5. Chris’ Pick: Ghost (1990)
To many, Jerry Zucker‘s Ghost is a romantic fantasy most notable for a sensual scene of super sexy pottery making between Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore. In reality, it’s one of the most terrifying movies ever made. After being murdered by a violent mugger, banker Sam Wheat (Swayze) becomes a ghost that watches over his girlfriend, Molly (Moore). While doing so, he learns his murder was no random act of violence but rather a hit organized by a close friend. With the help of psychic Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg), Sam can reconnect with Molly while bringing his killer to justice.
What makes Ghost one of the scariest films ever made is that there are shadow demons that appear whenever someone evil dies. These shadow creatures let out horrific screams as they latch onto the souls of the recently deceased and drag them to Hell. This is pure nightmare fuel made all the more frightening when you’re a 5-year-old child, and your mother tells you that if you lie, the shadow demons will come and get you. Not-so-fun fact: the chilling sounds of the shadow demons were created by taking the crying of babies and playing it backward at an extremely slow speed. (Chris Coffel)
4. Valerie’s Pick: Cure (1997)
Nobody, and I mean nobody, can do an anticipatory horror shot like Kiyoshi Kurosawa. In fact, the filmmaker’s most frightening films, including 1997’s Cure, feel like a relentless string of anticipatory setups presented one after another. Kurosawa designs sequences focused on jarring, breath-stealing images, then lets the action unfold within each frame with nerve-frazzling slowness. By the time whatever thing you’d feared finally happens, the visual in front of your eyes already feels seared into your brain, a nightmarish memory being made in real-time. Watch his films at home, and it’s tough not to pause to break the tension. Watch them in theaters, and they may just instill the same deep restlessness in you that they did in me – an impossible urge to quite simply run away.
Cure tells a haunting story about murder as a contagion. Its characters all kill in the same way, slashing an X in the neck of their victims. But they also seem unsure about their own motivations, compelled by some primal force that’s beyond their ability to explain. The story follows Kenichi Takabe (Koji Yakusho), a detective whose attempt to understand the inexplicable killings leads him to a man named Mamiya (Masato Hagiwara). A sleepy, non-threatening stranger in an oversized sweater, Mamiya initially seems unassuming, but he’s actually one of the most deliciously unsettling horror villains I’ve ever seen. There’s a lot more to Cure than meets the eye. But it’s the kind of story that benefits from going in relatively cold. Suffice it to say that each and every moment is soaked through with perfectly designed, ever-so-suffocating dread. (Valerie Ettenhofer)
3. Rob’s Pick: The Strangers (2008)
My love of horror movies extends to all the various subgenres, across borders, and throughout time. Most aren’t really scary (and don’t even try to be). And the ones that do try often rely on jump scares over atmosphere. They’re temporary scares, though: ones that get you in the moment and then fade after the credits roll, and that’s okay! We know monsters and ghosts aren’t real. So when the movie ends, so does our fear.
This is why Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers (along with 2006’s French chiller, Them, which Bertino arguably “homages”) is one of the scariest films I’ve seen. A couple up late at a remote house is visited by three masked strangers. And Bertino executes the numerous set pieces with terrifying precision. He also wisely knows that you don’t need music stingers to let viewers know it’s time to be scared – the shot of Liv Tyler in the room, as the burlap-sacked killer quietly appears in the background of the shot? Fucking nightmare fuel. (James Wan is also good at letting the visuals deliver the scares without a loud audio assist.) Other beats follow, and they’re capped off with the most ominous of observations. Asked why they were targeted, one of the trio simply replies, “Because you were home.” (Rob Hunter)
2. Anna’s Pick: The Descent (2005)
Part of what makes The Descent so scary, to me at least, is that even before we get to the stuff that makes this a horror movie, it’s already scary as hell. The major thrust of the film is the underground-dwelling cannibalistic humanoid creatures that stalk a group of cave divers when they become trapped in the dark depths of the earth. Now, man-eating monsters are scary. And as they’re depicted in the film, they’re even scarier. But before they even show up, I’m ready to check out.
The caves, just on their own, are terrifying. In the vast underground Appalachian cave system, there’s already the threat of darkness, enclosed spaces, and potential injury. I can’t think of anywhere else I’d less like to be, even if nothing goes wrong. There’s already plenty to worry about. And then you add in flesh-eating humanoids that can see in the dark and climb on the cave walls? Absolutely not. Get me out of there. I hate this. Which is why I love it. That’s the beauty of a genuinely scary horror movie. (Anna Swanson)
1. Meg’s Pick: [REC] (2007)
It’s worth being specific when we’re talking about what makes a movie “scary.” Scary, to me at least, means that my lizard brain has been activated. It means that electricity is shooting down my forearms through my fingertips, my heart is beating in my ears, and my muscles are clenching (just in case). I need to brace for some unknown impact. For me, being afraid is a physical experience. And no film has triggered my flight or fight quite like REC. Everyone’s a tough guy until found footage is good. Playing out in real-time from the POV of the world’s most dedicated cameraman, REC’s swift descent into viral chaos is, for lack of a better word, infectious.
Maybe it’s the fact that the film was shot without a script that makes it feel so visceral. Maybe it’s the desperate, universally triggering cadence of all the screaming. Either way, when anyone asks me what I think the scariest horror movie is, it’s REC all the way (to the bottom of the stairwell). (Meg Shields)
Change your pants. Turn on all the lights. And once your heartbeat quells from reading about the scariest horror movie recommendations, peek through your fingers and check out more 31 Days of Horror Lists!
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