Let's get this out of the way: This list is totally subjective. I picked movies that scared me. It's a generational thing to an extent. The original Dracula (1931) was pretty damned scary for its time and most of it still is. But today's teenager will probably not find much to be frightened about in Bela Lugosi's chilling performance. Likewise, Dracula's inspiration, the silent-era Nosferatu (1922) probably had audience members shrieking at the time. But the current horror generation? Not likely. Certainly not when they've been brought up on the 25 Saw and Hostel movies and all that other garbage torture-porn. (A single exception: The original Saw was awesome. It's the sequels that suck.) I had a teen recommend to me the movie Insidious as "the scariest thing I've ever seen." With that kind of endorsement how could I refuse? It was okay. It certainly had its moments. Scariest movie ever made? Please. It's not even in my top 20, let alone the top 10 which we'll be getting to in a moment.
This list was very difficult to make. There are literally hundreds of quality horror movies that have been made over the decades. How could I possibly whittle that down to 10? I went with my gut. I didn't go back and sit through marathons of horror movies. I stuck with the ones that made an impression on me and still do. These are the movies I can recall at a moment's notice if the need arises. (That happens more often than you might think.) That's where this list comes from.
I've agonized over some of the movies that just missed the cut. We're talking high-quality, shit-your-pants horror. But there was something about them, some key factor, that seemed to place them just out of reach of the top 10. Some were made-for-television movies that had to contend with network censors, like Duel (1971) and 'Salem's Lot (1979). Others were not quite horror movies but had a very horrorish feel to them, like Jaws (1975), The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Aliens (1986). Some were very creepy but not enough for me to identify them as true horror movies. Pitch Black (2000) and Se7en (1995) fell into this category. Others were pure horror but fell just short of making the list, like The Omen (1976), Susperia (1977), Them! (1954) and John Carpenter's remake of The Thing (1982).
So with all that out of the way, let's get to the meat. Enjoy!
10) The Gravedancers (2006): I know, I know, you've never heard of this one. You owe it to yourself to go out and find it. A group of old college friends gets together when one of their own passes away. A night of drunken "remembrances" ends with them dancing in a cemetery. Bad move. Some of the grave's owners don't take kindly to being danced upon. Mild disturbances escalate to all-out horror as these friends try to survive an ancient curse. I jumped several times watching this and get chills just thinking about some of the scenes. (Plus the two female leads are pretty hot, always a plus.) Watch this one with the lights off. I dare you.
9) Pet Sematary (1989): Based on one of King's scariest novels, this could have been a mess but it wasn't. Dale Midkiff and Denise Crosby are hardly A-list actors. Frankly, Denise should have stuck with Star Trek: The Next Generation when she had the chance. But it does feature a star performance by the legendary Fred Gwynn ("The soil of a man's heart is stonier, Louis."). And the kid playing Gage Creed is convincingly twisted post-resurrection and at the same time sympathetic. "No fair." Oh, and the end is awesome!
8) Paranormal Activity (2007): This movie was made for about $50. It stars no one you've ever heard of (and, likely, never will) and it was shot at the director's house because they could not afford to build a set. I am the furthest thing from a fan of the "found footage" movies (I can't stand The Blair Witch Project and blame it for most of the similar-format shitty movies that have followed) but I dig this one. I jumped out of my skin about a dozen times. This should be shown in film schools so aspiring directors can see how to make an effective movie without a budget of $200 million.
7) Night of the Living Dead (1968): This is another movie that was made for nothing. The special effects are almost non-existent, the make-up isn't terribly convincing and, again, it stars no one you've ever heard of. Doesn't matter. This is the stuff of which nightmares are made. Not every writer/director can claim they invented an entire genre, but George A. Romero can. Every zombie flick made since 1968 has "borrowed" (putting it nicely) or outright stolen from this movie. Fans of The Walking Dead can thank Mr. Romero they have such a quality show to watch. "They're coming to get you, Barbara!" indeed.
6) Halloween (1978): It was a toss-up between this and Psycho and this won. I'll explain. Hitchcock created the slasher flick with Psycho (1960) but the genre didn't catch on. It's certainly Halloween's spiritual godfather but it just doesn't have the oomph Carpenter instilled in his no-budget masterpiece. (I also don't credit the abominable The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in any incarnation. I loathe all of them equally. Yes, even the one with Matthew McConaughey.) Carpenter took a very simple formula and managed to scare the bejeezus out of everyone. The formula was so successful it spawned Friday the 13th and Sleepaway Camp and A Nightmare on Elm Street and a shitload more, but don't hold that against this movie. Also, don't hold the sequels against it, either. They got progressively worse as they went on, although nothing can match the unrelenting shittiness of Halloween III. (One bit of good news, though: Rob Zombie's remake from 2007 was actually quite good.) I have nothing critical to say about this movie, not even all the cars in "Haddonfield, IL" having California licence plates. :)
5) The Mist (2007): Good God, this movie is fucking scary. Based on a Stephen King novella, Frank Darabont (director of such awesomeness as The Shawshank Redepmtion and The Green Mile) took half the cast of The Walking Dead (seriously, watch it again) and delivered a flawless masterpiece of terror. King's central theme in the novel was the inhuman monsters outside the grocery store where the characters are holed up vs. the very human monsters inside the store. Darabont knocked this one out of the park. Oh, and this movie has the single ballsiest ending I've ever seen. It isn't just heartbreaking. It's soul-crushing.
4) The Innocents (1961): I bet you don't know about this one. You should. It's based on the Henry James story "The Turn of the Screw" and it just might be the best ghost story ever written. Deborah Kerr is the new nanny to Miles and Flora, who haven't quite gotten over the death of their previous nanny and the estate's groundskeeper. ("Look at her, Flora! Look at her!") This is bone-chilling stuff and you owe it to yourself to see it.
3) The Shining (1980): Yes, another Stephen King story. Am I starting to sense a pattern here? Don't worry, this is the last one on this list. Nicholson should have won an Academy Award for this one, and Shelley Duvall is even better than he is in this. But far and away the best and scarist character in the movie is the Overlook Hotel itself. All hotels are inherantly creepy but none come anywhere near the Overlook when it comes to pure creepiness. Seriously, those corridors are endless, the public areas are cavernous and that hedgemaze is just plain fucked up. King is very public with his dislike of this movie. This is the one time I'm gonna side with the director over the author. This movie fucking rocks from start to finish.
2) Alien (1979): Ridley Scott's masterpiece, and that's saying something. The story is simplicity itself. It's basically a haunted house in space. Seriously, look at the Nostromo. It's Dr. Frankenstein's castle with giant engines. This might be the most gothic horror movie ever made. Thirty-four years later the horror genre, specifically that of the sci fi persuasion, is still trying to catch up to this. That says a lot. Oh, and you can thank this movie for every fictional female badass you know. They all took their cues from Sigourney Weaver's Ripley. (I'm looking at you, Sarah Connor.)
1) The Exorcist (1973): Was there any doubt? This movie goes straight for the throat and never lets go. I'm not gonna go into everything that makes this movie so scary or so great; if I have to do that there's no hope for you, anyway. Needless to say, if you somehow haven't seen it yet, do so immediately. Preferably around high noon with all the lights in the house turned on. And good luck sleeping after that.
There you have it. That's my list. What's yours?