I'm taking this week off from doing my Academy Award Best Picture Reviews to help celebrate Halloween! And although Halloween in Hollywood usually means Horror Films, I want to expand on the theme a bit to write about scary films in general. Thrillers? Suspense? Horror? They are all here. And right up front I want to admit that my list will not match yours. For one thing, you won't find films such as Halloween or Friday The 13th on this list. To me these types of films are too formulaic, and what thrills that they have fade away with time. Sure, we remember the fisherman from I Know What You Did Last Summer. But watch that film again and the scares are pretty obvious, don't you agree? So here are my choices, films that have scared me half a dozen times or more, in chronological order, The Magnificent Seven Scary Films!
1. The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
The original Frankenstein, also directed by James Whale, is a classic "horror" film. However, if you watch it or most of the other classic Universal Monster films, they are not actually all that frightening. The Bride, however, features The Creature with an agenda. Boris Karloff is excellent as a pseudo-man who is looking for companionship,and he's willing to kill to get it. He threatens his creator, played by Colin Clive, as well as his creator's wife. There is a real sense that this Creature could cause incredible and immediate harm if provoked, so you had better watch out. The ending, with the iconically made-up Elsa Lancaster scared of her groom, is absolutely unforgettable.
The Bates Motel. Janet Leigh in the shower. Anthony Perkins as Norman. The music of Bernard Herrmann. Although (or perhaps because?) all of these have become pop cultural icons, some may argue that this is not a "scary" film. I say to you that this Alfred Hitchcock directed classic IS still scary. All you need to do to prove it is to watch it with someone who has not seen it before. I guarantee that you will realize how scary (and creepy) it is all over again by watching it through their eyes.
This was another one of those happy accidents that happen in motion pictures every once in awhile. Director Steven Spielberg had intended to show the shark in many more scenes than he ended up doing. He didn't because he couldn't! It turns out that the mechanical shark, named Bruce, kept breaking down. So he was replaced by yellow buoys and by staccato music. Result: fewer shark sightings = increased suspense = better frights = great movie. Has anyone ever seen this film and not be scared just a little bit when swimming in the ocean? It helps immensely that Everyman Roy Scheider represents the audience, and that he's scared out of his mind.
One of the more traditional "horror" films on my list, Alien is also one of the two science fiction films on my list. There are plenty of "alien invader" science fiction slash horror films out there, but most of them are not particularly scary. The great films The Day The Earth Stood Still and This Island Earth are both more similar to social commentaries than to horror films. It doesn't help that most of these films were made in the Fifties and Sixties. Alien, however, has modern special effects to go along with the disgusting invader. Sure, this film created what turned into an industry, but stick to the original. Cringe-worthy scenes abound. Also eye-coverings and gasps. In theatres, everyone can hear you scream.
The most classically "horror" film on my list, it's a favorite. Werewolves, vampires, and zombies can be scary, but until this film was made the transformation make-up was mostly "stop-motion" or "off screen." I love Universal's The Wolf-Man, but it is more of a melodrama than a horror film, don't you think? This John Landis production shows us the wolf transformation in all its glory, and actually won an Academy Award for Best Make-Up (the first one ever given out!). However, after this film, and Alien before it, too many film-makers tried to go the other way and show us EVERYTHING. Films such as John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) for example would have been a better film if they had remembered "less is more," especially with the gore and gross out. An American Werewolf In London has its moments of gore, especially with the continuing-to-decompose Jack, but it still manages to strike just the right balance between technically cool and fantastically frightful.
This is the only double-entry on my list, and is the rarest of events in Hollywood: an original and a remake both being equally good, although in this case very different ways. Both tell the story of a scientist who is working on a matter transporter (or teleporter). Both scientists then try their inventions out on themselves, but inadvertently include a fly in the mix. In the original, the head and arm of the fly is exchanged with the scientist's body parts; in the remake, the DNA of the two creatures combine. The original stars Vincent Price is a rare sympathetic role (the scientist's brother) and the remake stars Jeff Goldblum. Both are great movies, and I haven't seen them in awhile. I think I'll go watch them this weekend!
7. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
I have chosen Silence... to represent all of the modern day "horror" films. You know, the ones about the psychological killers with axes, chainsaws, saws, ice picks, and whatever else they will use to terrorize you. And they are really out there. Hannibal Lector is a cartoon villain, but Buffalo Bill is unfortunately all-too realistic, and that is what makes this film so scary to watch. Come for the horror, stay for the Academy Award-winning performances of Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins.