This article comes with a caveat: These movies scared the hell out of me when I first saw them. Years later, the scare factor would decrease for a variety of reasons (the special effects didn’t stand up through the years, the story became imitated to within an inch of its life, the director became full of himself, etc), but when I stepped into that theater (or plucked down on the sofa) and saw these movies for the very first time, they made me do strange things like wonder if I’m alone in the house, start looking around the room for shadows, and entertained the idea of turning on every light in the house. In a word, these movies scared the hell out of me.
There are other movies that are notable, but just didn’t scare me. For instance, I have all the respect in the world for John Carpenter’s “Halloween” and what it’s done for the genre, but it just didn’t scare me, mostly because I had seen too many of its imitators, and so the original scare factor wasn’t there anymore. Likewise with Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”, or some of the more classic oldies, like “Rosemary’s Baby” or “The Exorcist”. All good, even great horror titles, but they didn’t keep me scared for days afterward like the films on my list. And then are titles considered “horror” that I don’t think even fits in the genre, such as “Jaws”, the original “Alien”, or Carpenter’s “The Thing”. Yes, they are all great movies that have horror elements, but are they actually horror movies? I have to say No.
Here are the five films that did do it for me. Feel free to add your own in the comments section.
#5. EVIL DEAD II (1987)
Before Ash became the shotgun-carrying and one-line tossing square-jawed hero we know and love, he was Ash the wimp, who cowered in the corner while his friends got butchered by demonic forces hiding in the woods and living in the basement of the cabin they were staying in. Basically a remake of the original “Evil Dead”, but with better production values, “Evil Dead II” managed to seamlessly integrate laughs with gross-out shock. You’ll laugh one moment, scream the next, and generally have a great time. But before I came to accept Ash as a smart-aleck superhero of sorts, “Evil Dead II” was the best jump-a-second horror movie in the woods of its time.
#4. SESSION 9 (2001)
Brad Anderson’s “Session 9″ is a little-known indie horror movie with enough atmosphere and creepy vibe for three or four movies. The film centers around a group of friends who are also employees at an asbestos cleaning company, and their current job is cleaning up an old, dilapidated mental hospital — the perfect setting for a horror movie. While “Session 9″ undoubtedly oozes horror from every celluloid pore, there is more than meets the eye, and the ghosts are more human than we thought. If you have never seen “Session 9″, and want an atmospheric little film to make your Halloween night a little uneasy, give it a shot.
#3. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)
The original and still the best. Even before it would become a cultural icon, with academics and noobs alike assigning various meanings to it (the black hero, the white woman, etc), George Romero realized that the undead was not frightening because they were fast or that they were hard to kill, but because they were us. Romero didn’t need zombies that ran around like speed freaks, or were infected by some viral blood to made them behave like crackheads; his zombies were horrifying precisely because they were so slow, so ordinary, so persistent, but there were just so, so many of them, and sooner or later, they would get you.
#2. A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984)
Horror fans have a lot of horror franchises that they consider their favorite, but for me, the “Nightmare on Elm Street” series has to be THE franchise. Of all the horror series out there, this was the only one I forced myself into the theaters for every single installment, even as the quality (and unfortunately, the scares) declined noticeably, replacing frights with bad puns with every sequel. And yet, the original, with its terrorizing premise of a killer that can invade your dreams, when you’re most vulnerable, made for some harrowing viewing, especially as a kid just discovering the power of horror movies.
#1. THE SIXTH SENSE (1999)
M. Night Shyalaman has become a joke in recent years, with flops like the tree-killer movie “The Happening” and the self-indulgent “Lady in the Lake”. But before the name Shyamalan became a punchline, there was 1999′s “The Sixth Sense”, the movie that, for months afterward, made me slightly uneasy whenever it got cold all of a sudden in the house, and made me just a little nervous whenever I got up to go into the kitchen late at night.
Why was it so effective? Simple: we didn’t know who this Shyamalan guy was, and as a result, wasn’t tuned into this tricks (like expecting a last-minute twist). So when the scares came, they made us look around the theater to make sure we weren’t alone. The film is one big creep-a-thon, especially if you went into it not knowing the name Shyamalan, as I didn’t when I first saw it in 1999. I’ve never been in a movie auditorium full of people that was so quiet, you could hear the sound of popcorn falling to the floor. Why so quiet? It wasn’t that we were just mesmerized by the fear of young Mr. Haley Joel Osment, we were just too scared shitless to breathe.