but when Veronica Cartwright as Lambert screams, "The other way! No, the other way!" just as the alien introduces itself to Dallas, it'll get to you. There isn't a single false moment in the whole sequence, a symphony of light, shadow, and propulsive fear.
1. CANDYMAN (1992) There's a very specific scene in Bernard Rose's Clive Barker adaptation that elevates it from exceptional to one of the finest horror films ever made. Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) has been charged with the murder of her best friend, is under suspicion in the disappearance of a baby, has been forcibly committed by her louse of a cheating husband, and is now tormented by the affections of a supernatural death-dealer. She's just been shown video footage of herself in the midst of a horrifying confrontation with the legendary fiend known as Candyman, and only she can be seen. The doctor turns off the monitor and asks her what she really thinks about the whole situation. Helen then sloughs off all the things of this world by uttering a simple phrase: "I can call him."
The bloodletting that follows is impressive, as is the story's action-packed and deliciously resonant resolution. But this is the moment that we never get to see at the movies. Time and time again, in many different genres, characters find themselves in the midst of the wild and weird and interesting and unreal, and they always scuttle back to the safety to their own planet, their own time or their own narrow existence. Helen Lyle simply has nothing left to lose, so she decides to expand her horizons and ride the whirlwind. "I can call him," she says, and she does. The resulting chill makes you question your own philosophies. And that's the best kind of fear.