THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) Directed by Tobe Hooper
Whether you contribute it to the Poltergeist controversy, the oft-putting repute surrounding Chainsaw or the fact that his pictures are many times misunderstood, Hooper has sadly not shared the same success of his counterparts. He is however an accomplished movie-maker and his ability to manipulate film grammar is nearly unparalleled. His first weapon in Chainsaw is wielded during the picture’s opening tile craw as a foreboding John Larroquette sets up the forthcoming events as true. This gives way to a chaotic soundtrack comprised of grinding metal, crunching dirt and animal moans; and the first image of the movie: that of a rotting corpse posed atop a headstone in such a way as to suggest our world is one of madness and the source of that madness has an unusual eye for art. He spends the next eighty-plus minutes tampering with audience sentimentality (i.e. during a scene that sees the disabled Franklin hurled down a hill while attempting to urinate) en route to creating a terrifying experience that exemplifies the savage cinema period.
THE EXORCIST (1973) Directed by William Friedkin
An easy choice and one that will appear on most scariest movies lists. As a child who spent many Sunday mornings in church, I found the existence of heaven and hell motif extremely unnerving. The thought that Satan would assail from a mundane American household and utilize a twelve-year-old girl as artillery was wholly terrifying. The bilious images of Linda Blair spewing green-pea soup and karo syrup didn’t hurt either. I later came to appreciate Friedkin’s use of symbolism and imagery to build the good vs. evil theme.
THE EVIL DEAD (1982) Directed by Sam Raimi
Before he was a Hollywood superstar, Sam Raimi was producing cult horror pics recognized for their gore elements and vigorous techniques. Though among my favorite films of all time, it took me two sittings to get through this crude and violent masterpiece the first time around. Raimi’s wickedly inventive camera work continues to inspire me to this day.
POLTERGEIST (1982) Directed by Tobe Hooper
The most popular of Hooper’s film endeavors Poltergeist is also the film that provided him the most heartache as suggestions of Spielberg’s involvement resulted in his own abilities being called into question. On the surface the movie is a classic urban haunted-house story but on a deeper level it is an indictment of our reliance on television as a society. Poltergeist taps into every childhood phobia imaginable (fear of the dark, clowns, closets, shadows, storms, etc.) and forces younger viewers to consider the existence of a supernatural dimension.
HALLOWEEN (1978) Directed by John Carpenter
I was born January 9, 1980. So, minus eight days and some odd minutes, I lived every moment of that cheerful decade. Though I didn’t understand the socio-political goings ons that inspired it, the slasher genre was my introduction to horror. Halloween remains the preeminent boogeyman flick. I recall the first time I saw the movie. It was Halloween night. My sister was curled up around her candy-filled pillowcase on the living room floor, my mother was uttering words of protest from the other room (“You better not be watching something that will give you nightmares”) and I was entranced by the images on the TV. The thought that monsters were not just created by mad scientists or nuclear fallout and could be living next door was truly frightening. The ambiguous final moments of the picture are underrated and leave the viewer with the feeling that evil is out there...somewhere.
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984) Directed by Wes Craven
Wes Craven redefined the slasher genre on two occasions. The first came in 1984 when he substituted the then familiar faceless, voiceless stalker on a mission with a sardonic, supernatural bad guy. His weapon of choice was truly disturbing and his victim-pool could seemingly include anybody as he preyed on those who fall asleep. The bloody special effects and spooky atmosphere made this adolescent nightmare all too real.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) Directed by George A. Romero
A masterpiece in every sense of the word, Night of the Living Dead relies on stark black-and-white photography and documentary techniques to create the appearance of truth. Though its sequels exploit sanguinary displays to create humor, there is little to laugh about in this primitive yet unrelenting parable regarding the skepticism of mankind.
THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999) Directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez
I wholeheartedly bought into the Blair Witch phenomenon. A pseudo-documentary chronicling the adventures of three filmmakers who disappear into the woods of Maryland while researching the existence of an evil witch, the movie relies on the power of the unseen to create a series of genuinely gut-wrenching events. The picture’s scariest moments are devoid of a picture altogether, relying solely on sound and the imagination of the viewer to create dread within a darkened frame.
THE DESCENT (2005) Directed by Neil Marshall
A group of adventure-seeking women who take to investigating unexplored cave systems for pleasure have their latest excursion interrupted by a pack of monstrous cavern-dwellers in The Descent. Though the ravenous creatures are among the more frightening in recent memory and have influenced the design of those that amble through most creature-features released in The Descent’s wake, the scenes of the female leads squeezing through small portals in the rock wall create a harrowing sense of claustrophobia unmatched in cinema history.
LOST HIGHWAY (1997) Directed by David Lynch
Surreal nightmare from avant-garde director David Lynch. Though light on logic, the macabre atmosphere created via the picture’s unsettling visuals, stark color scheme and ominous score seize your attention throughout. The concept of someone breaking into your home and watching you while you sleep is still one of the most frightening ideas put to celluloid. A scene that witnesses a ghost-faced Robert Blake informing Bill Pullman that he is relaxing in his home while positioned at his side on the beach chills me to this day.