Child’s Play 2 (dir: John Lafia)
I hate sleepovers. For whatever reason, tradition dictates that a sleepover must involve watching a movie that scares the hell out of everyone there (and then going to sleep and having traumatizing nightmares). And, no, you can’t get out of going to the sleepover just because you’re scared of a movie. At one particular sleepover I was invited to when I was eleven, I was forced to watch Child’s Play 2 and have regretted it ever since. Honestly, I have blocked most of the experience from my memory except for the warning I gave myself: Never watch another Chucky movie! To think, I had even forgotten that Brad Dourif was at all involved in the franchise.
Looking back on it, I suppose a film about a serial killer possessing a children’s doll and murdering people isn’t all that terrifying (but imagining the brainstorming session that gave birth to the franchise definitely is). Although, the inadvertent slogan “You’ve seen dolls that pee? This one bleeds” is beyond disturbing. Rational questions like “How did a three-foot tall doll overpower and murder so many adults?” come to mind now. But at the time, all I could do was sit with my hands over my eyes for an hour silently wishing for just one more scene without a gruesome death. – Katherine Springer
Under The Skin (dir. Jonathan Glazer)
When the objective is an excess of emotional response, such as laughter or fear, genre is just a smoke-and-mirrors game of perspective and presentation; YouTube remix culture has made it all too clear just how easily even a rigorously terrifying horror film can be recut as a comedy. Best of luck, though, to anyone trying to spin Jonathan Glazer’s third feature, last year’s very loose adaptation of the Michel Faber novel Under The Skin, as anything but the profoundly distressing sensory assault that it is. It’s simply too spare, stripped altogether of anything extraneous. It’s so careful and reserved about the information it discloses on both the narrative and audiovisual levels that it resists dismantling or rearrangement. It even resists being viewed in fits; when you watch Under The Skin, you watch it in one sitting, mesmerized, repulsed and yet totally immersed in its deft synthesis of stark naturalism and disorienting abstraction. As with the truly astonishing Scarlett Johansson performance at its dark center, the film is horrifying but also very competently seductive: Glazer plays our nerves like one of the eerie violins in Mica Levi’s brilliantly unnerving score, and he is able to do this because we so willingly submit.
The most abstracted moments in the film, the most impressionistic and symbolic and openly nightmarish, are those in which Johansson’s nameless alien character leads hapless men into a pool of viscous black liquid that sucks the men up and bleeds them dry until they are shapeless skin sacs. It is a testament to the level of horror achieved and sustained throughout that these scenes, while the most ostentatiously horrific, are actually among the film’s most easily stomached. The parts of Under The Skin that, for want of a better idiom, get under my skin are subtler but far more insidious: a sickening venture into a Glasgow nightclub; the tragic fate of a lonely man with neurofibromatosis; a baby screaming on a beach while its parents drown nearby. It’s often said that effective horror movies simply exaggerate anxieties present in our mundane everyday lives, and that certainly feels true for Under The Skin, some of which was made by duping non-actors into unwittingly making advances on Johansson for a hidden camera. That’s one of the scariest things about the film: how it points out the depths to which some people would stoop for sex, and how devoid of meaning that gesture can be. But most troubling of all is Johansson herself, whose masterful command of facial expression ensures that even as her taciturn character is wracked by pangs of empathy and longing, she remains impenetrable. Under The Skin takes its audience as far under the skin and into the psyche of a being essentially other than us as a film can, and leads us into apparent emotional communion with her, yet ultimately finds that she is, yes, incomprehensible – maybe even evil, if evil is really something so absolute. If that doesn’t keep you up the night after viewing, you might be an alien yourself. – Samuel Tolzmann
The Blair Witch Project (dirs. Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez)
I usually watch movies because I care about people. There’s nothing I like better than a great story and being able to watch some made up people change or become enlightened or destroy something, etc. This is not an attribute you want to have when watching The Blair Witch Project.
While some complained that the handheld-camera shakiness of the film is what made them sick to their stomach, it was my inherent care for people that made me sick to mine. I want people to succeed, to thrive, to be happy. And there was none of that in this film. By the end of it, I actually wanted everyone to die so it could be over. It was just a horrible, horrible thing and I felt sickly and disgusted through the whole ordeal. Fortunately, I put much of the details behind me—it was 15 years ago, after all. I just remember that horrible feeling in my stomach and my face being flushed the entire time.
– Cedric Justice
Alien (dir: Ridley Scott)
Picture, if you will, two grown men on a beautiful sunny day. They decide to rent a film neither one has seen in long time, Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece Alien. In a short time period, these adult men find themselves filled with the kind of terror that can only be expressed by jumping in their seats and shouting out loud, like a pair of fools. This is a true story, and it just goes to show the sheer lasting power of the film.
It would be easy to categorize Alien as science fiction (as it does indeed concern spaceships and robots), but the DNA of the movie is wholly composed of horror. Substitute the Nostromo for an abandoned factory (which it frequently resembles) and the Xenomorph for a serial killer, and nothing would be essentially changed about the story. At its heart, past all the disturbing sexual subtext and blue collar workers in space angle, Alien is simply terror without escape. – Nathan Kamal
The House of the Devil (dir: Ti West)
Some find director Ti West’s retro-horror stylization a little on-the-nose, his atmosphere too manufactured, and his slow-burning suspense excruciating, but those elements come together in spectacular fashion in his 2009 breakthrough The House of the Devil. Presented with a plot about an upstanding, strapped-for-cash babysitter taking on an unusual job in a strange country house told through the stylistic lens of low-budget ‘80s slashers, horror fans may not find a whole lot of unique perspective in The House of the Devil, but with West’s signature slow-burn getting interrupted by sudden bursts of brutally extreme horror, it has a high shock value.
The tonal gulf between the film’s multiple music montages and its bracingly savage and bleak final sequence may be too big for some viewers to reconcile, but if you’re willing to take the film on its own terms, the tension will haunt you. – Colin Fitzgerald
Come to Daddy (dir: Chris Cunningham)
It was the week of Thanksgiving and I was driving up to Vermont. I decided to stop and visit some friends in Queens and we had a little party. Greasy Chinese food, some beers and some bud. And after getting intoxicated, we decided to watch Chris Cunningham’s collection of music videos.
My view of reality was admittedly a bit enhanced by the time “Come to Daddy” by Aphex Twin arrived. But from the moment the scary eyes peeked out of the darkness to moment when the children with Richard James’ face morphed onto theirs chased people across the screen, I was completed terrified. We all were. When the monster screams in the woman’s face, I remember thinking, “Make it stop! Make it stop!” I felt like all of four of us were thinking the same thing but it was absolutely silent. Fear punctuated the air. I never watched that video again. – David Harris
Blue Velvet (dir: David Lynch)
Blue Velvet is a near pornographic slasher/horror film masquerading, mean spiritedly, as a whodunit. It follows the amateur sleuthing of Jeffrey Beaumont and Sandy Williams, two wholesome young WASPs who one day discover a severed ear on a dusty back road in their town. Sensing a good mystery, they resolve to get to the bottom of things. The next forty minutes are almost exasperatingly camp: rendezvous at the diner, halting expository dialogue, meaningful looks exchanged between Jeffrey and Sandy (will they or won’t they?). But just when we think we can take no more, the film does a 180 and punishes us for ever holding this cardboard cutout world in contempt: following a lead obtained from the police, Jeffrey sneaks into the apartment of Dorothy Vallens, a local nightclub singer possibly connected to the case. But Dorothy discovers Jeffrey. She holds him at knifepoint, orders him to disrobe, and, inexplicably, proceeds to fellate him. Their liaison is interrupted by the arrival of Frank, a diminutive, nitrate-inhaling sociopath who has kidnapped Dorothy’s family in order to leverage sexual favors from her––abuse which, worse still, Dorothy appears to enjoy. The sex and violence compressed into these five minutes effect the exact feeling of walking into a nightmare, down to the peculiar sensation––which we feel through Jeffrey––that the experience is not really ours, or that it was not intended for us, and we have simply been caught at the wrong moment.
The most unsettling part of Blue Velvet is that it makes nothing special of this discontinuity: although violence, discontent, and rage subsist within apparently peaceable societies, the film makes no attempt to explain the existence of these forces, historically or mythologically. It is apparently content to accept that evil is in competition with the forces of goodness and love, and that the latter can and should triumph in the end. But this reflection, itself, issues from the cardboard cutout world: the meanest trick Blue Velvet plays is this final dishonesty––it does not believe in its own moral. – Owen Duff
Club of the Discarded (dir: Jiří Barta)
There are so many ways to illustrate the menial treadmills we lock ourselves into as humans. From the daily grind of cubical work to the thoughtless faux romance that fills working stiff households. Yes, there are a thousand ways to represent it, so, Jiří, did you have to use mannequins?
Jiří Barta tackles working man woes with the crushing depression that only comes out of Eastern Europe, creating a cast of fake humans going about pointless daily tribulations including an ever-peeping tom, a wife perpetually cooking red paint at dinner and an eternally bathing woman with body parts slowly falling off. The whole project has a sort of sinking horror to it. Of course there’s the creepy uncanny effect of the near humans bumbling about, but something darker lurks below the surface. When things start to unravel we literally see facades crumble, and it’s a terrifying mirror held up to our faces. – Nathan Stevens
The Shining (dir: Stanley Kubrick)
By the time I saw The Shining, Stephen King was a regular on my reading list. Books like Salem’s Lot, The Stand and The Dead Zone were suspenseful and delightfully creepy, although not really frightening per se. Reading creates its own sense of distance and King’s plotlines were sufficiently contrived and predictable that terror never really set in. I had already read The Shining when the movie came out and, while I expected the experience to be more intense, I assumed that knowing the storyline and shock points would soften the edges.
I hadn’t counted on Stanley Kubrick’s subtle and masterful work. Early on, his version of the Overlook Hotel creates a nuanced sense of disquiet, in particular as young Danny explores the hallways riding his Big Wheel. The real payoff, though, comes with the disturbing visions associated with the place: an elevator releasing a tide of blood, a drowned and decayed woman in the bath and, of course, the Grady twins. The sight of those two little girls standing side by side with their blank expressions is still an image that I occasionally encounter in my nightmares, and even writing about it now gives me goosebumps. King’s story of a father turning into a monster is a scary idea, but Kubrick’s deft handling of the same creates the perfect balance of shock, disbelief and surrealism that brings the fear to life. – Jester Jay Goldman
Night of the Living Dead (dir.: George A. Romero)
I first saw director George A. Romero’s landmark independent horror movie on a 13” black & white television picking up an erratic UHF broadcast. It was after dark, of course, and even though I was watching a compromised image on a small screen, the movie still scared the shit out of me, the compact device with unreliable rabbit ears giving me the sense that I was tuning into a desperate transmission from a violent and desperate place. Which it was.
The 1968 film doesn’t explicitly refer to the dark history that was being made nearly every day in that tumultuous year. The movie’s stark futility is just as bleak without the context of a nation going up in flames around it. Romero would offer a more blatant social critique with the anti-consumerist screed Dawn of the Dead. But Night of the Living Dead offers a subversive portrait of a racially volatile and violent culture without throwing it in your face – until the chilling climax. Suddenly, this fantastical nightmare’s unhappiest of endings conveys the horrors of lynching in a grainy, matter of fact manner that may be more powerful than in any traditional drama. All this from a genre movie. The movie is terrifying to watch in 2014 on an iPad. Imagine how horrifying it must have been to walk out of a movie theater in 1968, into a world that seemed not far removed from the gore onscreen. – Pat Padua
Eraserhead (dir: David Lynch)
I don’t want to say that David Lynch’s directorial debut, Eraserhead, made me afraid to have children, but you don’t see me tending to any swaddled, calf-faced alien babies braying the night away, now do you? I’d already seen most of the essential Lynch films before putting on Eraserhead about a decade ago, so I more or less knew what I was getting myself into. Didn’t matter.
Eraserhead was one of those rare cinematic experiences that, afterwards, made it difficult for me to sleep. Even though poor Henry (Jack Nance) lives in a stark and surreal industrial netherworld, fundamentalism abounds. Carving up a still-writhing chicken on the kitchen table may be proper dinner etiquette, but that doesn’t mean an unwed couple can do something as obscene as have a baby! Henry is forced to wed, and he’s then stuck caring for his frighteningly deformed offspring. That’s about as much sense as the film makes from there. The rest of the way it’s nothing but unnerving noises and nightmare imagery the likes of which no chipmunk-cheeked Lady in the Radiator can sing away. – Josh Goller
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (dir. David Lynch)
So much of horror derives from a fear of the unknown, but part of the reason that Fire Walk with Me is so endlessly terrifying and upsetting is that it is a foregone conclusion. Anyone coming to the film from the show will know that it ends with Laura Palmer dead, and they know who takes her to that point. But that is part of the film’s ultimate genius: it is the opposite of a Final Girl movie, one in which the girl will be the only victim, her anguished cries for help unheeded by the same locals who will soon greet an intruding federal agent with more warmth than they afford her. Throughout, Lynch wrings terror out of banalities like nondescript paintings and a spinning fan, capturing the perspective of someone who suffers such horrifying trauma that the “normal” world starts to seem preternaturally ordered to destroy her. -Jake Cole