When it comes to movies, what constitutes “scary”?
The answer is subjective, obviously. Horror movies from the 1930s are cool, but their quaintness keeps them from freaking me out. I’m a huge fan of “Rear Window,” “Get Out” and “Silence of the Lambs,” but they’re about tension, not scares. Although I have a weakness for the goofball “Final Destination” series, slasher movies have never done it for me — too many cat-screaming-in-a-tree fake shocks and random spurts of blood. I like humor and horror together, but the “Scream” movies don’t frighten me; neither does the Japanese “Audition,” which is squirmier than it is frightening. I like ghost stories such as “The Others,” but to creep me out, I suspect they need an element of existential dread that connects them to the real world.
That eliminates a lot of titles — there are so many good, scary-ish movies that you have to — but there’s still so much to scream about.
The movie probably has some sort of monster, right? But the monster is most effective if, in some way, it is us. That’s the case with “Alien,” which I’ve seen, and been scared by, many times. And it’s true of favorites that did not quite make my list: “Night of the Living Dead,” a zombie movie but also a man’s-inhumanity-to-man movie; “Train to Busan,” the Korean thriller in which a zombie outbreak takes high-speed rail from town to town, fueled by human selfishness; “Rosemary’s Baby,” which is powerful because, like the toxic stew of Nextdoor.com, it’s driven by curiosity about what neighbors are doing when their door is closed.
That sort of fear is in all of what I’d call the best scary movies: There is something around the corner and it’s awful. The best horror movies use suspense, warning us about the possibility of the awful thing, but then upend our expectations. “Train to Busan,” for instance, seems to end several times, eliminating major characters and changing settings as swiftly as TV’s “Homeland” used to do, where you’d think, “How are the writers going to get out of this situation?” That could fall apart fast but when it’s done well, as in “Busan,” it is delirious fun.
It’s possible to do horror in the great wide open — “The Blair Witch Project” proved that in a forest — but tight spaces are a better bet. Just about everyone can be creeped out by a confined space, like the remote lab in “The Thing,” and it gets even worse when most of the fun happens in the dark.
Another common kink, in most horror and in my faves, is the shot from the bad guy’s point of view. John Carpenter is credited with the best use of this tactic in “Halloween,” which makes us identify with the killer. (Carpenter gets bonus points for composing that eerily simple music, which plays like an homage to the famous “Exorcist” score.) If we’re looking at mayhem through the killer’s eyes, whose side are we on? Forget the neighbors, do we even know what we are capable of ourselves?
If you believe these dandy scary movies below, we’re capable of almost anything.
I vividly recall this Ridley Scott classic hitting theaters. I was in high school, a few years before the wave of “Friday the 13th”/”Nightmare on Elm Street”-style movies began to dominate the box office (“Halloween” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” were out but not yet franchises). There just weren’t that many scary movies in theaters, but then “Alien’s” claustrophobic balance between surprise and suspense landed with a killer tagline: “In space, no one can hear you scream.”
Carpenter’s remake takes an “Alien”-like situation — a bunch of researchers trapped in a remote place (Antarctica) — and introduces an element of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” with a disgusting creature that assumes the identity of the person it devours. Claustrophobia? Inventive gore? Even your friends are your enemies? This one has it all.
The grim classic shares themes with “Rosemary’s Baby,” where it’s also impossible to trust one’s own family members to escape the devil’s grasp, but it seems much more unsettling. Maybe because the strong religious themes, which aren’t a big deal in “Rosemary,” make it easier to believe in the dark side?
I’ve sung the praises of Henri-Georges Clouzot, whose “Le Corbeau” and “The Wages of Fear” are masterpieces, too, but his best-known movie is this efficient chiller. It gets old-school fear — and one very big shock — out of a twisty ménage-à-murder: a headmaster, his wife and his mistress. There’s the possibility of the supernatural in “Diabolique” (aka “The Devils”), but it’s really about whether we can trust anyone. “We are monsters,” says one of the three title characters. “I don’t like monsters.”
Unlike the anony-corpse slasher movies that followed in its bloody wake, “Halloween’s” intensity comes from having a memorable killer, Michael Myers, and potential victim, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) — who, once again, failed to vanquish her nemesis in the 2018 entry in the franchise, also called “Halloween.” She’ll have two more shots in a pair of movies announced for 2021 and 2022.
Claustrophobia is on the menu from the beginning when six women descend into a cave. Soon, they have more to worry about than getting stuck in a crevice or losing their lanterns. Neil Marshall (who also made the excellent “Dog Soldiers”) works by sly misdirection: Just when we think one adventurer is out of a tight spot, she’s stuck in a worse one. And the moment they think they’ve found an escape is the moment Marshall positions some sort of creepy, color-drained mole creature right behind them.
So much is unnerving about this Swedish vampire movie: that the most vicious (but oddly sympathetic) character is a little girl, that its scariest scene takes place in the brightly lit sterility of a swimming pool and that, like all the best horror movies (as well as, you know, the world), we brought all the horrifying stuff on ourselves.