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Horror Movies To Watch on That Desert Island

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Scariest movies ever: The definitive list, until you write yours

  • May 31, 2012

What people do to each other is more horrifying than what scary monsters might do to us. Frankenstein's creation only may be out there. Psycho killers certainly are.

It's not funny but in a way horror is like comedy. Something scares you or it doesn't, just as something makes you laugh or chuckle or it doesn't. There is nothing in between, no "almost funny" or "almost scary."

There is another horror/comedy link. If you don't think these movies are scary, at least you can laugh at me for thinking they are.

The scariest movie I've ever seen:

THE VANISHING (aka Spoorloos) 1988
Directed by George Sluizer. Written by Sluizer and Tim Krabbe, adapting Krabbe's novel The Golden Egg.

A man is haunted by the disappearance of his girlfriend and will do anything to learn what happened to her. Years later he encounters the man he thinks can give him the answer he seeks and he agrees to put himself completely in this stranger's power. Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu gives a subtle, chilling performance as the villain. He is not a Nazi but he nonetheless embodies the banality of evil. There are people like this in the world, and the chance that fate might put us in their paths is terrifying.

The original version in French and Dutch with English subtitles is far superior to the American remake, which features a listless performance by Jeff Bridges and an astonishingly absurd happy ending. The ending of this flawless original provides chills that linger long after you might want them to.

#2) JAWS (1975)
Directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, adapting Benchley's novel.

Much of this blockbuster is thrilling, but a scene at the beginning is absolutely horrifying. A woman treads water in the ocean. Suspended in a vast and mostly unknown void, she is alone except for a drunken companion on the beach who is too far away to help even if he could. That now-familiar music starts softly. It  grows louder. Then louder still.

She feels something brush against her but doesn't know what. Then she feels pain and doesn't know why. When the awareness of what is happening to her sinks in, her horror also agonizes those of us who are watching.

#3) PSYCHO (1960)
Drected by Alfred Hitchcock. Written by Joseph Stefano, adapting Robert Bloch's novel.

Serial killers exist. Doing something as ordinary as checking into a hotel can put us under their control. This classic about a deranged young man and his mother is familiar, but knowing what comes next does nothing to diminish its power. When Janet Leigh takes her shower or Martin Balsam walks up the stairs it is literally breathtaking. Only after events have played can a little relief can set in.

But the relief lasts only until we take a shower. Or walk into an unfamiliar house. Or do any of the other things that we can only hope remain routine. Many of those routine activities can summon memories of this unforgettable thriller.

#4) HALLOWEEN (1978)
Written and directed by John Carpenter.

Menace lurks in the dark, both in our worst dreams and in our best movies. This is one of the latter that can inspire many of the former. A killer stalks a young woman as she babysits and everything -- shadowy cinematography, eerie music, perfect pacing -- makes the experience feel as horrifying for the audience as it is for her.

#5) MISERY (1990)
Directed by Rob Reiner. Written by William Goldman, adapting Stephen King's novel.

A writer's life depends on his biggest fan, who might be crazy enough to torture him until he writes more about her favorite character. Although writers might empathize more with the central character's plight, anyone who has ever been alone with a stranger can identify enough to feel dread when things start to go wrong for him. The moment when things go really wrong comes as an exceedingly unpleasant surprise.

#6 ) DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1932)
Directed by Rouben Mamoulian. Written by Samuel Hoffenstein, adapting Robert Louis Stevenson's novel.

and DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1941)
Directed by Victor Fleming; written by John Lee Mahin.

Frederic March won the Oscar for his powerful performance in the 1932 version, but Spencer Tracy's portrayal in the 1941 movie is more unnverving. Both productions bring interesting images to Stevenson's classic story. Both actors suggest memorably that monstrousness lies within us, and not too deep within.

Directed by James Whale. Written by R.C. Sherriff, adapting H.G. Well's novel.

Claude Rains gives an unforgettable performance as the title character, a remarkable feat because his character is not seen for almost the whole movie. He uses his voice to make us feel the man's slipping into violent insanity. Supposedly it is the invisibility serum that unhinges him, but Rains' tour-de-force makes us see that the madness was within him all along, just as it might be within all of us.

#8) DEAD OF NIGHT (1945)
An anthology directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Chrichton, Basil Dearden and Robert Hamer. Written by T.E.B. Clarke, John Baines and Angus MacPhail.

If anything is scarier than the real-life horrors we hear about too regularly and hope only to hear about, it is our dreams. When we let go of consciousness we can never be sure what will grip us. This movie about the dreams of people gathered in a remote house in England gives ample reason to dread your next trip to the realm of dreams.

Modern audiences might dismiss much of this restrained black & white movie as quaint, but not Michael Redgrave's powerhouse performance as a ventriloquist who thinks his dummy talks to him. What subsequent lesser movies and television programs have made trite, Redgrave makes haunting.

Directed by Paul Schrader. Written by Harold Pinter, adapting Ian McEwan's novel.

Helen Mirren makes this chilling. Christopher Walken plays her husband so of course something seems not quite right. One can't quite figure out where his interest in a young couple on vacation is leading. But Mirren is there and she's normal so we can believe that everything is okay. Isn't it?


The leisurely pace of the movie leaves us completely unprepared for the sudden, ferocious twist events take near the end. Although it moves too slowly for some viewers, the movie can scare anyone who has ever struck up an acquaintance with strangers in a strange land. And leave you less likely ever to do so again.

Directed by Robert Fuest. Written by William Goldstein and James Whiton.

Vincent Price stars in a movie that features much intentionally campy humor and some seriously unnerving images as well. He is a doctor using Biblical plagues as the theme for his murderous revenge on those he thinks are responsible for his wife's death and his own disfigurement. His method for getting locusts to attack a victim indoors is far-fetched but not impossible. That we haven't heard of real-life killers who use such ingeniously elaborate methods could mean that there aren't any, but it could also mean that they get away with it.

This movie provides perhaps the best showcase for the cultured menace of Price's voice.
Scariest movies ever: The definitive list, until you write yours Scariest movies ever: The definitive list, until you write yours Scariest movies ever: The definitive list, until you write yours Scariest movies ever: The definitive list, until you write yours

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June 02, 2012
real fun and entertaining write up! Have you seen the remake of THE VANISHING?
June 02, 2012
Yes I've seen it but I think it falls far short of measuring up to the original. If they weren't both directed by Sluizer I would call the ending of the remake a betrayal. I wish he'd resisted Hollywood's pressure to tack on a happy ending.
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