Staff Inquiry: Horror Films That Terrified Us
It's almost Halloween, so the Film Inquiry writers tell about the films that truly scared them. Even traumatised them.
October has become the de facto time for film lovers to dive deep into horror, be it through one film a day challenges or more casually scary romps. Whichever you chose, I bet you’ve been spending some time thinking about your favorites and possibly even revisiting them. We’ve been doing the same here at Film Inquiry (I did my annual rewatch of The Innkeepers recently), and that got us itching to share the movies that have really, deeply terrified us.
We kept our options wide open, so picks include everything from childhood frights to unnerving social commentary. The only requirement was that the film lodged uncomfortably in our heads, so beware, because nightmare fuel is below.
Alex Arabian – Poltergeist (1982)
I know, I know, everyone, I know. It’s Halloween, and our wonderful, eclectic writers have the opportunity to pick their scariest films of all time, and I choose a PG-rated 1980s family film about life in suburbia? I completely agree with you; Poltergeist doesn’t make the typical “Top 10 Scariest Films” list because there is far more edgier content out there that pushes the boundaries of art, violence, and exploitation. However, despite being, well, the only haunted-house film in the genre for the whole family, and, despite the subsequent associated cheesiness that comes with that territory, compounded a bit by the awkwardness of the 1980s decade, Poltergeist still has the scares in abundance.
I’ve consistently spoken about the horror genre throughout my film criticism at Film Inquiry, but, as a refresher, I’ve seen it all, the most messed up to the most benign. And, what I’ve found is that the general formula that works best in horror is ‘less is more’. Showing too much, being too explicit, or treating your characters with carelessness and crassness are all too often the pitfalls of modern horror. Poltergeist, originally thought to be directed by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre helmer Tobe Hooper was actually directed by the film’s screenwriter, Steven Spielberg, as recently revealed by The Conjuring cinematographer John Leonetti, whose brother Matt Leonetti served as cinematographer on the original Poltergeist.
A simple, seemingly inexplicable moving of a chair across the floor; a brilliant, unfathomable work of camera trickery to create the most unsettling chair-stacking scene in a blink of an eye; floating objects; children speaking to static televisions…and the television speaking back. It’s not often that a film’s tagline is one of the scariest moments of the film: “They’re Here.” Who? The T.V. people. The concept of the T.V. people haunts me to this day. I slept with the light on for months after viewing Poltergeist and never, ever slept with my back against the closet again growing up. It’s a film that petrified me, one that plays to almost every fear in the book: ghosts, clowns, monsters, ghouls, the undead, loss of life, loss of love, loss of family. What a lot of viewers may have missed is the allegory for the corrupt gentrification and Reagan-era rise in bringing the American family back to suburbia and conservative “suburban values.” The whole reason why the Freeling family’s house is haunted is because, like many other mass real estate deals during the time period that made people like Donald Trump famous, the property was built as part of a 300-acre, private, single-family community of model homes that were built over a cemetery. In blatant disregard for the dead so government and corporate investors could make the fastest profit possible, the headstones were moved, but the bodies weren’t. Talk about bad karma.
And so, as always, Spielberg has a lot to say underneath the surface. Part of Poltergeist’s social commentary is a reflection of the sociopolitical backlash as Reagan’s policies set back decades of social progress (sound familiar?). The inexcusable removal of the Equal Rights Amendment, the elimination of civil rights laws, the defunding of mental institutions and subsequent disregard for mental health and disabilities, and the suppression of voting for African Americans materialized with a vengeance through the poltergeist and wreaked havoc on the poor Freelings, who were mere innocent byproducts representing the average white American family beset by their government’s sinister agenda.
Stephanie Archer – Dead Silence (2007)
There are not many films I have seen whose horror and fright lasts long after the movie has ended. After watching Dead Silence shortly after its release in 2007, mirrors, dark corners and silence became terrifying thoughts – and I’m a grown adult! The yellow, rickety eyes of Mary Shaw piercing through the darkness, as well as her reflection lurking in corners and on mirrors, would become an irrational fear that not only haunted me at home, but also in my dreams (a mirror in my home had to be relocated because of a dream involving Mary Shaw and a mirror). While there had been other films that I found terrifying since childhood, this one took the cake.
Dead Silence is a horror film by director James Wan and written by Leigh Whannell – both the ingenious minds behind Saw and Insidious – about a ghost named Mary Shaw (Judith Roberts) and her collection of ventriloquist dummies. When Billy, Shaw’s favorite, is anonymously delivered to Jamie Ashen’s (Ryan Kwanten) door, horror shortly follows. Jamie’s wife is brutally murdered, her tongue ripped out. Determined to find answers to his wife’s death, Jamie travels back to their creepy, desolate, and secluded hometown. Yet, as the secret of Mary Shaw comes to light, Jamie finds that not everything is as it seems.
Dead Silence was an amazing opportunity for Wan and Whannell to reunite with many of their Saw collaborators. Donnie Wahlberg (Saw II) returns once again as a detective convinced of Jamie’s guilt in his wife’s death. While I felt Saw II gave him stronger material to work with, it was familiar casting that spoke throughout the film. Also reuniting with the horror dream team was composer Charlie Clouser. While his score for Saw was dynamic and forceful, his score for Dead Silence was creepy and spine-tingling from the film’s opening montage (though not without resonating notes reminiscent to his previous score).
Dead Silence will most likely remain my scariest film for a long time. The creepy and abrupt Mary Shaw lurking in the shadows waiting for my scream. For those who dare to witness the horror, just remember when silence falls “Beware the stare of Mary Shaw, She had no children, only dolls and if you see her in your dreams, be sure not to scream!”
Corey Hughes – The Babadook (2014)
As a devoted fan of the horror genre, this month’s Staff Inquiry topic provided the perfect opportunity for me to gush over one of my favourite horror films of all time: Jennifer Kent’s 2014 masterpiece The Babadook.
Amelia, played stunningly by Essie Davis, is a widowed single mother who struggles to cope in her day-to-day life and constantly battles with her son (Noah Wiseman), who has a seemingly irrational and hyperactive fear of the monsters that he claims are tormenting him. In an attempt to console her troubled son, Amelia reads to him the story of the Babadook, a monster that will turn their lives into a living nightmare.
The main reason why The Babadook is as terrifying as it is, for me, is the Babadook itself. It is not a monster in the most traditional and expected form, but instead is a haunting spiritual embodiment of repressed grief, a somewhat Freudian concept.
The monster, which evidently is an embodiment of Amelia’s trauma following the death of her husband, allows Kent to explore the fractured relationship between a mother and her son; a relationship conceived upon tragedy and heartbreak.
Kent also disregards Hollywood’s trademark cheap jump scares and sudden, loud noises in favour of creating a true sense of dread through her ability to delicately introduce the monster to the viewer. When it does arrive, the Babadook is terrifying to behold, with its German Expressionist-inspired appearance, with its long, slender arms and top hat, reminiscent of classical horror icons such as Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu.
All of these elements go hand-in-hand in creating a truly inspired and standalone horror masterpiece, and if you’re anything like me, The Babadook will make you feel uneasy, disturbed, and completely absorbed. Isn’t that what horror is meant to do?
Alice Murray – The Conjuring (2013)
When it comes to any film with a horror theme, you’ll usually find me shielding my eyes with my hands and looking in any direction other than the screen to distract myself from the imminent jump scares. Yet somehow, they pull me in, and when I saw the epic trailer for The Conjuring, I was compelled to go to the cinema and watch it.
It may be my lack of experience in watching scary movies, but The Conjuring made me literally shake. The image of Bathsheba wickedly grinning at the two children from the top of the wardrobe made me terrified to go near my own for quite some time.
The Conjuring is very clever because of its consistent, intelligent placement of sound effects that fool you into believing you know when the next big scare is, but unlike many similar films of its kind, it sneaks up on you frequently.
For the first hour, there is a bit of a lull as the build-up to these physical beings appearing unfolds. It somehow convinces you that perhaps you’ll only see the odd door opening by itself or hear a strange noise or a shadow or a creaky staircase. But then…BAM, an exorcist-style creature is suddenly there, and she has one job: to make you quake in your boots.
To make matters worse, the subtitle that everyone viewing a horror movie dreads materialises on screen at the very start: based on true events.
I remember The Conjuring being the scariest movie I’d ever watched. I don’t take too kindly to paranormal activity subjects at the best of times. Give me a bit of gore or a torture film any day over something based around ghosts.
But have I watched the subsequent Conjuring sequels? You bet I have. Was I just as terrified? You bet I was. I never learn.
Manon de Reeper – It (1990)
So, I’ve never completely seen It. And I will never watch the full thing. I’m writing this as I’ve already inserted the image above, and the clown that’s pointing at me is making me really uncomfortable. I’ll just scroll down far enough so I won’t have to see it… Ok, that’s better.
I was 6 or something years old when I couldn’t sleep and snuck down the stairs to see what my parents were up to. They were watching… It. I stood there, in the hallway, peeking into the living room as they were watching, oblivious to my presence. The scene? The one where the kid is on the bed, and the clown is under the bed and has sharp teeth and wraps its arms around the kid and … that’s when I ran upstairs. I have no idea what actually happens next.
It led to me asking my parents if they could check underneath my bed for years. I’d check my bed again to make sure after they’d left. And still, when I lay in bed staring up at my ceiling I was sure there was something – a clown?! – under my bed. So at this point, as an adult woman, I know there’s nothing but an occasional cat or cockroach under my bed (which my cat conveniently kills but they still freak me out), but I’ve never gotten over my fear of clowns. It’s so bad that when I went to a Cirque du Soleil show recently and found out there were clowns there I was so afraid the clowns were going to pick me for crowd participation or come close to me that I could barely enjoy the show. Couldrophobia is real, guys, and I blame Pennywise. And Stephen King.
Maybe the movie is actually not that scary. Maybe I should just give it a try. But hell to the no I won’t. And I’m not going to watch the new one either. Stick it, with your clowns. I’m outta here.
Also, honourable mention for that nun in The Conjuring 2.
Matthias van der Roest – The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter‘s film is a rare example of a remake that is better than the original film. The story of the film revolves around a group of scientists in an American research station in Antarctica. After they respond to an emergency situation at the nearby Norwegian research station, things to start to go awry. Over the course of the next few days strange things start to happen. As it turns out, one of the corpses they brought with them from the Norwegian base harboured an alien life force which can disguise itself as any life form it comes into contact with. As time goes on the men have to figure out which one of them is no longer human.
The Thing is a great film that challenges you to think about what you would do to survive when faced with a formidable foe like the unnamed alien life form in this film. The Thing constantly challenges your perception of reality, you’re never quite sure which of the characters you can trust. If such paranoia is not scary enough for you, don’t worry, because the alien in its true form, as designed by special make-up effects guru Rob Bottin, is the stuff of nightmares.
Linsey Satterthwaite – Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
There have been many films that have scared me as a child or that have buried into my memory and made me jump as an adult. However, there is only one horror film that truly scares me by tapping into one of my most primal fears.
For a film lover, I shamefully came to Rosemary’s Baby a little late, yet it immediately seeped into my conscious and took hold of me. It’s power and scares lies in the stuff of my nightmares- the unrelenting sense that you cannot escape a horrifying fate no matter how hard you try.
Mia Farrow’s expectant mum Rosemary is trapped within a claustrophobic fever dream, one she cannot wake from, where the walls are literally closing around her. Confined to an apartment in a seriously sinister Manhattan building and cut off from any aid, Rosemary suffers in every sense of the word, from consuming paranoia, from body invasion and from the ultimate marital betrayal.
Polanski positions the viewer to feel everything that Rosemary is feeling, which makes the climactic scene all the more devastating. We have run the gauntlet with her and yet our heroine will not evade the revulsion of her worst fears realised. Rosemary’s Baby not only became in my opinion the greatest psychological horror of all time but it also shook my cinematic foundations to its core by turning one of my favourite screen characters Maude (Ruth Gordon) into the ultimate duplicitous nosey neighbour. And that is truly terrifying.
Robb Sheppard – The Dark Crystal (1982)
The things that scare you don’t always go hand-in-hand with the horror genre. When you’re a young ‘un with limited access to 18 or R certificate films, you take your scares as they come, and The Dark Crystal has the potential to scared the viewer witless.
Directed by Frank Oz and Jim Henson, our hero Jen embarks on a mission to retrieve a fragment of a magical crystal to ensure the survival of his world. Sounds easy right? It would be, if it wasn’t for the evil, nay, diabolical Skeksis standing in his way. All beady eyes and scheming stares, these giant walking vultures in ornate, garish dressing gowns skulked around ready to pick the bones of those that challenged their nefarious power play. Even if it was their own.
How this film was only rated PG was always baffling; Henson breathed life into these wretched puppets. Horrific to look at though they were, it was the sound that was the most sickening, especially from the cowardly Chamberlain. Not a primal scream or a guttural growl, but instead a high-pitched, murmuring, self-congratulatory “Mmmm.” Like an old lady hiding razor blades in childrens’ toffee apples.
With Netflix preparing to unleash The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance TV series, this viewer will be watching with a twisted interest. But from behind a pillow.
Kristy Strouse – The Shining (1980)
Movies have elicited many reactions from me, but the rarest is terror. This particular response has a been a sort of treasure hunt for me as an adult, attempting to recreate what one film did for me as a child. I’m still searching, and some have come close, but none have been like the 1980 film The Shining.
Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, (worth pointing out that it’s loosely adapted) of the same name is a case study on isolation that flirts with the supernatural. The main protagonist, Jack Torrance, played with a slow burn into madness by Jack Nicholson, brings his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and child Danny (Danny Lloyd) to the secluded mountains to become winter caretaker for the Overlook Hotel. It’s a beautiful, remote place with a sordid history. While Nicholson grows into his psychosis, his unreliable point of view and struggling alcoholism makes him both a villain and victim. They are all prisoners to the Overlook’s whims.
The film uses every weapon in its arsenal, and if you let it… you’ll feel the terror in your bones.
I watched this movie when I was young, and at first watch it’s the rushing blood, the dead woman, and the creepy girls that resonate. As you grow older, reveling in the details more, it’s Jack Nicholson’s insanity, Wendy’s fear, and the unknown that terrifies. His son Danny’s shining, and the significance of this contributes to the unsettling mysteries of the story.
The film works in big part because of Kubrick’s direction, an atmospheric and creepy score, and the sense of dread and confinement that you just can’t escape. I routinely watch The Shining, and it hasn’t lost its edge yet.
Dylan Walker – Alien (1979)
Despite having seen Ridley Scott’s masterpiece nearly over twenty times, Alien still terrifies me every time I sit down to watch it. Whether it’s the hauntingly beautiful score by Jerry Goldsmith or the twisted and perverted creature design by H.R. Giger, the film still sends shivers down my spin on every viewing.
The aforementioned creature design by the late, great Giger is something that truly elevates the film from its B movie premise. The design for the titular alien is some of the most effective creature design in the history of film. The alien is a bizarre, twisted, voyeuristic creature that attacks our most inherent fears, especially our fear of sexuality. The alien doesn’t just kill its victims, it appears to rape them as well. This perverse, intergalactic, interspecies rape is something that I find truly terrifying and that has stuck with me since I first saw H.R. Giger’s beast onscreen.
On top of the fantastic creature design is the masterful direction by Ridley Scott, who is able to brilliantly balance the many elements of the film. One particular element is the pacing, which is perfect here. The creature is slowly revealed throughout the film, we only catch glimpses of it until it is revealed in full at the end in what feels like a crescendo. The scares are also paced perfectly, with tension rising slowly until the audience is sure it can’t rise any more, placing them in increasingly uncomfortable positions until they just can’t take it anymore.
For these reasons, and many others, Alien is a film that can still terrify me to this day.
Benjamin Wang – Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012)
Plenty of horror movies are upsetting or unnerving: Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure, Mark Robson’s The Seventh Victim, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But only two movies have ever truly scared me. One is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The other isn’t actually a horror movie, strictly speaking; it’s Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, John Hyams’ nominal sequel to Roland Emmerich’s 1997 film.
Day of Reckoning is one of the most bizarre action movies you’re likely to encounter. Strobe lights, torrents of blood, and almost comically extreme fight scenes compose almost the entire film. It’s a pastiche of sci-fi pulp, martial arts films, and the hallucinatory maxima you find in more abstract war films like Apocalypse Now.
But these aren’t the scary parts. The scary part is the opening sequence: an extended, first-person single take seen through the main character’s eyes. I won’t give away exactly what makes it so disturbing, but I’ve actually had nightmares about it, and to this day it’s the only film to achieve that effect on me.
Parts of Day of Reckoning will probably be a little much for some viewers. Some of its violence is beyond what certain people might consider acceptable, and it has to come with a seizure warning (seriously, take caution with this one if that’s a problem for you). And not everyone will be rapt by its constantly spilling over chaos. Still, it’s a fascinating and overlooked film.
Tynan Yanaga – Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
I’m rather an odd person to consider what the scariest film might be because I would be the first to admit that I am not a fan of horror films in the typical sense. Being petrified by things jumping out at me or satanic demons possessing people is not why I love the movies. It never has been.
But I am intrigued by a certain kind of horror that seems more insidious. It’s the unnamed horror that stays with you after the credits have rolled. Two prime examples I seriously considered were Rosemary’s Baby and this year’s stellar entry Get Out. But I finally settled on the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Like the aforementioned films or even Night of the Living Dead, the horror in Body Snatchers seems so closely tied to the cultural moment in a way that becomes increasingly unnerving. It’s all too real. The 1950s was the age of Cold War sentiments, and its repercussions included the Red Scare and the Hollywood Blacklist.
It’s an allegory in cinematic terms that uses a sci-fi scenario to put a voice to very real fears. There are multiple fronts. The most obvious was that communists were silently invading our ranks which wasn’t a complete falsity. But the other one we easily forget is the fact that those you think you know and love will turn against you and betray you. It happened in Hollywood. It happened in McCarthy’s witch hunts and it ruined people. That’s Body Snatchers in a nutshell or rather a pod. It’s horror that meets us in our homes and is connected with the contemporary issues in the same ways Night of the Living Dead or Get Out tackle problems in their respective eras. For me, that’s horror at its most alarming.
Those are the movies that make our spines tingle. Which do that to you?
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